In an age where software based production tools have taken a tight sleeper-hold on the music industry, one wouldn’t imagine that the production of modular synthesisers, a trade which has been around since the early 60s would actually be bustling, evolving and completely on the rise as an independent industry today. Many musicians have operated with modular in and outside of the limelight for years, but today with over 1000 different modules on the market, more independent hardware companies popping up than ever before and cutting-edge artists such as Untold, Blawan and Actress all turning to modular, it seems like a pivotal moment in the history of electronic music. One reason that there has been a modular renaissance of sorts is the reality that in this current landscape, it is imperative for producers to have an individual sound if they want to stand out from the crowd. With more young beat-smiths breaking through the ranks than ever, this had already become a difficult feat, when any ordinary kid with a dial-up connection can hypothetically access the same production tools being used by the DJ/Producers who are headlining super clubs and global festivals. The modular universe is so expansive that no two music makers can ever really sound alike.
London Modular is a bespoke store in Hackney Wick, East London, specialising in modular synthesisers. It’s the only place in England where you can walk in off the street and get expert advice while you browse, experiment and buy all things analog. Our writer Conor McTernan paid a visit to the shop recently to meet and talk with Simon Lynch, shopkeeper and one of the three members of London Modular Alliance to go through the patches, fiddle with wires and take a shot at deciphering the vast and mysterious inner-universe that is modular. Read on to discover the results…
To begin, can you explain, what exactly is modular?
All synthesisers are made up of a bunch of parts, oscillators, filters, amplifiers etc. On a traditional synth all of these parts are connected behind the panel, with a modular you need to make all the connections yourself, this also means you can build a custom configuration to achieve a particular sound.
How did London Modular come to be?
I was part of a similar modular group in Dublin called ‘Push Move Click’. I moved to Berlin for a bit and then to London, I missed what I had been doing with PMC. Modular becomes fun when you get multiple modulars all ‘talking’ to each other. I put up a post on Muff Wiggler which is a forum where Modular people like to hang out. Gavin & Phil got in touch and a week later we met up and started jamming. On the very first session things just fit together, it was clear we were all on the same wavelength. This went on every week for about a year, we were buying piles of equipment online but there was no physical outlet where we could buy gear in London so we decided to front a shop and now we’re partners.
What is it about modular hardware that captivates you so much?
The sheer amount of possibilities. Right now there’s roughly 1000 modules available for ‘Eurorack’ which is the most popular modular format today. If you look at this case, it’s an amalgamation of hundreds of ideas created over the past 40 years all changed and morphed. There’s an endless amount of functions within one module and when you combine multiples, the possibilities are crazy. This case as it stands is completely unique, there’s no other like it in the world and if we take it apart it will never exist again. If we plug in a patch and get something working right now, it will be something that has never been around before and so on. The numbers grow exponentially into crazy land, it’s endlessly endless. It’s that mystery of the unknown that’s the big drive for us.
There’s so much going on here, for people who aren’t as in tune with analog gear, how would one begin to understand this world and to best choose the equipment suited to their needs?
That is what’s difficult! Eurorack is the wild west and that’s why we opened the shop – to get people down, show them everything and let them make up their own minds. At the beginning we’re here to offer advice to fill in the initial gaps, once they have a case and a few modules of their own at home, they become addicted and hopefully figure things out for themselves. We get people over the initial hump and wish them a happy modular life…
What sort of guidance would you regularly give newbies in store?
To not get overwhelmed looking at everything, take a kick-drum module for example. If you send it a gate signal it activates the kick drum then you get some sound coming out. That’s all that does so that’s not too difficult to comprehend. Then you could take a 4 channel mixer, you can feed 4 different signals in and get 1 mix output, that is also easy to understand. My flat advice is to buy two or three modules, you’ll be restricted in ways which means you will end up trying to use them in every way possible which is the best way to learn. It’s a case of putting the blinkers on starting with smaller bits and once they start linking together in your mind you can start to see then how the larger system comes into play…
There’s three of you working here, do you each specialise in particular areas?
London modular is very much a 3 man operation, if any one of us was removed from the equation the balance would be lost. Many of the requirements for performing shows together apply to running a company together. The company started as a musical act and that has made a huge difference, this is something I am starting to realise more and more. We’re all quite different, Phil & Gavin both run their own companies externally so I’m the one that’s here on a daily basis (I live upstairs), Phil does all our graphic design and handles all the daily operations, Gavin does our accounts and keeps the company as a whole in order, he is often the voice of reason. There’s a big contrast between all of us and that’s why it works.
In your eyes who are some of the most consistent manufacturers of equipment throughout the years?
Döepfer is the core, he began it all. He’s been doing it for the longest and he has the biggest line of modules. All of his modules are designed to work within a larger modular system. Make Noise are doing amazing things and have been for quite some time ,they do obscure, ‘West-coast’ style synthesis. A grouping of their modules feels like a really beautiful instrument.
Ok, everyone know’s the name, Bob Moog? (A New-Yorker who created the ‘Moog’ synthesiser, with the keyboard and a low-pass filter) Well his counter-part is Don Buchla from California (who’s still alive today). Buchla pioneered the ‘West-coast’ synthesis style. Applying different techniques to his design, he didn’t want to incorporate keyboards or conventional music styles with his analog machines, he wanted to start something new, that’s the rough difference between West & East coast synthesis without getting too technical. I’m happy to say that Eurorack today is a mixture of both styles.
Who are some real up coming manufacturers doing something different?
