Choosing your first modules

Molten Modular 06 – Choosing your first modules

Right, this is it, no more stalling, no more talking about concepts or gateway options. We’re here, this is it, I’ve got the case and power supply all prepared. Now what the heck do I put in it?

Of course it could be argued that this is the sort of thing one should know from the beginning – from before you start out on this journey. That does make a lot of sense but it’s not entirely helpful. I don’t really know where this venture into Modular will take me – I don’t really know what I’m going to be able to produce with it and so I don’t really know what I “need” from a modular system. However, asking yourself the question – “what am I hoping to do with this stuff?” is something worth pondering for quite some time. It doesn’t have to be specific but it’s going to help you if you have some vague ideas about what you’re wanting to achieve.

So, for instance, you could be looking to make random electronic noise, you could be looking for something you could play entirely live, you could be looking for an effect processor, or something to make beats. Is it for studio use, for home messing about or potentially live performance? Are you looking to make glitchy, nasty sounds or smooth melodies – experiment sound design or traditional synthesiser – ambient soundscapes or banging techno. Or a bit of everything! Having some idea in your head will help you move forward.

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Then you need to spend some time absorbing YouTube videos of both modular wigglers playing patches and manufacturers demo-ing modules. Check out what other people use. The two best resources for this are the Modular reddit page and the Facebook Eurorack group. Both of these are constantly bombarded with little videos of someone’s latest patch and many of them might have a sound, groove or module that appeals to you. And then start reading the comments. These conversations often throw up people’s ideal modules or best choices for what they’re trying to do.

For more detailed analysis the “” forum is another great place to spend some time. The language will seem impenetrable to start with but over time you’ll grow accustomed to it and find yourself actually understanding some of it.

Next, turn your attention to other newbies. There’s a constant stream of idiots like myself asking “what should I get for my first Eurorack” on Reddit, Facebook and MuffWiggler. These are invaluable. Not just for the recommendations you’ll find in the comments but for the immense patience and generosity shown by the members of these communities.

You’ll soon start spotting commonalities, modules that turn up again and again, people with similar tastes asking the questions you’d be asking if you weren’t lurking in the background like a frightened mouse. And you’ll start to build up a picture of a handful of modules that might make for an interesting system.

Now, don’t get me wrong, you don’t have to get it all figured out, or fully grasp what’s going on. It’s just that you’re going to have a happier time putting some work into your choices rather than expecting the community to do it all for you.

Now, you could of course just buy a heck load of modular and work it out as you play with it. There’s a few sort of pre-configured systems from Pittsburgh Modular and Make Noise and others that give you a box of stuff ready to play. Erica Synths just released an amazing 84hp DIY complete modular system for €1000 – it has the lot, it’s awesome, a complete synthesizer ready to go once you’ve built it. But I don’t think that’s what you need. The whole point of this lark is to move away from pre-configured ideas and into experimental patching and discovery. Although the Erica one and others are tempting I don’t think they are going to give you the modular learning experience that we’re after – or at least what I’m after – you are welcome to fill your boots with these awesome setups.

Ok, so, enough with the babble – how do you choose your first modules? Well, all I can do is tell you what I did in the hope that it gives you some pointers. I’ve probably spent the last year thinking about it and the last couple of months actively chasing down the answer to this question. So I followed my own advice, I lurked I read I watch and I came up with a handful of facts – some realities that would shape my choices.

  1. I don’t have a lot of space – 104hp is easily filled so I want to make good, useful choices
  2. I want synthesis building blocks rather than multi-functional devices – I want a knob that does a function rather than be menu diving
  3. Sequencing will be done outside the box
  4. I’m interested in melody rather than noise
  5. I have a Moog Mother-32 – what would compliment that.

So from there I knew that I wanted to build a second traditional synth voice alongside the Mother-32. That would, to me, mean an oscillator, a VCA amplifier, an envelope, a filter and some modulation. The basic building blocks of synthesis. It’s not particularly spectacular or experimental but it’s a solid sound making starting point. Maybe I could get a third oscillator, something slightly different, maybe I could drop in some effects, or an output module, maybe a mixer …….. and it very quickly starts to inflate.

Yes yes but which modules and from whom? Well, there has to be something that tips you towards one make or another, or one module or another. When you read about modules, watch videos and demos you can get a feel for certain companies. So I knew that I wanted something from Make Noise – because they’re bonkers. I wanted something from Erica Synths because of the darkness, I like Bastl because of the wood and groovy attitude, I’ve always like the quality of Studio Electronics and was impressed by a video of them at NAMM. I know that Mutable Instruments are going to feature somewhere. So that gave me some places to look.

