Seven Ways To Explore Modular

  • by Kim Bjørn

If not the weird generative soundscapes or classic Berlin-school sequences, then try different levels of modularity to challenge your mindset in how you think of your instruments, plug-ins and workflow. Here are some ways to get started:

1. Use guitar pedals
If you’re into effects, a great way to explore modularity is by using a couple of guitar effects pedals together. Guitar pedals can work wonders on everything from synths and DJ mixes, to drum tracks and vocals. The most common way of chaining effects pedals is by starting with tone-shaping devices, followed by gain-producing ones like distortion, fuzz, overdrive. and then modulation effects like chorus, flanger, tremolo, before delay and reverb. But, this sequence is totally up to you – why not try reverb before fuzz, or distortion after flanging?

Hainbach uses guitar pedals with his modular setup in this video:

2. Go semi-modular
As mentioned previously, semi-modulars are great for getting into a more modular mindset. Besides the already mentioned devices, something like the Behringer Neutron and the Korg Volca Modular represent two different options at a low cost. This video will give you a glimpse of what is possible with such a small experimental device. If you want to be able to integrate tightly with your computer workflow, be sure that the semi-modular has the necessary MIDI-input so that you can otherwise synchronize tempo and record sound.

3. Create and tweak sounds with BLOCKS WIRED
A big part of modular synthesis is the sounds and compositions you can achieve. So why not step into the modular world with BLOCKS WIRED; a set of three pre-patched modular synths created with REAKTOR Blocks – the easiest way to start exploring the playful, fun world of modular synthesis.

4. Continue with REAKTOR BLOCKS
When you’re ready to open things up, and start patching on the flipside, you can go with the full version of REAKTOR and explore the many modular options with BLOCKS. REAKTOR is by far the most modular you can get within Native Instruments software, so why not tag along with this Native Session called Play Patch Build, where the modular options in REAKTOR are opened up for you.

VCV rack

5. Start with modular software and apps
By far the most widely adopted and community-supported modular synthesis software that resembles a somewhat authentic experience is the free and standalone VCV Rack developed by Andrew Belt. Though also appearing in a paid version, it comes with the “Fundamental” set of free modules which rather conveniently includes an oscilloscope well suited for looking at and learning about waveforms and synthesis.

There are hundreds of available plug-ins – some free but most for a small fee. You’ll find authorized versions from Eurorack manufacturers like Befaco or Grayscale, but most notably the free set of Mutable Instruments’ modules, in VCV Rack named Audible Instruments. VCV Rack is a perfect opportunity to explore everything from basic patches to having any number of the same module such as 20 LFOs modulating each other, a 272 step sequencer, or any other complex patch your computer can handle. Here is a great tutorial to get you started.

Another great option, if you own an iPad, is to swipe and tap around in the Moog Model 15 iOS app, which is a great learning tool for synthesis and modular – get started with these 15 lessons.

Erica Synths Drone System

6. Get a pre-configured modular
Some who begin with semi-modular may find themselves wanting more. Experienced artists, as well as beginners, have many reasons for preferring pre-configured systems: They often provide everything in one package, and the structure and aesthetics are often more consistent because the manufacturer has put thought into how the modules work together – for example, take a look at the pocket operator modular system. It’s often less expensive than acquiring the modules separately. Some systems are put together with specific concepts or styles in mind, like the Erica Synths Drone System, and some allow you to dip your toes into a particular format or philosophy, like Robert Langer’s AE Modular System which has cardboard faceplates and uses pin-cables.

AE Modular System

7. Create your own box of …
Want to explore sample mangling, make an effects box, a “filter garden”, or create your own sequencer-heaven? Then modular is perfect as you can indeed create your own box of wonders. Check this video where modular is used as a guitar effects processor – and the great thing is that you can do this with modular software too:

Obviously there are many ways to explore modular synthesis. The main takeaway is having a goal in mind, and then finding the necessary tools to meet that goal. Do you want to make a full on modular synth? A voltage controlled FX box for your guitar? A hybrid analog/digital drum machine? The possibilities are endless. For more examples check out PUSH TURN MOVE and PATCH & TWEAK.

Now more than ever, the concept of community is very important. Join us next time as we talk about collaboration and connectivity!

This article was part of a blog-series originally appearing at who kindly allowed us to repurpose Kim's articles again – here in a version edited by Collin Russel.


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