Hi folks,

I'm new to modular and ModularGrid, but I'm a longtime musician, and familiar with VST-based synthesis.

I have a couple questions I would love to hear advice on from you experienced modular synthesists!

My near-term goal with modular is to have a system that will be deep and fun to use for making interesting EDM bass and lead sounds -- sounds with a lot of intrinsic appeal and interest AND subtle change to them over time that can keep interest or be used structurally in a song (as in the case of an evolving lead that reaches its "fullest" version at the "drop"). As a musical example, think of some of Deadmau5's feature sounds.

***Questions: what types of modules would you recommend for a system like this? What is a good ratio of modules (e.g. OSC vs. filters vs. control signals vs. VCAs, etc.) in this type of system? (And last, less importantly but I'm still curious about this) are there favorite modules that you might recommend for a system like this?

For reference, we can imagine a 9U 84HP rig (~252 total HP) as a likely case setup.

I'm asking these questions because as a modular newbie:
-- I'm concerned I may wayyyyyy over-index on certain module types, especially oscillators and filters
-- I'm concerned I may miss certain important module types (things important to modular but that I wouldn't immediately think of, having come from software synthesis)
-- more broadly, I don't want my approach and experience with modular to be dominated (and limited) by my prior experience with soft-synths; I want to get into what makes modular great

My base-case assumptions are I would need:
-- 1 or more interesting Oscillator module
-- 1 or more interesting filter
-- CV sources including envelope, LFO, and random
-- a reasonable # of VCAs, mixers, and mults
-- modules for MIDI in (or sequencer) and audio out

To me, this thread is an interesting question: what module types and #s to include to get the most sound-design depth and power out of a total ~252HP rig for EDM bass and leads? I hope you also find this interesting and look forward to reading your replies.



Hi Nicholas

some thoughts that might help!!!

keep percussion out of the rack - ie use a drum machine

for a 9u 84hp consider 3 or 4 voices as a decent target - and in that size case I find it hard to justify more than 1 type of sequencing - pick midi-cv, a dc coupled audio interface (cv direct from computer, eg expert sleepers es8 or 9), a traditional sequencer (metropolis or the like) or generative (something like bloom or marbles) - if you must have more than 1 then consider 1 of them being outside the rack - a beatstep pro for example, or an sq1, or cv.ocd

in 252hp you have enough space to ignore small modules as much as possible and go for ergonomics over trying to cram stuff in

a single voice may be made up of some vcos - if more than one (or more than 1 output on a single vco) then a sub mixer will probably also be needed, some audio modifiers (filters, delays, reverbs, wavefolders etc etc) and the modulation and utility modules that are needed to support those modules

NB you can also get some modules that are complete voices - for example plaits can be used as a complete voice as it has an internal lpg (combination of vca and filter) or you can choose to bypass those and use external ones

then there are the modules that are needed to support these voices together - more mixers and other utility modules - possibly more effects - end of chain reverb is nice as a minimum to bring everything together

vcas are probably one of the most important types of utility module - get more than you think you need - make sure you have both linear and exponential (possibly in the same module) - linear is good for cv, exponential is good for audio - and audio can easily eat up 2 vcas per voice - one to open and close it and one to increase gain over time, perhaps - modulation can eat up a lot of vcas too - say you decide to use 2 modulation sources - you may want to modulate both of these modulation sources so that they do not happen all the time - another 2 vcas are needed for that - want to patch an auto-panner so that a mono signal is panned across the stereo field over time - mult the audio signal to 2 vcas (one outputs to L, one outputs to R) and use an lfo and an inversion of that lfo to open and close them - vcas can also be used with other utility modules to patch compressors

matrix mixers are a great way of expanding modulation sources - take mults of modulation sources and patch to modulation mixer, you now have 4 more related modulation sources (that can be mixed to your taste) - I'm in the use fewer modulation sources and more utilities to get more, complex modulation camp, as opposed to the more modulation sources and less utilities for the same thing camp - modulation and utility should take up about 50% of the rack (if you want a balanced rack imo)

a good starter set is - a sound source (a vco), a sound modifier (a filter or delay), a modulation source (I really like maths as a starter modulation source - as it is a great learning tool - see illustrated manual for more details), a way to play (see above) and a way to listen (I would use a quad cascading vca for this - and whatever adapter cables you need to take to the output from that to whatever you want to listen with - to a mixer, headphones, audio interface etc etc basically whatever you have already!) - and a basic starter set of utilities - I like links, kinks and shades as a relatively inexpensive and fully functional start - although any combination of modules with their functions will do nicely

