Familiar Sounds Impeding Listening Enjoyment?

I want to pose two linked questions:

  1. Do you get turned-off a piece of modular music when it becomes obvious (to you) which modules are involved?

  2. Do you think modular musicians should make significant efforts to obfuscate the sound of well-known pieces of gear in order to preserve a healthy amount of surprise/curiosity for the knowledgeable listener?


I’d say no and no.

However, I think if a piece of music success rely’s entirely on timbral novelty, it is going to have a short shelf life.


Not to be too blunt but I don’t think really anyone who is making music with the target audience of “other modular nerds” is going to end up making very compelling music. Seems like a recipe for artistic tunnel vision if you ask me.

Familiar sounds have never really reduced my enjoyment of a piece of music, even if it is music primarily focused on experimentation or sound design. And I agree 100% with this


I do sometimes feel this way about things I have created, feeling I need to keep going and not just fall into the same pathways and shortcuts and configurations I’ve figured out in the past. Like I’m “cheating”. But when I hear others use sounds I know, I tend to be able to enjoy their use if there are other things I find interesting about it (like intricacies of the arrangement, or mix, the emotional feeling behind something, or whatever it might be).

There are tons of instruments that are coveted for their particular timbres (be it mono-synths or guitar or classical instruments).

That’s not to say things can’t feel like cliches, or that I haven’t been “fatigued” by overuse of a particular sound before.

I do think there can be a lot of interesting artistic decisions that can be related to a particular timbre, especially how it relates to space and the arrangement of other things around it.

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A guitar is a guitar is a guitar.

Piano, flute, violin, whatever.

Different in a different set of hands though.

If the module is making the music, yeah that might get kinda tedious.


I read through your questions a few times to make sure I’m replying to them.

  1. I listen to plenty of music where I recognize the module, or at least the type of synthesis being employed (Karplus-Strong, I’m looking at you — oh, and don’t act all high and might white noise, because I see you in the corner), and it doesn’t adversely affect my enjoyment or appreciation. In fact, much of my modular listening occurs on YouTube, where not only do I know what’s being used, but I’m actually watching it being used. It’s not what it used; it’s how. Something can be, I think, recognizable and still feel well-considered or purposeful or artful or, for me best option of all, intentional or, better yet still, all of those. However, it’s also possible for something to register in my ear as rote. I don’t generally enjoy rote. Rote, of course, is in the ear of the beholder.

  2. As for obfuscation, even obfuscation can be rote.


Yeah, exactly. I think frequently of being in a coffee shop where people take turns on the house guitar, and in one person’s hands it’s a thing of beauty, and in another person’s hands it’s an uninspired combination of wood and metal.


some people are blessed w perfect pitch - are they bored with those same old pitches?

yeah i can hear some timbres that might (deservedly) be classified as “generic” (not a diss on its own) but as i think all the previous replies have cast light on, my enjoyment of the is about their context, their expression, their location in a space. some things just sound really really good, some tools work really really well!

as someone who (pats self on back) thinks they have a good ear for what is happening materially in electronic music i enjoy this and when something inspires me, i know where to start and that material can be the beginning of my work, rather than its goal.


i don’t know about “modular music” (what is that? i think i have seen a topic or two discussing this related question), but i can cite two occurrences of familiar sounds impeding my listening enjoyment.

  1. as i wrote somewhere (here), when recognizing samples from samples/loop CDs in loop-based music, i can’t help but think the artist does not deserve credit (apart for arrangement, maybe.). Especially when the sound design and rhythms from the pre-produced loops is the perk of their music.
  2. particularly in acousmatic music, overuse of GRM tools in a non-inventive manner makes for very recognizable types of sound. Which are abundant in many works in this specific field of music. And somehow signal to me “i did not do any subtle research on my sounds”.
  3. And maybe the worst thing of all, is when music* uses sounds that are typical of blockbuster movie sound-design: obnoxious, in-your-face, extremely clean and boring sounds. I kind of hate the idea of “sound design” for anything else than functional use

* we can discuss a definition of music, but i also think there are (less academic) domains of music where familiar sounds are part of the cultural definition of a genre, and these sounds can become a place of reinvention within a frame.

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I enjoy the contrast of familiar and unfamiliar existing together creating fresh contextual references for each other. This applies pretty much across the board.


As some of you know, I run a little label, which means I receive a lot of demos (it’s crazy). And this means I get to listen to a lot of synthesizer based music and most of it is coming from modular systems. I often recognize modules, but I don’t think of this as something bad. As others monetioned, I actually enjoy the different contexts in which artists are using them.

