The modular sound


#1

Since this is somewhat relavant to Mutable Instruments, on many levels but also because it features a text by the master himself, I’d like to invite you to read my latest article on Horizontalpitch about the modular sound

http://www.horizontalpitch.com/2016/09/the-modular-sound/


#2

Great Read!

I tend to agree with the article´s conclusions and excitement of living through the process of evolution.

To me “modular sound” is like asking for “analog sound” or “digital sound”, it is a broad definition, one could have a description of that “sound” but then there´s an ever growing library of exceptions to that description.


#3

Beautifully written Hannes!

And very thought-provoking, although like you I knew exactly what Richard Devine was driving at with the statement in question :wink:

Martin


#4

The “modular sound” is a triumph of timbre over melody, and of polyrhythm over harmony, unfortunately.
–Bennelong Bicyclist


#5

@varthdader: thanks! totally right, it’s a bit the same problem as with “electronic music”. It’s all very broad definitions. Still, a modular is a modular, we can define that relatively well, although – and that’s the thing – what defines a modular is not anything sound specific, but more relative to the way the machine works and how you interact with it. It’s not like a violin or a guitar that has certain, clearly defined sonic properties that derive from the strings and the resonating properties of the body. That’s I think what makes it tricky.

@yewtreemagic: thanks Martin! yes I knew what he was getting at… but in the end that wasn’t really what interested me, I was more interested in the fact that he said that in the first place and the implications, reasons of it in a broader context. I’m always more interested in the “cultural” aspect of such statements, than in the more specific ones… also it seems he opened a can of worms by saying that, which also shows how emotionally charged the whole topic is.

@BennelongBicyclist: I think you know that this might be the beginning of a very long and maybe pointless discussion don’t you? :slight_smile:
The discussion of melody/harmony vs. timbre is an old one. Ever since the avant-garde started to despise repetition, melody, tonal elements and traditional structures… so it’s almost a hundred years old. It’s certainly nothing inherent to the modular, though of course the instrument proved to be a fertile ground for experimentation with both unusual timbres and complex rhythms. Also the Buchla-side of modulars, with their roots in West Coast counter-culture has also pushed in that direction a lot. Still, I can’t say it’s really bad. Do you think we need more tonal music made with modulars? Does that even make sense?


#6

What defines a modular is not anything sound specific, but more relative to the way the machine works and how you interact with it. It’s not like a violin or a guitar that has certain, clearly defined sonic properties that derive from the strings and the resonating properties of the body.

I’m not sure if this really is a meaningful distinction.

There are quite a few people who use a violin or a guitar to make sound that you absolutely wouldn’t associate with those instruments. Sure, you can call this type of playing “experimental” or “extended technique”, but I don’t see a reason to exclude that from the “sonic properties” of these instruments.

Also, where does the definition of what’s considered a violin or a guitar stop? How far do you allow people who experiment with modifications or completely different building techniques to go? What about signal processing?

Depending on the number and type of modules you select, you could easily come up with a modular that has a much more limited “sonic space” than a violin or a guitar.

What I’m trying to point out is that the sound of any musical instrument is relative to the way it works and how you interact with it.

It’s not so much that a violin or a guitar has “clearly defined sonic properties”, but that most people share a clearly defined expectation of the type of sounds they’re going to hear when someone picks one up to start playing.

And the exact same thing is probably going on when you refer to “the modular sound”. :wink:

(As an aside, and in my humble opinion, the only meaningful difference between a modular and most other musical instruments is that a modular was intentionally designed to make it easy to add, remove, or change components while it’s a bit harder to do that with other instruments.)


#7

rumpelfilter> Do you think we need more tonal music made with modulars?

Oh yes, but not more 12TET music. 1V/oct frees you from the straightjacket of 12 equal semitones, and from 12 semitones per octave. Terry Riley had to circuit bend his Yamaha organs to escape the straightjacket. Modular users get that freedom for free.


#8

@t2k You have some good points, but I still stand with my conviction of there being a clearer distinction. There’s many reasons why I am convinced of it.

In my opinion modifications to an instrument are to be regarded separately. A modified instrument somehow becomes something new to some degree. And despite this, if you take Cage’s prepared piano, the sound stemming from it still sound like a piano. I know it’s subtle, but it doesn’t sound like something completely different, it doesn’t sound like a prepared trumpet or flute, it’s still linked to the sonic properties of the piano, to which frequencies the body of the instrument will resonate to, to the spectral properties of the strings and so on.

Let’s take another modification of a traditional instrument, the electric guitar, there’s a reason why we call it “electric guitar”, because it’s something different from a classic, folk or western guitar. Still an unprocessed electric guitar will have a sound that is close to a non-electric one. The dynamic and spectral content of the sound has similarities.

