Modular Oblongata

Originally printed April 2003 — Before there were synthesizers in my house there were electronic music albums. Silver Apples of the Moon. Snowflakes Are Dancing. Switched On Bach. The cover of Switched On Nashville featured a miniature banjo player sculpted out of solid state parts and coiled wires. The cover of Switched On Country featured a clay cow with vacuum tube teats under a speech balloon proclaiming “Moog”. I knew the melodies for a dozen Beatles tunes before I knew the lyrics, because I had yet to hear any versions other than those from my brother’s Switched On Beatles album.

More engaging for me than the fanciful cover illustrations were the images of the instruments themselves. They were baffling walls of mad scientist gear, row upon row of jacks, potentiometers, switches and screw heads, straight lines thrown into sharp relief by casually draped patch cables.

These imposing modular synthesizers of the 60s and 70s were icons of flexibility, power, and complexity, as much celebrities in my mind as the artists who played and composed on them. Carlos’s Moog Modular. Jarre’s ARP 2500. Subotnick’s Buchla. The BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s EMS Synthi 100.

Beyond their arresting physical presence, these behemoths had several distinguishing characteristics that their portable descendants would lack — either wholly or in part — until decades of technical development had passed.

Customization. It might only take the addition of a single module to drastically enhance the capabilities of a modular system. Oscillators, filters, and amplifiers are the first components that spring to mind, but of course there are many less-glamorous processor/modulator devices that contribute to the overall flexibility and capacity for sound design. The list of components that were available for the Buchla Series 200 (a.k.a. “The Electric Music Box”) is impressive even today:

Matrix Mixer
Dual Mixer
Mixer / Preamplifier
Stored Program Source
Touch Keyboard
Kinesthetic Input Port
Quadraphonic Monitor/Interface
Triple Envelope Follower
Frequency Detector
Polyphonic Keyboard
Multiple Arbitrary Function Generator
Dual Control Voltage Adder
Dual Control Voltage Processor
Dual Oscillator
Complex Waveform Generator
Sample & Hold / Polyphonic Adaptor
Source of Uncertainty
Quad Preamplifier
Quad Envelope Generator
Quad Function Generator
Frequency Shifter / Balanced Modulator
Dual Voltage-Controlled Filter
Quad Lopass Gate
Four-Channel Filter
Ten-Channel Filter
Programmable Spectral Processor

Expandability. While certain components are likely to be needed only once in the signal or modulation chain, there were modules that you could never have enough of — and these will be familiar wants for today’s musicians as well. One ring modulator might be enough for most people, but who has ever complained about too many oscillators? Too many filters? Even increased polyphony was a possibility on machines that you might think were exclusively monophonic. But as today, increasing these capabilities comes at a price. Increasing the polyphony of an ARP 2500 meant not only multiplying your oscillators, filters and amplifiers, but upgrading to a keyboard capable of transmitting polyphonic control signals.

Patchability. Once you have all of the modules that you want, or can afford, bolted into a rack in your studio, you are faced with the challenge of deciding upon, and implementing, your control and audio signal chains. It is a foregone conclusion that an audio signal will eventually flow through a filter and amplifier. Audio and control signals are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and audio signals come not only from oscillators but processors and external inputs as well. AM and FM synthesis, as well as ring modulation, are all examples of what kinds of sonic possibilities open up when the line between audio and control signals becomes blurred.

In spite of their obviously appealing qualities, the expansive modular synths were quickly overshadowed by more portable, less expensive, and less complicated instruments. And while the design of a custom-built instrument for a well-heeled performer or university music department could safely err on the side of excess, the challenge of creating a compact, reliable, and affordable synth would lead inevitably to a paring down of some of the flexibility and more esoteric options of the modulars.

However, instrument designers managed to incorporate vestiges of modularity in a variety of ways. The EMS VCS3, developed in parallel with the larger EMS products, addressed the problem of patchability within a non-modular unit through an ingenious patching matrix which as programmed in much the same way as one plays a game of Battleship. Another popular approach was a normalized patch bay, by which hard-wired signal and control paths could be overridden by inserting a patch cable into the front panel. The most famous examples of this approach are the ARP 2600 and Korg MS/PS series of the 1970s. But by the early 80s many consumer-level instruments had little more than oscillator CV/gate and pedal control inputs on the rear panel.

