Performing Modular Live


Yeah to be honest I don’t think I’ll be getting into the OT any time soon. I need to stay within the realm of what I have at the moment for financial reasons and I don’t really want to introduce any major new pieces as I’m trying to streamline a little bit.


I can definitely relate a lot to this!

I’m also from a guitarist background, with being interested in pedals, effects, and jamming loops leading me to buy my first synth as accompaniment a good eight years ago now. At the time I wanted to get into modular but definitely couldn’t afford it. I finally started building my system mid-year 2017, which by far exceeded my expectations.

However, I too feel something of a frustration that playing and performing modular feels more like programming and tweaking than playing. I’ve gone through a lot of iterations now and feel like I’m getting closer, but the reality is that modular will never feel as immediate and expressive as my fingers touching strings. This is okay though and is why it’s beautiful to be able to play more than one instrument, we just have to accept that there is no single ultimate piece of equipment for musical expression!

What I have found that helps it feel more playable though is choosing modules that have space in their layout for expressive knob tweaking, and considering the module layout in terms of creative flow and access. Other than that, practice. It’s surprising how many different new ideas you can come up with with just the same group of modules already patched. Learn how to change your parameters with less rigidity, generally you won’t ruin a patch (in a musical, performative sense) as long as you stay away from tuning knobs and master clocks (unless you’re really comfortable to do so and bring it back). Learn how to build something up and transform it into a new section and return again. I find that the more I perform the better I get at these things.

Advice on building a case for playability and performance is to streamline it!

This is what I will be performing with at a couple of festivals over the next month (just a couple of small holes to fill), which is feeling awesome as an in-between for something playable and programmed:

It’s pretty big (yet ironically a super portable and light case, it folds in half and sits in an L shape when open), but in a solo performance it becomes a full voiced system, with half of it kind of playing a backing track and accompaniment to whatever voices I’m concentrating on and playing at any given moment. I use the Maths for my main voice’s master envelopes and play with the rise, fall and slope a lot. The Elements in the corner is a surprisingly playable module, and often runs through the Morphagene for more ambient textures. Cold Mac makes a rad master knob, and Marbles offers some great semi-generitive control in my system leaving room for playing other sounds over the top.
I might change out the Brains for a monome walk sometime.

Last thought: I’m assuming you would know some good drummers to jam with. Jamming on modular with just my drummer was the most I ever felt like I was playing it like an instrument, being forced to make it all happen and fit with what he was playing. That push pull worked surprisingly well and was super fun!


Wow that’s a nice system @Puscha! lots more great ideas, thanks! This forum is awesome!

So working backwards, I’ve actually almost exclusively been playing in duos with other drummers. I actually have three separate duos with drummers I’ve played with in the last 6 months, ha. Two are playing standard kit, but a third is playing modular as well as sensory percussion setup with triggers into Live.

As I think a little bit more about what was making making me feel the way I did about my setup and essentially what caused me to write this post, is that I think it’s more about the context and utilization of the modular with the groups I’m playing with. In two of the three groups I’m the sole driver of the melody and structure of the piece. It’s pretty much all improv, but I do prepare my patch with like two to four voices of sequences or patterns. There are sections of complete free improv but I’m in interested in also having some repetitive parts as well, hence the need for sequences. It’s really difficult to go from from improv type guestural playing to something sequences based unless the sequences are set up first. So in essence my desire to cover both of these grounds is driving the patch. I think the fact that I’ve been playing this stuff mostly in rock clubs with traditional sound check situations had got me thinking if a fully modular setup was worth the hassle if a large part of the synth portion was going to be just sequenced loops. I started thinking what if just got a Moog Sub 37 or Matrix Brute and was able to quickly recall all of these patches, it would make my life so much easier for setup, no tuning VCO’s and hunting through wires to make sure everything was in place.

Then, I remembered the whole reason I got into modular was because I was bored by fixed architecture synths. I’m really into specific timbres, and if you buy a synth you are pretty much locked into that. It can be a good thing, but I’m really interested in the tones of Buchla, so Moog or Arturia are not going to cut it. I could sell all of my Euro and some other stuff and get an Easel, but I feel like what I already have now Euro largely surpasses the functionality of an Easel, and I’m probably about 90% there tone wise.

