I'm going to venture a guess that about half of you reading this right now DO NOT need a modular synthesizer.

No, really. While you see these instruments quite a bit these days, especially on YouTube and other Interwebz outlets, and while they look really intriguing, there are some points about them that you might want to consider.

First of all, what ARE modular synthesizers? Some people think that any synth with patchpoints is a modular, and this is simply wrong. Devices such as the Korg MS-20, ARP 2600, etc are often called “modular”, but these are better described as “patchable” since they have a prepatched voice path, and the patchpoints are actually override points for this. A true modular synthesizer DOES NOT have a prepatched voice; instead, ALL connections must be made by hand between individual circuit modules (hence the name), and the instruments are made up of collections of these.

But also, one has to keep in mind what a synthesizer IS. And that would be an instrument in which sound is generated and manipulated through electronic means AND which consists of four basic parts:
generators, modifiers, modulators, and controllers. So, in the case of a modular synthesizer, it must have those four primary components in the proper ratios so that you actually arrive at a usable instrument. But IS there some hard and fast rule there?

Well...no. And this is where the trouble starts.

Clearly, there are devices that must be in any synthesizer. But when that's predetermined by another engineer or designer, it lets you off the hook. You don't have to worry about putting the right stuff in the case, as that's already done for you.

...but not in a modular synthesizer, however, unless you get a prebuilt system. Aside of those, you're on your own. So if that's the case, then how well do you know how synthesis works? Well? Really well? Not really at all?

Modular synthesizers ARE NOT a good starting-point to learn synthesis. In fact, they're quite terrible! There is so much to them that can be gotten wrong that they actually have better odds of misinforming new users than giving them the keys to the sonic kingdom. Patchables are better for this, because when your tinkering outright fails, you can always fall back on the prepatched path. In fact, I often state that the best teaching synth of all time has to be the ARP 2600. If you can't sort out how the process works on one of THOSE...well, pianos don't have knobs, and you might feel more comfortable with one. Maybe if Korg pulls its collective head out of its collective ass and decides to ACTUALLY reissue these (instead of dicking everyone over with 500 units only, worldwide), you'll get a chance to see what I mean.

But I digress...anyway, the reason why these are easier and why they're what I would recommend is because of that default path. You're never left with a “useless” box of widgets. OTOH, a modular will do EXACTLY THAT to you if you don't know what you're doing. Or worse, you'll have a box that fights you at every turn!

“But why does [INSERT “INFLUENCER” HERE] have one,” you ask? Hm...they look good, for one thing. One would expect that, if there's that wall of knobs and wires and blinkylites, this guy on the screen must know what they're going on about...right? Right? TELL ME I'M RIGHT!!!

No, you're not right. A lot of these people just have them around as set decorations, really. Do you see them messing around with it for more than just the span of the video? Or sillier, do you see them with moooooooood lighting (yes, that many “o”s are needed) and such, like the whole effin' studio has Bond Villain lighting? Yeah...uh...that's probably a good indicator that they don't, and furthermore, that they probably don't do anything aside of YouTube, because that's what you'd call a “set” and NOT a “studio”. The musicians I respect and pay attention to on that platform, frankly, don't have any of that BS; their studios look like they see constant use and they don't bother with trying to make their workspaces look like an IKEA showroom. Want to have some fun? Watch one of these “fashionable” YouTubers for a hot minute and count the technical mistakes...you'll either be laughing hysterically or throwing up. Maybe both.

The real purpose of a modular synthesizer in the 2020s is that they serve as bespoke devices for musicians who have gone beyond the typical limitations of off-the-shelf synths. But even there, there's a caveat waiting, since “off-the-shelf” these days implies a metric buttload of power for the most part. Case in point: the Waldorf Quantum. It costs about as much as a decently-populated Eurorack modular. And for the average synthesist, it's WAY more than enough synthesizer. But if you have a very specific idea that goes beyond what a synth like that is capable of...well, that's why modulars exist. But you would have to know what exhausting those possibilities is like FIRST, and it takes quite a bit of work and time to outgrow some of the more complex instruments out there these days.

