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Back to the Future

On misunderstanding modular synthesizers

Held in Manchester from 24–26 October 2014, the first Sines & Squares Festival of Analogue Electronics and Modular Synthesis was an initiative of Richard Scott, Guest Editor for this issue of eContact! Some of the authors in this issue presented their work in the many concerts, conferences and master classes that comprised the festival, and articles based on those presentations are featured here. After an extremely enjoyable and successful first edition, the second edition is in planning for 18–20 November 2016. Sines & Squares 2014 was realised in collaboration with Ricardo Climent, Sam Weaver, students at NOVARS Research Centre at Manchester University and Islington Mill Studios.

A traversal of some common and less common themes and misconceptions that emerge from discussions about analogue and modular synthesis. These included resurgence, obsolescence, “analogue sound,” higher and lower functional modals, interface, community and futurism. The question which connects all of these themes is, “Why have analogue and modular synthesizer technologies, only a few years ago thought to be well and truly obsolete, reasserted themselves in such an unexpected way?”

Why Modular Synthesizers Are Useless

Emerging in the 1960s with the promise of a new kind of instrument for a new kind of music, modular synthesizers soon fell into decline as they were replaced by keyboards, samplers, romplers, drum machines, sequencers and the other elements that became modern popular music production, themselves eventually to be largely replaced by the computer. Many of the companies who had designed and built modular synthesizers, such as Moog and Roland, did not see the revival of this technology coming and were not particularly interested in it. With the exception of Sound Transform Systems (Serge) and EMS, most of the original producers had gone of business or long ago moved onto other technologies or interests. Other newer companies such Doepfer, Blacet and Analogue Systems rather quietly kept the flame alive. It is quite a surprise that analogue and modular synthesizers are suddenly “everywhere”: on the covers of music magazines, as props on DJ stages and increasingly in the studios of many big name producers, and featuring on many contemporary recordings. There are dozens and dozens of companies now producing modules, Moog, Buchla, Serge, Korg, Oberheim and Roland are all back in the analogue or modular businesses, and there are hundreds of different modules now available. Why and how has this happened?

There is no one answer, but there are some frequent assumptions, for example that it is all about nostalgia or “analogue sound”. And while this may indeed be true for some users, we should be wary: different users with different levels of experience, different musical interests and even of different ages may have quite different relationships with this technology. The international modular “community” (which of course is made up of many much smaller communities) is characterized by enormous inventiveness and creativity, it expresses a lot of different interests and specialisms, and there is also much crossover between them. For many who are concerned with exploring new musical possibilities rather than regurgitating ideas from the 60s, 70s or 80s, this kind of journalistic shorthand falls wide of the mark. Issues regarding æsthetics, workflows, methodologies and interfaces, and questions such as what an instrument is, how we interact with it and why so many musicians have started to turn away from the mainstream musical instrument industry are no doubt more engaging than the “Analogue is Back!” headlines allow. These questions become even more interesting when we consider that, on the face of it, much of what we can achieve sonically with a modular synthesizer can today be created more cheaply and more conveniently with a computer.

Figure 1. Richard Scott’s performance system relaxing for a moment before a concert with Richard Barrett and Sonology Electroacoustic Ensemble at Royal Conservatoire’s Kees van Baarenzaal in The Hague (Netherlands) on 31 March 2015. [Click image to enlarge]

Technically speaking the analogue synthesizer is obsolete; it is a wildly out-of-date and problematic technology in many respects. All analogue circuitry is characterized by non-linearity to a greater or lesser extent and the route from A-to-B-to-C on an analogue synthesizer is unlikely to be as direct as it can be in a digital design. Analogue synthesizer chips, components and circuits typically leave their mark on the signals that run through them, and in many cases are not of the highest quality or the lowest tolerance. Many circuit designs go back to the 1960s and 1970s and oddities and flaws in the original circuitry are sometimes not corrected, either by oversight or because they are thought to be characteristic. Musicians might sometimes prefer the kind of noise, distortion and non-linearity such compromised circuits produce, but such artefacts may also be present when we don’t want them; for example, we might well prefer a pure sine wave or require a pitch or voltage to stay perfectly stable for accurate FM synthesis. A modular analogue system also typically has no recallable memories so is by definition useless for much stage use. The means of control, for example via potentiometers, knobs and joysticks, are often neither particularly linear in implementation, nor appropriately scaled and are famously difficult to set in exactly the same positions more than once. These problems, allied with a general systematic unpredictability of the machines, for example due to variable temperature and power supply, mean that the analogue modular synthesizer is not a particularly efficient tool for the accomplishment of the exact and definite ends that much musical use demands. Its “characterful” nature may give it a distinctive sonic identity but even that is not always pleasing to some users for whom this character is merely a symptom of technical compromise and who hope for a more neutral and controllable sonic palette than analogue machinery can offer.