Asking the manufacturers

So at this point I decided to ask the advice of every Eurorack manufacturer I could think of. I swallowed my pride and asked a ridiculously impossible to answer question about how to start in eurorack. I did my best to make it not too cringey and essentially said that I had a Mother-32 and I’d just bought a 104hp case – what would they recommend I put in it in order to compliment the Moog. I was after personal opinion really, just some pointers from the people who make the stuff.

Almost without exception these people were bloody awesome. They were kind, helpful, even in the face of a stupid question. Well, everyone except 4MS who told me to go and read muffwiggler – that was it, that’s all they could offer me. Many of them gave quite general answers and of course pointed me to a number of their own modules. But a few went into stunning depth with ideas that turned into a real conversation.

Allan from AJH, the actual Allan as in Allan J Hall (AJH) seems like the nicest guy in the world. He gave me links to helpful articles, talked about my need for a second VCO and then declined to recommend his own modules because he felt he was prejudiced. He even pointed out an issue with the Mother-32 that I am actually now encountering. He could not be nicer. Igor from Happy Nerding gave me links to the same helpful articles – they are by Chris Meyer – very helpful – worth checking out.

Similarly Dieter Doepfer from Doepfer was awesome giving me an entire shopping list of modules to squeeze into my rack. One particular interesting recommendation being a wave multiplier as the Mother-32 doesn’t have that functionality. Dreadbox gave good solid recommendations based on their White Line range. Endorphin recommended Doepfer. Erica Synths were more interested in effects and modulation – they really like their Octosource. They also pointed out that as I have an analogue VCO then maybe something like their Wavetable VCO would be a good alternative. Make Noise suggested a Maths and a Wobblebug with a STO oscillator followed by some effects. It goes on and on with great suggestions, helpful links to stuff and a general sense of them thinking it was really exciting that I was jumping into this world. Intellijel, Qu-Bit, Malekko, Pittsburgh, Noise Engineering, Tiptop, WMD, Rebel Technology, Studio Electronics were all up for it.

And in many cases I was talking to the guy who runs the company. Like Justin from Abstract Data who gave me a ton of advice on how to approach it, how to think about my choices – and he doesn’t really do beginner type modules.

So yeah – what an awesome and enlightening experience.

So where was I after that? Well, not a whole lot further forward but it had confirmed for me that sticking to the basics was a good idea. Get another synth voice going, an oscillator or two, VCA, filter effects. And I’m now more inclined to go with modules by the firms that got back to me. So I’m looking at Make Noise and Erica VCOs and maybe a Doepfer envelope, a Malleko filter. I spent some time on my page mixing and matching the various recommended modules. This was getting exciting.

I mentioned ModularGrid before in my other videos but it’s worth mentioning again. It’s a place where you can build a virtual version of your Eurorack – it’s the most awesome place on the planet and I spent many hours there swapping out modules and trying different combinations and alternatives. You need to be doing that.

Asking shops

Next I decided to try a bunch of modular shops. These would be able to hopefully recommend a range of modules, rather than just one brand. Obviously that might get tempered by what they had in stock at the time but you can allow them that.

On the whole they were also really helpful. I got a lot more time and attention from the specialist shops such as London Modular and Rubadub. Others such as Juno, Thomann, KMR were all helpful and gave me links to other helpful stuff but they didn’t really engage with me. Matt from MattTech Modular insisted on a phone call and spoke to me for over an hour – we went through all sorts of stuff – what a phenomenal guy. I should also single out Absolute Music for a very detailed response and of course Red Dog Music who have been enormously helpful with this whole project.

So what did they think? Well, the most popular recommendations were Maths, from Make Noise, Clouds and Braids from Mutable Instruments. I’ve seen these three recommended constantly on forums and stuff. Maths is a weird multi-functional module that does envelope, LFO and lots and lots of deeper stuff – it’s a wide module and complex and so not something I wanted to jump into. Clouds is an awesome texture granular processor that looks like a load of fun but I don’t have the room for it right now. Braids is a really great oscillator with loads of great sound but for me, it was too big and too digital like and didn’t seem to fit the idea of modular that I was following – I didn’t want menus and selections, I wanted everything on the front panel. So I was actively trying to avoid these particular modules, not because I didn’t want them but because I wanted to start off simpler.

I took various recommendations, checked out YouTube videos and searched for them on forums. Some I disregarded on price or complexity and slowly I was making some choices.

