What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by Blairio » Fri Feb 14, 2020 9:59 pm

Pelsea wrote:
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.
In my home town I have seen the fortunes of commercial studios wax and wane. So much can be achieved on a hobbyist's budget and you average home recordist has learned how to get the basics right when it comes to electronic / dance music creation and production. There is still a market for studios that specialise in recording real instruments and vocal performances, be they guitar bands, folk outfits, or orchestras. Those need decent acoustic spaces, decent mic's (and mic'ing techniques) and engineers with people skills.

For me the best thing about going into a commercial studio is being able to hand off all the recording / engineering / mixing duties to a professional, so I can concentrate on creating and performing music. That is a real luxury, and that part of studios (the human part) often gets overlooked.

Computers (and technology in general) have democratised music making - and rightly so. 112 input SSL desks and 2 inch studer tape recorders used to cost a king's ransom. So, acoustic treatment aside, the cost of music production has come right down. However all the human skills the make for good studio recordings are in my view unchanged.

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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by moremagic » Fri Feb 14, 2020 11:02 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.
personally i dont want a modular to be overcomplicated or too big, my 6U is sized to fit on my lap

all i do itb is upload shit to bandcamp, computer music aint something i ever got the hang of

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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by KSS » Sat Feb 15, 2020 9:29 pm

ersatzplanet wrote:
Fri Feb 14, 2020 1:12 pm
I also have a controller skiff that always goes with whatever cabinets I'm using.
This is a key factor in this question. Especially if we take our topic slightly differently. The mass of this controller skiff of yours is critical. It appears from your comment that *it* is the "critical mass" of your synthesizer(s).

Working from there, it's a short distance to a place where it is the control channels or capability wich define what the actual critical mass of the rest might be. Personal expereince with the ARP2500 -which I know you also share- compared to other synths helps illustrate the point. A great multitude of changes may be made with one simple movement in one or more -at a time- matrix switches. There is a multiplying effect of the control action of fingers and the resulting effects.

Which of course is also the whole theory behind behind voltage control in the first place. So while it is not only a 2500 which has the ability to do this, it is definitely more easily done in that synth compared to most others. And 2500s are really pretty basic in available module types. But this again comes back to my earlier point that one cannot ignore the design and capabilities of individual modules when looking at what is the critical mass. Those few types of modules in the 2500 are often much more than their name or a quick look at their function would imply.

The sum is greater than the parts. And this to differing degrees depending on how the maker or mfr has implemented both the modules themselves and how we are able to easily interact with them.

Your critical mass performance control skiff always makes te trip because the interface matters as much or more than the parts it controls.

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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by KSS » Sat Feb 15, 2020 9:46 pm

Expanding on the prior post, we can look at two opposite extremes of module design in comparing Serge with Mutable Instruments. The first is intrinsically simple and granular and is intended to parlay this into getting more from less, or more variety from fewer. Contrast this with MI, where there is generally more complexity built into a module's elements. But which also aims at getting much from few.

One can quickly arrive at very complex sounding results with MI, while new Serge users can be put off by the need to do more at first to get something of similar complexity. Interestingly, user fatigue is seen in posts from both formats. Some grow tired of the level of patching Serge requires to get anything complex, while MI users grow tired of the easily available usage. Rings into Clouds for example.

With both of these approaches, one can create complexity from only a few modules. Therefore the critical mass of a synth built on one or the other might be similar. Both will respond favorably to going deeper in the understanding of what's actually available under the hood. The paths -and motivations- to do so, likely won't be the same.

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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by Blairio » Sat Feb 15, 2020 10:39 pm

KSS wrote:
Sat Feb 15, 2020 9:46 pm
Expanding on the prior post, we can look at two opposite extremes of module design in comparing Serge with Mutable Instruments. The first is intrinsically simple and granular and is intended to parlay this into getting more from less, or more variety from fewer. Contrast this with MI, where there is generally more complexity built into a module's elements. But which also aims at getting much from few.

One can quickly arrive at very complex sounding results with MI, while new Serge users can be put off by the need to do more at first to get something of similar complexity. Interestingly, user fatigue is seen in posts from both formats. Some grow tired of the level of patching Serge requires to get anything complex, while MI users grow tired of the easily available usage. Rings into Clouds for example.
I think that MI had started to move away from the algorithmic complexity and menu diving of Peaks and Braids, but otherwise I agree.

