My name is Rik Adriaans and I am a lecturer in anthropology based in London. I am currently conducting an academic research project that seeks to understand modular synths from the perspective of the study of material culture. Material culture studies is a field that seeks to understand how throughout human cultures, objects shape people’s social norms, experience of the world, and interaction with their environment. A central theme in this field of study is that objects can be both enchanting and troublemakers: it is only by engaging with objects that we become fully human, but sometimes they can risk overpowering our wills.
In my current research I want to explore this theme by analyzing the experiences and stories that people tell about the power that modular synths have in/over their lives. I would like to collect stories of the ups and downs of people’s quest for the ever-elusive perfect rack. I’d be interested to hear whether browsing modules or watching demo videos on YouTube ever made you miss a deadline, overspend your budget, or become a synth manufacturer or vlogger. I would like to learn how people integrate the modular into daily routines, as meditation or mindfulness, or how the modular facilitates personal connections, collaborations and friendships—including with significant others, musicians or relatives who are not into modular. Or whether you ever find yourself thinking with or perceiving things using modular concepts such as control voltage in contexts that are only tangentially or not at all related to modular synths.
If you are interested to participate and share your experiences and thoughts with me, you’re very welcome to write in this thread, to send me a DM here on lines, or to e-mail me at email@example.com. Participation is anonymous and on the basis of informed consent, and I’d be eager to share occasional updates on my findings as well any publications that may come from it in this thread on lines.
Thanks for your time and don’t hesitate to let me know if you have any questions or comments.
otaro aka Dr Rik Adriaans
Lecturer in Media Anthropology
University College London
This may give you some insight into the less joyous moments of buying/selling gear. I know I’ve spilled my guts in that thread haha
Material culture studies is a field that seeks to understand how throughout human cultures, objects shape people’s social norms, experience of the world, and interaction with their environment.
This is so interesting to me! Can you point towards some resources for studying this field? Notable books or authors? I’ve found myself thinking of this kind of topic but never had the words for it. Looking at modular culture through this lens should be pretty interesting, and I think you’ll find this forum pretty fruitful for purposes.
This is a fascinating topic - I wish you great luck and greater joy in your research.
It’s been my experience that perfection is not so much a destination as a journey, and that we change the tools we use to make music along the way to suit our needs. But as is true in so many aspects of living, the greatest creativity springs from constraints; eurorack (by virtue of its cost, supply and the puzzle constraints of HP) is delightfully self-constraining.
I’d invite you to also check out the GAS Haiku thread, where members of this community go to express their ennui via poetry.
I’m going to talk from a mixture of personal experience, observation and supposition. This will surely represent only one angle and perspective and I don’t mean it to be a sweeping generalisation, as I know there are many people with many stories reaching many different outcomes.
I’ll share my take on the shame of GAS. I believe that in almost any hobby field the desire to collect is strong. Whether the items are functional or aesthetic, this seems to apply equally. Collecting can be an enjoyable pastime and can feel engaging and compelling. When one accepts that your collection is just that: things you enjoy buying and owning, you can enjoy the items for what they are: artifacts of your passion (useful or not). Whether the item is aesthetic or functional, I think it’s easy to get caught in a pattern of justification: telling yourself your aesthetic item may become valuable in time, or that the functional item will unlock some otherwise inaccessible capability or potential. Over time your self justification can come into conflict with your actions; you don’t keep your collectibles in boxes, or you don’t make the music you intended to. The result can be a feeling that you don’t deserve (or shouldn’t own) the items in question. The solution seems to two fold at this point: you bail out or double down. Your aesthetic items become an investment and your functional items will be used to great effect.
My background is in mathematics and engineering. I think this is a fairly well represented group among modular synth owners. In particular they represent a technical (or at least more technical) aspect of music. I hypothesis that, compared to a typical musician, such individuals are less intimidated by the cables of a modular (and maybe even feel drawn to them" vs “the smiling teeth of a piano”. The opportunity to be designing the system, picking a case, power supply, the next module etc form a series of projects. These projects continue, perhaps driven by creative needs, perhaps by lust, perhaps “just because”. In the end though, the system may become an end in and of itself. In reality one could say: they want the perfect system, to have the perfect system.
Personally, my motivation was to get away from the (piano) keyboard. I wanted a way to interact with sound and music that didn’t lean on my knowing scales, chords and theory. I chose to keep the scale small and constrained and hence the expected limitations. I chose elements that I considered opinionated, I chose things that might be awkward, I limited my control in various dimensions. The intent was to create something that I would have to struggle to learn: something I would need to adapt to, and something that would force me to compromise. Moreover I designed a system to be a collaborator in a process. That process is changing and my need for that system changes. I make it larger or smaller, I re-structure and rearrange. It’s there to become familiar, then become something new again. Aesthetically I am unconcerned; I don’t consider colour or graphic design at all: it’s functional for me, and I understand that function. This has helped me avoid that system (inadvertantly) becoming the centre of my world, yet allowed it become central to my broader growth and process.
In this regard it’s a personal item. Though I engage in associated culture, the cultural aspect isn’t necessarily a motivation or even a necessity for me. My modular is an abstract tool for an abstract purpose that I align with my creative goals.
