Considerations on a Workshop on Modular Synthesis for Audio Arts
Why a Collective Workshop on Modular Synthesis?
In recent years, the audio and music community has witnessed an impressive resurgence and development of modular synthesizers, partly explained by the relatively recent appearance and widespread availability of the Eurorack format, the plethora of constructors and modules available for the Eurorack and similar equipment, a growing community and the free-style combination of analogue and digital philosophies within the community. The resurgence of modular synthesis hardware is also interesting because many modular users represent a young generation unfamiliar with past modular synthesizers, which have been replaced by cheap digital instruments and computers in the last forty years. This new set of users is characterized by an even mix of musicians and audio artists, and even visual artists. We therefore realized that it would be useful to design a workshop on modular synthesis hardware in order to facilitate the contact between this new generation of users and the modular world, including its heritage and new emerging traditions.
In our view, in order to develop a fresh approach to modular philosophy that would investigate new conceptual, methodological and æsthetics territories, it was important to imagine a collective workshop that included participants of varied backgrounds and interests.
Since giving the first edition of this workshop at the OBORO artist-run centre in Montréal in November 2015, we have reflected on and summarized our aims and teaching backgrounds, as well as the participants’ aims and interests. This is followed by the teaching method and plan, and finally, we summarize our considerations of the teaching strategy.
Current Resources and Workshops on Modular Synthesis
Our initial research revealed a considerable amount of online resources for learning modular synthesizers (hardware or software). The most relevant and complete examples include, but are not limited to, the well-illustrated guide to AALTO (Cochrane and Randy, 2014), the Nord Modular Book by James Clark (2003), The Book of Bad Ideas from the Muffwiggler Community (no date) and The Synthesizer Academy(Rise). There is also a series of excellent video tutorials, called Modular Synth Basics, for the Eurorack format (The Tuesday Night Machines, 2014). Academically, there are also examples of modular teaching in music departments such as the “Virtual Modular Synthesis” course at Concordia University (Montréal). Although these resources are very useful for learning about modular synthesis software or hardware, few resources are exclusively dedicated to modular synthesis hardware. Furthermore, some of these learning resources lack a teaching aspect that is fundamental to the arts: collaborative learning through direct and instant interactions between students, participants and teachers, while working with modular synthesizers. In practical terms, most advanced users of modular synthesizers have spent countless hours alone, in the studio or online, reading documents or consulting online video resources. At the same time, many happenings, events and synth meetings related to modular synthesis are taking place. In many of these events or meetings, much space is given to intuitive exploration and trial-and-error learning. We therefore decided to develop a specific collective workshop that could represent a balance between these two teaching and learning avenues, i.e. formal instruction of technical details and concepts along with collaborative learning and teaching with artists and musicians working hands-on with the actual equipment.
Purpose of Modular Synthesis Training
The first incentive for developing a workshop on modular synthesizers was the fact that OBORO recently acquired modular synthesizers, which will be available for artists to use in the OBORO studios. Therefore, our first aim was to prepare a community of artists to use modular systems in their future work. We thus needed to provide a detailed introduction to OBORO’s specific modular system in order to facilitate its successful use, which also necessitated an introduction to electronics in order to avoid any risk or damage.
Next, we were also personally motivated by our own artistic and musical interest in modular synthesizers, one that is firmly based in their current resurgence. This resurgence has been significantly accelerated by two factors: the arrival of the open Eurorack format, which opened up the market, and the Internet, which stimulated the appearance of a small, but widespread, community of users and manufacturers. This connected community made the Eurorack world grow rapidly.
Based on our current sense of the local community, which seemed interested in the creative uses of modular synthesizers, we felt that many excellent artists and composers were curious, but also somewhat hesitant because of a lack of knowledge about the modular world. Some typical questions included: Where should I start? How much does it cost? How does it work? How do I deal with the cryptic labels and manuals? So our teaching goal, in designing and delivering the modular workshop, was to answer these questions, initiate debates about how one can use modular synthesizers for artistic purposes, clarify some preconceptions, provide a solid theoretical background to facilitate the entry into this modular world, and, lastly, for more experienced users, provide an in-depth review of technical information and principles that are key to modular synthesizers. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we wanted to design a workshop for participants, teachers and artists of varied backgrounds in order to provide a wide-ranging and multiple perspective on current artistic and musical uses of modular synthesizers. The inclusion of different backgrounds is also a practical choice that is in keeping with and derives from OBORO’s philosophy with respect to workshops and training. Indeed a key element for OBORO is the support and delivery of workshops in which co-creation is the underlying strategy, in order to foster the theoretical, practical and critical, but also artistic engagement with the topics presented. Typically, this co-creation format entails the inclusion of free exploration sessions, in which participants work in small groups on a specific, short-term, creation project with a final outcome. For these sessions, exchanges between participants, practice-based interactions and co-creations, as well as spontaneous changes within the small groups are encouraged.