The analogue synthesizer’s fabled abilities to mimic the roles of other instruments have also proven to be historically questionable. After much misleading broadcast that these instruments could make any sound imaginable, they tended in the end to sound very much like analogue synthesizers: creating a new and rather characteristic sound world instead of authentically replicating the old. 1[1. Sebastian Berweck also addresses this issue in his discussion of the task of “Recreating Parmegiani’s ‘Stries’ (1980),” also published in this issue of eContact!] These new timbres suited some genres more than others and it was not always obvious how they could be integrated into conventional song-writing or band musicianship. With some notable exceptions, such as Tomita, Kraftwerk, ‎Giorgio Moroder, Klaus Schultz, Paul Bley and Annette Peacock, Morton Subotnick and Stevie Wonder, their use tended to be limited to novelty albums and movie sound effects. Meanwhile modular synthesizers, as monumentally expensive as they were, tended to be the preserve of wealthy rock stars and avant-garde composers working in non-commercial electronic music studios. These were all reasons why in the 80s and 90s many composers, musicians and manufacturers did not seem sad to see the back of modular and analogue synthesizers in general and instead embraced new and more reliably predictable developments. Initially this took the form of fixed architecture analogue keyboards and then digital synthesis, presets, FM and sampling, which transformed the sound of pop music and set the seeds for today’s multiple genres of electronic dance music and electronica. So there are good reasons to regard the analogue modular synthesizer as a technology that well and truly flopped, and to view it today as a kind of glorious pre-historic failure. Until recently it appeared to be an obsolete technology whose greatest achievement was some uniquely bouncy disco bass lines but whose real importance was to pave the way for our more flexible and efficient contemporary musical technologies.

“That Analogue Sound…”

“That analogue sound” is typically the first thing mentioned when the subject of analogue and modular synthesizers is introduced. Given all the hype about analogue in recent years it may be surprising to many readers that there is a lack of emphasis on “analogue sound” amongst most of the contributors to the collection of articles in this issue. I would argue that this is because for an increasing numbers of musicians this particular image of analogue sound is not necessarily the main reason that these instruments hold the fascination that they do. The articles in this issue, while not necessarily denying it, thus already imply many other reasons.

François Bayle, Bernard Parmegiani and even Pierre Schaeffer using the GRM’s custom Coupigny Modular and analogue tape in the 1970s, for example, appear to have gone to great lengths to create extremely quiet and high quality recordings. Far from conforming to the clichéd noisy, overdriven and saturated qualities we might now associate with 1970s analogue, their recordings from this era sound extremely “clean” and very well controlled: as the cliché would have it, almost “digital.” Many sound designers working with digital tools such as convolution and modelling today have the opposite challenge, that of recreating non-linearities which are perceived as “natural” or “real” and which behave in similar ways to both acoustic phenomena and to older analogue systems.

The related misconception that people involved in analogue synthesis all dislike computers and are in some way opposed to digital means or to “digital sound” also needs shooting down. In my intensive involvement with modulars and modular users in the last decade I have come across very few who care to bother discussing this supposed analogue-digital divide at all. Such a constituency of mythical analogue purists eschewing everything digital appear to me to be creations of lazy journalism and Internet legend rather than a community that actually exists. On the contrary, most of the contributors here tend to use both analogue and digital tools in innovative ways and are more interested to discover the areas at which each excels than engaging in some kind of competitive playoff or in exacerbating any existing religious friction between the two. The amount of voltage-controlled digital modules now appearing, and their popularity, would also seem to support this. My own contention is that for many of us, voltage control, flexibility, physical accessibility of parameters and the kinds of interface and workflow that modular systems allow are ultimately more decisive reasons for current developments than a clichéd image of “analogue sound”.

