Executing the modular album

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#1

Hi all - fairly new to the forum here but I love the crew and discussions that I see happening. My recent acquisition of grid+arc+ansible+ansible brought me here from other depths of the web.

I am interested in hearing from some folks who have released full length albums made with their modulars, or who were involved in some way in the creation of said albums. I come to modular from a background of fairly structured, concept based songwriting and arranging of folk music with acoustic instruments and (mostly) non modular synths. Now I have been collecting my modular recordings for about a year and have many many hours of tracks and am now trying to put together something complete. My process has been mixing 3-6 channels directly from my modular on a small mixer before going into my interface, and then recording a stereo track into my computer. The problem I’m running into is actually having too much recorded material that I think could potentially be released, finding myself mentally restarting every other month and forgetting about the previous recordings that are now collecting dust. I’m starting to entertain the idea of multi tracking to build more composed tracks of modular instrumentals, but part of me feels that takes away some of what I originally loved so much about modular: that you can create an entire orchestra in a patch and let it play itself.

There is then the avenue of recording “live”. Adding effects post ? How do yall overcome the endless cycle of making a cool patch, recording it, then never using it? Themes? Limitations?

Interested in hearing from some more practiced synthesists on the art of actually recording and releasing a solid and cohesive album of work composed primarily on a modular synth.

(I am a big Cool Maritime fan and I have seen him posting… would love some insight into the recording process!) :slight_smile:


Composing on modular
Performing Modular Live
The Reverb Thread
Modular Composition: Learning to Make “Sounds” to Accompany “Notes”
[Fictional Book] A Modular Improviser's Handbook
What are you listening to?
Latest tracks + videos
Timing strategies for finishing things
#2

(your modular work so far is stunning. it’s great to have you on lines!)

though SOUND + PROCESS has always struggled to balance equally between exploring the people and their tools, there are some good reflections on these questions scattered throughout the episodes. I’ll tag folks so they can chime in, in case they miss this post, but these nuggets were always most inspiring to me:

@glia’s revisiting and re-purposing of old recordings
@marcus_fischer’s approach to building systems and exploring them through his improvisational processes, which informs album content
@shellfritsch’s joy in finding the right balance of restrictions and possibilities, specifically on ‘Some Sort Of Wave Portal’ @ 52:25. Without speaking for him, I recall that much of that album was one-takes to the Tascam.

anyway, so glad you’re going to be recording a modular album. greatly looking forward to it. also looking forward to learning a shit ton from this thread!


#3

Thank you! Wow, I hadn’t started listening to the cast yet and am now diving in - really amazing and exactly the kind of thing I’ve been wanting to listen to. Already buzzing with thoughts and feeling inspired to construct my own process and result in these next few months of summer.


#4

i edit ruthlessly and if im not obsessed with a track or recording after messing with it for a few weeks i usually lock it away in a vault folder or cannibalize it and turn it into something completely different.

i found trying to compose fully and only “in the box” of modular to be unrealistic (for a relatively small system) and too expensive for my means. i prefer thinking of it as a single, complex, temporary voice. its a big wacky synthesizer! theres much fun to be had! - but theres no way for modular sequencers to touch the layering/arranging capabilities of a daw or multitrack recorder/sampler. but i like going through my recordings with a fine-tooth comb! lots of respect for people who one-shot things.


#5

You can sort of do multi tracking within a modular if you want. I have a Behringer adat box with 8 inputs sitting on my modular table. If I make a patch with various voices/elements, I’ll sometimes pull the relevant audio streams out from the modular into separate inputs on the Behringer - which goes to my main recording interface which goes to separate tracks in my daw.
It’s one way of having a bit of post recording control over parts of a big patch while recording it live.

Having said that it’s not actually something I do very often. I usually either record a patch to stereo and that’s it or I’ll record a patch (and usually several variations of it) and then use that as source material for more computer based processes to end up with a finished track. Different patches recorded at different times can make their way into a finished track. In many ways a computer just replaces a tape machine and splicing block for me.

I’ll often record stuff and then end up not using it. Doesn’t really bother me. I’ll usually have learned something interesting trying out whatever patch it was anyway and that’s fun in its own right.


#6

considering the endless patching possibilities, one way to handle it is to run two paths, one breaking down sound and/or technical ideas, and the other harvesting found knowledge to pursue musical ideas.


#7

Great questions.

I generally approach my modular (and friends) as a full “band” of sorts… perform multiple voices in real time and create a more-or-less full piece at once. My background is in experimental music, post-punk, and improvisation, this feels similar to me in terms of the approach.

