Making stand alone modular instruments

Continuing the discussion from //// pictures ////:

These ideas about planning/arranging modular instruments seemed like it might be a good thread… so I’m starting one :slight_smile: (If there’s one already that I couldn’t find through search feel free to merge).

I’d love to hear people’s thoughts and processes on creating stand alone modular instruments… Right now I have a 12U 104hp case, but sometimes it feels unwieldy. I’m drawn to the idea of a set of smaller purpose built cases, but whenever I try to plan one I end up just putting all my existing modules into four 3U 104hp cases, which doesn’t really help.

How do you all approach it?


I think a big part of it is a series of mental calculations:

  • What are the base functions I need (e.g. oscillators, filters, gates, triggers, sequencers, envelopes, LFOs, noise/random sources, mixers, etc)?
  • What are the min/max number voices I want to have?
  • What are the specialty functions I want to cover?
  • What modules can check off several functions?
  • Where can I maximize HP, what modules are essential to me no matter their size?

After that, you have to be prepared to make compromises, figure out what you can live without, understand that multi-function modules might only be able to to do one function at a time, accept that more voices might mean simpler sounds.

And then go with what you like. Maybe pick what modules are the conceptual centre of the system (say a teletype, or ER-101, or whatever. For me it’s been a QMMG and two Maths. I’ve stuck to 7U 84HP for 8-9 years, those three modules have always been the core) and build everything around them. I’ve found the arrangement of modules important, so that multi-voice signal flows make sense, that visually the whole of the system is obvious as much as possible, and that the patching mechanics/organization/physical ease-of-use works for me.


Do you find that these smaller systems are flexible enough for a varied set, given all the compromises mentioned?

I do, but I also use a mixer and a lot of pedal effects, and live (which I haven’t done in years) I might add a sampler to the side. But I find I have to compartmentalize voices/modules, so two voices and this half of the system to start, two voices and the other half to finish.

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Also, to be clear, I’m not necessarily looking for a smaller setup that is stand alone… more about how it might work to approach a number of smaller racks that work together as instruments… for a performance I might need one of them or all of them, depending on the material to perform.

i.e. each case being a “voice” for some sort… or a sequencer case … or a drum machine case …

Does anyone take this approach?

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at one point i wanted to build a “universal” system. so basically, trying to come up with a system that would have all the building blocks and have modules that would cover every or almost every function. i think it’s a totally valid approach and works for some people, but it didn’t work for me. i found that i would very rarely use some modules and they would end up getting swapped at some point.

also this made me underutilize a lot of modules as i would just use the most basic functions. it’s interesting, you’d think with a smaller system it’s the constraints that are inspiring, but i find sometimes by putting 2 modules together you get the synergy that would just get lost in a bigger system. so that’s one driving force for having smaller cases, putting a set of modules together to release that synergy. and it can help find an interesting goal for a small standalone system. say, what if i put together er-301, koma filed kit and teletype, for instance? how about recording household sounds and making an album with just that set of modules?

and a smaller case means you can rearrange it often. at one point you realize you’ll never have it complete, there is always something new that will work better, or a new module you want to try. so why not embrace it and make it easy? i did the same thing for my studio, after rearranging 3 patchbays one time too many (not fun) i changed it with the main goal being able to rearrange it easier.

a side note - i find cases to often be a source of inspiration for such smaller systems. i love seeing all the different DIY cases people make out of cigar boxes, old suitcases etc.


Keith Fullerton Whitman did that kind of approach for his Generators material:


well i don’t know how relevant it really is but for a long time my only use of modular has been buchla modules in individual 4p or 2p cases. i have some that are powered and some that have an external connector for the power/data bus.

and yeah, they tend to be something like sequencer+osc+osc+LPG, or preamp/env + functions + filter + mixer, or osc+osc+osc+osc+(passive bus). that is, each can do something by itself or complement the others.

there is of course a lot more variance in euro as far as functional density.


You could try doing it in stages – cut your 12u in half and see how you get along with 6u. Then later you might have a better sense of what a 3u system might look like for you?

Personally, I found that trying to make a small system that is able to cover just 2 different ways I like to make music was not possible, they were just too different. It really forced me to choose what I want to focus on and l can get that in around 6u at 84HP, which I think is a reasonable size, and I am able to stay there, just swapping things in/out occasionally (and of course always agonizing over it).

Now I am more clear on what I like from a modular synth and what works for me.
I have found it much easier to make a 3u skiff that is useful and fun for me.

This is really helpful and insightful, thanks so much for sharing.

This is exactly what I’m starting to feel with my system at the current size. I have lots of great pieces, and they work well together… but I never use them all together, so a lot of them don’t get explored in depth. And it feels too unwieldy to use with my non-modular instruments at the same time.

This is what I’ve been experimenting with virtually (for now)… could I take the pieces that I already have and put them together into smaller arrangements that will be interesting and “complete”.

a side note - i find cases to often be a source of inspiration for such smaller systems. i love seeing all the different DIY cases people make out of cigar boxes, old suitcases etc.

Totally!! I put a lot of time/effort into my case, and I have a personal connection with it. I will always use my 6u 84hp because it’s mine. I do still make 3u skiff setups, to audition what might make it in. haha.

edit – its like the case is actually the instrument, and the contents change over time.


This is an interesting way of thinking about it that hadn’t occurred to me at all. …

Maybe the large case becomes a library… something that feeds a couple smaller “performance” cases that change as needed.

It’s interesting to consider… because there’s nothing stopping me/us from using single large cases in this way – just focus on a particular set of modules at a time and use different groups for different things. But something about the large case doesn’t afford this behaviour as easily or nicely as a small case, or even two small cases.


I had a 3 tier x 120 and a 3 tier x 104 and a 1 tier x 80 and I cut the back tier’s off the 3 so I now have several ‘singles’ as you suggest. Since the remaining 2 x’s seem to work as they are I may leave them. It isn’t an accident that my desk space can accommodate exactly 2 tier’s flat (my preferred layout). The 3 deeps were a major pain.

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Great topic! I’m immediately reminded of this:


That looks 20 characters of awesome!

This is beautiful and I love it and my God what is this?

One does not simply drop a picture like that without… something more?

Ok, challenge accepted. I have some 2" maple doing nothing…

That looks a lot like something Meng Qi would make (and the bottom greenish module seems to have his logo on the right side)…

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It’s this one.

He has since made a sequel. Both can be found on his “one-offs” page.


Thank you for this thread! I literally just logged in to have a look through ////pictures//// for some inspiration for downsizing a more focused modular set up and this came up above it. Perfect!