This article explores the differences between analog synths and modular synths, providing a brief overview of each type, and comparing and contrasting them with each other. The main difference is that Analog Synths use analog components connected internally, and Modular Synths allow both analog and digital components. Both are versatile instruments, and both can be analog; however, the Modular Synth is reconfigurable.
The synth is an iconic piece of the modern musician’s toolset. Fans of the instrument use many different types of both synthesizers and synthesis techniques in their creative tasks. Getting lost in the sea of knobs, lights, and wires can be easy. So what is the difference between an analog synth and a modular synth?
Today, we’ll take a look at what makes up analog synths and modular synths, compare and contrast them with each other, and discuss their differences. With so many knobs, envelopes, and cables -- what is the difference between these two types of synths?
What is the difference between an analog synth and a modular synth?
Analog synths generate sound by manipulating voltage levels. Various components are used to achieve this and are hardwired together within the unit, with the exception of analog modular and semi-modular synths which may utilize a patchbay or matrix routing.
Modular synths, on the other hand, generate sound using a modular system of interconnected modules. These modules can include oscillators, filters, envelopes, and more. Modules can be analog, digital, hybrid, or other variants. Some modular synths are entirely analog, but not all modular synths are analog and may even have mostly digital components. A simpler way to think of a modular synth would be a “build-your-own-synth” made of interchangeable and reconfigurable component parts.
What is an analog synth?
An analog synth is a type of synth that uses analog circuits and signals to generate sound. Analog synths are known for their warm, organic sound and ability to create unique sounds that are difficult to replicate with digital instruments.
Analog synths are comprised of several voltage-controlled elements; the most common are the: VCO (voltage-controlled oscillator), VCA (voltage-controlled amplifier, and VCF (voltage-controlled filter). Each has different variants, including Digitally Controlled (DCO, DCA, DCF) versions. Without going into technical detail, each of the components helps to give the analog synth its sought-after warm analog sound. DCO’s were initially designed to overcome the tuning stability limitations of early VCO designs. Instruments may also offer modulators and effects, and modern units also may offer the ability to interface with DAWs and MIDI environments.
See our article “How Do Analog Synths Work” for a more in-depth analysis.
The earliest analog synths in the 1920s and 1930s, such as the Trautonium and Theremin, were built with a variety of vacuum-tube (thermionic valve) components. Analog synths were first used in pop music in the 1960s. While Analog synths have been replaced in some capacity by digital ones since the 1980s, they are still widely used by musicians today around the world.
Brands & Manufacturers
Examples of manufacturers of analog synths include Moog, ARP, Roland, Korg, Arturia, and Sequential Circuits. For more examples of modern synth manufacturers and brands, please refer to our article “12 Best Synth Brands.”
Famous analog synths include the Moog Minimoog, the ARP 2600, the Roland TB-303, the Prophet series, and countless others. Analog drum synths include the Roland TR-808, Roland TR-909, Moog DFAM, and Simmons drum machines.
Analog synths have been used in pop music by artists such as Daft Punk, Kraftwerk, Jean Michel Jarre, Tangerine Dream, and Electric Light Orchestra. These synthesizers are often associated with retro-futuristic aesthetics, sweeping pads and digital orchestration, deep basses, and warm textural sounds. Analog synths are also responsible for the adoption of early drum machines. It is difficult to overstate the impact that these devices have had on modern music. Let’s focus on a small selection of these drum machines’ histories.
The Roland TR-808, released in 1980, was one of the earliest analog drum machines and has been used by artists such as Afrika Bambaataa, Marvin Gaye, Beastie Boys, and Public Enemy. The machine’s distinctive sound can be heard on countless hip hop, R&B, and pop records from the 1980s onward.
The Roland TR-909, another classic analog drum machine, was released in 1983 and was used by artists such as New Order, 808 State, A Guy Called Gerald, and the Chemical Brothers. Even to this day, it is a staple sound in the world of electronic dance music, and its percussive elements are still widely in use and layered into the drum production of audio engineers around the world.
The Roland TR-606 was one of the earliest analog drum machines, released in 1982. It has been used by artists such as Aphex Twin, Chemical Brothers, Nine Inch Nails, and Underworld. The machine’s distinctive sound can be heard on countless records from the 1980s onward.
Photo by Techivation
What is a modular synth?
A modular synth is a type of synth that is composed of separate modules. These modules can then be interconnected to create a patch. This versatility of signal path allows for a great deal of flexibility in terms of audio signal flow and sonic characteristics.
A modular synth, sometimes called a Patchable Synthesizer, is a type of analog synthesizer where musical signals are routed between various modules via patch cords, similar to an audio mixer.
Modular synths are synthesizers that are made up of different modules that each have a different function. The user can connect the modules together in any way they want to create a patch. The outputs from the modules can include audio signals, analog control voltages, or digital signals for logic or timing conditions.
Typical modules are VCO (voltage-controlled oscillator), VCA (voltage-controlled amplifier, and VCF (voltage-controlled filter), as well as logic and timing gate functions. Many different types of effects and digital processing are also available, as well as interface options such CV patchbays and MIDI conversion.
