Modular 101 - Need Advice

Good morning monomites,

I am looking to get started with a small modular setup, specifically the size of a Synthrotek Power Lunch. I am a total neophyte to modular - I do understand synth basics, though, as I own a few Moogs. I specifically need some advice about what I need to get started with a basic modular setup. There are some modules I am immediately drawn to such as Mutable Instruments Clouds, Make Noise Pressure Points, monome White Whale, etc. There is so much out there that it’s difficult to understand how to get started.

Does anyone have advice or some reference site you could point me to?

Thanks in advance,

i would ask myself ‘what do i want to do with it’ so i get a better view to get the tools i need to do what i want.
also you may know muffwigglers forum. (there is a lot of info and knowledge there).
have fun. cheers.

I would caution against getting such a small case unless you have a very specific end aim in mind and know that you can achieve it in that space. Generally cases get cheaper per HP the bigger you go. Not suggesting you jump into a Doepfer monster case straight away! But, honestly, I’d recommend going for 6u/84hp wide. They’re really not much more money and give you a decent foundation to build on. I like Doepfer’s cases as their power supplies are very solid but there are many, many other options these days.

A small case might fit the modules you think you want but you’ll need to allow space for all the utilities - VCAs, mixers etc - that make a modular the flexible tool it is and really worth having over a hardwired synth.

Which brings it back then to the question @beo asks: “What do I want to do with it?”

Answer that and you are halfway there :slight_smile: (and you will probably get some more focused module recommendations).

Some possibilities:

  • add effects to external audio
  • very simple monophonic east-coast synth
  • very simple monophonic west coast/0-coast synth
  • drum machine
  • sequencer

The Power Lunch is 44HP. At that size you definitely need a “purpose” because you aren’t going to be able to achieve “all of the above”. So what do you want to do?

EDIT: even at 6U, 104HP (for a total of 208HP) I have trouble answering this question for myself, so don’t feel bad if the same is true for you. Time spend at playing around with the possibilities is a lot less expensive than buy/sell/trading your way to figuring it out!

Ah, the big question: “what do I want to do with it?”

I think the answer to that is to add effects to external audio and also a simple, yet interesting monophonic synth. @jasonw22 What do you mean by east-coast / west-coast synth?

To give everyone an idea of what my setup is like, I have an EMU-Systems SP-1200 and an MPC 2000XL that I use as my main samplers / sequencers. I then sync a Moog Voyager and Nord Lead via Midi for sequencing synth effects. I mix everything in the box via a 16-channel mixer and have an Axe-Fx for effects as well as a separate reverb / delay module. I also have a 128 and an Arc 4 I use for layering.

So I need something that would complement all of this.

Your Moog Voyager is an amazing east coast synth. For west coast, check out Buchla and Serge. Make Noise is trying to split the difference with 0-coast.

Tony explains it all much better than I’ll ever be able to:

You have synths and sequencers and a drum machine, and you have effects. Sure you need a modular? What about it is catching your interest?


Modular looks daunting but is really not, if you understand synthesizers: it’s simply a way of making a synthesizer that is both flexible in componentry and architecture. There are a lot of modules, but fundamentally, most things come down to a few roles:

  • making audio-rate sound (oscillators, samplers)
  • shaping or processing audio (filters, effects)
  • controlling the level of voltages (VCAs, attenuators)
  • modulating control voltages (LFOs, envelopes, function generators)
  • generating control voltages and gates (sequences, MIDI interfaces, clocks)

Your basic synthesizer will need to cover most of those bases. You’ll also need a case and a power supply.

You’ll find that lots of modules will do double or triple duty on that list - and that their role changes in patches. (For instance, I have one module that, depending on the patch, might be an envelope, an LFO, a VCO, a clock, or combinations of the above). Building yourself an interesting possibility space is probably the best thing you can do, even on a budget.

This will not fit all in 4Ux44HP, like a Power Lunch. I’ll tell you that now. But let’s break down building something to process external audio.

