Executing the modular album



Oh wow, I’ve been following your videos on YouTube for some time and they have been much of my inspiration for my direction towards modular synth music. I also have been working through the same question so this thread and people’s contributions have been very helpful. Thank you all.
I think most of what I had hoped to contribute has been covered in more depth above.
Love your music, I am going to go and find more.


i have personally always approached the modular like a solo instrument. in that i start the patch, design the piece and record it all in one sitting. i find given the endless options with the instrument that adding more options, edit later, overdubs etc. have a seriously detrimental effect on my ability to finish anything. so yeah for me zero overdubs or edits. that said I will do many, many takes of a piece. a large part of my inspiration comes from Éliane Radigue. my understanding of how she worked on her modular pieces was that she recorded full takes of very long pieces and made layers but no edits, if there was a mistake midway she would start over and then add the final layer live to the master. this approach feels more like an instrument to me (my background).


I found it interesting that Éliane Radigue transcribed her pieces. I assume she wrote the transcription prior to recording and followed it as she recorded. Allen Strange also spoke a lot of documentation of patches and process. Pen and paper don’t seem to be part of the modern modular experience. Perhaps it could be useful in finding a method to balance the unforeseen and the intentional.


I think notation is a critical part of the musical process. But I find making patch notes to be a very tedious and inconsistent experience. I’d LOVE to have a more efficient and consistent modular notation shorthand.


Mapping connections between modules is easy enough to manage (for systems that are not too big) but knobs positions are what can make a patch sound quite different and writing down a sweet spot is not an easy task. You basically need a contextual verbal description at this point most of the time.


Yeah, I dunno. In a way it all feels too literal.

Every orchestral instrument plays from the same kind of score. There’s something beautiful about such an expressive, yet simple, and abstract notation form. Multiple simultaneous voices can be quickly handwritten, so useful for capturing inspiration when it arrives.

But there are quite a few things standard notation can’t capture well or easily, and I’d love to find or invent simple abstract notation forms for these types of concepts. An incomplete list:

  • Rule based or generative sequences
  • Randomness, with constraints, and memory
  • Modulation, both synchronized, and with independent meter
  • Filtering
  • Gating
  • Limiting and compression
  • Harmonics
  • Microtones
  • Grains
  • Spatialization
  • Model parameters (as in physical models)

These things combined with standard notation, which can handle pitch, duration, rhythm, harmony, etc. should be enough to recreate a synthesized performance, without overly specific regard to particular manufacturers of particular modules with such and such a knob set to such and such a number, etc.

But heh, I just said “invent a symbolic language, it’s easier than just describing things literally and in great detail”.

It sounds a bit silly when I read it back.


Gosh I can’t even accurately recreate patches that I had going the night before when I turn my synth back on in the morning still fully patched let alone try to play someone else’s. I do have a patch notebook that I use to write out just about everything I work on. It’s a crucial step for me in the learning process to better understand and retain the technical and scientific aspects of synthesis. I do it by voice and start with the sound source, usually ending with effects and I either make diagrams or write the “oclocks” for knob position. I have more vague and abstract notes for things like movements and vibes to reference for live performance or a starting point for a new patch. Personally though I love the fact that you can’t easily reel in a modular.


I guess it’s the difference between a player’s notes in the margins and the composer’s intent. Overlapping but different in purpose, form, and outcome.

But I do enjoy fantasizing about composing for the modular. What might it mean to write music for other players? It couldn’t be exact, because as you say, it can be hard for the same person to recreate a past performance on the same gear, let alone a different person on different gear. So you’d have to relax your notion of what it means to communicate your intent as a composer. What’s the essential thing about your piece to communicate? What makes the song the song? Where is the “there” there? And how can you express that in writing?

Could just write code for the piece, but that’s again, a bit too literal. Takes the player’s agency away. I want the player to have latitude in interpretation of the score.

Some have suggested the use of color to augment standard notation for microtones. It’s a start.


I love the idea of writing a core that is a set of actions and connections, without regard for specific outcomes. Maybe for music like this it is less about specifying the musical notes and timing, and more about a process.

There are some examples of this sort of composition and notation in Michael Nyman’s excellent book “Experimental Music”.


Totally agree, Nyman’s book is really an excellent one! Read it some time ago and it was very insightful and inspiring!


Years ago, The Flaming Lips did a tour where they set up an “orchestra” of 40 boom boxes and had audience members come on stage to be the “musicians.” Each player got a bag of cassette tapes to use during the performance. They conducted the orchestra with simple directions like , “Blue tape” or “This row, turn it up.” It was controlled chaos.

I was lucky enough to be one of the players when they came to Austin. After the show, they said that there was a vision for each song, but that every performance was completely different.


