An introduction to modular synths on record

An introduction to modular synths on record

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Having rediscovered the joy of music making by going modular, Joseph Fraioli aka Datach’i takes us on a tour of ten definitive records made on modular synthesizers, from Morton Subotnick’s 1968 opus all the way through to the present day.


Words: Joseph Fraioli


Thanks to my older brother who was in music school when I was about 12, my introduction to electronic music was via the albums of the early pioneers of the genre who mainly used modular synthesizers. I didn’t have the privilege of coming in contact with one of these beautiful machines personally though until around 1999 where my good friend Taylor Deupree had purchased a 15u Doepfer system and I would noodle with it from time to time at his studio.

Fast forward to 2011 and, with the growing popularity of the Eurorack format, a number of more esoteric modules became available from new companies and that inspired me to build a small Euroack modular synthesizer, mainly just for generating source material that I would utilize in my post production sound design projects.

Between 2006-2012 I didn’t really make any music at all. I’ve always been one to be inspired by process and results and was, to be honest, bored with the process of making music on the computer. At that point, it was a combination of that plus I was editing sound on a computer all day for post production, so it just felt like more work to continue to sit and make music on the same system.

Slowly the Eurorack modular revealed its abilities to me and revived my inspiration for music making. It’s a process that is collaborative with a machine in the purest form, it’s both additive and exciting and allows expression and control in real time. Between 2014-2016 I made about 110 patches/tracks which became the album System – a new 16 track album out on Timesig/Planet-Mu this month that was 100 percent created on the Eurorack modular.


Morton subotnick

Morton Sobotnik
Silver Apples of the Moon
(Nonesuch, 1967)

Listen / Buy

A true classic and, as a whole, very otherworldly in the best way. Subotnik collaborated with Don Buchla on the design of the “200 series system” on which this album was created in its entirety. Somewhat the opposite of the Moog modular in design, the 200 series system synthesis abilities allowed users to explore new worlds of waveforms and patterns by using what’s known today as the “west coast” synthesis technique – named “west coast” as Buchla was then living in Berkley, CA where this synthesizer was born.

West coast patching, in short, is the folding and shaping of different waveforms to create new and exciting timbres. The opposite of this would be “east coast” patching technique which stems from the moog modular design (at the time Moog being based in New York – hence the east coast name). The moog basic patch flow involves subtracting various frequencies via filtering and performed on a keyboard that would control the voltages of the oscillators allowing for western scales to be played on the synth.

The traditional keyboard was something both Buchla and Subotnik where very much against as they felt it grounded you in this world and the idea was to find new ones, whereas Moog encouraged keyboardists and pianists to translate their skills into the synthesizer world with the addition of a keyboard as a sort of gateway.


nonesuch collection

Beaver & Krause
The Nonesuch Guide To Electronic Music
(Nonesuch, 1968)

Listen / Buy

A friend of mine luckily found this gem on vinyl in a discount bin and gave it to me a while back. It’s a beautiful presentation which is basically a tutorial for the Moog modular, various short recordings of synthesis techniques with accompanying text in the liner notes. There are also a few beautiful tracks on it such as ‘Peace Three’. This is kind of like The Golden Record that Carl Sagan curated to be included on the Voyager Spacecraft, but instead of a guide to Earth and instructions on how to play a record, its a guide to electronic sound and instructions on how to play a synth. Maybe if this album were on the Voyager aliens would have visited us by now.


Dick Hyman

Dick Hyman
Moog – The Electric Eclectics of Dick Hyman
(Command, 1969)

Listen / Buy

An epic psychedelic journey on the Moog modular with the man with the most winning name – Dick Hyman. So many classics on this one and just a fun and great creative energy throughout. Note this is one of the albums that helped inspire Mike Paradinas and Richard James’ Mike & Rich “Expert Knob Twiddlers” album which has a reissue coming out next month on Planet-Mu. While EKT is non-modular, I highly recommend you check out the reissue as well as there’s some great alternative mixes and additional tracks included on it.


suzanne ciani

Suzanne Ciani
Lixiviation (Ciani/Musica Inc. 1969-1985)
(Finders Kepers, 2011)