You could approach that like so:

  • something to bring external audio up to modular level. (A simple preamp, like a Mikrophonie, or an Input Module of some kind, like a Doepfer A-119)
  • something to process audio (Let’s say Clouds, because you mentioned that)
  • things to manipulate Clouds with (Modular is very much about CV control. Clouds, for reference, loves being modulated. So you’re going to need a modulation source of some kind, to manipulate its CV inputs (which is a bit like moving the knobs). That could be an LFO, or a function generator, or anything. Something like a Make Noise Maths would give you two channels of looping functions/slopes, which would be a good start; or you could consider the Xaoc Batumi (four-channels of LFOs of sorts), or an Intellijel Quadra, or an MI Peaks, etc, etc)
  • Utilities. You’ll probably need attenuators of some kind - they’re useful for shaping sources further (eg, Clouds likes very subtle modulation, so running an LFO into an attenuator before hitting a CV input will help a lot). Something like an MI Shades or Intellijel Triatt is super, super handy. Alternatively, a 1U row is good for this.
  • Under “Utilities”, stick a simple dual VCA, too. VCAs are handy.
  • And a mult.

That’d be an interesting toolkit to shape sound. It’s tight to fit it into a power lunch - you could use the 1U row for things like Attenuators, Mults, and a Mixer. You could also get a 1U Gain Tile to replace the Doepfer. And then you’ve got some space for traditional 3U Euro modules - say, a Clouds, Maths, and something small.


that is not really much of a modular. In that: there’s no space to change your mind, or build a voice; you’ve effectively built an interesting $1000 effects pedal.

You’ve listed a variety of modules you find interesting (an effect/granular synth, a controller, a sequencer). But what is interesting about the modular format? The thing is: it’s all, at the end of the day, just synthesis - it’s just you have freedom not only in componentry but also in architecture. I’ve seen some people get into modular and then spend thousands of dollars basically making a Minimoog - and I think there are more interesting things to do than that. Can you speak any more to why you’re interested, what direction you want to use this in?


It seems to me that the difference he is distinguishing is much more about compositional style and aim than about instruments. Sure, there was influence of the musician’s aims upon the instrument design, and vice versa… But in the end, I don’t think the differences he called out (2 vs. 4 stage envelopes, availability of random CV, keyboard vs. sequencer) were either all the different, or really that strictly divided.

By the late 70s when I started in modular, all of those features were available on both the Moog and the Buchla I had access to (in the same room at Public Access Synthesizer Studio in NYC!) Certainly in the 70s and 80s when I was studying and working in modular synthesis, no one ever suggested a taxonomy of “East Coast” vs. “West Coast”.


Good point. It’s not always easy to explain why some people prefer complex oscillators over simple ones, or why filters are ever-present in some rigs, and completely absent in others. “east” vs. “west” is admittedly contrived, but I do think it starts to get at some of the history of these differences. Whether that’s interesting to you is probably entirely personal.

i’ve been eyeing the lunchbox zissou for a while… dual 1u rows can get a lot done:


@shellfritsch if you were to share a modulargrid rack, I imagine a lot of us could learn a lot from it!

EDIT: Although my case isn’t so small, I’m still really interested in this subject, because I’ve been trying to figure out the smallest number of modules I can buy to make an interesting start into eurorack, while also being a good “kernel” for a larger (208HP) system down the road. WIth an additional wrinkle that I’m not really interested in duplicating the functionality of my Nord Rack 3.

i know this comment is a little out of context, but while on tour brian he kind of blew my mind by making a “patch” with only 2 patch cables and 2 modules… just using a white whale flashed to kria firmware with one cable going into mutable instruments rings, and then one cable from rings to the audio out! so i was fantasizing about having a little case with only kria and rings in it! i don’t know why but it totally turned my thinking around about modular… and its exactly like everyone says in terms of figuring out what you want to do with it all. for me, those 2 cables and modules were totally enough. mostly because kria is so damn genius!!!


That’s exactly the kind of thing I want to hear more about!

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I think it’s the limitless and flexible nature of modular. You essentially build your own instrument / effects processor. And can expand / modify as you see fit.

I think it’s the limitless and flexible nature of modular. You essentially build your own instrument / effects processor. And can expand / modify as you see fit.

Sorry - hit enter twice :confused:

Yeah. That’s definitely in the plus column for modular. But do you need it? Are there aspects of your existing equipment that feel overly constrained in terms of architecture? If all of your existing equipment were already modular, where would you put your first patch cord?

Just trying to find any kind of direction for your starter system.

It is possible to both edit and delete previous posts.

This is extremely helpful @infovore. One of the main takeaways here is that the lunch box does not provide flexibility in terms of expansion.

Also, your emphasis on architecture is making me think about modular in a different way.

I will also say: it’s OK for your reasons to be “just because”. I ended up with one because I’m interested in synthesizers, and I write music, and I went from there.

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