I guess I think of more complex modules as 'shorthand'. If I want a 2 operator FM voice playable over 4 octaves, I can reach for my ModCan FMVDO (or MI Plaits), or I can patch up 2 vco's, attenuators, a vca and so on, and end up with something that is good for an octave or so of usable FM at best.

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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by ersatzplanet » Sun Feb 16, 2020 1:16 am

KSS wrote:
Sat Feb 15, 2020 9:29 pm
Your critical mass performance control skiff always makes te trip because the interface matters as much or more than the parts it controls.
Learning the controller is essential to me. It is the surface that is "played" and with the correct set of expressive controllers, you can play almost any rig it is set in front of. It is like a keyboard is to a keyboard player. Although an organ is different than a piano, a clavinet, a harpsichord, or a keyboard synth, a keyboard player can be comfortable and soon can adapt their style to the instrument in front of them. I makes and sell controllers, so I am a bit biased, but I thing good set of controllers provides the same comfortability to a synthesist.
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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by Pelsea » Fri Mar 06, 2020 1:04 pm

Thank you all for the great advice. This and the "How many voices do you have" thread have convinced me that this system is ready for prime time. (Sigh of relief from wife in background.) I've completed the blank modules in the photo from the initial post, and am only awaiting shipment of a couple of 2hp modules to fill the final cracks. Of course some refinement will become necessary as I find limits of the instrument (wife: "Oh damn"), but it shouldn't grow larger any time soon. (I am aware of the futility of that statement-- the last time I made it I was building a new case the same afternoon.)

Now on to writing control patchers!
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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by 3hands » Sat Mar 07, 2020 5:06 am

What’s fantastic thread. While I’m just 1 person in a sea of modular, I would love to offer my own personal insight into this topic.

First, my modular is designed to be able to create what my keyboard synthesizers cannot. So this puts me in a bit of a paradigm shift when moving from the modular to my Jupiter 6 (for example). I can approach most hardware synthesizers and within a few minutes create a sound that sounds like “me”, or my style. Point of fact, I think most anyone can do this with a decent enough user interface (one knob per function, labeled clearly etc), so if I need to gain control over something quickly, I will turn to something like that. My modular is still completely outside my scope of instructional control. So instead of creating a bass sound as my mindset would dictate when approaching a keyboard, I use the modular for more abstract thoughts, that I can then experiment with to turn into sound. So I tend to think much differently when I approach each instrument, and I feel that’s important to get the personality out of each individual synth (or module).

Secondly, I feel having a limited choice can be a very good thing, if you know how to make it bigger than itself. Taking something like my MS20, which is a lovely machine but is known to have a limited palette of sounds. It’s about making that unique character as much MS20 sounding as possible, if that makes sense. But at the same time, not using the same sound repeatedly. Listening to the first Depeche Mode Album where it was an ARP2600 and the ARP sequencer blows me away every time. Yes it sounds like an ARP but they’ve made each sound unique within the context of it sounding like an ARP. I enjoy things like that. The mass of your synthesizer shouldn’t be based on what you want to get out of it, it should be based on how to get what you want out of it, which are two different concepts altogether.
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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by KSS » Sat Mar 07, 2020 6:57 am

3hands wrote:
Sat Mar 07, 2020 5:06 am
The mass of your synthesizer shouldn’t be based on what you want to get out of it, it should be based on how to get what you want out of it, which are two different concepts altogether.
That's a lot of wisdom right there. Well said.

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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by Parnelli » Sun Mar 08, 2020 12:21 pm

Image

I'm pretty much thinking this defines modular critical mass perfectly, as a picture is worth 10,000 words it is written.

The responses above are very wise as well.

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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by fireclown » Thu Mar 12, 2020 4:52 am

3 of everything. at that point you can do a lot of damage and a lot of sound production.
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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by Slothrop » Fri Mar 13, 2020 4:01 pm

3hands wrote:
Sat Mar 07, 2020 5:06 am
Secondly, I feel having a limited choice can be a very good thing, if you know how to make it bigger than itself. Taking something like my MS20, which is a lovely machine but is known to have a limited palette of sounds. It’s about making that unique character as much MS20 sounding as possible, if that makes sense. But at the same time, not using the same sound repeatedly. Listening to the first Depeche Mode Album where it was an ARP2600 and the ARP sequencer blows me away every time. Yes it sounds like an ARP but they’ve made each sound unique within the context of it sounding like an ARP. I enjoy things like that.
This is quite an interesting thing, particularly in combination with the comments about trumpets and bassoons earlier. It's a more-or-less unique feature of modular synthesizers that you can keep drastically expanding your sound palette and increase the number of things that you can do at once by adding more modules so there's always a temptation to do that - or even a worry that you're failing yourself musically if you don't do that - where virtually every other musician has to learn from the start that there's a limited range of sounds that their instrument can make and their calling is to express themselves as well as they can with those sounds.

