In action, a Eurorack module by superb builder MakeNoise, with whom we caught up in March in a get-together in Austin, Texas. Photo (CC-BY-SA) Andreas Wetterberg.

Modular music making is a throwback to the early days of electronic music, in which a spaghetti of patch cords is the price of open-ended sound creation. Fairly or unfairly, it has often been viewed as the domain of the eccentric wealthy musician. You needed cash, endless patience, and lots of space – well, unless you happened to be lucky enough to pick up a vintage modular as people were getting rid of them.

But something has happened: modules have become more practical and accessible. Like any music technology, they can become a rabbit hole into which time and money fall and no music escapes. But also like any music technology, there are ways of bending these tools to your will, applying fiscal and creative discipline to make them musically productive.

Enter the “desktop modular” revolution. Modules are cheaper and more usable. It’s easier than ever to assemble a rig of modular that coexists with your digital gear, be it MIDI hardware or computers. That means just a select set of modules within your budget (and available physical space) could find a place. And modules are more innovative and fun than they’ve been in the past, too. They merge digital and analog tech – just as this site has loved doing (despite our name) over the years.

And just as suddenly, that spaghetti entree starts to look delicious.

I can’t say I’ve personally found room for this kind of gear, but I’ve enjoyed watching the evolution of new equipment. And over the past few months, I’ve witnessed a bumper crop of terrific new modules. It’s time to survey some of that fertile landscape, as 2011 winds to a close. Here are a few of my favorites, sure to inspire other nominees from readers. And I imagine this adds fresh cause to venture into the basement stalls of the Winter NAMM music manufacturer trade show in Anaheim next month, where these sorts of less-mainstream devices flourish.

Notably, these modules all work with the ‘small’ Eurorack (A100) format. German maker Doepfer Musikelektronik popularized this format, and it has since taken off. In fact, that puzzled quite a few readers when Moog’s re-entry in modular eschewed that format. (That may be their loss.) But Moog ladder filters aside, there has been plenty of action in the Eurorack space.

An image from the Bay Area Meet in San Francisco, California, USA. Photo (CC-BY-SA) George P. Macklin.

Utility: Kenton MIDI-to-CV and More

Kenton’s Modular Solo is about as nice a utility knife as you could add to a modular rig, for integrating lots of different gear. Plug it in via ribbon cable, and you get:

  • MIDI in and out
  • SYNC 24 (“DIN SYNC” – think 808 and 606 drum machine sync)
  • CV analog and gate output
  • Two clock outs, four aux outs (think assigning MIDI to filter cutoff, etc., says Kenton)
  • And an LFO – triangle, saw up and down, square, S&H pulse width with several fixed widths

£195.00, though all the extras there easily could make it worth it.

Utility: Expert Sleepers ES-4 Modules

Expert Sleepers’ ES-4 is the latest of their modules, turning a standard S/PDIF signal into five channels of control voltage. Coupled with their Silent Way software, you can also use it for MIDI, only with sample-accurate timing. That makes it a sample-accurate MIDI interface, if you like. (See video at top for a MIDI demo.) You can turn three of those five outputs into any signal you like – gate, envelope, LFO, and so on.

Where do you get that S/PDIF output? Well, lots of audio interfaces have them, and many computers – including recent MacBooks – do, as well.

There’s also an ES-4 Gate Expander add-on for additional 8 on/off gates, triggers, clocks, and so on. The unit is £151, or £64 for the Gate Expander, not including VAT.

More demos:

Sound Sculpting: ADE-10 Reactive Shaper

Justin Owen of Abstract Data sends us this creation. It’s an all-analog waveshaper, wavefolder, feedback unit, with audio to LFO range. That means you can use it as an LFO or design sounds or manipulate synth pads or … any number of things. In fact, it’s nice enough that I could see using it alone, sort of Moogerfooger / stomp style. This is the same nice gentleman who created the Kicker, a synth focused on bass drums.

Loads of sound samples on SoundCloud, in addition to the video tutorial and demo above. It’s yours for £135.00, which I think is quite a bargain.