For recording, I do different things depending on what I’m working on.

When I am intentionally working on music that I know will become part of an album I approach it a lot like recording a live band. Multi-track the performance in real time, usually 8-12 channels. Then I do some simple editing to clean things up, and I might add little extra parts here and there, but generally I stick to the multi-tracked live performance. Then I mix as you would a live band… eq, compression, levels, automation, etc.

When I’m just jamming I usually record direct to stereo, sometimes I’m happy enough with these that they get released on Soundcloud or held back from an album.

I always have at least a stereo recording running all the time, and that pool of material becomes:

  • samples for later use
  • bits to slice up and add to more finished tracks
  • used in installations or for sound design
  • treated as “field recordings” and mixed with actual field recordings for other types of music

I usually work on one piece at a time, so I leave it patched until I’ve got a recording I’m happy with or I’m bored with it and pull the whole thing.

My first real album of almost entirely modular music is coming out in a few weeks, I’m sure you’ll see it on Lines :slight_smile:


#8

Cool! Looking forward to hearing it, emenel!

Most of the time I spend patching at the synth is practicing / learning / experimenting , all while documenting the process usually by taking notes as well as recording snippets of audio to save when I ultimately tear down the patch. My experience with recording has always been having everything on its own track, and mixing in a very traditional sense. I am now with the modular working out some hybrid of that where I have my stereo track of the patch, record a nice chunk of that, then go back and change things slightly on the synth; maybe remove some layers and record again in addition to the main first idea. Not necessarily multi tracking, but splicing and layering and fading digitally to take a recording of a patch and make it a track with natural beginning and end. I am feeling that for me I need to preserve still some of that philosophy behind a modular patch that it all exists within itself… and when I tell my modular what to play, I don’t want to get too surgical with controlling the conversation. Though I want to experiment with separate tracks into my DAW vs stereo so I am not locking into things such as panning.

I am also very interested in and very prone to making something extremely simple that I think is sounding beautiful and “printing” it. Though I often have a hard time while thinking about and composing modular instrumentals (which mine all happen to be quite ambient) being worried that heavy repetition for 5-7 minutes is not going to be good. This is something I know to be untrue especially because a lot of the music that I love and listen to regularly is very repetitive - yet overcoming that insecurity is something I am still working on.


#9

I also really enjoy your modular work, so maybe you’re being too hard on yourself, but I completely understand that you have to be satisfied with the results to be proud of it. Sometimes that can happen if you record something and then listen back several days later.

I’m still trying to figure out where modular fits in how I make music and it’s one of the reasons I’ve kept my system small. About a year ago, I had started with a 104 hp skiff, but recently whittled it down to 84 hp. With that being said, I’m about to release a tape of ambient/drone that I recorded all in one day/2 sessions back in November. It’s just monosynth and effects pedals - no modular. At the time, my intention wasn’t to record a full album but just improvise. Perhaps this freed my mind up from thinking about patching? Since I was enjoying the results, I recorded them to a stereo track. What @shellfritsch did on his album, recording to cassette, is a great limitation (really enjoyed Some Sort of Wave Portal). In the end, I spent a couple months laboring over EQ/compression and also had it mastered.

I’m not sure if you know about or have participated in a Disquiet Junto ( run by @disquiet ). I participated in them a lot when it first started up and it fundamentally changed how I approach my music projects. The idea of a deadline and strict limitation is simple, but adhering to it is sometimes more challenging than you would think. It could be a music/sound exercise.

This type of conversation is really great and one of the reasons I like this place. :grinning:


#10

Welcome! Knew you’d join us eventually. (nothing to offer; having similar problems)


#11

So far my recordings have been one take from the modular, to maintain some spontaneous nature. All the modular tracks I have on soundcloud were also just recorded in stereo.

On my first release the first side was also just a stereo recording. I found it was a bit problematic when it came to finalizing it because there wasn’t really an effective way to EQ and compress the various elements, so when I recorded the second side I used four tracks out. That (obviously) worked much better so it’s what I’m going to do going forward. I actually just picked up an ES-8 to make that even easier.


#12

hello and welcome, @stripes!

your soundcloud has a lot of lovely stuff on it - seems like you are on the right track :slight_smile:

here’s a brain dump of process ideas i’ve been finding work well for me:

  • have fun! breathe and let go of pressures, internal or external. music is a secondary, part-time pursuit for me so i try and make it an educational, playful & relaxing experience. not to say i’m always achieving that, but it’s a north star.

