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

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!

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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!

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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

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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

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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

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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!

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Eurorack is the new guitar. Guitar encouraged thousands to create music in the 60s, 70s, etc. Still is an extremely viable instrument. Eurorack encouraged thousands to create music in a new way. Both have/had a strong amateur (non-trained) following that found their way into new styles.

I explored Eurorack for several years. Had a medium/large system at one point. Grew indifferent to it after so many musical ideas were lost when the patch cords were removed. Not my long term method for creating. Music should not be so impermanent…

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I like the idea of it being the new guitar. And if you look at the guitar today still loads of interesting players

The impermanence is one of the things I love about it and fits with my goals of being fluent enough with this tech to conjour music in real-time just as a guitarist or clarinetist might

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I think the laptop is the new guitar for that reason, the cultural impact of eurorack is exaggerated in hobbyists forums in my opinion.

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Yeah. Cheap synths and audio equipment in general might be the ‘new guitar’, surely we have all seen more live bands/artists with Volcas or Microkorgs or Boss loop pedals than anything remotely eurorack

Anyway if anything is the new guitar it’s Ableton.

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Yes, very true. But there’s usually a descriptor, genre, style, something attached to it. Lee Ranaldo and Michael Hedges both play(ed) guitar, but I’d be hard pressed to classify them together.

Maybe we just haven’t reached a point with modular synthesizer where there are enough “mature” players to get into the nuance of how it’s being used or have a real diversity of styles played on it… or to have it disappear into the music rather than the tool being the focal point.

There’s also a crazy consumerism in the eurorack world that is different than guitars or pianos (where it still exists, but not to the same extent).

It feels like describing eurorack as an instrument isn’t quite right… It’s a format or platform… but the instrument is what you make on top of it. It doesn’t have sound or a design, it’s just a standard set of sizes and power connectors. In some ways it’s more like an instrument design and building tool than an instrument itself. So in that way it also becomes hard to relate “players” of modular. This is maybe less so for more homogenous systems where there is a philosophy and design built in, like Buchla and Serge. But even they allow the player to really customize… more fundamentally than a custom guitar.

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