Invited and Selected Participants
A call to register for the workshop was distributed through OBORO’s network and programming structure. However, right from the beginning, we agreed on the importance of having participants with a minimum professional experience with sound, audio art, music or sound design, and, ideally, with modular synthesisers. Stéphane Claude thus targeted specific potential participants, contacting them directly and encouraging them to participate into the workshop. This had an incredible impact on the resulting group’s dynamic, which combined people of different backgrounds who had enough experience to be able to quickly and fruitfully take in the content presented and transform the ideas and principles into artistic explorations or modular system designs for their own purposes. Because of the various invitations and discussions that took place months before the actual workshop, eight dynamic participants contributed to the overall environment of the workshop. Furthermore, due to these preliminary discussions with potential participants (which included descriptions of their own modular systems, if they had any), we were able to fine-tune the workshop content and planning to at least try to more accurately reflect the potential interests of the participants.
At the beginning of the workshop, after a few introductory remarks that summarized our interest in the current use of modular synthesis and the workshop plan, participants were invited to described their own interest in taking this workshop or using modular synthesis for audio art or music. Many specific ideas and interests that emerged from this group discussion directly relate to the current resurgence of modular synthesis. Furthermore, standard preconceptions about modular synthesis did not generally factor in the aims described.
We were surprised to find that none of the participants specifically insisted on a preconceived sound superiority of analogue electronics over digital electronics. This is very much aligned with the current state of modular synthesis practice of Eurorack format and product users — one commonly encounters an equal balance of digital and analogue core implementations in users’ setups. Next, with respect to individual motivations for using modular synthesis, we identified three clear interests. Firstly, several participants were explicitly interested in developing a personal, singular musical (or not) instrument to play. Therefore, they did not see the modular synthesizer as an infinite studio of endless possibilities, but rather as a careful and critical selection of modules to craft a specific voice — a voice that both referred to the sound results and to the ergonomics or philosophy behind the assembled modules. Secondly, most participants agreed with our own interests in a tactile interface with the device that included not only contact (such as with smartphones and tablets), but also haptic and visual feedback from the physical knobs, joysticks, wires and LEDs. Finally, a few participants insisted on the idea of working with analogue electricity as a content conveyor (even for modules based on digital implementation, all the inter-modules communications are done with analogue voltages) instead of a digital representation of content, as in a computer. In this case, the materiality and energy of sound was evoked (Kahn 2013).
Teaching Method and Plan
While defining and preparing the workshop, we had several discussions regarding the teaching methods and plan. These exchanges made it clear than we wanted to develop a workshop with an equal balance of theoretical considerations, practical demonstrations, presentations and performances by invited artists, and, most importantly, hands-on exploration by participants. The aim was to include several approaches in order to reach most of the participants, depending on their typical learning styles (Moore 2007).
Initial Plan and Content
The workshop was planned for six days spread out over three weeks and included two evening presentations. Three days were dedicated to theoretical presentations, accompanied by demonstrations using the modular system available, and three days were for free and guided explorations by the participants.
The theory covered several topics in the following order:
- Review of the generic types of modules.
- Review of the most popular manufacturers of modules, including their philosophies, styles and sound æsthetics.
- Overview of possible compositional or artistic strategies.
- How to patch the most classic note-based modular synthesizer.
- What to know before building your modular synthesizer: budget, methods, examples of small generic systems from different builders (including cost comparison).
- Review of affordable all-in-one patchable or semi-patchable products.
- Review of affordable solutions: kits.
- An introduction to electricity: water flow analogy, Ohm’s law, online circuit simulators, power supplies for modular synthesizers, risks and short-circuit possibilities with modular synthesizers.
- Terminology and definitions, including practical examples with the available modules: signals, amplitude, frequency, polarity, audio signals, control voltage, types of control signals (gates, triggers, etc.), oscillators, amplifiers, etc.
