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How did you learn?
MUFF WIGGLER Forum Index -> Modular Synth General Discussion Goto page 1, 2  Next [all]
Author How did you learn?
smitty.west
I want to know how you guys learned how to use (and make music with) synths. I've wanted to get into modular for years (just look at all my old threads), but find it incredibly intimidating so haven't made the leap yet. It seems like a foreign alien planet to me because I hardly understand my fixed architecture subtractive synths... then I see stuff like Ciat Lonbarde, the aesthetic of which alone is enough to make me lust after it, and I wonder how you guys learn something so alien? You guys must all have double PhD's or something! I seriously envy your ability to calmly and collectedly approach such advanced pieces of gear and make music with them. So cool and I wish to be "part of the club" someday- hopefully soon. So tell me... how did you learn? YouTube? Books? Muff?

I'm a few years and several thousands dollars into synths, but I still feel like a complete and utter beginner. I've purposely stuck to fixed architecture synths until now because frankly even they're intimidating to me. I feel like a total idiot anytime I try to play my synths, because it ultimately always turns into one big trial and error noodle session lacking any real intent. And that's not to say that great things can't come out of random noodling sessions lacking intent- they absolutely can (and have, many times, on guitar for me)-, but with synths I really feel like I'm completely in the dark. I feel like an idiot because I don't intimately know the exact function and depth of each component of a synth. Outside of just a couple functions on any of my synths, I have literally no idea what the others do... I will twiddle knobs and hear what the consequences of a turn do (though sometimes I hear no change), but it's not in a "learning via trial and error" kind of way where I remember what the adjustments do and then figure out how it works in relation to another parameter, etc. I approach my synths in a very primitive and juvenile way and it frustrates me that even after years I haven't the slightest clue what I'm doing. I waste so much time online researching different synths and what to buy and hardly spend anytime actually logging hours on my synths- which is mainly due to ergonomics... not having everything hooked up at once and being too lazy to setup/teardown constantly... but it's something I need to fix asap.

The fact I don't deeply understand how each and every component of a synth works really bogs me down. It's like not knowing music theory (which, surprise, I don't)... you can spend your life noodling around and relying on luck to come up with some music, but it's highly unlikely you'll ever fully experience the full array of what music has to offer like that. That's how I feel about both music and synths and I really want to change it, but just seem to have a very hard time absorbing the information. I have lots of fun noodling, but it seldom leads anywhere and I just want more out of it. I want to create congruent pieces of music with intent and to know how to really operate my gear.

Sorry for the long and slightly manic post, it's just something that's been on my mind for ages and my recent interest (rooted in nonsensical ideology and aesthetic lure) in West Coast (and generally obscure semimodulars such as the Fenix and S1) really has me wanting to get a grasp of this shit before I spend more and more money.
lisa
Modulars are only as complex as you make them. If you patch up a simple mono synth every time it’ll be easy to use but perhaps a bit pointless. I use my system in fairly simple ways to make simple music. It still gives a flavour to my music that I wouldn’t have gotten any other way.

Now and then I get sick of my simple ways and try to patch something more complex. Fun exercises but they rarely make it to any recording.
smitty.west
lisa wrote:
Modulars are only as complex as you make them. If you patch up a simple mono synth every time it’ll be easy to use but perhaps a bit pointless. I use my system in fairly simple ways to make simple music. It still gives a flavour to my music that I wouldn’t have gotten any other way.

Now and then I get sick of my simple ways and try to patch something more complex. Fun exercises but they rarely make it to any recording.


That's a great point and most likely how I'd start out-- with a mono synth--, but, for me, even the notion of patching makes me nauseous because I just don't know what to patch into what or what any of the stuff means. I'm probably embarrassing myself here showing my real lack of knowledge, but I'm hoping to change that. I don't even know how to use a sequencer. Oh my god. And I've got the monosynth thing covered with my fixed synths and barely know how to use those... the fun of modular seems to be in the patching and all the super creative/innovative modules, all of which seem to require rocket scientist level schooling. Sorry to sound like a downer. I mean Buchla, Ciat Lonbarde, Euro... it all seems so over my head. Chill out. Breathe.
moremagic
it just takes practice and a desire to play voltage controlled envelope generators Miley Cyrus
synkrotron
smitty.west wrote:
You guys must all have double PhD's or something!


Erm... Not me. I have an O level in metalwork...


Anyway, about the learning thing... For me, mainly trial and error, in the modular world, but I already have a pretty good grounding in what is referred to as "East Coast" subtractive synthesis.

