What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

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Pelsea
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What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by Pelsea » Sat Feb 08, 2020 4:25 pm

As I approach the finishing touches on my modular system, I look at it and say "wow! How did it get this big?"

Now I often see (or give) advice for newcomers to start small. I certainly started small (in 1972, at university) with a 2600, but I progressed pretty quickly to a wall-o-moog and the system in my avatar. And actually, the 2600 isn't all that small, is it? But I look at what I've just built and I see over 50 modules, many of them multi-function. I had originally envisioned something half that size.
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Now the start small mantra is there to prevent newcomers from falling over the learning curve or wasting money on things that don't fit their music. I'm familiar with everything in this system, right down to the circuit design and code. (After years of teaching I better be!) I also have well defined musical goals, and every module has a place there. I'm looking forward to composing with this thing, but I can't help wondering if I've gone a bit overboard.

I think the size of a modular synthesizer is subject to Malcom Gladwell's tipping point phenomenon--A minimal system isn't good for much beyond random beeps or hand playing a blatantly synthetic lead line. Adding a few modules expands the capability some but not a lot, until some threshold of complexity is crossed and the output blossoms into fully engaging music. So my question is, what did your system look like when it crossed that line?
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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by cptnal » Sat Feb 08, 2020 4:45 pm

Personally, my trajectory was something like this.

Rapid expansion beyond my first Mantis. Bought another.
Slowed down a bit, but still filled that up pretty quick. Bought a HEK.
Filled that. Bought bigger rails. Beginning to get unwieldy.
Built a case (4x 168hp) thinking that was the right size.
Filled it and spilled into the HEK.
Realised that was too big and scaled back to the rack I built.
Made a second system out of swapped-out modules and deeper ones from the main case in one of the Mantises. I've bought one or two things for it since, but the challenge is to make something with what's there. The big case is my fully-featured one.

What would be useful is a kind of meta-modular. A rack and power solution that can grow with you until you find your level.
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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by cptnal » Sat Feb 08, 2020 4:51 pm

cptnal wrote:
Sat Feb 08, 2020 4:45 pm
Personally, my trajectory was something like this.

Rapid expansion beyond my first Mantis. Bought another.
Slowed down a bit, but still filled that up pretty quick. Bought a HEK.
Filled that. Bought bigger rails. Beginning to get unwieldy.
Built a case (4x 168hp) thinking that was the right size.
Filled it and spilled into the HEK.
Realised that was too big and scaled back to the rack I built.
Made a second system out of swapped-out modules and deeper ones from the main case in one of the Mantises. I've bought one or two things for it since, but the challenge is to make something with what's there. The big case is my fully-featured one.

What would be useful is a kind of meta-modular. A rack and power solution that can grow with you until you find your level.
Edit: And to answer your question about what it actually looks like, it hasn't changed much since I crossed that line. Dotting i's and crossing t's. MG links in sig.

(That was a quote, not an edit. Still getting the hang of the new layout. :doh: )
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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by htor » Sat Feb 08, 2020 4:59 pm

i guess it's safe to say there are no rules for this. some like it big, some small. depending on your musical needs you'll want to scale down or up if you find yourself in a situation where it's hard to concentrate on actually making music. never owned a modular myself, but this seems reasonable for all kinds of instruments.

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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by hawkfuzz » Sat Feb 08, 2020 5:51 pm

I've been at it for over 4 years and haven't gotten to that line yet but I pretend it's a farce and a fantasy place for motivation to maximize what I am using.

I often have sold a bunch of stuff off in a pinch and prefer the music I've made with a few modules more than when I have a fuller system.
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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by starthief » Sat Feb 08, 2020 7:36 pm

I think everyone has to find their own balance, and then maintain that balance with adjustments as needed.

For me there's tension between feeling like my 12U 114HP case is too big, and not wanting to cut much from it. I've downsized somewhat a couple of times and always wound up filing back in with other things. I don't want any overkill or too many underused modules in my system.

There's also some tension between a finely honed and streamlined synth that's made for the kind of music and workflow I like, and wanting to explore and try new things.

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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by vidret » Sat Feb 08, 2020 9:07 pm

I'm trying to stick to 6U, and tbh the idea of expanding isn't really that tempting so i'm good, but i do feel that it forces a choice of what to make the case do.

When I started I wanted it to have everything, but realised after a while all I could do the basics of everything instead.

I still feel I could easily fill another 3U just with fx, but I'd say the threshhold a bit closer to what I wanted was crossed when I made small priority choices between modules that I just wanted to have 'just because' and modules that really served a purpose for me.

