Playable modular synthesizers

Far from me being the reason you’d stop saying stuff in a forum! I do not find your topic wrong, or misguided, and even if you might get that impression, I am not an adamant supporter of modular systems. Nor did I endorse that you have to have a modular system for your purposes, as @slowsounds seems to support in the first section of the earlier post (although, I do know it wasn’t addressed to me specifically, I do feel partially responsible for posting extensively about why I believe the OP contained some misconceptions, or at least how it misrepresented modular systems). I did find the way you’ve set the premise of this topic (specifically the dichotomy upon which the topic is set) somewhat problematic, but that doesn’t mean the quest you’re on is not valid. Far from it! It’s a path very close to my heart. My posts were not meant as an advertisement for modular systems, but an address to those aspects that I did not agree with, and which I find set arbitrary limits to your search. That being said here’s a few non-modular suggestions you might find interesting in your search:

Expressivee Osmose

Haken Audio Continuum and ContinuuMini.

I see these as superbly powerful instruments. Self-sufficient. No patching required. Any sound you make is saved and easily recalled, the expressive options of all three are state-of-the-art, and so is the sound engine.

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I’m not sure it’s exactly what you’re looking for, but the new 0-CTRL paired with the 0-coast seems like a fairly ‘closed system’ that is extremely playable. Two patch cables would get you a really quick, expressive synth. Then if you wanted patch more and rearrange things, there are plenty of ways to reroute signals and patch up more control.

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I’ll politely disagree that the Easel & AKS are examples of what you’re describing.

The Easel has a great interface into a semi-modular synth, but making presets requires using a soldering iron. It suffers the same fate as a lot of modular though – a lot of people use it to make the same sounds, and they are often ‘monotextural’.

The Synthi AKS is a fully modular synth and doesn’t have patch recall or presets. Maybe it’s enticing because the patching metaphor is physically (and thus mentally) isolated from the performance of the knobs / keyboard. A similar separation of patch/performance is present in a different way in the MS-10/20 and a number of newer synths. Perhaps this is enticing about the Easel too? Most of the patch points are collected in a strip along the middle of the instrument, not interspersed.

I would argue neither of the above instruments has particular ‘complex’ control interfaces (or rather, they have the same parameters as a typical modular synth). In many ways, the meaning of a parameter in a modular synth isn’t determined until it’s patched. Perhaps the Easel’s controls are seen as complex because of the predefined patch?

My critique here is not ‘pro-modular’, rather I think there is an interesting point you’re trying to make, it just seems clouded (to me at least). It seems you want 1) a tactile parameter interface, 2) less patch cables (I agree!), 3) default signal flow (for audio at least).

I agree with a lot of what you’re saying, but I’ve not found ‘the thing’ in my search so far, so I can’t really point you there.

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I am not exactly sure if I would say that presets recall make synth instruments feel more like acoustic ones, because I personally feel like preset recall can often result in a very strong feel of discontinuity between played notes when presets are changed midway, while changing parameters by hand makes the change feel more gradual.
I think the answer “how to make modular more playable” will probably depend a lot on which instrument somebody played before. I started as a guitar player so what feels “natural” to me is for example using mikrophonie into strum input of Rings where I can affect how sound is triggered by “scraping” the mikrophonie surface in various ways using fingers and/or pick and achieve different results sonically.
But also what others mentioned you might look into “submodular” segment of synths. I have mother-32 and I used it both as a part of eurorack setup and as a standalone synth without any patch cables and I felt like it excelled in both of these use cases.

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Not exactly targeted at modular but I can comment on how I like to build expression into my patch creation. In particular I’ll take the Peak as an example. I use it with a fairly standard keyboard controller with velocity and aftertouch, and pitch and mod wheels. I have two expression pedals connected as well as a sustain, and the two binary animate buttons on panel. When defining modulation routings for the mod wheels and expression pedals I tend to think of each control as having a patch at either end, i.e altering several parameters providing a high level timbral shift. The pitch bend can also be mapped arbitrarily in the positive and negative direction so I use that to provide two momentary accent mappings (as I find myself using pitch bend traditionally infrequently when playing polyphonically). I similarly map gentle variation to velocity and more to the aftertouch. They aren’t features coming in like vibrato or tremolo but broader textural shifts. This gives me a broad range of dimensions to use in expression that can be expressed with both hands and feet. I’ve also been tempted to add a breath controller to add a “fifth hand”. I don’t have a bank of such patches but tend to make one for a specific purpose. Such controls may sound will suited to drones and pads, but can be used equally to add movement and variation to arps, sequences or sounds that occur momentarily.

