Have we reached a 'tipping point' in modular synthesis?


#1

I’m totally bemused by the recent postings on other sites about Eurorack being an overinflated ‘bubble’, about to burst.

I couldn’t disagree more.

I feel as though we are at a nascent point in it’s history, that a new musical landscape has been forged by Eurorack, and we have only just recently reached the tipping point of where beautiful new music is being created because of it. It’s almost as if a new instrument has been developed, and the music being made would not have existed using the other forms of electronic music available.

I know that Modular Synthesis has been around since the 60’s, but as the story goes, Bob Moog won that argument, and so the musical path went down the ‘East-Coast’, ‘keyboard-led’ direction to where we are today, and the genres we most associate with electronic music. However, the ‘West Coast’ route largely went untravelled, and it is only now with this new resurgence in Modular, that we have been able to explore that less-travelled road. And in particular, it is only recently that companies have started to achieve their goal of creating complete ‘Systems’ within Modular; or as I see it, complete (and completely new) instruments have been created. The best example for me is the Make Noise Shared System, but Verbos’ would be another example, and the Mannequins modules another, the last of which were perfectly demonstrated by Nathan Moody in his recent Blue & Reds Box Etudes album - the soundscapes are unique to those modules, and the style of the music played is unique to playing a Modular Synthesizer. So the musical style simply would not exist with out these new ‘instruments’ having come into existence.

Caterina Barbieri’s ‘Patterns Of consciousness’ album is another example of a very innovative and forward-thinking musical piece, that is very much a product of her Modular Synthesiser ‘instrument’, and which sounds thrillingly archetypical; a flag planted in this new Modular soundscape, for others to follow.

I realise that the Buchla was the genesis of this, but my point is that it is only now that we are finally bearing the fruits of that initial ‘big bang’; with the affordability and availability of Eurorack, and with enough interesting and creative modules available, and with the internet on hand as an egalitarian teaching resource, it all adds up to a new musical landscape that has just been opened up to us.

I, for one, feel hugely inspired and excited by this (so much so that I had to write a post about it!). Whether or not I’m able to contribute to it in any meaningful way is another question, but I love the fact that I’m part of the initial search party, setting out to explore this relatively unchartered landscape, and share the new discoveries as they happen.

Who’s with me!


#2

I love this energy, so I hope my comment is very small and doesn’t detract from it, but I wonder whether this enthusiasm is there for tools like Ableton, Max or Pd? in terms of altering the landscape of music I would argue their effects are still being fully explored and offer a comparable amount of wild landscape to explore and beautiful sounds to create. Maybe it’s that I wasn’t paying attention when they were new?

Anyway I love this paean to the modular spirit!


#3

A few (slightly disconnected) thoughts on this:
I think it’s only a ‘tipping point’ for those not looking to go further with it.

When you take a given collection of modules, there’s a couple of obvious/expected configuration that will be visible. I think that no matter how innovative the module, this happens.

There’s a few ways to go over this issue as a musician. One is to work to break out of this zone, another to buy new modules.

New things are exciting and generate press. Non exotic / new / vintage things that are not talked about. That’s not limited to modular or music.

You could use tools from 5 years ago and still create ground-breaking work. Applies to w/e amount of years you want (deconstructed hip hop using medieval instruments anyone?).

That reminds me of the so called “Javascript fatigue” where new frameworks got a lot of tech press and devs got burned out of catching up. Also of some game dev interview around PS3 time where devs were saying that they didn’t explore the capabilities of the PS2 fully by the time the PS3 was released.


#4

Seems like when people talk about a modular “bubble” they’re usually referring mostly to resale value.


#5

Max/PD/Reaktor are still super fertile ground for experimentation. my laptop is just super old and i got a big of tunnel vision after working w those tools for 10+ years. I will say that just a few years in eurorack has me thinking about the potential for those software environments again.


#6

Ha! Ironic because the unreasonable resale prices are my biggest eurorack pet peeve. Where are the affordable modules if the so-called bubble has burst?


To the OP, i agree with the general thrust of your post but disagree on a few things.

I don’t see modular music as being transformed by eurorack though i share some of your enthusiasm for the format.