- Types of waveforms: sound examples from several modules and waveform visualization using an oscilloscope; spectrum and Fourier transform.
- Advanced topics:
- The triangle-core voltage-controlled oscillator (VCO) from the inside and outside with sound examples using the available oscillators.
- The resonant voltage-controlled filter (VCF) from the inside and outside with practical examples: types, resonance, poles and drive.
- The voltage-controlled amplifier (VCA) and low-pass-gate from the inside with practical examples.
- Reaching a specific goal: how to create a classical analogue kick, comparison of three methods.
- Other advanced topics:
- Envelopes as oscillators and filters.
- Sequencers as oscillators and timbre shapers.
The theoretical part was presented in a formal context in OBORO’s main studio, using a two-row modular system that included classical modules: oscillators, filters, amplifiers, controllers, etc. Most of the theoretical content was presented through 142 illustrated slides that included several links to external references, such as books, video tutorials, manufacturers, websites, electronic resources and examples of works of different styles by artists, musicians, composers and improvisers. The slides were available in electronic format. Also, participants were encouraged to approach the synthesizer to fully observe the patch and to ask questions at any time. Furthermore, the questions were often used as the starting point for theoretical explanations that were not in the initial plan. The theoretical teaching was a combination of scientific and technological facts, which were presented as rigorously as possible with a hint of fun and levity in order to highlight the vast creative territory that is possible and which more or less respects formal technological definitions.
For the theoretical teaching, one tool was key to the efficient delivery of the content. The oscilloscope was used for each patch that was presented as an example. Typically, the two-channel digital oscilloscope (Fig. 2) was used to illustrate all the signals in the patch, from the top to the bottom of the branches. The two channels were often used to illustrate a given control voltage effect on another signal. This was a key element to demystifying many concepts.
Presentations and Performances
The theoretical content was complemented by two private presentations and performances by artists with significantly different approaches to modular synthesizers. Both presentations were in the evenings in order to provide a party-like ambiance and encourage exchanges and informal discussions. The first artist was Émilie Mouchous, who builds and uses her own electronic circuits in performances. Her approach combines circuit bending and other alterations of circuits. For the modular workshop, Mouchous presented her circuits and other tools along with her creation and performance philosophy. The talk was followed by a commented performance by the artist. With Mouchous’ presentation, the participants were able to appreciate a do-it-yourself approach that is modular-inspired, but which does not include the typical modular fetishism for expensive modules. Based on the participants’ feedback and comments, this presentation succeeded in reaching and stimulating the DIY-oriented participants in the group.
The second invited artist was David Kristian, a musician and composer who has released several albums on different labels and is also active and well known as a sound designer. In recent years, Kristian has completely stopped using traditional studio equipment and has instead moved to using the Eurorack modular synthesizer for his own artistic production. Kristian’s intimate performance with five rows of Eurorack modules especially patched for the event was followed by a presentation, and clearly illustrated how a modular synthesizer system can replace the traditional computer in favour of a totally tactile and haptic instrument. Furthermore, Kristian’s thorough knowledge of the æsthetic results related to several different modules was a great source of inspiration for the participants. The day after his performance, some participants who were initially hesitant about where to start in the design of their own modular synthesizer were now greatly stimulated, through Kristian’s critical and analytical design and selection of specific modules, to develop a small-scale, personal instrument with a clear signature.
Besides the invited artists, who illustrated the use of modular synthesis in audio arts or music, two external presenters were invited to give brief demonstrations. Firstly, François Létourneau (Fig. 3) from Moog Audio (a Montréal-based shop that distributes Eurorack modules) was invited to present the Phenol all-in-one synth by Kilpatrick Audio as an affordable solution that offers many creative possibilities. This showed participants that it is possible to enter the realm of the analogue and digital modular synthesizer on a limited budget. Secondly, guitarist Christopher Cousineau was invited to present his homemade modular synthesizer, using tubes and high voltage (within the range of 50–100 V peak-to-peak). The most fascinating and inspiring aspect of Cousineau’s contribution was his own path, as less than a year ago Cousineau was not yet involved in the modular world. He first became interested and stimulated by the documentary I Dream of Wires by Robert Fantinatto and Jason Amm (Monoduo Films 2014). Using various references, he then started to build his own tube-based synthesizer and completed it within a single year. This was a fascinating example for participants — they were again able to see that the modular world, despite its technical side, was not impenetrable to the inexperienced user. Reflecting back on both the invited artists and the external presenters, we believe that we presented a good balance of varied experiences and backgrounds, and thus reached all the participants, encouraging them to collectively explore the vast modular world.