My ModularGrid rack was starting to shape up now and I shared it with a couple of the shops I was speaking to. This gives them a much better idea about what you’re trying to do and if you’re making any silly mistakes. For instance I thought I needed a mixer and an output module in order to actually hear the sounds, but as it turns out you can get away with using a VCA – one that cascades down. So I can use something like a four channel VCA to mix my oscillators – sweet.

For the basic VCO I was leaning towards the Make Noise STO – partly because it was Make Noise, partly because it was simple and well regarded and also I’d seen that Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith had a whole bunch on her system – so count me in.

I had quite fancied the Studio electronics Quadnic as another oscillator – it had these additional oscillators going on, but read some mixed reviews and I was advised to check out the Wavetable VCO from Erica – saw a youtube video on it – sold! For the filter I wanted a Borg filter from Malekko, because it had the name “Borg” on it but I’d also seen it on Eden Grey’s system. But they only do it now in the Dual Borg which is a bit wide for my space. So I was pointed to the Erica Polivoks as an alternative. The other Erica suggestion was the Pico range – lots of good stuff in small 3hp modules.

Maths of course kept coming up. I put a Make Noise Function in my rack as a half way measure but everyone told me to replace it with a Maths. So, I guess I’m getting a Maths. I couldn’t get the conversation to move onto anything else until I’d put a Maths into my virtual rack.

So now I had a nicely full 104hp rack that seemed to make some kind of sense. 2 oscillators, a filter, a quad VCA, a Maths, an envelope, a Pico DSP, a quad LFO and a Turin machine for fun. It was time to throw myself on the mercy of the community. So with a big bunch of courage and steeling myself for the inevitable idiot mistakes I’d made I posted my ModularGrid rack onto Muffwiggler, Reddit and Facebook.

Asking the community

People just couldn’t be nicer. What a fabulous community this is. People are simply interested in what you’re doing. There’s a fair amount, I suppose, of people living vicariously through the systems of others – but it’s exciting to be part of those first choices and I think people enjoy coming up with a good basic setup. And as a bonus it really helps consolidate your rack before you blow a ton of money on it.

I got some really encouraging comments – it looked like I’d put together a half decent system. Once I put Maths in there and gave my reasons not to have Clouds and Braids the discussion turned to simpler things like the envelope, VCA and modulation options. A quad VCA like the Quad VCA from Intellijel or the Veils from Mutable was definitely a decision to make. I had put in a Doepfer envelope, but there’s a TipTop one that has CV control over the ADSR which was perhaps more interesting. The Batumi four channel LFO was a no-brainer really – 4 LFO’s in a single module without being some crazy octa Erica or Abstract Data thing. The Turin module got a lot of approval but I was advised to get a quantizer if I wanted to get actual notes out of it – hadn’t thought of that. Although the Turin machine was going to be for a DIY project later down the road.

So yeah, very quickly I was able to make a couple of substitutions and firm up my plan and before you knew it I was looking at a workable, potentially interesting 104hp rack of modular. It should play nice with my Mother-32, I was getting a Beatstep Pro for sequencing (which I’ll talk about in another video). I was pretty sorted. The price? According to ModularGrid I was looking at about 2 grand for the lot – ouch!

But every module is there for a reason, and I know why it’s there and its worth in the limited space. Also, for me, modular is all about mix and match, it’s about the aesthetic of these different styles and front panels. You have to make those choices yourself otherwise I don’t think you’ll fully appreciate what you have.

So, I ordered my modules – some from Red Dog, some from Mattech Modular, Cwmry Beats and some patch cables from Thonk.

Of course now I have this thing there’s no way this case is big enough. I’ve already had to pick up a buffered mult and an attenuator to sort out some weirdness with sequencing and I can easily fill a whole other row with interesting ideas and fabulous modules. But I shouldn’t – not yet – I have loads of learning to do on this system and I can tell you that it’s been an absolute joy putting it together – there’s no doubt, no disappointment or regret in any of it. It’s tremendous fun! Just love playing with it – it’s a mass of patch cables and I don’t really know what I’m doing yet.

I’ve made a video of when I first installed and setup the modules so you can see the final choices I made and how it all fits together.

Moving on we’ve now covered the basics and so Molten Modular will start to evolve into talking about individual modules and how to do things as I discover them. I have forthcoming videos on hardware sequencers and how to get your DAW to talk to your modular – stuff like that is all coming soon.

And I’d really like to thank everyone who has helped me along the way – the manufacturers, the modular shops, Red Dog Music, and in particular Alex at Source Distribution, Simon at MSLPro, Matt at Mattech and the good graces of the modular community who are all so willing to lend their expertise or at least an opinion. I hope that my videos will go some way towards helping more new modular people along their way.

In the meantime go and make some tunes.