To me a lot opened up with some more mixing choices and routing tools. so, VCAs? :hmm: :yay:

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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by moremagic » Sat Feb 08, 2020 9:26 pm

is the synthesizer an instrument or a studio?
both are valid answers with the modules available these days

i personally prefer a small portable synth, an analog laptop but i make very simple music

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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by GuyaGuy » Sat Feb 08, 2020 9:37 pm

moremagic wrote:
Sat Feb 08, 2020 9:26 pm
is the synthesizer an instrument or a studio?
both are valid answers with the modules available these days
Definitely. Right now I'm more into having a modular single-voice instrument that can sometimes do a bit more but pairs with other gear--hardware synths, drum machine, guitars, etc. For me critical mass was maybe when I filled 6U of my 9U case because I was able to do almost all of the modulation I wanted and explore all sorts of sounds. But I kept adding modules--just to try them out or just in case I need them. Now I think I'm going to revert to 6U or 7U to keep focus.
Last edited by GuyaGuy on Sat Feb 08, 2020 9:38 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by trentpmcd » Sat Feb 08, 2020 9:45 pm

I think that critical mass depends on what the person is trying to get from their instrument.

Fundamentally, most people want an instrument like your bassoon: something that is part of them and plays what they are thinking and how they are thinking. When I was at the top of my game on the trumpet, the notes and the articulation and the timber, etc. would flow from my sub subconsciousness into the air through that brass tubing. We want the same thing with our electronics.

Maybe.

Some would say, “I want to be more like John Cage and let the happy accidents and randomness happen than like Arnold Schoenberg that insisted that every note had a meaning and a purpose.” Fine. I hear a lot of semi-randomness in the modular world. Truthfully, only a handful pull It off successfully, and those people can make music as stunning as anybody out there, but most who try random?...

OK. I don’t want to go either way. I want to follow Miles Davis, even if I don’t play jazz. Trumpet, remember? I want to play those “synthetic lead lines”, but have them be like my trumpet, an extension of my person.

So, how many modules does that take? It can be done in a handful, particularly with the right controller (I like your controller…) I use a keyboard with velocity, after-touch and mod wheel plus two Moog expression pedals. I’m not quite there yet, but getting closer. Those new multidimensional controllers... Yeah, hopefully soon...

But then, if you go to the 5U forum and listen to the version of Vivaldi’s Winter I posted, I used a simple string sound (actually, about 20 variations of a simple string sound) that can be created on any synth in 2 minuets, but I used about 40 modules and every one of my patch chords to make it do what I wanted it to do when I wanted. I used 5 VCAs and if I had 10 more, I could have used them and still wished for more. I want to control every nuance as naturally as I did with my trumpet. It might take an hour to set up, but once there, it is part of me. A musical instrument.

Where and when does it become an instrument and not just a noise maker? Hmmm, I say as soon as the musician feels that it he or she is playing a musical instrument, be it 5 modules or 50.

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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by lisa » Sun Feb 09, 2020 1:22 am

When I got my first two modules (Rings and Maths :roll:) I used them with my 0-coast, a CV keyboard and a drum machine. I made loads of music with that setup, good music. So I guess that was the tipping point?
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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by KSS » Sun Feb 09, 2020 3:01 am

trentpmcd wrote:
Sat Feb 08, 2020 9:45 pm
<snip of awesome reply>
I really like this reply! Well put, trentpmcd! :yay:

I would agree the critical mass depends on goal -of course- and more universally, how the synth is controlled. An excellent control device or strategy can get more from fewer modules. Great control of few modules > poor control of many.

But it also depends on the modules themselves. Something like a moog 904 requires more accessory modules than an ARP 10o6. The latter has far more built-in functionality.

And finally the answer depends on format too. One may find it easier to do more with a few Serge modules than are needed for an equivalent sonic reach in other formats. The versatility is built into the Serge module topology, and this is aided by the stackability of its native patching.

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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by Pelsea » Sun Feb 09, 2020 2:16 pm

Interesting replies. I've been thinking about this, and maybe I can clarify a bit. As you can see from the picture in the first post, this is really three synthesizers.

The Mantis case in front is there to realize my computer experiments in algorithmic composition. There's a laptop to the left of the photo with 20 lines of control. (The interface is DIY-- As I think of it, that interface was the tipping point for a system I built in the 80's and pulled out of storage in 2017. That adventure led to the system I'm discussing here.) The modules in the mantis were chosen to provide 4 voices--Doepfer quad LFO/VCO, quad ADSR etc. That part of the system tipped when I added the final real oscillator (STO) and stopped using one of the the LFOs for the fourth voice. I was testing with a Bach fugue at the time (g minor) and the patch just came alive.

