Composing on modular

How do you compose on modular? A thread for collecting ideas and inspiration.

Modular is often about happy accidents, while this is interesting and fun, sometimes it’s a little dispointing when it results in really cool but totally random and mechanical music. I’m most satisfied when I can apply musical concepts to a patch.

One of my favorite ideas is building sequences from a 4 note chord like a maj7 or sus2. Often this works well as a chord plus one extra note. Using. Using a chord allows you target a mood. Maj7ths positive and austere. I find many accidental patches feel too dark, non committal to a mood.

I’ve been trying to figure out microtonal scales with modules that support them but, have yet to really understand these yet.

Creating two or patches and mixing between them is a great way to add more interest. I really want to put this under voltage control. I’m looking a new module for this.


Related threads:

Most composition questions (e.g. scales, modes, chords, progressions etc…) are just that, composition questions. With maybe a few exceptions, they can be realized on most instruments. The question then becomes a technical one: How do I realize a compositional idea with a modular synth instrument? Do I use a keyboard, MIDI, sequencer, quantizer, etc…? What modules do I need? and so on…

For me, the most exciting way to compose on a modular is to think about what different approaches the unique qualities of the instrument itself can open up.

One of the unique things about analog systems (or at least something that you don’t get with a lot of other instruments) is that the control source and the sound source are derived from the same signal (voltage). This leads to two core ideas that excite me:

  • time-scale plasticity (a rhythm can be sped up to be a tone, a tone can be slowed down to be a rhythm)

  • feedback is easy to implement (this doesn’t have to be screeching audio feedback, control feedback is easily available, too)


this is interesting :slightly_smiling_face:
ck it
music composition, concept art? of course it helps to have pj harvey and a beautiful chorus of great singers…
is tricky an mc? singer? performance artist?
this song has inspiring 'song structure
it’s 'old,
and doesn’t rely on western classical music ideas about 'composition
there’s many examples…
even/especially on this forum,
of artists
incorporating these ideas into modular :slightly_smiling_face:


Reviving a thread here, just to share something obvious I was reminded of during the break.

Disclaimer: I usually use the modular to get lost - an interactive sound design process where I usually go with the flow. I am quite ninja-skill-level in Max and not bad at all in SuperCollider, so the modular, with its quirks, is there to challenge my usual methods and sounds. I talk a bit about that here

So in that creative meandering process, I keep reminding myself that rack proximity is biasing the inspiration, creating patching reflexes. But who wants to lose hours moving modules around? Anyway, I took such hours during the break, and suddenly the bike is sending back amazing new ideas!

Take home message(s): maybe I should use downtime to rejig the rig - or maybe downtime is inspiring.

Anyway, happy 2019 everyone!


Each time I’m exploring my modular !
I build the first voice or NOT because results aren’t at my taste.
After this first one, I’m thinking how to add something more, after the second one the same etc
My patches stay for days in my closed case and then I return to it to see how to manage and making successions.
Close the case again or record or unpatch because it’s not anymore “your” patch

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I’m still very much acquiring, shedding, and exploring. I unpatch and repatch every time. That said, I definitely have things that I patch every time.

It’s interesting how many paths there are towards composition on modular. I’m leaning towards as much structured improvisation as I can wring out of my case.

The dance of using your two hands to make your rack sing can really take so many forms.

The mad-science aspect of cobling together a bunch of bits that may or may not be intended to do what you want to do with this makes it feel like an endless well of inspiration while still having so many useful constraints — which is one of my big draws towards modular (along with a lot of MAXMSP in my youth - flow based workflows make a lot of sense to me).

The downside: it can be a tremendous challenge to get to where you want to go. Auditioning modules is time consuming. Once you’re keen on one, it can take a tremendous time investment to make it useful … to understand how you can use it reliably. You also need that cash pool to allow modules to flow in and out as you figure things out - which is unfortunate. It’s a great format, so I wish it could be accessible to more people — fortunately we live in a time of accessible musical abundance!

The thing that I like about the modular community is that we all get how fucking hard it is. We can all appreciate doing good work with less and getting complex patches to emulsify. Not every patch is amazing, but it seems that the brunt of us can appreciate the investment in time and resources that you have to put in to compositions on modular. We could have done it on a computer, but we didn’t; we sang with the wire-box. </whimsy>


I was intrigued by the discussion in the Eurorack questions thread around “complete songs” and how this is more difficult on the modular. I guess I am wondering what people consider to be “complete songs”? A lot of the music I listen to is ambient and often consists of one or two voices (albeit looped in some way), but seems completely possible on the modular. As a counterpoint to this, I just made a sketch/song/whatever with my 104 hp system which I feel like is relatively “complete” but still missing something, though I don’t know if it really is or if its my own insecurity? Im not sure about any of this but interested in hearing what other people think in this realm.

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I think I like the idea/metaphor of being a conductor rather a composer. I have dabbled with generative patches but was left kinda… meh. Perhaps that was how I was patching, but that’s for another thread. Things click for me when the music is set and I can fiddle with sounds/effects. That’s why the nerdseq and I have really hit it off!!!


