Music Thing: How to buy a modular synth

modular synthesizer

Each week Tom Whitwell of Music Thing highlights the best of the new music gear that's coming out, as well as noteworthy vintage equipment:

Modular analog synthesizers are big, expensive, unreliable and immeasurably geeky. The were to the 1970s what the Fairlight CMI was to the 1980s. The huge cabinets contain individual modules - oscillators, filters, mixers, which could be linked together with patch cords to build a synth. By early 1990s it looked as if they were dead forever, rusting in garages, replaced by digital synths and samplers. But they came back from the dead, with dozens of small companies producing modules and complete synths, selling them on-line. Today it's easier and cheaper to buy a modular synth than it's ever been before.


The cheapest way to start is probably a Doepfer A-100, a rather unappealing but well respected German system of mini-modules. Their Mini System - ten modules that will work together as a synth - costs ?900. Alternatively, will sell you a starter modular for $100 a month. After a year you?ll have a full synth in an MDF case, complete with 12 patch cords.
Once you?re started, you can buy modules from dozens of companies, like Wiard, who build beautiful, engraved blue modules in Wisconsin, and Metasonix, who sell vacuum tube modules covered in fetish-porn drawings with controls labelled ?pound?, ?strangle? and ?grind?. Individual modules cost anything from $80 for a Envelope generator to $800 for a Modcan Frequency Shifter.


The most glamorous modular available is the new Buchla 200e, which has digitally-controlled, MIDI compatible modules (one of which is called ?source of uncertainty?) in a folding box made of laser-cut birch and aluminium. The full works costs $20,000. At the other end of the scale, you can build an entire system yourself, like J?rgen Bergfors, whose beautiful brass-chassis modules are cooler than anything you can buy.