The Modular Trap

The modular synthesis game is a big one right now, and for good reason. Sound designers and synth heads that want to take their sound design to the next level will find no shortage of fantastic modules to collect, and nothing is stopping you from patching together the tweaked out system of your dreams.
That being said the road to modular isn’t without its problems, and before you rush out and get started building a rig of your own I want to share some insights you might find helpful before you dive into the Modular Trap.

Intellijel Rubicon

I’ve spent a good while lately test driving a modular system of my own. I’ve been using the Intellijel Rubicon, and I can attest to many of the uniquely modular things people get excited about – all the hands-on messy fun that make modular such a unique experience, the unique, fat, and rich sound, the many fun surprises that come along with a somewhat unpredictable modular environment. Even with software like Reaktor, Reason, or Softube Modular, the sounds you can generate just can’t be done the same way without real life patch cords and eurorack modules. In my opinion, these are some of the pros about using a modular setup:
The quality of the sound coming from modular is somewhat different and pure. The Intellijel Rubicon I’ve been using seems to have a unique and pure sound, quite different than that from any sine waves I’ve heard from a soft synth. It’s hard to describe but I can honestly feel it more deeply – just like an analog mixdown will be slightly different than a digital one. If like me, you really are fascinated by sounds, you can easily become seduced by this.
Hands-on material plunges its user in a state of flow that can be addictive –. To get anywhere within Modular setup you must be actively involved in every step – patching one module to another, over and over, in different ways requires your full commitment and attention – it’s very engaging. Time can be lost easily when creating music this way, and being so focused on sound feels amazing, it’s truly addictive.
Community – You don’t have to look hard to find helpful, and engaging modular communities online.  You’ll soon learn how to use your modules in creative ways you hadn’t known were possible. Take the time to be a part of these groups as the knowledge shared within these discussions will be precious to you if you’re just starting out.
Knowledge – In educational terms, I feel working with a modular system of any size is one of the best ways to teach yourself how sound can be altered and modified. With automatic results you will train your ears to understand how one module can significantly affect another, and how combining several modulators can create truly strange and trippy sounds

So far it’s all good and fun, but when the initial buzz wears off, you’ll likely find yourself surprised by a few things you might not have anticipated earlier. Here are a few drawbacks to working with a modular setup.

Cost can be a limiting setback. Building a modular rig of your own can and will get expensive. Just the price of patch cords needed for every module alone could very well make you sweat, and you’ll of course also need a case, output, input, VCAs, modulators, oscillators, LFOs, filters…, and that’s just the beginning.
Time Investment. I can’t complain about losing yourself for hours in synthesis, but it’s pretty easy to do with a cool rig begging for your attention. Like any other tool in your arsenal you’ll want to be productive and useful with it, so knowing how to create the sounds you need quickly will take some getting used to.
Steep learning curve. For many producers used to creating sound entirely within software, getting things up and running can be a little more complicated to set up.
Overwhelming options – with dozens of companies producing filters, effects, and everything in between for Eurorack, you might get the feeling that you’ll never have enough for what you want or need.

All that being said, I recommend taking an opportunity to get hands-on with a modular system. But before you build a rack of your own do yourself a favour and ask yourself this ~

Exactly what you want out of this?

What I mean is, are you performing live? are you a sound designer looking for unique and original sounds for your projects and work? are you creating a rig for your enjoyment during your off hours? Those questions are important to know because you can then begin planning with help from a site called Modular Grid – a website and resource that will prove to be incredibly helpful in answering questions about getting started.

One last note – I feel like there are many ideas about ‘going modular’ that are quite misleading, and not at all true. I often hear

“how much easier it is to make music using modular synths, how you’ll be taken more seriously as an artist, and how so many more opportunities will come to you if you can build the ultimate rig…”

Reaktor Blocks: A killer alternative.

As I pointed out earlier, setting up a modular system is going to take a lot of time, plenty of money, and a steep learning curve you wouldn’t anticipate at first. Look at software systems like Reaktor where you can patch together virtually anything you can do with the same modular components. Reaktor is just $199 usd, and requires a modest computer, that’s it. Many people love the look of their ever-growing systems, but many less so are becoming well-respected musicians using modular gear. There are a few role models out there who have accomplished a lot with their analogue toys yet on the flip side there are way more people who are only spitting out random bleeps and farts, feeling mid-ground between fascination and frustration. That’s all fine if bleeps are your thing but the tidal wave of fan mail probably isn’t coming in as fast as you hoped it would. And lastly, building the ultimate rig is in many ways a never-ending race. As soon as your newest filter or VCA arrives you’ve already decided you need another component to make it even better, and you’re almost never satisfied with what you have.

Other possible alternatives: Softube Modular, Reason, Bitwig, VCF Rack (Free).

The consensus is in – Modular is awesome, addictive, and a great way to learn about synthesis. Its also true that building a rig of your own is extremely pricey and not necessarily more productive in the end. Since this blog is about productivity, creativity and tackling anything that stops us from getting there I hope my impressions about going Modular will help make your experience getting started a positive one.

I want to hear about your experiences, hit me up about your thoughts, impressions, or anything else by leaving a comment below.

Cheers ~ JP

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