So, let's go back a bit. Sure, you saw a lot of people using them early on in the 1960s and 70s. But remember: the monosynth as we know it didn't happen until around 1970 (the Minimoog), there was no such thing as a “polysynth” although very limited instruments using divide-down polyphony existed, and pop music was also a great deal less timbrally complicated. So back then, modulars were the logical next step. But once the Sequential Prophet 5 came out, that started changing. That synth provided memory over all parameters, five voices of TRUE polyphony, and loads of knobs for tweakage plus a really good keybed. And it kicked butt sonically.

Where polysynths get a bad rep is actually from a slightly later period, the mid-1980s. At that point, a number of cheap digital synths appeared and everyone figured, OK, these are the way to go. And while some of these sounded great, they were totally crap to program. You had one of either two ways to go here: either you had the dreaded “data slider”, which actually started on the ARP (later Rhodes) Chroma but which everyone UNfondly remembers from the Yamaha DX series. Or if not that, then you got the “programming cheap-out” from firms like Roland, where you had to buy a “programmer” as a separate accessory, and which in some cases would require this device to hog your MIDI ports, if you didn't want to get stuck with a bunch of factory presets and maybe (if you were lucky) a few global controls to vary things.

Certainly, these synthesizers sucked massively for various reasons, which also included some very real issues with audio capability. And they were the yardstick on which the resurgence of modular was measured...a resurgence that, in its day, was very necessary! When we hit the nadir of digital, with the avalanche of “rompler” synths that began at the end of the 1980s, it was time to get back to knobs and jacks.

But the situation NOW is not the situation THEN.

Right now, it's possible to drop $5k on a Eurorack system, easily. It's also possible to drop LESS on a very capable prebuilt synth and get much the same sorts of sonic results. Things changed. A lot. We finally got digital synthesis that was easy to program, for one thing; for example, the raw power that was at the heart of the DX-7 could now be got as a cheap mini-keyboard with an interface that, at long last, FINALLY made sense (even though there's knob programmers for it, just like back in the day with Jellinghausen's). We also got polysynths that could be toted around without any need for having your hernia surgeon on speed-dial. And others that can make former monsters like the Synclavier look like a 1954 Philco black-and-white TV, technologically speaking. And terrifyingly-potent monosynths with all the features of a suitable modular can now be got off the shelf...such as the Matrixbrute, the Pro-3, the Subsequent 37, et al. Clearly, the points of the late 1980s through Dieter's introduction of the Eurorack format were listened to, eventually. And not only that, but you can now easily GET a Synclavier...or Fairlight...or a lot of other things in software versions that carefully and exactingly emulate the originals. I mean, hell, I've used Synclaviers, even HAD one in the 1990s...and the Arturia SynclavierV is pretty much indistinguishable now that it has the resynthesis function. You don't even need to BUY it...just steal a cracked copy, which is far easier than heisting the huge processor cab, terminal, keyboard controller, two floppys, pedals, and the various hefty cables of the real device, not to mention the huge binder of manuals and all the necessary floppy disks.

So...what is the whole point of modular NOW? I mean, really, if you can do that...

Modular still has a point to it. It's NOT an entry point, though, like I mentioned. Instead, modular synthesizers are a DESTINATION. They are where you go when you have a certain musical vision at hand, and what you need isn't an off the shelf solution. Unlike the old days, they aren't where you start. They were that only back in synthesizers' first decade or two and haven't been that since! And this is because we DO have better solutions for the average electronic musicians out there.

“That's bullsh*t! I know I need one!” Is this sort of like how, back in the 1990s, everyone was convinced that you couldn't make techno without having a TB-303 onhand and you knew you needed one of those? Well...yeah. And this hype really does modular synthesis no good.

When you have a situation like this, what actually results is:

1) lots of stuff getting sold that will wind up in the back of a closet in a couple of years. And...

2) lots of frustrated modular purchasers who fell into this trap and bought expensive gear they didn't understand, hence #1 above.

Makes for a great used market, I guess, but it's not constructive.

