The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

The Quietus Essay

On The Way To The Peak Of Modular: Bobby Barry On Synth Overload
Robert Barry , August 18th, 2015 09:56

On the tenth anniversary of the death of Bob Moog, Bobby Barry jumps in at the deep end with a Modular System 55. But has he left his inaugural dabble too late?

Happening upon a Moog Modular System 55 in the choir room backstage at the Barbican is a little like finding the console of the Tardis in a school broom cupboard. Unplugged and seemingly abandoned under strip lights, amidst stacked chairs and trestle tables, it seems almost comically incongruous. It is as if it had just burst through some inter-dimensional wormhole or been hastily stuck onto reality by some inept cosmic collagist.

I’m here to meet a man named Finlay Shakespeare but he hasn’t arrived yet (not, as it turns out, his fault). Somehow I seem to have bluffed my way past Fort Barbican’s line of defences anyway and found myself here, alone, and gazing upon this dormant beast clothed in blue plastic switches and walnut panelling, this lost altar piece from a tribe that worshipped electricity. I am a little in awe.

But when it was first released in 1973, the System 55 was already something of an albatross. Wendy Carlos’s Switched On Bach had made Moog famous and the company had scored a huge hit with the Minimoog in 1970. It was small, portable, easy to use, and relatively cheap. The System 55, released three years later, was none of these things. Moog’s own innovation had effectively rendered it obsolete in advance. After all, why mess about with patch cords and signal paths when you could just plug in and play?

Before long, Bob Moog himself would be forced to sell his share in his own company. In 1977, he would quit the company altogether, disgusted by the mismanagement of its new owners.

Fast-forward some four decades. Today, the public’s appetite for analogue equipment seems almost unquenchable. In 2002, Moog regained the right to the name Moog Music and started making Minimoogs again, following that up with the Little Phatty in 2006, the last synthesizer designed by Moog himself before his death the previous year.

But even as Moog kicked into gear on the all-in-ones, a strange new desire was ripening in Europe. For around the same time that Moog set about making synths again, a shop opened up in Berlin, in a building once occupied by the daily newspaper of the GDR. Schneider’s Buero specialised in precisely the kind of electronic equipment that consumers had turned their backs on in the 1970s: modules, each one separate and distinct, capable of almost infinite possibilities of recombination and reconfiguration. The key to this resurgence lies in the adoption of a standard. The name of that standard is Eurorack.

When I interviewed Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory last year he compared the Eurorack standard to the “International Space Station” in comparison to what he termed the “arms race of synthesizers” in the 1960s and 70s, when different companies all competed to top each other and dominate the market.

First adopted by Doepfer with their A-100 system in 1995, Eurorack is based on pre-existing standards for lab equipment. It amounts to a spec for a series of building blocks, each one 5.25 inches tall, taking 12 volts of power (sometimes +5v), and connected up using jack plugs the same size as the connector between your earbuds and your iPod. In this way, separate devices from different manufacturers, each doing one thing – a signal generator, a filter, a reverberation unit, a pattern sequencer – can all be hooked up together and work seamlessly. “Suddenly,” as Gregory put it, “something made in Japan can plug into something from Germany can plug into something French and they’re all talking to each other.”

For several years Doepfer were the only company using the standard. All the old 70s modular stuff – Moog and its peers from Gregory’s “arms race” – used bigger plugs and bigger panels. Then just before the turn of the century, a British company called Analogue Systems went Eurorack too. A few more years passed and then another company joined the fold: Voxglitch, closely followed by Plan B, Livewire, Cwejman… All of a sudden, the momentum seemed unstoppable.

Carlo Krug from Schneider’s Buero reckons that the last few years have seen a three- or four-fold increase in the amount of manufacturers bringing out Eurorack modules. One poster on the Muff Wiggler forum, where various correspondents have been trying to put together a timeline of Eurorack history, suggested that the number has risen so sharply in recent years that, “in 2045 the curve will go completely vertical. The modules will start making themselves.”

