It’s been some time since I updated this site with anything. Mostly that’s due to a major change in where my creative energy is going. A couple of years ago I felt the urge to get back into making music. I won’t digress too far, but I had been making music years back and got pretty disillusioned with my efforts. I was finding the process laborious and not all that fun. As a result, the music I was making was not very good. I would keep plugging away at a given track until it was no longer a joyful process but a painful one. My frustration grew, eventually I threw in the towel and sold the little bit of gear I had.
But then, by chance, I met up with someone who reignited my interest. Through chatting with my new friend, I realized how backward my thinking was in the old days. I had several things working against me. One was my own way of approaching the creative act of making music. I was aiming very high, and anything that fell short (which was everything) felt like utter failure. I was putting huge and entirely unrealistic pressures on myself to create amazing music.
Then there were the tools I chose to use. I was mostly using software for everything. I did eventually buy some hardware synths, but I got rack-mount synths, which have very sparse interfaces and usually require complex menu diving to get to the sound shaping settings. These factors added to my frustration, I wasn’t engaged by the process of making a song, quite the opposite. After a day working on a computer, coming home and sitting back down, mouse in hand to try and be creative was a tall order.
Fast forward to the present. The situation couldn’t be more different now. Not only is has my attitude toward the creative process different (which I continue to struggle with, but am working on it all the time), but the tools I’m using are deeply engaging and very much hands-on and tactile. I started this round of my music ‘career’ with desktop synthesizers with lots of knobs and sliders, and almost no menus. This allows for a fluid kind of interaction in real 3D space with physical objects and corresponding changes in sound. Instantly I was absorbed by the process of sound manipulation.
I bought a few more small but ‘knobby’ synths, and continued to enjoy working with them. But then my attention started to be drawn in a new direction. I had been looking around at modular synths. Specifically and a relatively new modular format called “Eurorack” – initially I was taken aback at the prices of modules. But my curiosity was very strong, and the more I learned the more certain I was that this was a format I wanted to be a part of. For anyone not aware, a modular synth isn’t conceptually that much different from a standard (or pre-wired) synth. In principle, they work very similarly. The main difference is that, in a standard synth, the signal paths are pre-wired, and the options for manpulating the signal path are set by the synth designer. In a modular, there are few if any pre-wired signal paths and most every part must be connected to any other part manually by the use of patch cables.
I went with Eurorack because it is by far the most diverse modular format out there, almost every day new modules are being announced. There is a huge community of enthusiasts building and using modular synths. While modular is far from a new idea, it’s never been as popular as it is now, and the sheer variety of amazing modules is staggering. It’s easy to get lost in the byzantine world of Eurorack, it’s also easy to get caught up in the addictive nature of the gear and gadgets.
Admittedly for some time, I felt quite confused by the concepts of modular synthesis and the huge range of choices available. I didn’t know where to start. But I was so driven to figure it out, I spent hours and hours combing through information, YouTube videos (very helpful), forums, manufacturer sites, more YouTube. And then I bought my first modular system, a small set of modules from Pittsburgh Modular called the “System 10.1+.” After that, I never looked back.
Aside from photography, I have never felt as creatively engaged by anything as much as the modular synth. It’s not been all rosy good times. I’ve had numerous confusing moments of frustration and bewilderment at this expensive and complex device. I’ve had many anxious nights spent worrying about the money I’ve spent coupled with feelings that what I’m producing with this gear is not good enough to justify the expense. But then there are the rare times when I’m patching away and a kind of serendipitous flow starts to emerge, ideas turn into sounds, and in those moments nothing else really matters.
The modular has taught me the virtue of patience, the value of perseverance, the way that loosening expectation creates room for joy, and the idea that giving up control is sometimes the way to new discoveries. Each of these lessons is ongoing, and I still find old habits lurking in unexpected places. But I am more aware of those obstacles than ever before.