Modular Synth Explosion
by Michael Hurst
If anyone were to doubt that the synth "explosion" is upon us, I would offer NAMM 2015 (National Association of Music Merchants), which happened at the end of late January, as ‘Exhibit A' to the contrary.As the lines between EDM and all other genres of music continue to blur, musicians are snapping up synthesizers in droves and integrating the "future primitive" sounds into their recordings and live sets.
According to the NAMM keynote address, there was a 20% increase in synthesizer manufacturers at NAMM, representing the largest increase for any specific category of music hardware.
However, to my casual observation, it felt more like there was more than a 200% increase in synth manufacturers. This impression is buoyed by the fact that many existing "mainstream" electronics manufacturers (like Roland) have expanded the offerings in their synthesizer product lines.
In particular, there was an unbelievable amount of modular synthesizers at NAMM. Modular synths are more easily distinguishable from keyboards than their "non modular" counterparts. Modular synths are made up of one or more "modules," which are rectangular patch cord bays with dozens or even hundreds of inputs and outputs into which users can plug cables to connect the various oscillators and filters in order to "synthesize" sound.
In the 1970's, when modular synthesizers came into vogue, they were often extremely large and unwieldy (see photo of Keith Emerson below, on stage with modular synthesizer). The various synthesizer manufacturers brought to market a wide variety of sizes with a variety of technical specifications. As is the trend with all musical hardware, there is an increasing emphasis on portability. Many of the synthesizers in the accompanying video are built to the "Eurorack" specification (developed by Synthesizer manufacturer Doepfer in the 1990's). The "Eurorack" specification refers to not only the uniform size of the rectangular modules which fit side by side in a rack mount, but also to the power specifications for all of the connections, which have become standardized across the industry to allow various synthesizer modules to interact with each other. In the accompanying video, the majority of synthesizers are built to the Eurorack specifications.
To really excel at using modular synthesizers, the science behind acoustics and musical note frequencies must be understood. But once these concepts are mastered, the modular synthesizer offers the utmost flexibility to allow the user to synthesize a very customized sound.
Artists like Chromeo, Holy Ghost, and Metric have been recently known for using modular synthesizers on their recordings and in their live shows. Relevant EDM and pop artists like these who perform at cutting edge music festivals like Coachella and Primavera stand in contrast to the more traditional users of modular synthesizers, which were traditionally associated with prog rock groups like Emerson Lake and Palmer (Keith Emerson is perhaps more strongly associated with modular synthesizers than any other musician).
I Dream of Wires Documentary
If you want to learn more about the history of modular synthesizers and meet some of the key parties who have developed and popularized them, there is a fantastic documentary called I Dream of Wires. This documentary has been updated and re-released as a "Hardcore Edition" in 2013 and clocks in at over four hours (a "trailer" is available on YouTube). The title of he documentary is eponymous with a song that Gary Numan released on his 1980 album Telekon. Gary Numan (well known for his ‘70's new wave hit "Cars") figures prominently in this documentary as one of the key artists who popularized them in the 1970's and beyond. Other notable musical figures featured in the documentary are Vincent Clarke (Erasure, Depeche Mode) and Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails).
Video: Modular Synthesizers Popularity at the NAMM Show
In past NAMM shows, there would always be a couple of modular synthesizers and they were seemingly included almost as a novelty, or to serve an extremely small niche of musicians. This year, there were literally dozens of modular synthesizers on the NAMM floor. It was also quite impressive was how "in demand" the various "demo" synths were as there was almost always a curious attendee touching and experimenting with the sounds that each modular synth had to offer.
See the attached video for an informal "walkthrough" of a few of the many modular synthesizers that populated the NAMM floor. You will see enough modules and cables to make your head spin. In most instances, you will also see a curious NAMM attendee "wiggling" knobs and exploring the sounds that modular synths can provide.
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