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The Sonic Signatures of the Modular Synthesizer

Weighing in for Hannes Pasqualini's investigation

I first came into contact with Hannes Pasqualini, the Italy-based artist and designer, back in 2010. He contributed a small illustration for a Disquiet series about sonic visualization called Sketches of Sound. He drew a beautiful, detailed, psychedelic rendering of a tree sprouting musical parts. These days Hannes develops designs for actual musical instruments (see his papernoise.net portfolio) and writes about modular synthesizers (at horizontalpitch.com). He’s a very sensible, curious person, and he was intrigued recently by an offhand comment about a new instrument sounding “very modular” — that is, as in “reminiscent of a modular synthesizer.” Hannes dove into the question about whether modular synths have a sonic signature, asking folks like Enrico Cosimi, Joseph Fraioli (aka Datach’i), Olivier Gillet, Tim Prebble, Robin Rimbaud, Ben “DivKid” Wilson, and the guy who made the “very modular” comment in the first place, Richard Devine. I was pleased to be asked by Hannes to weigh in, which I did as follows:

Big picture I’d say my hope is you can’t always recognize a modular synthesizer when listening, because it is so varied in what it can accomplish. Modular synths are so rich with potential, it feels weird to use a word like “it” to encapsulate them. Especially when you get all those digital modules going — not just digital oscillators, but more complicated units like sequencers and so forth — it might arguably be indistinguishable from music you’d make on an iPad or a laptop. In addition, some of the most interesting work done with modulars sees them as part of a larger whole, combining them with software CV and with virtual modules, with Monomes, and serving as processing units for guitar, voice, and other external sources. Anyhow, to get back around to your question — and putting aside obvious things like specific modules with recognizable sonic signatures — I’d say that modular synths lend themselves particularly to a kind of exploratory, less-controlled experimental approach. This sort of approach reveals itself while the performance is going on: you start off in one place and end up in another. When I hear a hint of the weird that develops within the flow of a piece, it pricks up my ear and makes me wonder: modular?

His full piece, with everyone else’s far more informed comments, is at horizontalpitch.com.

This first appeared, in slightly different form, in the September 16, 2016, edition of the free Disquiet “This Week in Sound” email newsletter: tinyletter.com/disquiet.

By Marc Weidenbaum

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