Aside from introduction of dsp elements and microcontrollers underneath the panel i dont think as much has changed as we’d like to admit. Make Noise, Verbos and to some extent even Mannequins modules are similar to buchla & serge offerings from the past.

Most music reflects that parallel but there is room for optimism. I think equipment prices have effectively lowered the barrier of entry to this world of music and made eurorack closer to a legitimate folk framework than ever existed in the past.

Increased popularity and exposure has attracted many, like me, who are less interested in building a voice/system in the traditional sense…instead using a handfull of modules like a pedalboard or fx rack.


#7

I don’t think it has burst, or know if it ever will, but I get the feeling that people’s anxiety about this topic is often related to some kind of existential fear of being unable to cash out. It’s kind of sad but an unfortunate byproduct of the intersection of botique electronics with such an open ended format.


#8

I don’t know about a tipping point, but a big YES to the enthusiasm (including Nathan Moody and Caterina Barbieri)

I certainly don’t think it’s in decline or a passing fad or a pointless and expensive distraction from the DAW/VST world or anything like that. Its popularity is still growing.

There have been some modules that took quite a while to turn around when I wanted to sell them – but then, I still have a Korg DS-8 with a dead CMOS battery in my closet which I have literally tried to GIVE away with no luck, so that’s not unique to modular :slight_smile:

Eurorack popularized these things and spread awareness of them. Until I started to get immersed in Eurorack, “Serge” meant nothing to me and I was only vaguely aware of Buchla as “expensive, obscure synthesizers that are used by nobody I know.” I didn’t know what a lowpass gate was, or a “complex oscillator”, or that FM could be anything but Yamaha/Chowning (PM) or wildly disharmonic warbly noises.

Look at a VST-centric forum, if you can stand to, and you’ll see people who don’t understand the point of modular at all. They think you can’t make music with it (despite all evidence to the contrary) or that it’s extremely difficult and unintuitive to work with. They think Buchla “failed” because his synthesis method was inferior.

I’ve had to cut myself off from arguing about it because it’s not my job to win converts to the modular cult :slight_smile:


#9

I’m not sure I hear a new music emerging from recent modular market changes. Drones, reverb, squiggly bits, and arpeggios seem fairly consistent within the non-pop synthesizer music continuum (lineage? corpus? pick your favourite word) over the past several decades.

But I think that speaks to the bubble idea. Eurorack isn’t all that different from the guitar pedal market. We don’t expect guitar pedal music, we likely will move on from thinking of modular in those terms. I suspect eurorack has tipped to the point of becoming a market mainstay, for at least a while, even as enthusiasms and the shape of the market will certainly change over time. I come across a lot of people talking about it who don’t go in deep for the arcana of it all, but are just looking for some extra equipment to add to their music. So if anything, a lot of forum doomsaying is probably just a reflection of the idea passing out of the hands of adepts and over to the masses.

The used buy/sell market for it has always seemed exhausting to me, but musicians are always going to flip gear. Perhaps the rate of transactions currently is unsustainable.


#10

I took a break from modular for the better part of the last 12 months. I just got burned out on the learning curve of many of the “computer with knobs and jacks” modules. Its so hard to settle on modular as an instrument when the language tends to get in my way. Teletype is a great example of this. Its such a powerful module and once I dug in, I began to see its possibilities. But I had no idea what to do with it at first. The average person (me included) wouldn’t be able to put it to use right out of the box.

Also, the reiteration of modules drives me crazy sometimes. I didn’t like this in the guitar pedal world either. Its one thing to resell a pedal or module and lose a bit of money, its another altogether to have a new version of the exact same thing come out and your pedal/modular has a next to zero residual value. These things aren’t investments, but it makes me want to sink less money into the ecosystem as a whole.

In the end, I had to back away from the novel aspect of certain gear and really think about what I was trying to accomplish. I think I get a lot more out of my basic analog modules so I put away the rest for now.