So I guess there's a big difference between a modular rig that's dedicated to analogue monosynth bleeps and bloops or to electroacoustic sample wrangling or to richly textured drones or whatever, and one that can do all of the above, or any combination of them, or all of them at once.

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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by MindMachine » Fri Mar 13, 2020 11:55 pm

While I'll play along and enjoy the conversation, this comment is tripe:

"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."

Beyond some academic lard, what does this even mean?
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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by KSS » Sat Mar 14, 2020 6:54 am

MindMachine wrote:
Fri Mar 13, 2020 11:55 pm
Beyond some academic lard, what does this even mean?
It's not really hard to grasp. Start with one Osc. You get sound. A great variety even. But surely limited. Add a 2nd module. You get expansion. Maybe a lot more than you had before, even. As you add modules, this continues. And if we follow a subtractive model -if ONLY for a simplified example- then after the EG, VCA, VCF, LFO and maybe 2nd VCO, you arrive at a level of complexity which he arbitrarily called a tipping point.

Doesn't mean everybody's tipping point's the same. Could be more or fewer modules. But it is mathematically accurate to say that more modules equals vastly more possible connections. That this growth is exponential. You might want to call that academic lard, but in practice, it usually holds up. So it's often practically accurate as well.

If we turn the argument upside down, then we could say that even one module like the VCO has infinite possibilities. And each one more adds infinitely more. But at tht point, who's peddling the academic lard?

It's easily seen that in every human endeavor there's a combination of tools and perspective. Each and both affect the outcome. Both can have tipping points. It's not hard to find numerous examples in nearly every field of human growth. At some point, the person involved 'gets it' to a greater degree than before. There is a 'sudden' massive increase in mental or physical capability.

You can write a song with one chord. Two sounds better. Three is for many of us -based on popular music over decades- 'enough'. As both creators and receivers of the creation. Three is the tipping point, in this example.

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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by Slothrop » Sat Mar 14, 2020 10:24 am

I'm not convinced that that makes sense in the context of the thread, though. By that argument, you'd hit your tipping point, be able to make complex, varied, interesting music, and then more-or-less stop expanding. It doesn't seem to answer the question "how did this thing get so big?"

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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by Slothrop » Sat Mar 14, 2020 10:33 am

Also, as I understand it (without having read the book, so I might be missing the point), Malcolm Gladwell talks about the tipping point in the context of ideas and behaviours and the mechanisms by which their spread becomes self-sustaining. I don't really see how this applies to one person deciding to keep expanding their modular, unless there's a point where the system gets so complex that it starts ordering new modules for itself without human intervention...

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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by Licudi » Sat Mar 14, 2020 1:00 pm

Enjoyable thread, but I agree the tipping point idea may be inappropriate here. Isn't this more about diminishing returns? The point where the number of modules impedes production rather than aids it?

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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by Pelsea » Sat Mar 14, 2020 1:52 pm

Licudi wrote:
Sat Mar 14, 2020 1:00 pm
Enjoyable thread, but I agree the tipping point idea may be inappropriate here. Isn't this more about diminishing returns? The point where the number of modules impedes production rather than aids it?
That's another good way to approach the discussion, although I prefer a positive angle. I would hope that diminishing returns cut in somewhere past critical mass, but there may be a few exceptions. If it has happened to you, chime in.
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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by KSS » Sat Mar 14, 2020 2:52 pm

Licudi wrote:
Sat Mar 14, 2020 1:00 pm
Enjoyable thread, but I agree the tipping point idea may be inappropriate here. Isn't this more about diminishing returns? The point where the number of modules impedes production rather than aids it?
It's both. Up to the tipping point, it's about expansion, after that it becomes about diminishing returns.
Slothrop wrote:By that argument, you'd hit your tipping point, be able to make complex, varied, interesting music, and then more-or-less stop expanding.
Yes. Exactly. "more-or-less" being the variation brought on by personal goals and needs.
It doesn't seem to answer the question "how did this thing get so big?"
Sorry. Wasn't aware it needed to answer that question. Don't believe it does. Besides.. Human nature answers that readily in most cases. Ever heard of G.A.S.?