Listen / Buy

The awesome synthesis styles of Suzanne Ciani that span from ’68-’85 on this compilation are a great introduction to her work. The pieces range from being very clear and defined, sharp analogue gestures to the deeply vibed-out tonal droning of, for example, ‘Second Breath’. This is almost reminiscent of a more musical approach to what you experience in La Monte Young’s The Dream House in NYC, as the tones can flow and morph as long intersecting beat frequencies. Also included on this album are some really great commercial works for the likes of Atari and Discovery Magazine. Sort of Boards-y vibe in a way but done years before.


walter carlos

Walter Carlos
Walter Carlos’ Clockwork Orange
(CBS, 1972)

Buy

Not to be confused with the Clockwork Orange soundtrack Walter Carlos’ Clockwork Orange is an entirely synthetic album created on the Moog modular. A rarer release this includes the full 10 plus minute version of Timesteps as well as all of the classical pieces featured in the film done on the Moog modular. This is the record that got me into electronic music. After seeing A Clockwork Orange, it’s impossible to disengage the context of this music from the strange and inviting world Kubrick had created with the film. Slightly off and dangerous in its beauty I would say.


Benge

Benge
20 Systems
(Expanding Records, 2008)

Listen / Buy

A massive fast forward to 2008 — I love how this album’s presentation leads you to think you are about to get into a long ass synth demo but its actually a disguise for beautiful and amazing music made on 20 different synthesizer systems chronologically ordered as to when the systems were released. The highlights for me are the Serge piece, while made entirely on a Serge modular from 1972, it yields results that are similar texturally to Autechre’s late ’90s sonic explorations done in max/msp. Another would be the Arp 2500 piece, amazing feel he has going there with awesome FM percussion. I’m just a sucker personally for the 2500 sound, nearly always warm and grabbing.


Richard devine

Richard Devine
RISP
(Detroit Underground, 2012)

Listen / Buy

I first heard Richard’s music on a local college radio while driving on a dark country road sometime in the late ’90s. The music was so alien and dark yet had this great creative energy to the programming. I had to pull over so I could fully enjoy it and find out who the hell was making this music of radness. RISP is an excellent representation of Richard’s “sound” though, created using the Eurorack modular for sound sources and Electkon octatrack for sequencing. The Eurorack format, which is the most popular format in the modular world today is a smaller 3u format originally conceived by Dieter Doepfer of Doepfer Musikelectronik in 1995. In recent years many small manufacturers have been making amazing analog and digital innovations at reasonable price points which made it more accessible.


alessandro cortini

Alessandro Cortini
Forse 3
(Important Records, 2015)

Listen / Buy

This is some of my favorite music ever created on the Buchla Music Easel, a semi modular Buchla synthesizer originally introduced in 1973. Cortini’s harmonies and movements accompanied by beautifully textured sound design are simple in arrangement but most effective in terms of making music full of personality and emotional depth. I personally have only had a few interactions with the Easel but have loved it every time. Originally designed as a portable version of the 200 series system, the easel (also called the electric music box) offers more instant gratification in sound and performance with its semi-modular design and built in touch plate keyboard. Oh and there are also two other releases in the Forse series (Forse 1 and 2) which are all great!


instinct and memory

Surachai
Instinct & Memory
(Bl_k Noise, 2016)

Listen / Buy

Another album created from Eurorack modular source material both sequenced on the modular system itself as well as cut up and processed later on a machine called a computer. Surachai creates a gritty and dark palette technically focused around the use of a Eurorack module, the L-1 stereo micro compressor. What’s really cool here is that he’s using the compressor module as an instrument. Technically speaking a lot of Surachi’s work is focused around a single module as a center piece. Another great album to check out is Ritual which was created entirely on the semi modular Cwejman S1MKII. All that said Surachai’s great at creating a dark and intense world of sound thats fun to crawl though.


venetian snares

Venetian Snares
Traditional Synthesizer Music
(Planet Mu, 2016)

Listen / Buy

An amazing album of musical depth performed by Aaron Funk on a combination of the Eurorack modular synthesizer and his own modded version of the 5u format which enables him to use them with 1/8 cables for easy cross integration with Eurorack. This album is like a cross between his Venetian Snares style of programming and sequencing along with the more analog vibes of the Last Step project. It’s a great representation of what’s possible with today’s modular synthesizers, particularly the eurorack format which is now so vast and diverse in module selection that it can replace a computer and other hardware for sound generation and sequencing and become a stand alone musical system for even the most complex of musical endeavours.


Datach’i – System is out now on Timesig. Click here to order your copy on vinyl.