The beginner’s guide to modular synthesis

There is a vast number of synthesisers from which you can choose these days. With instruments from the likes of Moog, Korg, Roland, Yamaha, Nord, Arturia and more; from analogue to digital and back again with their own unique histories, sounds and personalities, surely the synth for you is out there, yes? Well, if you are a fan of the pick & mix, then modular synthesis may be for you…

Modular Synthesiser

What is modular synthesis?

All synthesisers are made up of modules. There are oscillators, filters, amplifiers, LFOs, envelope generators and all sorts of modules that combine to form part of that luxuriant soundscape patch you’ve just programmed. In your regular ‘off-the-shelf’ synth, they’re all in one box – they may even be on the one circuit board or in the one chip. Generally speaking though, they’re all connected together in one way, which is great for just turning the thing on and getting sounds out straight-away.

However, if you’ve ever thought that your patch could be improved with a 12 dB/oct low-pass filter instead of the 24 dB that’s on your synth, or that it could use an extra oscillator, or an oscillator with a different type of waveform, or different oscillators going into different filters, then a modular synthesiser could be just the thing.

In fact, why stop there? Maybe you want your synth to have an onboard Euclidean sequencer and the ability to sample itself and use that sample as the basis of a real-time de novo musique concrete performance – with a healthy dollop of granular processing – then a modular synth is the way to go.

Patching a modular synthesiserWhat is a modular synthesiser?

A modular synthesiser is simply a collection of modules that you can put together yourself, based on what functionality you need, and then wire up yourself as the patch requires. Or, just as often, plugging cables in randomly because it’s just plain fun to experiment and see where you end up.

Sound tricky? Well, it can be intimidating for a few minutes if you’re not familiar with the basics of synthesis, but there is nothing magical or supernatural about it, and spending some time with a modular can also be a fantastic tool for learning even the basics of synthesis.

A modular synthesiser can be whatever you want it to be. You could design your ideal ‘conventional’ synth, with two oscillators, a filter, an amplifier and a couple of envelopes and LFOs. You could build a monster synth, with 8 oscillators, 4 filters, and more modulators than you can shake Keith Emerson at.

You could build a drum machine, an outboard effects unit for processing audio from your DAW, or you could construct an instrument that offers functionality and generates sounds that you just couldn’t get from any existing off-the-shelf synthesiser.

In short, with the range of modules on available, you can create a unique instrument: the only synth on the planet that offers just that range of sounds. And it’s yours.

There are a few different ranges of modular synth available, but the most common by far is the Eurorack system created by Doepfer, so we’ll concentrate on that from here on.

Custom modular synth casesWhat do I need to build a modular synth?

To get started, you’ll need a case and a power supply. Many cases come with one already in there, so you’re ready to start adding modules straight away! One thing to be aware of though, is that you’ll be attaching modules to the power supply in the case using a ribbon cable. It does matter which way round you plug this in!

If you’re into a bit of DIY and want to put your own stamp on your modular, you could get a basic case and customise your own.

The power supply contains -12 and +12 Volt lines, and you need to make sure that these are connected the right way to the modules. Fortunately, many modules and cables are designed with connectors that can only be plugged in one way round, some offer built-in protection, and there is also a handy stripe on the ribbon that (usually!) refers to the -12 side, but it always pays to check before you plug your latest acquisition in!

Onto the modules. If you’re looking to design your own ‘traditional’ synth, chances are you’ll want two or three oscillators (VCOs), a mixer, a filter (VCF), an amplifier (VCA), an ADSR-type envelope generator or two, and some LFOs. You may also want a MIDI input module if you want to control your new synth from your DAW, and output modules are handy for getting the audio back into your studio.

You’ll also want a healthy couple of hand-fulls of patch cables!

Where modular gets interesting though, is that why just mix your oscillators and send them into a single filter? With a modular synth, you could add another couple of filters with different characters, send each oscillator into its own filter and mix after that.

And that is just the beginning…

Browse some modules, set up a profile at the wonderful Modulargrid to virtually build your modular system and enjoy. A wonderful world of patches awaits you…

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Fynn Callum

producer, guitarist, engineer & dj
From indie guitarist to deep house producer via Northern Soul dj; mix engineer, producer and gear enthusiast. Jaffa Cake aficionado.

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