It’s very much an interdisciplinary field that draws on anthropology and archaeology but also on philosophy and cultural theory. Anthropologists have long been interested in the way people and things come to stand for each other. Perhaps the most classic and universal example is the gift: if I give someone a present, that object in some way comes to stand in for me, and the everyday usage of that object may then remind its recipient of their relation and possible obligations to me (and depending on whether it is relative, a friend, or a stranger, make them reciprocate it in some or another form). Some more recent authors such as Alfred Gell or Bruno Latour argue that material objects, in some sense, take over the agency of persons – e.g. the art work of the artist, or the traffic light of the traffic cop it replaces.
Approaches in material culture studies informed by Marxism and other forms of class analysis tend to highlight how objects obfuscate power relations. The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, famous for his work on distinction, might have argued about Eurorack that some modular enthusiasts will prefer certain brands over others not only because of how they sound, but also to appear more sophisticated, avantgarde or countercultural than fellow synthesists. Or if it is about sound, to sound unlike the mainstream. Such a perspective could perhaps be applied to those won’t ever have a Rings or Maths. In a Bourdieusian approach, sophistication around objects does not always equal economic power: one may reject Rings in favor of Cwejman, but one may also reject it to embrace the authenticity of affordable DIY modules.
One book recommendation that I can certainly suggest is the book Stuff by Daniel Miller, which provides a broad introduction to material culture studies with many examples and in very accesible language. Miller represents a current in material culture studies that has a more optimistic take on people’s relation to objects, and also looks at digital devices as material objects, for instance his most recent work explores how smartphones become a kind of portable homes ‘in’ which we live and find belonging.
Thanks to all of you for your enthusiasm and sharing your insights.
@bobbcorr I had seen the GAS haiku thread, which is indeed full of brilliant takes on the enchanting power of musical objects. If anyone wants to ‘donate’ their GAS haikus to be analysed in my academic work do let me know, I’d be very happy to engage with all the wisdom and wit they capture.
@chalkwalk The linking of GAS and shame is interesting. I kind of know this feeling from unused modules in a drawer, as I tell myself that I will only get new modules if I sell old ones but in practice I don’t always follow the rule. It also makes me think of my sense that beyond a certain size or slowness of expansion, it’s as if the modular no longer works ‘for me’ and is not, as you put it, a collaborator.
@emiddio Thanks for sharing your work on GAS, this looks and sounds fascinating, as does your academic work. It reminds me of the recent module Commodity Fetishism by Wildfire Laboratories, which you might have seen–the module that promises to stop your addiction by destroying your rack.
I’ve shared a lot of my own experiences over on the Free yourself from your equipment (reddit.com) r/gearaddictionsupport subreddit. I posted monthly thoughts I had about my relationship with my stuff and how it took over a lot of my headspace. It’s a place I think some people from the r/letstradepedals community started to have a place to share feelings about GAS. Others on there have shared stories of addiction and impulsive spending. Lots of shame floating around that needed a place to be vocalized. We’d share tips and ideas for how people can get rid of all the stuff they’ve accumulated, and have a space to share their anxiety over how much time they’ve spent obsessing over their pedals / guitars / modular. At one point in time, I was distracted from work, checking modulargrid obsessively, arranging all my possible modules perfectly, and ignoring work I needed to get done while watching demo and reading manuals. The space allowed me to air these thoughts and get perspective on how much time I was wasting, and how much energy I was spending trying to “optimize” things. I know another user started to post weekly song lessons to replace the impulsive desires of buying more stuff, trading things, and looking up demo videos. I eventually sold all my modular gear as a result, and have dramatically downsized the tools I use for music since then.
I’m a grad student in the electrical / computer engineering field, so a lot of programming concepts and modular concepts are pulled directly from circuit design, such as envelopes, slew limiters, vcos, vcas, filters, and so on. The telecommunication sector of things is full of the same concepts, so often I can explain modular concepts using an FM radio example, or I can explain FM radios to students using modular concepts. I remember helping others by translating concepts into audio production examples.
~all just musings and opinions and such~
One thing that seems to happen in the pedal world, guitar world, and modular world, is when beginners want in they’ll ask “what do I do to make generative music” and don’t know where or how to start. Then a lot of them get a rings into clouds and a maths or something similar because it’s a low risk in terms of cost and complexity. From there, I think the distinctiveness starts to become more prominent because modular’s pull is the ability to make whatever instrument you want, but at the start no one knows what they want or how to do it yet. I remember getting a Plaits at first because it was cheap, sounded good, had a low pass gate inside of it which meant I didn’t need an envelope and vca. Later on, I got a rainmaker because it was more sophisticated as Bourdieu would say than a regular delay and would allow me this “greater possibilities of sound exploration” or something. In my opinion, there’s a feedback loop of beginners asking for recommendations on what to buy for a certain task and then the people who answer these recommendations are often other beginners who recommend the popular products that they themselves bought when they were previously in the situation before them.
