OK...I've written a few of these educational essays about why you might want to get into modular, the best ways to do this, what a typical build consists of, and so on. But this time out, I really would like to make some points about why a user should NOT get into modular synthesizers.

Of course, there's some very obvious points off the top, such as not having sufficient capital to sustain a build, not having a basic knowledge of how synthesis works, and the like. But there's actually some value in explaining a lot of these “disqualifiers”, and how you as a prospective user might fit into their various categories and thereby avoid a lot of headache and pointless spending. If you fall into any of the following categories of users, then modular is NOT what you're looking for.

1) “I need lots of presets!” No. You're utterly screwed on this one. While there are certain modules that can store preset states, and there's certainly the example of the Buchla 200e and its storage/recall abilities, the core principle of modular architecture involves making extensive manual patches. So, even if you had full setting recall, getting just one patchcord out of place will render that preset capability pointless to varying degrees. Modular is NOT for the preset crowd that's looking for loads of factory patches, and it's NOT for anyone who has any trepidation about sound design. Modular is for explorers, individualists, people seeking new and different ways of pushing a creative envelope. There will be no piles of presets out there for this, so if you need your hand held where patch creation is concerned or if you're unwilling/incapable of learning the ins and outs of creating them from scratch in whatever architecture your own build gives you to work with, you really shouldn't be thinking about going modular.

2) “I don't know how this works, but lots of cool people have modulars!” ...and you will also notice that those cool people know what they're doing with them, for the most part. True, there are a few electronic musicians with more money than sense who have their twistenknobs und blinkenlichts as stage props, but these people aren't going to be the ones anyone will be listening to in a decade's time...if even a year's. DO NOT get a modular synth and expect that you will be buying a ticket to instant cool. Like anything else in music, no amount of windowdressing will disguise your lack of capability in the long run. This is sort of the inverse of the unprofessional dumbshit behavior of blaming the equipment for your failure of talent, and it will work just as badly as that moronic blameshifting tactic will.

3) “Lots of people are getting into modular!” This is sorta-kinda true...but only sorta-kinda. It might seem as if the whole electronic music world is going bonkers for knobs'n'wires these days. But keep in mind that, back in the mid-1980s, everyone thought that digital synths with only one or two programming interface controls were the shit. The fact that a lot of people are “getting into modular” has more to do with fashion and trends, and not quite so much to do with music. People always gravitate toward what they think is the newer/shinier/faster thing, even if doing so doesn't make a helluva lot of sense in the long run. If modular fits your idea of where you want to go musically, then sure, dive on in. But if you haven't thought that idea out carefully yet, you might want to consider something a lot simpler first, then hit the inherent limitations of that and by doing so, come to comprehend what the user-definability of modular is for.

4) Polyphony. Remember what I said above about “more money than sense”? Modular synthesizers are notoriously NOT polyphonic. This isn't to say that you can't do that, though...because you can. But it's utterly insane. Consider a present-day polysynth, such as the Moog One. So...each voice on that synth has three VCOs, two VCFs, three EGs, a ring modulator, a source mixer, a stereo VCA, and we've not even gotten into the LFOs, the sequencer/arpeggiator, the controller and its layer/split capabilities, and the effects processing, plus MIDI and a whole bunch of other crap I'm forgetting at the moment. $8k ets you sixteen of these voices, plus the aforementioned crap. This comes out to FORTY-EIGHT VCOs and EGs, THIRTY-TWO VCFs, SIXTEEN VCAs and mixers, and so on. If you thought eight grand was spendy, try adding all of the above up on ModularGrid. Now try cramming it into the same space as the Moog One (not happening). Then try and apply a recall/storage system...which, as I noted earlier, you really can't, so each new patch will require retweaking all of those individual modules and changing bushels of patchcables. Utterly...insane. But you CAN DO IT...if you've lost your damn mind already or are looking to do so in the near future, and you also own an investment bank.

5) “I don't know where I want to go with my music, but modular will help me define that!” No...no, it won't. Nor will any other piece of equipment you happen to be able to afford (see #2 above). And in all truth, modular will wind up frustrating you even more as a musician if you don't have a clear vision for your work. It offers near-limitless sonic possibilities, but if you've not developed a sense of direction and the discipline needed to follow that direction, having the ultimate sonic sandbox at your disposal is just going to screw you up. When you look more closely at music and those who make it successfully, you're more apt to see people who work within defined limitations, either by chance or choice. So until and unless you've gotten used to the idea of having musical limits and staying in an artistically-successful comfort zone in those, introducing a limitless device into your environment will probably result in something more disastrous than revelatory.