ADE-10 Reactive Shaper Eurorack Module (2011) by abstractjuz

Synthesis: Monotron in a Eurorack

A bit more left-field, but you can even get Korg’s simple-but-fun Monotron synth in a Eurorack module. Skip ahead in the video below to hear it in action. (Well, unless you prefer field recording crinkly wrapping sounds, in which case the unboxing portion of the video will be your favorite. Toddlers, dogs, and gear lovers agree: unboxing is the best part.)

US$249 puts the Monotron in a rack format. Of course, there, you can do quite a lot more with the Monotron than you can with the original, with both full CV and MIDI control and very, very nice knobs, in place of the awful-feeling (though stunningly inexpensive) controls on the original. All together, that makes a very playable, very fine synth., as seen on Synthtopia

Synthesis: Triangle Core Oscillators

Just when you think you can’t innovate in something as simple as an oscillator — you can.

Synthesist Danjel van Tijn sends news of the Dixie VCO, which, named for its creator, reimagines how to do a triangle oscillator:

It is a triangle core oscillator in Eurorack format that utilises a brand new method of implementing a triangle core oscillator using a design by professor David G. Dixon.

Side note: Trianglecore would make a great genre name.

Professor Dixon co-designed the module and collaborated on its construction. In the video at top, you can see what those waveforms look like. Below, you can see how this might work in a musical context:

Melodic demo of the Dixie VCO. Two Dixies are used (only one at first) along with a Z8000 for sequencing, a uScale for quantizing, uStep for step sequencing and everything is filtered through the new Dr. Octature VCF/VCO.

The uScale is used to help demonstrate the extremely wide and accurate range of tracking of both VCOs. The sequence spans many octaves but the intervals of the two Dixies stay in tune.

PWM, LIN FM and Sync are all played with along with different combinations of waveforms to explore just some of the timbre possibilities.

And here’s what happens when you reverse sync:

We seem to lack purchase info on this particular module for now, but there are loads of other great modules from this Vancouver, Canada-based builder – and yes, they work with Max/MSP and computers, too, not just modules:

Roundup of Other Great Picks

Knowing I could never keep up with all that’s happening on the Eurorack scene, I asked Danjel aka Intellijel to give us some of his picks for some of the coolest modules. He obliged with a drool-worthy – and I dare say genuinely musical – list. Here are his favorites:

There is so much stuff! Eurorack has obviously tried to update or recreate most of the classic synthesis blocks from various manufacturers (Buchla, Moog, Roland etc. etc.) but the past couple of years very interesting developments have been made incoporating brand new designs not found anywhere else. Some of these are completely DSP based, some are hybrids and some like the Dixie VCO are %100 analog.

Other stuff I have put out that is unique (and actually has decent video) would include:

uScale: CV quantizer but it also does intelligent interval generation

This is a dual multimode filter with the same transfer function as classic Korg MS20 but it is a completely new circuit design (nothing related to the original at all) using all modern components.

On the analoghaven page there is a list of about 40 manufacturers each with many modules:

The forum is extremely active with all things to do with modular synthesis (and synths in general).

Stuff worth noting form other manufacturers (there is so much more from each of these groups):

Cylonix Cyclebox:
FPGA based extremely deep triple VCO with through zero FM and massive amount of synthesis and waveshaping options

TipTop Audio matrix sequencer:

Tiptop Audio Z-DSP (user programmable DSP fx processor)

Expert Sleepers ES-3 (all their products really) control your analog gear via a plugin in Ableton/DAW and their lightpipe/spdif/db25 connector

Kilpatrick Audio K4815 Pattern Generator

Makenoise Phonogene: digital tape recorder re-visioned

Makenoise Rene: cartesian sequencer

Synthesis Technology Morphing Terrarium: morphing wavetable synthesis

Synthesis Technology Deflector Shield: thru-zero frequency shifter, phaser and ring mod

The Harvestman Double Andore: dual a-d envelope generator and 2-channel vca with digital curve shaping and vca law selection

The Harvestman Bionic Lester: dual 12db/oct switched capacitor multimode filter with mode selction and clock disruption.

Toppobrillo Sport Modulator: Dual VC Lag and CV processor

Thanks, Danjel! This looks fantastic – plenty to consider as inspiration.

