An idea emerging from Manchester’s inaugural Sines & Squares Festival in 2014, initiated by our Guest Editor, forms the core of the topics explored in this issue, with focuses including the dramatic resurgence of interest in modular synthesis, their roles in live performance and fixed media composition, design, patching and methodology.
Sines & Squares brought together composers, performers, manufacturers, musicologists and DIY makers in a weekend of concerts, interactive sessions, installations, masterclasses, demonstrations and workshops. During this weekend we were able to present the ideas and work of 40 performers, composers, researchers, designers and manufacturers. The intention of the festival was to help deepen and enrich the culture surrounding analogue and modular musical technologies. We hoped to develop a discursive community that would bridge boundaries, for example between academic and non-academic, between electronic and electroacoustic, between analogue and digital, between technical and æsthetic, between designers and users, composers and musicologists, between past and present artistic practices.
Several of these articles are derived directly from presentations or performances made at the festival and others expand upon its themes. We don’t claim to have attempted to offer anything like an overview of the current state of this technology or of the scenes that have created and supported it, but we do hope to look at some topics in more depth that social media sources normally allow. These contributions take different shapes, forms and colours; some take academic, technical or philosophical approaches, others represent more personal artistic statements. The articles are collected into four sections. Inevitably there is considerable overlap and interaction between these groups. Nevertheless, for the purposes of an overview, we felt it was worth separating them.
- Core — contributions which discuss the foundations of analogue synthesizer theory, technique and pedagogy.
- Invention — discussions of designs, ideas and tools.
- Concepts — philosophical, æsthetic and theoretical contributions, expanding upon and exploring some of the core rudiments.
- Trajectories — research and projects reports showing different ways in which analogue and modular synthesizers are inspiring individual creative practice and artistic enquiries.
Kevin Austin’s “Generalized Introduction to Modular Analogue Synthesis Concepts” forms a natural starting point to the Core section and to the issue as a whole. Austin pulls together the rudiments and basic concepts of conventional analogue synthesis with suggestions for patch notation and analysis. Such a fundamental starting point is surprisingly often lacking in available online sources and discussions. Philippe-Aubert Gauthier and Stéphane Claude also explore some such basics in the practical context of how they might be communicated to a group of modular learners in a workshop context. Their “Considerations on a Workshop on Modular Synthesis for Audio Arts” offer an interesting model of how modular pedagogy might progress. Their approach is focussed on delivering core principles while recognising that different users will want to build different kind of systems for different musical purposes and will want to interact with them in different ways. Hands-on group learning is the focus here. Collective music making seemed to emerge spontaneously from the workshop tasks, which must surely be taken as an important indicator of the success of the workshop and a vindication of the authors’ creative approach to the subject.
Finally in this section, staying with themes of the rudiments and essentials, Tim Stinchcombe’s “The Serge VCS: How it works” details the author’s technical analysis of a highly influential Serge Tcherepnin multifunction generator that lies, in various guises, at the heart of many modules — not only within vintage Serge designs but in many more recent systems too. Tcherepnin’s circuit cleverly combines many of the major features of a voltage-controlled synthesizer: voltage and audio generation, voltage and audio processing, and various logic functions. The practical importance of this circuit is taken up later in Navs’ discussion of rudimentary modular functions, below.
For the section on Invention we are delighted to include original articles by two of the most creative current synthesizer designers and manufacturers. Rob Hordijk is the creator and manufacturer of influential chaotic circuits such as the Blippoo Box, the Benjolin, the Rungler and his own highly original modular system. He offers a brief and pointed statement of his personal design philosophy and process in regards to “Designing Instruments for Electronic Music.” The text provides a refreshingly dry and practical line of argument in a subject too often mired in myth, romanticism and misconception. Like Don Buchla before him, Hordijk understands the synthesizer first and foremost as a musical instrument that is at its core an analogue computer whose purpose is to express various algorithmic functions. In doing so, he implicitly challenges often-encountered assumptions both about the impenetrable mysteries of analogue sound and about digital technical superiority. In the design process he describes, analogue and digital are simply different potential tools whose allocation is simply based on rational choices over which is the most efficient and effective method in any particular case. Whereas many musicians might actually enjoy and praise the inadequacies of vintage analogue design — distortion, noise and nonlinearity — and even wax lyrical about the characteristic qualities of certain components — vactorals, op-amps, vacuum tubes, transformers and germanium — this kind of nostalgia finds no place in Hordijk’s design philosophy or in his own choices of analogue circuitry and components. The choice of digital or analogue for any particular task is question of allocating appropriate resources rather than a fundamental position. Hordijk puts the nail in the coffin of the analogue/digital debate: these are design choices, not religious affiliations.