I can not say enough good things about Mutable Instruments, its a small French company run by a very smart chap named Olivier Gillet. His module designs are very unique and extremely useful for making music. Another two companies that we’re very excited about are Hexinverter.net and Steady State Fate. Hex’s Jupiter Storm and Galilean Moons are unquestionably some of the nicest modules out this year, SSF’s Propagate and Positronic Transient Gate really shine and have a quality not found in many other brands.
Is there a module that you would like to see invented that’s not already out there?
I’m working on a few things myself! The core thing for me is having multiple modulars running at the same time. I’d like to see an easy way built between individual set-ups, so you can daisy-chain any number of cases together without using lots of long cables. Just having one single multi-core cable between them all. This means that they are all locked together and sharing the same clock. That’s when they can really start singing. This idea has driven us to start our own case company, “Eastwick Cases” We have just launched our 1st production case called, “Eastwick Aero” were really focused on trying to produce better gigging cases for guys who want to bring there modulars to night clubs.
Now is a good time for modular synthesisers, there are more manufacturers than ever before, how has that come about with the grasp digital technology has on society today?
I think people want instruments again and are sick of computers. That’s the main thing I hear. They’re in work writing e-mails all day, the last thing that you want to do when you get home is stare at a screen again. The internet has obviously played a huge part in making it possible for small companies to survive. Designers can send ideas back and forth, get feedback very quickly and learn about a tricky piece of software in minutes, everything has been accelerated. The Eurorack standard is already up and running so you can see why some nerdy guy in Japan may decide to build something to fit within this established system. The market is alive and ever expanding.
How can a user get the most out of a modular set up?
I would hope that after coming into the shop, somebody would be inspired to get home and spend as many hours as humanly possible with their new modules. You naturally end up telling your girlfriend that you’ll be ready in “5 minutes”, but instead just keep on patching and patching, it happens by itself. The most important thing is spending time with the system, that’s the only way to unlock all of it’s secrets. The more tricks and techniques you have up your sleeve, then the more you will get from your system.
There is certainly a huge DIY element to the practice, is it difficult to build/modify your own gear and what’s the best way to go about it?
A little background in electronics helps but its not essential. One of the simplest things to build is an Attenuator, much like a light-switch dial on the wall, where you can determine how bright the lights are. It’s just a variable resistor and some wire. Theres loads of companies who offer DIY kits now, we stock 4ms kits and offerings from RYO – Steve who runs thonk.co.uk is offering some great modules to the DIY world. You get all the components of the module in a plastic bag and instructions. It’s like flat-packed modules! Spending an afternoon putting these things together somehow you develop an emotional attachment to them and obviously get a deeper understanding of how they work.
These machines obviously need maintenance, how can one best ensure to keep good care of their modules?
You need to be delicate, this case here is worth £4000, i’m a nervous wreck when i’m walking down the street with it. You don’t want to be over-protective either treating it as a ornament, this to me is blasphemy. Use the modules every day to keep them alive! It’s like an engine you know?
Tell me about the variety of musicians that pass through here and some of their specific needs?
It’s surprising and alluring the amount of people we’ve had pass through here these past months… Untold comes in and grabs bits, Blawan has a few of our Eastwick cases, The Haxan Cloak has been in and Underworld may have the modular bug. We serve a wide variety of clients and seem to ship a lot of modules to music departments in universities, a good amount of doctors and professors seem to buy modules, that mixed in with 21 years olds looking for distortions units to make harder hard Techno…
You did a collaborative ‘Modular Revue’ project with Jack Dunning (Untold) a couple of months back how did that come about?
He bought some gear from us and I saw his name on the back end of our website. I’ve been listening to his stuff for years so I just got in touch. Modular has completely changed how Jack goes about his live show. He’s been great, the last Modular Revue we did in Hackney Wick, he really jumped in at the deep end with us, taking a risk on his established name to come play an improvised show with us with no real plan. Jack works really hard at everything he does and he clocked up many hours getting ready for that show, it added a great element to the whole thing.
Tell us about your plans for the next “Modular Revue” party?
The next Revue is set for Friday June 13th. In some ways these events are more like experiments than parties, we try to break many of the typical conventions seen in the club scene, not one song in the traditional sense is played and no turntables or laptops are present. We are treating the whole event as a studio session, all equipment will be installed the day before, all acts will be there early in the morning to achieve the best mix possible for the space. Our lips our sealed about the line-up until a couple of days before the event, but believe me, it’s impressive…
We break the evening into two sections, for the first few hours we do a round-robin style running order where each acts performs two or three 20 minute solo sections. The second section is an all out Jam in which we all share a single global clock source, it’s quite a job getting so many systems all singing the same song but when they do its well worth the effort. The sound and light for our events is critical, there is little point in having these lush modular systems if you cannot play back the sound in a true sense, this is why we work so closely with James from Flipside. His system is exceptional at retaining a big dynamic range in the sound, it kicks out so much bass its bound to get us all in trouble one of these days, that’s what I am hoping for at least.
Tell us about your secret weapon “Analog Laser Systems”
The basic idea is to to connect the audio output of our modular systems to both the main PA system and a bank of lasers. The audio is amplified to high sound pressure levels, and the lasers amplify the light through radiation, which will be projected across a very dark room packed full of ravers at peak time… In short, the same signal we send to the speakers we send to the laser. It’s not a representation or an offshoot of the sound, what you see is a simultaneous amplification of light and sound…
The next Modular Revue takes place at Shapes in Hackney on Friday June 13th, for more information and tickets see here.