  • always be ready to record. i often fall into the trap of thinking “this is just an experiment. when it’s more fleshed out i’ll hit record” but those weird little moments can turn out to be some of my favorite things - often more so than the elaborate multi-tracked pieces i’ll fret over endlessly.

  • get a little uncomfortable. try a new approach, or put things in different places. anything that takes me out of familiar patterns usually peaks my inspiration. even just putting things on the floor and crouching over it.

  • don’t feel an obligation to make every recording into something great. i remember reading an interview with boards of canada where they said they would make 100s of sketches and then go back at a later date and play with the recordings they liked the most. it’s helpful for me to remember that not everything i make has to be amazing - what’s most valuable is opening up my sense of novelty and inspiration.

  • don’t limit yourself to 100% modular. i sometimes think “i’m so keen on mastering this insanely capable instrument i’ve assembled, i’m now going to use it to make an entire composition” but i’ve found time and time again that i’ll make some of my favorite things with other instruments playing a central role and the modular just helping out here and there.

  • gut check. if i can listen to a piece over and over and over and over i take that as a clue that i’m probably on to something.

  • keep an itunes playlist of my mixdowns. listen frequently while doing other, non-music, things. cut what you hate, keep what you love.

/////////

so those are some process ideas… here are a few technical / gear things that work for me:

  • teenage engineering op-1! this little wonder goes everywhere with me. so capable and fun - even as a basic 4 track looper. if i spend all my music time in one place i’ll feel stagnant. the op-1 helps me get out of that.

  • small outboard mackie mixer with fx sends and leads ready to patch into the modular. stereo outs are always patched into my sound card. also of note - i’m not always wanting to get out my computer (i use it a lot for work) and configure a session so i got the apple lightning to usb adapter so i can quickly record from my phone.

  • record sketches and ideas in real time to stereo, then if i really like it i’ll listen a lot and envision where it could go while making notes. then i’ll spend a day doing overdubs, edits and processing tweaks in ableton.

  • i do love tape, and Some Sort of Wave Portal was recorded mostly to a stereo sony deck, but lately i’ve been recording digitally for convenience with the thinking that i’ll probably add a little tape vibes at the end.

/////

ok! i hope i’ve helped a lil, and thanks so much for the kind words :slight_smile:


#13

I’m afraid I don’t have any concrete responses, but you did make me think two interesting thoughts:

firstly, that the tension between performance and composition (and production) is particularly strained with the modular. In one sense, it generates recorded material fast, and that material is often complex - multi-timbral, multi-part, often evolving. At the same time… it’s a natural tendency of sitting down with a blank slate and patching. It lends itself to creation. And it’s easy to consider that composition or production, something that must be preserved. It’s at the end of modular as miniature studio.

But the other end is modular as instrument - and in that sense, it’s not far off taping every single practice session (or ‘noodling’/improvisation session) at the piano, for me. This is just an instrument and I am playing, but because of the complexity of the output, and the finished-ness of sound… is it finished music, or is it a jam? At the same time: thinking of it as an instrument I just want to play usually frees me up from any plans or performance anxiety, and it just becomes a practice session, building familiarity whilst exploring new terrain. So I wonder how much the timbral and technical nature of the synthesizer skews us to not always think of patches as anything other than playing. I think @shellfritsch’s points on sketching are good here. (This isn’t meant to belittle any of your work, btw - I’m just thinking about how I sometimes have to give myself permission to accept what I’m doing as play rather than production, at which point I stop beating myself up about whether or not it’s any good or not).

And then secondly, to ellipitcally come back to your question: I think that’s why so much of a certain type of synthesizer-based music, when recorded, comes down to artificial constraint: a single patch, or a single instrument, or a recording over a single day, or in a single location (and live recordings cover many of these bases); the ease of creating at volume with the modular is tempered by rules or constraint or focus. The thing that ties a release together is a kind of unity.

I definitely think there’s an advantage to digital releases here, if only that you’re not constrained by the length of a side of tape or vinyl (or the 80 mins of a CD) - if a release comes out as three fourteen-minute tracks, that’s just not a problem.

So: I don’t know. But it made me think for certain. (Greatly enjoying yr soundcloud, btw.)


#14

Ramon Sender has talked about taking a break from the SF tape music center at one point because he was starting from to have some trouble telling the difference between a session and a piece…


#15

I would echo a lot of what has been said. I approach my modular and music in a variety of ways:

-Learning/goofing around. I know this is a necessary part of the process, but I often feel guilty when I’m in this phase and not creating. But it’s part of the gig. I tend to make youtube videos of this process just to ‘show off’ a module or process.