I'd recommend starting slowly and then growing organically from there - ie some of what you want/some of what you need and only getting new modules after learning what you already have - experiment with and reesearch the modules you have and are thinking of buying - maybe a second filter before a second vco - because some filters can self-oscillate and so be used as a vco

after that I would look to adding a second voice (you can integrate one piece at time easily using mults and mixers)

at this point I strongly recommend getting a tuner - either on your phone or a guitar pedal or in rack - so that the 2 voices can be in tune with each other - instead of discordant - unless that is what you want - you may want this earlier if for example you are playing with other instruments - or have perfect pitch and find out of tune notes jarring

and then an end of chain mixer (possibly out of the rack) and some more effects - before adding any more sound generation options

I would also consider buying the book Patch and Tweak - as it is a good starting resource for learning about modular (and modules)

"some of the best base-level info to remember can be found in Jim's sigfile" @Lugia

Utility modules are the dull polish that makes the shiny modules actually shine!!!

sound sources < sound modifiers < modulation sources < utilities

Jim, thanks for your ideas above, those are super helpful and interesting! Good food for thought, I will mull this over some more.

I find particularly interesting and useful your comments i) "modulation and utility should take up about 50% of the rack" ii) "matrix mixers are a great way of expanding modulation sources" and iii) "I'm in the use fewer modulation sources and more utilities to get more, complex modulation camp" -- great advice for a newbie like me!

Any additional folks from the forum want to add to the thread? (Hope so!)

Thanks all! Nicholas

great advice, perhaps - but don't take them as set in stone! more vague guidelines! do what works for you in the long term...

"some of the best base-level info to remember can be found in Jim's sigfile" @Lugia

Utility modules are the dull polish that makes the shiny modules actually shine!!!

sound sources < sound modifiers < modulation sources < utilities

Well, if the build is supposed to be in a 3 x 84 A-100 cab, then...
ModularGrid Rack
Following on from some of Jim's suggestions (notably the voice division), here we've got THIS:

Top row: This is "voicing". An A-119 provides an external audio input with envelope following. Then a buffered mult (six VCOs, so...yeah, it's needed) followed by a Ladik Gated Slew Limiter for portamento. Voice 1 (or more) consists of a Doepfer Quad VCO feeding a Veils clone, with a Doepfer Mini Stereo Mixer after that to spatialize the VCOs before they hit the Ikarie, a stereo VCF from Bastl. Voice two(ish) is built from a pair of Noise Reap VCOs in the Paradox, then these feed to an Intellijel Bifold before hitting either a WMD Overseer stereo VCF or a pair of LPGs in the Make Noise LxD. Or you can use both, making the LxD function as just a dual opto VCA.

Middle row: Modulation sources. A Doepfer S&H/Noise module starts at left, then a dual Tides clone from Tesseract handles the slow modulation. Maths is next, then the MISO allows you to screw with mixing/inverting/scrambling the modulation signals over the whole row. A 3xVCA then provides amplitude control over the modulation when needed. Two EGs after this...one is Intellijel's Quadrax (with the Qx), and the other is a dual ADSR from Doepfer.

Bottom row: Timing/sequencing/output. A Konstant Labs PWRchekr lets you keep tabs on your DC rails. I then went with a Temps Utile for the master clock and subsequencing. After this are a number of modules for screwing with timing: Doepfer Clock Divider, Ladik Dual Probabilistic Skipper, Ladik Dual Pulse Delay, Doepfer Boolean Logic, and a WMD Tool Box. Following that is an Erica Pico SEQ2, a four-step CV sequencer that can be used in numerous ways along side the 8-step Qu-bit Octone, which also has internal quantizing. The Shakmat Sum/Dif then allows you to add/subtract CV levels...also quite useful with the SEQ2. Following that, we get into a couple of effects processors: a Tiptop ECHOZ stereo delay, and Happy Nerding's multiFX FX Aid XL. Four more VCAs in another Veils clone provides audio level control to the Listen Four Quarters's inputs. That mixer has two stereo ins, two pannable mono ins, and balanced 1/4" outs in addition to a headphone preamp.

This build is more about providing many potential routings than a simple "it does this", however. It's just as suitable for outright experimentation as it is for "mission-specific" patches; in fact, with the amount of modulation/clocking potential here, you could even steer this into generative territory with very little in the way of underimplementation issues. But considering that this has as many as THREE potential CV/gate sequencers (one's hiding in the Temps Utile), six VCOs, stereo OR mono routings...well, you'll have some real trouble trying to exhaust this sucker's capabilities. Note, also, that the VCFs both feature cutoff controls that have ample room for live tweaking even with the general density of the overall build. Should keep you busy for a hot minute...

