On the high cost of modular

Hi folks, cooking myself up a first new thread. I’ve had this idea bouncing around in my head ever since I joined the forum and I’d be real interested in hearing everyone’s thoughts on it.

Essentially, like many of you, I think modular synthesis is the most powerful and intuitive way to create new sounds right now. But I can’t do modular synthesis, and I may never be able to, because I can’t keep up with the cost of $200-$800 USD every time I need to add something new to my sound engine (especially as someone who leans toward DSP) There’s just no way.

So, for those that do use hardware modular and can afford it, how do you digest this? Do you have ways of keeping the cost/consumption aspect of modular separate from the music? Or do they sometimes feel all too similar?

And for those that don’t, what do you consider to be the alternatives? How do they compare to the real thing, both in terms of technical capability and creative capability? Is something like MAX (and derivatives) an alternative, or is that more of a programming language? Is hardware necessary to interface with a music system, and can it be employed in a software setup (i.e. MIDI) as effectively as it exists in a hardware only setup? I don’t think many of us here are analog purists, so why use hardware if it’s so expensive? Isn’t an ER-301 just a computer?

Lots of questions. Lots of answers. Have a go.

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Everything costs money.
I would say that if you think the cost of modular, even modest setup, is too high for you, then Max/MSP or PD is absolutely a great way to explore a fairly similar conceptual and formal territory. It’s all about networks and systems, and you can do amazing things in software.
Of course that will also cost money.
For one, you will need a good computer, some sort of studio setup etc. And costs will creep up anyway. In the end, you need to make a decision about what really matters to you, and spend your money there.

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Re: cost I only buy what I can afford, usually used, and only after much much research.

I’ve owned Nord Modular and Organelle before and before purchasing them thought I would enjoy picking apart or creating new patches, but once the interface was open the idea of dragging cable graphics across the screen stopped me cold. Once I got my first modular (kilpatrick phenol) I knew that it was the lack of physical contact that had stopped me.

Though not an analog purist, I hesitate to get into any module with a screen or even a button-based menu system, as I see it as a non-negotiable barrier to my enjoyment/use based on my prior experiences.

Love making music on the computer, love working with free synth plugins, love working in free DAWs to make wacky screwed up stuff.

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I think practically a lot of people sell modules to afford to buy other, different modules.

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My relatively small modular costs about the same as a Selmer Paris alto saxophone ($6k) and substantially less than a professional BBb Yamaha or Mirraphone tuba ($9k and up). Pianos cost a ton more.

I have a world class instrument, and it’s cheap.

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That’s one way of looking at it.
Good point.

Hey Andrew - agreed 100%

I love the feel of working with modular + the happy accidents and intuitive feel of patching in the hardware domain. I also like that when you work with a good module, you’re building on hours of instrument design that someone has already invested in the hardware for you.

With that being said, as a working artist + educator living in an expensive city, there’s just legit no way I can fit the cost of even a ‘modest’ system into my budget, excluding grant $$ (fingers crossed for '18!)

As a result of this, I’ve put a lot of time into Max/MSP, and it’s become pretty much my favorite thing. While it doesn’t have the ‘right out the box’ immediacy of Euro (I’ve spent more time than I care to admit trying to clone a MN Maths), the cost-effectiveness, infinite expandability, and the intellectual capital you gain from learning/ working with it feel so elegant and exciting and inspiring to me compared to the ‘shit, guess I need to buy more gear’ vibe I get from places like MW or similar.

With that being said, there is a magic to modular, and I’ve still put together a tiny (tiny!) system that I use in conjunction with Max/MSP via a MOTU interface to send CV, so, best of both worlds in a sense.

Also, don’t know if this is viable everywhere, but I’ve been working with some folks to build up a cooperative studio/gear share/artist resource center, as I do think the technology is vital, despite the unfortunate high cost of entry - hoping there are workable alternatives to get access to the tech for folks that are priced out of it.

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I’m a believer in, I can’t remember the exact phrase but something like “the final purchase”. Where I try to buy something that is designed to last and hopefully the last of it’s kind that I buy. Or at least last x times as longer as similar items. I see my modular purchases like that, unlike software, plugins or even midi controllers, my eurorack system feels timeless. The saw wave coming out of a dixie is going to be every bit as useful and relevant in 10 years as it is today. There are of course some more trendy modules that risk going out of fashion, or ones that get updated like the disting, but even those don’t risk becoming useless or unsupported. I also second the cost of it as an Instrument. Granted my modular cost more than my fancy Fender when you add it all up, but a couple of hundred dollars here and there didn’t hit me as much as the lump sum of a decent instrument.

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Buy used. Sell things I no longer need. Pretty much sums it up for me.

Lots of research into modules.

Now vcv rack helps make the research a bit more like the real thing.

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My first modular purchase was the 0-coast back in september this year. I had a buffer account with some funds I knew I wanted to invest in some equipment. That little synth hit me so hard. I ended up selling my dear OP-1 and a lot of nice guitar pedals to finance my journey further down the rabbit hole. I try to mostly buy used modules, but at the same time doing a lot of research and just buy modules I know I will get into, so there’s been a few brand new ones as well. Like I knew I wanted a Maths, and that one hasn’t showed up in the used market once the last couple of months in Norway.

For me, buying modules is exactly the same as when I used to buy guitar pedals for my pedalboard. Buying one pedal/module at the time helps keep the cost “down”. There’s always some units that are extra expensive so you have to save up for some time. As soon as you got your most important building blocks you can have so much fun with it while you’re saving up for the next addition. I’ve owned a couple of hardware synths, like a Juno 106, the OP-1, Bass Station and so on - but the modular synth just feels so much more personal and kind of intimate. My setup is very much integrated with my DAW (Ableton) and Mac (via the ES-8) - and it feels like I’m approaching a very cool little studio setup.

