Over the last couple of years, modular synths have had a huge resurgence in popularity thanks to price drops and more and more manufacturers emerging. We sat down with someone who is at the forefront of the Australian modular synth scene, Cody Garrett-Tait. A passionate synthesist and musician himself, Cody runs a boutique online audio store EquinoxOz, which specialises in modular synth systems. Cody has also found himself involved in the recent Moduluxxx and New.Sound.Waves events, which are actively building and providing the close knit modular synth community with somewhere to share ideas and collaborate and share their experiments. Not one to keep his knowledge to himself, we picked Cody’s brain about the advantage of modular synths and why they’re taking the interest of a huge crop of musicians and amateurs alike.
You run one of Australia’s most boutique audio stores with a strong focus on modular synthesisers – how did you initially get involved in the world of synthesis?
I originally got involved in the world of synthesis and, specifically modular synthesis after growing frustrated with what I felt were the limitations of just about every instrument I had tried.
From a very early age I had played instruments of various kinds, “conventional” ones, mainly guitar, but later on when I was in my teens I moved onto keyboards etc and lots of effects pedals to try to make things more interesting. It was mainly my experimentations with running keyboards and guitars through long chains of these effects pedals that brought me to synths, specifically after a man at a gig I played at once remarked “you know lad you have just built a synth out of pedals? and your guitar is the oscillator”.
I had no idea what he meant but it interested me. I then set about finding a small synth, and it turned out that my first synth was a Korg MS20 which I picked up from a garage sale for cheap (about $200) because the owner swore it was broken “it only makes a whooshing, sort of sound” he said, I didn’t really know that much at the time, turns out he had the OSC1 set to Noise source and everything else turned down, so it was actually (although in need of calibration) in full working order. I must add that this story was more impressive before the MS20 Mini came out as the price is not too far off that now anyway 😉
So my first synth was actually semi modular, and for the first year I sat and redid all the patches in the handbook that came with it, and through that began to understand synthesis.
Of course then once the bug bit I wanted to then do more with synthesis that I could not do with what the KORG offered specifically, there was often a time when I thought “I need another mixer, oscillator, filter etc etc”.
From there and through Googling etc I found Doepfer and Analogue Systems, first buying a Doepfer 3U starter system and later a 6U of Analogue Systems gear to compliment it. After I while this was all replaced with the new modules coming out from companies like TipTop and then later The Harvestman, MakeNoise etc that were much more functionally dense and feature packed, hailing more from the “east coast” philosophy than the “west coast” that I was used to also introducing interesting digital/analog hybrids that pushed me outside the box.
These manufacturers are what really changed it all for me and made it so that Eurorack was specifically the format I adventured into and I believe it to be the most powerful format of them all due to the amount of people developing things within it.
What is it about the modular method of synthesis that drew you in?
The strength of the Eurorack format for me is mainly that it was the first and only instrument I had found that was 100% user configurable, infinitely expandable (within the confines of your space and budget) and adaptable to what I wanted. I decided that seeing as how synths were becoming a full time obsession that maybe I could find other people out there in the land who would like to be able to buy their products locally and from someone who uses them, and that is where my business started from. An obsession that spilled over from my creative side and into the rest of my life.
You are a musician yourself – do you find that having an in depth knowledge of synthesis is important creatively? Would you say that its a method of developing the “voice” of an electronic musician, or do you see them as two separate realms?
Knowing synthesis to me is no different to knowing various chords, scales or different ways of playing something. Obviously the more you know the more you can do and with greater effect, but much of the knowledge is learned through experimentation and you can start with the bare minimum of knowledge and through time you extend on that more and more.
As the knowledge of your system and its components develops you find that you tend to find your own particular style by accident. Its often a combination of various musical influences and it just tends to come out. I think its important to give yourself creative room to breathe and not try to pigeon hole or confine things too much if possible, in that regard, modular synthesizers are like an infinite paintbrush that you can dip into and you may not get what you specifically planned on, but many times something more awesome anyway.
I think the thing to understand with modular synthesizers and its something that happens as a matter of course, is that the instruments themselves push the boundaries of what exactly “is” music, and often while conventional song structures can be achieved it is what most people find the most gratifying is exploring the further reaches of what is possible with them.
Now where that ties in with conventional music, and what people are now cottoning on to, is that all those experimental sounds and tones are the perfect thing for sticking in the DAW, chopping them up and rearranging them outside the bounds of what the modular can do. This creates tracks that sound very different from the tracks composed of preset synth sounds, pre-bought loop packs, or even sampled vinyl etc. Because these sounds are one offs, they exist, are recorded and then once you unpatch it, thats it! its lost into the ether and you can try as you might but you may not ever get it back “exactly” as you had it. That gives artists a differentiation and some may perceive that as an “edge”.
Another thing is, its just darn fun! And that is worth is weight in gold when you are creating, having it be a fun activity is always going to be more enjoyable of course.
Is a great amount of technical knowledge required to become involved in modular synthesis, or can it be as expressive and intuitive as any other “conventional” instrument? If anything i think modular systems can be the most straight forward way for a beginner to get their head around the fundamentals of synthesis.
You really don’t need much to get started, at demonstrations I have done, typically its a matter of saying “this goes to that goes to that” and people are off making some of the worst/best sounds of their life, but of course as mentioned earlier the more you know the more you can get from it. Modulars are at a point now where I find them every bit as expressive and intuitive as I need them to be, the thing to keep in mind is a modular is always rather ambiguous in its purpose and so you can build it to do what you want, and these days there is a huge amount of tools to do that with.