The trade off ends up being in having to do such design before performance to get the best from it; in contrast I like designing sounds live. The middle ground in exploring is making a “routed init patch” where my timbrally variations (modulation routings) are saved alongside a default sound. I could then adjust the sound in the fly, but know how the texture timbre will change with each expressive dimension.

Though not quite what I’m doing, I think this sides to providing consistent exclusive dimensions that you can learn to use: without consistency you have to learn how to apply expression with every patch. I hypothesise that we may emphatically operate a control to great effect in a patch, but how intuitively or directly are we expressing our musical intent? As has been stated elsewhere I think the expressive e osmose is a great example of such a principle. In particular a physical modelling engine is well suited to acoustic instrument like expression as the expressive dimensions can be mapped to inputs to the dynamical system. This allows for (if designed well) very subtle yet expressive control that feels intuitive, or at least familiar, to players of acoustic instruments.

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not all models but a lot of them have “PrestoPatch” card slots, basically the same as an Easel. http://synthi.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2017/01/Matrix_Interface.pdf

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Perhaps thinking modularly is the way to go? Not in the “just jump in already and buy a rack” sense but in a much more minimal “sound module” desktop or rack unit that is the engine and a “control module” such as a continuum, or rolli, or instrument, or keys and a touche? Or?

I certainly appreciate the desire for something that is “an instrument.”

I think the really important questions with searching for t “the thing” is what sound do you want it to make? How do you want to get there? And since its “an instrument,” how portable should it be?

The easel and the synthi both have analog patch recall (presto patch on synthi for example), which does have limitations, but is an interesting thing in terms of playability. In particular, the easel has sliders which allow a player to manipulate more than one parameter at a time, much easier than a bunch of knobs.

In the past there have been players of these instruments who have been able to switch gears/contexts very quickly, much faster than on a standard modular system. Charles Cohen (easel) and Thomas Lehn (synthi) come to mind.

I believe you can get similar abilities by using modules like Cold Mac for macro control over a patch or something like Meng Qi voltage memory to change several values at once. In the serge world, the preset/programmer/tkb allow for fast changes. There is also something to be said for keeping a rig the same or sticking to a single manufacturer. Modular synths do not encourage this.

The appeal to me of both the easel and synthi is that they are complete ‘instruments’ that are somewhat fixed, but with enough control and modularity if you want it.

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I’m still figuring this out. Right now my plan for expressivity will appear to involve at least these components:

  1. Sensel morph controller with Buchla Thunder overlay
  2. Polyend Poly 2 - Sensel morph plugs in to here via MIDI USB, and up to 20 customizable CV outs are provided (a single voice might involve note on/off, pitch, velocity, and MIDI CC)
  3. Envelope generator(s) (how many envelopes? it depends. To some extent, the multi-dimensionality of the Morph may be a substitute for envelopes, but not completely)
  4. VCAs (at least 2 for each voice - one for volume, one for velocity. Whether these are linear or exponential might matter a little or a lot, depending)

It’s a bit more than I expected when I first dreamed of using a Buchla Thunder overlay with my eurorack. The Morph with Thunder overlay works beautifully and the Poly 2 is a great match for it, but I don’t have enough VCAs, and it remains to be seen whether I have enough envelopes. Once I do have everything I need, patching it up in a way that sounds “musical” or “natural” or “expressive” in various senses of those words is a separate question entirely.

I don’t know what this thread is about anymore, so imma just throw some pics down and let you guys have at it.

Lorre-Mill Keyed Mosstone? (Had one, loved it.) edit: The DoubleKnot as well.

Ciat-Lonbarde Sidrax?

Folktek Mescaline?

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Plumbutter! Entirely self-contained; infinitely fun to patch—and play. Plus it has that amazing Deerhorn controller.