It all makes me wish for a holiday on which some supernatural being, against all rules of material consumption and the conservation of physics, flies around the Earth leaving, for free, the things you desire as gifts. If someone can make this happen, let me know. Also, I’ll need the contract to a flat in which I can house said materializing goods. Until then, I’ll have to hack something together for free in Pd and run it on a netbook.

Dream On: Modular, The Movie, and the Planner

Modular remains such a cultural phenomenon, it has inspired its own movie project, as seen on IndieGogo (trailer above):

I Dream of Wires: The Modular Synthesizer Documentary

If we’ve sold you on this whole idea, Danjel also points us to this:

This online tool could … cost you quite a lot of money, actually.

There is a pretty cool online interactive virtual modular for planning out a system
It contains pretty much every module available.

More analog…

By the way, if you appreciate this sort of analog coverage and would like a domain at which you can see it, you should complain to Trash Audio. They cheekily registered the domain and redirected it to their site, and they haven’t responded to offers to buy it from them them. I suggest you flood their inbox with complaints until they aquiesce. Alternatively, perhaps you can think of a word that means analog but begins with the letter ‘D,’ as that’d fit nicely with the ‘CDM’ acronym. Or we could come up with something in another language – German, for instance.

I’ve registered for now; I’ll point it at something later this week. And as for how we can get back at TRASH_AUDIO — I’m open to suggestions. Can’t crash their NAMM party; I’ll be on a flight back to Berlin. (Seriously, that crew held a great synth meetup in LA in September I was lucky enough to catch – at least briefly.)

We’ll continue to happily bring you judgment-free electronic music making on a variety of platforms, from the Apple II to a discarded, broken cell phone to analog circuitry you wired up yourself, because that’s how we roll.

  • Jamsire Ernoir

    OMG – ALL of this is smokin' hot!

  • Great post. I still have to check ou the videos. I just wanted to mention Doepfer's Dark Energy synth, which is a nice entry-level semi-modular analog synth (see&nbsp ; It's a in a different desktop format that doesn't require a rack. It's nice because it has midi built in the box. So far they've created one add-on, which is an analog sequencer. (see&nbsp ; 

  • If anyone is in the Bay Area around 01/28, there is a great opportunity to get some hands on experience with Eurorack modulars:!/events/23067752366437… A few of the manufacturers mentioned in this article will be present and there will be plenty of systems for people to check out and experiment with. The I Dream of Wires: Modular Documentary crew will be on hand filming as well.

    Thank you Peter for popping one of my photos up on this one. It's always a nice feeling to see them on the websites I love!

    Vicmod Ensemble live All modular group from Melbourne, Australia

  • stk

    After years of softsynth work, the New Wave of Modular re-interested me in synthesis.
    Mouse/screen interface just cannot compare with the immediate tactility of knobs 'n' cables. I still use softsynths regularly, but for truly exploratory synthesis there is but one path.

    I will not enter "sound quality" debates, but will say this: one thing modular has over software in spades is unpredictability. Modular brings the fuzzy, something sorely lacking in most Digital Audio Workstations (yawn).

  • gino robair

    <<Fairly or unfairly, it has often been viewed as the domain of the eccentric wealthy musician. You needed cash, endless patience, and lots of space…>>  
    That IS a complaint that comes up a lot, particularly when modular fans talk about Buchla, Wiard, and other more expensive instruments. 
    If one views a modular synth as an instrument on par with, say, a harp, violin, or some other acoustic instrument, a fully fleshed out system is inexpensive by comparison. The people I know who are serious string players (professionals and amateurs) usually have a bow that costs around $10k, and an instrument that is at least that much if not a multiple. And few of my acoustic instrumentalist friends could be considered wealthy, even though their axe costs more than my car. You can get a LOT of Eurorack gear for that amount, and even a kickass Buchla 200e.

    Euro format is the leader right now because it's been the least expensive format to get into, so the audience has grown by leaps over the other formats. Consequently more designers have gotten into the game and there are tons of modules available. 

    But, yeah, it's going to set a person back a bit to build the highly personalized instrument that a modular system promises, such as the ones that artists like Alessandro Cortini or Richard Lainhart have. 

    If you plan to spend a few years mastering an instrument,  and you love the sound, the higher price might well be justified. 

