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The Modular Sound


You’ve all probably seen it by now, Behringer has jumped into the synth market and is about to release a polyphonic analogue keyboard synth. This would be a totally unrelated story, if not for one sentence by Richard Devine, who, in the first teaser video, describes this new synth with the words: “It sounds very modular”.

On one hand, this is a clear sign that the modular synth has become so popular that we are starting to use it to describe how other instruments sound, but there’s more to that. When the above mentioned teaser video first appeared on Facebook, people reacted to Devine’s assertion in a mixed way. Many were pointing out that the modular doesn’t really have a sound of its own, it being a “blank canvas” on which you can create whatever you want. I too, found it almost funny that somebody would say that, but I felt that simply stating that the modular doesn’t have a sound of its own, was a bit of a simplistic answer, so I started to dig a bit deeper.

Before I get into any of this, let me mention another Facebook anecdote. At one point somebody on the Muff Wiggler Facebook group wrote a short post saying: “Want to be different with your sound from other wigglers? Simple, don’t use Rings and/or Clouds….”. The post was not meant to spill hate on those modules, but more about many modular synth jams/tracks sounding the same. According to the poster, this was largely due to many people using the same modules. A long and (sometimes fruitless) discussion arose, during which a couple of interesting points were raised. One of the most interesting ones – for the context of this article – was, that you can use these modules and make something that will not easily be linked to them, but many people just haven’t spent enough time with their gear to really get beyond the more superficial uses. If played more superficially, certain modules tend to have a very recognizable sound, which might explain why a lot of modular music indeed sounds similar. So this opens up another question: is the modular’s “sound” just the product of it still being a relatively young instrument? After all it’s a very complex machine and one that keeps evolving and mutating, this makes it harder to develop your own sound, your own artistic voice.

So I started to talk to some people who know their part about sound and modulars. The first thing I did was to get in touch with Richard Devine himself. After all, he was the one that made me want to write this article in the first place. I asked him how he would define the modular sound, and this is what he said to me:

To me the modular sound is something that is organic and changing constantly, even if you play a repeating single note with an analog oscillator you will hear slight changes and fluctuations. Then take this idea and multiply the outcome when you use a larger system with other analog and digital hybrid modules. Patching them into each other creates this interactive electrical network. The patch becomes this ever changing larger entity that evolves and mutates. The sound is not exact but always slightly drifting, unpredictable, and moving.

This is a very good point. The very nature of the modular, it being this complex system with a tendency towards chaos and instability, must indeed reflect on the sounds it makes.

To expand on this, I went and collected some additional opinions on the matter, trying to cover as much ground as possible. I asked film sound designer, composer and field recordist Tim Prebble (who also runs the highly recommended blog musicofsound.co.nz), disquiet.com/Junto creator and blogger Marc Weidenbaum, musicians Joseph Fraioli aka Datach’i and  Robin Rimbaud aka Scanner, Italian synth guru Enrico Cosimi and modular video master Ben “DivKid” Wilson. Here’s their take on the matter:

Tim Prebble:

For me, I am as much interested in modular ‘sound’ as modular ‘synth’ in that I started my modular primarily as a processor of sounds – like an extraordinary outboard studio rack. As it has developed, the possibilities have grown until it now feels infinite, but one truth remains: it is the person involved who shapes its aesthetic. Two people given the same modules & patch will create entirely different sounds. This is important to me. At first a vital part of its attraction was the rawness and expressive power of its sound. But I also sensed a danger: modular synths are so powerful they can easily subsume the human.

Marc Weidenbaum:

Big picture I’d say my hope is you can’t always recognize a modular synthesizer when listening, because it is so varied in what it can accomplish. Modular synths are so rich with potential, it feels weird to use a word like “it” to encapsulate them. Especially when you get all those digital modules going — not just digital oscillators, but more complicated units like sequencers and so forth — it might arguably be indistinguishable from music you’d make on an iPad or a laptop. In addition, some of the most interesting work done with modulars sees them as part of a larger whole, combining them with software CV and with virtual modules, with Monomes, and serving as processing units for guitar, voice, and other external sources. Anyhow, to get back around to your question — and putting aside obvious things like specific modules with recognizable sonic signatures — I’d say that modular synths lend themselves particularly to a kind of exploratory, less-controlled experimental approach. This sort of approach reveals itself while the performance is going on: you start off in one place and end up in another. When I hear a hint of the weird that develops within the flow of a piece, it pricks up my ear and makes me wonder: modular?