6) And lastly, “I haven't researched this, but I want/need one.” No. Do the research first. It is what sites like ModularGrid (and many others) exist for. Ask dumb questions, because when we're talking about the possibility of dropping thousands of moneys on hardware over longish periods of time, there are ultimately no dumb questions. And whenever you're contemplating the purchase of gear, whether that's a stompbox or a Steinway, there are two main questions you need to be able to honestly answer of yourself: “Does this purchase make musical sense?” and “Is this the most effective way of accomplishing that musical goal?” If you cannot formulate an answer to BOTH of these questions each time you consider some new device, then DON'T BUY IT. The inability to answer those key questions is the indicator that you've not done your research up to the level of information where you understand the point of your decision. Until you can come up with those two answers, don't even think about whipping out the Magic Plastic.

Basically, it's not a simple decision to dive headlong into the modular synth world. Hopefully the above points will help some of you reading this to get a better idea...for yourself, by doing your homework...of what this sort of equipment and its working paradigm can do, and to avoid making costly mistakes that'll have you kicking yourself for quite some time afterward.


Great post. Great post indeed.

Can I add a seventh comment:

7) Time. Like with any instrument, it takes time... a shitload of time to get good at it. Every module you add is another layer of complexity. In order to get the most out of your set-up, you'll have to dive DEEP into every module, even the simplistic ones. You'll have to create a TON of test patches to get a feel for different attributes. The more complex the module, the more time you'll invest. Even if you have years of experience with software synths or polyphonic synths, you're still going to have to put in a ton of work.


Great post Luigia.

Reading this 6 months ago before I dove in might just have deterred me, not that I have regrets per se. #5 hits hard.


5 "No...no, it won't. Nor will any other piece of equipment you happen to be able to afford (see #2 above). And in all truth, modular will wind up frustrating you even more as a musician if you don't have a clear vision for your work."

I wish I had read this years ago. I would highly suggest to those who are in financial straights to steer clear of modular altogether.

Five years will go by, and you will have sacrificed many important things in your life to spent thousands of dollars on a modular rack.

When things hit rock bottom, you will realize that you are not special or talented in the realm of music, no matter how beautiful you personally think that patch is.

The truth is that your work is just mediocre, like most things modular, honestly. It hurts to admit that to yourself, but sometimes we have to accept facts that will help us become better in this world as opposed to fantasies that will only destroy us.

If you can afford to purchase a new car every year and not worry about it, feel free to get into modular. If you barely make ends meet, stay away from modular. You will be better off throwing your cash into a fucking bonfire, because at least if you did that, it would be something people would talk about and remember for a little while, unlike your eurorack based music.

And then one day you'll find
Ten years have gone behind you

Don't make the same mistake I made. It doesn't matter how much you love music. Not everybody should be a part of it. Don't waste your life away chasing something you have no business being a part of.

Save your money. Become financially responsible. Live life and experience the great things this world has to share. Make and keep good friends. Spread love. Having a modular by itself will bring you none of these things.


But its OK to do if...?

You simply enjoy it.
You like the experimentation.
You occasionally make something that sounds good.
You can cope that you can never get back to that ace patch you did a while back.
You sell other things in your life that you don't use to fund your modular.
You can cope with not buying everything at once.
....and you don't have to be good at something to enjoy it.


But its OK to do if...?

You simply enjoy it.
You like the experimentation.
You occasionally make something that sounds good.
You can cope that you can never get back to that ace patch you did a while back.
You sell other things in your life that you don't use to fund your modular.
You can cope with not buying everything at once.
....and you don't have to be good at something to enjoy it.
-- wishbonebrewery
Yep!


Good :)


I'll add that not only does it take time to learn, it takes time to figure out HOW to learn. When I started, I was completely frustrated because dammit, it took forever to find a quick resource re: how to make a simple patch. And even once I found it, I quickly realized that the wonderful semi-modular I bought didn't teach me much about what was happening under the hood...because I couldn't see the connections! Over time, I found my "teachers." The select handful of people whose Patreons and YouTube pages I subscribed to and who, through the process of my listening to literally everything they put out and learning through osmosis and practice, have taught me how to get going with modular. There is no beginners book that says "Ok, step one. Patch this from here to here. Now do this. Now this." etc. etc.

In other words, it's not enough to set aside time to learn. You have to set aside an enormous amount of time to learn HOW to learn.

And this is a language no different than English, Spanish, or Japanese. Be prepared to watch/listen to videos you don't understand. Look up words you don't know. Attenuverter?! You'll have to look that up. Ring modulation? Same. It takes time to learn a language. BE PREPARED FOR THIS.