For me, modular opened up avenues of sound design previously unavailable using "internally patched" synths. And this is where most of the trial and error comes in I guess.

Also, before I ventured into the world of hardware modular I invested in a software synth called Reaktor. Reaktor always frightened me in its early versions but then Blocks came out which meant I didn't have to go poking around "behind the scenes," so to speak.

I also have other software based modular/semi modular synths which allowed me to experiment.


To be honest, I think that the bottom line here is that it just takes time. When I started to play guitar, some thirty eight years ago now, it took a long while to get to a place where I was happy with what I was doing.

I know quite a few people who picked up a traditional instrument and gave up on it within a few months saying, "this is impossible." It takes more than a few months, in my opinion, to get results from anything you are trying to learn...

Because of my age my main resources have been books. Internet wasn't a thing when I had my SH-101, Juno and what have you. I had to RTFM and try things. Nowadays we have YouTube and places like this which are a great help.

This site, for instance, is a great starting point:-

https://learningmodular.com/

If you are just starting out or struggling to get to grips with stuff then it is well worth putting in some time with Chris.

TL;DR

It takes time...
Agawell
You should read the sound on sound synth secrets articles (there are 60 something of them) they are a great introduction to synthesis and explain the subject very well ...
milkshake
I learned synthesis on a modular synth.

Modular synths are by far the easiest way to lean it.

What you do is: Start with one module, listen to it, turn the knobs, patch an output into an input and get a feel for what it does. Only then add an other module, do the same as the first module. Now patch them together, outputs to inputs and turn the knobs while listening to the various points in the patch. With just 2 modules, a normal oscillator and a filter, you can create sounds unobtainable with pre patched synths.

To fully master a modular synth takes decades, just like any other musical instrument.
Hey_Steve86
I can't say there was one resource that made it all finally click for me, it was really a combination of factors. I've only been trying to make music for about 5 years. I started off my journey to understanding synthesis by playing around with Thor in Reason, which got me part of the way there.

It really was a combination of books (Refining Sound is a great one for beginners, it really laid everything out super sensibly.), getting my hands on my first hardware synth, which was a Moog Werkstatt, the pretty much barest bones synth there is, if you ignore the patch points, and just reading a ton online here at Muffs, Sound on Sound, and anywhere else.

Also, that Learning Modular series that was linked is amazing, highly recommend it.

My modular is still only small, about 2 voices with some funky junk in it, and I still can't get it to always do what I want it to, but there in lies the journey!
Fabong
Reading Wikipedia articles isnt the worst way to start, usually straight to the point
cptnal
After the first half-dozen modules, where I created the classic subtractive VCO>VCF>VCA path it was just one module at a time. I wasn't in a hurry to get anywhere. Maths introduced me to the modular way of thinking, just by going through the patch book one at a time until I got what was going on. Lots of YouTube tutorials (Mylar! we're not worthy )…

Start simple, move to the next step when you're ready. One of the things that keeps me interested is knowing I'll never get to the bottom of this thing. This is fun!
starthief
The main answers I think are time, breaking it down into component parts (which modular lets you do far more than fixed-architecture synths), and reading what you can.

I guess I've been doing this for about 33 years -- I started with a Micromoog back when you could find one in a pawnshop for $50. I had a couple of awkward digital synths after that, and kind of fell out of doing much musically for a while.

And then I got heavily into VST plugins in the early 2000s. That let me explore a lot about synthesis for very little money (at first, anyway). I had a decent intuitive sense of how things work even if the details of the math, physics, electronics, algorithms etc. were out of my league.

Getting into modular showed me there was a whole lot more to explore. There is a lot more to FM, for instance, than one would ever guess just from using Yamaha DX-like synths. But just taking it a little at a time is key.
101010oxo
I bought a small modular system because I wanted to learn about sound synthesis and synthesizers. At the time I felt it was the easiest and most thorough way to learn. The key for me was to start with just a few modules (I am talking two or three) and very basic ones (no Clouds or Morphagene!), I used a few basics from Doepfer.

The I read a book or two while trying stuff out. Worked well for me but Inhave to confess my goal was just to explore and to have fun.

What can I say: I am still having fun, just a few modules more now ;-)

Oh, and I learned a lot from the doepfer.de website and Raul‘s YT video series: https://youtu.be/lzIKeQLyKy0
MarcelP
Read up a little bit about electronics, read up a bit about the physics of sound, listen to some music, then put that understanding to practical use with a modular (maybe via a semi modular first?).