Joseph Fraioli (Datach’i):

I don’t really think there is such a thing as a modular “sound” and to me that’s the best thing about it. A modular synth (of any format) can be designed specifically to the user’s ideas and work flow and while certain processes may be the same from user to user, the outcome is always different, as the users have such a fine amount of control over how the instrument behaves. So to me that question is akin to: “is there such thing as a guitar “sound”?”, the instrument may be the same, but is used in many different ways :)

Robin Rimbaud (Scanner):
(the following statements are extracts from the interview I made with him for the Scanning through the waves article)

For my general hearing of other people using modular systems, there is frequently a metallic, quite bright sound that appears, it’s a very particular type of sound, that I’ve only heard through the modular. It’s relatively thin at times as well, I noticed that. This isn’t a generalization, this is just me thinking aloud about about works I’ve heard recently […] but it could be simply people using the same type of modules.

There does appear to be a particular sound that is generic to the modular, the sound I’m sort of describing, but that certainly doesn’t mean everybody sounds like that. The important thing with all creative arts is that you find a voice and that voice becomes you […] but that comes with time.
One has to remember that for many people, modular systems are relatively new, it’s all about discovery, people are very enthusiastic and want to share their discoveries very quickly, they’re not necessarily finished tracks quite frequently, and therefore it can be very deceptive for people to start judging on those things.

I always think of this film Wally [the Pixar Movie ed.] I always think of the closing scene, where there’s these extremely overweight Americans in a theme park. All basically floating their way through, being fed and being told “today the fashionable colour is green, tomorrow the fashionable colour is blue!” and everybody just joins in! What’s so great about the modular system is, that you develop very much your own sound, very much your own voice.
With the modular, there’s no logic, there’s no way I start. Every single time it’s a new conversation and to me that’s thrilling.

Enrico Cosimi:

I don’t think that the modular has a sound of its own; We could talk about “sounds that can more easily be created with a modular architecture than with an integrated one” (due to the complexity of the timbres, or because of the intricate actions required). By itself, a synthesizer, is a synthesizer, is a synthesizer…

Ben “DivKid” Wilson

It’s funny to talk about ‘modular sound’ because if you think of another instrument such as a guitar or a drum kit you think “yeah of course it does.” Then on the other hand you think “well modular is an environment, a blank canvas, a vast sonic landscape”, so you think “it can’t have a sound because it has so many sounds!”

A lot of me really hopes I couldn’t always pick out a modular sound in a production/recording but there’s definitely a few things that guide my ear towards that. Speaking of specific sounds and techniques I’d say there’s a few things for me (of course this is all subjective) such as …

– Sample & Hold modulation
– Wavefolding
– Low Pass Gates (LPGs)

Before anyone thinks I’m stupid :) I’m well aware all of those things can be in other formats and software versions exist too. Take sample and hold, having that clocked alongside a steady sequence and modulating say a filter or PWM certainly starts to lend itself to modular. I wasn’t using sample and hold much in software before going into modular, nor do I use it on my vintage keyboard synths where I can’t clock it in time with the rest of my music. Wavefolding instantly makes me think Buchla, Serge and Eurorack sonic territory. Again this isn’t something I’d heard much of (or noticed possibly before having experience with it) within software productions and artists that I know that use non-modular hardware didn’t seem to be creating those sounds. Finally Low Pass Gates – again I think Buchla, Serge and Bug Brand (after a stunning performance from tIB with an all Bug Brand set-up at a Modular Meets event last year). Those coloured woody tones conjure up images of modular in my head.

