So you've decided to plunge into the world of eurorack modular synthesis - kiss your bank account and your loved ones goodbye ha ha! You'll hear lots of cliches about eurorack and they're all at least a little bit true. Eurorack can be an obsessive endeavor for some, to the detriment of their wallet and personal relationships. It's a wide open format that enables the user to design whatever they want their system to be, a voltage controlled reflection of the self. And this freedom triggers something within some musicians, unlocking doors to creativity.
The eurorack format is experiencing an explosive growth in popularity. If you're new to eurorack, you'll notice it has a language all it's own. The modules often come with vague user instructions, if at all. This can be off putting, especially if you've only used traditional keyboard based synthesizers. During the first few months I spent building my system & trying to figure out how everything worked, I regularly got frustrated and thought of selling everything off. But I persevered and while I am no means an expert modular synthesist, I now know how to control my eurorack system to produce my desired result.
A willingness to self-educate is a requirement for any eurorack user; the process never stops as new modules are always being introduced. Don't be intimidated if you feel overwhelmed - we all do!
I've put together some very basic Eurorack Tips For Beginners below which hopefully are useful to neophytes. Here goes:
1) What Eurorack modules should you buy first?
So you’re putting together a eurorack modular system - what modules should you buy first? The answer entirely depends on what you want to do with them.
An analogy: if you walk into a giant supermarket and asked a staffer "what ingredients should I buy?”, they couldn’t begin to answer the quesion unless you told them what recipe you wanted to make. And that’s the challenge here as well. You need a clear idea about what you want to make, and look at the modules as ingredients in the recipe so you can build your shopping list.
The sheer number and variety of eurorack modules available is overwhelming: some emulate classic analog circuits from synths of yesteryear, others push sonic boundaries with digital technology. There are samplers, effects, touch controllers, sequencers, drum and utility modules. Prices range from $100 (or less) for build it yourself DIY modules to over $1000 for some exotic pieces.
Do you intend to play live, or keep your rig in a home studio? Are you doing techno, beats, drones, sound design, East Coast or West Coast style synthesis? Will you be controlling your eurorack system with a DAW, with other gear over midi, or keeping it standalone? Do you want to work with samples within eurorack? And do you want to control effects like delay, reverb and phasing in your patches?
The reality is this: your ideas about what you want to do and what modules are best to accomplish the tasks will evolve dramatically throughout your journey in eurorack. I know it has for me: I put together a 15U system over a year, then downsized to 6U, and now I’ve got a 9U setup (which I’m completely happy with and will undoubtedly change before long). And this is OK. A good beginner’s eurorack setup would include a VCO, VCF, VCA, a modulation source, a sequencer, a 6U case and 4-5 patch cables per module. But again, it’s up to you.
As with any other piece of electronic gear, you’ll get a workflow down, tweak, and nudge towards your ideal. This is fun and it doesn’t have to be expensive. The key thing to remember while you’re exploring is that the gear isn’t an end in itself, it is the means to an end: making music.
2) Join Muffwiggler and Use The Search Function!
There are very few questions in the world of eurorack that haven't been asked and answered multiple times on the Muffwiggler.com forums. From the simplest questions like "what does an LFO do?" to lengthy, arcane discussions about the features of specific modules, it's all there. You just need to use the search function to find answers. Seems obvious right? Unfortunately some people are too lazy to do this. Don't be that person! Muffwiggler is an amazing free resource, and the only contribution they ask is for people to be considerate of each other. Posting questions without searching for answers first isn't considerate. Tread gently, especially as a new user, and search for the answers already there. Before long, you'll be experienced enough to be one of the people answering questions.
There is a wealth of information and a vibrant community on Gearslutz too, although it does not have eurorack specific forum. Still, there are many threads on eurorack within the Electronic Music Instruments & Electronic Music Production section.
3) Buy Your Modules and Cases Used
At the time of this writing, most Eurorack modules retain about 75% of their original sale price on the secondary market (although rare and in demand modules can retain 100% or even appreciate). Used cases usually go for 50-75% of their original sale price. The best place to buy used eurorack is on the Muffwiggler Forum’s For Sale/Trade section, which has sellers from all over the world and almost every module ever made eventually turns up for sale here. Best of all: it is free.
I’ve bought and sold dozens of modules on the Muffwiggler site, and a Goike case at a great price (btw they also have a webstore that sells new modules). It’s awesome to buy/try a module used, and if you don’t like it, flip it and lose only the postage costs. You do need to make 100 posts on Muffwiggler before you can sell modules, which weeds out most of the scammers.
If you want to buy a module brand new, then these sellers are highly recommended (as of December 2015):
4) Use ModularGrid.Net to Sandbox Ideas
http://www.modulargrid.net/ is an incredible free resource for configuring your ideal modular system. Featuring a database of the size, power requirements, features and price of almost every eurorack module ever made, ModularGrid enables you to drag and drop the modules of your choice into a virtual case. The photo at right is my eurorack system at the time of writing, chock full of Verbos, Macbeth and Cwejman, with modules from Make Noise, Modcan, Intellijel and Synthesis Technology too. The Verbos Touchplate takes up a lot of space, but enables me to both play my system more like a traditional keyboard and/or send control voltage to any module and manipulate it by touch - very cool. I’ve spent countless hours rearranging my systems on this site to see what looks best or where I might fit in a new module before I move things in my actual case. This is almost as much fun as actually buying the modules...almost! You can also copy the URL and share it on Muffwiggler, Gearslutz etc to get other people's opinions on your module choices.
Be warned: ModularGrid will encourage you to spend lots of money.
5) Start Small & Learn Each Module
Eurorack is nicknamed "Eurocrack" with good reason: it becomes an addiction for many of the people who get into it. I became a eurorack junkie very quickly, filling my first 6U case with a dozen modules, then buying a 9U to expand. In retrospect, this was a mistake, because I didn't give myself time to learn what each of the modules could do. Some eurorack modules like Maths for instance are very deep, capable of multiple functions, and could take weeks or months to master. And of course, the interaction of the various modules you've assembled expands your sonic possibilites exponentially. By getting so many modules at the same time, I made it impossible for myself to truly learn how everything worked. both individually and as a whole system. Because of this, I bought modules that ultimately I didn't need, and sold some which I later repurchased. It would have been far wiser of me to get 4 or 5 modules to start with and not buy anything else until I was 100% fluent with their functionality.
So that's my new rule: I don't buy any new modules until I have a good grasp of what I already own. Instead of getting caught up in the hype of the latest greatest modules released, I try to see if I can make similar sounds with my existing rig. More often than not, I am surprised at the power and sonic palette I already possess.
Bonus Eurorack Tip Links:
OK, that's it. I hope you've found these very basic tips useful. If you have any suggestions about things I've missed or any questions, please leave a comment below or contact me. Thanks for reading!