Whenever you assemble a modular system, your goals should be two-fold: to curate a great selection of synchronous circuits and to complete your vision of a dream instrument.
While they are increasingly affordable and flexible, the best part about modular synthesizers is that they constantly evolve with your artistry, meaning you get to design what moves you.
Modular music is stronger than ever
Comprised of individual modules — with each part having a specific number of functions — the beauty lies in the uniqueness of each modular system. Since its initial rise to popularity in the ’60s and ’70s (thanks to pioneer Bob Moog and the abstract genius Don Buchla), there’s been a recent resurgence in modular music-making.
Modular synthesis is still largely known as a fluid and experimental form of music-making, whether you’re referencing the very first synth-based album (composed by Morton Subotnick using the Buchla 100 series on Silver Apples of the Moon) to more contemporary productions like FACT’s Against the Clock series.
Though the technology and methodology have developed over the decades, certain specifications (like power supplies to form factors) have been standardized. Therefore, it’s crucial that users learn the basics before getting too far into the weeds with modular synths.
How to build your modular synth knowledge
Before you buy any equipment, it’s important to gain a better understanding of modular sound design. We highly encourage you to brush up on the foundations of signal flow theory and control voltage manipulation to learn modular synthesis.
Once you understand the rules, you’ll be able to find your own unique approach (like Output creator and award-winning composer Mark Isham).
We also recommend the documentary I Dream of Wires and a newer web series, Patch.CV, which captures the renaissance of modular synths. There’s also a wealth of resources to devour from masters and new pioneers of sound design like Richard Devine and composer Suzanne Cianni.
Software developers are pushing the envelope to make modular music more accessible via innovative hybrid instruments and plugins. Musicians can even virtually build their own systems with open-sourced platforms like VCV Rack or ModularGrid.
Owning your modular sound
We already did a lot of the homework for you in our modular synth starter guide. Now, let’s take a closer look at the types of modular synths and resources that might help you along the way.
Moog Unit (MU) format
When you imagine a modular synth, you’re probably thinking about a Moog. Created by its legendary namesake, The Moog Unit had a classic look with a slightly larger format of big knobs and rich wood encasing. This “5U” format became more widespread as keyboard integration helped early adopters relate to this new technology (as opposed to its more abstract counterparts).
Buchla modular format
If Bob Moog was your uncle with caramel candies in his pocket, then Don Buchla (with his West Coast synthesis) was the uncle with acid tabs in his Altoids box. Designing his systems around the same time as Moog in the early ‘60s, Buchla had a radically alternative approach that favored experimentation and multi-functional possibilities. The name became known for using banana jacks with color-coded sockets (e.g. CV inputs are black/grey, outputs are blue/violet/green, pulse inputs are orange, pulse outputs are red).
Eurorack modules are increasingly popular and a major impetus for the renaissance of modular synthesis today. Dieter Doepfer is regarded as the father of Eurorack with the A-100 analog modular system that’s inspired countless styles and functions.
As a smaller form factor, modules are 128.55mm high, grow widthwise, and use 3.5mm patch cables.
Serge Tcherepnin was a French composer and designer that developed his own format at the California Institute of The Arts in the ‘70s. His vision for a “Serge System” (3U) was to create a “synthesizer for the people” using banana jacks and 4U modules. Stylized on a uniform panel, these modules and systems are available via Random Source, and many independent builders make prints and kits for DIY users.
We’re mad about modular synthesis — that’s no surprise! As modular synths are becoming a new standard, there’s a wealth of resources to devour before taking the plunge yourself. With many of the masters carrying the torch and exploring new frontiers of sound design like Richard Devine and composer Suzanne Cianni.
Nowadays, there are so many ways to make modular music. Software developers are pushing the envelope and making modular music more accessible to the masses with innovative hybrid instruments and plugins. Musicians can even virtually build their own systems with open-sourced platforms like VCV Rack or ModularGrid.
With ARCADE, you can access the entire Modular Circuitry line — designed from vintage to modern modular systems — for just $10 a month. Add Output’s sister engines Analog Strings and Analog Brass & Winds and you get next-level orchestral sound sources processed through modular synthesizers.