As mentioned before, half of the workshop was planned for personal or small group explorations and co-creations using modular systems or all-in-one entry-level systems. In order to facilitate this type of hands-on work without having to rely on headphone listening, four isolated work spaces were selected: a 5.1 surround sound studio, a medium-size recording booth, a control room and a multipurpose studio. All four spaces were equipped with high-quality loudspeaker pairs and dedicated modular systems. The main studio included the two-row modular synthesizer, the multipurpose studio included the personal modular synthesizer of the teachers, and the two other rooms included systems provided by the participants and Létourneau. In one workspace, two collaborating participants installed their own start-up modular gear. Although not a formal requirement, the participants were invited to think about how they planned to use the three exploratory days, with the possible goal of a giving a semi-private presentation or performance of their final individual outcomes. Interestingly, half of the participants were more focused on freely exploring as many modules as possible in order to find their own preference and style in terms of module selection. This was especially true for some of the participants who wished to begin designing a modular system in the near future — the sessions were used to help them identify their own interests and tastes. Also, based on real-time feedback and our willingness to adjust the workshop structure as things developed, the first day of free exploration that we had planned was quite naturally replaced by a guided tour of each dedicated room and system: the individual system owners each described their ideas and system and gave a small demonstration. As of this point, common interests and philosophies between participants started to emerge, and small-scale improvisations and explorations automatically started to pop-up in the studios. This instigated the remaining exploration time.
We offered two specific guidelines for the individual exploration time. Firstly, we discouraged participants from seeing this time as an opportunity to record a massive sample bank without a final outcome. We insisted on the idea of working with a system, an ecology or an instrument, rather than thinking of it as a trip to the sound Superstore. Secondly, we encouraged the idea of working towards a final presentation of a patch or performance, rather than the playback of a recorded patch or performance. This was only possible due to the simultaneous availability of at least four systems. Reflecting back on the workshop, this was a very important decision, which, although somewhat complicating the workshop logistics, encouraged the physical use of the devices, which was in keeping with both our own and the participants’ aims.
To complement the training, especially the theoretical parts, various external references were used. The popular website modulargrid.net was used to present various possible systems and manufacturers. It was also a great source of images for several of the modules and was used to create pictures of patch examples that were developed in the workshop. To introduce some examples of electronic signal processing, the online “electronic circuit simulator” by Paul Falstad (Fig. 4) was very helpful and generally appreciated by participants because of its visual appeal and large banks of circuit examples related to modular synthesizers.
Accidents and Spontaneous Adjustments
Throughout the delivery of the workshop several events occurred that led to some adjustments of the initial plan.
Firstly, as expected, many questions, discussions and improvisations arose from the theoretical sections with practical examples. This led to very interesting discussions around classical examples of modular synthesis and new ideas about how they can be reworked or re-patched in the type of working environments we were concerned with in the workshop. Although this somewhat changed our schedule and required the elimination of few extra topics that were available if needed, it greatly helped us successfully reach our initial aim, which was to consider and develop a fresh approach to modular synthesis hardware that could be taught to the participants. For the last day of theoretical presentations, we decided to present the list of available topics to the participants and make a group decision regarding the final order of topics, in terms of importance and interest. We were surprised that some participants, once it was clear that not all the available topics could be covered, insisted on transforming some of the free exploration time into short theoretical sessions to cover more topics. Aspects of certain theoretical topics were also covered in small groups of participants during the free exploration sessions and were based on their questions, as the teachers circulated between the dedicated exploration rooms.
Secondly, but not expected, a few participants were not particularly interested in working on a specific project or outcome for the final day of the workshop. Consequently, we decided to let the participants decide and formulate their own desired outcomes for the free exploration part of the workshop, whether this would entail a performance, a personal reflection or even the design of a modular system for a future purchase. In the end, all were individually invited to exchange on their own experiences and results from the free exploration and co-creation experiments.
Success or Failure?
Based on our own impression of the workshop, we consider that our aims were successfully reached despite having to modify our initial plan. From our viewpoint, most of the participants evolved throughout the workshop, whether artistically, technically or conceptually. Perhaps the only weak point is that some additional time would have been necessary to cover all the topics that were initially identified as potentially relevant to participants.