What I do find a bit boring, though, is if the tracks are mainly patches, instead of arrangements. And the sequencing is mainly done by the more intelligent random modules. It makes me perceive sound sources as more stale and uninteresting, no matter what they are. I think it is because the music loses a sense of adventure and human input.

So what I’m trying to say is that the playing/sequencing/triggering of the sounds has a huge influence in how familiar or not they feel. It is hard to separate one from the other or reduce it just to the actual sounds. At least to me.


Give me good writing and real vibes, and I’ll listen to your rings-into-clouds all day long)


With modular (as with most electronic music tools) I find myself focussing on timbre much to early in the composition process. In an age of one-minute Instagram videos, I find myself chasing novel sounds that I hope will catch people’s attention and inspire my next great work. When I arrive at a timbre I am pleased with, I become so satisfied with my achievement that I neglect melody, harmony, rhythm, dynamics and form. After some time has past, I am left feeling empty because I conveyed an idea, but never told a compelling story. It has taken me much too long to realize this, and I am finally adjusting how I write music accordingly.

An old trick of great orchestral composers is to suss-out the melodies, harmonies, rhythms, dynamics and form on the piano first, in an attempt to focus and as an alternative to endlessly exploring the timbral capabilities of the orchestra before a solid musical foundation a laid.

A more modern trick is to sketch songs/pieces on a shitty mono speaker because if the structure is compelling enough, it should sound good on any speaker, and the fancy beautiful timbres that are added/subbed-in/brought-out later in the mix will just be icing on the cake for the more high-fi listener.

Find a process that works for you and understand why certain limitations can be a gift.

I would rather attempt to write the most interesting piece of music on least-compelling piece of gear and fail than succeed at making the least-compelling piece of music on the most interesting piece of gear.


No and no, for me. I’m still happy to hear an identifiable Strat through Marshall or overdriven Moog bass etc.

When I started learning about what exactly synthesizers are and how they work, I came to a point where I got a bit irritated by my new and growing ability to recognize different synthesis techniques (just basic stuff like substractive synthesis or FM) and specific aspects of the way a sound was created, like filters, envelopes or LFOs. For a while I even thought about stopping to learn more about synthesis, just to avoid spoiling the mysteries of my favourite songs.

It can still be very intriguing to discover previously unheard sounds (and to speculate about how they were created). But as some of you already mentioned, I also think this kind of novelty is usually not the only ingredient of a good piece of music.

Same here. When listening to electronic music that was made with well-known instruments (like classic Roland gear) I often find my attention shifting more towards the composition and structure of the song, wheras I usually tend to focus more on the timbral qualities.

What are the recognizable modules besides Rings+Clouds? It seems like the spectrum of sounds coming out of modular synthesizers would/should be pretty wide and hard to discern.

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Just like with non-modular instruments, some modules have a distinctive sound if you are familiar with them. I feel pretty confident I could pick out Mysteron, Kermit, E352/E370, Manis Iteritas, Akemie’s Castle, Plonk, Mangrove, Hertz Donut mk3, and others if used in their particular characteristic ways, at least some of the time.

The timbral flexibility and control of modular is amazing, but I don’t think that means that the familiarity/unfamiliarity of a sound changes its potential effectiveness. I got into modular to focus on colour and transformation. My main instrument is piano, and I found myself increasingly frustrated with how piano, western notation, and MIDI strongly encourage a focus on grids of discrete pitches and rhythms.

Unfamiliar sounds can be useful in reminding us to listen to the details of a sound, rather than hearing it as a shorthand for an instrument. For example, I love piano most when I remember to listen to all of the amazing sympathetic resonances and the constructive/destructive interference between partials in each note over time. On the other hand, when I forget to keep listening after identifying the instrument (module), I hear piano as simple and monochromatic.

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How is this music listened to? Is this possibly via youtube where you can see the system in use or on a release with a full write up of the gear used?

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I think the culture around modular is very visually oriented and gear focused, so it makes me wonder how much of the perception of the sounds is informed by this. Due to this, I believe that there’s a lot of stuff out there that isn’t as interesting to me musically, but is as a gear demo to hear what a module can do.

I also think part of the problem if things sound the same is the transient nature of the modular synth habit, where users do not always spend a lot of time learning a module, but swap it out for something new and exciting. It can take time to find your voice and wrestle with a piece of gear. The experimentation is sort of a blessing and a curse at the same time in that way since novel and interesting sounds could emerge, but you end up chasing that feeling constantly.