When people say that, I assume they mean something like a typical Western song structure (verse, chorus, bridge etc.) – where you can identify sections of melodic content independent of timbre. That requires either a more complex sequencer than typical modular pattern sequencers, or having sequencers and switches mediate other sequences.

I don’t think calling that “complete songs” is meant to disparage musical forms that don’t typically have that sort of structure, like a lot of ambient and experimental music, where change over time is accomplished mainly through other means :slight_smile:


Oh, I have thoughts on this. For me it is all about mental preparation. I found that when I came in with a concepts that I wanted to convey, the direction and intentionality I had allowed me to more easily dictate what is a song or complete peace.

I have a full length concept album, and another five song concept EP in the works, and both of them have been some of the most enjoyable time I’ve spent on the modular. When I think about certain characters or traits or events, it helps guide the compositions into meaningful pieces.

Consider Vivaldi’s seasons, even a one-word suggestion or theme can completely transport the listener and give them an anchor point. The same is true for the composer.


Oh this is illuminating for me! I often approach keyboard instruments (synths or not) as more of a collaborator in the creative process as far back as “what am I going to write/record” because I know I can trust my fingers to find something I’ll be interested in. I can fit this into the modular context via Earthsea or MIDI control, but I don’t have the capacity for it (yet) with sequencers or arbitrary patching in general in quite the same way.

The problem isn’t that I can’t find something interesting to say in modular—it’s that having patched it, I haven’t worked out an analogous bag of tricks to be able to add development or other sections to it on the fly. It’s not surprising that this is the case—it’s a matter of time.

I think I’ll try experimenting with approaching me-at-the-modular as more of a busy session musician who just came in to play their riff and then get out, rather than a collaborator for a bit :thinking:


I can relate to that - a lot of my modular patches feel like such self-contained little ecosystems that I have no idea how to develop them over a longer period or how to shift from one specific patch to another.

The “session musician” mindset you mention also resonates for me with other electronic instruments too - I find myself noodling less and worrying less about sound design if I have a task of adding a specific layer to something I’m working on.


This is especially hard if you enjoy building voices, which is not something I care about much. I like mostly selfcontained modules that give me a lot of controls for timbre so I can change a voice in a patch somewhat dynamically. Still working towards my ideal on this front, but you can definitely build around versitility in eurorack if that is important to you.

I’m personally in the generative camp, so for me composing is practice, patching, and looking for ways to refine the results to better match my musical goals. When I feel intentional, I have controllers for that, but that control always feeds into my performance patch as an alternate way to interact with my modular. So I can either augment what’s being generated, play on top of, or in place of what the system is already doing. I cannot, however, easily write a song outside of maybe using Ansible Earthsea? But I didn’t build my system to do that.

That is to say, what always reaffirms itself in modular for me is that having clear goals that you reevaluate as you build your system is maybe the most important part of the process. It’s not an instrument you pickup and practice.

You have to select the tools, deteminte how they interact, and decide how you want to compose with it, and that’s just a kind of base-level “So you want to modular?” level of inquiry, which says nothing about constraints implicit to those tools or your goals. I can absoltely see why people get out of modular after falling in deep. I love it, but it is decidely not for everyone.


It has been a few months of intense work in other areas of my life, so I haven’t had any time to really play with the modular enough, but I will share that part of what I am learning is that I am just not really “there” with sequencers of any form.


I found this interesting discussion and I think it would be interesting to continue this conversation. To see the modular as a real composition tool. I’d like to add that I’ve been making video’s about the process of making a composition on a modular. The playlist is here and that’s the video’s with “Making a track” in the title: HERE

My approach starts with an idea always. The idea is a question: what happens if I do this? Then I start patching and see where it gets me. If I like something I keep it. Then I go to the next question and so on. Limitations are important for me. I have an 8-channel mixer (3x stereo + 2 mono channels) and that’s that. Every track should be interesting enough to fit in there. And each sound needs to blend in or stand out, play a role in the story and leave and be the drone that’s always there to guide you.


haven’t seen it linked yet in this thread, but the earlier discussion of changing portions of a patch during performance made me think of ciani’s NEA grant paper, which focuses on this concept pretty thoroughly. highly recommended reading for anyone interested in modular performance, and the associated album is maybe my favorite ‘pure synthesis’ record ever.


Read the paper, a lot of it went over my head (not being familiar with Buchla systems) but a few things that resonated: Matrix mixers are excellent, I’ve been using an NLC Clump and loving how easy it makes moving from one set of timbres/voices to another. Two, didn’t realize she was a pioneer of quadraphonic performance, very cool. And something that came at me sideways: Sincerity & dedication to a tool or process really makes an impact… I had never heard those concerts but after reading that paper and listening to the first two, impacted me on a different level than a passive listen this morning might have, music appreciation… Thank you!


Same. Amazing that despite the 41-year wait between being made & being released, this sounded so fresh. Love this record so much. Was fortunate enough to see her perform & give a Q & A afterwards a couple of years ago, which was truly wonderful.