Performing Modular Live


this might really depend on the individual setup at the location. playing lo-fi locations, as i did sometimes in the past, created a few issues regarding the use of headphones or the lack of using them respectively. it might perhaps be good to just have some at hand in case circumstances demand making use of them. i played shows with no monitors and it would have been incredibly hard to keep control over my set if i wouldn’t have listened into my headphones every now and again (i generally don’t use them non-stop throughout the set anyway - just to check in).

on the other hand tho, i had a show in a “sound spiral” with tons of speakers winding themselves throughout a inflatable tunnel, including all sorts of fancy animated sound panning/distribution. even tho the concept was great, the practical implications were a desaster for my performance. no monitors, of course, which made it hard to get a grip on whats happening throughout the system but when using my headphones i always heard a completely different set than the one being played back in the spiral itself at my precise location. that was maddening. parallel universes and completely f**ked me up big time as that scenario made it practically impossible for me to control the sounds i was creating…….

anyways, perhaps having headphones handy every so often, as you do, might be helpful in not so amazing sound system setups nevertheless……


There’s a reason DJs use headphones. Trying to balance and mix by using the acoustics of the space is a nightmare. At least with headphones you know everything is lined up leaving your rig.

The only other option is asking for a monitor feed in front of you, but smaller venues won’t be able to supply this…


I always have the headphones ready. Whether and how much I use them depends on what I’m playing, the character of the space, and the quality of the monitoring situation.


Probably a bit of topic wobble here, but I’m starting to jam with others on my euro modular and I’m curious how folks are manually sculpting their sound walls to make space…

Cross faders, mutes, volume pedals, ???

The modular is one dominating puppy to try to restrain…

Mods please move this as appropriate…

Structured Modular Synth Improvisation: review wanted

For me, the “manual sculpting” is part of the performance itself - which in addition to pitch intervals between 2-4 voices, it’s manual adjustment of each voices volume and timbre (usually via wave shaper/folders) - and to some extent, sends to verb/delay.

Jamming with others is a whole other skill, imo. It definitely requires some level of discussion before hand with everyone, and agreeing on ‘duties’ or roles goes a long way (but not a definitely requirement). I definitely find that people who have a history of playing in bands are much easier to jam with as the understand the basic fundamental of when to pull back, and when to come forward. Otherwise what you end up with is everyone trying to solo (or if you’re the one guy who understands the push/pull band dynamic, then you just get buried).

Another way to avoid the “everyone soloing” situation is to have everyone start patching from scratch and to build together. It forces a level of synergy and usually people don’t tend to build out their patches too fast and often stop earlier - if there’s 2-4 people jamming, each person doesn’t need 2-4 voices full of sound… which is often the case if people come to the jam ‘pre-patched’.


Hey there! First post. Been lurking for a little bit, thought I’d post finally.

I’ve been playing modular for about a year, but I’m a lifelong guitar player. On guitar I’m relatively proficient; I’ve played in dozens of bands over the years, everything ranging from straight up rock, to country and folk, to all out experimental free improv.

My path to modular is probably similar to many, I just reached my limit and boredom with guitar and guitar gear, and I really like experimentation, so modular was the natural next step. Because of this I wasn’t really afraid to take my setup out to a show with in the first few months. I’ve already done a handful of shows with modular, mostly improvised stuff, always with other people in duos mostly. Usually I bring another instrument along as well, such as guitar or lap steel too.

What I discovered at my last show with the modular is that I’m setting up patches like I’m just playing back ideas like a DJ or a mixer. After playing the modular for part of the set and then switching to lap steel, I felt an instant freedom on the lap steel, whereas the modular started feeling like I was just hunting through wires to find the correct things to pull up the faders on. After the show I started going down this path of thinking that if I’m just playing back stuff why not just just get some fixed architecture synths with presets, and it would be much easier on myself for setup and everything. Setup for that show specifically was anxiety producing, very little time for soundcheck and then we had to strike our setup for soundcheck and then setup again because we were the second act.

