5 Creative Ways to Use Modular Synths
- Use Sequencers and Arpeggiators
- Make Percussive Sounds with Filters
- Replicate Your Favourite Synth Sounds
- Plug In Some Guitar Pedals!
- Change the Way You Think About Musical Instruments
Modular and analog synthesizers have a certain seductive aura. Buttons, knobs, inputs and outputs galore – there’s something irresistible about them. If like me, you’re a guitarist who’s equally fascinated and terrified by the prospect, chances are you wouldn’t know what to do with them if you got hold of them.
On the other hand, you might be a keys player, producer or DJ who’s intrigued by modular. You may be well accustomed to using synthesizers, but you may also like the idea of expanding your sound and making your setup more interactive. Either way, the possibilities are borderline-infinite when it comes to modular synths. In this article, we’ll explore some of the things these gadgets can do to expand your creativity!
1. Sequencers and Arpeggiators
Though this may be stating the obvious, most instruments need to be played to be heard. Guitars need strumming, keys need pressing, drums need thumping, and so on. Further to that, there’s tweaking that’s required to find your sound when performing, whether it’s stomping a pedal, changing your keyboard patch or switching to brushes. It can be difficult to strike a balance between the two, and it often takes years to perfect.
While modular synths can also be played (via a keyboard controller or MIDI input), there’s an alternative; sequencers. As the name suggests, these units allow you to create a sequence of input signals on a loop. Program a melody, a bassline, a series of ambient notes, or a drum beat – many sequencers allow you to tweak repetitions, save and load your sequences, choose a musical scale to adhere to, and much more.
(above) The Arturia KeyStep is one of the most popular and intuitive sequencers available on the market – it comes in the form of a mini keyboard.
Arpeggiators are an extension of this, taking whatever notes are inputted (again, from a keyboard or another input source) and repeating them in whatever pattern you see fit. This gives pad sounds movement, it adds momentum to your mix or just makes for a cool abstract texture. Brands such as Arturia, Intellijel and Roland make excellent sequencer units for a number of applications.
You can tweak sequencers as you go, or allow them to loop freely – either way, the sequence starts and stops when you tell it to. This frees you up for endless sonic exploration!
2. Making Percussive Sounds with Filters
Part of the beauty of the modular synth concept is the endless control you have over pretty much any parameter. Waveform, pitch, modulation, the works. But arguably one of the most diverse elements of a modular patch is the envelope filter. This controls the attack, decay, sustain and release of your sound – commonly referred to as ADSR.
Tweaking your oscillators and envelope filters in conjunction can allow you to create all manner of sounds – if you roll back/tweak all four envelope filter settings, your synth’s tone adopts a punchy, percussive character. This allows you to create unique, raw and powerful drum sounds that are bound to put a smile on your face.
Better still, play around with patching and add a sequencer to the mix. As mentioned earlier, a sequencer will allow you to unleash rhythmic loops so you can concentrate on contorting your synths beyond recognition. Moog have saved you a few steps by creating a desktop semi-modular synth that specialises in percussive sounds: the DFAM.