  • stk

    Just like to add, a really cool part of the (Eurorack, in particular) modular renaissance is that most of these companies are small one or two person businesses.
    You are dealing with craftspeople in the traditional sense, who also listen to and often act on user feedback. As such, they build very loyal followings.

    One last thing, my personal modular patch "blog", attempting to document my journey with the machine:

  • sixnon

    Peter, apropos domain names, we here in the Antipodes say analogue, so perhaps createanaloguemusic?

    @ stk really enjoyed your work.

    • peterkirn

      Ha! Good point… but then, perhaps, 

      Maybe back to doing something shorter. 😉

  • Yay for Eurorack. Have started a system this year, and haven't looked back.
    Sadly no mention of 4ms? Both the Pingable Envelope Generator and the VCA Matrix are two of the greatest modules released this year.

  • loydb

    Also remember, if you can solder (or are willing to learn), you can build a kick-ass modular for a lot less than you can buy one. Start out at and check out their Ultimate…

  • Good roundup and coverage. I've been using Eurorack format gear since 1997 myself. So that was around the dawn of VSTs. At the time Serge Transform Systems was pretty much the only commercial builder though I think maybe PAiA had their kits. The thing about Eurorack is it's relatively smaller in size than just about any vintage system, and the prices are quite comparable or less than the 70s or 80s, let alone factoring in inflation.

    Lets see- the Moog 500 lunchbox format filter isn't considered a modular module in most people's books. Best to consider it for what it is, a lunchbox format filter. It is interesting that the Moogerfoogers dating back to 1998 have standard classic modular i/o connections though the stomp box form factor is different. It was a great marketing move on Bob Moog's part since the reality is very few retailers offer proper modular synth modules, though that's very slowly changing, there is a big gap between all these boutique builders today and retailers with any sort of try and buy setup.

    Triangle core oscillators are nothing at all new in general. Buchla used them for their synths in the 1960s. I guess maybe this particular circuit is a new design. Generally that's the way things are, new modules come out with twists in features or performance or even size efficiency. Unless someone goes through a patent application many builders recreate or modify existing concepts as well as circuits. Everyone once and a while someone cries "foul" for an outright for-profit duplication but most everything is adapted from something else at least to a small extent. I'm not commenting on the Dixie in specific and it seems to be a fine, compact and well liked module.

    Though partly inspired by some prior efforts like MOTU's Volta, what Expert Sleepers is doing today is definitely a game changer and certainly can implement all sorts of ties between computer based music to a greater extent. Ties aren't new between computers and analog synths, but the approach of audio devices outputting precision DC signals and the ready to use software tools readily available is a new dimension

  • Ivan Franco

    Regarding the new hybrids between analog and digital you should take a look at ADDAC (, specially their Voltage Controlled Computer and also the complex random and lissajous generators.

  • Ivan Franco

    Opss…! Now with the right url:

  • peterkirn

    This post is largely about technology — I see one link above to music. I'd actually be very eager to hear what people feel is the most expressive or well-conceived music made with modulars — in large or small part. I'm particularly interested in live performance; to me, the modulars work brilliantly as a studio tool, but since the early days have been more challenging to play live.

    • Hi, Peter!

      I'm really stoked you asked that and definitely want to share a video (with a remark I'm not implying it is the most expressive music — I'm a member of this band, after all, so my opinion doesn't count):

      As I put no description on youtube, I wrote a few words about us and our approach to performing live:

      Rawo nam is a Belarusian band playing non-rehearsed improvised music on modular synths and korg electribe. As concerns synths, one is a completely DIY (MFOS) and another is Aalto, semi-modular softsynth by Madrona Labs. (What you can hear here is even several instances of latter, continuously tweaked during performance, and an interesting aspect is that I adjust their levels and time to time change between patches — mixing music real-time as opposed to launching the clips.) Also, no external FX were used in this performance — all sound, beat and occasional keyboard soloing aside, is modular by nature; even while it might remind of field recordings here and there, I assure that no samples were used.