Thanks Lugia, a very interesting and detailed reply!

Most of those modules are not familiar to me. But after 60+ minutes and 2+ beers during review time, I think I'm getting the general idea and module layout.

A lot to think about -- I appreciate your + Jim's responses! End of day here. I'll add to this thread or others if additional ideas / questions come up. Thanks!

@Lugia I'm again reviewing your very interesting rack and comments above. I've had to look up most modules as they were not already familiar to me.

The general architecture of this rack, I've used as inspiration for my latest rack design (in a thread posted earlier today).

What I'm still not understanding about the rack above is how i might use the bottom row units left of Echoz in a rig that I'm mainly using as a mono synth for EDM style pitched (no percussion) parts. Specifically, I'm not easily imagining use cases for significant clocking plus clock division / skipping / clock delay.

What I CAN sort of imagine is getting a complex mix of gates and voltage into the quantizer, and having that drive note events instead of a standard sequencer. Maybe that is what is considered "generative" or "complex sequencing?" That is not how I normally think about about composition BUT it has some very intersting implications which remind me of my favorite works by Schillinger. May be fun and rewarding for me to explore in modular!

In any event, the demo build you offered above is very interesting and I wanted to ask what are your likely use cases for those bottom row modules that are still rather mysterious to me.

Thanks again for your very interesting comments and ideas!

Yeah, it's VERY Schillinger! And yes, that gets further into the "complex control orders" methods, where you've got a module that outputs something, but that module is controlled by a couple of others, which in turn are governed by something else, etc.

For a good example of the sort of thing that this can do in analog, I'd suggest a listen to Four Tet's "New Energy". While the melodic parts there are definitely done with MIDI sequencing, by using complex timing alterations and "deep order" control, you can arrive at similar structures in the analog domain. And yeah, it takes some time and exploration to sort out, but the reward far outweighs the effort needed.

Okay, "complex control orders" or a hierarchy of controls with, for example, background / midground / foreground cycles plus one or more "lens" or "reader" cycles that selects (promotes) events from the total control hierarchy. In scheme, this makes sense. In practice, I'm sure I'd have a lot of details to work out!

Curiously, this intersects a lot of my favorite ideas from various music / compositional theorists. While I would like to explore this in modular, that will likely take a good chunk of future time and $s.

DOES ANYONE KNOW OF A GOOD IN-DAW CONTROL EVQUIVALENTS to this kind of hierarchical / generative CV scheme? That is something I'd like to dig into further immediately. I'VE REALLY looked for a way to implement this before, but the best I could come up with is some nested MIDI chains and routings in Bitwig (Bitwig, unlike Live 10 and prior, will do many to one or one to many MIDI send / receive configuirations). That works so so, but is pretty fussy to implement and leaves much to be desired. I tried Symbolic Composer (SCOM) but found that a miss for my purposes and tastes. The one-to-one (one finger, one keyboard key; one mouse click, one DAW sequencer cell) control relationship in composing is something I'd really like to break in my workflow, moving towards many to one and one to many control schemes (e.g. hierarchical schemes). It does sound like there's a pathway to do this in analog modular BUT I would love also working DAW-based approach if possible!

This is a significant tangent -- maybe enough to start a new thread on. But let's see if some interesting responses flow in here.

BTW the Four Tet New Energy sounds great to me!! Really cool.

Thanks again Lugia.


Live works admirably here, as long as it's the FULL version with Max for Live. That one addition unlocks a lot of the hidden power under Ableton's hood, and since you can define LOTS of possible operations/routings/etc via Max, it's sort of a unique situation. But it's VERY easy to set up all sorts of "sneaky" send/return signal paths with M4L objects. With that, I can set up lots of actions that are basically nonrepeating, yet which follow clear musical patterns as a work plays.

Hmm, I do have the full version of Live 11 and Bitwig Studio.

I had kind of given up on the complex control scheme / complex routings in Live and Bitwig; when I tried that seriously ~2 years ago, it was so klunky, I couldn't get it to work smoothly in a way that wasn't a nightmare for me.

But NOW I have a much faster computer and the more recent Live / Bitwig suites may have better utilities / performance on this front. AND you say you are getting interesting / easy results on this front. I will have to go back to the DAWs to try again. Thanks for the pointer re Live + Max!

I had kind of given up on the complex control scheme / complex routings in Live and Bitwig; when I tried that seriously ~2 years ago, it was so klunky, I couldn't get it to work smoothly in a way that wasn't a nightmare for me.
-- nickgreenberg

Yeah, Live is a bit of a resource hog. I never have significant issues running it, though...but the machine it resides on is a bit "non-standard". It's an H-P Z620 with dual 8-core Xeons @ 2.6 GHz, 32 GB RAM.

