Going Modular, Part One: a Brief History

"You could get this, almost, tearing the fabric of the universe sound..." 

Intimidating? Yes. Hard to control? A little. Powerfully seductive? Absolutely.

It's no secret that modular synthesizers are back in vogue. Having been too large, too unwieldy, and too expensive for the electronic music hobbyist in the past, things have significantly changed over the course of the past decade. As niche manufacturers of unique synth modules have gained popularity, and systems like Eurorack brought cost and size down considerably, this once obscure instrument is now within the reach of the everyday hobbyist.

 Though I have been making electronic music since the late 1990s, modulars never piqued my interest. A recent viewing of the documentary, I Dream of Wires changed that.

 In the upcoming blog series, I plan to document my descent into the world of modular synths. We’ll begin here with a brief history.

What is a Modular? 

A modular is a type of synthesizer that consists of several, separate, specialized modules. Unlike a traditional synth or digital piano, these parts are not hardwired together. Instead, artists are given ability to string wires from one module to another in whatever order they choose. This gives them access to a much broader palate of sounds. In addition, each artist’s instrument is unique considering she can choose which particular set of modules to include, as well as the path of the signal itself. 

 In recent years, over 100 small manufacturers have created synth modules of every description, creating a vibrant cottage industry. 

East Coast

The Computer Music Center at Columbia University in New York housed one of the most advanced music studios on the planet, at the center of which was the RCA Mark II, the very first contemporary synthesizer. This electrical device could generate, filter and shape sound. But with a $125,000 price tag (over $1M in today’s currency) few could actually use it. In time, circuits would become easier to make and more available to the everyday consumer. 

 Robert Moog was a physics undergrad at Columbia in the early 1960s. He started a small business selling mail order do-it-yourself Theremin kits.

At a conference, he met some other individuals who conjointly became enthralled with a similar dream: giving the everyday music enthusiast the ability to craft sound in an interesting and unique way, from the comfort of his home. The company they formed, Moog Music, manufactured and marketed his inventions. 

Early on, Moog and his collaborators decided to put a keyboard on the instrument, with a clear and honest intent: appeal to the working musician. The factory they built in Trumansberg, NY became a factory for building the instruments that would shape the sound of their day and that of their children. 

West Coast

Meanwhile, on the West Coast, the San Francisco Bay Area was experiencing a countercultural revolution. At Haight Ashbury, people experimented with new ways of living and drugs to expand their consciousness. It was in this context of boundary pushing and re-imagining what music was and could be, that musician Morton Subotnik began experimenting with electronics. 

Using tape machines and expensive oscillators, Subotnik began to shape electricity into rudimentary sound. He and Ramon Sender combined their equipment and formed the San Francisco Tape Music Center - a nonprofit cultural and educational institution, the aim of which was to present concerts and offer a place to learn and work within the tape music medium. 

While working at the Center, an idea came to them - a complete solution. One purpose built machine that could create for the user a vast array of sounds. 

They posted an ad looking for engineers to understand this concept and to build the machine for them. Most who responded had no idea what they were getting at. Then they met a former NASA engineer who drifted into the West Coast counterculture. Don Buchla got the idea, and he knew how to do it.

When Buchla brought his creation it back to the collective, it bore a brand name he invented, “San Francisco Tape Music Center, Inc.” The patrons were appalled.

While they admired Buchla’s creation greatly, they scorned the insinuation that he would want to sell the device for commercial profit. This very idea was offensive to their counterculture sensibilities. Buchla on the other hand understood the potential of this brand new instrument and went to market with it.

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But the nature of the device itself was not immediately embraced by the public in the same way Moog’s was. Buchla’s music easel was divorced from western music traditions. There was no keyboard included on the original 100 series Modular Electronic Music System. It was something altogether new and different that made sounds that no music had before contained. 

It excelled at making sounds not based in traditional scales and resisted even staying in tune if kept on for long periods. An instrument so divorced from Western music traditions took a little getting used to.

Over time, Robert Moog’s inventions became more popular. Still closely connected with traditional music sensibilities, a 1 volt per octave structure, and an attached keyboard the msuciain could play with, working musicians embraced the instruments in time.

Buchla's inventions on the other hand, mainly appealed to avant guard composers, who did not make money from their music. Buchla’s inventions became know as the West Coast synthesizer design philosophy.

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The Sequencer

It was from the west coast tradition that the sequencer emerged. Using it, an artist could create melodic and rhythmic loops that could run without end. The sequencer gave birth to countless forms of modern electronic music: disco, house, hip hop, techno, and more. 

As the sounds and potential created by these instruments spread into popular culture, consumers demanded synths that were cheaper, smaller, and easier to use. Both Moog and Buchla created devices to meet these demands. Many others followed. The age of the preset synth patch came into being. A new era began...

Now, an older one arises again.