With all that said, I’m sticking with Euro. So then I get back to the original question of the post. I think I can divide my frustration into two camps; ergonomic and intent. I’ve already spent a bunch of time thinking about layout of the modules. I’ve got them organized in groups for functionality, type and general signal flow. Also thinking about where the patch cables tend to land as well. I did order a bunch of new cables that are much thinner and flexible than the current cables, which are those braided ones that Mutable sells. I’ve not received those yet but looked forward to it. I also put aside a few things (Pressure Points and Keystep) and purchased a new controller (Pittsburgh KB-1) . I just received the KB-1 and I can tell it’s already worlds better, because I’m combining all of my control into one area.

The second side is rethinking intent and how it fits into the context of who I’m playing with. Maybe I shouldnt feel the need to jam pack the patch full of ideas and just work with a fewer number of voices and focus on playing those and learning that vocabulary. Also I’m thinking that if I use looping more, then I can still layer stuff without having to dig through a bunch of spaghetti to make rhythmic passages happen. Also I need to explore using the guitar more as a controller. I’m much better at guitar and there’s no reason I need to limit myself to pressing keys and turning knobs.


I can’t help to think that this sounds awfully similar to performing with a computer. And the answer there has in my knowledge been that if you want to be a live player then you have to make an instrument or system that makes you able to do this. And in part compose or improvise your music around these ideas that this instrument/system is based around.

For myself as a electronic musician usually heavily based on the computer I have found different things I like to do. Things like processing, live sampling, step sequencing on the fly, being able to mute and unmute different parts, trigger as in have different things i can press to play a sound not just fire off a loop but to have to constantly play the buttons(like a drummer or a piano player). I like resampling, pitching and processing more, and often I like to blend in either a synth based instrument or my guitar as a sound source for all these processes.

That said I do play in a group that forces us to use some studio finished loops as well because the music is not composed for only this instrument.

So my tips would be: Find out what processes you like to do, and how you like to do and control them.

And remember that playing and performing live is(although not always) a different process than composing in the studio. So your system should reflect that just like with the computer. The more I think about it the more similar they are. Modules instead of plugins, cables instead of midimapping, physical instead of on a screen.


I haven’t read through the whole topic (I will in a second :wink: ), but using a modular synth as a “regular” instrument had always been my goal. I went through a few setups, but I’ve finally settled on the one below. For me, one of the most important things about playing an instrument is gesture, i.e. the actual action I have to perform to make something happen. That’s why I stick with Pressure Points as an awfully useful tool to play my modular. Coupled with a simple switch (Doepfer’s A151) it gives me quite a lot of options, and is expressive enough for my needs. I also use 2 joystick modules for added control. So, perhaps, focusing on the way you interact with your modular synth could make playing it more enjoyable?

Also, the thing I like about acoustic instruments, is the fact that they’re not only about the “desired” sounds (notes played, timbre, etc.), but also about a lot of seemingly “undesired” sounds (like e.g. the sound of moving your left hand over the strings while changing the position), which – for me – are just as important as the "clean”. My solution to make my modular synth more like an instrument was to use Mikrophonie – it picks up sound from all over my case (pluggin/unplugging cables, switching switches, intentional and unintentional scratching/tapping etc.). That way, it really becomes an electroacoustic instrument.

Here’s my case:



That is a really interesting idea, with the Mikrophonie. I love it, I may steel it. Ha! I actually have some old Radio Shack contact mics laying around somewhere, so I may try to mount one on the inside of my case and use the Doepfer preamp to amplify the sound.

I also agree there is a different mindset for playing live vs. studio, however in general my studio approach has been one of a mostly live type. All the recordings I have done thus far have been live to two track, with minimal editing. One of the other reasons I got into modular was to avoid the lengthy process of overdubbing, which plagues my workflow, because I’m a perfectionist when I get into that mode. I used to spend all day getting guitar tones, and then when it came time to record I would have no mental energy to actually record. Or I would take a year to mix a 6 song ep, because I would remix things so many times I’d end up hating the source material, trying to avoid that! Ha. Want to keep it fresh.

