9 Artists that use modulars in an unconventional way

This article, created by Dash Lewis appeared on Reverb.com. Please note that all (c) are with Reverb and its authors. You can find the original article here.

Modular synths look intimidating. They’re full of knobs, blinking LEDs, and colorful, crisscrossing wires; at first blush, a modular system doesn’t seem terribly inviting or intuitive. While it is true that their circuitry is complex and there’s a bit of a learning curve when using them to compose music, modular synths are quite simple at their core.

“What we’re doing is sculpting the electricity that comes out of the wall,” explains producer Gareth Jones. “It’s like taking a block of raw stone and chiseling away at it.” Other artists, like composer and engineer Arushi Jain, see it as a conversation: “The more time you spend with the patch [and] the modules specifically, the more you understand their behaviors, their characteristics, their freak tendencies.”

When I explain my modular rig to a curious stranger, referring to it as a “brain” seems to resonate the most. I tell them that each module has a specific function — some generate signals, some add or remove frequencies, some are effects like delay or reverb — and that each patch point acts as a synapse. The patch cables transmit electricity and tell certain processes to initiate. Usually, they nod. “Oh, okay, that makes sense,” they’ll say. But every so often, after a slight pause, someone will inevitably ask, “So, where do you plug in the guitar?”

That’s actually a fair and important question. There’s a view that modular synths are all-in-one music machines, and to a certain extent, that’s true. Ambient artists like Dream Chambers and Jogging House have primarily modular setups. Hip hop producers like JWords, Ski Beatz, and Timbaland use modular synths to make beats. Synthesists like Glia and Floating Points have brought modular synths into the jazz (or jazz-adjacent) realm. Hiro Kone and Caterina Barbieri use modular synths to create mind-bending compositions that incorporate elements of techno, kosmische, and minimalism. A modular synthesist doesn’t necessarily need to interact with other hardware to make fully fleshed-out compositions.

What’s less talked about, but could perhaps make modular synths a bit more accessible, is the ability to modulate sounds that don’t originate within the instrument itself. Many keyboard synths have audio inputs used to process external signals: listen to Annette Peacock’s 1972 album I’m The One to hear Moog-treated vocals, or Tarotplane’s The Feedback Sutras to learn what guitar sounds like when filtered through a Korg MS-20.

The Eurorack world, however, has greatly expanded the idea of processing outside sounds. I talked to several artists and producers about their use of modular synths for external signal processing when composing, producing, or mixing.

Adam McDaniel’s journey into modular synth processing began with an error message. Pro Tools shut down on him during a session, declaring that his “automation was too dense for playback.” He tells me this with a sly laugh, adding “Damn, that’s pretty sick.” McDaniel’s no stranger to outboard gear, being one of the founders and producer/engineers at Drop of Sun, a recording studio in Asheville, North Carolina.

Still, he needed a solution to his automation problem that could be shaped in real time. After switching to a modular system for effects processing, McDaniel found the dynamic possibilities drastically expanded. “It’s like an exploded [Eventide] H3000,” he says. ”All the automatable parameters are right there for you to touch.”

McDaniel first learned of modular synthesis by attending a talk given by Make Noise founder Tony Rolando. Rolando was explaining MATHS, an analog computing module. McDaniel describes the talk as equally confusing and intriguing, opening him up to a “whole new world of imagination.” Now, armed with more experience and theoretical knowledge, McDaniel credits the world of modular synths with keeping sessions spontaneous and exciting, leading artists into sounds they didn’t know were possible.

Read further about the following artists and their modulars:

  • Meg Mulhearn
  • King Britt
  • Gareth Jones
  • Kim Rueger
  • Bill Pettaway
  • Randall Dunn
  • Brian Weitz
  • Nick Sanborn