BLACK CURRANT MAG
THE MODULAR SYNTH GUIDE FOR DUMMIES
Fall has arrived and with that the end of festival season. We visited a lot of them this summer and one thing we noticed is the growing amount of modular synthesizers being used in music.
Once linked to bands like Joy Division, Depeche Mode and a lot of dark and dramatic new wave, they are now used in much more and different kinds of music. The (neo) psych music had her fair share of modulars with Popol Vuh and Tangerine Dream. And you can even find them in modern dance music, like for example Aphex Twin.
At Down the Rabbit Hole festival only there were four acts using modulars as their main ‘instrument’. It was there and then that we spoke to two of these artists, and asked to explain for us: what are these things? Can we call them instruments? Or more a computer? How are they used? Why are they getting more popular right now? For the first part of this series we spoke to James Holden and our very own Dutch Sjamsoedin. Both great artists with a different view on the use of the modular.
On a search through all the wires and boxes to get some answers for you and ourselves…
We explained James that we are writing a guide for dummies because we’ve noticed them getting more popular, but they look very complicated to play. Luckily he was happy to explain it in his own words.
It’s mainly because the modular looks quite hard to understand in comparison to any other musical instrument that we want to understand it better. It very impressive to see you work on it. Like you speak another language.
Of course it looks like that, I get it. But if you try it out it’s not like it can go wrong or you can break it. You can literally just sit in front of it and put wires in holes until you get a noise that you like. It took me about a year to get something interesting out of it, but that is not different with any other instruments. There’s a couple of modules that I had that came with really strict instructions, I didn’t listen and blew them up. But that’s the only thing that can go wrong.. James tells laughing.
If you would have to tell somebody, from the basics, what a modular is. What would you say?
I would lead them through the structure of one of the sounds, so show them live instead of just with words.Get practical. If you get where one sounds came from, how it was shaped, that already pretty logical. My modular on stage is quite a special one though, If someone would see that one and say; that looks complicated, I would probably just say ‘yes it is”… But that is because it’s not a standard one.
It always seemed like this weird hobby and now suddenly it’s rock n roll, like sound pedals. In a way my own interest in modular synths has kind off gone away a bit. I’m not shopping for new modules as much as I used too anymore. Because a lot of the modulars have started to be too digital. You wires into it but in the back theres just a mobile phone chip, its essentially the same as you do in a computer. It’s gone quite weird… Maybe it felt the same for the beardy guys that were into progressive rock to see it go popular. I don’t want to be that negative guy too much though.
How did you get into modulars?
When I started making music, I didn’t have any money, and it was just with a friend and a computer. At that time I thought it was great that I didn’t need any expensive equipment or instruments to make something great. It felt revolutionary to be able to make a record without any cash. But after a while I was getting sick of the long process of pushing things around with the computer mouse. That’s when I started getting into modular synths. At that time I thought I liked it because it was going to lead me to different sounds than I was used to. But looking back at it, it was because it was the opposite of working with the computer programs. Because the great thing about modulars is actually that it doesn’t have ”save” and ”load” options on it. You can’t go away and have your dinner and come back and expect it to be exactly the same as it was. And that, for me, that is what made it amazing. Instead of music being sculptured or designed on a computer, it went back the it being a performance. It’s like a little dance you are doing with the machines, never the same twice.
When you listen to your last album, Animal spirit, there are real ”songs” on there, but you just said you can’t really make it sound the same every time. Don’t you feel the pressure to make the songs from the album sounds the same on stage when you perform?
Well, I have it quite under control now. But when I just started using the modular it was in the studio, I hadn’t ever played live with it. I got an offer to play somewhere and I had to find a way to use it on stage. You can’t play one song and then just say; ”Hey guys, just wait half an hour, I’m going to repatch”.
Now it’s actually the opposite of stress to me. I just had to realize that it’s just not an option to try to control it 100%. You set it up and play from there. And sometimes things happen that you haven’t really told it to do, it’s a bit wild, but that is the fun about it. Especially feedback loops, they leed to chaos, you never know what they are going to do. Is it going to blow up? lead to nothing? or make a looping pattern? It’s great because that’s where you start playing with the machines, it’s where your performance starts, the dance. Setting up the modular and playing with it in live feels the same as owning the skills to play any conventional musical instrument. It feels much more productive than drawing music with a mouse on a computer. Like I’ve really done something today. You can really express something if you get it right but you do really need some musical performance skills to make it work and not fuck it up. So when you do make something cool, it feels extra great.
You studied Mathematics at Oxford University. Does that logic helps in understanding any of the modular synth?
Maybe a bit, but it can also work against you. I get how everything works technically but it can also be an impediment. You think you can predict what is going to happen so it doesn’t come to your mind to try it anymore. While something really great could have come out of it. That’s a shame. Luke Abott adviced me to do something once that I’ve never thought off, because it wasn’t very logical. And he made me realize that there’s another way of playing the modular synth. When you let go and start plugging in ”the wrong” things, that’s where it gets interesting. A lot of the really rich and interesting sounds come from that kind off decisions. You make the machine misbehave in some way to get a new sound out.You can’t analyze those, you just got to play it. I call those happy accidents.
It was already late when we met up with Sjamsoedin at Down the Rabbit hole festival festival this summer. We explained to him that we saw a link between the story of Alice in wonderland down the Rabbit hole tripping and using and playing a modular synth. It quickly turned into a pre-interview conversation about modular buttons that turned into marshmallows once and sounds melting into each other like waves. A very creative and colorful conversation started shaping about the modular. In contrast with James Holden, who started getting technical pretty soon, Sjam painted us a very visual picture. It took us a while to get to our research question.
Ok, seriously now: explain to us what a modular synth is, you got one minute?
That’s hard. A modular synth is a synthesizer that exists of modules, small parts that each have its own function in the modular system. So for example one of the modules is a tone, the other a filter that filters tones out or enhances them.
So how do you make music out of this?
A lot of people know the synthesizer from a normal synth with keys. They are actually also modules, each couple of keys forming a module together. But you can’t see them the same way as with a modular because they are all wired and inside a box.
Playing the modular is actually not that different, but then instead of the keys in the box always being in the same order, you can change the wires between them, making it sound differently. So you sculpt your tones yourself instead of them being laid out for you in a ready made instrument.
A tone can be heard in different frequencies, there are also modules controlling that. For example a low frequency oscillator, a module that makes a tone so low that often can’t be heard by human. But if you combine this with a module making another tone it influences each other, so you are sculpting a whole new, different sound.
It all looks very complicated, all those wires… If somebody would unplug them all, would that be a very big problem for you?
It would take a bit of time, maybe an hour or so thats what I mostly take to set up for a show. It wouldn’t cause any real panic though.
So what is so fun and special about playing with a modular?
You can build your own tone from scratch. Everything about the tone is yours to sculpt. For instance the length or volume.
When I’m in the studio I can work on one tone for maybe an hour or more, thats amazing to me. After I finished that I can start cutting and editing that into a sample. Of course when you are on stage, playing live, you can not take an hour to get to one sample.
But then the fun thing about being on stage, contrary to the studio, is that some things are unexpected. Because there are some much things that build up one tone, it is nearly impossible to copy it exactly the next time. So what comes out is always a bit of a surprise, and you need to work with that to make something sound great.
In the studio I think about the details, technicals. But on stage, for me, it’s about the party and making people dance.
We feel like we got just a little closer to understanding these amazing machines full of sound and options. Stay tuned for more!