A multi-disciplinary designer’s journey in field recording, sound design, and music.

“What Module Should I Buy?”

Posted: March 15th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: modular synthesis, music, synthesis

“I just bought [FOO]; what other modules should I buy to go with it?”

Ahh, the clich√© question that causes cringes worldwide in the modular synthesis world. But let’s not disparage those who are just learning. We were all there once, right? I sure was. Heck, I still am.

But what bothers me about this question is that it is absolutely context-free.

If you said that you had a saw, and you wanted to know what wood would pair well with that saw, I’d best the most common question you’d get (besides a quizzical look) is, “Well, that depends. What are you building?” Asking what tools or materials to get without knowing what the end goal is feels completely backwards.

Let’s say someone bought a smart, complex envelope generator. Great, such things are always needed in modular synthesis. But then someone asks what to get next, be it an oscillator, a sequencer, a filter, or an effect. Well…are you a harsh noise artist? An ambient performer? A techno producer? A sound designer for film? A guitarist trying to use modular for effects? A trumpet player looking for procedural beats to play on top of? A sound installation artist?

Those answers don’t just matter. They’re ALL that matters.

This, of course, applies to microphones for field recordists, traditional synths for other musicians, or string gauges for guitarists. My advice is always, and will ever be, this:

Listen to your own music with what you have, and it should tell you what you need.

  • Does it sound thin, or do you feel like you want more layers? Oscillators and sequencers and VCAs and filters and effects…or some/none of them. Depends on what you want to hear in the mix, and what you’re trying to say.
  • Does it feel repetitive or too simple? Modulators and VCAs, possibly some randommess.
  • Does the sound seem too dry or stale? Modulators, filters, and effects.
  • Does the sound want more high-level structural changes? Modulators that can transpose, VC mixers for either/both audio and control voltage. LFOs and envelope generators that have very long cycles are great for that, too.
  • Did you get a few modules but you feel like you need more control? Attentuators, modulators, VCAs.
  • Do you want the machine to generate audio on its own? Envelope generators with end-of-rise/fall trigger outputs, maybe a quantizer, LFOs, comparators, random sources.

This is a radical oversimplification, but no single person’s advice is going to tell you the right next module(s) for you. Your system, studio, or mic locker will be far more effective (musically, and in terms of cost) if you know what you’re trying to achieve first.

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