The rationale behind using this sort of platform revolves SOLELY around thruput. Having seen how other platforms with less cores (but more speed) deal with Live 10 and upwards, I opted to get a machine that had as many cores as I could get within a certain budgetary constraint...and I found these refurbed on Newegg and knew that if the parallel processing didn't bog the machine down (which I didn't expect to happen), this would BLOW SMOKE. And sure enough, it does. I can still crash it, but it takes a project with LOADS of tracks, well over 50-60 active plugins, and a ton of automation lanes to get it to choke. VSTs that are extremely processor-intensive can be a problem as well...such as with Arturia's Sound Easel emulation, but these sorts of VSTs will bottom-out pretty much ANY machine unless it's a real screamer.

Upshot is that if you can get buttloads of processor cores, Live purrs like a kitten. And that Z620 is what was referred to as a "virtualization workstation", which is not quite like a regular PC, but is a machine that was optimized for VR emulation...which ALSO requires tons of thruput. The choice was kinda obvious.

I went in a similar direction workstation-wise, a year ago, updating my main music PC to a Threadripper 3rd Gen 32-core 64 thread build. The current mobo would host the 64 core Threadripper if needed, but I'm nowhere close to bottoming out the current hardware. Tasks that used to cripple my old old old workstation now barely move the needle on my new workstation. Some software will overload a single core and cause the machine to bog down; I'm not an engineer, but in this instance I would say "the software is slow" or at least not built to leverage the power of a multi-core machine. For example MAAT's TheEQ Orange, which sounds gorgeous, will slow down even my beast machine, which I attribute to mainly to inherent latency in the plugin.

All considered, the musical tasks that used to make me want to blow my brains out screaming at my computer, now these barely register, if at all. That means there's still a lot of "I used to try to do X" I have to get back to, all while learning new capabilities in latest Live and Bitwig versions, not to mention I've now dipped into analog modular!

Oh, how music continues to teach me humility! Out of the vast expanse of what I want to do in music--facing the limits of my current abilities, my capacity to learn, and my time--I get just a taste.

Well, if you want a "brain explode" moment...back when the initial work was getting done on VCV Rack, I'd DLed the package around the 0.5-ish version range. Install, fire it up, load modules, start screwing around, and...CRASH CRASH CRASH.

Naturally, I was a bit peeved, but it WAS still in beta after all. So, taking care to watch the widget that I use to track core use and load, I fired it up again. And yep...CRASH...but THIS time, I'd been watching the widget and was more than slightly horrified!

The app had ZERO multithreading capability. It was totally incapable of utilizing multicore architecture. I was a little dumbfounded, so I went over to the user forum and pointed out that it wasn't capable of being used in that way, which seriously crippled the capability of the app. What I got next was a snarky post along the lines of "you musicians don't understand programming...you don't know what's needed for multicore support"...etc etc etc. Huh.

Time passes, and finally VCV gets out of beta. And I had a fresh look...and sure enough, one of the first new features waaaaaas...

...multithreading. It's nice when you're right, even if it takes some time to prove the point. But had the developers stuck to their guns on this, VCV would be a footnote, and NOT a reliable workhorse. I didn't see the point in not supporting multithreading, given how much of a processor load the betas would put on the single core they'd have access to, and thankfully they got the point eventually, too.

Honestly, I won't really be satisfied with computers until I can finally have a room-temp quantum setup...whenever that happens. Even at 32 threads, I know I'm pushing the hell out of the Z620 on some of my Ableton productions, and eventually, there will be that need for MOAR!

Live works admirably here, as long as it's the FULL version with Max for Live. That one addition unlocks a lot of the hidden power under Ableton's hood, and since you can define LOTS of possible operations/routings/etc via Max, it's sort of a unique situation. But it's VERY easy to set up all sorts of "sneaky" send/return signal paths with M4L objects. With that, I can set up lots of actions that are basically nonrepeating, yet which follow clear musical patterns as a work plays.
-- Lugia

What are some M4L devices you'd recommend??

@AudioResearch, @Lugia, as recent posts in this thread have morphed into a somewhat different topic, I've continued the discussion in a new thread:

"modular generative / control schemes and DAW equivalents" at https://www.modulargrid.net/e/forum/posts/index/9906

There @AudioResearch I've given you a response based on my current best perspective, and also included by link the several related threads / comments from @Lugia

Thanks all!