      Also, I uploaded an HQ audio bootleg — I believe camera mic isn't being very nice with some parts of the spectre, particularly its lowest… You may find it here:

  • Ivan Franco

    I recently came across an endearing video of Alessandro Cortini performing "Everything Ends Here" with Don Buchla. It's a bit of a minimal theme but I found it very beautiful and expressive.

  • On top of my head, here are a few great artist using modulars live:

    Keith Fullerton Whitman




    It seems pretty daunting, going for a all-modular live set, but it can be pulled of, whether it is noisy/droney music or full-on techno. Preparation is the key here, like any good performance. These days with modules like Make Noise Analog Memory, Silent way (with a 'hidden' laptop and a MIDI controller) or the Modcan Touch sequencer you can get a (limited) amount of presets of your sequences. Or use MIDI -> CV from let's say a Monomachine. And then again, improv is the nature of the (modular) beast I suppose.

  • itijik

    Using a laptop is cheating ;p

  • freesoulvw

    Cool to see this post as the last few weeks I've been spending a lot of my online time researching either,how to build a modular synth or in most cases,how to BUY a modular synth set up. I got interested in modular synths as a way to get hands on with electrons and actually turn the knobs that make the music we take for granted in our DAW based synths and workstations. I hope to BUILD my own modular synth and not just BUY one. What that means is I really want to learn and understand each individual module and how those modules effect sounds,patterns and above all my music. It could be easy to plunk down a grip of cash to have a pre-built modular ready to go and just start from the top and work your way through the maze. To me,personally,the fun is going to be in building the maze and then walking through it to find the center creamy filling. :). 

    I really hope to see more posts on this topic and more "from the first step" style beginner posts. I find it VERY difficult to find answers to even the basic questions to getting started without wading through opinions and "Not ahh,ya haa!" bickering on online forums. I've been to muffwiggler and there are many helpful people. The daunting task of filtering searches to just find simple answers though turns me away after hours and a headache. Simple things like, "how do each of the modules get their power?" become and endless stream of branches of topics and products when all I really want to see is where the damn power plug plugs into the back to supply power!  Online learning is one of my favorite pass times but in this case I've come to accept that hands on and face to face are going to be the route im probably going to have to take on this journey into the unknown. I hope to meet some great and helpful folks along the way. The community seems very supportive. Im sure there will be more then one willing member to explain things in detai.  Seeing the huge systems all put together and rolling in YouTube videos are great fun but I'm at the "so your getting your FIRST module" stage and I need to see everything that building entails. From the case/rack to the ribbon cables used to attach each module to the case,ect. This will all just be part of the fun in learning I suppose. Thanks again for this post. It has directed me to a lot of valuable resources. To be continued…..

  • The Eurorack format is the one that is growing the most. The draw to many is the fact that you can customize your system to your liking with modules from many different makers. When I got into synthesis in the early 70's thru the 80's there were a few big modular makers in america and asia. The protocols were similar (some like Moog had a different gate and some asian makers were Hz/Oct and not V/Oct etc.) but NONE of them could mix modules in the same cabinet. If you bought from one maker you probably kept in the maker cause cabinets were so expensive. Now, like you said, there are over 40 different Eurorack makers who's modules will live nicely next to all the others you buy (except for Analogue Systems who for some reasons use a different power connector and a different hole spacing). Most all of the makers I know are small shops with one or two people doing all the work. I started a company called Synthwerks with 2 friends a little over a year ago and now make over ten products. The main stumbling block for the modular market is that they are seldom carried by brick-and-morter stores. Almost all sales are online so there is very little chance to put your hands on them. Synthwerks has a focus on performance modules – modules you use to PLAY the others with and we feel the lack of stores very much. We try to go to as many synth meets and events as we can and suggest everyone else to also. You will get the chance to se and play many different types of setups in one room – rigs meant to do noise music, traditional, sound effects, audio modifying and the latest crop of Video Synthesizers that are in the Eurorack format also. This is the perfect time to pick up a new obsession…

  • interesting article. i'd really try a simple eurorack synth without breaking the bank. what would you recommend if one were to buy a 3u cabinet, midi, voltage controlled oscillator (one or two?), a voltage controlled filter, voltage controlled amplifier and an envelope generator? (or would this be a dumb way to start out?)

