MOTM SYNTHESIZER—A Modular Analog Synthesizer That Surpasses All Expectations

by Robert Rich

  Lately I’ve been asking myself, “What madness would induce a musician to invest thousands of dollars in an analog modular synthesizer when everyone is moving toward software emulations?” Software synthesizers offer more features at a lower cost and don’t take up the space of hardware synths. However, they lack the immediacy and physicality of a real instrument.

When I first encountered Synthesis Technology’s MOTM system and its wall of conservative black faceplates covered with large gleaming knobs, I recalled the excitement I felt before the days of MIDI. Creating electronic music then was a tactile and visceral experience, and the instruments were big and messy. MOTM stands for “MOTher of all Modulars,” and though that’s quite a claim, the exceptional quality of Synthesis Technology’s system might validate such hyperbole. The MOTM system balances modern audiophile standards with some of the more desired quirks of retro analog synth design.

Back to the Future

Synthesis Technology's MOTM modules are designed to fit standard 19-inch racks, so you can mount five double-wide modules side by side.The system in this photo includes a row of 6 modules, for a total of 11 modules in a portable SKB case

Whereas a MIDI-controlled synthesizer, by its nature, operates in terms of discrete note events, a modular synth works from a continuum: sound is created by complex swings in voltage and the interacting patterns of clocks and switches. A patch on a modular synth is an environment for inflection and nuance: a living and changing entity far removed from the preset mentality brought on by recent keyboard developments.

The physical accessibility of each function in the various components of a modular synthesizer makes it easy to explore new sound possibilities. Anything that creates a voltage can become a controller, and anything that makes a sound can become part of a patch.

A modular synth can be integrated into the modern studio in ways that were not possible during the instrument’s heyday. A MIDI-to-CV converter and sequencer software give substantial control over the modules through MIDI. The recording and sampling capabilities of a digital audio workstation further increase the usefulness of an instrument that requires repatching to get new sounds.

Although the idea of programming with patch cords is primitive by today’s standards, it’s more direct than programming a preconfigured synthesizer. You don’t have to spend hours fussing with routing assignments, SysEx parameters, and device IDs as you do when you set up a hardware controller for a soft synth. Using a modular hardware synthesizer is a truly satisfying plug-and-play experience.

A modular synth might even inspire you to grab a soldering iron. Although preassembled and tested MOTM modules are available, Synthesis Technology also offers each module in kit form. The kit versions are about 30 percent cheaper than the preassembled ones. Besides the satisfaction you will gain from creating a system by hand, you might have enough money left over to buy a few extra modules. For those new to DIY, the Synthesis Technology Web site has a regularly updated tutorial page that includes a list of supplies and books for getting started, as well as MP3 demos of each module.

Reprinted with permission from Magazine, March, 2001
2000, Intertec Publishing, A Primedia Company All Rights Reserved

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