Modular synthesizers provide musicians with physical control over the sound. Just about any aspect of a sound can be changed in real-time. While they are largely based around analog control voltages, they can be used with MIDI to CV converters and be integrated into any system.
Within most synthesizers, the signal flow is fixed, which is great for making sounds quickly, and for making synthesizers portable. However this limits what a synthesizer can do. In a modular synth because control voltages (CV) and audio signals are (usually designed to be) at the same level, almost any module can be connected with any other, and together with the various settings and adjustments, a nearly infinite variety of sounds and effects can be produced. Reproducing an exact patch can be difficult or next to impossible. The synth itself can be easily modified by changing modules for others.
The first modular synthesizer design was presented by Harald Bode at the 1960 AES convention, also attended by Bob Moog. This was the first patchable modular system with control voltage capability.
The earliest commercial modular synthesizers were developed in 1963, in parallel and unaware of each other, on opposite sides of USA. By Moog in Trumansburg, New York, and Buchla in Berkeley, California. The difference in their approaches has become known as East Coast and West Coast styles. Other synthesizer manufacturers soon followed: EMS in 1969, ARP in 1970, Serge in 1974, and Roland came out with the Roland System 100 in 1976.
Also in the early 1970s, there were at least two mail-order electronics kit vendors Paia Electronics, and Aries, marketing different lines of simple DIY modular synthesizer systems. The Aries System 300 was modeled on the circuits produced by Bernie Hutchins and published as Electronotes. In the 1980s in the UK the Digisound 80 modular synthesizer, designed primarily, by Charles Blakey was sold as a kit by the company Digisound Ltd.
In the late 1970s, modular synthesizers started to be largely supplanted by highly integrated keyboard synthesizers, racks of MIDI-connected gear, and samplers. However, there continues to be musicians who prefer the physically patched approach, the flexibility and the sound of traditional modulars. Since the late 1990s, there has been a resurgence in the popularity of analog synthesizers spurred on by physical standardization practices, an interest in retro gear, decreased production costs and increased electronic reliability and stability.
These days hardware offerings range from individual modules through complete systems in cases to kits for hobbyist DIY constructors. Many manufacturers augment their range with products based on recent re-designs of classic modules, (the original patents having lapsed). Updated with modern electronics and improved designs, so modules have greater stability, reliability and flexibility.
Many hobbyist designers also make available bare PCB boards and front panels for sale to other hobbyists.
A modular synthesizer has a case or frame into which arbitrary modules can be plugged. Modules are usually connected together using patch cords. A system may include modules from different sources where these have the same form factor, and the same electrical connections.
Many early synthesizer modules had modules with heights in integer inches: 11" (e.g., Roland 100), 10" (e.g., Wavemakers), 9" (e.g., Aries), 8" (e.g., ARP 2500), 7" (e.g., Polyfusion, Buchla, Serge), 6" (e.g., E-mu) and width in 1/4" inch multiples. More recently it has become more popular to follow the standard 19-inch rack unit system: 6U (Wiard), 5U (8.75" e.g., Moog, Modcan), 4U (e.g., Serge). Two 3U systems in particular are notable: the Frac rack system (e.g., PAiA) and the similar Eurorack system (e.g., Doepfer). Further minor variations exist where European or Japanese manufacturers round a U measurement up or down to some closer convenient metric equivalent; for example the common 5U modules are exactly 8.75" (222.25 mm), but non-American manufacturers may prefer 220 mm or 230 mm.
Differences are with connectors that match 1/4-inch or 6.3 mm jacks, 3.5 mm jacks, and banana jacks, with main DC power supply (typically ±15V, but ranging from ±18V to ±12V for different manufacturers or systems), with trigger or gate voltages (Moog S-trigger or positive gate), with typical audio signal levels (often ±5V with ±5V headroom), and with control voltages of volts/octave (typically 1V/octave, but in some cases 1.2V/octave.) Most analog modular systems use a volts/octave system, sometimes termed linear voltage control; some (such as Korg MS-20, ETI 4600) use a volts/hertz system with excellent temperature stability but less flexible control.
Each module has its own simple function and they must be connected together with patch cords before any sound can be made. The sound of a patch depends on the interconnection of these modules and on their settings. Some cords carry the electrical version of the sound that will eventually be heard. This is the signal. Some cords carry instructions to modules about how to change the signal. These are controls. Some cords carry instructions about when modules should start their functions. These are triggers and gates.
Modules can be grouped by function, although there is some overlap. Most patches will involve at least one module from each group. Modules which can generate a signal are called sources. The most common of these are oscillators and noise generators. Modules that can modify or process a signal are called modifiers. The most common examples of these are amplifiers and filters. Modules or transducers that function primarily as sources of control voltages and triggers are called controllers. Controllers may be preset, such as envelope generators and low frequency oscilators, or they may be playable, like keyboards.