Excellent ideas guys/gals! Keep them coming.


This is a great topic, and one that I’m really thinking about as I prep for a show in a couple of weeks.

My approach has been kind of twofold:

  1. Embrace the “play the mixer” part of performing on a multitimbral instrument with multiple parts. My mixer is part of my instrument.

  2. Create set patches for a show or series of shows and really learn what they can do and how to play them as instruments. In some ways the current patch is the instrument, not the modular as a whole. I saw Suzanne Ciani speak a couple of months ago and she talked about how she’s been using one patch on her Buchla for decades, so she really knows it inside and out and can play it deeply.

  3. Work with sequencers or controllers that favour real time input. I might start with some basic parts, but they don’t stay that way.

  4. Practice.


That’s what I was doing first as well :smiley: But then I bought the Mikrophonie to free the A119 (now I use it to interface the modular with my C-L Tetrax).



I’m big into Ciani as well. I didn’t realize she’s been using the same patch for that long, thats crazy! I don’t think I could do that. I re-patch almost every single time I sit down at the instrument, unless I have a show, then I practice with the patch. Maybe that’s my problem here? I really enjoy the process of coming up with something new every time though. And, my case is small… only 6U of 104hp, so not overwhelming. I do a lot of the same things every time, but I enjoy trying to discover something new as well. I really get bored very quickly to be honest. I think the constant malleability of modular is the draw, but at the same time its the burden because you can’t totally master something if its changing all the time. The struggle is real, ha!


I’m slowly coming around on leaving things patched myself. My system is half as large as yours, but I’m finding that when I focus on repatching, I tend to think in terms of how my modules could talk to each other (a source of very interesting questions, to be sure!) and not as much on what they’ll say. Since most of my modules are somewhat “polymorphic”, this latter question can be pretty open-ended even without moving a single patch cable! Teletype is a pretty extreme case of this, for example; in my off-the-cuff patching, it’s a lot harder for me to envision a role for Teletype to play. I’m hopeful that by largely sticking with a patch (maybe performatively breaking a connection, of course) I’ll be able to get deeper with my use of it.


That was the main reason I sold off my modular a few years ago. I was sick of going against what I considered to be the nature of the instrument – fluid change and reshuffling. I wanted to do some new shit, but felt the pressure of playing in a few bands that had certain requirements. When I realized I hadn’t changed much for quite some time, I decided to get rid of the modular (I only kept a few modules I coudn’t bring myself to sell).

Now I know better :wink:



I was at your schubas show and i was overmuch interested in the sounds the modular was making. I have spent a lot of time not focusing on live shows because i had a hard time convincing myself that i need to conform to “playing” and instrument and its still a battle i go through. I really enjoyed the set and did not feel like there was someone on the stage just hitting play on a track or djing.


@robotboot Ha thanks for the kind words! Yeah sometimes I’m a little hard on myself and sometimes I like taking these kernels of thoughts and using them for talking points. I think the biggest issue was the anxiety that we had during setup because we were so rushed. I was like ‘why am I bringing all this shit onstage when I could easily just have something that recalls presets and I could still tweak’ I mentioned that to the other guy after the show and he’s like ‘modular is just cooler’ Ha! Well that settles it.

@shortsleeves I think modular in a band is really a lot harder. I played some modular in a band for one show that was essentially something something similar to Wilco, and it worked in that because the songs we chose for that set were more open, but playing it with songs that are more locked down I don’t think is worth it. I definitely want presets for that sort of thing.


That’s why I play free improvisation guys :smiley: And great musicians to boot (much, much better than me), so the structure and flow kind of builds itself. Sometimes I lead the other guys, other times I follow. Still, because most of these bands (even free improv) have with a defined sound/vibe, I’ve always felt I needed to have something the other musicians were expecting of me (to make them comfortable), which meant not messing with my patches. That’s what was bringing me down. But now I think I’ve found the right balance between having a well rehearsed (and flexible) patch, and trying out new things live.

