A modular synth is a synth whose components are presented as individual modules, allowing the user to define system functions and layouts, as well as signal paths for audio and modulation through the patch.
The first modular systems available were designed in parallel by RA Moog Co (on the US east coast) and Buchla (on the west coast) in 1963. Who made the “first” modular synth is a matter of debate, with both Bob Moog and Don Buchla often cite the other as the first to get there. It’s likely we’ll never have a definitive answer, but Moog and Buchla were developing their own modular systems at the same time.
Fast forward 32 years and we see Eurorack brought to life by Doepfer in 1995 with the release of ten modules and a system that set Eurorack standards. Eurorack modules are 3U high (U being the units also used to measure rack synths and studio peripherals) and their widths are measured in HP (horizontal height).
So why choose a Eurorack configuration? Simple: the ease of access and the wide range of options it gives you to build an instrument/device that meets your exact needs. The format has been expanded not only by Doepfer, but also by a wide range of companies offering modules ranging from cheap and cheerful to esoteric and unique. Eurorack offers a platform that can draw ideas not only from Moog and Buchla but also from Serge and EMS, a range of digital synthesis methods, modern DSP technologies and more.
With the history lesson over, here are nine things every Eurorack newbie should know…
1. Which modules to choose?
Once you have a box, some power, and a way to control your modules, you’re sure to be in for a world of excitement dying to create your own sonic playground. There are many options for different styles and sounds even within the same synthesis type.
Say you want to build a Moog replica, there are more than one set of mods that will get you closer. The same goes for a Serge vocal cue or a Buchla-style system – it’s pretty much endless.
We recommend that you avoid a very specific pre-planned itinerary and instead think in simpler terms. You will need a sound source, a processor and a modifier. It could be an oscillator, a filter and an envelope. Or it can be a sampler, effects and LFOs.
Thinking in more basic terms will help you explore the options and create a system that’s uniquely yours. Mix your Moog-style oscillators, Serge wavefolders and modern DSP. That’s the beauty of the platform.
2. Mix up your methods
Consider assembling a Frankenstein system that draws ideas from all forms of synthesis: West Coast FM and wavefolding, fat subtractive filtering, drums, effects, sequencers and controllers – you can create a truly unique system!
3. Create your own patches
Every patch you create on a modular system is yours. There are no presets or pre-routings that define the sounds you use or the modulation. Connection is made with 3.5 mm mono cables and any output can be plugged into any input.
Fix something familiar to start with. Look at your favorite software/hardware synthesizer and follow the signal path. Chances are there are oscillators going into the filters and VCAs, and the LFOs and envelopes used to control them all. Try redoing both its audio and modulation signal paths on your modular. Then try to redirect the signals to create something new.
4. Doing it right
Check your riser cards and modules before plugging them in. The general rule is that the red stripe on the ribbon cable carries -12 volts and is usually facing down on the module and riser card.
5. Create an FX processing setup
You’ll need audio inputs to bring in external sounds, so choose an input module, then choose effects. Modulation is often key to creating something engaging and unique. So while filling a box with FX modules can be fun, it’ll be even better with a bit of modulation.
Be sure to include envelope followers to get input-dependent CV data that you can patch around your system. Imagine if the harder you play, the longer the reverb trail, or the more resonant, your phase shifter becomes…nice!
LFOs/sequencers will help liven up even the most outdated effects (think of it as your automation generation), so be sure to leave room for some of those as well.
6. Safety first
Do not connect the output of one module to the output of another module. This is the only “rule” you absolutely have to stick to. You don’t want to break your new toys before you’ve even made a sound with them, after all.
7. Emulate the West Coast
Start with a complex dual oscillator – a module with two oscillators that can modulate each other to create a range of FM and AM sounds alongside oscillator sync and sometimes even wave shaping additional. This is where you can generate a huge range of unique and complex sounds not heard on many other synths.
You will need a low pass gate (LPG) to control the high frequencies and amplitude of your signal. Patch your gates and triggers into the LPG to open up the sound and let the vactrol ring with its natural decay. Some good places to start include Make Noise, Sputnik Modular, and Verbos Electronics.
8. Cross the streams!
Don’t be afraid to mix audio and modulation. Your CV inputs often generate new sonic territory when modulated at audio rates.
9. Create a Moog-style moster
As experimental as you try to be, it’s hard not to love the sound of a deep sawwave blowing through a meaty, overdriven lowpass filter.
For us, Moog sound is all about the filter, so pick the right one and you can get closer to the sound of a Moog system, no matter which oscillator(s) hit the input. The original Moog filter was a low-pass ladder design, so we suggest checking out the AJH Synth MiniMod range for some amazing Moog Model D clones. To recreate the rest of the D, you’ll need three oscillators, a mixer, a filter, two envelopes and a VCA.