This Festival Attempts to Demystify the Mad-Scientist World of Modular Synths

Synth modules by Make Noise, on display at L.A. Modular 2016
Synth modules by Make Noise, on display at L.A. Modular 2016
Liz Ohanesian

If you're into electronic music, Daniel Miller is something of an icon. Back in 1978, the British producer released two songs, "Warm Leatherette" and "T.V.O.D.," under the name The Normal. "Warm Leatherette," in particular, has been a cult hit for decades, a dark, punk-influenced synth tune that you'll sometimes still hear at clubs.

With that 7-inch release, Miller launched his independent label, Mute Records. In the 38 years since, that label has gone on to release music by Fad Gadget, Depeche Mode, Moby, Goldfrapp and Apparat.

On this particular Saturday night at the Teragram Ballroom, Miller isn't talking about the label. He's demonstrating modular synthesizers as part of L.A. Modular 2016.

Miller sits behind a mountain of knobs and cables. The rig stands high enough to obscure his face from those in the front row. If you move back, you can catch a glimpse of him and, if you look at the projection screen behind him, you can see his hands move between modules.

Mute Records founder Daniel Miller shares his interest in Eurorack-style modular synths with the crowd at L.A. Modular 2016.
Mute Records founder Daniel Miller shares his interest in Eurorack-style modular synths with the crowd at L.A. Modular 2016.
Liz Ohanesian

He spends more than half an hour manipulating sound, pausing occasionally to talk to the audience. Synthesized noises evolve, starting to resemble the tones of other instruments or the effects that pepper film and television soundtracks. Sometimes he's less than pleased with the results.

"That's not very nice, is it?" he says to the crowd after a staticky rhythm pulses through the machines.

"I liked that one!" someone shouts from the crowd.

Miller responds, "There's no such thing as good or bad with modulars; it's just you either like it or you don't like it."

Modular synths can be a difficult world to unravel. Unlike the more familiar keyboard-based synthesizers, modulars consist of multiple pieces of gear, patched and cabled together to produce different combinations of sounds and effects. It offers musicians and producers a bewildering array of options for building their own unique systems, and the costs can add up, but the reward is a unique instrument that might be capable of producing sounds no one's ever heard before. "At some point, it can be very addictive," Miller says. "You always want to get the next module because that's what's going to define your sound."

In recent years, a new wave of modular synths has gained popularity with some electronic-music producers. Frequently referenced as Euroracks, these are small modules often made by indie-minded companies, which can be mixed and matched to build large, customized setups. Miller himself uses Eurorack systems, but even this synth-music pioneer admits that the gear can be overwhelming. "I used to know every module that existed," Miller says by phone prior to the event. "Now, I haven't got a clue. … I think that's a bit of a problem for some people."

The equipment can be intimidating, resembling the control panel of a spaceship or a mad scientist's lab more than a musical instrument. That's part of why L.A. Modular exists: to help newcomers make sense of these tools.

The first incarnation of what aims to be an annual event, L.A. Modular 2016 was organized by a small group of Eurorack aficionados, among them synthesis artists Cyrus Rex, Anthony Baldino, Rodent516 and Nitzer Ebb founders Douglas McCarthy and Bon Harris, with help from L.A. art gallery Lethal Amounts. Their intent was to bring manufacturers and modular synth–using artists together with fans to show what kind of gear exists and how it can be used.

A week before the event, many of this group, including Cyrus Rex, were already organizing modules for their performances. "It's kind of a hard world to delve into for most people," says Cyrus Rex. "We're trying to make it easier for people to get interested and learn about it."

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However, he points out that people don't need a ton of experience with electronic music to get the hang of modular synths. "There are very few rules of how you should plug things in," he says. "You need a very basic synthesis knowledge, but I think a month of playing around with it could go very far."

For this scene-within-a-scene, the appeal can be a reaction against computer-based production. Rex used to make music on a computer, but that changed, he says, as he began to use Excel heavily for his day job. "I don't want to be on a computer anymore when I'm in the creative process because it makes me feel like I'm working on noncreative things," he says.

Within this small group of artists, the consensus seems to be that a lot of the joy of creating with modular synths comes from its quirks. There's an element of chance; even experienced users can't always predict what kind of sounds they will get. You can stumble across sounds that you will love, and if you do find something that strikes your ear, there's also the possibility that you won't be able to repeat it.

DJM/Rex, featuring Cyrus Rex and members of Nitzer Ebb, on stage at L.A. Modular
DJM/Rex, featuring Cyrus Rex and members of Nitzer Ebb, on stage at L.A. Modular
Liz Ohanesian

Later on in the night, a handful of modular synth artists perform at the venue, essentially demonstrating the extent to which you can push the gear. Anthony Baldino, Rodent516 and Atlanta producer Richard Devine play solo. Baseck is joined by singer Miya Folick, whose effect-laden vocals complement the weird, sonic textures that emerge from Baseck's modules. DJM/Rex — featuring Rex, McCarthy, Harris and Baseck — show what you can do with multiple people playing modular synths all at once.

Out in the lobby of Teragram Ballroom before the performances and Miller's lecture, a handful of people have set up demos showcasing the modules made by a variety of companies. L.A. musician Bana Haffar shows me the "skiff," a small casing that she has filled with 10 modules made by North Carolina–based company Make Noise. She pieced this configuration together to show off Make Noise's new module, the Tempi, which lets users program and save rhythmic patterns.

Bana Haffar shows off modules from Make Noise.
Bana Haffar shows off modules from Make Noise.
Liz Ohanesian

Haffar is a relatively recent convert to synthesis. After years of playing the bass, she picked up her first synthesizer, a Moog Voyager. "I started getting more into the sound-design aspect of it and less into the black and white keys and the keyboard side of synthesizers," she explains. Eventually, she started piecing together her own collection of modules. Haffar has released solo work through SoundCloud and plans to put out an EP sometime this year.

"With bass, it got to a point where I had been doing it for so many years that it was second nature. You're playing mostly from muscle memory at that point," she says. "With these synths, you have to very actively be thinking about every single patch that you're making and every single parameter and knob. You have to be a lot more focused."


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