Modular Synthesis Explained

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Modular Synthesis Explained

Postby hotdam » Jan 24th, '17, 05:50

I think that newbies like me may be wondering what is a modular synth or what is modular synthesis. In this tutorial, I'll explain the history of modular synthesis leading to modern systems.

I'll explain modules, systems, the history behind them and why they're increasingly relevant to modern music.


Synthesizer and modular development began around 1963-64 when Robert Moog (1934-2005) and Don Buchla (born 1937) invented several parts and concepts to be used in a system called the modular synthesizer.

Moog worked in New York, the eastern part of USA, while Don Buchla lived in San Francisco, the western part of USA. They worked independently of each other, and later the Moog concept was called East Coast philosophy and the Buchla concept was called West Coast philosophy.
Moog, Buchla and ARP

Though Moog and Buchla were pioneers in this field, in 1969 Alan Robert Pearlman founded ARP instruments, or ARP, and had a degree of success.

When synths became more portable and Minimoog was a hit, the semi-modular ARP 2600 synth became the opponent with great sound, great functionality and a cheaper price.

Of course the prices were huge back then, but it formed a trend and simple synths became more affordable later.
Making a Hit Synth Brand

Originally Moog asked opinions and worked with several musicians to perfect his synth. He decided to make it an instrument to be used for musical purposes and melodies.

Over time the Moog brand became a great success and became synonymous with the synth term. Often people still identify synth with Moog synonymously.

Buchla, however, didn’t care for serving the mainstream and his products remained pricey and esoteric and primarily used for sound design and experimental music.


Modular synths can be broken down into its components which are called modules.

Each module has a specific function and they can be connected with patch cables using the inputs and outputs.

The current that flows in the machine controls the parameters of each module.

There are two types of signals:

CV—control voltage, useful for sound sources and modulation
Gate—gate is an on/off switch or a trigger event
These include:

Sound sources (VCO, white noise): this can be a voltage controlled oscillator or a noise generator
Filters (VCF): in East Coast philosophy this removes some of the frequency of the sound source
Amplifiers (VCA): this amplifies a signal in response to a control voltage
Waveshaper/wavefolder: in West Coast philosophy this makes a sound source sharper or more metallic sounding
Low pass gate (LPG): in West Coast philosohpy this is a combination of a low pass gate and an amplifier, to create short, plucky sounds. Search youtube for Buchla Bongo to understand its sound
Envelope generator (EG): this provides a single shaped voltage, triggered by the gate signal
LFO: this is a continuous modulation source used to control other modules.
Mixer: a module which combines voltages
Ring modulator (RM): combines two signals and creates the sum and difference of their frequencies
Sequencer (SEQ): this produces a sequence of voltages, which can be targeted to control oscillators, filters and so on. The sequence can be looped infinitely and the speed can be set dynamically with an LFO acting as a clock signal (square output).
Today's Modulars

Fortunately today’s hardware synthesizers are cheaper than ever thanks to modern planning, manufacturing, brands and trends. In the 1970s a modular could be had for a price of a large house, now you can buy as low as around US$1000-2000.

Modern modulars include digital modules, which are pitch perfect despite heat, unbelievable sounds, modulation sources and sound design capabilities. There are around hundred brands and thousands of modules, which includes commercial and artisan / DIY products.

I recommend these manufacturers based on the range and type of modules on offer.

Doepfer, Pittsburgh and Analogue Solutions are on the cheap side, while others are West-coast types, multi functional modules and expensive ones.

Pittsburgh Modular
Make Noise
Tip Top Audio
Analogue Solutions
Sputnik Modular
The Harvestman

Software modulars are a very cheap way into creating complex sounds or to have the workflow you are into with virtual cables.

Softube Modular
Native Instruments Reaktor
Arturia Modular V
u-he ACE
u-he Bazille
Madrona Labs Aalto
Madrona Labs Kaivo
Xils Lab Xils 3
Xils Lab Xils 4
Karma FX Synth Modular
u-he Bazille
u-he Bazille software synth
g200kg Kamioooka
Meesha Damatriks
XSRDO Patchwork Modular System
Free beta
Sonigen Modular
Computer Music - Xils 3 CM
Computer Music - Aalto CM
Computer Music - Bazille CM

This tutorial was an introduction to modular synthesis, hardware and software. I explained the history, brands, systems and modules.

If you want to get into the hardware world cheaply you can start with semi-modular synths and adding some modules with a small empty powered case. Don’t forget to buy some cables as well. Happy learning and patching.
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