But as I said, I think these are different things. We give names to things so we all know what we’re talking about when we use there. If the names stop to have a precise meaning, they loose their reason to exist. If anything can be a violin, then we need to stop calling it a violin and start calling it anything.

Sure you can build an instrument in different ways, and there’s enough examples of that. Still, there’s another factor coming into play, the cultural one. There’s elements like tradition (in a broader sense) that define pretty closely what we can call a violin and what we call a guitar and they are very much linked to the sonic results that are supposed to be achieved with it. this is probably what you refer to with expectations, it’s due to all the music that has been written in the centuries for certain instruments. But it’s not just that, I am pretty convinced that there are also architecture-related and physical properties of the instrument that determine quite strongly what sounds it will make. Because if I punch a violin, it will sound like a punched violin and not like a punched trumpet.

Signal processing is an interesting aspect though. Since it can be part of the instrument, but it’s also a separate addition… I give you that this is blurring the boundaries. For certain signal processing is an integral part of the instrument in the modular, and also in electric guitars.

The synthesizer is the kind of instrument that by its very nature doesn’t have a so closely defined sound. The architecture of any synth is open to modification… you could say that modification is an integral part of the instrument, it’s the very nature of it, to the point that we call it sound design and not modification. The modular takes this even further, putting important way points in the circuit on the frontpanel, letting you redefine it with patch cables. It’s like having a piano and being able to reconfigure it’s mechanic, the type of strings, the way the strings are put into motion etc. So this is why I see it as being very different from everything else and why I think that the way it works is determining its sound much more than it’s electrical properties (in a synth its electrical properties can be treated as being equal to the physical ones in an acoustic instrument).


#9

There are all kinds of differences between all kinds of things, it’s just that I don’t agree that there’s a fundamental difference between instruments where the boundaries within the space of all possible sounds are derived from “mechanical” versus “electrical” properties.

I also think it’s interesting that you are hesitant to accept modifications to what you refer to as “traditional” instruments, but then happily state that “the architecture of any synth is open to modification”.

Consider that your thinking might be guided by you having much more experience with synthesizers, and less experience with a violin or guitar.

Did you for example ever consider that you can play a violin polyphonically simply by loosening the bow?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fSqiYSDFd7g


#10

> I also think it’s interesting that you are hesitant to accept modifications to what you refer to as “traditional” instruments, but then happily state that “the architecture of any synth is open to modification”.

I’m not hesitant to accept that. Maybe I haven’t been expressing that very clearly…
when I say “modification”, it’s by lack of a better term. What I mean is changing the structure, architecture, behaviour of an instrument that has been designed and built by somebody else, and doing this independently from the original designer’s vision and intentions.

It’s something different from making a patch on a synth. Circuit-bending is modification, making a patch on a modular is part of the very design of the instrument. Where the things get blurry is that patching a modular is a bit like circuit-bending it, since you do change the circuit and its behaviour. The difference is that patching is something that has been designed by whoever designed the module, circuit-bending is something you do working on a circuit designed by somebody else, so of course changing the architecture of a synth by patching is, isn’t a modification, it’s the way the instrument was designed to work.

Something different again would be it I take an instrument and build a variation on a common design, trying out different things. That’s just evolution, innovation… or how you want to call it.

Also, I don’t think I have more experience with electronic instruments than with non-electronic ones. Though of course I’m not a great instrumentalist with neither of those…

> Did you for example ever consider that you can play a violin polyphonically simply by loosening the bow?

I did and I didn’t. It’s obvious that you can play multiple strings at once on a violin, that’s something that is inherent part of the musical tradition. So it’ makes sense that by loosening the bow more you can also play all four of them.
But it still sounds like a violin, don’t you think? It’s an extention to the violin sound, not something completely different.

We made this project here some time ago: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yijNaQt0144
The project consisted in “playing” the string quartet using exciter speakers attached to the instruments. It’s interesting that when sending certain sounds through them, they still sounded like strings.


#11

IMHO the modular sound is the definition of infinite or a moving target. Since a new module or circuit can be made available every day you can’t really define its sound.


#12

What I mean is changing the structure, architecture, behaviour of an instrument that has been designed and built by somebody else, and doing this independently from the original designer’s vision and intentions.

I don’t see what separates synths from other instruments in this.

Also, I don’t think there are very many instruments where there’s a single designer who had very clear up-front intentions. If there’s one field where you stand on the shoulders of others, it’s with designinf and building musical instruments. In addition to that, musicians are notorious for finding new ways to play their instruments.

