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8 Artists Making Brilliant Exploratory Music Using Modular Synths

Photograph of Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe performing as Lichens. Credit: Rodent.
Photograph of Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe performing as Lichens. Credit: Rodent.

My love of synthesis is well documented here on Flypaper. There’s just so much to explore, from digital to analog, computer-based to modular. Today, we’re going to take a look at modular synthesis as it’s used in the modern electronic landscape, and highlight its flexibility in studying the way that a wide variety of artists use it in an equally wide variety of genres. While this isn’t really a piece to encourage you to buy a modular… be warned: By the end, you may have accidentally caught the synth bug!

Soundfly recently re-released the five Demystifying Synths courses as a consolidated series, so we’re eagerly anticipating a rush of innovative new synth music from our own students in the near future! In the meantime, here are my go-to artists for some modular inspiration…

Alessandro Cortini

Most publicly known for his time touring and recording with Nine Inch Nails, Alessandro Cortini was one of the key synthesists on the Live: With Teeth tour. His discography, production credits, educational positions, and influence on experimental electronic musicians are nearly unparalleled.

In the past few years, his solo project SONOIO has taken off in the LA area, and largely features work done in the Buchla format — a specific system of modules that codified the style of West Coast, additive and experimental synthesis. Cortini says that he takes inspiration from the constraints of a system designed by a singular manufacturer. To that end, here is a performance in the classic West Coast style, alongside the legend Don Buchla, himself.

Floating Points

Though originally associated with house and disco parties in the UK, Floating Points (Sam Shepherd) was an analog nerd all along. In a recent interview with RA, he details how he took out a huge loan in order to get the right console for mixing his music. The mixer was so big in his small apartment that he had to crawl underneath it to get to his bed.

His critically acclaimed full-length debut Elaenia is the pastiche of his musical history, combining dance floor heat with subtle, contemporary classical influence. How he gets there with electronics is in large part due to his Buchla synthesizer; in a similar style to Cortini’s performance, Floating Points conjures simple, harmonically rich and evolving textures from the synthesizer, but builds instrumentation around them to masterful effect.

+Learn more: Explore our full Demystifying Synths course series to patch up all the holes in your synthesizer knowledge!

Surgeon

Surgeon (Anthony Child) came to modular later on in his artistic life, relatively speaking. His musical roots date back to the earliest techno days in the UK, and he helped spearhead the now-burgeoning movement of stylistically unique dance music from central and northern England.

As one of the first DJs to embrace Ableton in the live environment, Surgeon has always been on the forefront of experimenting with new technology — and the burgeoning Eurorack market is no exception. After years of working “in-the-box,” Surgeon realized that hardware limitations were forcing him to exercise creativity within a specific set of parameters, and that in many ways those limitations were freeing from the paradox of choice. Now, he uses his modular synth as an accompaniment to his DJ sets, as well as a studio tool for creative expression.

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith came to modular through a fortuitous route. Holed up in a friend’s garage to work on a post-graduate music project, she was handed a Buchla synthesizer as part of her explorations. Famously frustrating for beginners, the synth just wouldn’t make noise for weeks on end, until finally she started to understand its quirks. From there, the rest was simple: Learn more, use more, and find an artistic voice in the machine. Kaitlyn’s most recent album, EARS, treads a fine line between ambient, electronic experimental, and Animal Collective-style indie.

Check out a video of her modular system in action here.

+Read more on Flypaper: Ian and Sofia Hultquist explore the art and process behind their evocative and influential film scoring work!

John Chantler

Continuing down the droney, soundscapey rabbit hole, we’ll find the Sweden-based Aussie John Chantler. Better known for his recordings and live performances with church organs, John is attracted to the modular as an inherently complementary sound system to the organ and more traditional instrumentation and composition.

His unorthodox workflow means that musical forms are mixed, matched, and sometimes completely inverted in the process of arriving at subtle, evolving movements that tread the many facets of analog.

