Learning Modular Synthesis

Chris Randall of Audio Damage scanned and posted the old Roland “The Synthesizer” books, there is a download link to all 4 here: http://www.analogindustries.com/b1764/


Things I’ve found useful in the past:

The classic Serge modular manual

Allen Strange’s “Electronic Music: Systems, Techniques, and Controls”.

MW can sometimes be useful if you check older posts in the “modular synth general discussion” sub (and stay out of the eurorack forum ;)). For example, daverj’s post in this thread explaining logic and utility circuits: https://www.muffwiggler.com/forum/viewtopic.php?p=1248830#1248830

Doepfer also has very detailed manuals for all their modules. Very useful to check out regardless of what you actually own.


When I first got the modular bug the resources that are available now via youtube etc really weren’t there.

In some ways that was good, and in others a source of frustration. I remember it took me maybe an hour to figure out why my first oscillator kept outputting sound continually before realising that “gain” on a VCA wasn’t necessarily what I thought it was - CV controlled the volume, not gain. Ah - that’s what an envelope generator can be used for!

I started with a pretty basic system in terms of synthesis. I experimented a lot and figured things out on my own for quite a long time. As I got more immersed I discovered some internet resources and learned about classics such as Allen Strange’s book. Some of which I then purchased/watched/read and learned more from, or learned the theory behind things I’d already discovered - for example, dynamic depth FM.

I’m glad this is the way I learned modular (although I really don’t think anyone ever has modular “learned” - it’s way to vast). It wasn’t a choice, just how it happened naturally in the circumstances I found myself in at the time. But, starting (relatively) simple and experimenting is the way I’d recommend anyone go about approaching this rabbit hole. Some modules are so complicated and multifaceted these days that not having a grounding in the basics can make them a very difficult experience. I love Buchla’s 259e but if you’d sat me in front of one when I was starting out it would have made little sense to me.

The resources @analogue01 mentions in his post are good ones to give initial experimentation some theoretical grounding.


I would love to see volume 2 of the allen strange book republished in a format like the recent ableton book. I wonder where the copyright for the book is now. It deserves to reach new audiences. The scanned pdf just doesn’t do it justice.


Yeah, ultimately, no matter what texts or books one has at hand it’s important to always be patching and listening, patching and listening. The only real rule is: if it sounds good it is good.


Another good resource is JJ Clark’s old Nord Modular book - if you can make sense of the Nord’s patching UI, that is: http://www.cim.mcgill.ca/~clark/nordmodularbook/nm_book_toc.html


This book is great! On a related note, the Nord Micro Modular is a great way to learn modular synthesis as well. Though you might be spoiled by how much you get from such a small box :wink:

(that said, physically patching is a great way to learn as well, just more cost restrictive).

Virtual modulars are super interesting. Here’s a list (undoubtedly incomplete):

  • Softube Modular
  • Reaktor Blocks
  • Audulus
  • zMors
  • Audiomulch
  • Arturia Modular V
  • Moog Model 15
  • BEAP
  • Tangle

What did I forget? After a while you’ll start to see how many soft synths (Falcon comes to mind) may not have “wires” for “patching” but have a fairly modular architecture that amounts to the same thing. Lots of ways to learn about modular synthesis without making a major investment in new hardware.

BEAP (MAX/MSP) is a great tool to learn on. And it gives you an idea of what you might want on a hardware system.

@rbxbx what’s the current status of the micro modular editor? i’ve had a micro for years and almost never pulled it out-- but i should take a look if there’s a working editor.

@tehn – it’s a great machine once you get it up and running, which can be admittedly fiddly. But it’s basically rock solid after that.

I simply run the windows editor inside of a virtualized windows environment. In this case I’m using parallels, but virtualbox would work as well I’m sure (if you’ve not already purchased parallels/vmware).

I run the app in windows 95/98 compatibility mode which seems to help.

The editor itself is super light weight so even if you have a tiny VM you should be fine.

It can be particular about your midi interface as well. There are lists of working ones on the emusic forums somewhere, I use an old midisport 4x4 which chugs along merrily.

There’s an OSX editor that someone wrote in java but I could never get it working and I already had the windows VM around for certain audio software anyway.

I’d add to the list KarmaFX Synth Modular, the u-he modulars (Bazille, Beatzille, ACE), and Madrona’s Aalto.

I’d love to add Vaz Modular, but it’s windows-only, and effectively dead as of last year. Using it was really how I learned to work with a modular synth, much more than from using Audiomulch or Reaktor, as it was really effective at categorizing modules/functions and for understanding a CV signal flow.

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OSCillot for Max4Live?

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It works perfectly with wine now (didn’t always) so no need for a vm even.

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This is good to know!

Glitchmachines Quadrant and NI Molekular. Though they aren’t as robust as some of the programs you listed they definitely have a modular design, especially Quadrant with its patching.
Also Propellerhead’s Reason if I am not mistaken, the GUIs for their stock VSTs are designed like a giant rack that you can patch together.

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a small shout out here for Axoloti… in the vain of nord modular , but only costs 65 euros, is open source hardware and software. http://www.axoloti.com

its easy to patch, and contains some tutorials, examples etc … it also has an active community for patching, and creating new objects, as well as hardware integration. also new version has a patch/object library. see http://community.axoloti.com , so a good/cheap way to learn modular synthesis on a digital hardware platform. (imho)

(Im an active contributor to axoloti and a keen fan :slight_smile: but in no way connected financially etc)


I had forgotten about Quadrant. The patching reminds me a bit of the way Aalto works. Also really need to try Molekular as I’ve been spending more time with effects lately. (Does it come with Komplete?)

Always meant to look into Reason but it hasn’t happened yet.

Axoloti looks like the bee’s knees.

Reason is only really modular in the way any studio is modular.

It uses the metaphor of patching for IO from rack gear - audio in and out - and it also uses a metaphor of what it calls “CV” and “Gate” for what is really “pitched/control data” and “rhythmic data”. Sometimes, there are direct patch points to particular controls of a synthesizer… but that’s about it. Of course, as a DAW, it also has automation, which you could argue is a kind of CV control - but patching the LFO of a Thor into the Filter of a Subtractor is pretty much impossible, if I remember rightly (versions of Reason I’ve used heavily: 2, 4 - and then a bit of 6, when they moved to the mixing desk metaphor).

Of course, I do really like Reason’s mixing desk metaphor, which it follows through on. But it feels more like a studio with lots of patchbays than anything that resembles modular synthesis, to me.


I found a video which I think is a very good break down of a modular synthesizer