#11

Just to grasp onto this important point, I think my fear has always been to be considered a ‘modular artist’ or something. It’s wild to me that any musician would ever want to be known for the tools you use rather than the sounds you create. I think this is the mentality that some people who happen to use modular synthesizers in their workflow sometimes are concerned about. That association is a trend that’s really unappealing to me and I know I’m not alone in having that concern. It just happens to be what some artists work with, but it doesn’t and shouldn’t define the artist.

Synthesizers are just a tool, but all tools have value. It just depends on what you’re going for and how you want to go about getting to it.


#12

The break from MAX/PD/Reaktor and diving into hardware based modular definitely has revived my interest in returning and going back to truly learn MAX on a deeper level, or heck, even going back to some old ensembles in Reaktor. I think it helped in clarifying my workflow by imposing more restrictions and rules that came with hardware. The exciting thing about the computer is that it’s a completely open and undefined ecosystem, which is what paralyzes so many people. But with a bit of time working with component pieces in modular, I have an even better sense for what to do in MAX. I think :slight_smile:


#13

Certainly many artists are primarily known for the instrument they play, no?

I don’t know that its a negative thing but I can certainly see why one doesn’t want to be pigeon-holed so to speak. I think a lot of this comes just naturally in the course of conversation. Would it be better to be known as a multi-instrumentalist?


#14

So first off. Yes it clearly has reached a tipping point. But not the one in the article - we’ve reached the “writing articles dissing modular gets clicks” point. Just as in the next few days we will be hearing that whatever Apple has released shows they are now “finished” and irrelevant. Not because anyone believes that but it generates traffic

Interesting points about it as an instrument- I certainly hope i’m Doing my own thing with it. The VST crowd are amusing, I bet a lot of them would struggle to make music with a clarinet or violin. Doesn’t mean those aren’t instruments either


#15

We live in a post genre world. We still need a way of aligning with people we think are cool and have good ideas and are smart and experience the same things as us… It used to be that genres (or more realistically subgenres) did this work. But we live in a post-genre world, and so the need remains to find some way of constructing a social sphere around a loosely shared artistic vision.


#16

I have certainly found that switching between modular, software environments - pd,max, supercollider and C/C++ has helped me get better at all of them


#17

I dunno, I guess you’re right in a way. I suppose especially rock and jazz musicians get lumped in that way.

However, I think there are just as many musicians who have fought against being typecast. I think reading so much about jazz lately, there are tales of Charlie Parker being shut down as he was interested in exploring experimental composition. Braxton’s and many others from the AACM struggled against this notion of being pigeon-holed too. Frank Zappa is in that zone of being able to explore. Maybe my perspective is skewed because so many of the artists I respect most are struggling against that reductive understanding of their work? Jim O’Rourke, Nurse With Wound, Rafael Toral, Brian Eno, Keith Whitman are examples that come to mind immediately of people who can’t be reduced to their tools.

EDIT: I guess upon further thought (moments after posting this - doh), you’re probably right that most people are known for a specific instrument and totally cool with it and maybe just are happy to be known at all. Maybe it’s because I’ve always been a multi-instrumentalist, that that makes me bristle at all?


#18

That reductive labelling comes from human nature though. ‘That thing is “X” and now I don’t need to think about it or explain it.’ ( this also works with ‘this is “good”’ as a wY to avoid thinking or examine further too)

It can be frustrating if you like something and want others to experience it. For those of us who think (the vast majority of forum members here it would appear :slight_smile: ) it is a mental trap to avoid but I don’t think you can stop the people who want to dismiss/avoid thinking about stuff from doing it


#19

I’m all good with reductive labeling in that, as has been pointed out, it’s just sort of a necessity to be able to group things and create categories and realize some things connect with other things because of x, y, or z qualities. I guess my natural preference is to group by sound rather than by tool. But in the end it’s just as arbitrary as people grouping by tool rather than sound. Maybe I feel like that’s more natural because most record stores are grouped by sound rather than ‘the saxophone section’ - ‘the guitar section’ - etc. Though often instruments influence sounds of course.

Interesting discussion for sure :slight_smile:


#20

My naive reaction to this topic is we are currently living in an age where anyone can not only make the music they want to make but with whatever tools they would like to make it with (affordably). I think that’s fantastic!

edit: and also disseminate it amongst people who care to listen freely and easily!