A modular synthesizer is a synthesizer divided into modules. That’s it. But in order to answer this question in a more detailed way, let me first turn to history.
Most likely, when you hear the word “synthesizer”, you picture something like a piano with knobs, buttons, a small display and possibly built-in speakers. And for this image we can thank the digital age, which made synthesizers a mainstream product. But in the beginning it was different.
When the trees were big, and people were just getting used to the role of the lords of electrons, synthesizers looked very different. They cost like a house and took up the same amount of space. And people who worked with them were not quite musicians, but more of physicists. Those were the first steps towards making electricity produce sounds. And preferably euphonious.
The synthesizer was a set of laboratory equipment: generators, filters, converters, etc. In most of these laboratories, which were often located at universities, there worked real engineers and inventors. First they thought of what they wanted to do with the sound, and then they embodied it in the form of a device-module, which they added to their “setup”, and the experiment continued. Such modules could generate and change not only the signals we were to hear, but also the signals that changed the volume, influenced the duration or brightness of the sound and the rate of its decay. They were called control signals.
In fact, such a synthesizer-laboratory was a modular synthesizer itself. And there were no others then. They worked on lamps, they had to be regularly serviced and, of course, they were not mass-produced. The cost of such laboratories ran into hundreds of thousands of dollars. And we are talking about the 50s! Music studios, even in their wildest dreams, could not imagine such a budget. Not to mention individual musicians. And finding a composer who would be interested in such an instrument was problematic. Therefore, all that existed only in the format of special laboratories.
Everything changed when they began to mass produce transistors. These things were so much smaller, cheaper and more efficient than lamps. Manufacturers and enthusiasts finally had a chance to get more people involved into electronic sound production. At first, the inventors were not going to betray the key principles of those who had created synthesizers-laboratories. They built their synthesizers as systems of modules. And with the development of electronics, one could show more creativity: apply more complex oscillators, use various filters, mixers, and sources of control signals.
But sales were not high to say the least. After talking to the target audience, the manufacturers realized that most musicians were far from being engineers and did not want to study complex modular synthesizers. They wanted to get a musical instrument they could immediately turn on and play. And only then, if interested, they could try to figure out how to handle it.
As a result of this simplification, one could no longer change the order of module connections as that was a too complicated and time-consuming process. It was impossible to overcome this difficulty without understanding the principle of producing the required sound. So there appeared a single case synthesizer, where all the modules responsible for sound shaping were rigidly interconnected. And they added a conventional keyboard to make musicians even more accustomed to using it.
Then synthesizers became digital and got even cheaper. Already in the 90s, on the wave of growing interest in vintage analog synthesizers, musicians remembered of modular synthesizers with their experimental and research advantages. In addition the updated component base and digital technologies helped to make the modules even more compact and diverse.
That is how it all happened: birth, death and the renaissance of a modular synthesizer. I will tell you more about what a modular synthesizer is, what it is made of and how it is played in the following articles. If you are interested in any specific topics, write to me and I will do my best to dispel the fog of ignorance and reveal the secret of sound synthesis.