Monday, 24 October 2016

Modular Synth Monoculture?

I was sitting reading yet another thread on a modular synth forum and suddenly, quite out of the blue, a thought popped into my mind: where are all the black modular synth users? This thought began to snowball. Modular synthesists popped into my mind to be quickly replaced by others. Snippets of the hundreds of modular synth videos I must have seen replayed in my mind. They were all full of middle-aged white men. I thought of those I had interacted with over a number of years. All white guys too. Some women appeared, white ones of course, as Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Suzanne Ciani and Bana Haffar flashed through my mind. I started to think that maybe modular synthesis is just something that white guys (and a few white girls) do. And I began to ask myself why this is. Is there something about it that makes it an overwhelmingly white activity? At last I thought of a couple of black guys I knew who had modular systems, Corry Banks of BBoy Tech Report and the Beatppl podcast and Saintjoe of Both of these guys are only people I know of because of their Internet content. But, still, that's two black guys in a sea of whiteness. What's going on?

              White synth dudes Klaus Schulze and Richard Devine

I thought some more about our modular synth culture. I wondered if it is analogous to the Prog Rock of the 1970s which was, in the eyes of some, a boring, white man's cerebral music, the forerunner of Dadrock. I asked myself why so much modular music is abstract and often found on albums about space or machines or robots. Often modular music seems to be abstract musical collages (which is not a bad thing. I make them myself!). Then I noted that the two black guys I could think of who do use modular have only got into it recently and they are, if I may put it like this, two guys who are expressly interested in music technology. Both have their own Internet channels in which they do reviews of gear and talk about the gear scene. They are gearheads. So it might have been almost inevitable they would get into modular at some point since its growth in popularity is almost exponential these days. If you like synths it is becoming almost impossible to ignore and many modern fixed synth keyboards are coming out now with CV and Gate connections or even more comprehensive ways to integrate themselves with a modular synth world. So the gear angle could be a way into the modular synth world as it was for these two guys. But I wonder if the music it makes would be? Who is modular synth music appealing to?

Its fair to say that this initial thought led to a wider thinking about modular synth culture for me. You may suggest that it doesn't matter who takes part in this culture so long as they enjoy it and you may want to be critical of my observation that modular synth seems to be a largely white activity. "So what?" may be your response to that. Well, to be clear, I'm not sure what, if anything, follows from my observation here. But I think its basically a true observation and it fascinates me as to why this might be so. Modular synthesis is a very specific kind of activity which requires, for most users, a reasonable amount of money to purchase ever-increasing amounts of electronics equipment in order to take part. So, clearly, you have to be other than dirt poor in order to partake. This then filters in to a discussion of society in general and the socio-economic groupings into which various kinds of people fit. Yes, I'm sure you can see where this line of thinking is heading. Its food for thought. Its to point out that modular synthesis is not a game everyone can play. The nature of what it takes to take part is itself a limiting factor.

But I don't just think that modular synth is a matter of who can take part financially. Ask yourself who the role models and mentors of modular synth are. Historically, we have inventors like Bob Moog and Don Buchla. White guys. We have 70s musical heroes and early adopters like Morton Subotnick, Keith Emerson, Klaus Schulze and other random Germans with stacked Moogs. White guys. In the modern world its Richard Devine or Alessandro Cortini or maybe Mark Verbos with one of his techno sets. White guys. It seems that the role models, community mentors and makers are mostly white guys too. Does anyone even know some non-white makers and designers of modular synth gear? This, to my mind, all plays out in the kind of music modular synthesists make. Now its too blunt to describe this as "white music". I wouldn't even know what "white music" is. As a term this would be completely unhelpful. And yet, as I tried to describe above, it does seem to me that the music I hear coming from modular synths, made overwhelmingly by white middle-aged men, falls into some broad categories. 

I know this because I make an electronic music podcast called The Electronic Oddities Podcast and it regularly features modular synth music I've located online, primarily on Bandcamp. So I know exactly how many albums tagged "modular synth" are out there that are space themed (a lot!) and how many seem to be generally about things to do with science or technology (many of the rest). This idea, perhaps, started with Kraftwerk and their "Man Machine", and they are surely significant role models (if only in terms of the aesthetic they create) in the synthesis community and within electronic music more widely. But Kraftwerk were also an influence on early Hip Hop music and 80s Electro that was largely a music created by people of color. Everyone knows that it was a Kraftwerk riff that was lifted and used in Planet Rock by Afrika Bambaataa, for example. I've also heard guys like Detroit Techno producer, Carl Craig, talk about the effect of Kraftwerk upon the music he has made. So it seems true that music made by some white guys can crossover and influence the music made by those of other cultures too. I note that both of the black modular synthesists I could think of earlier also have backgrounds in Hip Hop and both were formerly probably much more familiar with an MPC (which Akai always seem to advertize using black musicians) than a modular synth.