Maybe something like the theremin comes closest to having a single original designer with almost no subsequent innovation in how the instrument works and is played, but I really can’t think of much else.

But it still sounds like a violin, don’t you think?

Sure, this was intended as an illustration of how strong our conception of How Things Should Be Done often is. This is very surprising and appears odd the first time you see it done, but it also is a rather obvious technique when you stop to think about it.

Google for “violin extended technique” if you want to hear some really strange sounds. Cello players tend to do even stranger things:

https://youtu.be/ky0d8AVBPgE?t=43s

It’s interesting that when sending certain sounds through them, they still sounded like strings.

Cool project. Great visuals also. It seems that with the project you were primarily using the bodies as resonators, right?


#13

I don’t see what separates synths from other instruments in this.

In fact it doesn’t. I was referring to what I mean by modification. Which is something that applies to both synths and non-synths. Also if the designer’s intention is their own or if they are derived from what others have done or do also doesn’t really change what a modification is. The designer’s intention can be to replicate a consolidated design (eg. if somebody builds a classic guitar) or it can be to create something novel, but that doesn’t change the fact that there was a plan, an intention an idea a vision of how the final instrument should be.

thinking about it, the main difference boils down to one thing: there’s instruments that create motion in the air (what we call sound) and there’s instruments that create motion in the electrical current (fluctuations of voltages). Since we can’t hear electrical fluctuations we then need something to translate these to sound, that’s where the PA or the speaker come into play. Actually we could add a third category: instruments that create binary code sequences… but you get the point.
This little distinction has a great impact on the nature of the instruments and changes their very nature. Everything else is more or less a consequence of this.
Just to make things more complicated, there’s synths that have a much more “rigid” architecture than some acoustic instruments. Some simple subtractive keyboard synths for example. Also how do you scratch or beat a synth? How do you play multiphonics on a keyboard synth? An acoustic instrument has very blurred borders when it gets to how you can play it. There’s really a lot that can be done, and with experimentation probably there’s still new things that can be found.
Let’s focus on just modulars, because talking about synths is really a bit broad.
It’s funny because modulars are kind of closer to acoustic instruments in this regard. You can push them and their borders are really pretty blurry.

Google for “violin extended technique” if you want to hear some really strange sounds. Cello players tend to do even stranger things:

I’ve seen many of these things live. I’ve also just recently made a website for a composer and friend of mine who works a lot with this type of playing techniques: http://www.hanneskerschbaumer.eu/en/
Just so you know that it’s not for lack of knowledge that I have a certain opinion on the matter.

I think I know where we disagree (though we don’t really disagree I think). Tell me if I’m wrong: you’re saying that tweaking the filter or the fm ratio on a synth is like changing the position of the bow or the pressure of how hard you play it on a violin, isn’t it? And so far I totally agree with you.
My point is, these two things have different impacts on the two types of instruments. Since a modular synth will just change what electrons (or bytes) do in the circuit, its architecture can be really open to very different sounds. So while a Violin will always sound like a violin even with the great wealth of different shades of violin sounds it can make. A modular will sometimes not really sound like itself at all. It’s more about sonic identity I guess.

You can’t change the things that define the sonic identity of an acoustic instrument: eg. the size, the shape the material of the resonating body in a violin, but you can change the very nature of the building blocks that generate sound in many synths.

Cool project. Great visuals also. It seems that with the project you were primarily using the bodies as resonators, right?

thanks! We were using them as some sort of weird loudspeakers, resonators and also using the strings to resonate with certain frequencies.


#14

rumpelfilter> The discussion of melody/harmony vs. timbre is an old one. Ever since the avant-garde started to despise repetition, melody, tonal elements and traditional structures… so it’s almost a hundred years old.

The framing of atonal versus tonal, arhythmic versus rhythmic, timbral versus harmonic, was a necessary dialectic for Stockhausen and fellow-travellers in the 20th Century, struggling as they were with centuries of Western music tradition, which had become oppressive. But in the post-historical (in the Marxist sense) 21st Century, these are false, or perhaps unnecessary, dichotomies. Particularly so with modular synths, which, more than any other class of instrument, permit and encourage serendipitous exploration of a melodic-timbral-polyrhythmic-harmonic-aleatoric hyperspace.

In other words, interesting a varied timbres and rhythms, and nice melodies and sonorous harmonies, are not mutually exclusive.


#15

> But in the post-historical (in the Marxist sense) 21st Century, these are false, or perhaps unnecessary, dichotomies.