Patch sub types
Normalising is where some signal paths are already made internally. Especially implemented in the Roland System 100. The name comes from when a socket does not have a jack inserted it is in its normal position. There is often a connection between the signal lug of the socket and an extra contact called the NC (normally closed) lug. It is this third lug on the socket that is used for the normalisation. Inserting a jack plug will break the connection between the NC and the signal lug. Sometimes a bus is provided for connecting the NC lugs.
A semi-modular synthesizer is a collection of modules from a single manufacturer that makes a cohesive product. Modules may not be swapped out and often a typical configuration has been pre-wired. However, mechanisms are provided to allow the user to re-order the connections between modules.
Matrix systems use pin matrixes or other crosspoint switches rather than patch cords. Historic examples with pin matrixes include the EMS' Synthi 100 and VCS-3, ETI International 4600, Maplin 5600. The ARP 2500 used a matrix switch.
Patch Override Systems
The different modules of a semi-modular synthesizer are wired together into a typical configuration, but can be re-wired by the user using patch cords. Some examples are the ARP 2600, Anyware Instruments Semtex, Cwejman S1, EML101, Evenfall Minimodular, Future Retro XS, Korg's MS-10, MS-20, MS-50, PS-3100, PS-3200 and PS-3300, Mungo Enterprises State Zero, and Roland System-100.
Electronically Reconfigurable Systems
Hybrid modular synthesizers
Hybrid synthesizers use hardware and software combination. Include the fully self-contained Arturia Origin, the Clavia Nord Modular and Clavia Nord Modular G2 which need an external computer to edit patches.
Example music (not just bleeps and bloops)
Some examples of music implemented by modular synth, which isn't abstract, experimental nor plain demos of modules and functions:
- Variation on the 'Largo' from 'Winter' by Antonio Vivaldi for Analog Modular Synthesizer
- Ecole Berlin Deux
- Invasion of the PolyKrell 1
- Double Joy Koto Acid Club
- Bitloader Live at The Basement, Stoke-on-Trent
- Xaoc Rings parts 1 & 2, performed live
- Quick&dirty dub II (modular live session)
- ann annie, synthesized atmospheres // electronic ambience
- Variation on Pachelbel's 'Canon' for Analog Modular Synthesizer, performed by the Q119 and Q960 analog step sequencers in a self-running patch.
- SEQUENCING FUN
- MOS-LAB Modular
- Daniel Philipp Stotz, Baroque music with a Yusynth modular system
- Michael Stearns – Planetary Unfolding
- COA/CGS/Serge Edelweiss/Vintage Voltron Analog Modular Synthesizer
- Modular-Station, an Internet radio dedicated to electronic music made with modular synthesis, test equipment & experimental instruments.
- ^ a b c d e Modular Analog Synthesizers Return!, Synthtopia, 15 March 2004
- ^ Harald Bode — A Short Biography by Rebekkah Palov, eContact! 13.4, Canadian Electroacoustic Community, July 2011
- ^ Everything You Need to Know to Get Into Hardware Modular Synths by Adam Burucs, 6 September 2013
- ^ Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer, by Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco, Harvard University Press, 2002, hardcover ISBN 0-674-00889-8, 2004 paperback ISBN 0-674-01617-3
- ^ "Digisound 80 Modular Synthesizer". Archived from the original on 2013-08-12. Retrieved 2012-08-08.
- ^ a b What to do with your synthesizer, by Peter Elsea. Used with permission.
- ^ Musical Applications of Microprocessors by Hal Chamberlin, Hayden Books, 1985, ISBN 0-8104-5768-7
- ^ Oakley Sound Systems, Dizzy, User Manual and Builder's Guide, v3.2.0 by Tony Allgood, November 2011
- ^ Is all modular music bleeps and bloops?, Mod Wiggler forum, April 2015
- Modular Synthesizer Glossary of Terms
- Mod Wiggler forum: Euro Modular Synth ReadMe.1st, general info which isn't Eurorack specific
- Euro Modular Synth ReadMe.1st, all info from the Mod Wiggler thread of the same name at Google Docs.
- Mod Wiggler forum
- SOS, The SOS Guide To Choosing A Modular Synth, April 2009
- SOS, Exploring Analogue, May 1994
- Synthtopia, Modular Analog Synthesizers Return!, 15 March 2004
- What to do with your synthesizer, by Peter Elsea
- ModularGrid, the modular synthesizers database.
- Using the Moog modular synthesizer
- Joseph A. Paradiso's Massive Modular Synth is among the world's largest home-designed and built synthesizers.
- Music From Outer Space All the information you need to build your own modular.
- Analogue and Modular Synthesis – Resurgence and Evolution edited by Richard Scott, eContact! 17.4, Feb. 2016
- A Generalized Introduction to Modular Analogue Synthesis Concepts by Kevin Austin, eContact1, issue 17.4, Feb 2016
- Getting started with Eurorack – part 2 by rutgervlek, 11 Apr 2016 - Recreating the architecture of a MiniMoog as the basis of a Eurorack system.
- Dub Techniques, Mod Wiggler Forum, Dec 2015