It seemed like modular was the next level up from acoustic instrument to pedals to synths to modular in terms of music gear technical ascension. There were plenty of people from the pedals forums who got into pedals for the “sound exploration”, because they wanted a phaser to sound like hendrix or something. Then, you’d get a chorus for cleans, a fuzz for doom metal, a compressor for funk, or something else to match a tool to a job and a company would market it as such and you’d end up with like 8-10 pedals on a pedalboard. Often cheap things are recommended. Synths were the next step of weird sounds, and I was recommended an electribe and some Volca stuff. Modular came after as a way to get more control and dive into stranger sound territory. This leveling up trend I think can be seen in guitar pedals nowadays, where there’s stuff from Red Panda, Chase Bliss, Montreal Assembly who are making complicated VST type programs in a metal box, which I believe started with Eventide. This same trend can be seen in eurorack as newer modules coming out today tend to be digital multi-function boxes (see intellijel). A metropolix is like, 5 logic modules, lfos, 2 sequencers, and gate sources in one module. As more beginners ask “what’s a good sequencer? there are so many options!” it’s hard to recommend them to make their own sequencer by buying 5 logic modules and two sequencers, when a metropolix can do all that and more for the same price, which sort of creates the mainstream that I’d differentiate away from.
I guess this line of thinking extends from me interacting inside an internet forum environment, and often with reddit the age group is younger which influences how I came to regard stuff so far in my life. I’d bet that an older musician in a band that plays gigs would have a much different experience than me, or someone who started with modular.
I’d love to participate if you’d like! Happy to help out the university research cause.
Interesting, in what sense do you mean this? Do you mean that the module cannot destroy other modules, or that it won’t actually cure GAS?
Sounds very recognisable! There’s something about MG, perhaps combined with the joy of building a system that @chalkwalk referred to, that can make us end up ‘eating the menu’ rather than the dishes it is supposed to represent. On the other hand I like to think that this ability to digitally plan and envision racks is also behind some of the dynamism of modular culture today. I wonder whether phenomena like the 2hp manufacturer would have taken off the way they have without the ubiquity of meticulous rack planning through ModularGrid. The sense that a rack could always be different, at any time, seems encouraged by it. This is of course interesting from a material culture perspective since the continual redesigning undermines the very ‘thingness’ or solidity of the object.
Great, these are fascinating examples of the kinds I am looking for, on how modular patching creates sensibilities that are ‘transferrable skills’ as it were.
Thanks a ton, all of this is really helpful already… I’ll drop you a line!
I recall a technical discussion concluding that it could not actually destroy much, if anything. But that was beyond my ability to focus, and I lost interest. I think the whole idea was that it was more of a statement than an actual offering. I’m pretty sure I could do worse damage with a glass of water.
Still, I would have considered buying one if it was 2hp smaller and came in silver instead of black (sic).
“Ghosting” is the overarching message of modular synthesis. Disappearing. Leaving without a word. Becoming vaporous.
There are certainly people out there that take these machines to the stage and perform with them. But on the whole, most of these machines are more like exquisite home installations, or finely manicured electronic gardens in powered planter boxes.
All of which translates into solitude and meditation for most users. A portion of that time equates to actual use. Another portion of that time is a wholly dedicated to research and fetishized obsession.
You do not become a ghost all at once, you see. First it’s “corpus ad machina”. Desire takes your body to the thing. But then once you possess the thing, you go through bouts of obsession, doubt, and self loathing.
Why? Because becoming “one” with something must be either beautiful or grotesque. Guitar players and drummers move their bodies to bend those instruments to their will. But with synthesizers and drum machines the performer must negotiate the tyranny of the sync.
The danger inherent in CV and MIDI is that you can get “played” instead of the instrument. So then, if you are just kind of along for the ride, you can become secondary to the machine in the performance.
If the face of the instrument has wires sticking out of it (a la patch pics posted by Richard Divine), then where is the body? There is ostensibly a human being involved, but they are out of frame. They may as well be a phantom.
The wires of eurorack are important to the aesthetic because they recast the performer as the “ghost in the machine”.
So, corpus ad machina → phasma ex machina. The body gets out of shape, and could even wither away. It doesn’t matter. It is out of frame.
The prayer in the collective euro-heart is that users would eventually become “deus ex machina”, and actually wield the amassed power in question as one would master a traditional instrument. The reality is often far more humbling.
If McLuhan was right, then the broader message here (intended or not) might be “you are the passenger”. Or, “When we perform, the audience considers me more than you”.
Not sure i agree with this kind of framing… modular can be a very long-term exploration project in sonic design, arrangement, electronics, or simply method, and little to do with perfecting an object (or system), but perfecting a technique, or a mental framework. In that, the only ever-elusive thing is in the mind of the explorer being at rest, calling things done. Physically it could well look like DIY circuits hanging out of cardboard boxes, cellotape and chewing gum holding things together, nowhere near something neat, or desirable, or materially “perfect”… I mean pretty much every rack is perfect in terms of the scope it offers, and there’s much deficiency to be found in the discipline to stay creative with what’s available.
This kind of description isn’t simply a nice marketing story to tell someone in order to sell them more modules, or cases, or cables?..