For a long time there have been two basic clichés about electronic music-making. The first states that anyone can do it – no need for any talent or creativity because the machines do all the work for you. The other says that the machines are so complex and so alien that only a technical genius will be able to do anything worthwhile. Despite their relationship of mutual contradiction, these two dictums have somehow failed to cancel each other, persisting through various mutations from the earliest electronic instruments a century ago to our own digital present.

That’s why I’ve come down to the Barbican. To see if we can prove either one or the other – or both – wrong. The system has been at the Barbican for a few weeks, with artists including Simon Fisher Turner (pictured blow with Finlay) and Gazelle Twin all turning up to have a play. But what can an idiot like me do with a Moog given an hour or so’s free rein?

Finlay Shakespeare, when he turns up, proves to be an affable young man in blue jeans and a sports watch. He has ended up caretaker and technical support for the Moog Sound Lab through the good offices of his former lecturer on the University of Surrey’s music tech course, Tony Myatt. Now he finds himself appearing on stage with Suicide and booked to play at Womad and the whole thing has clearly floored him. He’s like a man suddenly granted dreams he never knew he had, bewildered by his own good fortune. As soon as he arrives he starts diligently plugging things in. Coloured lights flicker into action.

The thing is, as Finlay set about plugging in patch leads, sending square wave signals to filter banks and random signals through envelope generators, he would explain what he was doing and it made sense to me. I could follow, mentally, the path of the sound wave from the oscillator through the filters and so on. And it sounded gorgeous, warm and resonant like a massaging foam bath of sound. He really seemed to know what he was doing. It was like watching someone driving. Someone, that is, who can drive. They’re not going anywhere in particular, but the ride is smooth and there are plenty of nice things to look at out the window.

Yet somehow when I had a go, all that went out the window. It was like watching me driving. I managed to summon up a persistent buzz, like the kind of buzz you get when one of your speakers isn’t working properly – “I can’t break it, can I Finlay?” I kept asking. “I mean, there’s no combination of leads in sockets and knobs turned up to eleven that will somehow make the whole thing go up in smoke?” He tried to reassure me. Eventually I got rid of the buzz, replacing it with a sort of flickering. For long periods of time there was just silence. Frantically I would patch things and switch things and turn things and nothing would happen.

None of this is particularly surprising, of course. After all, I am an idiot. And I only had an hour-and-a-half to learn a highly evolved and complex system with many component parts. But that time did seem to fly past. Like mice in a laboratory maze given a switch that will sometimes – but only sometimes, and seemingly at random – result in the distribution of treats, I found myself drawn in and suckered by this contraption. It teased me with its endless possibilities and I longed to learn its secrets. Before I knew it – and much to my surprise – the time had run out and I had to dash off to collect a large quantity of tea from a man in North Acton.

Still, my curiosity had been piqued. I wanted to know more about this strange new world. Maybe I had caught the bug? I had heard about this. One tweak of an LFO and the next thing you know your home has been re-wallpapered by shiny silver units with blinking lights and your letter box is crammed full of letters from the bank saying, what are you doing? Stop spending money! Undeterred, I caught the train to Hackney Wick to visit a shop called London Modular.

Housed in a little side room to a record shop, its walls decorated with posters explaining how to programme classic tracks like ‘Planet Rock’ on a Roland Tr-808 drum machine, London Modular has been selling synth modules to an eager market for just over two years now. There I met Simon Lynch, one of the shop’s three proprietors (along with Gavin Pykerman and Phil Ventre), who told me that since then they’ve seen their customer base expand “to the extreme. It was steadily building in a linear kind of slope but now it’s gone a lot steeper, over the last two years.”

Simon, Gavin, and Phil had all been modular users for years before they opened the shop, making pilgrimages to Schneider’s in Berlin or ordering stuff blind off the internet and hoping for the best. “So it seemed correct,” he tells me, to take the plunge and open a physical shop, since “so many people in London have systems now. We’re happy to get people in and get them up and running and then let them figure the rest out themselves.”

