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Patching synthesizers together with patch cables is the most exciting thing in electronic music since we got rid of it all in the 1980s.

We’ve rediscovered the love of physical cables routing and directing sound and signals throughout our musical journeys. You can have a billion presets in a huge workstation keyboard but crafting your own sound, with an oscillator and a filter, and patching in an LFO, routing in some randomisation and reworking it through effects is a billion times more rewarding. Electronic music isn’t all about the finished product, it’s about the joy of generating sound and experiencing outcomes. There’s nothing else quite like it.

However, fully modular systems can turn into these huge, unweildy machines of evolving complexity that can be quite daunting. It’s also expensive and seemingly never ending. That’s where the semi-modular synthesizer can help. A semi-modular synth pulls together a range of synthesizer modules into a curated whole that’s designed to work beautifully together. It will have a number of connections behind the scenes so it can work without any patching at all. But then, through the patch-bay you can completely rework and re-engineer the synthesizer into something entirely unique.

There’s no reason to be intimidated by modular; it’s an exciting and solid way to work with sound and production. The synths in this list will have you spellbound by their sonic potential and direct you towards experimental music making in ways you never thought possible.

A quick list of the Best Modular and Semi-Modular Synthesizers:

  • Moog Sound Studio
  • Make Noise Strega
  • Pittsburgh Taiga Keyboard
  • Behringer Neutron
  • Erica Synths Bullfrog
  • Intellijel Cascadia
  • Buchla Easel Command
  • Elta Music Solar 42

FAQs about modular synths

What's the difference between modular and semi-modular?

Robin Vincent

A modular synthesizer has individual circuits held as modules that have to be physically connected with patch cables in order to route control signals and audio between them. A semi-modular synthesizer has the most common connections already patched for you behind a singular front panel while allowing you to bypass and repatch those connections via sockets on the front.

What's the best modular synth for beginners?

Robin Vincent

Of all the marvellous synthesizers in our round-up I would recommend the Moog Mother-32, which you can buy separately from the Sound Studio bundle; it would be the perfect synthesizer for someone wanted to get started with modular synthesis.

Which synth has the best sounds?

Robin Vincent

That all depends on what sorts of sounds you like. Many synthesizers contain similar sound generating circuits and so can have very the same sort of synthy sound. But really the sound comes down to what you are going to do with these simplest of waveforms. Are you going to be creative or are you going to keep them unadorned and pure? You shouldn’t be looking for the best sounds in a synth, you should be looking at how to improve your creative approach to crafting the best sounds from whatever synthesizer you are using.

Best Semi-Modular Synthesizers

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Moog Sound Studio

Moog Music has put together a number of bundles that feature various combinations of their desktop-based semi-modular synthesizers. Together these create a fantastically modular and interconnected synthesizer studio.

The Moog Sound Studio 3 includes three synthesizers, the Mother-32, DFAM and Subharmonicon. The Mother-32 is a brilliant, single-oscillator analogue monosynth with that classic ladder filter, sequencer and fully modular patchbay. The DFAM works in a very animated percussion synth for linearly sequenced drum sounds that sync to the Mother-32’s sequencer. The Subharmonicon is a challengingly creative generator of melodic intervals and sequenced rhythms that takes you out of regular music-making space and into something entirely out there.

However, lumping three great synths together is not the whole story. Moog sees this as an opportunity to curate an entire music-making system. The Sound Studio comes with a three-tier frame for mounting the synths together. There’s a cool little mixer that lets you combine the outputs and also provides power distribution so you only need one plug. You get a bundle of patch cables, a cable holder and a booklet filled with patch possibilities and roadmaps for exploration. And in order to set the perfect scene, you also get some original artwork, cut-out decorative pieces and a game to help you make modular decisions.

You can feel the love with which these bundles were put together, and it forms a beautiful collection of retro-styled instruments that would look as awesome in your living room as it would in your studio.

