Are modular synths worth the hype? Four artists share their Eurorack secrets
It’s Modular Synth Day on FACT! We’re marking the first birthday of our Make Music section with a celebration of modular synths, the artists that patch with them and they music they make. Find it all here.
Should you take the plunge into the sometimes confusing world of modular synthesis? Scott Wilson speaks to four artists using the Eurorack format – Russell E.L. Butler, Raica, Luke Abbott and Lady Starlight – to get some insight into the realities of using a modular synthesizer.
Although the first modular synthesizer was built almost 60 years ago and the format was made largely obsolete in the 1980s, these customizable electronic instruments are more common today than they’ve even been. Whether it’s on stage or in the studio, a plethora of artists now use modular systems in their setup and those systems are usually built using a standard called Eurorack. The Eurorack format has exploded in recent years, with over 100 manufacturers making one-of-a-kind devices for artists to explore and build their own instruments with.
It’s easy enough for anyone to build their own Eurorack system at home with just a few key modules and start patching, but how do you get the most out of what can be a complicated way of making music? How do you make sure you’re using your modules properly, and how do you keep the momentum going after you’ve taken those first steps. More importantly, is a modular synth a practical way of composing or performing live?
FACT spoke to four experienced Eurorack users – Russell E.L. Butler, Raica, Luke Abbott and Lady Starlight – to find out what they love about the format, the practicalities of making music with it and the advice they’d give to newcomers.
A modular synth can be whatever you want it to be
“I like the idea that you can do whatever you want,” says Lady Starlight. “It’s really freeing because it’s not telling you what to do. The way that hardware synths are designed reflects the way the designer thinks that you’re gonna use it, and the best part about modular is that you can use it how you want to use it. It’s a totally different approach, the ideas you have are totally different.”
“The fact that it was almost an entirely customizable instrument, that you could develop your own relationship with it and your own style of playing with it was really attractive to me,” says techno futurist Russell E.L. Butler. “And also the portability, being able to have an oscillator, a filter, an envelope generator, a VCA in this much space as opposed to that much space.”
Chloe Harris, who makes music as Raica and also works in a Seattle synth shop called Patchwerks, is interested in generative music, but since conventional synthesizers didn’t offer her the tools she needed, she went in a different direction. “I know how to make wavetables and I have lots of synths that do that, but I really like the idea of being able to put your own things together to create something. I really love my Virus and the boxes that I have but they all are chosen for me. I really wanted something where I could choose all the components and all the parts and create something that was original to myself and that would then help me create music that I wouldn’t have made without it.”
Border Community’s Luke Abbott was also attracted to the format because it opened up new possibilities. “One of the things that really drew me to it was the possibility to make really odd sequence environments – like various generative music techniques that can be employed in modular systems that at the time were much harder to achieve in software.” Although he admits that it’s much easier than once was to do this in software, it’s “the sound design stuff where [modular] still probably has an upper hand.”
Buying modular synth gear can be very expensive
“It’s a bit of a black hole for money having a modular system,” admits Abbott. “It’s tempting to pour money into it because [all the modules are] so tempting. I started off thinking I’d just buy one case and then fill that up and that’ll be that and now I’ve got five cases. It gets a bit much after a while.”
Harris meanwhile warns that buying a case can be just as expensive as the modules themselves. “It’s like buying a wallet. You don’t want to buy a wallet because you have to put your money in it, and I don’t want to spend $1,000 on a case to put modules that are just as expensive inside them. It’s crazy how expensive they are.”
But it’s possible to get modules cheap
“A lot of companies don’t have warranties, so it’s not gonna make any difference necessarily whethere you buy them new or second-hand,” Butler says. “The advice I have is go with sellers that can be easily vouched for, with a good reputation. Do your research on social media if you are buying stuff on Facebook, because there are a bunch of different Facebook groups for this kind of stuff. I have been very, very lucky to have not been ripped off.”
Harris believes the quality of used modules tends to be quite good because modular users are more careful. “I think a lot of the modular community tends to take really good care of their modules,” Harris says. “It’s kinda hard not to because they’re basically just screwed into a little plate, but you don’t really mess with them, they’re not carried around individually like a synth, so you can’t get them scratched on the side.”
However, even if you don’t have spare cash, modules are their own kind of currency. “One of the things I love about Eurorack is that the trading community is very active,” Butler says. “So if you have a couple of things that somebody might really want and they have stuff that you want it’s very easy to exchange.”