The top section came about when I realized I could use the Mantis modules for computer control or with my WX5, but not both. It was gratifying from the beginning as I chose modules for expressive qualities, but the tipping point was the Serge resonant filter--that provides formants that really sell the sound as wind-like. That was my second try at a formant filter--the first was a 4MS Multiband Spectral Resonator, that despite being a great module in many respects, just didn't cut it for my sound. I had to build a larger case to fit the Serge, but it was worth it.

That left me with a spare SMR (also a Synchrodyne, but that's another story). The prudent thing to do would have been to sell it and use the two systems, but prudent and artist are not words you often see together. So I freed more space in my studio and built case 3. My musical goals for number 3 are to explore textures and drones and to bring myself into the 21st century by learning to use percussion modules. Case 3 hasn't quite jelled. I haven't finished building the function generators and VCAs yet, but I'm patching from the other cases for the time being. It came close when I added a Sloths module, but it's not quite there. Maybe this section will never get a personality of its own. [Whoops, power outage]

So maybe, as suggested, it’s not size but the right module in the right place that pulls a synth together. Awkward, as you might never hit the right combination while the module collection grows. I’m going to need more exploration here. Stay tuned.
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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by KSS » Sun Feb 09, 2020 6:51 pm

Pelsea wrote:
Sun Feb 09, 2020 2:16 pm
Interesting replies. I've been thinking about this, and maybe I can clarify a bit. As you can see from the picture in the first post, this is really three synthesizers.
So you've had two tipping points so far -with the systems of this post. And are looking toward the 3rd.

While someone who sees -or arranges physically- the entire thng as one, would still be looking for their first tipping point.

Saying this because it illuminates how the goal influences both the result AND the path. And how looking for -or noticing- when or where or why the tipping point was reached is so subjective as to become meaningless outside of one's personal experience.

Perhaps this reply is a result of my own experience of what here is labelled the tipping point, and which I have always called the "party principle." As it was going to high school parties where the connection was first made. At first seeing that there *was* a point where the entrance of a *certain person* seemed to change the setting from group to party. Then noticing -over the course of many parties :party: that it was less about which *person*, and more about the number of people and size-arrangement of the location. That the one entering to create a party from a group was not defined by them or who exactly they were, but by the current level of -for lack of a better word- human 'saturation' in that particular environment. Life experiences after only confirmed and refined this view. It wasn't limited to parties.

I suggest it's the same here. Where the tiping point is reached will not be about a certain module, or system size. But rather about how that inter-relates to the present 'environment'. Environment in this case being more than the physical space, as the inclusion of "goal" above is psychological.

How this may or may not intersect with chaos theory is also interesting.

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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by naturligfunktion » Mon Feb 10, 2020 10:28 am

I suppose I haven't found my tipping point yet. After filling up my small 6U case I got another small 3U skiff. It made me really anxious to even start thinking about getting the right modules, looking at modulargrid, the agony was real so I stopped cold turkey.

What bums me out is that I have only two voices from my current modular. It is possible to jam for quite a while (and make great tunes) with that but I really would like to have another voice (or two why not). And it would be fun to start doing some modular drums.

But that require a lot of modules and honestly, they are expensive! Basically, everything it is on hold. I still play, and get exited, but I cant decide how to start off the new case. So the tipping point is still in the horizon, waiting...

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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by ersatzplanet » Mon Feb 10, 2020 12:06 pm

For me I think I have passed the mark and am trying to go back to a smaller rig. I reached that point where I didn't have GAS for any new modules out there. That helps a lot. There just doesn't seem to be anything I really feel I need. I am using virtual modulars a lot more and only using the real modular for stuff it does better. It has balances out my needs a lot more.
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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by xcc » Mon Feb 10, 2020 1:25 pm

ersatzplanet wrote:
Mon Feb 10, 2020 12:06 pm
For me I think I have passed the mark and am trying to go back to a smaller rig. I reached that point where I didn't have GAS for any new modules out there. That helps a lot. There just doesn't seem to be anything I really feel I need. I am using virtual modulars a lot more and only using the real modular for stuff it does better. It has balances out my needs a lot more.
Smaller from what size? I feel like I’m in a similar place after filling about 9u x 104hp of joyful guilt.