So where is this discussion going? Well I think it tells me that modular synth, as a kind of gear and as a music that is made with it, is quite a narrow interest. Whether you think this is a good or bad thing, or even if you agree with this analysis, is, of course, your call to make. There was a recent discussion, started by a comment Richard Devine made about the sound of the new Behringer Deepmind 12 synthesizer, over whether there is such a thing as "the modular sound". Opinion was divided on that. Some agreed on kinds of sounds that were likely to be made by modulars (Devine himself referenced organic sounds with much movement within them if I remember correctly) whilst others wanted to say there was no such sound since a modular is so versatile it could not ever be reduced to a signature sound or sounds. And yet, if we open this out a little, it seems to be that there may be, at the very least, recurring topics and recurring sounds to accompany them. I've made mention of what I think they are (space, technology and science more generally) already. Modulars, it seems to me, lead their mostly white users down similar paths (ones that are soundscapes or bleepy bloops?). The question this makes me ask is "Is this creating a kind of narrow monoculture?" I find myself asking if an influx of people from other cultures and other musical traditions might not change the nature of the music made on modular synths. For avoidance of doubt, I don't think this would be a bad thing for I think we can all learn from each other.

If we look at music more generally we can see that certain kinds of people tend to make certain kinds of music. People progress in peer groups of like minds and like tastes. Often when one member of the group goes a certain way others notice and follow on. I put the whiteness of the modular synth grouping down to this in some respects. As I tried to show earlier, the black role models in this kind of music (or people of other, non-white ethnicities more generally) are almost totally lacking. We see this too in a gear context. A new module comes out. Someone famous gets it. You want it too. Anyone who follows modular synth forums knows which modules are the hot modules everyone is meant to have. I imagine most people reading this who have a modular system have the Make Noise Maths, for example! But these are cultural understandings that you need to be part of the group to get and I think its important, in some senses, to remember that modular synth is a culture in its own right. You do need to be an insider in many ways to fully partake of the interest itself. And that's where who makes up this community becomes interesting. For if its only one type of person, or very few types of people, then perhaps the whole is not being refreshed and energized by as many sources of potentially new ideas and thinking as it could be. 

Well, all this is just a thought. You may see my point but maybe you don't. I will sit on the sidelines and carry on observing, looking for interesting new developments and possible sub-cultures within the world of modular synthesis. I'd like to think that, as a community, we are capable of the new and of innovation and of going new ways and welcoming new kinds of people and not merely repeating the old ones or those of our heroes. It remains to be seen.

PS Since writing this blog its been brought to my attention that Richard Devine is actually of Asian descent. I obviously wasn't aware of this at the time of writing and no offence was meant by describing him above as white. I can only apologize for my ignorance.


  1. We are all the poorer for this monoculture - I read a lot of SciFi and the books outside of the "white male writer" category frequently are far more interesting and contain ideas i'd never have come across otherwise. Not sure I have a solution though - I'm not that much of a fan of online modular culture as it stands let alone in a position to influence it much.....

  2. I think this post articulates what many of us have already considered and the broad observation is completely valid. I think the technology does need to become more accessible if New Modular Synthesis is to maybe get reapropriated by other social and cultural groups outside the white middle aged demografic - and that would be a very exciting prospect indeed.

  3. I've been a modular synth composer for the past 6 years, I record under the name Voltagectrlr / Shiro Fujioka. as far as being accepted in the modular community as a person of color I have always been accepted with open arms for the most part. I was once mistaken for Robert A.A. Lowe, one of the only recognized black modular synth composers in our scene at a modular synth party, but honestly I got a good laugh out it. It's a very progressive scene and everyone is welcoming and friendly, I made a bunch of new friends in this scene. I would personally love to perform live more and work with more modular synth companies because I have knowledge and experience of other music styles that can be made with modular synths and would love to help them expand their market and demystify the process of making music with modulars. In the mean time I'm just continuing to perfect my craft and find outlets to be my uncompromised self. Great blog!