The Ever-Expanding World of Eurorack Modular Synths

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Photo by Nina Richards. Distributed under Creative Commons license CC BY 3.0

The Doepfer A-100, originator of the “Eurorack” modular synth format.

The world of electronic instruments once seemed stubbornly esoteric and entirely niche-focused, dominated by huge wooden boxes packed full of knobs and buttons that allowed the average musician no access to their hidden wonders and infinite sonic potential.

Never was this more apparent than in the wondrous world of modular synthesizers, which, much like the earliest computers, were giant boxes of electrical components that could easily fill a room. Early adopters like Keith Emerson and Wendy Carlos praised the instruments for their unmatched versatility because, unlike fixed-architecture synthesizers (the modular’s earlier cousin) the possibilities for expansion and assembly components were literally limitless.

While all modular synthesizers share the same basic format and electronic building blocks, there are a few different varieties, differentiated by both size and power supply. The original modular synthesizers, built by giants such as Korg and Moog utilized guitar-sized ¼” plugs, which required modules and cases big enough to accommodate many of these connections.

In the past decade however, the newer Eurorack format has exploded in popularity, in no small part because of its utilization of smaller 3.5mm (or 1/8”) jacks. Keith Fullerton Whitman, an experimental musician and an early adopter of Eurorack, regularly tours with a portable rig that can easily be stowed in an overhead flight compartment, something that would be unthinkable with a larger modular format.

The last few years in particular have seen a swelling of new manufacturers jumping into the Eurorack format, further feeding the desires for modular users and bringing more attention to modular synthesis. This growing excitement and enthusiasm hasn’t been lost on manufacturers. Mark Verbos, a NYC synth tech and hardware enthusiast, founded Verbos Electronics after working on vintage Buchla modules for the past 5 years and watching the market for Eurorack swell:

“I started my line this year because of the momentum of the format,” Verbos says. “It seems to gain users because it is a small and affordable system that allows unlimited diversity and individuality.” Verbos described his modules as simply “instruments that will be used to make music, with a focus on interface and usability.” This no-nonsense design philosophy seems to have quickly paid off, as his Buchla-style Harmonic Oscillator has already received heaps of praise and made its way into the rig of Alessandro Cortini from Nine Inch Nails.

Eurorack modules are typically divided into two camps: the “East Coast” style of modules, which usually make use of classic, analog designs that function close to their fixed-architecture counterparts, and “West Coast” designs, which tend to be more novel and adventurous, often venturing where previous component-makers have never dared. Here you’ll find a range of digital modules, effect units, and complex, new-fangled sequencers that truly open the doors for creative synthesis.

The Verbos Harmonic Oscillator module.

The Harmonic Oscillator module by Verbos Electronics.

The real appeal of the Eurorack format lies in combining each of these camps and putting together a system that truly caters to each user’s needs. Shawn Cleary got into the game of Eurorack ten years ago when he started AnalogueHaven.com, now one of the country’s most comprehensive sources for modular synthesizer components and modules, as well as a host of other gear.

Cleary commented on the appeal of Eurorack, saying, “When we started about 10 years ago there were just a few manufacturers. The concept of modular wasn’t new, it was something that had been around forever.” He attributes the recent growth to this newfound assortment.

“I think it has to do with the diversity of the modules available. You can build an analog or digital synthesizer, or a combination of the two. You can put together a pretty advanced video synthesizer, or a system just for vocal processing, filtering external signals, sampling, etc. If you had enough modules you could build a polyphonic rig.”

While the increasing range of modules certainly has aided Eurorack’s growth, Danny Taylor, a studio owner, producer, and Eurorack enthusiast attributes the rise of the format to a number of factors:

“Eurorack, out of all the modular formats, was just in the right place at the right time,” he says. “[They had] a good variety of modules, [a] relatively easy step into the door in terms of all the needed accessories to get going and an online community that was supportive and open to helping beginners.”

Taylor cites the MakeNoise Phonogene, TipTop Z-DSP with Valhalla, Bubblesound uLFO, LS1 Lightstrip, and SnazzyFX Chaos Brother as a few of his favorite modules, and is now taking an alternate path with his Eurorack system, moving from sound generation into sound processing:

“I’m in the process of getting rid of a lot of my VCO’s and tonal generation stuff. It’s great to have a setup to jam around with late at night, but from the professional reality of my studio work, I rarely am able to put it to use on projects I’m working on for other people. I’m slimming back to a signal processing / FX rig that I can cart around to various studios I work out of.”

Oliver Chapoy, a Brooklyn electronic musician who produces dark, pattern-driven techno under the moniker Certain Creatures, was drawn to the Eurorack format in part because of his interest in flexibility, but also because of the tactile ease inherent in plugging in wires to sculpt sound:

The Phonogeme module, by Make Noise.

The Phonogeme module, by Make Noise.

“I’ve owned various synths since the late-90’s, but then became obsessed with the ability to have endless instances of soft synths via computers,” Chapoy recalled. “At a certain point, it just got old for me. Writing and recording music wasn’t fun and I missed the tactile functionality of hardware. I think a lot of artists feel that same sentiment.”

The recent launch of Korg’s Volca series, as well as Roland’s reboot of the famed 808/303 line in the new ARIA series, and a slew of offerings from smaller manufacturers all show evidence that there is a significant audience clamoring for the tactile response that portable electronic noisemakers have to offer, bringing producers out of the box and into a world of physical interaction.

While these instruments allot users a hands-on experience, many Eurorack modules push things even further, especially when it comes to sequencing melodies, arpeggios, and drum patterns. One such module is the MakeNoise René module, which Oliver Chapoy uses to improvise sequences live. The René, which MakeNoise founder Tony Ronaldo has described as “the world’s only Cartesian Sequencer for music synthesizers” which “uses [the] Cartesian coordinate system to unlock the analog step sequencer from the shackles of linearity,” is just one example of a module that would require complex programming to replicate in the box.

Even Cleary sees the appeal of combining the world of digital design with the physical world of the Eurorack modular format. “Digital stuff started to become more frequent, especially once [Seattle-based manufacturer] Harvestman got involved,” he notes.

“When he made the first version of the Malgorithm, you could see it was just the tip of the iceberg, and that processes that were normally associated with an algorithm running on a piece of software were now available in a portable case that you could take anywhere and play comfortably away from a computer monitor. There isn’t much you can’t do with Eurorack.”

Leo Maymind is a musician and writer who lives in Brooklyn.

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