Playable modular synthesizers

…in the tradition of the Buchla Music Easel, EMS Synthi AKS, what are some other synthesizers that are closed systems, ‘playable’ (in the sense of their immediacy and gestural, real-time manipulability, like an acoustic instrument) and emphasize complex control functionality and modular signal routing? I’m thinking about this in contrast to not only ‘studio instruments’, which emphasize extensive programmability (i.e. lots of patching) while sacrificing more gestural immediacy (e.g. eurorack, Serge, Moog 5U, et al.), but also keyboard-based synthesizers—insofar as these favor complex audio signal path (complex sounds) over complex control/modulation possibilities.

Something both the Easel and AKS have in common are preset patch recall, which seems crucial to the immediacy of such an instrument. Obviously many digital keyboard instruments have this feature, but doesn’t seem terribly common in modular synthesizers (recent examples might be Erica Synths SYNTRX and Pico System III, Buchla 200e, digital modules like SSSR Labs Matrixarchate, MN Tempi, Teletype, et al). Preset recall obviously affords the ability to perform discontinuous global modulations of texture, which is basic on an acoustic instrument.

Anyway, please share instruments that you feel meet the criteria described above. Hopefully what I’ve written here is sufficiently coherent.

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I’m having trouble interpreting this sentence, can you expand on what you mean?

Sorry, I guess I was trying to say that with preset recall, the ability to discretely change parameters all at once is possible and easy—parameters like timbre, envelope, register, internal temporal structure (periodicity), etc. Not unlike instantly initiating a program change on a MIDI instrument. But I also mean something like the ability for a guitarist to strum an open G-major chord at 120 BPM, fortissimo, then shift to playing a series of repeated A♯6 quarter-notes sul tasto at 47 BPM, then shift to an aperiodic sequence of pick scrapes, etc etc.

The preset recall is definitely the hard part when you also want physical manipulation of signal flow.

In terms of (semi)closed systems that are designed to be very immediate and playable, Ciat-Lonbarde comes to mind.

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I find it weird that you’re grouping what are essentially almost fully open-ended custom designs, under the umbrella of designs that either “sacrifice gestural immediacy”, or do not favor “complex control possibilities”.

There is nothing stopping you from packing a small, instrument-sized Eurorack modular system with any of the almost 500 available modules filed under Controller category in MG, patching it in a specific way and leave it like that forever. The expression, modulation, and patch recall options available are well suited to the task. Can’t speak for other formats, but in Eurorack you have Select Bus, patch matrices, CV-to-MIDI, MIDI-to-CV, hands-on controllers, foot controllers, faders, knobs, touch surfaces, brain controllers, etc.

Unless the idea is to not opt for a custom design, but go for the get-if-from-the-shelf option. Not wanting to derail the thread into an unending barrage of eurorack suggestions, just wanting a clarification as to why you seem to dismiss these as “studio instruments”. Is it the hard-wiring behind the panel that promotes the former to playable?

I also find that the parallel between patch recall and acoustic instrument “flexibility” is somewhat flawed. Expressiveness and the range of sound in physical modeling is grounded on the controller, while the model ideally remains the same. Similarly, in a patch, a control parameter would allow you to modulate numerous characteristics under modest gestures, in a way that will vary the sound immensely with different techniques, without having to resolve to patch-recall to switch between fortissimo and piano, or legato and staccato. Even in software using sample libraries (which is the most commonly used alternative to having actual musicians around), the push is to move away from having the user switch to different techniques, rather than the controller automatically do that under gestural changes.

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The Moog Grandmother or Matriarch are both amazing, self contained modular instruments, with excellent sound and build quality. The GM is all the modular I’ll ever need now, and I used to own 22u of Frac!

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If I understand you correctly, this presupposes two things: a) a controller with scaling output capabilities; b) a sampler that not only recognizes such capabilities but is also able to modulate sample parameters according to them (depending on how many parameters it affords, to what extent they can receive modulation, what kind, etc). Do you agree? Having both of these is ideal, but not always tenable (like anything equipment-related, of course).

I think so, yes. As you know, patching is a rather time-consuming process, especially relative to playing a ‘musical instrument’. And unless one takes the ‘each patch is its own instrument’ approach, one can be rather severely limited on a formal and structural level as to what sort of things one can accomplish compositionally. Hence a lot of real-time modular synthesizer compositions, of which I’m aware (and I admit this might be limited), are predominantly generative and/or monotextural, and favor continuous output of such. In other words, compositions wherein morphological and structural diversity are not particularly salient (this isn’t a value judgement, btw). Of course, compositional limitations are inherent to any instrument, but not all of them offer the complex control possibilities afforded by modular sound synthesis architecture (e.g. integrating automated and manual control). In this sense, the patch-centricity of such instruments might be viewed as compromising its extensive control affordances and their integration in real-time composition, given that this process—just on a technical level of having to (imo) arduously plug-and-unplug cables, twiddle potentiometers, etc.—is just not very amenable to real-time performance and composition. This is all I mean by studio instrument: primarily non-real-time programming and composition (unless your compositional preferences meet the criteria I described above). Obviously as you point out this is rather reductive but I guess for me that’s the most efficient short-hand way to describe them. Keyboard synthesizers or any instrument that favors complex audio signal path over complex control is obviously not necessarily a studio instrument, so I didn’t mean to imply that they are to be defined the same way.

