Performing Modular Live


Has anyone stepped outside the bounds of generative ambient, techno or sound design, and used their rack as an instrument in more ‘conventional’ music? Im talking songs, with lyrics and choruses and all those things.

Slightly related to the Modular as a Standalone Instrument thread, but I’m more interested if people are using these instruments as instruments in a band, or in songs.

I’ve not quite started my modular journey yet but will very soon, and I’m interested, among more conventional uses, in using my rack as something to play along with my folk-ish solo guitar/vocals setup. Something to add melodies, or chords, or textures. This sort of links in to how often I notice modular sounding like a harp, pipes, or a hurdy gurdy, or any manor of unusual world instruments, and think to myself how even a small rack could contain a plethora of accompaniments to a singer!

I know modular isn’t the most suited to live music with short songs, what with time spent setting up patches and its unpredictability, but there must be others using modular this way? And I bet it sounds magical.


Yes. I mean it’s VERY VERY early days yet, but I plan to play modular live and recorded with a band I’m in. So far I’ve technically done both, but not enough to want to claim it :sweat_smile:. Currently our band is heavily influenced by Cocteau Twins and The Cure, if that’s relevant, so I’ll play or sequence several synths at once. My modular is also very small (half a Make Noise skiff) and will likely never grow past 7 or 10U, so it’ll mostly be a textural instrument.

I will say that I believe modular can absolutely work well with short songs and live music, but that the unpredictability probably has to be embraced. A challenge I haven’t yet tackled is how to incorporate all the different feelings of songs I’d like to without having to drastically repatch—I think doing extensive repatching live is not likely to go well, so I’d rather not even try.

I think that the high concentration of modular users among the genres likely has several contributing factors, but they’re likely to be more to do with the users and not the synths themselves.


I came across a few artists who do this when researching for the Eurorack wikipedia page. I’m not too familiar with their music, but here are the ones I found who use a modular synth in “normal” music at least on occasion:

  • Coldplay, apparently, have a modular
  • Erika M. Anderson
  • @stripes is I think best known here for her excellent ambient release(s?), but I think she mentioned also using her modular synth in her band Florist
  • I honestly don’t have much clue who she is but apparently Lady Starlight works with Lady Gaga and uses modular synths

Funny that you mention modular synths sounding like a hurdy gurdy, I build hurdy gurdies with integrated MIDI controllers, and am now working on synths and a eurorack modular partly ffor relaxation and partly to combine with the gurdy :slight_smile: I’m also really interested in the modular’s applications for vocal processing and spicing up my functional-but-fairly-boring voice.


@barnaby thanks for the suggestions I love Florists use of synth and find it really inspiring, think it was on Wandering Wolf podcast they discussed possibly incorporating modular in the future but not having really done so yet (please correct me @stripes if Im wrong) I will take a look at the others. Always wanted a Hurdy Gurdy! Never had the money to buy one or skill to build one!

@alanza I would agree that is probably the nature of the majority of modular users, rather than the nature of modular itself that it is found in some genres and not others. I really believe it could be a versatile instrument. On the subject of re-patching I suppose you maybe just have to accept that it will be one instrument for one show and work within and explore those limitations, come to think of it as you would a conventional instrument!


I kind of disagree, at least in my case. I find that the instrument really defines (generally speaking) how it is used. For example a “normal” rock or folk song with a chorus, a verse and maybe a key or modal change through would be quite difficult to accompany with a modular synth and definitely with an analogue system and sequencer. You would need to mix through a number of sections of the patch. And then that’s just one song of maybe 10 songs in a set. Some of the newer technology might be better at it.
When I first started I wanted and worked at patching for verse/chorus type song structures and decided not to write further sections into my work. Immediately it started influencing how I wrote music. Now I make music with the modular synth and work on textures and evolving melodies/harmonies etc over a longer time frame. Also preparing for a performance and arranging patches for recording is a completely different exercise (for me).
But there is an excellent interview with Alessandro Cortini on Rig Rundown I think where he shows his live set up with Nine Inch Nails and he has a few modular systems that he does use in “conventional” arrangements, proving me wrong :grinning:


That’s interesting, but they I guess two different artists racks could be two very different instruments, which is the joy of modular! I agree traditional analouge step sequenced would be a nightmare, but something like a keystep where the rack is played rather than sequences was what I had in mind!
But I think that’s the thing, just because modular can be drastically repatched, doesn’t mean it has to be every song! Besides a lot of instrunents need a bit of tuning between songs, mild repatching coukd be similar :slight_smile:
Not that I won’t be using my eurorack for sequences generative stuff too!!