Figure 2. Richard Scott live with Basconsemble (Richard Barrett, electronics; Richard Scott, modular synthesizer; Olaf Rupp, guitar; Meinrad Kneer, double bass; Steve Heather, drums) at The Gumbo, The Greenhouse in Berlin on 2 September 2016. [Click image to enlarge]

Anyone perusing social media on the topic of modular synthesizers will regularly come across unanswerable questions such as: “What is the best/warmest oscillator?” and “What is the best/fattest filter?” Another common question goes something like: “What are the best modules for techno, dubstep / deep house / [insert latest contemporary electronic dance genre here]?” A modular synthesizer is a sound design tool containing near infinite settings, routes and possibilities; you can do almost anything with it, but it doesn’t give you anything on a plate. While some systems, modules and components might indeed be particularly helpful for creating specific sounds, the sheer repetition of these kinds of questions shows a core misconception over what a modular synthesizer actually is and a misunderstanding of what it can do. It is worth pausing to consider what such questions really mean.

The misconception behind such questions probably derives from the idea of fixed path synthesizers being found to have an individual “sound” which was perceived as particularly suited to a genre and even go on to define the characteristic sound and feel of that genre. The Roland TB303’s ancestral link with Acid House being perhaps the most striking example. This develops into a kind of fetishism around the instruments themselves: you have to have that instrument to make that sound to make that music. Such a view is by definition anachronistic and conservative; it assumes the prior existence of genre as a meaningful tool of categorisation and it is overwhelmingly concerned with the reproduction and repetition of existing musical ideas rather than new invention. This said, the idea of a specific manufacturer’s sonic signature (the Moog sound, the Serge sound) is widespread and it is not entirely false, but again, it is a superficial aspect to focus on. For one thing, the manufacturer’s “sound” tends to get less definitive with a deeper acquaintance with some systems; modular systems such as Cwejman, Hordijk and Serge modular systems, for example, all tend to sound quite “clean” and dynamic on the surface but can sound anything but once their secrets have been appropriately absorbed. What we are hearing in any specific synthesizer’s character is not necessarily merely the choice of components and circuitry — we are hearing systematic design and programming choices made by both designer of the machine and player. No two users need to sound the same, and users learn to work with different technologies in different ways and have different desires.

Finally, while a sound itself can in some respects be analyzed, the meaning of a sound is less easily quantifiable. This is surely another reason that modular users don’t discuss it as much as might be imagined — because we can’t. There is something highly visceral, personal and poetic about sound: perhaps we don’t even want to reduce it to language.

Post-Modular Synthesis: Is modular getting less modular?

There is a considerable difference between designers and manufacturers within the world of modular design in their use of lower and higher programming approaches. The lower level corresponds historically to Serge Tcherepnin’s “patch programming” idea, which operates more at the more molecular level of individual function and the higher level more to Moog and Buchla, whose modules favour a more consolidated kind of approach. The higher level approach typically groups together more of these functions specifying a more specialized purpose for each module, and, as in the case of the Buchla Music Easel, is often more oriented towards performance. Higher-level cartographies are necessary and no doubt make modular practice more approachable both for many newcomers and for stage performers. Since the rise in popularity of the Eurorack modular format in particular, there are more and more complex, higher level modules appearing on the market, many of them incorporating digital processers under variable amounts of analogue control. Some are so flexible that they require LCD menus, multiple button presses and shortcuts to access all the features. These are to all intents and purposes embedded computers and some are complete synthesizers in their own right. There is no doubt that some of these higher level modules bring some fantastic new capabilities to contemporary modular systems, but it is also arguable that the great strengths of the higher level approach are also its weaknesses, and what they give with one hand they take away with the other.

The programmability of a subset of new digital modules aside, it is arguable that modular synthesis is in danger of getting less modular and in fact moving closer to the fixed architectures characteristic of equipment manufactured in the 1970s and 1980s. For those who want a performance instrument this indeed makes a lot of sense, but there is a possibility that this development threatens to eclipse the idea of patch programmability and therefore some of the knowledge and skills that make modular synthesis what it is, or what it was. The risk of such higher-level modules is that the user is encouraged to understand the instrument as a collection of modules rather than as a collection of modular functions, and perhaps misses some of the more unique and creative possibilities that these tools imply. A voltage controlled amplifier (VCA), for example, in a complex module may be just “there” where I need it, and I can use it without really knowing what it is doing or what a VCA is, and without considering its many other potential uses. The rewards of understanding one’s tools on a more fundamental and functional level can be considerable, both creatively and financially; for example, helping to avoid the large of amount of system redundancy created by procuring new modules to serve specific functions that an existing module could very often do just as well.