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this is a topic that interests me greatly but I must admit the way you’ve framed the topic is kind of off putting :slight_smile: almost a challenge

There are a number of aspects to this:

The modular IS a synth - just one without a fixed architecture - you can, and many people do, patch for playability - look at Chris Franke in mid 70s Tangerine Dream - he made a massive point about ‘playing the sequencer’ (& listen to the bootlegs of the '77 tour!). As illustrated above the Moog Grandmother does a lot to put this all in one box - and look at Lisa Belle Donna playing it

Are presets necessary for what you are talking about - I think that’s a firm NO. I can patch my modular to give me a range of sounds and expression with careful controlling - moving from short plucky envelopes to long tones - just as I can on a more physical instrument (like the flute I’ve not played for many years)

Is patching part of this? well there certainly ARE some people who can and do patch live but I’ll leave that for people that can do it to talk about

SO

Your assertion ‘each patch is its own instrument’ is I think is what I am advocating. Your comment that ‘rather severely limited on a formal and structural level’ I will politely suggest is rubbish. I agree that it’s that having a limited structure, expressive and tonal range IS an almost trivial trap to fall into and an awful lot of modular music does end up in this category it is not Necessary that it does so.

I suggest a more fruitful line of enquiry might be “what would make it easier for modular musicians to include a greater compositional range in their music” - is that a lack of education about techniques (an awful lot of modular “content” does focus on the modules and not what you do with them), the use of modular in dance music which tends to be mostly structural, or maybe there are components “missing” that would be useful (and I would still argue strongly that that isn’t ‘presets’ - don’t remember my flute having presets)

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the distinctions between standalone instruments vs. fully modular architectures is touched on a little in the Thoughts About Musical Instruments thread from a little while back. @MengQiMusic’s offered definition for designed gestures might a handy distinction to draw between these two types of approaches.

obviously this all comes down to the musician, but I feel there is some merit in recognizing the differing psychological attitude that can develop when approaching an instrument with a more fixed timbral architecture (while leaving significant room for expression) vs. approaching a device that can make any number of sounds.

while I love sound design, I’ve reliably moved towards working with piano and limited set of synthesized sound sources because I do feel like it let’s me explore structure and sound in a way that is more immediate and gratifying (for me).

I don’t know how to feel about the studio instrument label, but it doesn’t feel quite right to me.

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just want to clarify another thing that I’m almost entirely not really interested in diff ‘sounds’ but control of them. synthesis continues to compel me bc of its ability to integrate many levels of control from manual to automated. I think this is maybe what I meant by preset recall and its importance: the ability to discontinously ‘state switch’ across control complexes (and thus across textures). I do agree with you @junklight that this is also largely about compositional and technical knowledge, too, but I’m wary of framing things too relatively. there are already a lot of good points here helping me clarify this issue. I realize I probably shouldn’t have introduced the ‘studio instrument’ dichotomy either bc on more thought I’m not sure how helpful it is and hope discussion doesn’t hinge on it.

so total agree control is the absolute key here - and I don’t think there is enough focus on it in modular music in general. The techniques are very different from those we normally associate with music playing (although let’s remember Bach complained about the dynamic range of the piano back in the day! and it in turn was made in response to the genuine lack of expression in the Harpsichord) and I do still feel that I need to be inventive to bring that into my modular music.

For me state switching is a better framing than ‘preset’ and yes that’s kind of how I think about it when working with the modular (you of course will have your own judgement while listening to my music on the success or failure of my endeavours) and it’s not always easy - it’s not a natural thing in a modular but a learned thing.

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As others have said I think your description is kinda confusing but what I boil this down to is… what are good semi-modular synths that can be expressively controlled?

I’ve said it many times before but while it has a very particular sound you can get the MS-20 to do a LOT of different things, and theres no reason the keyboard needs to be used to play notes or the wheel needs to be used for pitch bend or on the filter.

On the higher end theres the Cwejman S1, but you would have to pair it with some sort of midi or CV controller.

edit based on your commend above about switching/changing- so by this do you mean the ability to say only turn one knob or hit one switch/button and have something radically different or wide in effect happen to the sound? because if you ask me that can be done on LOTS of instruments. I was using a Blofeld as a live instrument like this for a while with a BSP- just change the midi control numbers around and with careful patching I had sounds that could change drastically in character in a performance setting with just hitting one or two buttons. But that goes against your programming/patching idea I suppose?