I personally think that learning the basics on a modular is much easier than many other methods, its like learning to make a cake from the raw ingredients versus buying it as a pre-mix. You might end up with the same end result but with the “from scratch” method you know more how you got there and also what you might be able to tweak to make it different/better. Its that expression that is infinitely achievable.
How easy is it to integrate a modular synth into an Ableton/DAW centred production process, and what would be your suggested way of going about this?
It used to be the case that linking these two worlds together was somewhat hard to do, but these days thats not the case and in actual fact there are ways to seamlessly join the DAW to the modular, which I myself use. The first way of linking the two was a MIDI to CV convertor, these are a great, simple option for getting note data and other basic functions out of the DAW and playing the modular. Of course the language of modular synths is CV, not MIDI data and thus a convertor module is a necessity to take the MIDI control messages, and then create the appropriate analogue voltage output.
For playing tunes from the modular these work out great, however there are ways that go beyond this. The most interesting and complete DAW to Modular and Modular to DAW solution is the Expert Sleepers “Silent Way” system. What this is in essence is a suite of plugins that are used within the DAW environment (in my case, Ableton Live 8) and through the Audio interface to create analogue control voltages for the manipulation of the modular.
This is groundbreaking in my view because the Modular then becomes an extension of the DAW, there are “voice controllers” that enable you to use your MIDI notes to play the modular, and they tune to the modulars scale so you get great tracking (a huge bonus), and then onto of that basic function there are tempo synced LFO’s, programmable gates, sequencers, quantizers, triggering and just about everything else you could imagine ever needing and then a little bit more. What you are able to do through this is create series of “tracks” within the DAW that are not for listening, but rather used to control your synth in a repeatable way. Through iOS you can also set up Silent Way to be controlled from your iPhone, iPad, Lemur etc.
Another system that is designed and made within Australia is the Innerclock Systems range of tempo sync solutions. These are based specifically on triggering and the entire platform is setup to allow for excellent intuitive control of that particular domain. It utilises the same technique for its sync as Silent Way where Audio pulses are used to derive the exceptionally tight clock stream, meaning that everything sits where it should, every time, every track. This is very important if you like to record quickly, having tracks recorded without that jitter means not having to go back and line those notes up on the grid later.
The first New.Sound.Waves was a couple of weeks ago. How did it go? What’s the motivation behind it?
The first New.Sound.Waves was great! I made it there sort of late to the first one, Andrew Jones is the one who set up the whole meet and it was a very good first encounter. I personally saw a lot of familiar
faces but also met some new people. The motivation from behind it was to take that very strong community side of modulars from the internet and out into the open where people can meet, share tips and patches, learn some things hand just generally share love of a common interest. We invite anyone interested to come down, or to join the mailing list, follow the Twitter or Tumblr blog.
What do you think has contributed to the renewed interest in modular synthesis?
I think the pendulums swing in certain ways within music, for a while there everything had to be “perfect”, the strive for perfection brought us so many keyboards, synths, plugins, recording platforms and mediums that in the light of day proved to lack that special “something”, they might have been perfect on the lab papers but to the person they feel “cold”, “static” or “devoid of life”, these are common things I am told personally from peoples frustrations with the available tools and what sought them to find me, and I understand that because I have very much felt the same.
I think its peoples desire to use different, new and interesting tools, coupled with the ability now for things to be actually made by regular people (not huge companies) that has really fostered this resurgence. Once upon a time a modular would have cost as much as a high end Mercedes, now it is significantly less than that and something that many more people than before can own.
Lets talk patches – a basic patch and modules you’d put together to get a great bass sound?
You are asking for all my secrets! The secret to a great bass sound is a good set of oscillators, a touch of overdrive and a phat low pass filter. So for me my typical go to patch for say House music is as follows:
3x oscillators (one saw, one pulse and a sine for the sub octave). I then run those into a mixer, there are some that offer some overdrive so I use that kind for this patch.
From there its into the filter with it, I pick a “gurthy” low pass for this, either something Moog Ladder based or SSM based (Prophet 5 etc). This with the resonance turned up a bit and a bit more input drive further thickens up the sound.
From there the trick to getting the bassline to be thick and powerful and yet not overrunning the track is careful modulation of the Low Pass filters Frequency with the envelope generators. I usually use a very snappy ADSR envelope on the filter sweep itself and just dial a little in to “bounce” the filter open in between bass kicks.
From the filter I go out to a VCA, this enables further shaping of the amplitude (volume) of the sound after the filter which creates greater dynamics in the track. I use a separate ADSR on the VCA to enable further balancing of the patch dynamics.
The thing to keep in mind when designing your patches is there are two flows of signal within it. The first is the audio flow, which is all the things that make the sounds, manipulate them etc, and then there is the control voltage flow which controls all the modulation of the things that affect the sounds.
So in this patch, the audio flow is:
3x Oscilllators -> Overdrivable mixer -> Low Pass Filter -> VCA -> output
And the control voltage flow is:
V/Oct (note) CV -> Oscillator V/Oct inputs (scaled frequency control inputs)
Gate pulse -> ADSR 1 and 2 -> ADSR 1 to Filter sweep CV -> ADSR 2 to VCA CV input
Now on paper that sounds like a bunch of really complicated stuff, but in all honesty its the basic monosynth patch followed by many other synths that you have probably used before. In all honesty to show someone this on a synth would take me a 1/4 of the time it would take me to explain it in words, in that regard its great if you “learn by doing”.
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