Getting Started With Modular


We’ve all been there staring at a synthesist using a rack of gear full of knobs and patch cables wondering “what the heck is going on there?”. Meanwhile, amazing sounds emanate from their rig. Sometimes weird and wild sounds that would even boggle the mind of an experienced electronic music producer. Welcome to the world of modular synthesizers.

Why get into modular into modular in the first place? Well, the answer is simple. Flexibility. In a modular system, you have the freedom to decide on every single aspect of your rig. You might like the oscillator from a Juno 60, but favor the filter from a Moog, and like customizable envelopes with greater flexibility than what on a pre-made synthesizer. Modular allows you to do that. You can also create a groovebox and pull say a kick drum from either a 909 or an 808 inspired module (or both!) and do this for snares, claps, hats, etc and create your own drum machine. This is amazing and new modules are released every week. You can make a tiny rig and you can make a huge wall of a system, it’s all up to you and what you want out of it.

The first thing to think about is “what do I want this machine to accomplish?” Some goals might be a: noodling machine, an inspirational riff generator, the ultimate drum machine, an entire groovebox, a sound design monster, a portable sound design rig, a monophonic bassline generator, a polyphonic chord machine, a random melody generator, and the list goes on. For me I set out to make the ultimate techno groovebox which eventually morphed into a machine that could generate techno music hands-off (after patching of course). Granted, I don’t perform it that way, but I act as a guide to driving the machine in directions that are favorable to the dance floor. Later on I also started getting into gltichy IDM which forced my rig to expand even more. But truth be told even though my system is now sitting at 79 module across 1008 hp (horizontal pitch or the width of all of the modules together) I have had plenty of fun and thoroughly enjoy playing around with as little as 3 modules in 20hp or even less! Modular is just fun. All that being said, it can cost less with DIY kits, or it can cost a lot with boutique and rare modules. But first things first you have to decide what you want your rig to do.

After you have a goal in mind you can start researching modules on modulargrid.net and YouTube. Create an account on MG and start looking at other people’s racks. Notice certain modules come up a lot? This is no coincidence. Start researching those modules on YouTube. The next thing you can do is to build a rig in MG. This is really simple, but start with something small like a 62hp setup. This will coincide with a small case such as the Intellijel Palette 62hp powered case.

When you start looking at cases there are a plethora of options. I would recommend to start with any Intellijel or Doepfer case. These are well established manufacturers and their cases are pro grade. The only thing that is hard to do is decide how big you want your case to be. If you plan on travelling any of the Intellijel cases will work and the 6u 84hp doepfer roadcase will travel in a plane. These are good sizes to work with and even if you only start out with a few modules you will eventually fill in the space and more than likely need a bigger case. I started with a TipTop Happy Ending kit, and expanded into an Intellijel 7u 104hp case plus a 62hp Palette, which then turned into 2 104hp cases, which then turned into 4, and finally into a Doepfer Monster base and Monster case. See these cases in action here:

62hp Intellijel Palette
7u 104hp Intellijel
Doepfer Monster Base and Case

If you are unsure about eurorack (the most popular modular format referring to the height of the modules) then something like a TipTop Happy Ending kit is a great start too. All of these cases have quiet power supplies which may or may not be the case with other brands (speaking from first hand experience).

Now that you have a case you are going to need to get a few modules to make noise. For a very first module I would recommend the Pamela’s New Workout. This module actually doesn’t make any noise (unless you like clock ticks), but it can serve as a home clock which also happens to have Euclidean rhythm sequencing capabilities, LFOs, scale quantization, and envelopes built in. Some of the most fun I’ve had was trying to figure out how to make this module run as a main sequencer in my rig. Pam’s is largely underutilized in many rigs in my opinion. Next you’ll need an oscillator, a filter, an envelope, and a VCA. Now you could get all of these elements individually or you could get a “voice” which has everything built into 1 module. A few favorite voices are the BIA or Basimilus Iteritas Altar by Noise Engineering, the Erica Bassline (my fav for a modern TB-303 emulation and phatty phat basslines), Intellijel Atlantis (SH101 emulation), and many more. Search synth voice on detroitmodular.com or even better yet give them a call. This is where I get most of my gear and is the first stop when looking to buy stuff. The guys there will point you in the right direction based on your needs and budget. Lastly, you’ll need an output module to convert your modular level signal (higher voltage) into line level signal (lower voltage) otherwise you can fry or at the least highly distort signals going into your mixer/interface. You could get a dedicated line out module such as the Intellijel Outs or a huge mixer like the WMD Performance Mixer. There are many offerings for each of these categories of modules, but check around ask questions and you’ll narrow it down.

From there you have the very basics to get some sounds going. Of course you will want to start expanding, but that is largely an individual journey filled with researching, reading forums, and watching videos, but this is a start. Also, note that this approach might not be what you want to do at all. It depends on the gear you already have and the direction you want to do, but I’m just offering a starting point. In all cases, you will need a case/power source to power your rig, a sound generator or a voice, or a suite of modules to comprise a voice or affect signals, and a way to get those signals out to normal gear. Sometimes modules will have built-in line out, but you’ll have to research based on your wants and needs.

Hopefully, this helps somewhat. My progress into modular was marked with much buying and selling as I didn’t have a dedicated modular shop in my area where I could try things out. This is an ideal situation. But it can be done without. It will just take time and can sometimes be costly.

-Tom, Obscure Machines


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