Making stand alone modular instruments


So note that the I feel like my definition of stand-alone instrument would be something like “a system that can create or alter audio in ways that are interesting, without necessarily relying on things outside of itself (but it could), and should aid in getting something interesting without causing creative fatigue”. This is extremely broad (and probably a little against a lot of the stuff in this thread), which is why I wanted to say it up front. Another thing I think what makes the system an instrument (or rather “good” at being an instrument or not) is pulling in these user experience points like you’re mentioning in your post, @papernoise. And I just want to point out that I feel like it can be a lot easier to try to explore and plan using these sort of aspects to define what I’m looking for, rather than focusing on the “sound”, because ultimately, I got into (and I think, generally, people get into) modular more often than not to try to explore and experiment with sound.

This is something I’ve been focused on recently. I put away my BSP and SQ-1 in the closet and have been focused on using the teletype exclusively for sequencing duties (so that it would start to feel more natural and I could get away with less reliance on the manual or cheatsheet). It’s worked pretty well. There’s also something about the system that feels more like a unit without the external control tools (acknowledging there is the computer keyboard attached, that “feels” slightly different that a control surface to me though, I think because I’m not typically changing my scripts a ton after I have set the patch up, and rather exploring them by altering triggers to those scripts, most often by my tempi)

I think one more thing to take into account when thinking about the modular as an instrument is the ability to recall. You kind of get to this when you mention:

Focusing on the Teletype has taught me I really value having recallable sequences (or rather, melodic sequence “systems” that return something vaguely melodically cohesive, even if things aren’t like 100% set and have some level of randomization). I think the melodic content, for my own music, is second (or maybe rather, I feel like I like it to exist in a different creative phase) to the timbral and changing sounds over time that I really enjoy spending my time exploring.

Another thing I’ve found is that I personally don’t have the patience/confidence to come back to something simple and build it into something more complex. I feel much more comfortable and in a creative space if I can more-or-less have a finished thing that I record (using effects afterwards to make it more full is fine) So for me, going the modules-that-make-up-a-monosynth route would probably be a ton of fun, but I think I would have a lot of trouble utilizing the output in some sort of “finished” work if it needed several passes.

And one more thing that I really value are modules that have many uses. I feel like I have some pretty core flows that at this point I reach for, but it’s fun to have the potential to explore wildly different flows (cause somtimes just creating something new on something I feel pretty confident with is not super interesting). Just Friends (can be a sound generator, trigger sequencer, envelope generator), Rings (can be a simple poly-ish voice or a really interesting effect that reacts to inputs in sometimes pretty unexpected, non-linear ways), and Teletype are all good examples of this for me.


possible rack for sampling/looping/mangling


I use two stand-alone systems that are used just for synthesis. Control comes from a central hub (midi->CV). I use two sometimes three Encore expressionist converters.

There are three ingredients to control: midi sequences from Logic, keyboard input, and a suite of Max tools, mostly binary operators. The Max stuff relies on custom externals so it’s difficult to imagine how to “port” any of this to the modular world, unless I build my own modules.

I reshape the sequences and their relationships algorithmically by playing the keyboard. Roles of keyboard/sequence inputs can be exchanged so I can set up one sequence that transforms another sequence. I sometimes create complex “chains” operating over multiple time scales so at this point it starts to be an interactive, generative composition framework.

Synthesis is primarily at each instrument based on duophony, even if I use only one of the voices. Usually one voice is delayed but shares or inverts some characteristics of the first.

I’ve gotten rid of all outboard effects and don’t use anything except the reverbs in Logic (Valhalla, mostly) and one phaser plugin I made. The “duophony” removes the need for delay/filtering effects, because one can create the relation directly among the voices.

Anyway, one of my main goals was to play the entire studio like a folk instrument … create “in the moment” – so sequencing, patching etc. has to be very simple. The juxtaposition: generative algorithms and folk music. That was the initial impetus. ,So I don’t do much with modular sequencing, sample looping, and much that is standard now in the Eurorack world, it’s too complex for me right now.