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Just want to draw attention to something I really agree with (at least with the stuff many people look at or play up as modular music). Control IS key!

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maybe, yes. I’ve never made a forum topic before and have a hard time knowing how specific one should be in the genre. its just that lots of semimodulars I’ve seen don’t have much range in terms of control. But I should look into them more carefully.

one of the main things that continues to fascinate me! If its not obvious I come from a ‘music instrument’ background too and maybe I’m expecting some sort of practical isomorphism between it and a synthesizer without fixed architecture where there might not be one entirely. for me I use the latter not dissimilarly to how the magnetic tape or ‘film’ process is—having a bunch of recorded bits and subsequently composing them—and I’m not exactly finding it sustainable.

My “goal” with my music playing is to be able to sit and play my electronics without extensive preparation just like you can a flute, guitar, a piano.

And let’s be clear - I’m still a long way from doing that :slight_smile:

My current approach has been: Norns/Grid - the work in progress Islands script is one take on all this (which I guess does have presets in the sense I can switch between 4 different patches easily), Various techniques on the modular - sometimes resorting to a large setup divided into different parts (which I used for my lines community piece) and sometimes with a small modular setup which I have a lot of hands on control over (see my YouTube if you are interested), Various pieces of software - and I’m really liking Crow and Teletype for this for letting me do macro controls over multiple parameters without having to remember them all. And in all of this I fall back to keyboard controllers

So yeah - Hard and not in the natural flow of things. But is it do-able. IMO yes. There are certainly synth designers who’ve been down this road too - obviously Buchla was very interested, I’d argue this might be a key part of the momome world too

A good conversation to have

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In the analog synthesis world the upcoming Syntonovo Pan instrument is designed to be the absolute beez neez. XYZ modulation analog keyboard, 2 touch plates…patch anything to anything, innumerable lfos,envelopes and recall.

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Which is not the case in modular, since the instrument is designed according to your specifications. That’s what I was getting at.

If I’m not mistaken, there’s contradiction in what you wrote. From one hand you point that modular sound synthesis architecture offers complex control possibilities, while on the other hand you consider the plug-and-plug format as arduous, and not amenable to real-time performance. I see this as contradictory; the open architecture is exactly what provides lots of opportunities for performability (sic).

My main point from my first post on the subject was that this is very much personal. The options are there and the way you approach the modular is so custom, that any limitations you’ve found by watching videos or listening to music coming from modular systems are not inherent in the instrument (although I hate considering the modular as an instrument type, but rather as a category, explicitly because of limiting associations), but to the approach of that particular performer/musician/composer.

It is practically quite easy to create a modular instrument with a large amount of expressivity (sic). Something that would require practice to master.

I get that the format lends itself to sound exploration more than playability, but the amount of options categorized as Controllers is a testament to the demand for haptic control of the sounds. Lets not forget that a common answer from modular users when asked why they transitioned from software is the physical aspect of the format.

Not all UI encourage hands-on control, but one of the biggest perks of modular-as-an-instrument approach is the option of meta controls, following the paradigm of acoustic instruments.

I can heartily suggest you take a look at the Hardware Physical Modelling thread for more inspiration. PM as a synthesis method can be seen as being focused around this premise.

My personal experience in this area, is that it is ripe with possibilities.

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a format that doesn’t necessarily entail a “plug-and-plug format,” yes? If so, which is what has been demonstrated by certain instrument designs, then I maintain my position as without contradiction in this case.

I get the impression that you find the premise of this entire topic to be wrong or misguided, which is fine but I wasn’t really intending to argue anything—I should know better and say less stuff on a forum, probably (I say this sincerely). I’m really just looking for equipment/instrument recommendations that aren’t arbitrary collections modules and don’t require a ton of patch cables but still afford modular control found in ad hoc 3U/frac/4U/5U systems. maybe digital hardware? @mystasea’s rec looks promising, thanks!

I have a feeling this already is and is probably going to go further down the road of becoming what feels like a defence of modular thread… or whatever other working system (monome, so on…). I won’t speak for the OP but I think part of the point of someone looking for an expressive instrument like a semi-modular is that… they just don’t want a damn modular and there can be plenty of reasons for that. constantly telling someone who says they don’t want something to just spend hours looking at different modules and planning a possible case with tactile controllers is simply not helpful and possibly one reason they want to avoid the whole thing.

there was another thread on here about instrument design, or was it circuit design, or both? that maybe covered a lot of what you are talking about- things where the finished fixed thing feels more like an instrument, as in more than just the sum of its parts. Unfortunately there aren’t very many of such things that exist IMO, or at least that maybe have a broad enough sonic palette for what you want to do and remain affordable/obtainable- theres lots of stand-alone non or semi-modular instruments at this point but most of them are designed to do one particular thing very well, I guess kinda like only getting a floor tom when what you really want is a whole drum kit.

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Yes.
I agree with this and appreciate your saying it.