For musicians who want to design sounds from the ground up, a modular synthesizer is hard to beat. By patching together the basic elements of an tone or effect—signal generators, filters, envelopes and so on—you can create highly personalized instruments or signal processors.
So how can a guitarist get in on the action at an affordable price (especially those of us who don’t have any experience with this level of geekery)?
One way is with software such as Softube’s aptly named Modular. With a starting price below $100 (as well as a free 30-day demo version), Softube Modular is far less expensive than the hardware products it models. And despite my beginner status, once I installed it and viewed a short introductory video on You-Tube, I was quickly patching away and getting fine results. (Our review of Softube Modular is at emusician.com.)
I began with the Doepfer-style oscillators and filters, then added an LFO, a waveshaper for distortion, and various effects and utility modules. Later, I expanded my patch with modules modeled after other Eurorack vendors.
To use the software with guitar audio as an input, I loaded Modular’s FX plug-in to an audio track, then created a rack containing two audio mixers, two filters, two LFOs, the waveshaper effect, and a reverb (see Figure 1). The guitar goes into Ableton Live on track 1 and then to track 2 for processing.
From the Modular inputs, my guitar hits the distortion module first (to help accentuate the filter effect), splits into the two mixers, goes to the filters, and finally arrives at the reverb before going to Modular’s outputs. The sine wave of the first LFO sweeps one filter, while the second LFO’s triangle wave modulates the other filter. If I wanted to, I could’ve patched the other LFO outputs to the additional CV inputs on the filters to increase the complexity of the modulation.
I then built a different rack that included a multiband resonant filter that processes audio like a classic filter bank, allowing me to create marimba-and vocoder-like sounds, and much more (see Fig. 2). The modeled version of the 4ms Spectral Multiband Resonator has six channels of resonant bandpass filters, each locked to a user-definable scale. The six frequencies of the filters, as well as their level and envelope outputs (among many other parameters) can be swept with a virtual CV or changed manually. (See our review of the hardware version of the 4ms module at emusician.com.)
Again, I used distortion to bring out the filter resonance, and experimented with patching a couple of LFOs to various inputs of the Spectral Multiband Resonator. Then, I recorded a chord progression on a clip in Live so I could patch Modular without having to play the guitar at the same time. When I was done, I had a patch that provided a series of ethereal, electronic tones that would have been impossible to produce using guitar pedals. I also installed Modular in a MIDI track and enjoyed playing its oscillators using Jam Origin’s MIDI guitar plug-in.
If you are not quite sure what all this means, don’t worry: Part of the fun of modular synthesis is in the exploration—patching things together and hearing the results.
Because this software is very CPU-hungry, check if your computer is able to run it before you buy. If your system can handle it, Softube Modular will open a new universe of ways to modify your guitar sound.