So...if you're looking at ModularGrid right now with this grand idea that you're going to drop $5k on a modular that, once you have it mastered (because, by your admission, you're still “learning synthesis”), it will make you into the second coming of Wendy Carlos, Keith Emerson, Brian Eno and Aphex Twin all at the same time...ahhhh, you might want to dial that enthusiasm back. A lot. First up, the ability to be that person has nothing to do with gear; see The Shaggs' “Philosophy of the World” for a prime example of how equipment won't save your ass musically. Secondly, if you're still learning, you're either going to have a long slog up that learning curve or, more likely, you'll start questioning your sanity as regards buying that monstrosity and find yourself clearing closet space. If you don't know what you're doing with synthesizer programming prior to buying a modular synth, you will be horrified to find that what you DO know is nowhere near what's needed to grapple with one.

How to get there, though? OK...since Korg opted to be total jackasses with the (only available for one day or so) ARP 2600 reissue, your next best option is their MS-20. You can patch around its fixed voice path, check. Externally or internally controllable, check. All the usual circuits, check. Panel that's straightforward enough to understand while trashed, check. Self-containment, check. Perfectly utilitarian design, check. Decent price that's NOT $5k, check; in fact, while the Mini is still around, it would cost a bit more than 1/10th of that. If you're still learning synthesis, THAT is the right tool to learn ON. And NOT a modular synth that costs several times that. Get the MS-20 down first, then proceed. And yeah, you can patch it into the later modular gear, although you'll have to deal with the inverse gate/trig and Hz/V CV issues. No biggie if you know what you're doing by that point.

“But what do I get NEEEEEEXXXTTTT?!?!?!” Ahhh... how'bout that brand-new Yamland STFU? Until and unless you can get something on the level of the above example down, stay well away from modular. Otherwise, you risk digging a monetary hole the likes of which you've never likely experienced, and climbing out of it will be the most unfun thing of your life.

BUT...if you can get super-cozy with an MS-20, and you find you can expand it in useful ways via its patch panel, and maybe you'd like to add a little something like a skiff with a Maths in it...maybe a third VCO...or some other filter...or... Now, THAT is how to proceed, and how to do so sensibly AND in a way that does let you learn synthesis. And I know this because it's how I started progressing, albeit with an ARP 2600 since we're talking 1981 here, otherwise, same diff.

Patchables are really the proper starting point, for all of these reasons. And something like a Plankton ANTS!, which is just a single box, is a great way to expand and yet still have the prepatch paradigm for when things go haywire. Dreadbox makes a few that fit here, too. And if you want to go bananas, there's Kilpatrick's Phenol. And in all of these cases, it's obvious what you're doing, and what you're doing that with. About the only thing you're guaranteed of learning by getting tossed into the deep end of the pool is drowning, really; start somewhere where you can still touch the pool bottom if you've got any sense and any budgeting capabilities.

Anyway, this isn't meant to dissuade anyone from exploring their options in modular. Rather, it's a plea for new synthesists to use some basic pragmatism when approaching modular for the first time. If you know where you're trying to get to sonically, then by all means give modular a shot. But understand that if you DON'T...it's gonna hurt either your brain or your bank account. Maybe both. Consider your options carefully...

Anyone who namedrops the Shaggs is automatically correct and wins all arguments.
Seriously though, my only gripe is using ROMplers as a bad type of synthesizer. I completely disagree - granted the UI for most were far from perfect - they're still very powerful synthesizers that went underused. I know some types of synthesis fairly well, and I own several modular systems, but I'm still taken aback by the vast options in a mere XV2020 that would be deemed obsolete by most people.

Maybe the'll make a resurgence when people figure out how powerful they are?

I digress. Fair points all in all, and more true nowadays. Lots of shiny modules to go around in the second hand market ... and more photos of cases with the same 'ol modules again and again.

All rights reserved, all wrongs reversed.