I’ve found playing with other musicians, especially in an improvised setting, keeps one on his/her toes, and boosts creativity,



Yeah I love playing free improv. I’ve been playing in free improv settings on guitar for about 20 years. The current groups I’m playing in have elements of that, but I’m interested skirting the line between that and minimal repetitive stuff. I’m realizing that’s where things get difficult with modular. I feel like breaking in and out from the clock can be really difficult to achieve in a way that’s fluid. I mean, I doing it in these settings, but it feels weird. Also, sequences versus gestural free playing by nature sort of require an opposite mindset when setting up your patch. I think that’s why its nice to have a bunch of voices, but then back to the original issue of the post, too much to weed through. I often set up sequenced voices first, then go backwards to ‘played’ voices. But I might try it the other way.


If you’re in the free improv scene up in Chicago, someone who you probably know who would be good to talk to about this stuff is Brian Labycz. Sharp cat for sure.


I think the fetishism of Modular gear gets in the way of its playability as an instrument. This may not be a popular opinion but I personally think going beyond 104 HP or having 2 rows makes a modular significantly less expressive. The wires just get in the way at that point.

My take away is; GO SMALLER, proactively sell modules that aren’t earning their keep, love the few modules you include until you can play them with your eyes closed (venues are dark lol)

I keep ~208HP of modules as a library and use ~104 HP of them at a time when playing anything.

Edit: Thought it may be useful to include a picture of a recent system as an example of my approach:


I totally agree with this. I think for me my limit is two rows of 104HP. There’s a hard stop at that point for me. I’ve already been pulling stuff out that I’m meh about and selling for new stuff. The most recent thing I did was putting all of my controllers inside the box, so I’m not using any external controllers like midi keyboards at moment. Trying to avoid using the one SQ-1 I have.

I really agree about the fetishism as well. I’m definitely not immune to it, but I’m aware of it for sure. I’m coming from guitar nerd zone so there’s nothing new here in that regard.

Here’s my current setup for reference:


Got some time to mess around with some ideas last night with my setup in regards to this goal of playing the synth more. I came up with a few ideas:

  1. Try to focus on one voice for your main ‘playing’ of the synth first, then embellish. While listening to improvised music I think I’m more drawn to more monophonic voices such as horns or wind instruments, so I thought this was a good way to start. I picked a VCO to start with that has the most options and sounds the nicest to me, a Bubblesound VCOb, then patched up something which allows me to bring me to bring in different timbres via a sub-mixer. So for example, I was combining the pure triangle out, with a waveshaped sine, with the square on the mixer. I also sent another VCO into the FM input, that combined with PWM modulation options on the Bubblesound and the modulation on my Wavefolder (TipTop Fold), I have a ton of timbral variations to work with. I can add LFOs or any sort of modulation of CV to this with ease but still get back to a base tone when I need to.

  2. Use a looper to build sounds rather than just sequencers. Sequencers are rad, don’t get me wrong. But a looper feels more human because its not quantizing every note to a grid. I have an Eventide H9 that I have on an aux channel on my main mixer, so I can send anything to it when I please. I can choose to lock it to the main clock, or not. I figured out something neat last night, there’s a knob for the decay of the loops. I can assign that to an expression pedal, so when I feel like the loop is getting too dense, I can start decaying the loops more until they are fully erased, I can start fresh without stopping the loop and starting over.

  3. Leave the patch up longer. This is something that a lot of people have mentioned, but its newer for me. I spent the whole last year building a new patch every time I sat down at the synth and then recording what I did. For now, I think my goal will be keep the patch going for much longer, and try to get a variety of pieces out of that same patch. I don’t know how long that will last, but I’m going to try.


I guess to each his own, but I don’t think it’s a matter of 104 HP, or 3U vs 6U, or any other case size, but rather a matter of being comfortable with one’s live system. Which is always good, I guess (being comfortable, that is) :wink: For me it’s 9U / 84 HP, for other folks it might be something else.

I’d love to be able to feel comfortable with a single row of 104 HP, don’t get me wrong. But with 9U / 84 HP I feel safe enough – I might only use 1/3 of the synth during a particular show, but I get to choose which 1/3 it is_during_the show. I don’t have to construct a separate instrument for that particular show. So, I guess, it’s about being comfortable not only on the interface/playability level (i.e. so that the cables don’t get in the way, etc.), but also on the level of versatility (which is very important in most of my playing setups).