Mods Rule... OK?
A plaintive request for a return to modular synthesis, what it means and what it can do for the creative musician.
Sam Hearnton argues that 'true' synthesis still lies in the realms of the modular system for the creative musician.
Despite (because of?) all the recent innovations in synthesiser technology — MIDI, FM, DACS, etcetera — it's an unfortunate fact that the original application the synthesiser was designed for (novel sound generation) has, except for the work of a few persistent souls, largely been forgotten. Instead, we have "keyboards" — synthesiser somehow no longer seems the right word that most people use simply to imitate other instruments, perhaps the most uninspiring of the synthesiser's many capabilities. An example of this is the Roland Juno 106. It has 128 memories and it's very cheap, but is it really possible to get that many different sounds from it? Whilst not wishing to knock an instrument that serves its design purpose admirably, the sounds that it can generate are, like so many of todays low price polyphonics, unmistakably phase-linked.
Perhaps these are not comments you would agree with, but I hope they'll explain why I've become interested in that anachronism, the modular synthesiser and the purpose of this article. Sadly, as I found out, it is very hard to show anything other than interest these days — it is practically impossible to purchase a modular system 'off the shelf' in the UK any more. The London Rock Shop's decision to only sell Roland System 100M's to order after a number of years in which they have been the only London retailer to show a continuing interest in modular synthesisers is, unfortunately, a sign of the times. But wait. Perhaps I better explain for those who are unaware exactly what a modular synthesiser is and the advantages and disadvantages it has over 'hard-wired' equipment.
Quite simply, a modular synthesiser consists of a collection of separate electronic circuits that are connected together by the user (usually via jack plugs) instead of the instrument's manufacturer. In this way you retain almost total control over a sound's route and have correspondingly more options and capabilities to choose from. Most conventional synthesisers are 'hard wired' which simply means a signal's path is preordained by the designer. The first synthesisers were developed from some of the earliest devices used in electronic music, an example of which is the system used to produce Bernhard Herman's award-winning soundtrack to The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951). This was produced by banks of laboratory-made voltage controlled oscillators treated by various filters and ring modulators. It was Robert Moog and Donald Buchla who designed the first commercially manufactured system and both designers are still active in the music industry, though neither are still connected with the present day Moog company.
Modular synthesisers are usually monophonic as just a one voice system can be expensive and is often enough to create complex sound effects or treat external sources. They are particularly suited to these uses because a modular synthesiser is totally user-definable. That is, the owner decides which individual modules he or she is going to buy creating a system which is individually tailored. You decide how many voice modules, envelope generators, LFO's and the like you're going to need which ensures that you don't end up paying for facilities you're unlikely to ever use. You can create strange sounds, treat drum machines to improve their voices, acoustic instruments to blend them with electronic instrumentation or just generate metallic percussion and buy just the modules you need for your immediate purpose. However, there are a number of things you should bear in mind.
If you have been brought up on a programmable synth and are a keyboard player who just likes playing with presets, don't bother. You need imagination, a lot of time and most of all, a good working knowledge of how synthesisers work to get the best from a modular system. Just twiddling with the knobs and sliders is not going to work on a complex system of such flexibility. Because they are aimed at the professional user, modular systems are not cheap, even secondhand (indeed, they are something of collector's items) and neither are they well suited to live work although a few bands such as the Yellow Magic Orchestra have done this. They are intended as studio systems.
Over the years, a large number of modular systems have been produced. Their heyday was the early 'seventies. In Britain, the main manufacturer was EMS who went bankrupt a few years ago. They produced a number of systems, all of them except the educational Synthi E model, using pin matrix boards instead of jack connecters. The most successful of these was the Synthi AKS and VCS3 and you can expect to pay anything between £400 and £600 for one of these second hand. The defunct mixer firm of Chadacre made the 6300 system, whilst better known were the Dewtron VC Audio Module range of kits. Both of these are virtually unobtainable nowadays.
In America, besides the well known ARP 2500 and 2600 models and the Modular Moog (their 55 was the possibly the best modular system produced), modules were manufactured by Aries, E-mu (very expensive), Polyfusion, 360 Systems and Wavemaker. Two companies which are still actively engaged in making modular systems in the States are PAiA and Serge. PAiA manufacture a range of kits and a computer controller (similar to the Digisound range of which more later) at very reasonable prices but have no UK distributor. Serge produce very expensive, very nice systems entirely to customer order and rumour has it that they don't supply a manual in order to encourage their buyers to learn synthesis properly!
Big Briar (Robert Moog's firm although he's also involved with Kurzweil) manufacture various control devices and they are also the US distributors for the Dutch Synton modular system. This is of very high quality but is unfortunately again not available in the UK though their excellent 222 Syntovox vocoder and Syrinx monosynth have both appeared here briefly.
Japan has contributed the Roland System 100M (Roland also manufactured the giant System 700 and the System 100M's predecessor, the System 100) and Korg produced their semi-modular MS and PS ranges though these are no longer made.
PPG in Germany made the now obsolete System 300 and modular systems of which I know very little were also manufactured by Format and Projekt Elektronik. In France, the RSF Kobol, obstinately an expander unit, is still being manufactured. This was distributed by Syco in Britain for a while.
Luckily, there are still two commercially manufactured modular systems available here, the Roland System 100M and the British Digisound 80. The Roland range is now quite large, there are about thirteen modules and although pricy, it is used by a large number of musicians including the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop, Chris Hughes and Human League. A basic set up of say, 1122 VCO module, 1212 VCF module, 1302 VCA module, 1402 EG/ LFO module, and 150 Ring Modulator, Noise Generator, S/H and LFO module would come to about £1200 although discounts are available if you shop around.
The Digisound range was the brainchild of the late Charles Blakey who died last year. The family firm is now based in Blackpool and new modules are still being released, the latest being a Dual LFO module and a solid state Reverb module. The Digisound 80 range already consists of over 20 modules and they also manufacture the Alphadec which is capable of controlling sixteen voices simultaneously. All Digisound products are available in either kit form or ready built and offer quite incredible value for money, especially if you build them yourself. Two special 'first-time buyers' kits are available. System 1 comprises the 80-1A Power Supply kit, the 80-2 (VCO) kit, 80-6L (VCF-L) kit, 80-9A (Dual VCA) kit and 80-18A (Dual ADSR) kit and costs an unbelievable £97.00! System 2 is the same but includes a 49 note keyboard and contacts and all necessary kbd circuitry to build a basic monophonic synthesiser. This retails at £199.00 and includes VAT and P&P.
It's worth pointing out at this juncture that the Roland System 100M can be controlled from any 1v per octave synth with CV/gate triggers but a keyboard isn't necessary at all for a lot of things. If you're using a system with a sequencer, for treatments or sound effects you don't need one. Remember, the first synths didn't have keyboards and even on those that do they're only switches, really! Incidentally, the Analogue Sequencer project featured in December's ES&CM is ideal for a modular synthesiser as it has so many voltage control outputs. In fact, it's better than any commercially produced variety and well worth building.
The great thing about a modular system is they're continually expandable (no, they don't have MIDI) and you're creating a flexible system which is what you want in a synthesiser. Modular synthesisers — the democrats choice!
Feature by Sam Hearnton
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