The most successful aspect of the workshop is that some participants, who had not had a clear idea of where they wished to go with modular synthesis in their own artistic practice, clearly evolved during the workshop. They even changed their minds with respect to their initial wishes to opt for one of the many all-in-one, semi-patchable, affordable solutions that are now exploding on the market 1[1. The Moog Mother-32, Korg ms-20 Module Kit with the analogue SQ-1 Step Sequencer, and Roland System-1m being the best known examples.] in favour of a carefully selected custom set of Eurorack modules, so as to develop a personal instrument that reflects the uniqueness of their artistic statement or æsthetic. Furthermore, most participants also experienced and had a glimpse of the potential power of co-creation and community within the specific realm of modular synthesizers. It became fairly obvious that even with a small start-up system with only a few carefully selected modules, it is possible to collaborate on co-creations in order to multiply the sonorous and creative power, and to create unique and ephemeral systems though encounters with other smaller or larger systems of artist colleagues. This also helped participants recognize and understand the modular world as an electronic ecology of interacting agents.
An interesting, yet unexpected outcome is that at the end of each day, for most of the exploration sessions, many different æsthetics resulted in the working rooms where individual participants or small teams of two or three users were active. They ranged from beat-based patterns, short bell-like sounds and clouds reminiscent of slowly evolving granular synthesis, musique concrète explorations of short sound samples with a modular sampler, to modulated drones. This led the participants to make an important observation: it is not only the modules and their singular combination that creates a specific voice, signature or composition, but also the user’s background, knowledge, expectations and philosophy that makes a module or performance setup sound drastically different from user to user. Once again, this highlighted the potential for originality and uniqueness in co-creating with artists from different backgrounds.
The other successful outcome is that most participants clearly had a learning breakthrough regarding both modular philosophy and its æsthetic potential. This was clearly apparent in the parts of the workshop in which subversion of the intended use of the modules were discussed. Once the classical methods of modular synthesis were discussed, examples of subversion were provided during a two-hour block and also, on an individual basis, during the free exploration days. The examples we provided include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Envelope generators as audio oscillators (using the Maths by Make Noise Music).
- Self-controlling sequencers with one sequencer row controlling the sequence execution (using two Pressure Points and one Brains by Make Noise Music).
- Sequencers as audio oscillators using waveform drawing: a sequencer row controlling instantaneous amplitudes, a sequencer row controlling the steps’ durations and a sequencer row controlling the smoothing of the individual steps (using two Pressure Points, one Brains and the Maths by Make Noise Music).
- Modular generative control (using Max/MSP patch and Expert Sleepers ES-3 ADAT to control voltage converter).
- Four-channel, timbre-based spatialization using direct modules output to loudspeakers without mixer, without panning, without formal output modules (using multiple-output oscillators).
- Four-channel, filter-based spatialization, while linking loudspeakers to frequency bands with central cut-off frequency control for timbre spatialization and pseudo-stereo.
Based on the experience, we have several recommendations for what has most contributed to the success of the workshop. The most evident aspect is the equal balance of theoretical presentations (with demonstrations) and free individual exploration. However, in light of this first edition, we consider that if we had to offer a new edition, even more time would be allowed for free explorations and hands-on experiments.
Next, we think that the theoretical explanations were easier to grasp through the constant use of the digital oscilloscope. Note that although this might be more or less possible to do using a conventional sound card and computer software, most sound cards have a high-pass filter at their inputs, therefore, the visualization of the control voltage and DC voltage might not be possible. Thirdly, an incredible contribution to the workshop was the input from the two invited artists and the two invited presenters, who enlarged the overall perspective on the topic. David Kristian’s public presentation of an actual performance that does not require any editing or mastering was also a convincing example of a successful and finished piece of music entirely developed within the realm of modular synthesizers.
Though less important and spectacular, external references, additional materials and reading resources were also useful for participants who wanted to know more and pursue their learning further.
Finally, one of the workshop’s most important tools was time, time and time. Being able to work for six days in a concentrated time period, while leaving some room for individual reflection between the workshop days, was a key factor in helping the participants’ ideas evolve during the workshop and in fostering real research and exploration. As many now know, modular synthesis is a world that you know when you enter, but never know when you get out.
The authors acknowledge the support of OBORO for the development and delivery of this workshop. Moreover, special thanks to David Kristian, Émilie Mouchous, Christopher Cousineau and François Létourneau. The workshop was financially supported by Emploi Québec.
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