In many ways one might think it is hard to find anyone more different in the world of synthesizer design from Rob Hordijk than Ciat-Lonbarde’s Peter Blasser, creator of “The Oval Synthesizer.” He is very much engaged with instrument design as itself an expressive artwork, and instrument building as a kind of handicraft. In addition to the instruments he designs and builds he has developed and continues to develop a uniquely poetic nomenclature around them. Where Hordijk’s language and instruments may appear (at least superficially) to be rather neutral and scientific in approach, Blasser’s inventions and the ideas surrounding them are clearly handmade and even fanciful; they are made of wood wherever possible and in visual appearance more like a kind of DIY or folk art rather than the outcome of a scientific or industrial process. But the two have a great deal in common. If Blasser’s approach may seem at odds with the more orthodox approaches to the subject outlined by some authors here, beneath the surface we find ways of thinking that are actually not so dissimilar. The use and organisation of generative functions in various of his instruments is very much compatible not only with Hordijk’s thinking, but also with the approaches discussed here in the articles by Spicer, Gaston, Dalgleish and Parmar, for example. Blasser is also very concerned with interface: so when we look at his unusual creations it is not merely the functions of the circuitry we need to understand, but how the interaction created between of these circuits are expressed as an instrument, and the relationship of these functions to the interface; to what is brought to the surface and made playable.
Introducing the Concepts section, Navs’ contribution builds directly upon Stinchcombe’s Serge VCS analysis by suggesting how these various technical functions are expressed as useful musical functions and argues for the importance of a basic understanding amongst modular users of how such individual functions are derived. His approach, which could be condensed to the headline, “Craftsman, Know Thy Tools,” questions current assumptions about module-as-plug-in or module-as-instrument. He rejects the notion of “the module” as the basic unit by which a modular synthesizer can be understood, instead seeing modules as a collection of lower level functions. Navs’ “Appeal for a greater understanding of rudimentary modular functions” also points to an important difference between more reductive functional approaches, corresponding with low-level programming, and more directive, higher functional principles. This may perhaps be taken as direct reflection on the current state of modular design, as more and more complex menu-driven modules, often with limited access to such individual functions, appear in the modular marketplace.
Andrew Duff’s “Synths and Social Capital” offers discussion of a more social and psychological dimension and reminds us that the varying levels of technical knowledge and practice that the modular synthesizer “community” represents is not abstract from that community itself. Knowledge is a social phenomenon and the collective knowledge that the community represents and perpetuates is a product of multiple overlapping and mostly informal communities, networks, newsgroups, forums and social media. Such communities have their own sense of identity, motives and means of exchange. Every writer here is connected in some way or another with these overlapping networks and this issue itself is in part a commentary on them too.
Beginning by tracing the historical failure of the modular synthesizer as a traditional interpretive and ensemble instrument, Ryan Gaston proposes the concept of the modular as a new kind of “timbre instrument”. In “Plays Well with Others: Regarding modular synthesizer in collaborative performance practice,” he locates its unique role and potential in the context of the history of electronic instruments and electroacoustic composition. He makes a strong case for the contemporary modular as a performance instrument that can potentially find its place in a variety of contexts — a position that would have been hard to maintain only a few short years ago.
Michael Spicer proposes “An Agent Approach to Working with Modular Synths” in his discussion of ideas of agency and function. Within a modular system, “agent functions” could, for example, work as an abstract model of inputs, outputs and effectors which may be used to describe, visualise or understand the play of active (generative, random, cyclic, deterministic) forces and interactions within patches, especially those whose complexity might make them impenetrable to more conventional representations, such as models of signal flow. This idea perhaps also implies questioning the idea of instrumental control: we manage patches, we oversee them, we imagine them — and there are perhaps more appropriate metaphors we could use for all of this than “control”.
The issue of control is again addressed in Mat Dalgleish’s “The Modular Synthesizer Divided: The keyboard and its discontents,” where he broaches the touchy question of interface, articulating differences in the development of Buchla and Moog modular systems through the 1960s and 1970s before moving on to the more recent dominations of the laptop and NIME (New Instruments for Musical Expression) technologies, and to the revival of interest in these questions brought about by Eurorack today. It is arguable that the question of how we use our bodies to control these instruments has been rather too low on the list of issues to be addressed by designers and manufacturers for far too long.
Ending this section, David Ross heads in a rather different direction, presenting a personal perspective on the modulation of time in voltage-controlled systems in “Time Modulation: Rhythm, relativity and voltage control.” As a drummer and multi-instrumentalist he has spent much of his musical life involved with everything but electronics, so Ross is a surprising convert, but the last few years have found him deeply absorbed by analogue synthesis. His article celebrates the organic musicality and malleability of voltage control, contrasting it with the inflexibilty of quantised timing control from digital means.
Our final section, Trajectories, is comprised of a collection of reports on artistic practice, composition, research, performance projects and artist statements. The word “trajectory” suggests energy and direction, but also incompletion and multiplicity. As artists were not made in order to agree with each other, I do not believe there is much to gain from over-generalisation or the search for some common connective theme or direction amongst modular synthesizer users. These diverse reports comment on the importance and influence of modular tools within their authors’ own unique creative processes.
Joseph Hyde underlines this individuality by describing his own artistic development and his current focus on modular as a sound engine. Although the hybrid “ensemble” he describes in “It’s Not an Instrument, It’s an Ensemble: A Parallel approach to modular synthesizer design” is far from a fully flexible analogue modular system for Hyde’s artistic purposes, which require repeatability and an acute level of control, it makes a lot of sense. The kind of hybrid in-and-out-of-the-box approach and the “ensemble” design philosophy he describes embrace the idea of an analogue front end without abandoning computer-orientated methods of composition and control. This kind of approach has become far easier to realise technically in recent years and is no doubt the kind of development we will see a lot more composers developing in future.