Finally in my mini journey of thoughts on ‘modular sound’ I think it’s the approach in both composition and sound manipulation that make people think something is modular. Modular is so open that it really invites some experimentation, even when making acid basslines I think it urges people to just push past the basics a little bit. The complexity of modulation is a big factor in ‘modular sound’ too, without a doubt. Modulating your modulators through use of VCAs and FM over modulation rates and depths. Speaking of that … audio rate modulation! Another huge thing in modular. It’s endless and my head’s wondering in all directions thinking about it.

To end on, I’d like to say that when Richard Devine said “it sounds modular” in the Behringer DeepMind 12 video I knew exactly what he meant. Even if I like to think that modular is so open it doesn’t have one sound.

If there are sounds that can be more easily created with a modular architecture – be it because of how you interact with it, because of its specific features or because of the “drifting” nature of the instrument – then maybe that’s what makes up its perceived sound and makes it possible to distinguish sounds created with a modular from those made using a keyboard synth or a VA plugin. Or to say it in a different way: maybe it’s not the modular that has a sound, but, because of how it works, it fosters uses and applications which might as well produce very specific and recognizable timbres and structures.

Ben Wilson already gave me a good idea of what could be the “technical” origin of the modular sound, but I wanted to get even deeper, so I talked to somebody who knows his part on modular architectures: Olivier Gillet from Mutable Instruments. He sums up what “classic modular” sounds could be in his opinion:

Sounds created by the usual subtractive signal chain, but with very unusual combinations of building blocks – say a low bit-rate wavetable oscillator processed by a Moog ladder ; or a TB303 square processed by a Wasp filter. The kind of sounds that wouldn’t be out of this world, but would really confuse a synth-spotter.

Sounds created by deviating from the VCO -> VCF -> VCA signal chain – in particular patches using audio rate modulations, feedback, self-patching… An entire world of bellish, metallic tones, drones. Anything rough and unstable.

Sounds typical of “west-coast” synthesis techniques, which, at the exception of Aalto and the new 0-coast, are mostly the prerogative of the modular world – wavefolder sweeps, “bongos” and LPG plucks, out of tune TZFM…

Sounds created with modules that have no keyboard / desktop / plug-in equivalent. Take the example of the Erbeverb, or Rings, or Shapeshifter… What these modules do might or might not be doable with a plug-in, but the fact is that currently, if you want the sounds they make, you need to buy the module.

Sounds and compositions breaking the barriers between sequencing and modulation, modulation and audio generation… Sweeping things continuously from 0.01 Hz to 10kHz. I can think of modules like Tides or the Zorlon Cannon where details in the waveform (or bit sequence) at audio rate morph into modulations then morph into note patterns just by changing a clock rate. Such things are often impossible with desktop synths or plug-ins.

Quirks due to the limited number of modules in a system. For example using a raw oscillator for a bassline (no filter and no “gating” of the notes) because the other VCFs and VCAs in your system are already used for something else. Routing two different melodic lines into the same VCF… Super cheesy percussions done with just one envelope and one VCO or VCF… In a way, more interaction between the different parts of an arrangement because they reuse the same modules – as compared to all the parallel, neatly separated signal chains of a multi-timbral synth or collection of plug-ins.

So yes, probably modulars do have a “sound”, but just as they are complex instruments, everything related to them tends to be complex as well.

This “sound” comes in part from the very nature of the instrument, while the other part is likely to be something more related to how it is used and to various cultural factors. The latter would deserve further analysis, though that lays beyond the scope of this article. Certainly factors like it being relatively new and the trends that develop inside the community are a big part of it.

My answer to the big question about the “modular sound” would be that it is often determined by it not having a specific sound, but more a specific way of operating, which translates in certain types of “sounds”, but we’re probably too much in the middle of the process to be really able to look at it with a clear mind. One thing is certain though, the modular synth, and the type of music, that you can more easily make with it, are starting to re-shape electronic music on various levels.

It’s very exciting to be witnessing this in real-time, as it happens.

Illustrations by Papernoise

Graphic designer, illustrator and modular synth enthusiast. Founder of Papernoise, a small design studio located in northern Italy, specialised in graphic design for the world of music.