5 Tips for Modular Synthesizer : Stazma The Junglechrist
If Breakcore is dead, then Stazma the Junglechrist is the resurrection!
Hailing from the same French stock as Monster X, Rotator and the infamous Peace Off imprint, Julien Guillot has been smashing up raves all across Europe since his first release on Peace Off in 2008 and is showing no signs of slowing down.
Having taken the early breakcore ethos of genre mashing and amen splicing, Julien delivers his sound of rave, gabber, jungle and dub with a modern, tight production that seems synonymous with the French these days.
As well as making a name for himself with releases on Meganeural, Structural Damage and Peace Off, it is Stazma's live show which displays his work best. A frenetic, yet finely tuned assault on the senses.
Q1.What can I do with a modular synthesizer?
Everything ! This is not a joke even tho it mostly depend on the modules you will choose. You can either recreate cult vintage analog synthesizers (Sh-101 / MS-20 / Minimoog) with the many clones or almost clones modules on the market, as well as design a super cutting edge digital signal processing system to use as an effect on existing sounds, or everything in between. Some people will build giant walls of modules that will eventually become a full electronic music studio, some others (like me) prefer to use a few different systems as individual instruments, those being able to interact with each other more deeply than regular synthesizer would if you want them to. It also depend on the format you decide to go for, the most common nowadays is Eurorack, but there is also Buchla, MU, Serge and more older form factor, those are still being used and sold, and even designed. In the end it is entirely up to you.
Like I evoked before, I prefer to have a few different systems, each being used on it's own as an instrument most of the time. I have used all of them on Shapeshifter.
• The Make Noise « old school » Shared System : This one has one of my favourite sequencer, the René, that make it very easy to create weird but still musical phrases (the intro theme of « Solarium » or « Wrong » for example). I also love to play with the Pressure Points as four notes keyboard, tuning each one by ears while the track is playing, trying to find sweet spots where it sound almost out of tune but not completely to create some discomfort (this how I played the « strings » sound in « Compu1 » and « Solarium »).
• The « West Coast » lab : This is a mostly Verbos Electronics system, augmented with modules from Make Noise and Intellijel that are all very much inspired by Buchla designs. I would love to own a Buchla one day but being realistic I decided to go as close as possible in Eurorack format as it is way cheaper. I use this one a lot for FM percussions because it sound very organic (you can find those sound in « Stern » and « Psev » for example). I also play it via the Touchplate Keyboard, like the Make Noise Pressure Point, it allow you the use the amount of skin that touch the surface to control whatever you want (mostly volume, waveshaping and filter in my case). It also does some infamous gnarly bass that you can hear in « Two Of Cups » and « Triton », and it's been the only instrument used for the intro track « Glimpses ».
• The « Megatlantis » : mostly built around Intellijel modules, it is my « super SH-101 » type synth, the filter is very close from the Roland vintage ones. I called it like this in reference to Intellijel clone of the SH-101, the Atlantis. I usually sequence this one via midi from Ableton (in « Stern » for example) or via CV sequencers such as the Analog Four and Keystep. Mostly used for bassline, Acid or FM style, it has my favourite oscillator, the Rubicon from Intellijel.
• The Serge « Mantra » by Random Source : This is the last big investment I did in the synth department, this thing is a nuclear power plant where you need to rethink synthesis from its very basis. While remaining analog, every modules can perform very different tasks depending on how you patch and set them up. It also have a very raw and weird distinctive sound. I think it's been used only on Two Of Cups and Solarium because I did not had it before I made those two tracks.
• The semi modulars : I also use two semi-modular synthesizers, the Moog Grandmother ; mostly for fat bass and reece sounds ; and the Make Noise 0-Coast ; mainly for metallic percussions (those in « Psev » for example) and it is my go to synth for sub bass, it's been used like this on the whole album, and maybe on every track I did since I got it.
Q2.How do I choose a modular that suits me? Can I check the sound on the Internet?
Now this is the hard part, especially now that there is hundreds of manufacturer, each of them doing equally crazy modules. Checking the sound or functions of the modules you have in mind on Youtube is a good start, as there's thousands of very detailed videos (I myself run a Youtube channel with my friend Eric from Algorythmik, called Wired Brain, that is dedicated to synth demo). One thing you can't see on Youtube tho, is how you will react to the module in a physical manner and interfaces can be very important. As an example I really like the Verbos Electronics module because they are way bigger than others, there's space to manipulate the knobs, while I don't like to use modules from the company who are trying to make everything as small as possible. But this is again a matter of taste.