Think about whether you actually need to go modular
“If you are attracted to it wholly as an instrument and for that thing that it is that it can do so well, which is that it’s great for experimentation, then it’s an instrument for you,” Butler says. “But if you’re looking for something to replace another synth voice or have another interesting sound, it doesn’t fit that. It’s an entirely different methodology of even thinking; cognatively certain things have changed for me. I look at my studio in a modular kind of way now because of how I’ve been able to build these different kinds of systems over the years.”
Start off small
Lady Starlight, who collaborates with UK techno veteran and modular user Surgeon, recommends starting off small to begin with. “I followed the advice of Surgeon wisely not to buy any more than one module at a time and that was very wise advice,” she says, “Build up a little bit at a time and figure out what you need.”
Put aside some time to learn how to use it properly
However, you can spend as much time learning to use your modular gear as you do making music. “There’s no figuring them out fast, you have to put in the time,” Lady Starlight adds. “You can’t just read a manual and follow it and learn as much as possible. The frustrating part is that you can’t rush it.”
Harris says that part of the challenge at the start is making sure you don’t short circuit your modules. “You’re scared you’re gonna blow something up because you gotta make sure it’s correct.”
Make the most of what you have
“I wanted to keep myself limited because there’s too many options and if you have a lot, do you use them?,” Harris adds. “I’m pretty strict, I have a one-in-one-out policy and I do have a few modules that I have out of my box right now that I would never get rid of because I’ll put them back in, but I think it’s really important to do that to yourself because then you get the most out of whatever the module is. I think it makes you a little more creative too. Maybe you want a new module, but can you do it with the gear you already have?”
Abbott is also trying to limit the amount he buys. “For the last three years I’ve had a kind of no new modules rule which has been not entirely kept to, but I’ve got quite a healthy one-in-one-out situation where if I’m going to buy something new I have to get rid of something I’ve got.”
Limitations can be good for creativity
Butler, a Bay Area producer who predominately uses a modular in a club environment, enjoys the limitations of a Eurorack system. “I’m all about constraints, which is kind of a funny thing to hear sometimes from someone who works with an instrument that’s covered in a mess of wires. It can be really intimidating, but the more you’re able to create a structure for yourself and are able to work within that structure, I feel that’s really where creativity starts to happen. That’s where people can start to inject their story and identity and all of the other things that come into music composition.”
“I try to not change things as much as possible and think about patching rather than buying new module,” says Lady Starlight. “You can have all the gear in the world, but if you don’t know how to use it then it’s useless! Patching, that’s the fun part, that’s the part that makes your Eurorack your Eurorack.”
“With modular you’re never gonna get that same sound again ever, you’re just not,” Harris says. “So you can create something and be really into it but you’ve gotta capture that moment because you’ll never be able to catch it again. I think that’s kind of the fun part about it. With [a conventional] synth I know that I have something in memory and I can come back to it.”
But the limitations can also have downsides
“At a certain point it becomes pretty impractical,” says Abbott. “I’ve found it quite difficult to take some of the modular ideas I have in the studio out of the studio and for them to remain performable. It’s perfectly fine if you’re happy to record things in the studio and then take a piece of audio out with you, but if you’re looking to do real performances on a modular system then you’re always going to be challenged by the portability of it.”
Modular synths can be more fun than other instruments
[A modular is] also just a very attractive toy I think, which is an important thing,” Abbott says. “I think there’s a real value in being excited by the tools that you use.”
But they can also be quite tempramental
Modular synths do a lot of things that other instruments can’t do, but because they often use analog components, they can be unstable in extreme conditions. “For a while I was experiencing huge tuning difficulties with my oscillators when I was traveling, Abbott explains. “If I was taking a modular case somewhere in Europe and I turned up somewhere incredibly humid or dry and hot, the oscillators would suddenly track completely differently, so I’d only have a couple of octaves of usable range.”
They’re great for experimentation
According to Harris, modular synths make you want to experiment more. “Maybe not the music style of “experimental”, but it just makes you want to experience sound differently.”
“I also use these instruments becaise I’m interested expanding the limited definitions of certain genres like techno or electro or acid, which are commonly things that I play with in different ways,” Butler says. “I can just very quickly drop out a beat and go super ambient or harsh noise or any other kind of genre that I can mix in, but it’s really great for techno as well, because if you’re doing loop-based stuff it’s very easy to do polyrhythms, to do a five-step sequence and have it go in and out of phase with the rhythm.”