Street Price: $1,699

Make Noise Stega

Anything that comes out of Make Noise will be weird and fascinating. They have a different way of thinking that produces instruments unlike anything else out there. It has a dark vibe and a wildness about it that is both unexpected and exciting that will draw you into its magic.

Strega is great for drones, awesome for noises, sublime with soundscapes of eery depth and loves a bit of chaos. It has an oscillator that enjoys a range of tones and internal activation. It loves to be mixed with external forces, pushed by an envelope follower and slapped about by unusual lurches in frequency.

Then it falls into a mix of time and filtering. It will create waves of cascading rhythms, murky decay, and hazy desperation. The filter bubbles and toils over the harmonic structure, inteferring and pushing the bleeding edge of sound past an normal convention.

And then, scattered throughout the synth is a smattering of touch pates that ask what would happen if you put your finger on it? The touch plates make connections between signals, between modulators and the modulated using your body as a medium.

It’s all very spooky and could easily feel too intense to be playful, but you’d be wrong. Strega is a house packed with fun and extraordinary times to which you are joyfully invited.

Street Price: $599

Pittsburgh Modular Taiga Keyboard

The Taiga synthesizer that came out last year has had a serious upgrade in the shape of the Taiga Keyboard. It takes the same refreshingly concepts from the Taiga and spreads it out over a much larger space giving you a luxorious amount of control real-estate. On top of that you get a poised 3-octave keyboard and some space for additional modules.

The Taiga architecture boasts three oscillators giving it a bit of the flavour of the classic Moog Model-D. But all similarities stop there. Each oscillators waveform can be morphed into the next and then folded into some completely surprising tones. You can work them smoothly creating change and variation or patch it to select a different tone on every new note press.

All three waveforms can be mixed and overdriven through the mixer which also bring in outside influences and a source of noise before being thrown in the filter. The filter is the now legendary PGH filter that has sweet spots all the way round the dial. There’s no drop-off when you boost the resonance and so this filter will sing.

Past the filter is the dynmaics stage which is formed by a unique take on the low pass gate. Pittsburgh has drawn out emphasis and elements of decay and transformation that take it well beyond the usual bleeps and bloops. Combined with the two envelopes the Taiga Keys can evolve sounds and textures that make for a thoroughly satsifying synthesizer experience.

The patch bay along the top opens access to all the internal connections. You can pull out sections to use with other gear or find new ways to modulate, rediscover sample-and-hold or repurpose anything you want. There’s also a digital control centre for sequencing, arpeggiation and re-routing the mod-wheel for live tweaks. And that useful little modular bay means that you can add effects, modulators, sequencers, processors or whole other voices and fold it into the same instrument.

The Taiga Keyboard is a fabulously fun synthesizer experience that feels vintage and plays like the future.

Street Price: $1299

Behringer Neutron

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 its 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.

Street Price: $349

Erica Synths Bullfrog

If you are coming to analog modular synthesis for the first time or if you want to understand it better then the Bullfrog synthesizer is perfect for you. Bullfrog was designed by Erica Synths along with electronic artist Richie Hawtin to offer an educational platform for learning how synthesizers work and is backed up by the tools and resources to do that.

Bullfrog is a simple, single oscillator modular synthesizer that’s clearly laid out in understandable sections. The blue section is the oscillator with frequency control and wave shaping. The green section if the voltage controlled filter with resonance and two CV inputs. The red section is the VCA and also sneaks in a delay circuit for some added fun and texture. Finally the black section is mixing and modulation. Using the simplest of patch ideas you can build a synth voice full of solid tones, movement and variety.

The documentation will take you through every step of patching and understanding the flow of signal and modulation in the synthesizer. There are patch examples, music theory, electronics and creative ideas written in its pages.

But that’s not all. There’s an expansion slot at the top that has to potential to take Bullfrog to whole other places. The slot allows you to add further functionality and also perminant presets. It comes with a number of cards that provide preset sounds, sequencing, sampling, effects and other ideas. You can even solder together your own cards to save your own patches.