Keith Emerson ?



Great sounds in that video!


This question is a bit “Performing Modular Live” thread, a little “Modular Composition” thread. I got some great ideas from these discussions, but specifically I want to speak about how to make dynamic changes within modular performance. How can we make a patch change from more definitive sections?

Re-patching live is definitely an option but I’m speaking more here about dynamics within a patch itself. I use things like Cold Mac and Three Sisters to scan through different voices and modulations in a patch, change keys and scales, change note values, bringing voices in and out, morphing and sweeping for changes in texture, timbre and filters… but how can these be more dynamic or dramatic?

What modules or techniques do you use to transform a patch?

What are ways that you approach changes through different sections on the fly?

I have a Marbles on the way to help my patches evolve organically and to add an element of unpredictability, and would like to explore router/switch modules (like the WMD SSM).


One strategy I use is patching Walk outputs to various inputs in throughout my setup, allowing me to do things such as momentarily affect the DPO’s X-Lock, trigger Maths cycles on/off, change Tempi’s master tempo/state/mod settings, and manually influence the speed/clock settings on the Wogglebug.

I think I did most of those things in my most recent performance, which you can listen to here if you’re interested.


For the past 6 months I have been making album tracks with the exact same live modular case, using the same master patch. So it’s very easy to transfer specific album tracks to play live. I do improvise within the track but there is 90% structure to each track.

The big thing for me is I rehearse a lot before a gig. I start at least 10 - 14 days before and rehearse about 4 to 5 hours a day, so everything becomes second nature and you don’t have to think too much at gig time. I also record full sets to DAW every few days so I can see the timings / and change the track listing. I don’t care if I play a bar with 3 people or a room with 3000, I rehearse the same way. I think preparation / rehearsal is the most important thing about playing live. I also plan a lot for backups in case certain modules break / fail, so I also have alternative song, like easy self generating patches in an emergency. I also carry extra long patch cables that covers the whole length of the case. I’ve had some fail at soundcheck. I have backups on USB of every firmware / tune / hex / txt file for Earthsea, Teletype, Ansible, ER301. I also upload to a Dropbox account in case I lose the USB.

I do switch styles during my set and also look closely at the kinds of music the support acts play and the type of audience. If the support plays say techno, with a lot of drum heavy beats, I’ll cut out a lot of my drum stuff and play more melodic, ambient stuff. If someone’s playing ambient, I’ll play more glitchy drum stuff. I am very aware that audiences can get bored after 5 minutes and start going for their phones and is the reason I play different styles of music. I also play some stuff by hand improvised and other stuff sequenced. Some of the sequences stuff is live sequencing and live looping also. I think the audience appreciate it more when they see you doing stuff, instead of just pressing play on a sequencer and twiddling a few knobs. My system is I guess is a hybrid, digital sampling / analog synth.

I use different monome sequencers as it allows me to switch styles of music quickly - Earthsea, Levels, Kria, Meadowphysics. I also have enough material prepared that if any one sequencer module fails, I am covered by the other modules. I no longer rely on one sequencer module to make tunes. I split the case in half. The left side is analog, melodic, sequencing side - run by Kria, Levels and Meadowphysics. The right side I lean heavily on er301, glitchy, sound design, drum stuff run by Earthsea which I play improvised by hand. Down the middle is a master mixer we’re I fade from left side to the next. I treat the live modular a little like a dj. While I’m playing a track on the right side of my case, I am lining up the next track / sequencer on the left side. I use a different sequencer per track. I also use a looper pedal to hold the end of 1 song before fading into the next. If things go pear shaped during a track changeover I increase the reverb mix send to max while I sort it out. I do plan a lot around switching over of songs as I am paranoid about a quiet dead space. Since playing live I am shocked at the number of modular artists that don’t carry their own small external mixer - it isn’t absolutely essential in my book - just to see audio levels, tweak and eq, or just using the headphones during soundcheck. An external mixer just gives you a bit of extra control rather than leaving it to a potential dodgy sound / house engineer.