While there is wisdom in a lot of this, it's wisdom that is not unique to modular synthesis. There are more acoustic guitars collecting dust in closets than synths. Years ago, I worked in the MI business for a decade, and people constantly bought the wrong tool for what they were trying to achieve, so I get the point of this message. Here's the thing though, if you want to sound like Sonic Youth, Darkthrone, or My Bloody Valentine, you probably don't want to buy an acoustic guitar to learn on. Bang around on an electric, waste a lot of money on pedals and amps, and figure it out. You're not going to achieve that sound and workflow with a Martin D28. Similarly, if you want to make music like the YouTube generative coffee-mug-and-window-overlooking-a-peaceful-garden crowd, an MS20 isn't going to do that. Is that really the right instrument to start with, then? Man, I don't know.
People make amazing music by using instruments in the "wrong" way all the time. Just because you don't know what Boolean logic, half wave rectification, Euclidean rhythms, or even a VCA are right now, doesn't mean you shouldn't start the modular journey (you're going to have to learn about VCAs reeeeeeeaaaaaaaallllll quick, though). There is really no "right" way to use an instrument unless you are some purist gatekeeper. I worked around purists for years and they always sucked the joy right out of making music. They would scoff if you didn't pledge allegiance to some bulls**t Tubescreamer circuit from 1982 or didn't take the same musical journey they did. Ugh...
What is a way of life for some is just a hobby for others, and that's ok. I say the more, the merrier. There are enough good YouTube tutorials out there nowadays for people to make an informed decision about the kind of instrument they want to try out and learn (and maybe fail). I'd rather empower people to give synthesis a try than suggest they are only attracted to the pretty lights and graphics. Sure, aesthetics make a difference for some (there are glittery finish guitars and drums for a reason), but aspiring musicians deserve more credit than just being bandwagon-hopping squirrels. Most people are savvy enough to understand that you don't become Eddie Van Halen, Aphex Twin, Neil Peart, or Brian Eno overnight just because you bought an instrument.
Yes, in the modular world mistakes are very expensive. Also, mistakes lead to new avenues of thought and creativity. Synthesis can be frustrating, but so can learning and becoming proficient in violin, drums, melodica, djembe, or 8-string guitar. There are growing pains with every instrument and technology.
Maybe you don't NEED a modular synth. Maybe you just WANT a modular synth. That's fine. I hope you dedicate some time to it, have fun, and make some cool music with it.

Seriously though, my only gripe is using ROMplers as a bad type of synthesizer. I completely disagree - granted the UI for most were far from perfect - they're still very powerful synthesizers that went underused. I know some types of synthesis fairly well, and I own several modular systems, but I'm still taken aback by the vast options in a mere XV2020 that would be deemed obsolete by most people.

Maybe the'll make a resurgence when people figure out how powerful they are?

They need to...as long as they're the sort of ROMplers that do have that programming depth you'd find in the Roland XVs, late-period E-Mu, etc. But when they first hit...ohmyghodwhatuglycrap!!! I actually still have my Proteus1, bought new in early 1990. And I remember it being more annoying to program than a DX-7, not because the interface was so obtuse (which the DX-7 was/is) but because you couldn't get at all of the architecture so that, when a sound popped into your head, you only had a certain percentage of possibility of being able to make the changes to your existing patch to get you there. Frustrating!

But a decade-ish passes, and we get things like the Proteus 2500...same basic idea as the original, but NOW it would be possible to get your hands on nearly all of the sonic capabilities. And that thing is a killer ROMpler...but it (and others) were victimized by those initial "not ready for primetime" ROMplers and the rep those brought. So, no...it's not all ROMplers that are bad, but you have to know which are the GOOD ones. Definitely not an easy category of synth to navigate, although the hardware is quite plentiful.

Totally agree. Especially since I have a v low income, I couldn't dream of dropping >1000$ on an instrument that I didn't know how to use (my modular is DIY'ed over a span of years). So it does frustrate me when I see people playing music on expensive gear while CLEARLY not knowing the half of what they're doing. The number of times I've seen beginners on expensive synth setups who don't even know about concepts like headroom, noise levels etc is way too high. Music gear is a finite resource, so no matter how much you can afford, it's still not cool to hoard unused gear in ur basement or misuse it.

Music gear is a finite resource, so no matter how much you can afford, it's still not cool to hoard unused gear in ur basement or misuse it.
-- reidv

Hell yes!

Over the years, there's been a number of gear hoarders who pile up rare stuff and then never do anything with it. And this is NOT GOOD...because disused electronic components gradually decay from that disuse. Capacitors are perhaps the worst about this, but resistors can also degrade over time, plus control devices can break or freeze up, etc. Plus, some of these hoarders do a lousy job of conserving their "collections"; I recall a story many years ago about a certain "Synth Museum" which had some rare and often prototype gear, but the space they were housed in was so decrepit and dilapidated that water was actually getting into some of the synths...and most disturbingly, the "curator" wasn't the least bit apologetic about any of this.

