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Modular is everywhere. It’s the cutting edge of synthesis technology while at the same time being the oldest.

Modern modular synthesizers are at the epi-centre of an explosion of electronic music technology. They drag the vintage and the legendary into the present and push us into the future of music-making. We’ve grown so tired of computer-focused music production that we had to dig into the past to rediscover our souls. Whole new generations of musicians are discovering that instruments bristling with knobs, blinking LEDs and physical patch connections spark in us something very human and organic that no amount of software emulation can muster.

While many modular systems are an ever-expanding platform of sonic exploration there are plenty that offer a more self-contained experience that will inspire and open your eyes to new and old ways of doing things. So in this article we’re going to be looking at those semi-modular synthesizers that have a modular workflow as well as entirely curated modular systems that be a solid way into a synthesizer adventure.

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

  • Moog Sound Studio
  • Behringer System 35
  • Pittsburgh Taiga
  • Behringer Neutron
  • Korg ARP 2600 M
  • Intellijel Cascadia
  • PWM Malevolent
  • Erica Synths Techno System

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 Modular and 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

Behringer System 35

For a completely modular synthesizer system you cannot beat the value of the Behringer System 35, 15 or 55. We’re going to stick with the System 35 as it sits perfectly in the middle as a stunning selection of modules for the fantastic price of a thousand dollars.

The System 35 is based on the classic Moog Modular system from the 1970s but reworked into the smaller and more cost-effective Eurorack form. Taking advantage of miniaturization, surface mount components and automation Behringer has been able to mass produce these modules at a fraction of the price of the original, hand-made, analog modules.

You get 25 modules within the System 35. It almost fills an entire Eurorack Go case and definitely looks the business. The modules include four 921B Voltage Controlled Oscillators plus a single 921 with its extra control. You’ll find the 914 fixed filter bank, 923 analog dual filter, 904 low and highpass filters, envelopes, LFOs and all sorts of control functions. These vintage modules are not like modern Eurorack in that they have a particular way of using voltage and controls that have long been superseded. But in order to maintain authenticity the System 35 comes with all the quirks of the original modular system.

The one nod to more modern technology is the inclusion of a MIDI-to-CV converter module that will let you plug a MIDI controller keyboard straight in for some more familiar interaction.

At $999 it’s ridiculously affordable for a modular system.

Street Price: $999

Pittsburgh Modular Taiga

For solid semi-modular synthesizers, you don’t get much more interesting than the Taiga from Pittsburgh Modular. It takes a lot of cues from the Moog Model D but then turns it inside out, pulls out everything for patching, and becomes a paradox of competing systems of synthesis.

It starts off with three analog oscillators with classic waveshapes. But these waveshapes can be morphed from one to another. Then, once you have your shape you can fold it through a 6-stage wavefolder. So right at the beginning of the synth, it’s already generating a huge variety of tones and timbres. From there you can mix the oscillators through the stunningly smooth filter that has absolutely no dead spots. If you like you can repatch it via overdrive, mix in noise or combine external sources. It has a terrific range of harmonics, morphing changes and inter-modulations that get everything animated.

At the far end of the synth where you expect to find a VCA you actually encounter a whole dynamics system. It takes the idea of low pass gates and runs with it into a balanced range of dynamic processing. You’re combing bite with smooth spaces, and organic decays with choppy envelopes to work in the rhythmic aspects of where you want this synth to go.

And then every single aspect of the machine has a patchable approach. You can rewire it into all sorts of configurations. You can pull out paraphonic polyphony, set up intervals, feedback modulations, or simply take each section out to be used by another synth. A digital control system inside offers further adventures in arpeggiation, sequencing and MIDI control.

Taiga is quite an absorbing instrument that’s very fun, playful and with a unique vibe.

Street Price: $799

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

Korg ARP 2600M

The ARP 2600 could be considered the original semi-modular synthesizer. Designed to integrate the different modular parts of a synth to create a more manageable machine for musicians to play with. The original 2600 has an unusual charm and an enduring quality that makes it an inspirational synthesizer. Korg has taken on the ARP originals and produced a couple of versions. There’s a stunning full-sized, limited edition replica and then there’s the 2600 M, a more compact, scaled-down version that keeps the sound and the workflow while losing some of the bulk.

The 2600 M has three analog oscillators with differing choices and outputs. It makes you think differently about how you use oscillators in your patch; maybe for sound, maybe for modulation. And each internal connection has its own slider for levels of effectiveness. Then you’ve for a legendary 4-pole filter that’s ready to sculpt and be transformed by incoming voltage. You can switch between the different filters that were used in the 2600 over the years.

For modulation, there are two envelopes, one as an ADSR and another as a simpler transient generator. The third oscillator likes to double up as a modulator but you’ve also got an LFO in here and a Sample & Hold circuit with associated noise generation for bring randomisation and texture. Ring Modulation, external processors, built-in speakers and an internal spring reverb flesh out the versatility of the instrument.

Modern enhancements include MIDI and USB connections for control, DAW, and simply adding a keyboard. You even get a software bundle and a carry case to complete the setup. Cheaper versions are available from Behringer, but only Korg has that true ARP authenticity.

Street Price: $1,999

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

PWM Malevolent

Semi-modular keyboard synthesizers are not very common. The Grandmother and Matriarch from Moog are probably the most familiar, but this little number from PWM has an awful lot going for it.

It’s called Malevolent because it’s likely to bring you the best sort of pain. It has two competing oscillators with richly analog waveforms. Waveforms that can be shaped and abused with all sorts of overlapping signal paths. It has a relatively tame filter profile but once you get on those knobs you’ll find that it has enough spit and spite to rip your waveforms in half. This is not a synth of warm summer evenings, this is a late-night smash-up of a well-oiled bar brawl.

Malevolent has the ability to feed signals back through itself. It delights in overdriving, excels at twisting the truth and is desperate for a good bit of patching. It can modulate from a pair of FM inputs, it has shape and pulse width control and each waveform gets its own signal routing. There are two envelopes and an LFO that keeps everything in motion.

The arpeggiator is a lot of fun with multiple forms and directions. Combine it with the multi-function joystick for some additional vibrato and portamento. The 32-note keyboard is velocity sensitive and has a decent feel for mini keys.

If you fancy something a bit edgy then Malevolent is for you.

Street Price: $549

Erica Synths Techno System

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.

Street Price: $3,690

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