Modular synthesizers seem to have enjoyed a resurgence in recent years. I’m not privy to sales figures, but a number of companies are building and selling them. Forty years ago, these expensive, bulky, grotesquely inconvenient systems were state-of-the-art. Today, they’re shockingly retro. And yet they exert a strong and continuing appeal.

Though analog purists may wince, I’m going to assert that what goes on behind the front panel doesn’t matter. A well-designed digital synth is indistinguishable from its analog counterpart, sonically, and offers very significant advantages in terms of musical power. The main appeal of a modular system lies primarily in its front panel, which is studded with knobs, switches, buttons, and blinky lights.

A secondary appeal might be that you can configure your own hardware modular system to suit your musical needs (and budget). But in truth, you have total control over your instrument’s configuration with a software modular such as Csound. So really, the front panel is the whole ball of wax.

You can buy a box full of knobs with which to control a computer-based modular. Behringer makes one, and it’s quite affordable. But such a setup is far less appealing — and not just because you have to write some code in Csound, Supercollider, or Pd to intercept and interpret the MIDI messages coming from the knobs, but more significantly because a MIDI panel with knobs and sliders is designed in a way that’s mostly or entirely generic. The knobs are not labeled, and they’re not grouped in any musically sensible fashion. In order to use them while making music, you have to memorize what they do. And what they do may change wildly from one piece of music to the next, so you’ll have to store quite a lot of information in your poor addled brain, and retrieve it instantly and reliably when it’s needed.

The panel on a modular synth engages the unconscious brain in a much more immediate way. The unconscious can guide your hand unerringly to the oscillator pitch knob: You don’t have to think, “Okay, where is the pitch knob?”, because it’s always in the same place. One knob, one function.

And then we get to the patch cords. Some modular instruments have a few hard-wired connections, but most of the signal flow will be immediately visible, because you created the signal flow by plugging in patch cords. If you want to route a signal to a different destination, you yank out the cord and plug it in somewhere else. Again, this is much easier for the unconscious to deal with, especially onstage in the heat of performance, than a system in which connections are made invisibly in software.

The routings of physical patch cords, unfortunately, are difficult or impossible to store in computer memory. As a result, storing and retrieving preset configurations in a patch-cord-based synth is just about not possible. If you need to change your instrument’s configuration rapidly between one song and the next, patch cords suck.

The question naturally arises, how could an intrepid instrument maker design an instrument that would retain the advantages of the hardware modular, while also taking advantage of the reduced cost and enhanced musical power of a computer-based digital synthesis system? Would such an instrument be simply a hollow front panel that communicated with the computer? Or would it have its own internal synthesis circuitry? What’s the right balance between one-knob/one-function and the hundreds of functions that a digital synthesis system can very easily boast?

Software-based plug-in synthesizers offer a bit of insight into that last question. I’m thinking, for instance, of the effects panel in the Rob Papen Predator (a terrific VST or RE instrument, by the way). There are three separate effects, each with its own panel area. Each panel area, and thus each effect processor, has exactly eight knobs. But the meanings of those knobs may be quite different, depending on whether you select a reverb for the effect, or an amp simulator, or a phaser. The labels on the knobs will, of course, change on-screen to show what they do. And that’s difficult to manage with a hardware system. You can do it — it has been done — but the cost of the hardware goes up, because you have to have a fairly extensive system of LCDs mounted next to the knobs.

There may not be a good answer. The only answer may be, “You can use a software system, or a hardware system. Each has its own strengths and limitations.” But I can’t help thinking it would be wonderful if I could buy a hardware modular synth that took advantage of the raw musical power and low cost that are par for the course in a computer-based system.


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