In FRAMEWORK, Mads Emil Nielsen explores approaches to the composition and “Interpretation of Graphic Scores Using a Small Modular System” comprised of analogue modular synthesizers and other instruments. The scores themselves are in part the outcome of a kind of analogue influence and Nielson observes a basic sense of visual, morphological and procedural correspondences between the activities of drawing and that of recording and arranging his compositions with the modular synthesizer.
Chelsea Bruno’s “Artist’s Approach to the Modular Synthesizer in Experimental Electronic Music Composition and Performance” offers a record of her musical education and development through software, to analogue synthesizer to her current Eurorack modular system. She comments on various issues around the topic of modular synth performance, including her way of working and recording, the “otherworldly” nature of the instrument and a phenomenon many modular uses will surely recognise — “the feeling that the machine has a life all its own.” She explains her relationship to the instrument and records her thoughts and experiences of writing for her own hybrid in-and-out-of-the-box system combining a Eurorack system and a laptop running Ableton Live software.
The biological, psychological and electrical procedures used in composition, and specifically creativity expressed as electrical activity in the cortex (“brainwaves”) along with the potential for its mapping to appropriate voltages with which to control an analogue modular system are Dave O Mahony’s current pursuits. He talks about the specific technologies employed for this on-going research and comments on some of the preliminary results of his experiences in “Real-time Manipulation of Synthesis Parameters Using a Brainwave Interface and a Eurorack Modular Synthesizer.”
We are particularly pleased to take the opportunity to snub prejudice and to include two articles in this section which take an explicitly digital (or virtual analogue) approach to modular synthesis, using two of the most influential digital modular systems, Native Instruments’ Reaktor software and the Clavia’s Nord Modular hardware, two tools which have helped many of today’s analogue modular users and designers learn their craft. In “Creating an Autopoietic Improvisation Environment Using Modular Synthesis,” Robin Parmar documents his thinking behind the construction of a recursive feedback-based No Input Software Environment, developed in Reaktor, and discusses the conceptual and practical aspects of this project. In “Reviving Parmegiani’s “Stries” (1980): Translation of Historic Analogue Works Into the Digital Domain,” Sebastian Berweck stresses the practical challenges and considerations in reviving older electronic scores for contemporary realisation and performance. Berweck reports that, rather than attempting to reconstruct scores and performances using the same ancient analogue tools he discovered the Nord Modular G2 to be not only an appropriate powerful tool in this challenge, but in some cases can even prove to be more appropriate than the instruments these scores were originally written for.
The penultimate article, “Exploring Real, Virtual and Augmented Worlds Through “Putney”, an Extended Reality,” by Ricardo Climent, Mark Pilkington and Alena Mesárošová explores composition-as-research. The Putney project they report upon maps out some technologically and musically complex thinking, using an analogue synthesizer and “modular thinking” as springboards for the development of original cross-modal performance and compositional ideas. It is interesting that this is the only article in this collection to admit to a certain nostalgia, an attachment to analogue sound and an image of “retrograde culture” as one its starting points. This rather contradicts the anti-nostalgic, utilitarian gist that would seem to be a mutual understanding between the authors of several of the other articles. For all its futurism, Putney proposes a positive romanticism towards not only EMS synthesizers but towards their vintage components and even historical location, represented by Climent’s personal pilgrimage to the site of Peter Zinovieff’s original EMS London studio. Here analogue and modularity are taken more as concepts and metaphors than as actual technology. “Analogue sound” is remembered but almost purposefully misunderstood and recast into a new context — this kind of “misunderstanding”, as is so often the case in art, yields new paths and new forms.
The final article “On Misunderstanding Modular Synthesizers” by Guest Editor Richard Scott addresses some common misconceptions about the subject and pulls together some of themes which emerge from the previous articles into a critical overview of a few key contemporary issues: resurgence, obsolescence, interface, objectness and futurism, and asks the question: Is modular getting less modular?
If there is a key message of these very varied 19 articles it must surely be that there is not one way but many ways to use and to think about this technology. The resurgent influence of modular and analogue technologies and practices is a many-headed reinvention which expresses not one but many kinds of fascination and exploration. If the majority of these articles appear to lack nostalgia for an analogue “golden era” it is perhaps because the musical potential of the technology was neither realized nor fully explored in its earlier incarnations, so what we are in the middle of at the time of writing is not so much a revival or retrograde glance as a reconvened and rejuvenated process of discovery and invention. This said, despite the plethora of new modules and new designs on the market, including many digital modules, samplers and menu-driven modules, an analysis of rudimentary modular functions tells us that the technology has, generally speaking, changed very little since the 1970s. But the practices surrounding its usage have — they are changing as we speak and will surely continue to do so in the future. If there is a golden era of modular synthesizers and of knowledge about their use and potential it is surely not located at some mythical point in the 1960s or 1970s, but right here and now.
Manchester, 25 February 2016