Top 5 modular synths for beginners
The hottest hardware synths making modular analogue synthesis accessible to newcomers
If you have anything more than a passing interest in synthesizers then you can’t help but be drawn to the images and videos showing bizarre arrays of patched up modular synthesizer systems. They can often look like some kind of hideously complicated science experiment with cool lights and noises. How would you even begin to enter this exciting world of modular synthesis?
Maybe you could dabble a bit in the odd iPad app or software synth? Yes, you could but nothing gives you the full experience of modular like hardware. You have to get your hands dirty, get your fingers on those knobs. Take a patch cable in your hands and experiment with routing signals. It’s the only way to grasp it.
So which modules should you get? In what size and format and do you need a soldering iron? Thankfully there are a number of bits of modular gear out there that can act as the perfect gateway to this fascinating and complex world. They are stand-alone, ready to go synthesizers that can work quite happily as a boxes of noise without any other modular connections. But they also provide you with the basis of a modular system that can grow as fast as you can empty your bank account.
Here’s my top 5 gateway products into the world of modular. In no particular order.
There’s something very special about having the word “Moog” emblazoned on a piece of gear. To me it means you’ve made it, you’re playing with the big boys on the big toys and you are part of the synthesizer elite. So, other than having a very cool name what does the Mother 32 offer the budding modular freak? Simply put it’s the perfect compact tabletop semi-modular unit. It’s a monophonic analogue synth with a single oscillator, high and low pass filters, a voltage controlled mixer and an LFO. These are all internally wired so all you have to do is turn it on and you’re making music.
However, to the right is a bank of 32 patch points that let you re-route the internals and modular yourself out to other gear. So it’s ready to be patched but it’s not essential for getting sound out. But that’s not all. It also has a 32-step sequencer, and a mini keyboard to play notes on. Rounding it all off is a single MIDI input socket so that you can play it and sequence it from regular gear.
Moog tend to lean on the idea that you should really have two or three Mother-32’s and can supply a cool bracket for mounting them. Or if you want to expand further than that you can take the wooden ears off and drop it into a eurorack case. The final drop-dead-obvious-reason-to-purchase-this-mother is the price of $679, €699, £600 which is a lot of Moog for your money.
More information about the Mother-32 can be found here.
Pittsburg Modular LifeForms SV-1 Blackbox
Famous for their modern analogue modules and cases Pittsburg Modular know a thing or two about patching stuff together. Their list of modules is very daunting to the uninitiated and so with their Lifeforms range Pittsburg has been on a mission to make first entry into modular that bit more accessible. The LifeForms SV-1 is their dual oscillator synthesizer module designed for eurorack systems. Similar to the Mother-32 it has modulation, filter, envelope and mixer all built in and wired internally for instant sound creation. But when you’re ready to explore you’ll find 53 patch points ready break out into modular heaven. The “Blackbox” version builds the SV-1 into a tabletop enclosure with a power supply so you don’t have to worry about getting a eurorack case.
The price of $699 keeps it as a sensible alternative to the Mother-32, with double the oscillators, an arpeggiator and more patch points. It’s a tough one to call.
For more on the SV-1 Blackbox click here.
Make Noise Music 0-Coast
This is a bit more out there and liable to look a little scary. But it’s really just a cool single voice patchable synthesizer with bags of character. As with the others it combines a number of modules in a single, internally wired, unit with a dozen or so patch points to take the sound to different destinations. The style is unruly and chaotic with some unique noise making features. It sports two channels of MIDI to CV and MIDI to Gate and a dual mode arpeggiator.
It’s a lot of fun and for $499 makes itself an attractive starting point.
More on the 0-Coast mini synth can be found here.
Roland System 1m
All right, so it’s a bit digital but that does have its advantages and no one said modular synthesis had to be purely analogue. Roland have taken their System 1, digitally recreated 4-voice analogue synth from their AIRA range and converted it into a quite amazing tabletop semi-modular synthesizer unit. They’ve removed the keyboard, widened it out to accommodate all the controls and added a ribbon of patch points across the top. It gives the System 1m a bunch of flexibility that I didn’t expect from a mainline company, even one with the pedigree of Roland.
Of course one of the features of the System 1 is the “plug-out” ability to become another synth. Currently this means that it can faithfully re-create the legendary SH-101 or SH-2. That’s pretty awesome. Because it’s digital you can save patches, it has a load of effects, can provide USB MIDI and audio to a computer and connect up to other ARIA gear.
Roland has got right back into modular synthesis with the System 500 series and a range of really quite nice effects modules which are the real deal. But if you can get past the terrible green lighting of the System 1m you’ll have the basis of a very growable modular system without leaving the digital comfort zone. Priced at €599 or around £500 it’s a real possibility.
You’ll find lots of information on the System 1m and associated modules on the Roland website.
This is something a bit different from the other options in that it’s just a case for eurorack modules. But much of the scariness of modular is all that messing around with cases and connecting it all up. The kb37 takes a lot of the worry out of it by providing a very elegant and user friendly enclosure solution. It combines a 37 note Fatar keyboard with a 107 HP wide eurorack enclosure. Together they form a beautiful looking keyboard modular synth. It has all the connections you need and some thankfully familiar outputs and MIDI ports on the back. What you drop into the case is entirely up to you. You could probably squeeze in a Mother-32 and a LifeForms SV-1, or a System 1m plus an effects module. Waldorf would prefer it if you kitted it out with their own range of modules – they sure do look nice.
What I like about the kb37 is the ability to create a working, recognisable synth that looks awesome with lots of cool patch cables coming out of it. It’s simple, effective and works like a charm. It’s not cheap at €859 or £742 but if you’re looking for simplicity and elegance then this keyboard plus one of the modules above is going be perfect.
Here’s an article about the kb37 I wrote when we first saw it.
How about you?
That’s my Top 5 gateways into modular and sitting here looking at my Mother-32 I know I made the right choice. However I spent a lot of time comparing it to the Roland System 1m because it was so much more familiar. Collecting modules is an expensive business because once you’ve dabbed your toe in with one of these units you’ll be wondering what to get next. For me that’s probably the LifeForms…. although another Mother-32 is very tempting.
And while you’re thinking about all that check out this video, created by musician and sound designer Gattobus, on patching together a Roland System 500, the Aria effects and the System 1m. It’s a great demonstration of the beauty and complexity of modular synthesis while making it look all so easy.
- Moog Mother-32: www.moogmusic.com
- Pittsburgh Modular Lifeforms SV-1 Blackbox: http://www.lifeformsmodular.com/blackbox
- Make Noise 0-Coast: makenoisemusic.com
- Roland System 1m: https://www.roland.co.uk/products/system-1m/
- Waldorf kb37: waldorf-music.info