While it seems like this prompt is only somewhat vaguely defined, I also felt like the MS-20 is the closest to what OP is getting at. I agree that semi-modular lends itself to immediacy (patch and pull and you’re far less likely to end up with silence). It also feels very open in terms of choosing how you want to interface/control different aspects - keyboard pitch cv, keyboard gate, mod wheel cv, momentary push button gate, external sound to pitch conversion CV, external sound to envelope conversion CV, external sound to gate - all of these can control the most important aspects of the sound generation/processing on board. Also much of what makes something playable or immediate isn’t necessarily about routing but rather about controlling amounts of what’s routed. Part of why the MS20 panel is so great at letting what’s in your head flow directly into sound is the relatively large number of pre-routed attenuators on board that can be co-opted to attenuate other signals depending on how you wire up the patch panel.

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I think a modular can be an expressive instrument; but it has to stay stable and you have to practice a lot to get there. Some people are able to design the modular they want from the get go, then get good at using it, but for many other people there’s a long learning/experimentation (buying/selling) process before a modular reaches a set of static but flexible capabilities you get from an easel, or a synthi, or any other closed but flexible systems.

The type of control that favours performance is probably personal preference-- I’ve been blown away by people performing an existing patch; just tweaking parameters with knobs and switches, and also with people that patch and repatch live. I would like to be able to reach that level of fluidity myself. So patch cables and knobs aren’t necessarily a limitation.

There’s a wonderful extended interview with Richard Lainhart from I Dream Of Wires about designing a performance instrument-- he also draws a distinction between studio and performance instruments and spends a lot of time talking about designing an instrument for performance. He uses a buchla 200e and continuum as controller; apparently he even developed a single physical patch for years.

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What a wealth of knowledge, sad to hear he passed away not long after this interview.

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http://www.doepfer.de/traut/traut_e.htm

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This is the kind of question that we all ask ourselves, explicitly or implicitly, but I’ve personally found that is a challenge to work through and a task that is easily derailed. I would suggest that the question be reframed. Instead of “what instruments are playable,” I would ask yourself “how would I like to interact with an instrument.” Upthread you clarified that you are specifically “not really interested in diff ‘sounds’ but control of them,” so I think this is actually what you are asking, but by reframing it explicitly this way, the focus is where it belongs — with the player, not the instrument.

The advantage of a modular synthesizer is that it’s an open-ended system that you design and which has an infinite ability to be reconfigured. The disadvantage of a modular synthesizer is that it’s an open-ended system that you design and which has an infinite ability to be reconfigured. In contrast, the advantage of the (original) Minimoog is that it is a self-contained system that has well-defined limits, and the disadvantage of the Minimoog is that it is a self-contained system that has well-defined limits.

To focus your question further you could provide more details about what you need out of your instrument and what trade-offs you are willing to make. The expressiveness of an instrument is 100% about the performer, and that performer’s ability is dependent on spending a significant amount of time honing their skill. I would argue, with only slight exaggeration, that one could devote one’s entire life to the Korg Monotron. It looks like a toy, but is it really that much less expressive than a flute? Of course that doesn’t mean you could devote your life to it or that it satisfies any or your personal criteria. What is it about an instrument that would inspire you to come back hour after hour, day after day?

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Screen Shot 2020-05-19 at 3.03.22 AM Screen Shot 2020-05-19 at 3.03.32 AM

Howe, H. S. (1972). Compositional Limitations of Electronic Music Synthesizers. Perspectives of New Music, 10(2), 120-129.

fun fact: H.S. Howe wrote the Buchla 100 manual.

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One thing I’ve found helpful with the MS, and I suppose could be applied to any other patch cable synth, is that adding additional expressive or playable controls doesn’t have to be so complex. I think a lot of people get really hung up on things like needing an expensive touch sequencer or multi-axis controller or something like that. While the VCA and mod wheel and trigger button already offer a lot along with the built in attenuation you mentioned it only costs a few bucks to pick up or put together a cheap A/B or A/B/Y footswitch, or a volume pedal which can be used for either volume or as an attenuator, or just wire up a few simple things like rotary switches and some jacks. Small things like this can add a great deal of options without breaking the bank.

is there a mod for the MS instruments that allows scalable tuning? the obligatory semitone quantization is prohibitive for me…

in a way I suppose- its not like it will get anything accurate but you could just for example take the keyboard CV out, run it into an attenuator or the VCA with the mod wheel controlling it, and then run it into the oscillator CV inputs to change the range the keyboard has until you get something you like. But if you want specific scale systems then I guess you would need some sort of controller/sequencer/external keyboard that supported hz/v and did microtuning. its the one real shame with the mini that there is so little midi implementation, so no pitch bend

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