I think that’s what happened to me 50 years ago... hmmm.....
InnnerSight
If you want to learn, just get your hands on one and learn. Practice is the key, but an oscilloscope can help cement the understanding.

Have a play around with the free VCV rack software to get an idea. For me, there is nothing like the real thing though.

I started out with a Kaosillator, I wanted more control over the sound and things moved from there onwards, through various synths to modular. I think I learned a lot more about synthesis after I made the move to modular, it broke things down much more clearly and allows complete experimentation which is where the mistakes and learning really came into play.
Dcramer
Back in the old days there were lots of magazines that helped us learn. Synths were simple back then, all hardware with simple architectures, some even with graphics describing the building blocks.
It was easy to get a sense of how it all worked and that continued until the explosion of digital synths with their tiny displays, confusing menus, and mysterious proprietary synthesis methods; FM, AWM, COSM, PD, AM, etc.

But underneath, the one common factor in synthesis seems to be that we create sounds from separate building blocks that we somehow interconnect (or are preconnected) to get our basic structure and then we make parameter changes (knobs) and tweak control signal flow.

Once I spotted this pattern in synth design, whether hardware or software, it was easy to extrapolate across all sorts of synths.

To the OP: don’t fear the Modular! It’s lots of work, but can make it easier to understand what’s going on and a simple, small Modular, with basic modules, can be a great learning tool.
There’s several of us around who give lessons over Skype and the like, if you’re interested in giving it a try, send me a pm and we can find a time to connect and I’ll show you the basics of Modular! w00t
Yes Powder
smitty.west wrote:
You guys must all have double PhD's or something!

Haha, no way. I'd been playing with softsynths since 8th grade. My first was ReBirth, and a couple years after that I went into Reason, which was at version 2 at that point. That's when I really go into learning what everything did. As someone else mentioned, the Sound on Sound: Secrets of Synthesis articles were an amazing resource, as was Wikipedia to a lesser extent. When Reason 4 came out, playing around with the Thor synth was amazing because it was in essence a fixed-architecture synth but its modulation matrix let you use it as though it wasn't.
Modular was just the next logical step. I had been eyeing Metasonix gear since probably 2004 or 2005, so I got some and dedicated myself to learning everything I could about them: how they sound, how they respond to different ranges of control voltages and signal levels, how to get them to do what I want, etc. I'm still learning with every new patch I make.

Quote:
I'm probably embarrassing myself here showing my real lack of knowledge, but I'm hoping to change that.

Hardly. The fact that you recognize you don't know things but are willing to learn and asking questions before you jump in puts you years ahead of the people on the Euro board who are just getting into it and post a proposed rack they've been researching "for months" and it's just a bunch of expensive and flashy complex oscillators and effects with fuck-all in utilities to actually control the damn thing.
Just do some reading, take it slow, and you'll be fine.
Also, check the stickies on the Euro board. Some great resources there! thumbs up
wiggies
I was fortunate to get to take a class in electronic music in college, circa 1978-79. I'm not sure how I got in, because I'm not a musician and wasn't in any classes in the school of music.

I got to fool around every week with a big old Moog modular that had no keyboard--just a sequencer and ribbon controller. It was the only one in the studio--all the "serious" musicians were fooling with something I'd never heard of called Serge, which seemed tiny in comparison.

I also remember reading much of Allan Strange's book at the time, checked out from the library.

That's where I got the basics and didn't touch a modular again for 40 years. But I became a physics teacher and seem to have a good head for the concepts of voltage and signal flow.
Pelsea
I guess I got lucky - I got traditional music degrees at a major midwestern university, then returned as a grad student to study in a world class studio with composers everyone on this forum has heard of. After the grad degree, I was hired as a research associate then finally a teacher--that's when I really began to learn synthesis, because the best way to get a grip on anything is to teach it to someone else. After 40 yers of that I think I finally have it sorted out.

Learning synthesizer is just like learning any other instrument. It requires up to 10,000 hours of directed practice to become a virtuoso. Having learned another instrument first is a big help. Not only do many of the skills transfer, you have learned exactly what directed practice is. Of course, since there's little physical coordination to learn in synthesis, directed practice is a bit different. Here are some skills to work on:

Ear training. Not in the "is this a major or minor chord?" sense, but in the skill of hearing the spectral and temporal features of any sound. You don't do this in the studio. I always began my first lecture in the course by making some non electronic sounds-- I'd spin a quarter on a metal desk, or play a hunter's turkey call. The class would discuss each one, then go home with an assignment to listen to their environment and write up three sounds they heard. Sometimes I would take the class on a silent listening walk through the woods near the studio. For the younger generation, the best advice I can give is to throw away your ear buds.

