Monday, 17 October 2016

Bleeping Modular Synths!

As I checked my various timelines today for what was happening in the world, a process which involves reading articles on music websites, watching videos and listening to people's new tracks, I came across a reference to an old interview on the Sonicstate website. For the purposes of this blog it doesn't matter who it was with except to note that they were modular synthesists of the Eurorack variety. The video interview itself is quite lengthy and interesting and there was also some music showcased along with it. My interest was peaked even further though when I ventured into the now ever-present comments section that seems to accompany almost any internet posting anywhere. Here I started to find somewhat puzzling, critical comments about both the interviewees and what it was they were doing, i.e. making music with modular synthesizers. (They had a huge, wall-sized, Eurorack setup.) I bring this up and, indeed, make a whole blog out of it today because it seems to me that there are some general criticisms of the whole genre of modular synth (that is, of the music and of the users) that are out there these days that are spread by those with chips on their shoulders or grudges to bear. I personally regard them as the preservers of an unseemly conventionality. But I want to try and address them. If you use modular synths too you may find the following discussion pertinent to what you do. Or you may not.






The first kind of comment I want to address is the kind that suggests, sometimes with regularity, that modular is somehow "being pushed down people's throats" these days. If this is the case, and I only say if, this is because, as Jean-Michel Jarre said in an interview recently, that "electronic music won". What he meant by this was that in the past the idea of making music with electronics itself was frowned upon. For a number of years, even into the 80s when people tried to stop those such as Gary Numan from doing what they do, electronic music was regarded as somehow not "proper". Again in the UK, as with Numan, Depeche Mode, who have since gone on to become the most popular electronic group of all time and lately with considerable amounts of modular gear at their disposal, were, at the start of their career, never given any credit or due in their own country. Their music, being electronic and all synths, was regarded as somehow insubstantial and fluffy. "Just Can't Get Enough" was laughed at not regarded as a pattern for future musical output. It certainly wasn't regarded as amounting to anything. However today, as Jarre pointed out in the interview, all music is basically electronic. The balance has swung from guitar music to synth music. The procedures for even making music have become significantly more electronic and involving of electronic devices. Very few people today, in the modern electronic environment, would even blink at the idea of synths or synth music. Today you are regarded as dangerously weird or "old school" if you don't use a computer and software as some part of your process.

So what then of modular synths "being pushed down people's throats"? Well the particular complainant who made this comment goes on to suggest that the problem is that a lot of modular synth music is "just noise sequences with no real substance". Is this the Depeche Mode complaint rearing its head again? It may well be. However, what this also is is an example of a value system in operation regarding what is regarded as worthwhile (or substantial) or not worthwhile (or insubstantial) when it comes to electronic music. That the language is a matter of substance or lack of it is interesting to me because it makes me ask what "music with substance" might actually be and, thus, whether this is a goal that the modular synthesist should have. Clearly, this person hears a lot of modular synth music and regards it as effete and ephemeral, fluff that gets blown on the wind. The suggestion is that it is ultimately meaningless. Now that is as maybe and, at this stage of the blog, I don't want to suggest for a second that the charge of being insubstantial might lead to the notion that something becomes meaningless. But, further, I also don't want to be forced to the conclusion that to make music that was meaningless, even if you did, would necessarily be such a bad thing. 

But let's back up a little. Another commenter accuses those in the video interview I referred to as being "noodling hipsters" and those in the modular synth community might be familiar with this casual insult. He suggests that they, and possibly a wider community of those like them, have "no musical inclinations beyond hoarding gear and making it bleep". Ouch! I wonder if anyone's Spidey sense is tingling after that warhead has been detonated? It must be said that when one surfs the various forums and internet places where modular synth fans go there does seem to be plenty of people with little musical output and plenty of gear they never seem to put to more than minimal use. Now, of course, we are not autocrats here. People can do with their things, or not do with their things, exactly what they want to do. But the charge seems to be that some modular synth users, and, by extension, the group as a whole, are collectors of stuff more than they are active music-makers. Does this accusation ring any bells with you, I wonder? We are starting to build up a critical picture of modular synth fans as people chasing an insubstantial cool factor, people who obsess over stuff and discuss gear but without producing anything that matters. Perhaps more evidence in this direction might be the preponderance of modular synth users who make 5 minute "jams" recorded on their camera phones as opposed to full length pieces of music which they have honed and crafted and produced as works of art in their own right. Some would certainly say so, it seems.

This charge of being "noodling hipsters" or collectors of cool things bites further when its suggested, as it was in the comments I refer to, that "such people give electronic music a bad rep". This makes us ask what we as modular synth users want to be known for. Are we to be considered as the electronic music equivalent of model train enthusiasts, collecting all our stuff, making sure it looks just right and then privately playing with it and maybe going online to discuss various layouts and technical specifications of equipment? Are we merely people with an interest who show our stuff to other people and then endlessly talk about it? Is this what being into modular synths is all about? For some it may well be and I don't wish to denigrate that. Above all else in this blog I will hold to the view that people can make of their resources what they will. However, this does beg the question of image and public perception. It makes us ask what modular synthesists want to be known for and perceived as. If modular synthesis is a subsection of electronic music and, thus, something with a musical purpose in mind where does this fit in amongst the collecting, noodling and discussing?

Now in the past couple of years I have become more interested in what might be generally described as abstract electronic music. Sometimes this blurs into flat out noise and certainly things that could be described as atonal. I like everything from drones and soundscapes to chaotic glitches and musical uses of harsh static. I embrace the chaos that can be inherent in a modular system or setup in which you can deliberately set out not to be tuneful. This, I argue, has always been there from when people started picking up their synths at the end of the 1960s. It is a constant and authentic branch of modern electronic music. I have written blogs about this before and suggested on some of those occasions that there was a bias in society against this due to cultural factors which canonize certain forms of music at the expense of others. I still think that this analysis has some truth to it. However, not everyone agreed with me. To persist with the Sonicstate link, sometime guest on their Sonictalk podcast show (and synth demonstrator and vintage analog enthusiast of note), Marc Doty, wrote to me concerning one blog I wrote (on his Automatic Gainsay Facebook page) that he believes that music "isn't a cultural choice" but, instead, "an evolutional outcome". He then goes on to write of his belief that human beings have "connections to organized sound and resonating vibrations that go deeper than their choices". He thus thinks we are, quite naturally and reasonably, drawn to tonal sounds, harmonic relationship and, thus, melodies and chords. I found what Marc had to say deeply fascinating. I wasn't convinced but nevertheless.

I mention all this because what you believe about things conditions how you will approach others, things that you come across daily. This, indeed, is how we humans are able to handle our daily lives at all. We process things based on what we already think and believe. Some of these things may help modify some of the beliefs. Most are just churned up and processed by the beliefs we already have. And so it is with electronic music too. Now I have to say I have noticed that the aforementioned Mr Doty has, at times, seemed to be quite critical of especially Eurorack users with his view of what it is he thinks they are doing and why. I don't intend here to critique or repeat any of this. Marc, I'm sure, is big enough and eloquent enough to speak for himself if he wants. But reading something of his deeper beliefs about music and sound it at least makes some consistent sense with those other things. It is easy to see why he is critical of some things in the light of where he seems to be coming from even if you think he gets the whole thing wrong! Marc is able to give an explanation of why he favours tones, melodies and chords over noise, incoherence and chaos being the fan of electronic sounds and music that he clearly is. This is important to me because I will always value a reasoned argument I don't agree with over a casual insult that comes from out of the blue. I don't ultimately believe that Marc has explained things adequately in what he wrote to me on Facebook nor why some, maybe many, people like making noise instead. Maybe one day he will give a talk or write a paper doing just that. But what of the criticisms I've collected up here from one random internet posting? Where do they fit in?

People get into modular synthesis for many reasons and, to my mind at least, its legitimate to get into modular synthesis for any reason you want. If you want to build the world's biggest modular synth decoration on your wall then go for it. Its no skin off my nose. But most people are, at least nominally, getting into modular synthesis for so-called musical reasons. Now this may just be for the "noodling" that my commenter above has frowned upon. But so what? It seems to me that the modular synth, of any format, lends itself to this purpose. If one is going to dedicate oneself to using a modular synth then, with there being so many possibilities, one will need to play, in the sense of have fun experimenting, in order to do this. This, it seems to me, is one of modular synthesis's biggest attractions in the world of electronic music. The fact there are so many options openly encourages this play and, to me at least, makes it a legitimate activity. A modular synth can be an activity, like the piano of old in the Victorian parlour, where you spend some of your leisure time just playing. Is that an illegitimate use of electronic music resources, an activity that gives it a bad reputation? I don't think so. There is no law or instruction which mandates you must do anything at all with a modular synth. Buying one or beginning to build a system does not commit you to "serious" or "proper" music and neither does it force you to submit to some traditional or authoritarian notion of what "music" is. No way, Jose.

And now we need to address the issue of "musical substance" once more. I genuinely do not know what this means. I imagine it could mean something traditional, something melodic, something, for want of a better word, "normal". Or mainstream. I crap on that idea. If a modular synth is anything, in my understanding, then it is an exploration tool. It is a device in which you can, deliberately and with some ability, purposefully tread untrodden paths. If you have one I think you should do this because, apart from anything else, its one way to guarantee that you will sound like no one else in a world where sounding like someone else seems, for many, to be the safest path. In a recent episode of Divkid's "Modular Podcast" I was delighted when the artist Scanner (also known as Robin Rimbaud) spoke to the effect that music is about finding your own voice in your equipment. I could not agree more with him. I would equate this with "musical substance" in that then the music at least becomes about something. It becomes about you, your interests, your experience of the world. 

But I have a bigger point here. And this is that I don't think music need have any substance. It need not have any meaning. It can be effete, ephemeral, empty, pointless and void of any sense. The demand that things have meaning is perhaps the most conventional demand of all. In this context, it is the nihilist, the person who does things simply because they can or for a moment's pointless fun, who is the rebel. And with a modular synthesizer you can certainly, and constantly, do this. You might not even know how you did it and never be able to repeat it. (Repetition is another conventional notion.) But so what? Why does, and why did, the music ever have to mean something? Why must it have a point, a substance? Why must anyone take the box of chaos that is a modular synthesizer and then regard it as something to be tamed, made safe, made conventional? Why not go the other way and simply enable it to express its inherent desire to blurt forth randomness into the void? This plea for substance is the death of possibility on the altar of conventionality. It is the desire that we all play it safe so as not to seem too "other".

In the end, I believe, the criticisms I found are merely expressions of the value systems of those who hold them. These people had their own ideas of what music is and of what they regard being musically valid as. But these ideas and beliefs can only ever extend as far as their own noses. Beyond that there are other ideas and beliefs which you and I are equally free to have and hold. This may be because, as Marc Doty believes, evolution will guide us down a certain path. It may be, as I tend to believe, that you decide to make a certain choice. Choices, of course, are never made in a vacuum. (And so Doty and I may be talking about the same thing from opposite ends.) In my experience each musical life is a great chain of events, of cause and effect, in any case. Due to my interest in electronic music I make a podcast called "Electronic Oddities" and in doing that I am constantly lead from one thing to another in a great chain, all the while discovering new things, things I missed from decades ago, and much else. To me this is the wonder of it all, that there is so much and it is all so different. Not knowing what will happen next, what I will hear next, is the greatest thing about electronic music, this inherent capacity for possibility. That is why I am so attracted to modular synthesis in the first place. Will some people who have a modular synth be "noodling hipsters" just wanting to look cool? Yes. But so what? Much more important to me than any chat about devices, tech talk, "look at my setup" pics or anything else surrounding modular synthesis is the ideas involved in actually making music. "What are you doing with your gear?" is the important thing for me followed up with the question "Why?" 

For me a modular synth should be, par excellence, the instrument for people with ideas and it should be used to musically express them. For me personally the sin would be to have a system and then not use it to see how far you can go with it. But I'm perfectly aware I can only control my own gear and output and no one else's. Its just that to have a great system, as many people seem to, and then not use it to explore sonic possibilities would seem to be a terrible waste. So, to finish, of course we all have our own ideas of what "substantial" music might be for we all have value systems. But these will only ever be ours and our music always expresses them. We should, as Robin Rimbaud said, seek to find our voice through the technology for this is not just a collection of electronics that will always sound the same. The fact a modular synthesizer is a device through which human beings can mediate themselves with the utmost electronic flexibility possible is of vital importance. And to that extent its like anything else. It reveals the person behind it. 

So are you a model train enthusiast, a noodling hipster or a sonic explorer?


PS I have always found electronic bleeps quite profound. Its always about how things are contextualized I find.

23 comments:

  1. Good read. While I could never call myself a taught and structured musician , modular gives me a peek into the excitement of being a musician and I have to say when you come across a sound that moves your soul well it's just damn good fun. Modular is like golf. There's many levels of equipment, takes a long time and the more you put into it the more you get out results wise

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  2. Good article. I am not a modular user, nor do I have much intention to be one. If I did buy a module or two it would be for sound processing, or probably having numerous LFO's for stuff, but not for finding a new sound. I have used analog synths for many years, and play multiple instruments, so I call myself a musician. I don't believe that many modular users are so much musicians, as sound tinkerers, which is fine. I'm jealous of some of their cool walls of interesting gear, but in reality a classic analog synth has the main tools you need to make great sound. The variety of oscillators, lfo's and filters is evidently the main stuff modular users have to play around with. Routing them in different ways might be fun for a minute, but I'd wager that most of those "experiments" don;t pan out all too well. In other words, you don't need much gear or complex signal paths to make some bleeps and blips. A noob modular person should at least get some knowledge on how synths are generally routed. Why? Because it works well. I bet a lot of "noise" guys have only decided to be that because they couldn't figure out how to make a beautiful sound, and it's easy to just patch some stuff together and see what you get. I suppose that amateurish aspect of it is part of what doesn't sit well with me about it. Kinda like I have a distaste for modern methods of creating music that bypass the traditional "spend years learning your instrument" method.

    I find the modular trend in general to be on par with a "drummer" who owns a huge kit with tons of cymbals all mounted on a rack with a Neal Peart obsession, yet can't play more than one beat (and that not very well)! I don't hold it against them, but c'mon, just shut up and play music. A lot of rock guys are like this with their huge pedal boards. You can't tell the difference between three different fuzz pedals when playing at stage volume anyway, so why? It's about the search for tone, man. Yeah, whatever. Your tone sucks, shut up and play music. The bedroom players, sigh, they leave a sour taste, but at least they're having fun.

    The realist in me is a huge fan of people who use simple gear and setups to "find" their sound. Like the African dude kicking Neal Pearts ass using a "drum kit" made of plastic barrels and tin cans. Rad.

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    1. Maybe for some people "noise" IS a beautiful sound Robert. My whole point here is that this language is only exposing people's inherent musical valuations. But these go just as far as the end of anyone's nose. They aren't binding.

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    2. as a *musician* and a person who plays a modular I would say "sweeping statement much".

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    3. Maybe so, but I don't think the world needs more noise as much as it needs more music. I'll stick to my belief that experimental usually means something along the lines of mashing things together hoping for greatness, or another term for don't know what I'm doing. Modular is great for experimenters but it doesn't offer much beyond that unless you like tiny knobs and patch cords in your way. You can spend a lot on these things just to get basic synth functionality. That's why an affordable portable synth for musicians was created in the first place. I understand the desire to have just one more lfo or envelope on a synth, sure. In the end, more gear doesn't automatically equal better sound or music. Sweeping maybe, but fact. My musical valuation has been exposed!

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    4. well very much disagree - I'm not saying it's 'better' but rather it suits me for making music. Feel free to have a listen https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCd6Fj_OrV9jP9cbAcrIWw9Q

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    5. "The variety of oscillators, lfo's and filters is evidently the main stuff modular users have to play around with. Routing them in different ways might be fun for a minute, but I'd wager that most of those "experiments" don;t pan out all too well."

      I wager that most of those experiments turn out much better than the classic OSC to Filter to VCA w/ envelope in the VCA and LFO on the Filter. I've heard it a million times before, and couldn't be happier that people are trying something new.

      As for the classic signal path "working well". That may be true, if you want an East Coast sound, but how many traditional synths have Low Pass Gates or Complex Oscillators. You know people have been using the Source of Uncertainty since the 70's?

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    6. To be fair that's a pretty snobbish comment there. So you play loads of instruments - good for you and you're clearly a good musician.
      However, maybe it really is about trying to find something different sounding? Any maybe it isn't about making something which you think other people will like.
      Live and let live and don't judge other people just because their tastes are different to yours.

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  3. Indeed - plenty of things I've mused long and hard on in this blog. There certainly are "model train enthusiasts" as you call them - and as you say that's fine. The only thing for me there is to distinguish their interest as different to my own (and not get caught up in their discussions about why module X is more vital than module Y because their criteria are unlikely to be musical ones)

    Beyond that - the views of various participants on Sonic State have irked me from time to time (and I say that as an avid viewer each week) and some of the music I have made has been a response to their comments in part. Doty interestingly, has until recently, been an ideologue to my mind. Analog is cool for sure but we are heading rapidly back to model train enthusiasm rather than music making.

    As for tonality, what rubbish, you can ignore the last 50-60 years of music if you so choose, just as you can choose to ride around on a donkey and deny the invention of cars, but don’t expect me to take you seriously. There is nothing wrong with using them (and I do - despite my tastes for the weird and experimental I find myself making quite music using conventional structures and notes at times. But as you say - that’s cultural. If you visit me in my room you’ll as likely find me listening to Arvo Part as Factory Floor, SWANS as OMD, Van der Graaf Generator as Nurse with Wound )

    I use the modular because it seems like an instrument to me - I don’t need to write code or click about - I can get my hands on the sounds and express myself.

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    1. Marc can have his model train enthusiast moments but I think even his demonstration output shows him to also have a sonic explorer side. He is certainly deeply committed to sound exploration within the ideological limits he sets himself. In conversation, of which I've only had a snippet with him, he reveals that there is much more under the surface than his public appearances reveal, including a vast theoretical basis for the beliefs he holds. In other words, he bangs on about "vintage analog tone" for reasons consistent with his whole ethos of music and sound.

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    2. fair enough - it can be hard to tell. People become successful for a 'thing' which is then what they need to do more of to earn a living. (However someone who had a vast theoretical belief for why they should only ride donkeys and ignore cars would still be demonstrably wrong to return to my analogy ;-) )

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    3. it is also fair enough to set limits - I start a great deal of my music projects with a fixed palate and sometimes 'rules' or other constraints.

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  4. My take is more pedestrian. If people are buying gear and not using it what's the downside? People enjoy what they enjoy, be it making music or collecting s...tuff. I'm amazed and overjoyed at the renewed interest in modular, and am glad to see makers making for a market. Nerd on, model train enthusiasts, noodling hipsters and sonic explorers! S'long as I got a knob to twist, I'm happy!

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  5. Music with integrity in any genre, should be (or at least be attempting to be) a pure expression of the person making it. You touch on this toward the end of your piece. Of course, anyone can do whatever they want. You don't have to particularly "care" out your finished product. It's OK to just have fun, etc. Thinking in terms of music, modular synthesizer technology is only a means. If you have musical ability, you should be able to create something musically effective with whatever is at hand, including a modular synthesizer. But having a great saxophone does not make you a great saxophonist. I know. Who cares. I'm not trying to dis anybody. I am trying to say that a lot of what is generated on modulars is being done so for reasons other than pure musical self expression. There are a lot of math geeks out there (I know some of them) who love to create sounds on their modulars, just for the fun of what the technology can do, with little or no interest in it from a musical perspective. It's all good. But I do think it is useful to make a distinction as regards the intent of the modular synth user. (rambling - sorry)

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    1. Thanks for your comment Mike which I think has substance in a number of places.

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  6. It has actually been proven that those who have not been inundated in Western musical culture have little to no aversion to dissonance, so the notions of music not being cultural/being deeply embedded in a physiological response to harmony are out and out false.

    There are millions of examples of music being white washed by Western culture, arguments like Doty's serve only to perpetuate and justify the oppression of musical outliers.

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  7. Good article, well-written. Even for "musical purists" the presence of "sound fiddlers" decreases the price of modules ;-)

    In practice there is a continuum and we all move on it within a range (which can become imprisoning). But it's a free world ;-) [well it's not actually but that's another article lol]

    Does your podcast have an rss feed (he says as a podcaster himself)? My app (PocketCasts) cant seem to find it (&not into downloading a specific single purpose app).

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  8. Thanks for reading. I have no idea if my podcast has an rss feed. Its hosted by Mixcloud and is at https://www.mixcloud.com/DrExistenz/

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  9. Good post. I am diving into modular, I enjoy making music and studying and understanding synthesis. Rarely record or issue anything, my noodlings are more for fun. And what is wrong with that? :)

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    1. Absolutely nothing! Thanks for reading.

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