The Modular Radio

A listen to a new synthesizer item

When the voice kicks in at the 14-second mark, you will likely be hooked. It is at that point when the initial scattered beats are suddenly supplanted in part by something verbal, and the rhythmic incomprehensibility is enticing. What is heard is unclear. The language is pure syllable, not words, just elements of words. These elements suggest the origin may itself have been a chant. There is something to them, some sense of echoing, of group effort, but at this level of phonic chaos it could just as easily have been a recording of someone defending their dissertation on quantum something or other. As the piece proceeds those voices are subsumed, lightly muted; the pace doesn’t slow, but it feels more glacial. There is motion in the service of stasis, like white noise slowed and mapped to a percussion and vocal ensemble. All manner of material resounds as semi-tuned percussion.

What it all is is prerecorded audio material being sorted and scattered by a new audio tool that is likely to pop up in the rigs of some of your favorite musicians, if in fact some of your favorite musicians play with modular synthesizers. The devices is the Music Thing Radio Music module, designed by Tom Whitwell. What it does is store audio on an SD card and allow that audio to be funneled through and triggered by other synthesizer modules. You can watch it in action here:

The word “radio” refers not to the audio source, because all the sounds are prerecorded. It refers to that dial at the top of the device, which allows the user — the musician — to move between audio tracks, which all are playing in sync, so if you move away from a spoken word segment to listen to a jazz track, when you return two seconds later to the spoken word segment it will be two seconds further along.

Now, is a technology website, in that it’s about the role of technology in art and it’s about the role of art in technology. What it isn’t, by and large, is a gadget site, or a gear site — which is to say, it’s not about technology from the standpoint of consumer guidance. That said, it is not gear-agnostic or, more to the point, gear-ignorant. In the interest of decreasing gear ignorance on my part, I’ve been slowly accumulating a modular synthesizer. I try not to say “building” a modular synthesizer because that’s a bit like saying you “rebuilt” your engine when, in fact, you paid someone else to do it. Still, I’ve been accumulating the pieces and learning how they work, and this Radio Thing is soon to be part of that rig.

Track originally posted at Whitwell’s account. If you want to dig into this more, there is a page on the module’s development site,, collecting various video and audio documentation. (Thanks to Marcus Fischer for having first introduced me to this module when it was a public work-in-progress.)

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