Then there's this:

On first glance, both we AND the presenter are super-jazzed at seeing something this amazing. But when you start getting a closer look at the gear, it slowly becomes apparent that whoever this rich person is who owns these doesn't actually give a rat's ass about them. It's important only that he HAVE them. And sure enough, we find that exact bit of info out as the video progresses...the owner is some Swiss nutcase who buys equipment and DOESN'T USE IT. He just WANTS it. And since he clearly has more money than you or I, he'll GET it...and none of the rest of us will.

Not that I would EVER advocate criminal activity...but I'd just like to say that if anyone reading this knows where this warehouse is in Switzerland, well, you'll know what to do.

But where does "using gear 'incorrectly'" end and "using gear in a way I don't like, or under conditions I don't like, or to create sounds/styles I don't like" begin? How big a problem is someone with their Altoids tin shaker-thru-DigiTech Death Metal harsh noise project, really, even when they branch out to buying boutique equipment?

It makes no sense to labor that particular point as it's an exceptionally rare case where some filthy-rich fruitcake hoards Trent Reznor/Richard D. James quantities of truly exquisite gear and can't/won't do anything with it. In the majority of cases, people are spending their own money on readily-available equipment. Equipment they sell at a discounted price to YOU if/when they realize they're not making it as Prurient 2.0 or whatever. This is truly a non-issue.

The one exception, perhaps, being common, "overnight cult successes", most of which are purely hype-based gimmicks to begin with (Sitar Swami, anyone?). And we have only the Internet Buzz (Bull) Machine to thank for that.

...it's an exceptionally rare case where some filthy-rich fruitcake hoards Trent Reznor/Richard D. James quantities of truly exquisite gear and can't/won't do anything with it. In the majority of cases, people are spending their own money on readily-available equipment. Equipment they sell at a discounted price to YOU if/when they realize they're not making it as Prurient 2.0 or whatever. This is truly a non-issue.
-- jingram

Dunno about that "non-issue" part. Sure, others' mistakes might fuel the used module market. But at the same time, I would be a bit nervous about buying a used module from someone who got it because "it looks cool" and NOT because of what it does, what it can do with other modules in a build, and so on. What if "I never could get the sound I wanted out of it" actually turns out to be "I plugged the ribbon into an unkeyed header backwards and hopefully you won't notice that when you buy it"? Definitely seems like a latent issue to me.

I'm not trying to put a stop to wackjobs like the Swiss Guy With Too Much Damn Money above, though...although, from experience, they're A LOT MORE common than one might think. There's still a lot of synths hiding in stashes in Japan, for example, because you had buyers over there scooping up gear from all over when their economy was still on a roll, and then squirreling it away in climate-controlled vaults and the like back in the 1990s. Much of that hasn't seen the light of day since. If the majority of it still works and isn't dead due to component degradation, I'd be surprised. "Synth-flippers" are another flavor of synth-hoarders, also...they go around scooping up anything that they think they might be able to curbstone, but in the process these types wind up stashing away a lot of gear that might've been usable for a musician...but which they see as "parts hosts", scrapyarding literally tons of devices. Now, yes, there NEEDS to be SOME of that going on...but the scale to which I've seen in several cases (a couple of them quite recent, I note), there's no real love for the instruments there, as they just get dumped all over the place and often never see any use or, sometimes, never even get broken down for parts. But again, you can't "fix" that...it's shitty habitual business practices at work, and I've seen that particular set of practices more times than I'd care to count since Mark Vail's effin' book wrecked the used market in the mid-1990s.

What I am trying to rein in, though, is people jumping into this and then finding out that they'd mistakenly leapt into the "1,000 feet" end of the pool, with a lot of general frustration following shortly afterward. That's not good for music, period. Plus, the systems bought in that way tend to NOT go up on the market, because the original purchaser is...well, sort of embarrassed, as a rule. So that doesn't supply much of a backflow into the used market, either.