Several months ago, I sort of stumbled upon the concept of modular synthesizers. It was kind of a backdoor thing. I got interested in step sequencers first through Numerology and some tools in Reaktor. From this I began searching for videos of sequencers in action, and often they were running modulars in various iterations. This led me back to Reason for a while, string CV cables around for the first time, really, and realizing a lot of what I’ve been missing in that app. The Matrix sequencer suddenly became a lot more fun.
Having immediate access to the various controls and switches and knobs seemed pretty great and made my Alesis Micron suddenly less interesting. I imagined working with these actual controls to be far more creative than staring at the virtual versions afforded to me with the software I have. I recognize that tools like Reaktor and even Reason allow me to do things that there is no way I could do with actual hardware, no matter how complex, but watching and listening to these clips and grasping how they work, I learned more about how the software worked as well. Entire parts of Reaktor and even smaller tools like Jasuto for my iPhone suddenly seemed accessible.
So, a week or two ago, I went poking around eBay and landed myself a little modular synth. This is the baby version of the Doepfer A-100 system. It only includes ten modules — just the basics for making sounds and affecting them in limited ways. It’s not even remotely as flexible or powerful as even the more basic synthesizer plug-ins that I use regularly. But it’s a nice little fenced-in area for me to work and learn. Modulars are a very deep hole and it would be very easy for me to fall in it and have no idea why X is making that sound and Y is affecting it. Also, these things aren’t cheap.
This A-100 Mini has two oscillators, a low-pass filter, a mixer, a noise/random voltage generator, an envelope generator, one LFO, a ring mod, and a VCA. And it has a midi interface, which will end up being more useful than I originally thought. When I like sounds that modular synths make, I usually like the self-running burbly beepity patterns that seem almost random. These patches are normally made up of various triggering devices and multiple LFOs that this synth doesn’t have. Eventually I expect to grow this beast and get it there. In the meantime I’ve also bought (used!) a copy of MOTU’s Volta, which will run as a plug-in in something like Ableton Live and through sending control voltages over my audio interface, will give me a LOT of control over that which I have. Without Volta, I likely wouldn’t even be interested in such things.
I plugged this thing in on Sunday, hooked it up to an input in Live, and recorded the first ten minutes or so of whatever I could get it to do. These are pretty simple sequences, controlled entirely with the random voltage generator and the LFO, modulating the VCO frequencies, the filter cutoff, and some gain. Just after this short time of playing with it, I know I want/need at least one more LFO, preferably voltage controlled; another ADSR envelope, also voltage controlled; and maybe another filter — or a low pass gate. There has been a real explosion of interesting and creative design going on in the modular synth universe with many small homebrew companies building and selling odd little modules.
Here is the result of the first time spent with the A-100. Essentially it’s various modulations of the oscillators and filters with the LFO, along with various knob-turns. I expect to add more as I get a grasp of what to do with it. Stay tuned.