So if you live in a big city that has a music shop where you can try out stuff, go for it, most of the people working in those places are super nice and they will help you get you choices straight. You can also start by playing with software modular such as Reaktor Block / VCV Rack, at least to dip your toes in patching, you might realise it is not for you at all hahaha.
When you want to start for real, you first need to buy a case and a power supply, there is also a huge choice and price range for that. I advise not to be cheap on the power supply and buy one that is more powerful than needed to be sure you don't run out of juice, as it sometimes affect the behaviour of modules (mostly oscillators).
Then there is many different way to go. If like me you are on a budget when you start, buy one module at the time, go super deep into it, then buy another one, check interaction with what you have already, then repeat the process until you have a full system. Some prefer to buy a lot at the same time, like a case full of modules, or manufacturer ready made systems (such as the Doepfer A-100 Basic System, Make Noise Shared System, Erica Black System etc). I think it might be a bit overwhelming to start with too many option but it's just me. If you have no experience at all with modular it make sense to start slow, if you've been patching in Reaktor for years it is not stupid to get a full system right away. Even better you can start by buying a semi-modular synthesizer and then expand it with Eurorack modules of your choice depending on what you want.
Q3.What to do next after buying a modular? What other parts should I buy?
Once you get the thing, play with it ! It is a little bit like practicing a regular instrument, if you don't patch often when you start you quickly loose focus and get lost. There is many ways to use those instruments. You can design sounds carefully that you will record and use later (I built a ton of soundbank for myself that way). You can also just jam on them, records the output and then build a track around the recording (this is what happened with « Solarium », « Two Of Cups » and « Wrong »). Nothing stop you to sequence them precisely via midi if you have a Midi to CV converter (the Arturia Keystep is perfect as very cheap, has a keyboard with sequencer and arpeggiator in it). If you have a big system, or a few distinct ones, you can build entire tracks with them , for example the last track of Shapeshifter « End... » was made using all my modular system together, each doing one sound, but each was sending some control signals to another, so the evolution of one sound was affecting another one, a bit like a living environment. This is what make modular synth often referred to as « organic » I think.
There is also a few number of things you might want to know about other gears you need around the modular itself. For example the output level of modular synth modules is very high compared to standard line level, so you need to be very careful when sending it straight to you soundcard or amplifier. The best is to get some simple signal converter such as DI box with a pad, or modules that convert modular level to line (some of those modules also allow you to plug headphone straight to them so you can play on your system directly without the need of any other interface).
If you want to save space for modules you can go for external effect such as delays and reverb and use those from your DAW or stomboxes, but it is fun to play with modular effect modules that you can modulate with unusual signal. As I said above, it is also handy to have a Midi to CV converter if you work from a computer and that you want to send informations from it to your rack. Some audio interfaces can be used to send CV directly in combination with program such as the Ableton CV Tools, you need to check that there is « DC coupled » outputs available on them.
Q4. What is the best way to learn modular synths?
I don't know if one way is better than another, I've learned everything by myself reading manuals, watching Youtube tutorials and experimenting on Reaktor, some prefer to go to masterclass or internship to go faster. I've been teaching sound synthesis with modular synthesizer since a bit more than a year now, in Lyon, at the cult french label Jarring Effect head quarter, all organised by a company called « Les Escales Buissonnières ». It is a lot of fun to teach people how to use those things, I really like this job.
Q5. How long does it take to fully control a modular synth?
I think it can take hundreds of years hahaha. Especially in Eurorack where you can just swap modules in and out all the time. Actually even changing the order and place of modules in your rack can make you rethink a lot of things about how you where using it before. There is no end to it.
I also think that the fun part is to not totally control them. Some modules are just chaos generator that you plug in and out in different places, listen to what they do and decide if you like it or not.
The perfect illustration of that is the name of one the most iconic Buchla module from the 70' (maybe even 60's I'm not sure), the model 265 aka « The Source of Uncertainty», which was designed to let any parameter live it own life while you do other things. There is a ton of modules based around this idea, with different amount of control over randomness ranging from none to a lot.
I use a lot of this random generator just to make things a little bit more organic, when you dial the amount of modulation not to drastically you can make things that would be quickly boring otherwise sound very lively.