An irony is that while I can create a track or “jam”, basically live, the whole apparatus is so fragile and non-portable, with time-consuming setup (things also need to be periodically re-calibrated/re-tuned) that I’m basically hopeless in terms of performing live. Also, “performance” sets up an expectation of presencing that I am trying to avoid.

Actually, what I’ve found is something very different, and far more interesting than “in the moment”. “In the moment” suggests that I would be able to do something very different each time, based on a whim or feeling. Do whatever the authentic self desires, shape the music according to command. But in fact (I suspect) I keep repeating much the same patterns (in every aspect: patching, sequencing, playing), but “from scratch” so that the joy of discovery and delight in the “thisness” of the sound is always there. When the process works there is no generality, no going through the motions that dulls the force of repetition.

What I’ve done is not “in the moment” because there is no “presencing”, no naked, authentic self one puts on display. It’s simply the entire history of repetitions upon repetitions, that carries things across to the next repetition.

What I have done is avoided representational thinking. Apart from bare necessities (laying out equipment, setting up Logic environment, writing code for Max) nothing else is written down, only a bare minimum cast in terms of any theory. Above all… no plan! Instead, memory is preserved in the repetitions themselves rather than some abstract/symbolic system. Memory is externalized physically in my body, in the equipment, in the patch cables, in the music itself, in the ways that these unfold across each repetition.

If one accepts Bataille’s claim, “the animal is in the world like water in water”, perhaps I approach an animal relation to music [at least I hope so!] And by re-inscribing memory in the lifeworld, experiencing an open/receptive relation to various “persons” that are the control surfaces, sound sources, and algorithms all acting within music perhaps I approach an animistic relation, devoid of any desire or command. Perhaps this is radical immanence, working as it does only within itself.

One hopes to have produced a new kind of thought, not simply perform again the tired “presencing” of the authentic artist behind the work…

Now I should say this is all very ideal, I am in practice far from ideal… always some bugs to be worked out, always terribly inadequate to any of these tasks. Always falling back on a bit more representation than necessary, and letting self-doubt and ego intervene in the worst moments. But this is how I see my current development.


Very nice post! Trying to wrap my head around this particular point. For delay, you could set up a sequencing system/mimic things in a way that makes things feel like a delay “effect”. The filtering I’m having a hard time trying to envision.

I think the thought of the process being part of the compositional “aim” or framework is really cool.


Just playing around with modulargrid and came up with this. Mainly for creating with feedback + the mikrophonie for using coil mic / contact mic/ hydrophone as a separate sound source.

Haven’t built it yet, i don’t have the vcdlfo and the matrix mixer…
Maybe changing the filter to one that self oscillates would be more efective


Thanks! I’ll try to give some more details. OK, suppose I have a voice and send it to a delay+LPF, and mix the results. This gives an echo, a sense of space.

I can do a similar thing by taking two identical voices, but patch the output of the second voice through another LPF. Each voice outputs on its own channel. Then I delay the second channel using a pure digital delay in Logic. Often I’ll add reverb to this, also in Logic.

This isn’t exactly the same because the modular or outboard delay unit will also add some coloration. Also, the ordering is different (voice->LPF->delay vs. voice->delay->LPF), so if you sweep the filter you get a different result. Also, it removes possibilities for feedback, pitch shifting, reversal and all the other cool stuff you can do with outboard delay units. I still do use the Serge WAD, but it has a very particular coloration. For actual outboard delay I like the Lexicon PCM-42, it uses a variable clock rate system (with voltage control on the back panel!) so you don’t get aliasing the way you do with DSP delays. Also just sounds very nice and the limiter is good for managing feedback. Downside is it does roll off the high frequencies, I always think of getting a pair TC 2290 but … much $$ (and I always get these things in pairs…)

Anyway, so far I haven’t done anything interesting, but suppose I remove the LPF at the output of the second voice and just change the timbre to be more “lowpass”. Here I’m somewhere between an illusion of space and a true counterpoint [I’m using the “counterpoint” in a more general sense, not in the restricted sense of Western tonal music… but the idea comes from the same place… the idea is that both voices become independent and equal in some sense, that they give resistance to the unity of the echo-space. Or at least I’m exploring the threshold where this starts to become perceivable.]