Fortunately, the modular scene is far from monolithic and the tendency towards more fully flexible lower level design also persists. Doepfer’s more utilitarian modules are still popular and the lower level approach also seems to be very popular amongst DIY builders. Various companies currently making Serge PCBs and modules more widely available show that there is still a widespread interest in continuing to develop Serge Tcherepnin’s open architecture / patch programming legacy.

Hardware Is Back: Interface and instrument

I have been looking at your instrument for some time and thinking, how can that be a real thing, I mean how does that actually exist…?
— Audience member to the author after a modular synthesizer concert in Manchester, 22 February 2016.

Despite recent leaps forward in virtualisation and modelling techniques, it seems that the desire for actual musical hardware never quite went away, at least outside the software-ruled confines of the university studio. Even though the Digital Audio Workstation, software synthesizers and plug-ins no doubt remain the dominant tools in music production, and in principle just about everything a musician does could nowadays be realized on a computer, many musical tools are still in use that are external to the computer. Synthesizers, controllers, drum machines, samplers, sequencers, and integrated hardware / software solutions are all being produced in order to execute certain tasks in ways that are more approachable, playable, convenient, reliable or for one reason or another just suit musicians better. If it is not because of any shortage of capability and flexibility that so many electronic musicians are turning away from the laptop as their primary instrument, and if it is not necessarily purely because of “the sound” either, then what is it?

A glance at the proceedings from any International Conference on New Interfaces for Musical Expression will show that there are many answers to what an instrument could be. But generally speaking I think we can say that an instrument, as opposed to a controller or a circuit or an interface, combines a totality of function, control and sound. Many of the traditional problems with analogue modular synthesizers were addressed long ago by digital hardware instruments with menus and memories, and later by more fully flexible software-based systems. But this flexibility and potential for memory often came at the cost of the loss of tactile immediacy and the lack of dedicated, integrated control surfaces. Controllers can of course be added, programmed and personalized via digital protocols such as MIDI and OSC, but at that point we are dealing with code or with another symbolic programming language and are already very far away from the immediacy of voltage control. This represents a very different user experience from the sense of physicality and objectness of a musical instrument. The means of user control is an issue that defines the character and use of any functional object, including a musical instrument. In a world of increasingly mediated and menu-based technologies, an analogue modular synthesizer is by contrast a remarkably immediate physical presence. One of its great appeals is that it is not made of manuscript paper, it does not exist only on a screen and that it does represent anything, rather it is itself an existing three-dimensional, sound-making object — a thing. A thing whose means of access and control relate directly to the electrons flowing through its circuitry and to its own innate non-linear, chaotic and generative capabilities.

Figure 3. Richard Scott playing live during Open Circuit at the Islington Mill Studios in Salford on 30 March 2014. [Click image to enlarge]

An instrument is a combination of function and qualities that go towards making a totality that is more than the sum of its parts or functions and is therefore not so easily reduced to them. This implies a level of interaction between function, interface and sound that is not entirely predictable and may have some quite specific unintended consequences and capabilities. Here the technology itself, along with its designers, builders and users, form a complex assemblage of functions and qualities that cannot be understood merely theoretically or purely at the design level, but only in terms of musical practice and physical interaction. Such physical existence gives a tactile and empirical nature to the instrument and a direct somatic relationship with the player. And such an instrument needs to be learned as much by the hands as by the brain. As I have experienced in my own practice, my hands develop their own direct relationship to the instrument as a physical and musical entity. After years of squeezing sounds from a modular synthesizer, they know exactly where to travel to change a filter setting, to detune a modulation, to shorten a decay on an envelope: a live performance might involve thousands of such tiny manipulations, yet I am barely conscious of making them; my hands and ears know their way around this object in an immediate and performative way that I (personally) find to be wholly impossible using a symbolic coding language. Despite my initial misgivings towards the idea, for me this ultimately confirms that a fully patched modular synthesizer, however impossible it may appear, and however much it might look like a bad mistake in a laboratory, is in fact a musical instrument.