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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by fireclown » Tue Feb 11, 2020 1:10 pm

All I can be sure of, is it starts with a seed. Sunday night a bassoonist named Peter dropped another Moog in my lap, but first he handed me this near mint reader/record of the studio that germinated my prime directive-if theyre gonna drag me out of this room someday, it will be into a very similar room of my own! I vaguely recall his request for a copy of this reader back when.
I utterly recall the mad search I made for my copy years ago, which I did find, although not nearly as nicely preserved.
The Sub 37 is astonishing and just great, but completely over shadowed by the thrill of seeing this reader out of nowhere.
What a world!
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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by cornutt » Thu Feb 13, 2020 3:58 pm

Let's ask Malcolm Cecil. :hihi:
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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by StillNotWorking » Thu Feb 13, 2020 4:16 pm

Now this got me thinking. If we could agree on a modular synth should not outweigh its operator that could maybe give the wife some peace of mind and me some more modules.
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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by KSS » Thu Feb 13, 2020 7:04 pm

StillNotWorking wrote:
Thu Feb 13, 2020 4:16 pm
Now this got me thinking. If we could agree on a modular synth should not outweigh its operator that could maybe give the wife some peace of mind and me some more modules.
But then we'd just see heavier operators. :hmm: "Honey, I think you've gained quite a bit of weight since you took up this synth thing."

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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by StillNotWorking » Fri Feb 14, 2020 5:10 am

...then later out in that conversation she fathom and accuse me of planning ahead for years.
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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by ersatzplanet » Fri Feb 14, 2020 1:12 pm

xcc wrote:
Mon Feb 10, 2020 1:25 pm
ersatzplanet wrote:
Mon Feb 10, 2020 12:06 pm
For me I think I have passed the mark and am trying to go back to a smaller rig. I reached that point where I didn't have GAS for any new modules out there. That helps a lot. There just doesn't seem to be anything I really feel I need. I am using virtual modulars a lot more and only using the real modular for stuff it does better. It has balances out my needs a lot more.
Smaller from what size? I feel like I’m in a similar place after filling about 9u x 104hp of joyful guilt.
For me it is going down from 7 6Ux84hp cabinets and skiffs (I'm part of the "lots of smaller cabinets" crowd) to just four cabinets. I would go smaller but really like the 4 Doepfer P6 cabinets I have. I also have a controller skiff that always goes with whatever cabinets I'm using.

I have a Nord G2 and recently got a NM1 so I may get smaller than 4 someday, but now 3 of those cabinets are filled with Wav players and Granular modules (STS and Nebulae 1 and 2's), things which the Nords can't do (but can modify great!).
-James

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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by Blairio » Fri Feb 14, 2020 1:50 pm

moremagic wrote:
Sat Feb 08, 2020 9:26 pm
is the synthesizer an instrument or a studio?
both are valid answers with the modules available these days

i personally prefer a small portable synth, an analog laptop but i make very simple music
This question could go either way. Define a studio. And perhaps ITB (everything in a PC or laptop) is disengenuous.
That is what we call encapsulated complexity - a red herring here. Just because you are dealing with one piece of hardware - a laptop or PC - doesn't mean you have reduced complexity. You have simply reduced it's physical footprint.

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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by Pelsea » Fri Feb 14, 2020 6:12 pm

Blairio wrote:
Fri Feb 14, 2020 1:50 pm
moremagic wrote:
Sat Feb 08, 2020 9:26 pm
is the synthesizer an instrument or a studio?
both are valid answers with the modules available these days

i personally prefer a small portable synth, an analog laptop but i make very simple music
This question could go either way. Define a studio. And perhaps ITB (everything in a PC or laptop) is disengenuous.
That is what we call encapsulated complexity - a red herring here. Just because you are dealing with one piece of hardware - a laptop or PC - doesn't mean you have reduced complexity. You have simply reduced it's physical footprint.
I consider studios to be instruments (and I have designed quite a few). I always considered the ergonomics first*, placing everything needful at the musician's fingertips, or at most a chair scootch away. Computers are problematic studio occupants, as they demand the sweet spot that properly belongs to the mixer or keyboard. They also tend to proliferate.
*[Actually, acoustics come first, but that's usually a given at our pay grade.]

I would calculate the "mass" of a computer compared to the synthesizer as the number of modules I don't have to buy. That's sequencers, LFOs, quantussies, chaos generators and a handful of effects units. The ultimate limit is the number of control ports, in my case 16.
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