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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by KSS » Sat Mar 14, 2020 3:06 pm

Slothrop wrote:
Fri Mar 13, 2020 4:01 pm
So I guess there's a big difference between a modular rig that's dedicated to analogue monosynth bleeps and bloops or to electroacoustic sample wrangling or to richly textured drones or whatever, and one that can do all of the above, or any combination of them, or all of them at once.
Yes. That's why it was pointed out early in the thread that the goal of the musician cannot be divorced from the question in the thread topic. Critical mass for each of your examples is different. I also added the impact of available space as a constraint in my reply of 'the party principle'.

Just as these were for those acoustic instruments from initial creation to canonization of now accepted classic form. Their critical mass was discovered and developed.

We can even see this in a comparison of the moog modular and the minimoog it spawned. When the goal changed, the critical mass also changed.

Clearly the minimoog largely defined the critical mass for subtractive performance synths well after its release.

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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by Slothrop » Sat Mar 14, 2020 5:16 pm

KSS wrote:
Sat Mar 14, 2020 2:52 pm
It doesn't seem to answer the question "how did this thing get so big?"
Sorry. Wasn't aware it needed to answer that question. Don't believe it does. Besides.. Human nature answers that readily in most cases. Ever heard of G.A.S.?
I think I'm getting confused by the OP - they comment on the fact that their system is a lot bigger than they expected when they set out, and then talk about the "tipping point" or "critical mass", which per the definition they're using seems to basically be the point at which a thing is big enough to start growing exponentially of its own accord. But now we're using "critical mass" to mean the point where something has sufficient complexity and sufficient creative potential that it doesn't need to grow any more.

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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by Licudi » Sat Mar 14, 2020 6:04 pm

Maybe we should throw in 'mission creep' as well.

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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by aethyr » Sat Mar 14, 2020 6:14 pm

Mission creep is a very real phenomenon. I had a direction my studio was moving into then something 'opens up' and everything changes. Then comes the problem of having to off-load the extras since I am not a fan of big systems and/or overlap. All I want and need is my guitar/amp, 1x poly, 1x modular and 1x pre-patched mono...

*edit* everything I listed above still seems to be too much!
Licudi wrote:
Sat Mar 14, 2020 6:04 pm
Maybe we should throw in 'mission creep' as well.

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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by Pelsea » Sat Mar 14, 2020 7:15 pm

Slothrop wrote:
Sat Mar 14, 2020 5:16 pm
I think I'm getting confused by the OP - they comment on the fact that their system is a lot bigger than they expected when they set out, and then talk about the "tipping point" or "critical mass", which per the definition they're using seems to basically be the point at which a thing is big enough to start growing exponentially of its own accord. But now we're using "critical mass" to mean the point where something has sufficient complexity and sufficient creative potential that it doesn't need to grow any more.
I guess I was unclear in my use of critical mass. I was using it in the business sense, not the nuclear physics sense i.e. : a size, number, or amount large enough to produce a particular result. I just thought it would catch your eye.
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Re: What is the critical mass of a synthesizer?

Post by cornutt » Mon Mar 16, 2020 3:02 pm

Licudi wrote:
Sat Mar 14, 2020 6:04 pm
Maybe we should throw in 'mission creep' as well.
With modulars, "mission creep" comes with the territory. :guinness: Seriously, that's kind of what a modular is for... you can expand it as needed. It becomes a problem when you realize that you have a bunch of modules that you aren't using, or when the thing becomes so big that your brain shuts down when you look at it. That's when you need to get rid of some stuff.

I have a rule for myself that I do not buy any more modules as long as there are modules in my system that I haven't yet learned to use. That addresses a lot of the bloat problem. The rest is addressed by maintaining some idea of which modules you aren't using, and why you aren't using them. Are you not using them because you haven't learned them? Then learn them. Are you not using them because they don't work right? Then fix them, or get them fixed, or scrap / part them out if they aren't fixable. Are you not using them because they don't hold your interest? Then sell them to someone who will appreciate them. Not every module is for everybody. A modular is a highly personal thing. Put together a set of modules that works for you, not just a collection of the modules that all the kewl kidz are using.

Finally, don't feel that just because you have space left in your cabinet, you have to fill it up. If having open spaces in the cabinet bothers you, well, that's what blanks are for. Masonite is cheap and works pretty well for that purpose; you can cut it down to size when you add modules, and you can paint it any color you want. There are also lots of manufacturers who offer fabricated blanks.

How big should a modular be? As big as it needs to be, whatever that size is for you.
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