Molten Modular 02 – Semi-Modular as a gateway to Modular proper

In this episode I’m going to demonstrate why I believe semi-modular to be the gateway drug to modular proper. I know, I know, we’re poised on the cliff of synthesis wanting to dive in perfectly ready to make costly mistakes – I’ve been poised there for about a year. However, 6 months ago, following some good advice and my gut feeling I got myself a semi-modular synth – it opened up a whole raft of noises, possibilities and experiences that I believe have better prepared me for modular proper. Not everyone agrees with that – there are many paths into this modular lark, but this is my one.

Here’s the video version that also includes the patching demonstration mentioned below. The text continues straight after.

What is a semi-modular?

Well, I’m going to assume that you know something about synthesizers – here’s one, the Novation Bass Station II – a fabulous little analogue mono-synth. Look it’s got an oscillator or two, an envelope, a filter, an LFO for modulation – everything you’d find on a modular system – except that it is completely stand-alone and independent. Sure it has MIDI control but there’s no opportunity for integration with other synths modules. I can’t route the oscillator out through an alternative filter – it’s all fixed internally.

This internal wiring is referred to by two seemingly interchangeable terms – normalled and normalisation. Now I believe that normalisation actually refers to a different process in audio and so I’m going to stick with “normalled” but you might find it referred to as normalising or normalisation elsewhere.

Anyway, in the Bass Station all the wired is normalled, pre-patched and fixed. A semi-modular synth is very very similar to the Bass Station, it contains all the same sort of synthesis building blocks, and they are normalled together behind the panel but – and it’s a big but – a semi-modular synth has a number of patch points that allow audio and CV to be routed out of and into the synth. This allows it to play with modular synths and is why it’s called semi-modular.

This is the Moog Mother-32, it’s arguably one of the most complete semi-modular synths you can find. If we check out the front panel we’ll find a oscillator, filter, envelope and LFO – all the same building blocks as the Bass Station. But over here we have this field of sockets. This is in Eurorack format and so the sockets are 3.5mm and take these little patch cables.

Before we get into patching I want to point out the other vital advantage of starting with a semi-modular rather than modular proper. It will always make a sound. You buy a few modules you’re going to have to work out how to power them, mount them and patch them together before you’re even going to get a sound out. That’s something we want to learn – definitely, but maybe not on our first day. First, I believe, you want a synth that’s going to sound fabulous, that you can’t wire up wrongly, that’ll teach you about patching and will still be useful if you decide that this modular lark is not for you.

Other people see it differently. Some users recommend getting straight into it because semi-modulars are limiting in what they offer, as in they are fixed. Why waste your time on it when you want to be building your own synthesizer. That’s all fair enough, you can go that way, but for me it was too big a step and so semi-modular provided me with a sensible, small investment option that would always be awesome. And it’s a Moog for gods sake.

I’ve loved it from day one so for me it was definitely the right choice.

There are a number of excellent semi-modular synths out there and here’s some that I would recommend checking out. The Dreadbox Erebus – this little box is a load of fun. Works exactly as you expect, sounds great, very playable and has a delay unit built in which instantly gives it a lot of bounce. Make Noise 0-Coast – now there’s no explaining this box of noises. It doesn’t work like anything I’ve ever used before and none of the controls are familiar – it doesn’t even have a filter. But bugger me the noises it can make – it just rips a smile across your face. The Lifeforms SV-1 from Pittsburgh Modular is a more serious affair, totally ready for Eurorack and doesn’t treat you like an idiot. Although the Mother-32 was the sensible choice the 0-Coast is mad, bad and bonkers choice – it’s wonderful. The only problem is that I don’t really understand it so although I seem to have accidentally purchased one I’m going to pretend that I don’t have it just in case someone asks me a question about it that I can’t answer. The Erebus is the cheapest at around £429, the others are all around the £600 mark.

Honestly, if I had three of those I could be perfectly happy enjoying them, learning how to patch them together and would probably never need to go further with this whole modular business. They are easy, they work, they make noises, they offer a certain amount of cross modulation and patching, they don’t require fiddling around with cases or power supplies and you already know how to play them. So if you have doubts about this whole modular journey – get one of each and be happy.

However, if, like me, you are determined to push all the way into modular then I would recommend getting a Mother-32. Why – because it’s a Moog! Well not just that. It sounds great, it has an awesome filter and architecture that I already understand. It has a built in keyboard and sequencer – so it can generate sounds and sequences all on its own. There’s a fair bit of complexity behind the sequencer as well – you can store 64 sequences, tie notes, change keys and run up to 32 notes. It has a MIDI input so it will fit into your existing system and a proper, regular jack sized line output. And here’s the clincher – it can be dropped into a Eurorack case – Moog even do 2 and 3 tier cases to match it. So when you make the jump to modular you can put the Mother-32 in the case and take it with you. The 0-Coast and Erebus can’t really do that.

On the down side it’s 60hp wide, which is a lot of hp dedicated to a single device. It costs around £600 and there’s also a healthy second hand market in them because a lot of people start with them and then sell them when they move deeper into modular – that is always an option.

So, let’s look at a little bit of patching.

You’ll find this in the video.

Summing up

So there you have it – be smart – get yourself a semi. It’s less scary, probably cheaper and easier because you’re not having to deal with cases and power supplies (yet) and if you go no further you’ve still got a flippin’ awesome synthesizer to play with.

There’s on more step I want to show you before I finally take the plunge – and that’s having a look at a software Modular synth by Softube. That’s my next video – coming any time now.

I hope that’s been useful and in the meantime – go make some tunes.