Getting a bit off topic… but wow! So great that you were a part of that. I love the 4 CD Zaireka album that came out of that period of theirs. I’ve had 3 proper listening sessions where me and my friends brought 4 decent hifi sets together and each was different and amazing.


I was totally off topic. Sorry 'bout that.

I’m curious if anybody has a “portable” setup for recording modular and what that might look like. Stereo out into a field recorder?


I thnk the zoom field recorders are held in quite high regard. I know of a few people that use them. Don’t know if they make stereo recordings though.

The behringer uca audio interfaces work on android “on the go” so that could be a nice cheap solution too.


line-in to op-1 gets me pretty far. mono input and not super high quality, but plenty for my needs. i find the limited storage capacity to be a boon, in that hitting record feels more precious and intentional. also less material to wade through later. plus with the new po-sync mode it’s very quick to sync the tape deck and modular.

OP-1 PO-sync with Ansible?

For simple setups I use my Zoom H5, which will do stereo inputs plus the microphones.

My full 8 channel recording setup is pretty portable as well, so if the situation calls for it that’s easy enough to bring.


I have a Zoom H1 that records stereo in a variety of formats through line in, and is small and super portable. Also works for field recordings/etc. using the built-in microphone, of course.

One of the stereo outputs from my Bastl Ciao (great flexible output module) is basically dedicated to this…


Wonder if this is vapourware www.alyseum.com/record.html looks useful.


They had one at Superbooth, and I even got to use it. Looks very legit. No idea about ETA though, didn’t ask, since it wasn’t something I wanted to buy anyway.

But back to the topic of how to “execute”, I’ve been following this topic quite closely (so thanks @stripes for starting it!) because it’s something I have been struggling with for quite some time.
My situation is maybe a bit peculiar, when compared to other people using the modular, because most of the modules I have came from the fact that either me or my wife worked on the panel design.
So as you can guess, I have a very weird modular, though the fact that I often don’t really choose the modules directly (more indirectly) is certainly interesting. Also, I use the modular a lot for testing and figuring out design decisions and not as much to actually make music. Work and fun gets mixed a lot… so for most of my musical projects I tend to use other instruments.

This said, I have been thinking a lot about the modular, and how to use it. Because despite everything I keep getting drawn to it. I still don’t know if to me it is more like a solo instrument, or an ensemble, or just a glorified fx processor. I don’t know if I have that part figured out, though the most interesting uses I have made of the modular (interesting for me, I should add) were definitely when I used it as a solo instrument and added some gestural control to it. Which takes me to the actual topic: recording the output.

While I think that nothing you will ever record will be able to replace a live performance, each thing has its place, dignity and even necessity. But they are two different things, for the simple reason that we live them in different ways.
This notwithstanding a certain live-oriented approach to recording can be a very interesting and creative thing, and can also make a big difference to the listener. After all we live in a time of over-production and excessive detail-tweaking OCD (I know how one can get into that territory easily myself very well) and I’m totally in favour of reducing some of that in favour or a more direct creation.
With my duo project kvsu we have always tried to reduce editing to minimum. Almost all of our recordings are basically live performances recorded to individual tracks. Often the tracks are improvised while we record.
I don’t think that recording to a stereo track would have worked for us, but I think that’s mostly due to the fact that a) we’ve always used very unpredictable instruments (so volumes can go all haywire sometimes) b) it’s not always easy to keep things under control when you’re two people playing together and c) recording everything as separate tracks lets you focus more on the music and less on things like balancing volumes, EQing and all that. So for us that’s always been a very good balance. Despite the fact that we had all the stuff as individual tracks we often kept the editing part to a minimum (mostly…) anyway, there’s a lot of details about how we recorded our vinyl here if you want: http://www.kvsu.net/2016/02/06/making-of-the-malosco-session/

Now the funny thing is: when I try to record some stuff solo that process doesn’t work for me at all. I think that’s because I miss having somebody to play with… so it never feels the same. To make it feel live, I need either people who listen or somebody to play with I guess. So for the solo project I’m currently working on (for which I want to use the modular a lot) I am trying to figure out how to deal with it and I think I’ll have to find a different approach.
I often record patches to just a stereo sum. That works fine to keep a document of my experiments, but always leaves me wanting to edit it, so I guess multi-track it will have to be for me, but the exact process is still something I’ll have to figure out.


I feel so much more inspired when ninjamming with Locked Groove Orchestra than I ever do while playing solo. I used to think it’d be hard to play a modular in ensemble. Wouldn’t my chaos just overwhelm anyone else’s? How do we make enough space in the mix for one another? How do we avoid stepping on each other’s toes? Turns out the answer is the same as in all ensemble music: you listen.

That being said, my bandmates aren’t always available, and I need to be productive while solo as well. That’s when I turn the dial from improvisation back towards composition (and just practicing and learning).