    • itijik

      A simple single voice synth (basically what you describe) is the perfect way to start out, if you are new to synths and want to be able to expand later. But you can go even more minimal to get your feet wet and make some noise!

      The Muffwiggler forum is where to hang out when getting into this stuff. There are tons of helpful people there to help with your new addiction…err, I mean hobby 🙂

      • thanks, itijik, i'll check out muffwigglers.

        i guess as a means to get started i could go with a simple vco –> line 6 m9 (which i allready have). not the same fun tweaking, but at least there's the possibility of shaping the sounds with filters.

  • I believe David Crowder Band are using modulars live. the link is a simple hook melody, i guess that's what works best live, as there's minimal tweaking involved. nice synth.

  • itijik

    Great post btw, Peter!
    …spreading the modular bug. I love it!

  • DDDD

    Some bigger names of people who use Eurorack:

    Aphex Twin
    Trent Reznor
    Riccardo Villalobos

  • I just spent the last quarter of this year learning about the eurorack scene. Great to read so much of what i gathered and been thinking about summed up in this post. I've already started my list of modules I am considering. So fun. Music never gets boring. Thanks for all the coverage this year! 

  • Everyone who is going to NAMM make sure you make a trip to Hall E "The floor of lost Toys" and check out booth 1270, Analogue Haven's booth. You will find more than a dozen modules makers there from all over. See you there…
    -James Husted
    Synthwerks, LLC

  • Here are a few shots I took from our latest Modular meet up in Brighton UK recently.&nbsp ;

  • Regarding the situation decades ago
    >but NONE of them could mix modules in the same cabinet.
    Yes by and large, though a couple builders did make something in the Moog format. There were definitely some early interconnecting issues. Not just the voltages but the gates used to trigger the envelopes to get the notes to start and stop. It was actually Japan's Korg making patchable semi-modular gear and (vintage) PAiA in the US who used Hz/V. Yamaha went that way but never made a patchable synth with cables.

    Basically I see the time line as Doepfer introduced A-100 series Eurorack modules in 1995, Analogue Systems came out with their mostly but not 100% compatible RS Integrator modules in 1998. I've never heard how much they knew of Doepfer and how much was parallel development. They've stuck to their similar but exactly compatible format. Some time around 1999 Analogue Solutions began their Concussor system which was fully Doepfer compatible though some of their core modules could just be triggered with no further voltage processing. I guess in the mid 2000s builders started stepping in who did not initially offer a complete system of their modules and that model continues today, though a fair number have a goal of a wide enough range to build a system.

    This is a key point in that it's not as enormous an undertaking to build for an existing format rather than offer enough modules to be attractive all at once and also portray the company as one that will continue with their system (something that definitely happened with many formats and companies).

    While the article is about the Eurorack format, certainly the biggest seller, there are still Moog sized and to some degree compatible modules built by non-Moog Music companies. A few companies build in the 3U tall Frac Rack format. A bunch of companies stick to their own format.

    As for cheating by using a computer. One should know microprocessors were often hooked up to modules and synths even in the 70s. In my book what would be cheating is if say a laptop is pumping out sound and the modules are there just for looks or for some very basic filtering. These days many modules contain some sort of digital technology to generate complex voltage including oscillators playing stored digital waveforms. While there were a few partly off the ground attempts to create a user programmable module, it's an area that interestingly has not quite become a trend.

    As for performance, people do have a point. While modular performances certainly have taken place since the 60s, musicians flocked away from the modular gear because of mastering patching with cables, wanting to change sounds in performance, having a polyphonic system that could be programmed and played flexibly (there were vintage polyphonic modular systems but they tended to have some serious flexibility issues). Today there is a mix of (re)discovering the pros and cons as well as some innovations. Entirely digital virtual synths simulate modulars in terms of interface and features but bring size, patch recall and polyphony to the table at the expense of details that make the real thing appealing to many. About 5 years ago, Buchla who build in their own format came up with some workable answers to age old performance "wish list" issues. You can recall knob settings. They built a mixing matrix that can save a limited number of cable routings and mixer levels to memory. They included several internal channels MIDI to CV, not a "new" ability but done both well and 4 voice channel polyphonic.

  • loydb

    I want me some Buchla, but holy god, the price.