Totally agree. In fact Cage already had perfectly understood this and a lot of the experimental composers and musicians who followed him also put this into practice quite well.
In fact the merit of the avant-garde was to play “adolescent rebellion” by breaking with the past, once that was done, musicians could go one step further and use old methods in a new way, and even discover some more.
So yeah I agree, the modular is a very fertile ground for music in general, without too many borders. Honestly, I don’t even see 12TET as being a limitation, you can write great music in 12TET, a lot of great music can still be written in C major (I think Cage said that), but I see your point, if that’s all you are allowed to write music with, then that is indeed a straitjacket.


#16

Thinking of it i totally get rumpelfilters Point:

A Synth will pretty much sound exactly the same, regardless who triggers it (lets be honest, most of us aren’t that skilled Piano Players that can articulate well….). This is much more true with a Modular Synth where most people just use a CV for Pitch, a Gate and maybe a CV for Velocity or an additional Modulation like Filter.

A real physical Instrument with Strings to be touched, or Air to be blown will have much more variation in sound depending on who plays it. Its just like Steve Lukather said: “Buying a Luke Signature Series [Guitar] won’t make you sound like me, but me playing your Guitar will always sound like me”.

So whereas you have a way brighter sonic palette with synths - and especially modular ones - the variation in a particular sound by the articulation the normal player expresses is way more limited as with a “classic” instrument.

To oversimplify: A Synth always sounds static. Now go beat me :wink:


#17

Did I really say that? :slight_smile:

I think your point might be only true for the preset-driven use of a synth. This might also affect digital synths more than analogue ones. If you put 10 people in front of an unpatched modular each will produce something entirely different I think.

In my opinion, big difference here – and I think this is something I have already mentioned in some discussion here – is the interface, which is strongly linked to the “elasticity” mentioned before. A “physical” non-electronic instrument will have a very elastic interface. You can tune the strings in both directions until they break or fall from the instrument, but the exact point where they will do that, isn’t so precise. On most synths there’s a clearly defined tuning range, and the pot will just hit the upper or lower limit. It’s a generalisation, since sometimes analogue synths will have a more elastic behaviour than digital ones, and modualrs in general can be driven into territories that no other instrument will be able to reach. In a modular it’s not so much the control over a certain parameter that gives you the elasticity, but the combination of many parameters into a complex network.
The funny thing is that for centuries luthiers have perfected the instruments to make their behaviour as predictable as possible, so you could play a certain written music as closely as possible to the composer’s intention.


#18

Tell me if I’m wrong: you’re saying that tweaking the filter or the fm ratio on a synth is like changing the position of the bow or the pressure of how hard you play it on a violin, isn’t it?

That’s not really my point even though the effect on the sound can be much the same.

An experienced violin players does have direct control over loudness and timbre, while on a synth you’d be using envelopes and LFOs to control those aspects in a more automated fashion.

So while a Violin will always sound like a violin even with the great wealth of different shades of violin sounds it can make. A modular will sometimes not really sound like itself at all. It’s more about sonic identity I guess.

This is where we have our disagreement. I don’t think that this dichotomy exists.

If you feel that a violin always sounds like a violin, then you must accept that a synth always sounds like a synth.

Or, if you feel a synth is able to not sound like a synth, then a violin can also not sound like a violin.

The latter seems more sensible, as both allow you to create a wide range of sounds where a listener will have a hard time identifying the instrument that was used.

I do agree that most synths have a wider range of sounds you can get out of them than you can get out of a violin, I just don’t agree that there is a fundamental difference.

To oversimplify: A Synth always sounds static. Now go beat me :wink:

Yeah, that is a gross oversimplification. I also think “static” is not the correct term here because it’s too loaded.

What you’re getting at I think it that on a synth it’s easier to make the exact same sound or repeat the exact same performance repeatedly, while on a violin this is much harder to do.

What’s interesting is that truly great violin players are extremely good at making their playing sounds “static like a synth“ because of the level of control they have achieved over their instrument.

I’d also like to add that most keyboard synths give you much more expressive control than a piano right out of the box.


#19

> I’d also like to add that most keyboard synths give you much more expressive control than a piano right out of the box.

Right, but most people don’t use it at all …… maybe because you don’t have that instant physical feedback you can get from a long stringed upright piano or a grand piano? Or a violin or guitar that vibrates right at your body? All of these have a “touchy” feedback whereas your Synth only has this if your PA is cranked up to 11


#20

Is that color Black or a very dark grey?

Is that white or very light grey?

There comes a point where you either believe or not, there is no other way to tell.

Wether the range of different sounds you could potentially make with a synth is wider than with a violin is something most would agree with yet at the same time can´t actually specifically define in numerical, analytical terms, so in the end becomes “not a fundamental difference” to some.