The Year’s Best Modular Synthesizers
Modular is everywhere. It’s the cutting edge of synthesis technology while at the same time being the oldest. It’s kind of a new-old, future-retro, historical and forward-thinking approach to music making that taps into our rediscovered love of tactile interaction. While all the lovely flashing lights and swathes of cables are intoxicating it can also be rather complex. No more so then when you are attempting to start off in modular. The nature of modular synthesis is that it can grow and evolve and change as you get more modules and discover new ways to generate sound. So in putting together a list of the best modular synthesizers I’ve had to take a little bit of license.
What we’re looking at is a device or collection of modules that are self-contained and usable by themselves. In most cases that means a “Semi-Modular” synthesizer where the modules are wired together internally ensuring that it will always function as a synthesizer. In other cases, it’s a collection of individual modules put forward by a manufacturer as a complete solution. But the most important thing is that all of them are patchable into a larger modular system.
Our 2018/2019 Picks
Street Price: $899 (at time of writing)
Moog is synonymous with both modular and regular synthesizers. What they did brilliantly with the Grandmother is to bring the flavor of their historic modular synth modules into an instantly playable semi-modular synthesizer. Fat both in form and in sound generation it’s the perfect place to start your modular journey. The layout and functionality lend itself to experimentation and you can’t help but want to explore.
The Grandmother features 9 distinct modules. From left-to-right you get an arpeggiator/sequencer module, then modulation, 2 oscillators in a single module, a mixer, a utilities module including a mult and attenuverter, a filter module, an envelope and finally an output module and the mix for the spring reverb. All of them are wired together behind the scenes to give you a regular synthesizer that’s good for playing. However, there are also 41 patch points that allow you to take the thing apart and wire it up however you want. These patch points let you take signals out and bring other signals in. So, you can take sound or part of the sound or some of the control into other modular places. That’s why modular synthesis is so awesome.
The quality of the build and sound is exactly what you’d expect from Moog. The keyboard is a rarity in modular but it gives you the advantage of not needing anything else — it’s an instrument in its own right. It’s solid, musical and wants to be explored.
Link to Website: www.moog.com
Pittsburgh Modular make proper Eurorack modular modules. They have a long history of solid, competent modules and so when they release a more complete semi-modular product it’s worth taking notice.
Street Price: $299 (at time of writing)
It’s tempting to say that the Neutron is at the other end of the scale from the Moog. But that does a disservice to Behringer’s ability to design and manufacturer great sounding synthesizers for an alarmingly good price. The Neutron is a testament to that. It’s not a direct clone or copy of anything in particular, the Neutron takes a pair of oscillators, like those found in the SH-101 and Prophet 5 and makes it their own thing.
The Neutron is semi-modular because it will play just fine by itself, having all the key synthesizer components hard-wired together behind the scenes. But with that huge patch bay over on the right, it’s designed to be modular and to play in Eurorack environments. So much so that you can take the case off and drop it straight into a Eurorack system.
It’s a paraphonic synthesizer meaning that it has two oscillators that can be pitched differently but then they travel through the same analog amp and filter stages. The oscillators offer 5 different waveshapes, with pulse width modulation and can morph seamlessly between them. An additional noise generator mixes in a bit of spice. The multimode 12dB state variable filter can self-oscillate when pushed to extremes and has a separate output for low and hi-pass. There are 2 ADSR envelopes for modulating the filter and the VCA. There’s a single LFO with 5 waveshapes which can also clock to MIDI and a whole section of useful utilities. At the end, there’s an analog BBD delay and a rich overdrive circuit for warming things up.
It’s a tasty little monosynth with some surprising sound shaping possibilities. And that’s before you start to patch it into anything else. There are 32 input and 24 output patch sockets, so you can send everything out and bring everything into this little box. You can patch into each part of the Neutron separately, use the filter on another source, take the LFO out to modulate something else, or patch it back into itself for countless possibilities. If it’s missing anything at all it would be some kind of sequencer or arpeggiator, but for this price, it can be assumed that you would be controlling it via MIDI or CV from somewhere else. And you’ve got to love the red.
Link to Website: www.musictribe.com
Pittsburgh Modular Microvolt 3900
Street Price: $629 (at time of writing)
Pittsburgh Modular make proper Eurorack modular modules. They have a long history of solid, competent modules and so when they release a more complete semi-modular product it’s worth taking notice. The Microvolt 3900 not only delivers in terms of sound but is also a welcome diversion in terms of design and architecture. There’s an elegance to it that you wouldn’t have expected from the engineering-focused Pittsburgh.
The Microvolt 3900 has a slightly different feature set to most classic synthesizers. There’s wavefolding and halfway rectifying, a state-variable binary filter, a VCA with Low-pass gate, a loopable envelope, random voltages, and a function generator. It has integrated MIDI, a sequencer arpeggiator and a 39-point patch bay.
