An ancient sea-worm burst through the calm black sea, streaming upward over the heads of the stunned sailors who recoiled in sudden terror. The impossible monstrosity paused for a moment, blinking mercilessly at the men before crashing down on the deck of the ship, cracking it in half. The broken clipper sank quickly, entangling both men and the worm in rigging as it headed to the bottom of the ancient inky waters, the sailors' cries effervescing to the surface in brief, mournful pops.
That's what the noise I was making sounded like to me, anyway.
My naive dabblings with a recently acquired "eurorack" modular synthesizer had given birth to this soundtrack, a Lovecraftian nightmare bubbling in my home studio. I hadn't sat down intending to create something that sounded like this, I was just dabbling. But this...thing, an expensive mass of panels, cables and blinking lights, was the source of endless surprise. The most surprising thing of all was how modular synthesis totally reprogrammed my personal operating system.
To rewind the tape a bit: I've been listening to electronic music for most of my life, starting with bands like Kraftwerk, Jean-Michel Jarre, Depeche Mode and Yellow Magic Orchestra. I sang in various bands in my teens & twenties, but never learned how to play an instrument, never was willing to put the time in to learn. With digital audio workstation (DAW) software like Ableton Live, and a few viewings of tutorials on step sequencing, really anyone with a decent ear can make electronic music. This accessibility (relative to learning an instrument like guitar) is satisfying, even intoxicating. After a brief dabble with Ableton, I decided to learn how to make electronic music, and got deeply hooked very quickly.
I scoured the internet, bought books and magazines to gain an understanding about how synthesis works. In my reading, I often came across the word "eurorack", a type of modular synthesizer that seemed complex and impenetrable. But there was a D.I.Y. aspect to eurorack that appealed to me, both in the gear and in the music being created on it. I've spent my life working with alternative music and emerging technology. Eurorack is a bit punk rock, and the music created on it far more interesting than the cliched, mainstream electronic scene.
Eurorack is a new school format of a modular synthesizers (which have been around since at least the 60's). The modules themselves are smaller and more affordable than the giant systems that people like Keith Emerson of ELP used in the 1970's, but they're almost identical in operation (For more on the rise of modular synths, read Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco's superb "Analog Days"). For a neophyte like myself, modular synthesizers are not particularly welcoming. For a start, there usually is no keyboard to play. Instead, there are modules, their surface riddled with holes and patch points. Blinking lights, sliders and knobs adorn the modules, and the user "patches" the modules to each other with colored strands of 1/8th inch cables. These cables can carry both voltage, which control the parameters of the synth, or audio signal. These interconnections, and the adjustments of the various controls, create sounds and sequences.
I built my own small eurorack system, read up on the basics of synthesis, and put together a small system. After I mounted all the modules in the rack, It took me about a day to get a basic grasp on what I was doing and start playing.
When all that electricity starts flowing, magic happens. The hours disappear when you're playing a modular synth. The analog sound is warm, huge, bubbling and cracking....alive. Add digital modules into the mix, and you get shrieks, binary splashes of plastic rain bouncing off aluminum highways. New colors creep from the edges of my studio monitors, hazy and disorienting. And there are rhythms: spastic robots dancing with the soul of Ian Curtis, machine music lo-pass filtered and sequenced into something greasier, filthier. Wires send voltage, modulating the control signals, the sound. It is directed by my human hand, but rippling with variables. And in the variables lie the soul of the machine.
It's quite possible to produce "traditional" electronic music on a modular synthesizer, but the incredible depth of control the format offers tends to lead the user down the path of experimentation and abstraction. And over time, as I ventured further down this path of abstraction, making my own sounds, my tastes shifted. I began to prefer experimental music, and my record buying habits changed dramatically. I no longer check Amazon for new releases, instead searching Boomkat and Bleep for music that speaks in this tongue.
Walking down the street in New York City, I find my eye drawn to abstract patterns and sonics, to the other. It is everywhere. Even without my headphones on, I hear the music, just below the surface of pink and white noise that blankets everything in New York. Time spent in the world of modular synthesis upgraded my operating system. The voltage and vibrations traveling over the rainbow of patch cables, are currents that stay with me, always. Try it and you may find it happens to you too.
I have learned to speak a new language. The machine taught it to me.
Thanks for reading.
Selected Artist Recommendations (not all of them use modular synths, it's more about the head they're in):
Selected Modular Synth Resources: