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Prepare for Takeoff on the Modular-Synth Spaceship

Ambient/experimental musician Jim Wylde incorporates a Casio SK-1 analog synthesizer into his pedal chain, which includes some odd tone effectors like this Bakfram granular delay and infrared-sensor responsive ezhi&aka Polarized Flutter.
Photo courtesy of Jim Wylde

Looking for the otherworldly? Here are some devices and concepts that point the way.

The ambient-musician community has been growing by leaps and bounds, making some pretty amazing music and soundscapes. Many of these artists have been incorporating things like synthesizers, tape machines, circuit-bent gadgets, and other sound tools of all varieties into their signal chains. Detuned, warped sounds are voraciously sought after these days, and have become almost as popular, if not as popular, as fuzz. And many effects pedals strive to emulate that warped or slowed-down tape sound within their circuitry.

Jim Wylde (@sp3ct3rs_d3mos on Instagram) is a Canadian ambient/experimental musician and demo artist who uses all kinds of different things to make his music. First, he employs a bunch of different guitar pedals. He also uses tape players, for which he makes his own cassette-tape loops to incorporate into the signal chain. Jim uses things like the vintage Casio SK-1 (Did you know that the SK-1 is a real analog synthesizer?), the Korg Monotribe, and even the onboard sequencer of the wonderful Arturia KeyStep keyboard controller to send not only MIDI information to the pedals and synths that can accept it, but also to control voltage information. This gives Jim a lot of versatility with his gear that really shows through in the creativity of his video soundscapes.

Most of us already know or have at least a little bit of an understanding of what MIDI is. It stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. Developed in 1983, MIDI is basically a language that allows music gear to understand the parameters you want to program into a device—a set of instructions from you to the unit. Some guitar pedal manufacturers, such as Chase Bliss, implement MIDI heavily into their functionality. Chase Bliss pedals can also transmit control voltage (aka CV) information. These are some functionally dense pedals.

Control voltage is a different concept altogether. A predecessor to MIDI, control voltage is an analog method of controlling synthesizers, drum machines, and other similar equipment with external sequencers. It does what the name suggests: It uses plain old electricity to control the sound. There is no computer brain used here. The control voltage typically controls pitch, and the gate signal controls note on-off as defined by different voltages that are sent through the circuit. The legendary Moog synthesizers, as well as many other vintage analog synthesizer gems, use this protocol in order to control and create variations in sound.

Several pedal manufacturers have begun making dedicated modular synthesizer versions of some of their popular effects.

It isn’t just ambient artists who are including different sound boxes into their pedal chains. Sarah Lipstate, aka Noveller, plays guitar for Iggy Pop, and she is well known for her sonic experimentation and epic pedalboards. Lipstate uses things like an electrified kalimba (an African thumb percussion instrument) and Moog’s DFAM and Mother-32 analog synthesizers in her signal chains. She also employs wacky creations such as the Electro-Faustus Blackfly, a spring-activated instrument that’s available in pedal and modular form.

Several pedal manufacturers have begun making dedicated modular synthesizer versions of some of their popular effects. EarthQuaker Devices Afterneath reverb pedal is amazing. I’ve seen and heard this device on many musicians’ pedalboards, and EarthQuaker has turned the Afterneath into a full-fledged Eurorack module.

Recovery Effects and Devices is also making modular synthesizer versions of some of their most popular guitar-pedal circuits. Their Dirty Murals delay/reverb, for example, is a powerful effect that’s made in both stompbox and Eurorack formats.

There are even synth modules out there, like the Barton Musical Circuits BMC030, that simply enable you to plug your guitar into a modular synth rack, basically transforming the modular synth case into a pseudo-pedalboard. Think of the possibilities! Many other modular synthesizers also have this guitar input feature built into more complicated modules.

Using different sound sources and controllers in tandem with our beloved stompboxes, there are no limits to what kinds of unique and interesting sounds we can create, thanks to the ingenuity of some very brilliant circuit designers and the musicians who inspire them to create new pieces of gear.

Listen to “Infinite Drone,” one of Sarah Lipstate’s blends of guitar with synthesis and more. Besides her collaborations with Iggy Pop and filmmaker/musician Jim Jarmusch, the artist known as Noveller’s resume includes work with Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham, and members of Sonic Youth.