I’ve been thinking about modular synthesizers a great deal lately, and by that I mean more than usual for a guy whose mind is generally preoccupied by vintage electronic music equipment. I blame Steven Spielberg mostly, because Close Encounters of the Third Kind was on television again last weekend, and I switched it on just in time to see the big ARP 2500 scene.

I also blame software developers. Most recently, I blame Arturia, for releasing a VSTi emulation of the Moog Modular, and having it endorsed by Mr. Moog himself.

I also blame Propellerhead Software for introducing the Spider splitter/merger modules in the 2.5 update of Reason — a software equivalent of the “multiple” panels which were de rigeur on modular synths. For that matter, version 2.0 news releases touted the Malström Graintable Synthesizer as a new rack synth, but a cursory glance at the back panel reveals patch points for modulation source outputs and filter/waveshaper inputs.

Some research quickly revealed a number of applications and VSTis on the market that incorporate modular synthesis engines to varying degrees: Native Instruments Reaktor, Plogue Bidule, Max/MSP, Audiomulch, SeerSystems Reality, Applied Acoustics Tassman, and Vaz Modular, to name a few. Modular programming is also available in embedded systems such as the Nord Modular. It’s hard for me to resist the notion that modular capabilities have lain semi-dormant, deep in the lizard brain of the synthesizer — the modular oblongata — only to re-awaken when the technology evolved to the point where it could live and breathe in a powerful yet cost-effective environment.

For many of you the convenience, portability, low maintenance, and price point of software far outweigh the benefits of owning a modular hardware unit. For others, the lure of these vintage marvels is too strong to resist. One such individual is Joe “Guido” Welsh, proprietor of Guidotoons studio in Nashville (, and proud owner of a collection that currently houses seven modular systems, including three Moogs and two Buchlas.

According to Welsh, vintage modular gear is not that hard to find. “Just have a bunch of cash ready! Do searches on Google for analogue modular synthesizers or by specific item. There are tons of analog treasures out there. Ebay is a sometimes pricey, but rich source.”

But even pricing is not uniformly exorbitant, he says, if one is patient. ” Try and remember you will most likely find a better price. Any item is only worth what you’ll pay for it.” He also cautions against sacrificing condition for price. “Unless you’re a tech, or have a good tech, never buy anything ‘as-is.'”

If you are more interested in a warranty than a piece of history, you will be happy to know that there are more companies manufacturing and selling modular synths now than at any other time in the last 40 years. Most of these products are compatible with each other as well as vintage modules.

Analogue Systems (UK) — home of the RS Integrator series.
Analogue Solutions (UK) — makers of the faux Russian “Vostok” monosynth (which features a VCS3-type matrix patchboard.
Blacet Research (US) produces some very interesting modules in pre-fab or kit form.
Doepfer (Germany) offers a choice of over 70 modules for their A-100.
Metasonix (US) offers several modules that can be used as stand-alone processors or combined with modular systems using rackmount converter kits. All modules, which include filters, amplifiers, oscillators and the TM-1 waveshaper/ringmod unit, feature all-vacuum-tube circuitry in the signal path.
Macbeth Studio Systems (Scotland) promise an “exciting modular synth” in the yet-to-be-released M5.
Synthesis Technology sells the popular MOTM synth modules assembled or in kit form. (US) — Roger Arrick’s systems are fashioned after the original Moog modulars.
Technosaurus (Switzerland) — makers of the Selector and Microcon systems.
Paia (US) has been making DIY electronic instrument and audio kits since 1967, and has recently re-introduced a modular line with their 9700 series.
Wiard (US) makes a modular system consisting of six multi-function modules including the “Mixolator”, “Borg Filter”, and “Woggle Bug”.

Check the music links section for more relevant links.