Lichens

Lichens is the solo moniker of Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, who himself has a long history with noise, drone, and doom metal, from performing and recording with Om to 90 Day Men. Lichens, however, takes a more improvisational, live format, taking Lowe’s voice and channeling, sampling, and looping it through the tangled wires of his modular rigs.

Though many artists choose to travel with their modulars pre-patched, Lowe is very intentional about arriving at each gig with a completely blank slate, giving him the freedom to take the performance of voice and machine wherever the moment demands. Not coincidentally, Lowe is heavily involved with Control, the modular synth outpost in Brooklyn, and is happy to pass along his wealth of knowledge to anyone interested.

Scanner

Scanner, a.k.a. Robin Rimbaud, isn’t immediately known for his work with modular; rather, Scanner is known for his namesake compositions and soundscapes involving police scanners, hacked phones, tape recordings, and short wave radio.

Of late, however, Rimbaud has taken to the Eurorack format and has found creative inspiration in its famously unpredictable nature. In a 2015 interview he said of one of his sampler modules, “What I’ve done is just use it as a resource but without knowing what’s in there. I like this almost John Cage idea of this thing coming through but I don’t know quite what to anticipate.”

Richard Devine

Last but not least is Richard Devine, an artist who continues to defy genre but is nevertheless consistently thought of as one of the stalwarts and figureheads in the modular scene. From demoing new modules, to contributing to music software, to helping implement software solutions for hardware control, Devine has been involved in nearly all of it.

Performance-wise, Devine sits solidly within the Warp catalogue, having worked with Autechre and Aphex Twin, amongst others. Channeling this style of IDM, alongside clear experimental electronic influences, his output is decidedly rapid-fire, mostly modular, and not to be missed.

There are a nearly infinite number of artists out there doing cool things with synths. If we missed your favorite, share their work in the comments below!

And if you’re feeling inspired to become a synth master, explore the fundamentals of subtractive synthesis with our free course series, Demystifying Synths!

Feed your musical curiosity with Soundfly Weekly.

Myles Avery
Myles Avery

Myles Avery is a Brooklyn-based producer, writer, and engineer. This year, his work can be heard on the Spotify Viral 50 chart, and stretches from sync compositions for publishers such as Heavy Duty Projects to atmospheric, electronic indie-pop. Avery has worked with several notable artists including indie-darlings Overcoats, Stevie Wolf, Valley, and FLORIO. Avery studied extensively with experimental music titans Anthony Braxton and Alvin Lucier before he found himself in front of his first synthesizer. It was here, in a tangle of programmed beats and found samples, that Myles discovered his true colors.

  • Louis Naudin

    Hey! if you have time to check this… 🙂

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FsB6NFqe7yw

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  • resetplz

    Acreil’s algorithmic composition using 53-EDO tonality (that is, 53 divisions of the octave): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_63Cc6vPFVI

    The tyranny of the 12-tone octave is second only to the tyranny of the tonalities that our human ears seem attuned to (even the music of remote tribes still falls within the 12-TET format). If we do manage to somehow overcome our natural? evolutionary? learned? musical intonations my guess is that algorithmic music will be leading the way. But that’s an awfully big if.

    • I was under the impression that sitar players from India hear more than 12 and that the learning of the instrument teaches one to hear this way.

  • Ardo

    Two of my faves are r.domain and Datach’i

    https://youtu.be/LWbND16zqoM

    https://youtu.be/fgvAM18srr4

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  • Depress Walter

    I recommend http://www.instantnoise.com/, only analog synth !

  • Chris Dardis

    Lyonel Bauchet, no? For me, the current master of modular synthesis.
    I didn’t even know what this term (“modular synthesis”) meant before I came across his music.
    Alas (or perhaps ‘Thank God’) in our age the technique has become the art, not the voice inside.
    IMO we’re just beginning to learn how to play these instruments and IMO he is *far* ahead of the crowd on this.
    I would like to hear less discussion of the ‘pure’ and more use of these techniques in combination with samplers – there seems to be some sort of standoff in the sense that sampling might ‘cheapen’ the sound; IMO both need to work together to bring the sound to fruition…
    That said, I’m not even a musician, just a listener…