Ah, patch cords.

Routing is made real when you have to physically plug one sound module into another to do anything, telephone operator-style, as on vintage modular systems from Moog and Buchla. I was never a virtuoso with cords, kept running out of the things, forgetting what was plugged into what, and could never even imagine performing onstage with cords like the Moog Modular greats. But if you’ve never played with patch cords, you’re missing out on a great experience — romanticization and hype aside.

So, if you do come across a modular system (best bet: make friends with your local university electronic music department), where would you start? The Moog manual seems to be written for engineers, if you’ve got one at all. I love the guide from the lab at the University of California Santa Cruz — incidentally, home of the best sports mascot EVER, the UCSC banana slug. Those banana slugs know their vintage synths, alright:

UCSC Guide to the Moog Modular

Short and sweet, that’s a no-nonsense guides to using each module you could probably still follow after a wild night of screaming “Go Banana Slugs!” and imbibing obligatory ambrosial undergrad beverages. For the full technical documentation, though, check out the official Moog Archives. (Navigate to Instruments > Modular Systems > Modules and go hog-wild — or slug-wild, if you prefer.)

There’s enough online to live vicariously through Moog Modulars. Witness the obsessive collection at Synth Museum, which even includes photos of Vladimir Ussachevasky’s Moog setup. “Vladamir WHO?” you say? Why, that’s none other than the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center chief who gave Moog the idea for what would become today’s ubiquitous Attack / Sustain / Decay / Release envelopes. (Ussachevasky was updating a model introduced by CDM hero Helmholtz, the 19th Century pioneer in understanding what makes instrumental sound tick.)

Patch cords live on. Sure, you could spend a zillion dollars buying a new Buchla 200e. Okay, maybe not a zillion, but expect automobile-like prices, just like the original modular systems. Instead, how about the more-capable, more-flexible, more-portable, less-retro Reaktor 5, which started shipping this week. (Reaktor I think is the best 21st Century successor to the Moog because of its focus on synthesis, though I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Max/MSP, Pd, SynthEdit, and gobs of other software takes the patching approach, as well, each with its own special strengths.) Ultimately, whether you’re using hardware or software, your ability to use patching successfully has less to do with tangible interfaces as your ability to conceive what you’re doing abstractly. Many of us went into modular systems armed with a pencil and paper to help.

So, on that note, get patching — and let us know how it goes, be you Banana Slug or Bad News Bear. (Or, if you’re REALLY unlucky, the Yankees.)

  • atomic_afro

    This is my school's (Western Washington University) electronic music studio: WWEAMS
    2X the flavor!

    I'm proud to say that I'm one of the lucky few that has had the privilege to work with a modular synth first hand (an E-MU modular no less!)

    WWEAMS Homepage


  • pollojack

    ATA: Those E-Mu's are nice, aren't they? I just graduated from UCSC as a music major/ E-Music minor. The Moog modular is no longer in use there, but their vintage E-Mu is. The school has a long history with E-Mu, as they were located in nearby Scott's Valley until very recently (about a mile from my house is their old building next to a Creative High-tech research facility). Its a shame that more University studios (UCSC's Included) are moving towards computers and soft-synths, as I feel the modular boxes give a better insight into syhthesis techniques than soft-synths such as Tassman can. I've done things with that box that I wouldn't even know how to begin recreating on a computer. Oh Well. I wonder If I can get studio time as an alumn. …

  • admin

    That's really sad. I've seen similar situations at other institutions — off the top of my head, Columbia University, Wisconsin Madison . . . places that had a reputation for electronic music. (When I was last at UW Madison, they'd nearly retired the whole lab!) Weirdly, it's students who are calling for vintage equipment — even reel-to-reel tape — to come out of mothballs. And I agree, you learn differently from this equipment. I don't necessarily agree that it's impossible to recreate sounds on a computer; most of what you can't recreate are specific sound characteristics and things like analog tuning drift, ironically, the unreliability of the gear. But the fact that programs are retiring equipment suggests to me that they don't really have a handle on what the gear is about — that instruments have to be learned and mastered. Doesn't necessarily have to be a Moog Modular, and many programs that don't have them couldn't afford to buy old equipment. But it does suggest programs are approaching latest and greatest tech as tech rather than as instruments. I know there are many people who feel that way.

    Let us know if you get on any of those modular systems. And I'll keep figuring out how the heck to master Reaktor . . . hmmm . . . 😉