-Explicit ‘giant patch’ creation. Attempting to create more of a one-off, straight to stereo performance/composition. I collect these recordings and release them under a particular series I call Collisions Minimal. It’s more to record them for posterity than anything…

-Traditional production, but using the modular as the main instrument. This is more of a traditional composition mode, but then I multi-track the synths. I try and rely on the modular as much as possible, along with a few poly synths and drum machines.

-Live performance. This is my latest quest, and it is quite different. I’ve been composing pieces that will fit together as a unified set. The melodies and beats are pre-programmed, but there is ample room for improvisation. I use a Tempest drum machine and a 12u modular. Monome stuff is doing the main sequencing.


#16

Thanks, @shellfritsch for all that great info! I will revisit this thread when I am feeling overwhelmed for a refresher. I think it’s particularly important to remember what you said about not being married to 100% modular. I know this is still technically modular but – I’m currently on the list for an ER301 that I have so many ideas for uses, but one of the big ones being having a really deep sampler accessible in my setup. I have tons of field recordings and samples of instruments and things that I am really excited to start incorporating. I was never able to just stick that stuff in separately on the computer … never felt right to me, so I think having non-modular sounds and samples playing through a modular will be a way to also expand the “not 100% modular” into “not 100% synthesized sounds”.

Also thinking about tape va digital - that is something I go back and forth with so often when it comes to synth music. When my band records, we always do it to tape. It’s not even really a conversation at this point. But with synth music, it feels so much more negligible. I have actually been using tape plugins to get some saturation, hiss, and warble on my recent recordings becuase my living situation for the summer doesn’t allow my Tascam 388 to be with me. I do also have a Tascam cassette recorder with about an entire album on it from this last winter too… :sleepy: In a perfect world…


#17

My limited success has been in sequencing smallish loops of modular jams into songs. Grid, arc and laptop make a perfect instrument for performing these compositions, let’s say if touring the next Florist record calls for the seamless recall of many modular-created textures.


#18

I’m having similar problem…
After trying this and that, I’ve decided to setup certain workflow and “template”.
I view it as 2 part system, first and core part is modular, place where I create stuff, second part is recording/mastering/glue piece.
Basically I’m taking balanced stereo outs of modular that go into AD converted of my interface, then comes “recording”/“mastering” chain. There are quite some bits in there, from compressors to master eq and other processors, but they do have parameters set to specific values, I do use sonic core platform for this, but it could be anything else really. After I recording different tracks they do tend to sound of similar “clay” and have that release/album signature sound/vibe to it. What I would like is to have spectrum and spectrogram which I could see before the signal goes out of modular system, as I tend to listen to final output of the whole thing. I guess its even a bit more unusual, because I’m also trying not to record stuff that would just “felt” part of and album, but also avoid mastering(at least bigger part of it). Basically everything is done in one go, but setup and tinkering(of the static “recording”/“mastering” part, for the album) requires a lot of time, at least for me…


#19

yeah! we put some gentle modular layers on the new record and i have been meaning to come up with the perfect small modular setup for this next cycle of touring. thinking maybe one of those lunchboxes just for loops and textures that can kinda just float along underneath everything.

@nimmen sounds very similar to what i’ve been doing – i do love to mix and clean up everything even if it’s just stereo tracks. i have the valhalla plate reverb plugin and i use it all the time on my final mix of an instrumental. wetness is usually pretty low (5%-10%), but i love the stereo image that it adds in the background of everything. i also always have a spectral EQ and RMS level meter going so I can visually be aware of the track when i am editing. visuals are really helpful for me in understanding not only what i am hearing but what i want to hear.


#20

I’m a rank amateur when it comes to releasing music that people would be willing to pay for, but I really love the combination of synth and tape (where tape is a tascam cassette four track, not fancy studio tape). It’s purely an ergonomics, mood-i’m-in-while-i-record choice (I dislike fiddling with DAW’s, don’t want to invest the learning time). When I record digital, I mostly record stereo mixes to Audacity.

Have enjoyed this thread, and I’m not really worthy of responding, but - wanted to throw out an argument for tape that’s based purely on the loud clack noise you get when the tape starts rolling. I’ve also started to dump the 4 track mixes to a conventional stereo tape deck for posterity. I’ve got a years worth of tapes sitting near my desk, I plan to make something with them this summer, this thread has been really helpful to that end. My plan was to digitize the tapes, cut them up and then look for matches, or maybe just randomize the combinations. I want to emphasize horizontal (vertical?) cuts and splices between segments rather than layering.