Modular Madness – Old School Synthesis

New Studio

When the term “music synthesizer” first made the rounds people were talking about “Switched on Bach” and, usually, Moog.  The synthesizers back then seemed to be as big as a house and cost almost as much.  For the most part the synth world was ruled by modular analog synthesizers.  In the 1970s these were replaced, for the most part, by portable synthesizers, like the ARP Odyssey and Moog Minimoog.  In the early 80s even these went away to be replaced by slick, mass produced digital synthesizers like the Yamaha DX7.  By the mid 80s the old modular synthesizer was a dinosaur, a relic of the distant past.  Sure, digital synthesizers still called a set of parameters that make a sound a “patch”, named after the telephone switchboard like patch cords of the modulars, but most people didn’t understand the reference.

That all changed in the mid 1990s when people started digging up “retro” sounds.  Some wanted the ultra-flexibility of an old school modular and there were people willing to build them.  Now modular synthesizers are more popular than they were back in their so-called hey-day.  There are several formats, dozens (hundreds?) of manufacturers and thousands of modules to choose from.

Quick lesson.  A modular synthesizer is called “modular” because each different component is housed in it’s own self-contained module.  There is no fixed signal path, a user of a modular has to use patch cords to create a path.  This allows great flexibility and in today’s world it allows someone to create an instrument composed of modules from different manufacturers.  In fact, there is a huge DIY component in the modular world so many people make their own modules or change the ones they buy.

As you may have guessed, I have started to build a modular synthesizer, one module at a time.  I am using the largest of the common formats, often called 5U or MU.  MU refers to the fact that it is the same size as the modules from the old Moog systems.  I’m starting off with components from a company named – yes, they were lucky :)  You can see part of it in the photo at the top on the upper right – it’s a big open box with a few components at the far end.

Recently I picked up a module that now allows me to make musically useful sounds.  So, of course, I had to make a recording.  This is a bit of a joke.  I had a lot of fun with it.  Hope you enjoy.

(click here if you don’t see the video)

6 thoughts on “Modular Madness – Old School Synthesis

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