My very first synthesizer was a modular. I wish I still had it. Built by Serge Systems, it had six oscillators, three filters, a wave multiplier, a wonderful 16-step sequencer, and a number of other modules. I had a lot of fun with it, recorded some music (using 8-track reel-to-reel tape), and learned a lot about sound design.
After being eclipsed for a number of years by instruments that offered more convenience, modular synths have in recent years seen a resurgence in popularity. A number of companies build and sell single modules and/or entire systems. The subculture of modular enthusiasts shows no signs of waning.
From time to time I suffer spasms of gear lust. (Usually this happens when someone posts photos of their modular gear on Facebook.) I find myself dreaming about spending, oh, maybe $15,000 on a serious modular synth. Really, the only thing that dissuades me is the high cost. If I could get a full-featured system for $1,500, I’d be all over it.
Instead, I use software. And honesty compels me to admit that music software today can do hundreds of amazing things that no analog hardware synth could ever match. Most people use Propellerhead Reason as a music production system, but it can also be looked at as a single gigantic modular synth. Patching modules together in Reason is easy and fun. In essence it’s a lot like patching the modules in a hardware instrument. Admittedly, Reason has a strong bias in favor of 12-note-per-octave equal temperament, and it has no module that operates like the Serge TKB sequencer; those are just about its only weaknesses.
Csound is harder to use than Reason, because you have to create instruments and patch together your modules by typing code. But if you’re willing to do that, it has no detectable weaknesses at all. Plus, it’s free.
A hardware modular instrument has only one concrete advantage over software: You can interact with the front panel in a direct, intuitive, tactile way, by twisting knobs, flipping switches, and plugging and unplugging patch cords. To hook up patch cords in Reason, you have to use the mouse, and that’s just not the same as grabbing a physical cord and plugging it in. To be fair, there’s also an intangible factor: If you own a hardware modular, knowledgeable musicians will envy you. In every other respect, software wins.
I’m not just blowing smoke. No matter how fond you may be of modular hardware instruments, you’ll find it hard to deny the relevance of these factors:
- Hardware is more expensive, as already noted. A lot more expensive.
- Modular synths are built by small, specialty manufacturers. If a module malfunctions, you’ll have to wait weeks (or possibly longer) for repair. If you stick with well-tested release versions of software, the very worst that can happen is that you’ll need to drive across town to buy a new computer. In a few hours you’ll be up and running again.
- Hardware systems have a fixed set of modules. With software, you can add as many oscillators, filters, or envelope generators as you need, subject only to the limitations of your CPU.
- Software can do various types of synthesis, such as sample playback and granular synthesis, that have no equivalent in analog hardware.
- The built-in effects (reverb, delay, and so on) in an analog system will be absent or, at best, very limited. Sophisticated effects are a standard feature of music software.
- A software-based music system is far more portable.
- The sounds you design in software can be saved to disk. Sound design with a hardware modular is a one-off thing: Once you’ve unplugged the cords, the sound is gone. Even if you’ve made a patch diagram on paper, recreating the sound later may be very difficult.
- Except with a very large system, a hardware modular pretty much makes only one sound at a time. It’s not multi-timbral.
- No hardware modular instrument has built-in recording (sequencing) of full multi-instrument arrangements.
- With a hardware modular, you have to design all of the sounds yourself. A decent software instrument typically comes with hundreds of high-quality sounds crafted by canny professionals and ready for you to play or fiddle with.
Even so, I’d love to own a modular synth. But would I give up my software for it? Not in a million years.