Temporal effects. Patch a VCO triangle to a VCA with an ADSR that you can trigger manually. Gradually change the attack over its entire range and learn the way the sound changes. Do the same with the other controls alone and in combination.

Harmonic series. Patch a VCO sawtooth to a resonant band pass filter. Slowly turn the filter frequency up and map the harmonics as they pop out. Do this with every waveform you have available. Add audio rate modulation to the VCO and do it again.

Distortion. Patch your best sine wave (might be a resonating filter) to three inputs of a mixer. Gradually increase the gain until you hear distortion. Now turn it back until you are sure the distortion has gone away. (You can do more of this sort of thing with F Alton Everest's "Critical Listening Skills for Audio Professionals" CD)

Beats. Mix two VCO triangles. Tune then to the same pitch while counting the number of beats per second. (Beats are the uh-uh-uh you get when two VCOs are not quite in tune.) Next tune them to octaves, same exercise. Finally fifths.

Tweaking. Build a sequencer driven basic beep (VCO->VCA & ADSR->VCF). Use voltage outs from the sequencer to control VCO and VCF. Get it cooking, and learn what changing each available knob does. The exercise is over when you can predict what will change before you touch a knob. Gradually add more modules to the patch and go through the process again.

Reaction. Set up a two voice patch, one controlled by random voltage, one controlled by the performance interface of your choice. Play a duet with the random patch-- first just try to hit the note it just hit (really difficult for some folks, if this includes you don't worry about it), then react musically to whatever it just did. Repeat with more complex random patches, but keep the performance simple.

Prediction. As above, but with an LFO driven patch instead of the sequencer. Now you know what the synthesizer is going to do, anticipate and play along musically.

Even a modest rig is too complex to take in all at once, but if you work with subsets of the gear, you will slowly develop the skills it takes to walk up to any unknown synth and start making music.
Pelsea
PS: about those phDs. As I mentioned, I've had the opportunity to work with and learn from quite a few synthesizer virtuosos over the years, and very few of them took a rational, scientific approach to the instrument. (Even some famous circuit builders!) Sure, they knew the stuff, but when actually patching and playing they put the knowledge aside and went with their feelings.

It's kind of like using the force.
arthurdent
I got a bunch of books out of the library on electronic music - Allen Strange book was a LOT of help - bought a Mother-32, then another one, then an 0-Coast, then noodled a LOT to learn what everything does and how it all interacts. That was about 20 months ago, I still have the two Mother's and the 0-Coast, plus a Pittsburgh 420 case that's about 60HP shy of being full...
zerodivide
learned standard subtractive synths many years ago. i think it actually really helps because with modular you can get lost in what way to go without that foundation. i think having a very clear idea of what kind of music you want to make and how to get there goes a long way to actually finishing tracks
electricanada
smitty.west wrote:

That's a great point and most likely how I'd start out-- with a mono synth--, but, for me, even the notion of patching makes me nauseous because I just don't know what to patch into what or what any of the stuff means. I'm probably embarrassing myself here showing my real lack of knowledge, but I'm hoping to change that. I don't even know how to use a sequencer. Oh my god. And I've got the monosynth thing covered with my fixed synths and barely know how to use those... the fun of modular seems to be in the patching and all the super creative/innovative modules, all of which seem to require rocket scientist level schooling. Sorry to sound like a downer. I mean Buchla, Ciat Lonbarde, Euro... it all seems so over my head. Chill out. Breathe.


Check out these simple recipes: https://www.automatonism.com/synth-recipes/

You might also look at Welsh's Synthesizer Cookbook.
electricanada
This course gets good reviews. You can learn anything for free, but sometimes a teacher or course will get you to the goal faster: https://www.syntorial.com/
AW198
I learned softsynths, followed by a secondhand Microbrute, followed by a secondhand Mother 32, followed by modules. Each step from softsynths > analog hardware > modular took quite a bit of getting used to, but practice and modular youtube tutorials helped a lot.
Gaetan
I was playing a bit of guitar and bass and trying to make my own tracks on my computer (something like 15 years ago). One thing led to an other and I tried some VST synths. One that caught my attention the most was the MinimogueVA (3 guesses as to whis synth it copies). I played A LOT with it, and alongside some reading on the sub ject of subtractive synthesis it helped me understand the whole thing (and develop an obsession with Moog).
Some years later I bought my first hardware synth, the microkorg. Many people complain of its interface but I actually find it really easy to program since I was familiar with all the jargon.
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