Back to the Future

Newness and progress have become and old, repetitive and ideological notions.

The analogue and modular resurgence is a product of decisions by many musicians to embrace a technology whose roots lie in a very different technological and social era over half a century ago and, by implication at least, this represents a stepping back from the frontiers of ever-new and ever-changing contemporary technologies. This could be interpreted as reflecting a broader change in our view of technology and of past and present. It is of course possible to see this simply as a kind of retrogression and nostalgia, something like Kraftwerk’s “nostalgia for the future”. I wonder if we modular users are guilty of a similar retrofuturism? But I think there is another way of looking at it: we already live in the future that was dreamed of in the era of post-war economic boom, and it does not feel nearly as comfortable as we thought it would; it is certainly not as sustainable as we thought it would be. It is arguable that newness and progress themselves have become and old, repetitive and ideological notions; the myths of modernity, of the end of history, of Eurocentrism, of infinite resources and of progressivism have all come under increasing challenge. From this point of view it is arguable that a modular synthesizer does not necessarily represent a backward glance to a time when we had a future at all, but something more like an assertion of sustainability and control. Our embracing of old, abandoned and obsolete technologies tells us that not everything valuable is at the “cutting edge” and that not all the tools we use to make music have to be dependent on the gigantically powerful hi-tech corporations. Saxophonists, violinists, drummers and recording engineers have surely always known that newer does not necessarily mean better; perhaps electronic musicians are finally beginning to realise it too.

Figure 4. Richard Scott playing live with Joker Nies during Open Circuit at the Islington Mill Studios in Salford on 30 March 2014. [Click image to enlarge]

From this point of view, the historical demise of analogue instruments may be seen as very much an industry-led phenomenon, largely due to the breathlessly optimistic digital industrial revolution that overtook the tech industry. It was, however, artificial and premature in that neither the technologies themselves nor their musical potential had been remotely exhausted, and the technologies foisted upon users to replace them were often deeply flawed. To speak so lightly of “obsolescence” in this broader context is therefore not only superficial but misleading — this image of obsolescence rests more on definitions made by an industry rather than by users, and it rests on a simplistic ideological progressivism that the world is always improving, and that technological progress is simply a fact that we depend on but apparently cannot affect. This kind of naïve perspective ignores economic, political, military and social power; it ignores how technologies are created and how they are controlled. In a world where the violin, bagpipes or Theremin still even exist it is clear that obsolescence is not a fact dictated by a corporation or an industry, it is something that depends very much on what musicians want, and how we interact with and relate to our tools and to our music.

Fight the Power

I have pointed out that nobody could have predicted the scale of the return of such an inconvenient, time-consuming, bulky, expensive and inefficient tool as the analogue modular synthesizer. I can’t quite think of another precedent for the reinstatement of a whole genre of instruments thought to be obsolete in a music tech industry that has generally seemed to have its eyes fixed on the future, on technological progress and on the next smaller and more convenient product about to be launched. One might argue about Neumann U47 microphones, Fender Stratocasters and Rhodes, Hammond B3s and Marshall stacks but the difference is that these never went away. The international modular scene as we know it today wasn’t created by large-scale capital investment, long term marketing strategies, government subsidies or corporate leadership. This return was not managed “from above” or by corporate industry interests, but is a result of organic, overlapping movements of several other forces:

I think that of all of these, until recently the energy and generosity of the user community has been by far the most important element in getting this resurgence of interest moving. It is a spontaneous, intersecting community made of many groups and scenes, with many one-person businesses coexisting with a great deal of non-profit making activities: forums, meets, workshops, concert series, etc. The sense of community and mutual support and exchange that characterizes much of this community is real and impressive.

