The Null Device

The modular revival

There is an article in The Quietus (written by Pipettes svengali turned avant-garde impresario Bobby Barry, no less) about the recent revival of analogue modular synthesizers. You know; the room-sized hulking behemoths, last seen on stage some time around the mid-1970s being operated by becaped prog-rock virtuosos and soon to be displaced by Minimoogs, then the wave of compact non-modular keyboards from Japan, and finally laptops. Well, now there is a new wave of modular synthesizers. Unlike the modulars of old, the components are standardised (based around a standard named Eurorack), strictly analogue (at least in how they interface with each other), and selling like hotcakes:

Carlo Krug from Schneider’s Buero reckons that the last few years have seen a three- or four-fold increase in the amount of manufacturers bringing out Eurorack modules. One poster on the Muff Wiggler forum, where various correspondents have been trying to put together a timeline of Eurorack history, suggested that the number has risen so sharply in recent years that, “in 2045 the curve will go completely vertical. The modules will start making themselves.”

Other than being more compact, the Eurorack wave is not your grandfather's Moog in other ways. Advancements in technology have made it easier to develop more complicated modules, meaning that those not wedded to a Moogian subtractive-synthesis purism are free to go wild with all kinds of hitherto unimaginable modules:

Even back in the 60s, there was already a division opening up between the so-called ‘East Coast’ approach to synthesis, epitomised by Moog, and the ‘West Coast’ school of inventors like Donald Buchla and Serge Tcherepnin. The former tends to be based on ‘subtractive synthesis’, where ... (t)hings tend to have one function and one output and it’s largely eared towards being played with a keyboard. Buchla and Serge did things differently. They made synths controlled by touch pads and joysticks with weird and wonderful modules bearing named like ‘Multiple Arbitrary Function Generator’ or ‘Source Of Uncertainty’. Such machines have always been crazy expensive but, according to Lynch, new manufacturers like Make Noise and Wiard are “making the Buchla end of things more available now.”

In fact, there's probably no reason why the modules would have to remain analogue internally; one could conceivably fit in, say, an Arduino-based sequencer, or if one was sufficiently perverted, a Raspberry Pi running a Pd patch or something.

The new modules (and the synths one builds from them) also cost less than their distant predecessors, with the falling cost of electronics, at least in monetary terms, though they're still not cheap; simple modules might cost around £60, with more complicated ones going for hundreds, and the cost has a way of building up as one buys enough to build a viable synthesizer. A more pressing constraint, however, may be space (especially in cities like London, where the Invisible Hand Of The Free Market is aggressively adjusting the amount of space available to ordinary people ever downwards, and where the London Modular shop is reportedly doing a roaring trade). A modular synthesizer, by its nature, takes up space (physical space, the old-fashioned kind; measured in square metres, not megabytes).

In the Berlin of recent years, with its cheap, spacious squats in the hollowed-out ex-Communist east and abundant low-cost slack, one could conceive of taking up a hobby of playing with modular synthesizers, and keeping at it long enough to make some minimal techno which looks as impressive as it sounds. In white-hot oligarchical London, one does wonder who is buying all these Eurorack modules. I wonder if their profligate bulk does not make themselves a status symbol in and of themselves, making them attractive to a certain type of young finance alpha-predator seeking to demonstrate to his Tinder conquests that (a) despite working at Goldman, he is still a bohemian creative spirit at heart, and, more subtly, (b) that working at Goldman enables him to afford the living space in which all those blinkenlights can be set up, tastefully overlooking the city skyline. Or perhaps an older target market; with middle-aged executive types who spent their youths necking Es at raves buying them, in the way that one might have once bought that expensive, beautiful-sounding electric guitar one was fated to never have the time to actually learn to play. (It has been commented that, these days, the modular synthesizer is the Harley-Davidson of electronic music, more showpiece than workhorse.) One or two may end up in the foyers of creative marketing agencies, or perhaps at some point Foxtons or someone similar will buy a job lot and array them in their offices, as part of a campaign about how, you know, edgy and creative and hip London is. In any case, I wonder what proportion of the modular synthesizers sold in London will actually end up being played for any non-trivial amount of time.

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