But the real fun only begins when I try radically different timbres (something spiky and metallic + something warm and stringy). Or transpose/invert the sequence for the second voice. Or time-reverse or double-time the sequence, loop it at a different length (at which point the delay becomes optional). What happens here is neither the horizontality of counterpoint nor the verticality of harmonic unity – both are there to a certain extent, but movement along a diagonal, which is where I think music really starts to “move” [and returning once again to animality, evoking perhaps the “pouring-away world of no attachment” J. A. Baker introduced in his classic study The Peregrine …]

I didn’t intentionally come up with this, it came naturally out of the constraints of a system I had worked with previously (Roland System 100, which naturally has two outputs, but very limited possibilities to make the voices independent), but I gradually started to “port” these practices to less restricted modular setups.


Ah yeah totally understand what you mean! I use MI Warps to achieve a sort of similar thing sometimes. I’ll usually take two “voices” (maybe Elements and Rings, maybe Rings Odd and Rings Even, maybe two voices from Just Type) and mangle them together to create a third voice that is sort of it’s own thing but harmonically (or otherwise) related to the two. Then take all three of these and mix them together until I feel like the sound is “full” enough to my ears.

I feel like I get a lot of interesting/weird results because most of the kinds of modulations Warps is for are based on a “carrier” and “modulation” signal, and less about combining together complex things.


New idea for my small case. Sparked by not getting on with Maths and being tempted by Cold Mac. A few bits I have already, others I would fund by selling Maths and a couple of other things. More or less a Mannequins micro system with some lo-fi modulators. Not sure if Batumi would be redundant with Just Friends in there too, but I just bought one and am enjoying it.


I find that I always want to have Batumi as well as Just Friends, both for bipolar modulation as well as all the shapes it does that Just Friends isn’t so suited to. It also means that you can have JF in sound mode and still have heaps of modulation options :+1:


I paired down to this:

I come from the view that a branded system (like the Shared System) is a great place to start and even a great place to end up. If I had my way, I would have a complete Shared System AND an ISMS. But, money is a thing in life so compromise is also a thing. This system started as a Shared System in the making with several notable distractions along the way including a host of DIY modules, Bastl modules (which I still love), and most recently the ER-301 and TT.

I didn’t sell anything, just put everything else away. I wanted to concentrate on learning TT but also keep my favorite sounds available. In the end, I settled on two voices: Make Noise and Mannequins. They both have distinct gestural properties that I love and wouldn’t want to be without. I’m consolidating all my controls for now to the Monome ecosphere simply because it makes sense to me. I shelved my Clouds as I was using it for reverb mostly despite my best intentions (I’ve sense imagined new ways to use it so I may try to incorporate in a small desktop rack temporarily). I loved Pressure Points but want to try and accomplish something similar with less (less space, less modules, less money). We’ll see how long this lasts but it feels good to have everything right here.


The concept of a focused and portable system is something that has always resonated with me, and it’s a goal I spend probably an unhealthy amount of time thinking about. :nerd_face: In a few weeks time I’ll be receiving a 4x84hp case from MDR modular which I’m very excited about, as it seems like a perfect form factor to be used as a truly portable instrument that still offers a vast amount of depth. I’m relatively new to the modular scene, having gotten into it just last summer, but in that amount of time I’ve learned a lot about which kind of modules I like and which I don’t when it comes to making a cohesive system.