For Lynch, the difference between the old Moog systems and some of the newer Eurorack modules goes beyond just the difference in jack plug. Even back in the 60s, there was already a division opening up between the so-called ‘East Coast’ approach to synthesis, epitomised by Moog, and the ‘West Coast’ school of inventors like Donald Buchla and Serge Tcherepnin. The former tends to be based on ‘subtractive synthesis’, whereby a particularly resonant sound source like a sawtooth wave or a white noise generator can have different frequencies filtered out to produce new sounds. Things tend to have one function and one output and it’s largely eared towards being played with a keyboard.

Buchla and Serge did things differently. They made synths controlled by touch pads and joysticks with weird and wonderful modules bearing named like ‘Multiple Arbitrary Function Generator’ or ‘Source Of Uncertainty’. Such machines have always been crazy expensive but, according to Lynch, new manufacturers like Make Noise and Wiard are “making the Buchla end of things more available now.”

In fact, the possibilities, today, are virtually unlimited. East coast, west coast, analogue, digital. With so many companies entering the fold and so many new modules coming out, there’s little that can’t be done – and if it isn’t doable now, then someone will probably invent a new module to deal with it soon. It’s not like the 80s when a few big companies vied to dominate the field. As Lynch says, “there’s a huge DIY scene,” and even many of the more established names like Make Noise remain small operations with few employees. Grassroots, experimental, infinitely expandable. What’s not to like, right?

But somehow I remain a little suspicious. Maybe I’ve been to too many gigs where a lone male performer (and somehow it always seems to be a man – Lynch admits women amount to only about 5% of their customers and Carlo Krug said much the same) whips out a suitcase full of shiny metal panelling and starts noodling away, seemingly oblivious to the crowd at his feet. After a while I would start to feel like I’m intruding on a moment that might have been better kept private. Late last year, after a particularly uninspiring set by Keith Fullerton Whitman, I speculated in a review for The Wire that we may be approaching ‘peak modular’.

When I raise this sense of saturation with Simon Lynch he is, quite naturally, prickly.

“Modular isn’t a style. It’s a technical approach,” he insists. And he’s right, of course. But any technical approach, no matter how flexible in principle, will nevertheless encourage certain types of use over others. There will be easy goals that require little effort but sound superficially impressive and thus possess an almost irresistible allure to the performer. You can do almost anything with the Max/MSP programming language but there are still certain easily recognisable manoeuvres that acted as tells – to the point, almost, of cliché – as Max became a more and more common performance tool during the 00s.

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” he grants, somewhat reluctantly, “I can spot a Max patch. I suppose when people start with modular, if they get a case and go out and do a gig 28 days later, it might end up sounding a bit samey same.” But the crucial thing, he repeatedly stresses, is that getting into this stuff is “identical” to learning any other kind of musical instrument, “You need to play with it everyday.”

Carlo Krug at Schneider’s had said much the same thing when I asked him if he ever worried about synth modules becoming another hipster fashion accessory. “You can never really be safe,” he wrote via email, “it’s a very young and very mixed market. For the future I think people will learn to play it more like an instrument – and it really does need lots of time to learn and master your machine. It’s always easy to get a good tone out of something – but to really play it is another world.”

It reminds me of something Finlay Shakespeare had said, back at the Barbican. His advice, if you wanted to start getting into modular synthesizers, was to start off with just one, very simple module and don’t get another until you have completely mastered all the possibilities it contains.

Such an approach resembles that of the modernist composer György Ligeti in the early 1950s. Pianos, by that time, had become such a cliché of the bourgeois sitting room that people were competing to smash them up at county fairs. But Ligeti determined to start from scratch.

His Musica Ricercata, composed between 1951 and 1953, consists of eleven short solo piano pieces. The first contains only one note – until right at the last minute when a second is introduced. The next piece has three notes, the next four, and so on. The process is systematic, somewhat pedantic, but the results are extraordinary – you can hear an extract from it in the most fraught moments of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.

Taking things step by step, experimenting and trying everything, Ligeti – along with contemporaries like John Cage and David Tudor – was able to found a new life for piano music, and a new future for music-making generally.

“Standard ideas of music,” Simon Lynch shrugged, towards the end of our conversation, “– they're obviously very important, but they're not of that much interest to me. I would be looking forward, for something new.”