This brings elements of additive synthesis along with the classic “East Coast” subtractive synthesis that we might be more familiar with. The waveshapers add harmonics and tones enabling more complex sounds. The dynamic VCA technology adds a third dimension which plays with the harmonics creating a very organic, lively sound. It gives it a sort of pluck or strike that you’d normally only find in “West Coast” synthesis. The Microvolt brings all these things together. And rather than a regular LFO, you get a Function Generator that can be a looping envelope, oscillator or LFO. The random gate and CV generator bring some very welcome chaos to the party while the multi-mode sequencing arpeggiator brings the musicality.
And then there’s the patch bay which opens up the whole architecture to Eurorack CV and audio routing. It’s designed as a desktop unit so it’s not going to get swallowed up into your larger system.
Pittsburgh calls it “their love letter to the analog monosynth” and it sure is a beautiful thing.
Link to Website: pittsburghmodular.com
Tangible Waves AE Modular
Street Price: AE Modular Rack 1 – $328 (at time of writing)
Street Price: AE Modular Rack 2 – $416 (at time of writing)
Stepping away from the Semi-Modular into modular proper we’re going to take a side road into the Abused Electronics (AE) Modular from Tangible Waves. This is true modular because there’s no internal or background wiring, it’s all about individual synthesizer component modules. But what’s special about this system is that it’s designed to offer the hardware modular experience at the cheapest possible price point. It looks a bit basic, but it sounds great and is the perfect place to teach yourself about modular synthesis without breaking the bank.
You can purchase all the modules individually and design and build your own synthesizer, but they also sell two complete systems that will get you patching and knob tweaking in no time.
The AE Modular Rack 1 comes with 12 modules mounted in a rack with room to spare for expansion. You get a Master section, a simple dual oscillator, a more refined single VCO, noise generator, LFO, wasp filter, envelope, dual VCA, dual attenuator, sample & hold, delay, and a mixer module. That’s everything you need for running a modular monosynth.
The AE Modular Rack 2 doubles up on the LFO, filter, and envelopes, adds in some logic, a beat divider, and a 10-step sequencer. This comes in a two-row case with even more room for additional modules.
Tangible Waves decided to do things a little differently. A fair proportion of the cost of Eurorack is in the front panel design and patch cable connectivity. With AE Modular they’ve done away with those things and instead use a simple patch wire interface to make connections. The little sockets and patch wires are so much cheaper and just as effective.
The cost of the Rack 2 complete system is a fraction of the price of a Eurorack system with similar functionality although there is the slight disadvantage of not being immediately compatible with larger modular systems. However, they have recently released adapter trays so that you can sit AE modules in a Eurorack case. Then all you’d need is some patch cable to patch wire adapters. But to have a complete modular system for under 500 dollars is simply amazing.
Link to Website: www.tangiblewaves.com
Stepping away from the Semi-Modular into modular proper we’re going to take a side road into the Abused Electronics (AE) Modular from Tangible Waves. This is true modular because there’s no internal or background wiring, it’s all about individual synthesizer component modules. But what’s special about this system is that it’s designed to offer the hardware modular experience at the cheapest possible price point.
Erica Synths Techno System
Street Price: $3690 (currently excludes the Sample Drum as it’s still under development) (at time of writing)
Modular synthesizers can be infinite in their variety, potential and possibility. But that’s not always a good thing. Because they can evolve and change and become and do anything you can imagine they can also lack focus and direction. You may find yourself having no clue how to begin making music with one. Latvian module makers Erica Synths have a solution for that — enter the Techno System.
It’s a complete system built with 16 brand new modules designed to give you the perfect platform for banging out Techno and Industrial performances. It’s a massive drum machine with a fat bassline synth voice and more fun than any electronic musician has the right to enjoy. Of course, the sort of music you make with it is up to you but the deep blacks and crunchy sound do lend themselves to Erica Synths favorite type of genre.
This is all Eurorack modular; there are no hard wiring or background shenanigans. Individual modules for each drum sound include kick, snare, toms, clap, hi-hats, cymbals and a sample-based drum sound source. These are then sequenced by the phenomenal Drum Sequencer and routed through the specially designed drum mixer. At the bottom end, the Bassline is a full monophonic synthesizer voice in a single module. Modulation is provided by the dual LFO Modulator. Finishing it off is a Dual FX module and a Dual Drive module for getting nasty.
The Techno System comes in a rugged flight case that you can take straight to your gig, plug in and go. There’s no other system out there designed with such a live performance and aggressive intention. They also offer it with a shoulder strap or backpack for carrying it.
It’s perhaps not a system for people who want to noodle and fiddle with concepts of modular synthesis. This is for people wanting to bang out some tunes.
Link to Website: www.ericasynths.lv
As modular is such a uniquely open format, buying a complete “modular synthesizer” doesn’t really happen because there’s no such thing. If you are starting out, then a semi-modular synthesizer is definitely the way to go as you get a workable synth that would love to expand if you decide to take it to the next level. Modular can also get very expensive very fast and that’s what makes the AE Modular such a great system. It gives you the hardware experience without that massive outlay. But if you do want to jump in then where better than into the blackness of Erica Synths — it’s an awesome system that will hopefully spark some other manufacturers to offer similarly focused systems. Modular is an exciting world and this is how it begins.
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