While my system differs in many ways from his, I find many of Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe’s setups immediately satisfying to consider as he really seems to have trimmed the fat and settled on systems that are immediate and performable, such as this one:

And since then I’ve found my interest has steered more towards this approach. I still have my O_c and Clouds, but I can see myself selling them in the near future - not because I am confused or overwhelmed by their interfaces in any way, but more so that I often find these sort of “jack-of-all-trades” modules to be disruptive in the creative process. Are there times when I will probably want some obscure function of O_c? Sure. But I think I value my system being thoroughly immediate and knob-per-function more than I value having the world at my fingertips by way of a menu. It’s this feeling that has prevented me picking up an ER-301 despite many of my favorite artists using it. I understand and appreciate its power, but am not willing to forego the immediacy, focus, and self-imposed limitations of a non-menu’d system.

I could ramble about this stuff for hours… :joy:


As I’ve been building my system this thread and other similar discussions have been really interesting to me. I set a fairly hard limit of 104hp from the start (mainly for cost reasons) so the idea of functionally treating the skiff as a balanced instrument began to make a lot of sense.

My setup ( focuses on the Morphagene as the main sound source which can be shaped with Three Sisters and Rings. Pressure Points and OC do all of the control/modulation. An Elektron Keys takes care of sequencing/clocks.

Although I am really happy with this setup I am starting to feel that in focusing so much on creating an instrument I have lost an element of ‘modularity’. Every time I sit down with the skiff I seem to end up patching it in a very similar way. A lot of this maybe comes down to the fact that I have spent so long designing it to function in this way that I now have a mental block that stops me exploring more unique patches.

So I guess the questions I want to put to you all for discussion are…

When putting together a small modular have you ever been trapped by your own preconception of what the system has been designed to do, in turn stopping you fully exploring the system to its full potential?

What modules/type of modules inspire you to patch differently every time you patch them, or inspire you to use other modules in new ways?


As soon as I get my soldering station back up and running, I’m going to put together this little instrument, which is probably something that has been explored in some way or another before, but with the new TSNM I feel like I can go in a lot of directions with it!

And, as soon as a) my W/ arrives and b) my TPK gets repaired and c) I confirm my battery can power it, I’ll have this little mobile instrument finished up.


Building this little touch box + rover pads for ambient stuff.


Love this thread, small systems are definitely my style. I find it makes me think harder in advance about module mix; once that upfront work is done patching is pretty effortless.

To answer OP’s question, so far my approach has been to take underutilized modules from my collection and, instead of selling them, try to design+build a little system around them, which helps me appreciate them more. For instance I was briefly enamored with miniaturized Mutables, which I then quickly found I didn’t love in my main case because of the ergonomics of tiny knobs. So I built a little Zissou case around them, which is really fun. This is what I came up with.

I’m working on another little system now designed around Morphagene (, which for whatever wasn’t getting much use in my main case. But now paired with two dedicated modulators and two dedicated sound sources, I think it’s gonna be a lot more fun.


Mannequins idea has gone out the window after I realised that Bastl modules achieve most of what I want. Here’s the current plan for my small case: noisy drone glitch box! CV Trinity is on the way, then just need to replace my uVCF with a Cinnamon, and the WK2 in the top row. The mult is actually a switched mult, so I can have quick changes of modulation (2x3):


Lately I’ve been fascinated by the idea of a complete modular instrument- one that can be played and explored in the way one would play a guitar or keyboard. With this fascination i’ve found myself being more and more drawn to systems with a certain “complete” aesthetic.

My personal taste draws me to brands such as Mutable, Monome, Intellijel, Xaoc, etc. These brands all have a certain look. I’ve been entertaining the idea of downsizing to an Intellijel 104hp 4u case. To me this is the perfect size to build an instrument in, and it would nicely compliment the silvery, futuristic aesthetic i’m so draw to.

Does anyone else have a certain look they try to achieve with their system? Share pictures if possible, I’d love to get other opinions and ideas on aesthetics in modular systems.


I have to admit I’m buying more patch cables than I need because I’m settling into a colour theme now and the rainbow hosa ones just don’t fit. The best aesthetic thing I could add to my system at the moment would be a big leafy plant.


leafy plants and modular systems are a beautiful pairing


sorry, had to post this: