In a recent blog I discussed the outside perceptions of some regarding those who use modular synthesizers. Now while I don't want to repeat or rehash that particular topic, I do want to continue on from it a little bit today since I myself was in receipt of a new wave of thinking about it when I read a comment thread about another blog I'd written on a different subject. That comment thread contained the cogent and sensibly argued thoughts of a number of synthesizer fans who were not necessarily also fans of modular synthesizers. At first I was rather surprised about this. Surely all fans of synthesizers are also fans of modular synths, I unreflectively thought. Modular, after all, is the holy of holies of the synth world, is it not? The best form of synthesis. Apparently this is not at all the case as the thread I was reading contained a number of synth fans, even synthheads, who had no love for, or interest in, modular synthesizers. One particular comment, which characterized those who like modulars as "introspective people interested in technical achievement" as opposed to their fixed synth brothers and sisters who like having fun playing tunes, perhaps captures a flavor of this discussion.
As usual in discussions of this nature, nothing I'm going to argue here in my blog today should be taken as a must or a directive. And no one whose thoughts I quote or report on should be taken as thinking anything other than that people can follow their interest however they like. This goes without saying even though, often, it still needs to be said. That said, as I read further into the comment thread I just mentioned I became more intrigued. Someone described an emphasis on modular synthesis as "backward looking" and suggested perhaps many of these people wanted to imagine they were in Berlin in 1974. Another critical comment was that, it seems to some, modular synthesis has more to do with train spotting and tinkering with motorbikes than with music. A further suggestion was that the staggering breadth of possibility contained in many modern modular systems was not matched by the depth of thought going into using the equipment and making patches. This gives the possibility of making two charges: first, that someone's modular system is merely an ego trip, a "look at what I've got" big dick contest and, second, that having a large modular system is an empty boast if you can't make anything beautiful, musical or profound with it. "A cacophony of noise" was another comment lobbed casually the way of the sounds coming from modular synths.
Now partly I view these comments as a matter of taste. Some people just don't like abstract music, random sounds or music without melody. It might be suggested that these people are themselves limited in their tastes and their imaginations regarding what is musically possible. But its quite banal to say this. Surely, as we discuss "taste" for the twelve millionth time, we realize that people like what they like and that's all good? Your freedom to like what you like is balanced up by everyone else's ability to like what they like as well. So that discussion isn't very interesting and goes nowhere. It also the case that not everyone will be on the same page musically. This is a good thing because without it there'd be no variety. More interesting than these things are criticisms of what is made of ever more complex modular systems and the not matching the expectations of some who expect fantastic sounds from fantastic machines. Why, think these people, shouldn't I expect something fantastically musical from this very complex and often very expensively assembled machine? Instead, all I'm hearing is beeps or, whisper it quietly, fart noises. Is this a reasonable expectation? I'm going to say no, its not.
There are today numerous kinds of synthesizers. Hardware. Software. Fixed architecture. Modular. Analog. Digital. Even hybrids like the Roland JD-XA. There are numerous manufacturers. You can get synths in many different colors (to some it matters if their synth is silver or black!). And all this is before you even get to do anything with any of them. One thing I think we need to note is that a fixed architecture hardware synth is not a hardware modular synth. They are different things. So should they be required to produce the same noises or kinds of musical output? I don't think so. This is especially the case where the fixed synth more often than not comes with a keyboard attached and the modular probably doesn't. Having a keyboard attached or not does make a difference.
Some synth commentators have made a big thing out of this citing a "player's paradigm" that comes from Bob Moog's decision to have a musical keyboard attached to his modular synth and a "machine music" paradigm that comes from Don Buchla's design decision not to have one. And, certainly, it should be pointed out that playing music on a keyboard is but one form of musical expression and data entry. Its just one form of data entry for an electronic musical instrument. Its not the whole game. Its one way to get sounds from a machine. (Moog himself had sequencers besides a keyboard, for example.) Of course, not having a keyboard doesn't mean you need ditch traditional music theory either. There are, for example, modular sequencers that are still quantized to traditional scales even in very modern Eurorack systems. But no one is mandated to use these either. We may summarize all this by saying that there are at least two paradigms for playing synthesizers: by hand on a keyboard as a player and more machine-like by conducting the machine itself, as it were. Both are legitimate methods. And, of course, there are others. But they might not lead to the same music or sounds!
One reason people use modular synthesizers, I think, is that they are boxes of possibility. If I have a fixed architecture synth I can only do what it will let me do and, as a cutdown version of an earlier modular product (Moog, for example, built his modular before he refined it down to build a Minimoog. Alan R. Pearlman built his Arp 2500 before his cutdown Arp 2600 and then his cutdown of that, the Arp 2800, later renamed the Arp Odyssey), this will be less than I could do with the full modular synth. If my synth has a keyboard or other input device I can only play the notes, and with the expression, this device can produce and I can only make the sounds the architecture of the synth allows me to play. With a modular synth, perhaps in perception more than actuality, it seems as if you can do more. It can create things that your fixed synth couldn't do. (Lack of a keyboard may also mean I couldn't do the things it can do too.)
But, in the perception of some, that doesn't always happen. Modular synthesists always seem to come up with the same beeps and farts (its alleged). And not much else. There are people who really think this because I've read and heard them saying it. Perhaps you are a modular synthesist who thinks this is wrong, a defamation of modular synthesists in general. Perhaps you are thinking that keyboard synthesists only ever come up with melodies and chords and that's a fair point. But surely the point common to both sides here is that people tend to certain sounds and kinds of sounds regardless of their instrument. Both instrument environments are limits as much as they are possibilities. What we need in both cases is players with deep minds rather than synths which are called "deepmind". The instrument will rarely do it all for you although there are numerous interesting self-generating patches that can be made with a little thoughtful patching. For the truth is that the best fixed architecture synth in the world or the most expensively assembled and complex modular system devised will be nothing but a damp squib in the hands of an unimaginative user. And as things become more popular so the talent pool will inevitably become more diluted.
Now, of course, there are always guiding paradigms in place when thinking about music. Everybody has in their head an idea of what "music" is and what it isn't. Quite often this is thought of broadly, or in the mainstream, as "a tune" and I'll freely admit that this idea rubs me up the wrong way. I think its very backward to have something like a synthesizer in your hands but then all you can think to do with it is write melodies. Again, a melody is just one thing you can do that is musical and not the whole of music. I'm quite a fan of Kosmische Musik, the German music that was often entirely electronic that was produced from the late 1960s and on into the 1970s. Much of this, at least at the start, was quite abstract and not really very melodic. (So abstract electronic music has always been with us!) I'm thinking of things like Popol Vuh's "Affenstunde" or the early albums by Kluster (later changed to Cluster). There's even Tangerine Dream's first album "Electronic Meditation" to consider here. All this was just abstract electronics noises. But it was still both profound and beautiful in my ears. It was from this type of environment that the "Berlin School" sound first invented by Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream (lead by Edgar Froese) developed. This music's development was partly influenced by the technology as well. There were no digital synths in these days. It was all analog. So there was no saving anything. You couldn't really change patches because there was no comprehensive system to do such a thing. You had to create sounds and then weave them together into things of substance on the fly.
I find this an incredibly useful insight musically. At their best I think this is what all synthesists of any kind do, whether using fixed synths or modular ones. That is why I personally take the Kosmische artists as my role models. They are mixing sound design, technology and their own creative minds together to come up with something and they've had to stretch themselves to do it. I wouldn't describe their output as "beeps and fart noises" even though many people with similar equipment might make that kind of noise today. To me it sounds like designed soundscapes or even modern electronic classical music (which is what Morton Subotnick wanted to make too). Of course, the technology has moved on. Now, today, even in modular systems there are ways to save and store (or at least record and playback) things. I regret that a little. Part of the reason why the electronic music of the past at the start of this current era of electronic music with its commercial synths and recordings sounded the way it did was because of what you couldn't do as much as because of what you could. All the sound sources were analog too. Today many might be digital. But I note that especially within modular synthesis it doesn't seem to be so controversial today whether a module is analog or digital anymore. Meanwhile our fixed synth brothers and sisters still often seem to have flame wars about whether this new synth that's come out is analog or digital. System 8 anyone?
Tangerine Dream at Coventry Cathedral in 1975
Taking the Kosmische artists as my role models it makes me want to put such banal and ultimately unresolvable discussions to one side. I listen to their works and read about how they did it and it seems to point a sensible way forward both in terms of the technology and the sounds. They were masters of combining things together and of being agnostic about things we might now in Internet forums find reasons to have interminable arguments about. They could and did combine machine generated sounds with leads played on keyboards. They would combine things on tape with things played live. (They had to. They only had two hands!) It was an attitude, in my naive mind at least, of making the best of what you've got, taking smaller parts and creating a greater whole from them. It was about making an effort. We have, I'm sure, all seen pictures of the giant multi-synthesizer stacks of gear from their performances. Much of that, in today's modular world, could be combined into much smaller cases. But the question many people would ask is if many of our modular synthesists today make even half as much out of the gear that we have at our disposal as they did back then. And this is not just about kinds or styles of music. Its about taking what you've got and making something worthwhile out of it. Of course, in the end we each decide whether something was worthwhile for ourselves but there is, I think, that sense we all have of knowing that we tried to achieve something beyond us with our musical gear, the sense that we have stretched ourselves. This, I think, is the criticism at the heart of the "beeps and fart noises" comments we often see and hear. And we may be able to lie to others about that. But we can't lie to ourselves about it.
Or it may be that modular synth world really is a train spotting, mending your motorcycle club. In which case its not really so surprising that people who want to make music and put some effort into it are turned away from it.