Other things I did to minimise setup time at gigs was to buy flat right angle patch cables - so no patching required… everything is prepatched. I made things smaller, so easier to carry. I use H9’s instead of the larger Factor pedals. I use a few external effects so I bought a shared power supply that powers all of them and only need 1 powerstrip / 3 plug sockets. I changed my external mixer to a smaller one. I play tuned sequences and was spending too much time at sound checks, tuning oscillators externally. Now I use a 4hp one from Noise Engineering that is permanently patćhed to the oscillators. I now can now retune instantly, I check a few minutes before I start playing.

I think the other key thing to note about playing live is that you are now not only in the music business, you are in the entertainment industry when you step onto a stage. You are playing to entertain people who have sometimes paid to watch, so I don’t play obscure b side type material and try and play something that I think the audience will enjoy. That might sound like a really obvious thing to say, but a lot of artists I feel don’t think like that.

Ps - I also check in my isms modular case every time at the airport as it comes with a custom pelicon case which is rock solid. Since getting the er301 I can now happily play with 3u for live with lots of variation which I couldn’t really do before.


I really like this idea of DJ style fading between two patch “decks” back and forth.


i also do the same on the er301. Its 4 channels so i put 2 different channel strips / songs per channel split by a mixer. 1 main song / 1 alternate song backup per channel. I work from Channel 1 down to Channel 4 during the gig.


Do you have live recordings with this type of setup available somewhere ?
This made me want to listen to it :slight_smile:.


the sound quality on this isn’t the best because its livestreamed. I went more for sequenced melody / less glitch as there were 2 techno guys before me. I cut out most of the drum stuff i had planned to play. I use a Beasts Chalkboard octave shifter for the sequencing melody side - which is great for live. The small boring modules are the most important for live - sub mixers, octave shifters, switched multiples.

Track by track is this :

  1. 100% improv arc played by hand (no clock) 1 ring per oscillator plus filter
  2. arc levels live input sequencing with clock (punching note data on the fly) 1 ring per oscillator, playing with the envelope times
  3. er301 granular sound design - manually playing the granular parameters on the er301.
  4. ansible kria - ambient melodic - stacking oscillators with the mixer and adding PWM and playing with delay time on the DLD, adding noise and filtering
  5. Er301 improv using earthsea / grid to play sliced glitch samples and looping bits with a count to 5 pedal.
  6. ansible kria melodic at the end - manually selecting patterns, stacking oscillators, PWM, noise and filter.

You can see the switchover crossfades between songs with the central mixer - a malekko mix 4. The melodic sequencing stuff is on 3 channels. I am using 2 oscillators + sub out + pwm so it sounds like 4… The er301 is on 1 channel of the mix 4.

I have another live set I did about 2 weeks later which is 50% different tracks from the one posted here. It was professionally filmed / recorded, so is much better quality. Its still being edited and I will post when they have finished.


@mlogger I witnessed this gig in real-time and it was AWESOME. Thanks for the insights on the structure, it’s really helpful. :pray:


Thanks for posting, I really enjoyed this video, particularly the arc improv at the beginning! Looking forward to the professionally edited one. I would totally buy an EP in this style :wink:

I’m guessing that the arc is plugged into an ansible, which is outputting equal tempered v/oct pitch CV? I can’t help but imagine how crisp and intense those close square-wave-sounding harmonies could have sounded tuned to a pure tempered scale. Not sure if it’s possible with the stock ansible, but the firmware is open source after all…


This is where I am. Although the ambient, generative stuff drew me in at the end of the day I enjoy making the type of songs you describe. I’ve been through several sequencers and landed at the Squarp Hermod. Will report back when I am confident using it.


Thanks, yes, the Arc is plugged into Ansible running the Levels sequencer but with no clock running at the start. On each ring on the Arc i did set a scale/quantisation per ring - both were set to the same scale and both oscillators were tuned to the same note/pitch before I started playing. As the clock was not running, I was playing the rings manually by ear and the notes outputted were quantised to the same scale. If you run the clock you can sync the rings so everything is note perfect to trigger in sync, whilst inputting notes, which is what I did for the second bit at the start. I have a video on youtube of my rehearsal were you can see a bit clearer what I’m doing with the Arc.


Thanks Alessandro :pray::pray: