Who doesn’t miss those days when you could still play with flashy toys that had all sorts of buttons you could push and turn, producing animal sounds and wild flickering lights without people staring at you? I’m returning to those childhood days this weekend as by the time you read this I’ll be happily twiddling some knobs, pressing colourful buttons and flicking switches in Barcelona.
Now before you think I’m publicly confessing a secret and perverse obsession related to toddler toys here, let me tell you straightaway I’m currently in Spain for the music event Modular Day Barcelona. This meeting attracts a great bunch of like-minded people who are totally into analogue music synthesizers, i.e. modular synths.
You might be sitting there now, thinking ‘analogue music synthesizers, modular synths, what the hell? This stuff is too nerdy for me man!’ Well, think a moment of the great old skool electronic music you heard in that fantastic Netflix series Stranger Things, which we’ve aaaaaall binge-watched. If you are a real ’80s child like me, then you must’ve loved that vintage vibe of the styling and music. I think it’s safe to say that the iconic soundtrack was one of the key factors of its massive success and yes, modular synths in fact played a significant role in this.
Stranger Things composers Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein might have used digital composing tools for scoring the series, using ‘keyboard instruments […] for melodic and harmonic content’, but it was their modular set-up that allowed them to create ‘some of the show’s signature warped, textural elements that give the score so much of its atmosphere.’ (source)
And the Stranger Things soundtrack isn’t the only famous one that uses modular synthesizers. Did you love the music in films such as Clockwork Orange or, more recently, The Social Network and Gone Girl? These are only a few of the many films, both classic and contemporary, that feature modular synth music.
Modular synths aren’t only for ‘nerds’
Also the ‘cool kids’ of Coldplay, Radiohead, Soulwax and Aphex Twin are dedicated collectors
The resurgence of modular synths triggered by the so-called Eurorack systems in recent years seems to be perfectly in line with the rekindled interest in vinyl and even cassette tapes. It might be nostalgia for some, but in a time and age where you can stream music for hours without you having to actively do anything, not even having to choose for yourself which song or album you want to hear next, it’s quite liberating to be more hands-on and actively involved again, changing the process of the way we listen to music nowadays.
When I put on a vinyl record instead of listening to the same album digitally, I have to physically go to the record deck to flip over the album after a few tracks (especially on those high-quality recordings we have today which sometimes only fit two or three tracks a side). For me this creates more awareness of the music I’m listening to. Perhaps we could therefore say that listening to music the ‘old-fashioned’ way fits in perfectly with today’s mindfulness trend.
I first heard of analogue modular synths through hubby who grew tired of staring at a computer screen for years whilst writing new music or during live gigs. He started buying his first modular synths a few years ago and explored this exciting new sonic world with our friend Paul (just before he went on a world tour with Noel Gallagher and later Hans Zimmer!) and I remember hearing their enthusiastic shrieks coming through the studio door whenever they managed to magically conjure up some tunes that actually sounded musical. Because that’s the thing with modulars: there are hundreds of different ways to create patches (i.e. combinations you create by connecting different modulars with each other using a bunchload of cables), and the output can be rather unpredictable. Just the slightest turn of a knob can entirely change the frequency and texture of a sound, which is actually one of the appealing things about playing with modular synths.
Fast-forward a few years later and ‘we’ (it’s actually all hubby’s, but I like to pretend it’s also mine) are the proud owners of quite an impressive modular set-up. Perhaps not as big as those owned by Martin Gore of Depeche Mode, Jean-Michel Jarre, Mr Film Soundtrack Hans Zimmer or our friend Benge (who’s quite a legend in the modular synth world), but it’s enough to keep us entertained for hours at end.
Why I love playing with modulars: they’re the perfect instruments to create music without having any prior musical knowledge!
When I first visited Benge’s East London studio a few years ago, I didn’t really comprehend what was actually happening. It was like I had set foot in the USS Enterprise control room! It was quite funny when he reminded me how my little mind was completely blown at the time when I saw him again last year. However, after having visited some modular meets with hubby over the last years and slowly getting immersed in this wonderful community of authentic and generous enthusiasts where there’s no room for big egos, and after listening to more electronic music, I got interested in playing with hubby’s modulars myself. (Hey, watch that dirty mind of yours! This isn’t an euphemism!)
So that’s why this summer I commandeered hubby’s music studio for some intense in-depth modular tutorials. My mind started spinning as he was throwing a whole bunch of tech terms at me and showed me at superspeed what these powerful machines are capable of. I’m still learning as I go along and trying to find my feet in this particular niche. There are quite some successful melodic and also techno musicians out there who use modular set-ups, but being inspired by the dark cinematic sounds of Demdike Stare and The Haxan Cloak, I know that’s the direction I want to go in. I have two months until my first live gig in Peterborough (more details on this closer to the date) and I’m feeling both excited yet super nervous for that.
I set up the Instagram account Lady Modular and after one of my videos was shared by some big accounts such as the established Fact Magazine, my alter ego turned into an overnight sensation (she says very modestly) this summer. I was even amongst one of the few artists invited by the famous Faber & Faber publisher’s to talk about my three favourite electronic tracks to promote their publication Mars by 1980 by David Stubbs last month! You can read the full article and hear everybody’s chosen tracks here: Mars by 1980: A Collective Electronic Music Playlist.
Did I manage to wet your appetite for modular synth music? Then why not give it a try yourself at one of these upcoming events!
As I mentioned in the introduction, I am currently in Barcelona for the annual Modular Day Barcelona. I wish I could attend next week’s opening of the new analogue studio at music venue Willem II in Den Bosch (NL) of all places (I grew up in this area of the Netherlands) offering a whole range of analogue musical instruments from the 1950s and 1960s, but I just came back from a trip to the Netherlands last week. On Saturday 15 September 2018 they’re organising a synth/modular meet and soldering workshops, finishing the day with some exciting live performances. Check out the info here (in Dutch).
Next month I’ll be visiting Sheffield SynthFest and in November my debut live performance will take place at the annual ‘Bells N Whistles Crackles N Pops’ event in Peterborough. For up-to-date listings of modular events all over the world, I recommend looking at the Facebook page Muffwiggler Worldwide. Happy twiddling!
If I were to ask you about your three favourite electronic music tracks, which ones would you choose? Let me know your Top 3 choices in a comment below!
Thanks, Zarina xx