Falling back in love with music

Ditching web audio in favour of hardware synthesisers

Over the last year I've fallen in love with making music again, and it's all thanks to modular synthesisers. But to understand why this is such a big step for me, you need to know just how surprising it is that I'm now "in to" electronic music.

My growing eurorack modular synthesiser (complete with obligatory succulent)
My growing eurorack modular synthesiser (complete with obligatory succulent)

Falling out of love with music

I've always been "into" music, but I used to be really into music. I played in lots of bands, tried my hand as a session musician, tried to start a record label, ran a music blog (for, like, years!). But in 2013 it all sort of fizzled out.

In retrospect, I ran out of steam. On paper things were going in the right direction - I could legitimately call myself a session musician, I sold a couple of commercial compositions, and I even had a song of mine on the radio (that £6 royalty cheque was a Big Deal, let me tell you!), but I never really saw enough success in any area to persevere. Except, maybe, the blog - that worked and was fun.

Making that blog was so fun, in fact, that 12 years later I now have a pretty decent career as a frontend engineer making things for the web. But the "music" aspect soon fell by the wayside. I shuttered the blog in 2013 I never looked back, focusing instead on frontend engineering.


The wilderness years

For a long time I was more interested in writing code than writing music. A couple of my projects touched on music but the focus was always on the technology, never on actually creating music. The Web Audio API featured heavily in my CodePen tinkering and I built a whole conference talk around my experiments recreating a guitarists' delay pedal in JavaScript. But at no point was I making music. Not even in private or just for fun. If I remembered, I'd run a few drills on the guitar to maintain my muscle memory but I wasn't ever composing or creating anything new.

Guitar pedals: the ultimate gateway drug

This story hinges on a single moment: I saw something and was instantly hooked. But the groundwork for that one incident was laid over a long, long time. How did I get into electronica? It's a big leap for an ex-musician who always focused on acoustic instruments (heck, I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on the evolution of English folk music, and my post-grad thesis was an extremely contrived deep-dive into the "album" as a medium).

But there were two things that lit the spark of interest that would ignite into a full-blown obsession with modular synths: GAS and the Web Audio API.

GAS - a.k.a. Gear Acquisition Syndrome. As in, "oh boy, those new Strymon guitar pedals have triggered my GAS. RIP my bank account".

Guitar pedals are a fantastic introduction into the world of modular synths: small units that do one thing to an audio signal. It already sounds very "modular", am I right? And I've always loved guitar pedals. In fact, my GAS covers all guitar-related gear. Microphones, audio interfaces, cables, pedals, the guitars themselves. I'm not going to lie; I get just as much (if not more!) pleasure from owning all these nice shiny things than I do from actually using them.

The second factor that paved the way for an interest in modular was the Web Audio API. A side effect of playing around with using JavaScript to create and manipulate audio was that (almost by a process of osmosis) I was exposed to concepts and terms that originated in the world of hardware synthesisers. VCAs and VCOs became part of my lexicon, along with more familiar concepts like filtering and mixing. Bit by bit, without even being aware of it at the time, I was learning how to synthesise sound.

Enter stage right: modular synthesisers

So what was that single moment that opened my eyes to the world of modular synths? Quite simply, it was a YouTube video. I've kept a weather eye on Andrew Huang's musical adventures for a while, but I stumbled on his Modular Synthesis Explained video while looking for something cool to include in my newsletter. Specifically, the shot of his mega system at work at 15:30 mins touched something deep inside me. I didn't know what it was, or what it was doing, or how it worked, but I knew I wanted one for myself.

Andrew has made lots of videos about his eurorack system over the years (it's fascinating to see the system grow over time) and he's made some fantastic "explainer" videos. YouTube, it turns out, is a great place to ramp up your GAS to extreme levels. there are so many great creators making so many great videos, both showing off their great modular music but also making fantastic tutorial content.


Why has modular made me fall back in love with making music?

I'm about a year into my modular journey at this point. It was twelve-ish months ago that I first learned what a modular synth was, and another few months of research and obsessive YouTube bingeing before I bit the bullet and bought my first modules. Now my system is getting to the point where I can really make some fun pieces with it, and I'm excited about what the future holds.

I've embraced the idea of "learning in public", so I'm sharing all my experiments and clumsy, early attempts at music making on my Instagram feed. This is totally unlike anything I ever did with any other instrument, and goes against my instinct of getting things as close to perfect as possible before sharing them with anyone. And it feels great! There's no pressure to be "good", because everyone knows I'm making this stuff up as I go along. And the feedback I've already had is just amazing - there's so much more validation in being "okay" at something in public than there is in being amazing at it in private. I should have adopted this approach a long time ago.

And when (on the rare occasion) I make something I'm really proud of, I'll take the time to edit it and put it on YouTube. YouTube feels more "permanent" than the 'gram, and already I'm seeing that the life of a YT video continues long (so far!) after the initial launch. Whereas on Instagram, once a post is off the front page it is gone forever (as far as engagement goes).

As for why I'm enjoying it so much, there are several reasons:

  1. I love the sounds I can make with this machine. I've been listening to a lot of ambient music made on modular systems, and I'm relishing the challenge of recreating that style all by myself (and I still have a lot of learning and practicing to do!).
  2. I love that making music on a modular doesn't require a computer at all. Manipulating sounds with real tactile controls and making connections with physical wires is exponentially more fun than using a software alternative. Sure, you might be able to create the same sounds "in the box" (maybe), but you can't create the same experience. Modular synths are playable. You can build muscle memory, you can manipulate two parameters at the same time (try doing that with a mouse). You can "ride" a fader or pot with so much more precision than you can in a software GUI.
  3. I love that I get to build the instrument that I want to play. There are so many modules out there that there's a high chance that even my small system is unique. I get to choose the exact tools required to make the kinds of sounds I want to make.
  4. I love that I can make make sounds that are impossible (or at least highly impractical) to make on a computer. There are some things that you can do on a modular synthesiser that you just cannot do in software.
  5. I love how the instrument looks. I'm not going to lie, the aesthetic of modular is probably a good third of my motivation for getting into it. The arrays of potentiometers, the vast selection of I/O, the blinking LEDs (oh, the blinking LEDs!), and the general space-ship-control-panel vibe. I love it all.

There are plenty more reasons, too. And looking at that list written down, I'm now thinking that each one of those points could be an article all by itself (so stay tuned for more modular nerdery here soon). But suffice it to say, I've fallen hard for modular synthesisers.

If you're interested in my modular journey, be sure to checkout my YouTube channel where I post "completed works" and my Instagram feed where I post my experiments and test things out.



Podcasts for Nerds

I often bore my friends by going on and on about great podcasts I've heard lately. But doing this one-on-one was getting a little stale, so I've launched a weekly podcast-recommendations newsletter so I can bug lots of people all at once!