Learning how to play the synthesizer is only half the path to mastering this instrument. The other half is learning how to program synthesizers to produce the timbral sounds you need. Indeed, once our creativity surpasses the design capacities regular synths provide, we may want more room to play. Thus, we may be inclined to get into the wonderful world of modular synthesis.
Are modular synthesis and synth design difficult to learn? Modular synthesis requires users to effectively design/build a synth from scratch. It is difficult to learn for those new to synthesizers because it requires a working knowledge of synthesizer design, individual components (modules) and signal flow for both audio signals and control voltages.
In this article, we’ll consider the difficulty that comes with learning modular synthesis and synth design to give you a better idea of whether the challenge is right for you!
Fixed Vs. Modular Synth Architecture
Modular synthesis, as the name implies, means to create a synthesizer stacking modules to create different sounds. For those searching for cutting-edge instruments that can create unique sounds, this is the ultimate frontier; there are practically no limits to what can be done.
On the other hand, fixed architecture synthesizers are designed with a set number of components and a set number of routing options. What you get is what you get, and manufacturers will produce their synths with all the necessary components for their particular designs.
So, while learning a new fixed architecture synth can be a challenge in understanding the parameters, menus, presets, and controls, it’s a good head start to know that everything you need is in front of you.
When learning modular synthesis, you’ll need to research which modules are required to obtain your desired results and then learn how to patch/route them appropriately.
You’ll need to learn how to patch every module to create a definite sound and learn how each component contributes to the patch you’re creating. Moreover, you’ll need to know how to recreate it if you plan to use modular synthesis in a live situation.
On the other hand, with a factory-ready synthesizer, you can select a preset close to what you need and start playing out of the box. In this sense, modular synthesis represents a challenge and offers a steep learning curve.
Learning Modular Synthesis
For the uninitiated, modular synthesis will be a challenge to learn. Developing a working knowledge of the following categories will get you to the point where you’ll be adequately competent to design your own modular synthesizer:
Essential Modules For Modular Synths
Although the market is flooded with every type of module you can think of, some essentials can’t go missing in any setup. Learn about these modules first before
Source modules: these modules, typically, do not have any inputs but only outputs. This is because they are in charge of sound generation via Voltage Controlled Oscillators (VCO) or other noise sources.
Processor modules: This category comprises the modules that shape the sound coming from the source and include VCF, VCA, envelope generators.
Logic modules: These modules provide the needed info to control clock timers.
Powering A Modular Synth
Synthesizers require power to function properly and produce audio. It’s critical to learn each module’s voltage and current requirements and invest in a power supply (or multiple supplies) capable of supplying such voltage/current/power.
Related article: Can Synthesizers Be Played Without Electricity?
Housing A Modular Synth
The housing of the modules is another important factor to learn. Certain formats tend to have their own housing requirements. Learn what they are and how to fit the modules into the housing properly. Choose a rack/mount that is big enough for your current modules and, ideally, for those you plan on adding in the future.
Audio Signal Flow In A Modular Synth
Learning audio signal flow is paramount when it comes to sound design. Knowing that audio is produced by a source (oscillator, noise generator, sampler, etc.) means that the source modules are at the beginning of the audio signal chain.
Filters (often controlled by envelopes, LFOs, or sequencers) are often put next in line to shape the source audio.
Effects are typically ordered, starting with pitch-shifting, dynamic and gain-based/distortion effects, followed by EQ and modulation effects and ending with time-based effects.
Voltage control amplifiers are often used as volume controls at the end of the audio chain.
Control Voltages Within A Modular Synth
Control voltages are used to control parameters or trigger gates within other modules. Learn above control voltages and how they’re used in manual controls, LFOs, sequencers, triggers, gates and more to control the audio and overall performance of modules.
Patching A Modular Synth
Know the difference between audio inputs/output, control voltage inputs/outputs and read up on how the connections of each module affect the performance of that module and all connected modules.
Of course, it’s also important to know how electricity flows and the inner workings of the patch cables. Learn which cables are required for your modules and determine the number of cables you need and how long they should optimally be.
Getting Sound From A Modular Synth
Getting sound from the modular synth is of utmost importance. Learn how to output audio from the synth and either record it or send it to a speaker for sound reproduction.
It’s also important to understand how you’ll be playing the synth. Will its sources be controlled by MIDI information or control voltages? Will it rely on MIDI files, a keyboard, touch surface, trigger pad, sequencer or something else?
There’s so much to learn about modular synthesis but once we understand the basics, designing a synth can be a deeply rewarding experience.
Modular synthesis, as well as synth design, is the ultimate form of sound creation. Once mastered, these skills unlock countless creative doors and can be a golden pathway to infinite creativity.
That being said, it takes a lot of applied knowledge and quite a steep learning curve to understand circuit flow and what does what to come up with unique sounds.
When buying a synthesizer, it can be challenging to choose the most ideal option within your budget. For this reason, I’ve created My New Microphone’s Comprehensive Synthesizer Buyer’s Guide. Check it out for help choosing the best synth for your applications.
Building your Eurorack system can be overwhelming. For this reason, I’ve created My New Microphone’s Comprehensive Eurorack Buyer’s Guide. Check it out for help in determining your next Eurorack purchases.
This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.