Many new entrants, some of them more established in other markets, have entered the market in the past few years, while older manufacturers like Korg, Roland and Moog have re-entered the market, something that seemed almost unthinkable five years ago. But as the market has rapidly expanded in the last three years, we can recognise that a lot has changed and that modular synthesizers have now become an industry, a good part of which is increasingly driven by similar kinds of marketing and gear acquisition syndrome as any other musical instrument market. It should be said that there is plenty of user willingness for sales hype to exploit; it seems that the level of frustration with VSTs and other computer-based solutions has been much greater that previously recognized, and this scale of interest in both analogue and modular instruments has shown this. Also, this technology is apparently by nature highly attractive and addictive. Its open and flexible architecture means that one user’s collection of modules will never be considered to be “complete” and can always be augmented, updated, modified… Indeed, it is rare to find any modular user who would not admit to suffering from at least a degree of gear acquisition syndrome. Within the user community there is obvious excitement about these developments but there is some discomfort too, and it is also not uncommon to hear comments such as “gold rush” muttered under the breath.

Figure 5. Richard Scott recording in a very cold barn full of vintage tractors at Wallonia (Belgium) on 11 October 2015. Image © Asmayani Kusrini. [Click image to enlarge]

Whatever one’s private and perhaps rather complicated grumblings about the potentially negative impact of popularity and of the financial motives of some in the modular business, there remains a great deal to celebrate: the energy, generosity, knowledge and enthusiasm of many in this international community appear undiminished. The DIY community is a shining example, and has been and remains a very important driving force within the modular synthesizer world. The basic skills and components for building one’s own analogue modular are more accessible than ever, and many people are building kits and designing and building their own modules — often these are simple utilities but there are also many considerably more ambitious projects. Users discuss problems, proposal and designs, and receive suggestions and corrections, often leading to a much more successful build or a final design; they may well then share their work, or perhaps manufacture a few PCBs and may even develop a marketable product. The DIY market has been supported by designers by excellent designers such as Ray Wilson, Jürgen Haible, Ian Fritz and Ken Stone, who have made available highly polished and often very original designs for people to build for themselves and/or have manufactured PCBs for sale to assist them in doing so.

The ethos of this community is very often collective rather than competitive or financially oriented and it seems to rest on the idea that if one user benefits, then we all do; we all learn by exchange and understand that we receive by giving, and that the total amount of free and common knowledge available to everyone increases through this process of exchange. Almost as a natural consequence, many small producers have emerged from this community too. In some respects, taken together these micro/hobbyist businesses, DIY communities and maker cultures, allied to the openness of technology itself, represents something like a wresting back control of some elements of the tools that we use to make music.

This patchwork of users and designers and businesses has created a different model of community and even of capitalism, and a very different image of production and culture than the mega-branding, manipulative advertising, planted news stories and product placement from which our heavily mediated culture is constructed. The modular scene contains traces of all of this too, but there are many examples of other kinds of social formation modelled on free exchange and independent, grassroots organisation which lie closer to micro-capitalism, co-operativism, collectivism, anarchism and socialism — sharing skills, knowledge, opportunities and resources in ways that benefit everyone. In some ways this is a new possibility, enabled by the potential of digital media, but in other respects it has features in common with the more traditional worlds of the craftsman, the artisan and the folk artist.

Perhaps at least a part of the resurgence of interest in older technologies is an expression of dissatisfaction with contemporary technology and a sense of doubt in the future and of futurism, and it perhaps also reflects a distrust of those who seek to create and define the future. We already live in a very different era from the various optimistic techno-bubbles of the 70s, 80s and 90s, one where today’s technology, far from liberating us from the drudgery of long working hours and mindless repetitive labour, have become increasingly disciplinary, dictatorial and feared. Technology has become powerful beyond our imaginations, miniaturized and obscure; it has layers and secrets that its surfaces do not expose or allow us to interact with. We no longer know what it means or represents, or who owns and controls it. As we covet and fetishize the objectness of these tools of our own surveillance and control, we discover they are even increasingly being turned against us, and we must forfeit any right to privacy we might once have thought we had from manufacturers and national security agencies. Of course, nobody of sound mind would suggest that the resurgence of interest in analogue technologies directly addresses, much less solves, any of these issues. But let’s at least keep open to the idea that the re-evaluation of these technologies may come from something deeper and more sociologically significant than simply a love of the perfect disco bass line. The second golden age of modular synthesis is perhaps a reflection upon our relationship to technology in general and it is evidence, if any were needed, that as artists and humans we are engaged, that we have choices, and that even microscopically there are still kinds of intervention, choice and control we can exert and decisions we can make about our own personal relationships to the wider technological, political and social forces that shape our lives.

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