For anyone, regardless of ability, the Bullfrog is a solid monophonic synthesizer with great tone in a satisfyingly tough box. But it’s ability to teach us more about electronic music is unique and extremely welcome.

Street Price: $609
Erica Synths

Intellijel Cascadia

Intelijel are one of the foremost makers of Eurorack modules. The Cascadia is their first move into a more self-contained instrument. It pulls together an amazing selection of modular workflows, systems and possibilities to create a genuinely eclectic and deeply interesting machine.

Cascadia has two oscillators, a wavefolder, noise with sample & hold, envelopes, LFOs and all the things you’d expect. And then it goes off the rails. It has an envelope follower for bringing modulation in from exteranl instrumnets, it has a lowpass gate for organic decays and humanistic vibes. It goes thru-zero on the FM, overdrives and inverts and mixes. It definitely feels like a cascade of features, a flow of ideas that could wrap itself around you and pull you under.

What’s uncommon in the Intellijel approach is all the attention paid to the modular utilities. Those little functions and twists of voltage that are generally only found in modular systems. Those are scattered through this synth and ensure that it’s flavour is always on the modular side. Cascadia will refuse to be just an instrument or just a synth, it will set you off on explorations of complete chaos while bringing you back to the familiar.

What a fascinating machine.

Street Prices: $2,149

Buchla Easel Command

The Buchla Music Easel is a synthesizer of legend. It was like a synthesizer work of art baked into a briefcase. Buchla is all about experimental sonic explorations, it’s about micro-tuning, modulation and pulling the organic out of the electrical. If you’re familiar with keyboard synths or the Moog way of doing things then Buchla is going to feel very strange indeed. But that’s the point. Buchla is exquisitely fascinating and the new Easel Command is a new and more accessible way of bring the Buchla ethos to a wider range of musicians.

Within this semi-modular sculpture you’ll find two oscillators, two lowpass gates, a mixer and an analog spring reverb. Sounds simple enough until you begin to see how much of it is patchable into something else. The oscillators feed and massage each producing complex tones and harmonic monsters. The variable waveshape pushes and pulls the signals into all sorts of intentions. You can cross modulate into FM and AM generating massively rich harmonics and flexible possibilities including ring modulation and the processing of external sound.

The lowpass gates act a bit like a filter and VCA circuit in a more regular synth. But they have a mesmerising organic quality that sounds like a played instrument, full of nuance and movement. The heart of the music comes from the five-step sequential voltage source, looping envelopes and unique Pulser circuit.

The Easel Command is like some kind of electronic entity that you negotiate with, that you challenge, attempt to train and ultimately get consumed by. It’s not for the faint hearted.

Street Price: $2,999

Elta Music Solar 42

The Solar 42F is like something out of a dream. It’s a source of extraordinary ambient sounds forged by the manipulation of 42 oscillators. The oscillators are streamed into 8 voices of playable melodic synthesizing, droning and soundscapes. It’s breathtakingly beautiful and designed to envelope you in the endless possibilities of sound generation.

Two voices are pulled out of the soup to provide melodic structure to the textures. They can be sequenced and manipulated while the other 6 voices compete for dominance and influence. Melodies can be found through the 12 touch-plates, the globular photoresistor, joystick or 5-step sequencer. Detuning and modulation can be found through the FM connection of the oscillators within the voice.

Each voice can be modulated with an AR envelope generator and there are two LFOs that you can patch into whatever you want. For filtering Elta Music has gone for the Polivoks-style 12dB Analog lowpass filter with loads of character. In the centre you can mix your voices and waveforms before falling into the cartridge-based effects section.

Solar 42 is a machine of intense interaction and exploration. You play it, drive it, persuade it and guide it through an endless journey of sonic discovery.

Street Price: $1,999
Elta Music

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