But yeah, this is truly one expensive hobby/passion project. As @laborcamp mentions, everything costs. Earlier this year I bought a new macbook, some studio monitors, a new audio interface, Ableton live suite and Ableton push - and I can tell you that was even more expensive than my fairly modest eurorack case (so far). The same process, I had to sell a amp, the Juno, guitar pedals and so on. The nice thing about physical music equipment is that if you buy quality stuff you can always resell or trade. I’ve been playing instruments since I was 10, so naturally I’ve collected some gear throughout the years.

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I wrote a short essay on this subject

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DIY is one path to both satisfaction and lower costs.

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The obvious point here is that it is expensive, but these are all relatively short run modules by small manufacturers without the efficient supply chains of large corporations. One argument - which doesn’t help I admit - is that the price of other goods in comparison - cars, stereos etc - is artificially low and the mass production involved in these has a diasterous ecological footprint (although the parts in many modules are mass produced so this probably won’t stand up).

I personally can afford it (because I don’t have any other expensive hobbies and I’m old-ish); but what does concern me is the consequence of the expense - the practical aspect that means that the cost inevitably limits the users to particular social ‘classes’ etc; and therefore what’s produced with the tools reflects this. There’s a reason a lot of cutting edge music is done on Fruity Loops etc…

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As someone who designs and buys and sells Euro…
if you want to make sound you can do it on the computer - for free in Pd + so many other things. There are no significant audio limits to what you can do there.
If you want to own an interesting fun object and make sound in a potentially faster and more fun but more limited way. It is not a financially sensible way to make sound, but it is enjoyable.
There is a slightly icky collector/buyer mentality in modular (“I want to make this sound, what should I buy”) which can get a bit offputting, but can be ignored and certainly isn’t universal

You can trade cash for time if you go DIY. Again, it’s probably not really financially sensible - most people can probably earn enough to buy module X faster than they can earn enough to buy the DIY gear + take the time to learn and the time to build + buy parts in small volumes.

But DIY is very rewarding in lots of ways - mastery of skills, doing something with your hands, fixing something that doesn’t work at first, a very meditative process, a pathway to designing your own tools.

Also, buy decent monitors!

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You don’t have to build an expensive modular system. Yes, the modules are not cheap (as in money cost), but I submit that money now stores less value than yesterday, and many prices that remain the same, that don’t result in shrinkflation, are guided by corporations who tap into economies of scale. How else could a DAW cost $199 (Logic 10) instead of $499 (Logic 9) or $999 (Logic 7) or $2499 (pro tools hd)? I’m very happy about VCVRack. It has literally allowed me to figure out the absolute minimum number of modules I need, to add a fantastic open-ended sound-design tool to my setup. Highly recommended.

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Yeah, to echo a lot of people here, modular doesn’t have to be mega expensive. I just think of it that way because guitar gear (my other vice!) is so damn cheap.

My modular cost roughly the same as my double bass and is a great machine. My double bass not so much, it’s pretty much a student model.

How I keep costs down:

  • Selling items to buy other modules
  • Keeping to a small case (I was in a 3u104hp but… well… 6u84hp happened. I’m hoping to stay there)
  • Buying older versions of modules (Disting MK2 is still insanely powerful, discontinued roland aira modules are great bang for buck)
  • DIYing everything I can - Soldering is not that hard!
  • Swapping with friends.
  • Enjoying the creative limitations. I only have one “traditional” filter in my case. If I want a different one I’ll swap it out rather than having two. I only have one traditional vco. If I want a second I’ll use the airas or disting.

Sure, your dream modular set-up will probably unaffordable. But then again so would your dream guitar set up. I play an old japanese telecaster through an orange tiny terror because I can’t afford a custom shop jaguar through a Dumble. I also have a small modular set up of DIY and cheapish modules because I can’t afford a wall of Verbos. Same difference.

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I’m not a modular user, but it seems to me this is partly dependant on your definition of ‘expensive’.

Modular is expensive vs e.g a microwave, but not so much vs a new Nord Lead synth.

DAW software is ‘cheap’ for what it does, but expensive vs most consumer software

(But what do I know, I waste all of what what used to be disposable income on living in London & keeping my children alive :slight_smile: )

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start slowly and get to know what you want…

I saved for a year till I could afford a case & power, I bought 2nd hand, and I slowly worked up until 6U.

the slow learning and growing stage is as important as the final result.

as for whether its expensive… that all depends if you think spending the money elsewhere would be more rewarding for you… and only you can answer that…

I am actually fairly close to having my dream modular and can afford to finalize it in the foreseeable future. This is a recent development and is due to me actually using a modular to make music and not just googling new modules.

I’m sure that I will want new things in the future but a massive system does not excite me. I hope that this will not change.

Being able to make new iterations based on experience and changing tastes is one of the benefits of modular.

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despite having a little eurosystem for recording, i´m not using eurorack, tbh… right now i don´t need it to achieve my musical goals.

i love music gear, reading about it, and cannot resist to think about buchlas, rhodes, guitars, pedals and vintage italian organs…but honestly, after investing for more than 15 years in gear, i prefer to use my little workflow, be creative with limitations, having fun, and recording-editing as much as possible. even my musical computer is from 2008.

i love honesty in music (& sound), and i´m very curious about seeing-hearing people can do with little amount of gear.

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