I’m not about to give up on modular just yet, but the reason I’m writing this post is because I’d like to open up the discussion about using modular more like a traditional instrument, and less like an elaborate playback machine. I heard an interesting podcast with Todd Barton recently where he was talking about this with the Easel, but I’m not really aware of too many people on Euro who are ‘playing’ their setup, rather than managing ‘the playback’ of a patch, if that makes sense. Even with generative music, you set it and it goes, you make choices about what stays and doesn’t. Essentially you are acting as a director or mix engineer, but not a player. Keith Fullerton Whitman is about the only one that comes to mind who seems to be freely improvising, and not necessarily playing a bunch of preset ideas.


I wonder if it’s just a question of avoiding some habits you use with the modular. I have the opposite problem: I’m so obsessed with synthesis (whether my modular or computer-based) as a way to create what I call “invisible instruments” that are truly played that I miss out on many other things these tools can do musically - so I have to set rules for specific projects that prevent me from falling back on my tried and true techniques. The same, but in the opposite direction, might help you.
Forcing yourself to start from scratch with recorder/DAW capturing it can also be a great way to for oneself to move from a machine to an instrument approach.
A great performance interface helps too. I was attracted back to modular because the whole thing could be treated as a real time instrument - including every knob on the modules - in a more accessible way than software, which required lots of time dealing with OSC and Midi (FD, I’m now using software even more, though still immersed in modular). Using the Endorphins Shuttle Control allows me to create a happy medium between the two approaches, and opens up the possibility of using Midi (esp MPE) controllers that don’t have CV outputs as part of an instrument design.
I also like Subotnick’s approach of creating a permanent instrument via modular patching that limits the scope of his live playing when performing - he’s not patching, he’s playing the patch(though admittedly along with pre-recorded material). The Buchla Music Easel has plenty of dedicated players who treat it as a live instrument as well.
And what about making the Lap Steel PART of your modular system? It’s quite an expressive “oscillator” with beautiful tonality that responds directly to your physical intervention! Maybe get that signal into the system if you haven’t already!


Very thoughtful response! Thank you. Yes!

To start with the lap steel, I’ve dabbled very loosely in processing guitar and/or lap steel, but I think that will be one of the next courses of action. I think I’m still treating them like two separate instruments too much.

Regarding an interface, I have a Pittsburgh KB-1 in the mail, which I’m very much looking forward to. I’ve been using a combination of the Pressure Points and an Arturia Keystep. The Pressure Points is cool but quirky and the Keystep has a great arp but it makes me feel too disconnected from the instrument. It seems the KB-1 will be a good combo of the both, which I’ll be putting to the side. I’m essentially trying to construct an Easel-type situation in two rows of 104HP. I refuse to expand out of that, I think anything more is too overwhelming at this point.

And, because I’ve only been playing for a year, I didn’t even consider that I already have developed habits, but I think you are right. Haha! I think will try a patch from scratch recording. Good idea.

Thanks again!


I’ve been wrestling with some of this stuff too. I’ve come to modular from a background in classical piano and I’m keen to try to get the modular to perform alongside the piano - maybe using some clever midi patches/programming in max/msp (which I’ve not yet explored). I’ve also not yet taken a deep dive into teletype, crow, etc - but it’s in my future - I’m sure!

One thing that I have been using which could work for you is a midi foot controller. I found it infuriating trying to play the piano whilst stuck to a sequencer’s rigid tempo. I use the Keith Mcmillen 12 step - because it’s small - but the pads are kinda weird - I use my heel to trigger them. This way I can slow down and speed up my piano playing and use the foot pedal to trigger chord changes and other stuff (via ES FH-2 - with Ableton in the middle - I would love to get rid of the computer in the middle - this is a problem for 2020).

This stuff’s all new to me - and I’m so excited!


So regarding your timing issue, I have gotten some rudimentary things to work in regards of using your instrument to progress a clock pulse. I have the Doepfer module that processes external instruments - amplifies them to modular level, extracts an envelope and gate, and can use that gate as a clock pulse. It might be a way to have modular follow your playing more. In fact I’m going to try this again, because a large part of my frustration is the fact that I’m relying on sequences as well to play to.