They’re also good for live techno sets
Butler is an experienced live performer who takes a modular to clubs across the world, and loves the way it helps create a connection with the crowd. “As a solo performer you have to project so much energy in the space you’re trying to occupy that it’s difficult for me to do that if I’m hiding in some way [behind a laptop] or if I have something if I know is going to play [in a set way].
“Part of what I love about this format is that I’ll make a sound just by turning the knobs and switching a couple of patch cables and I won’t know what it sounds like until I bring it in, so there’s this great discovery that happens between me and the audience simultaneously which I couldn’t do if I knew ‘this dope bassline’s coming up, it’s gonna drop in like this’ – then if it doesn’t work that energy feels weird. It gives me a better chance to connect with people.”
Lady Starlight also uses her modular to play club sets, but for her it’s the size and sound. “It’s great for making techno because it’s basically a build-your-own-groovebox. I think the convenience of it tends to be underestimated in terms of how small everything is and how you can get such a great sound out of this box.”
Plan ahead if you want to travel with a modular synth
“It takes a lot of planning and decision making about what it is you need to do in the case, but the way I approach it and I think the way a lot of people approach it is to limit yourself to a certain size case so you know it’s gonna be portable and then see what you can do within that space,” Abbott says.
Lady Starlight also likes to travel light. “It’s not the easiest thing but I have a back pack, I put the case in a backpack and it’s not that heavy so I just don’t carry anything else on board. I check the rest of my gear and just carry the modular on. But it’s small and it involves checking more bags that you’d like to, because if you have any personal items (and if you’re performing you do), you basically have to check the gear bag, the gear pelican case and then the personal item bag and there’s only room for one bag on board and that’s the modular.”
Find a friend, local synth community or welcoming store to show you the basics
“Find a friend who has already jumped in and just hang out with them and get them to show you a couple of things,” Butler advises. “Don’t go too in depth with stuff, because I’ve found in workshops, if you go too scientifically in-depth – even if someone is of an intermediate level of understanding, they just glaze over. So get them to show you a couple of things and then just see if your friend will let you patch and figure some stuff out. And ask them stuff. I think that the community part of this is incredibly important and if that is something that’s available to you, I would take advantage of that.”
Lady Starlight found that Berlin modular store SchneidersLaden offered a welcoming environment when she was taking her first steps. [The staff are] perfect for beginners because they just love what they do and they feel so passionate about it. They never make you feel like you don’t know anything. I never felt like a woman in there. There’s a lot of sexism in music gear shopping, but it’s never ever felt that way. The gender meant nothing, it never even crossed my mind.”
If you don’t live in the city, the internet is still a great modular resource
“Not all of us live in cities or are close to people who share an interest, or not all of us are social people,” Butler says. So I’d say find some beginners’ threads on Facebook. The Eurorack Synthesizers community on Facebook is a really good resource. Muffwiggler (a popular modular synth forum) can be way too white and male and gatekeepery and it has its own internal politics that can be very intimidating for new people, especially if they’re women or queer or people of color.”
Harris recommends ModularGrid, an invaluable internet resource for planning out your modular as well as tutorial video, while Butler also likes YouTube for finding information. “There’s some really great YouTube videos out there now. There’s a guy [on YouTube] called Divkid, that does a lot of the Mutable Instruments tutorials. He pretty much sold me on the Clouds and Rings modules.”
The modular scene has a diversity problem, but things are improving
“I identify as queer and non-binary, but I didn’t always have language around it, I wasn’t always very out about it either,” Butler says. “But because I was in these music communities and male-presenting I would be able to go to these synth meets, though I’d be lucky if there was one person that looked like me at all in any way. I’d be lucky if I saw a femme person there, let alone a trans person or queer person. That is starting to shift slightly but also people are starting to come to these instruments in different places and different ways and building their own communities around them.
“I’d be going to synth meet-ups and I’d be the only girl and that was kinda scary,” Harris says, “but now, especially in Seattle, there’s so many women doing it.” Lady Starlight also believes that the scene is getting easier for women. “I feel like most women who have the desire to get into it already don’t buy into any of these sexist ideas. The women involved in modular synthesis are very cool and very supportive of each other, so that’s something to feel more positive about as a woman coming into it.”
[These instruments] have a great deal of potential to expand the lives of marginalised people,” Butler adds. “I know multiple people who have no classical music training at all and this was the first kind of instrument that they could play.”
No matter what happens, you will always want more
“Buy a bigger box than you think you’ll need,” Harris says. “You buy a small box and then you fill it up within half a year and you’re like ‘oh my god, I wish I had more space.'”
Scott Wilson is on Twitter