It’s the Knobs, Stupid

My very first synthesizer, back in 1981, was a modular — a four-panel system from Serge Modular. I was enchanted by having a sort of blank canvas on which to configure my own sounds. Besides, the other guys at Keyboard were all buying Prophet-5’s, and I wanted something different.

Then MIDI happened. The Serge sat in its road case while I got into MIDI sequencing using an Atari 1040 ST. (A whole megabyte of RAM! Wow!) Eventually I sold the Serge, which was a mistake, but at the time the road case was functioning as my coffee table, so what was the harm, right?

In recent years, music software has gone through the roof. I’m a big fan of Propellerhead Reason, which in some sense is an enormous modular synth lurking on your hard drive. Reason has a dozen powerful modules, which can be interconnected using on-screen patch cords. As you start buying some of the great new Rack Extensions your module list grows.

I’m also enamored of Csound, which is, again, modular in concept and insanely powerful. Also insanely affordable (as in free, which Reason isn’t). Other musicians swear by Pd, which is also free and powerful.

But there’s still the thing about the mouse. Making music with a mouse is like taking a shower while wearing a raincoat. (This image, which I read somewhere, originally described having sex while wearing a condom. I’d say both metaphors apply pretty well to making music in a computer.)

Last year I spent some time with a new modular synth, the Buchla Skylab. I wanted to be impressed by it, but I wasn’t. In a post on this blog I pointed out a couple of the issues I had spotted. Buchla partisans leaped on me and pummeled me, but I don’t think any lasting damage was done. At least, I hope not.

The only word I would withdraw in my comments on the Skylab would be “obsolete.” I no longer think that’s a useful word to apply to any musical instrument, other than perhaps a French horn with no valves — and I’m not a horn player, so I may be wrong about that.

I compared the Skylab ($15,000) unfavorably to Csound ($0, but around $3,000 if we include the cost of a fast computer and a control surface of some sort). In terms of features, there’s simply no comparison — Csound wins in a walk. But that comparison, while relevant with respect to musical functionality, ignored the whole issue of having single-function knobs and patch points at your fingertips. For a certain kind of music-making, knobs and patch cords are important. I knew that, but I was neglecting to take it into account.

At the time, although I knew about Doepfer, I was pretty much oblivious to the hotbed of activity in the burgeoning community of euro-rack modular synthesizers. Since then, my eyes have opened. At least 20 manufacturers are currently building and selling euro-rack modules. The modules are all built (more or less) to a single standard. This makes it quite easy to assemble a system using components from various companies, not just Doepfer but also Intellijel, Make Noise, Modcan, WMD, MOTM, Toppobrillo, Cwejman, and others.

Euro-rack systems would have been a much better point of comparison from which to weigh the merits of the Skylab.

Today I’m awaiting the delivery of a euro-rack modular synth, which has been assembled to my specifications by Analogue Haven using modules that I selected. I’m thoroughly looking forward to playing with real knobs and patch cords once again. I’m sure there will be some confusion or disappointment along the way, and yes, I’ve spent a boatload of money. But I’m comforted by a few important factors.

First and foremost: For $15,000 I’ll end up with a synthesizer that has (conservatively) three times as much music power as a Skylab. More oscillators, more filters, more waveshaping, more CV sources and CV processing. To be sure, the Skylab has a nice touchplate performance interface and a limited form of programmable memory. But my system will have not one but two touchplate-equipped modules, and also a joystick, so I don’t feel any need to complain.

Second, if I find that a given module doesn’t do what I need, I can sell or trade it to someone else in the very active euro-modular community, and buy something that suits my needs better. Doing that with a Buchla system would be much more difficult, for two interlocking reasons: The total number of modules offered by the company is only a tiny fraction of the number of euro-rack modules that are available, and (as far as I’m aware) there are no third-party manufacturers building hardware for the Buchla system.

Yes, it’s possible to connect a Buchla instrument to euro-rack devices. But it’s a hassle, for various technical reasons that needn’t detain us.

Third, the instrument designers who are developing and building new euro modules are mostly young, and they have fresh ideas. My observation of Buchla, and also of the Serge, which is still being built by Sound Transform Systems, is that the innovations in their module lines are few and far between. As an illustration, we need look no further than the fact that the new, exciting instrument news from Buchla Electronic Musical Instruments is a faithful recreation of the Music Easel, which Don first built and marketed in 1973. From their website: “The new incarnation of the 1973 Buchla Music Easel is a portable, performance-oriented instrument as close as possible to the original. We have used the same circuits, mechanical design and graphic theme….”

I’m not attempting in any way to suggest that the Music Easel is obsolete, or that it’s not a great musical instrument. But an innovation it’s not. If it meets your needs, by all means, buy one! (They’re priced at $4,000.) Don’t let me talk you out of it.

I’m just trying to weigh all of the factors. And after weighing them to the best of my ability over the course of a year, I’ve decided to invest in a euro-rack modular.

Watch this space for photos, sound clips, and more!

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