Using the gate from an envelope follower as a clock source is such a good idea! Please let me know how you get on. The foot pedal is fab for note changes, chord changes and perhaps even triggering a bunch of stuff to be sent through Ableton into the modular all at once - but it doesn’t help with syncing a delay, for example. So this would be super handy.


check out Jeff Snyder’s work (esp. with ExclusiveOr, a synth/laptop duo with Sam Pluta), Thomas Lehn (particularly in duo with Marcus Schmickler, Lehn is on an old Synthi). Ben Vida has also developed some smaller rigs and patches that seem super super flexible. granted these are all more in an abstracted or non-beat based idiom, but some really creative ideas in all three of these.

these players have been huge for me in developing some sets of patches that I feel comfortable bringing to sessions and playing with others in a more free improv/free jazz/noise/etc. situation (in which a lot of my other work as a trombonist resides). playing brass w/ pedals and such never had the flexibility and I also got pretty bored with it, so I chose to separate the brass stuff from the electronics/synthesis.
the biggest challenge of improvising with a modular was figuring out how to both sustain things that work but also turn on a dime into other materials without bringing 12U of synths. also being a brass player, never really having ‘resonance’ to play with (no wind = no sound…most of the time), I tried to map things so I always had to be active in some capacity to make sound (or consciously freeze parameters). having a touch controller (currently an iPad running into Max & out some expert sleepers gear) & some foot pedals really helped a lot. here’s a recent recording with some violinst friends!

I’d be happy to chat further about structure/patch architecture, but this is an issue near and dear! & like @louis mentioned envelope followers & various analysis processes are super super useful.


I think you nailed a huge element that is often ignored in this kind of discussion: less is more. Anything more than 6U live (to me) is too much.

Also, regarding the original post - if you’ve played for a year and don’t feel like you’re fully ‘playing’ the modular, play for another year, and then another year. Just like the guitar, it isn’t something you pick up quickly.

Enjoy the journey :slight_smile:


couldn’t agree with this more!


So interesting you mention Thomas Lehn, because I saw him do a modular synth improv duo with Jim Baker about 20 years ago in Milwaukee, and its one of the most memorable improv shows I’ve ever seen. I still think of that show especially now getting modular. I have never before or since seen anyone patch something that quickly, it was like I was watching Coltrane play the modular, it was unreal. I will without a doubt dig into that stuff you mentioned. Also, Ben Vida, he’s from Chicago, I used to watch him improvise guitar all the time. I didnt know he was doing synth stuff now, but makes sense.

I also agree with you about pedals, in general I find pedals to be tone modifiers, where as modular is about construction and control, as well as modification of course. This is what drew me to modular. The last show a did was definitely more locked to a clock so having preset loops made more sense in hindsight, but this conversation has already encouraged me to dig and further explore.


Jim Baker! Holy shit, I seem to always forget to re-dig into his stuff. He also played a show with Tim Daisy (& someone else I can’t remember) in one of my first shows I went to when I moved to Chicago. He might also be one of the subconscious reasons why I got into synths, too…


Crazy, it seems we run in the same circles. Tim is a friend of mine. Are you in Chicago still?


Maybe incorporating a sampler to use as a Looper on steroids would work for you - that way you can build your patch, sample it (and effect it / mangle it if desired), loop it, and then start re patching over top.

The Octatrack comes to mind as that’s what i use in my rig for this duty. Disclaimer: i haven’t taken the modular plunge (though I have semi modulars), but I’ve seen the OT in many modular rigs for what I assume is this purpose.

In my live rig I have 4 outs being fed into the OTs 4 inputs for live fx, and then as mentioned above I can record any or all of the inputs, have them play back in whatever method I conjure up (as recorded, slowed down, sped up, reverse, chopped etc etc), and then keep building a track over top / sing / play guitar. It really is very fun!!

Anyways, just a thought!


Yes good idea! In the podcast I was listening to with Todd Barton he mentions using a looper with his easel. I’m already doing some stuff with looping, but just on my guitar mostly. Not as much with synth. I have an Eventide H9 which gives you the ability to sync a loop up to your clock. I’ve never looked into the Octatrack or any of the Elektron stuff but that’s pretty neat it samples 4 tracks of stuff.


Yeah, I have a strymon timeline in my guitar rig that has midi synced looping and some other cc controls too - probably similar to h9 looping function. The OT is complex and can do ALOT, it’s not a piece of gear to rush into and plan on using live the next weekend and may be overkill for you, but have a look into it. Im happy to help if what i use it for aligns with your vision - everyone I’ve met that uses an OT uses it differently and even after having it in my set up for 4 years there’s still functions on it I’ve never used.