As the synth is made up of joined modules, modular synths can and do come in both analog, digital, as well as hybrid varieties. Analog synth modules use analog circuits to generate sound while digital synth modules use digital oscillators or algorithms. The analog variety is popular with musicians due to its warmer sound.
VIDEO: Andrew Huang – “Modular synthesis EXPLAINED“
Modular synths were first invented in the early 1950s by pioneers such as Hugh Le Caine, Don Buchla, and Robert Moog. These early modular synthesizers were often large, expensive, and difficult to use. However, they paved the way for the development of smaller, more affordable units that would eventually become popular with musicians in the 1970s and 1980s.
Famous modular synth users include Wendy Carlos (composer of “A Clockwork Orange” soundtrack), Giorgio Moroder (producer of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love“), Rick Wakeman (keyboardist of Yes), Simon Posford (half of the electronic duo Shpongle), and Kraftwerk. In recent years, a number of well-known music producers have embraced the modular synthesizer, making it a staple of modern music production.
Among the most notable modern producers who use modular synths is Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor. For the band’s album “With Teeth,” Reznor used a modular synthesizer, to create a dark, industrial soundscape. The result was an album that sounded unlike anything else on the radio at the time and helped to cement Reznor’s reputation as a visionary producer.
Another well-known producer who relies heavily on modular synths is Flying Lotus. The experimental hip-hop producer has used modular synths to create some of the most innovative and boundary-pushing music of the past decade. On his album “Cosmogramma,” Flying Lotus blended jazz, electronic, and hip-hop influences to create a truly unique sound.
Sound designers and producers in modern electronic genres all find great benefit in a hugely capable and precise electronic musical instrument like the modular synthesizer. From the modular-centric studio of musician and sound designer Richard Devine, to the film scoring of Hans Zimmer, to Deadmau5’s high-end EDM lab, to the futuristic basses and elements of Drum & Bass artists like Billain and Noisia, to the squelchy sounds of techno producers abroad – a modular synthesizer is truly unique in its capabilities to provide a unique workflow to its keeper.
Modular synths will typically follow a standardized format to allow different units from different manufacturers to fit together in the same case. There are four dominant formats the Eurorack (3U) format; the Moog Modular (5U) format, the Buchla format, and the Serge format; other formats are in less frequent use as well, including the Kosmo (Metric 5U) format, as well as virtual modular and semi-modular formats emulating the modular synth environment.
VCV Rack is a modern and popular virtual modular synth that can be used as a plugin in your DAW or as a standalone application. It is often praised for its ease of use, low or absent price threshold (only some plugins are paid), and for its wide range of modules available.
Modular synths can be as straightforward or complex as you want them to be. For example, a beginner may start with a few basic modules and build up their system over time, while an experienced user may have a massive system with hundreds of different modules. Modular synths offer nearly limitless possibilities in sound design and have the capacity to provide a unique and versatile custom electronic instrument. They often are considered to have a high barrier to entry for two main reasons:
Firstly, the price point is often considered prohibitive. An introductory case and set of modules can easily cost several thousand dollars. Immediately following using this assembled synth for the first time, a common response is to want new modules to add a new element of control or sonic possibility into the instrument. Modular synths are often considered a common exposure point for electronic musicians of critics of the bottomless financially-and-creatively-deprived hole that is Gear Acquisition Syndrome. However, some musicians know exactly what they want from their instrument, and the modular synth offers a powerful way to create that tool.
Secondly, the level of technical knowledge required to attain a level of mastery in the instrument can, for some, seem challenging. Understandings of audio synthesis, music theory, and general electrical knowledge are all highly practical with this instrument. A lot of the time, the investment of time in learning how the different modules work and can interact with each other is less appealing than being able to have an instrument, say a more standalone analog synth, that is ready to make music right away.
Comparing & contrasting analog and modular synths:
Analog synths have some advantages:
- Analog Synths tend to be more affordable than high-end digital or modular units.
- They are often more compact and easier to transport than a full case of racked modules.
- They require little to no initial assembly and are often ready to be turned on, warmed up, and put into music.
- They have an infinite resolution, causing them to tend to sound warmer and more organic than digital or software-based synths.
Analog synths have several notable disadvantages:
- They can be challenging to use due to the lack of visual feedback.
- They also are more temperamental, and as a result, their sounds can change over time.
- The components of an analog synth may age or experience different conditions, including temperature and humidity.
- These subtle environmental, and consequently electrical, changes may result in variation or even drifting of pitch and timbres.
What are the benefits of a modular synth?
Modular synths offer several advantages over both analog and digital units:
- Modular synths are reconfigurable and customizable, resulting in the ability to create exactly the sound you want.
- While analog synths only offer subtractive synthesis, modular synths have a wide range of synthesis options.
- Modular synths tend to be very user-friendly, even for those new to synthesis. They have a tactile, hands-on, knob-turning, patch-designing approach, which lends itself to this perception.
- Modular synths are highly flexible tools for a wide range of audio applications, making them an excellent option for beginner and experienced producers alike.
Photo by TStudio_lv
What are the drawbacks of a modular synth?
Modular synths come with several notable disadvantages:
- Modular synths can be challenging to master if you are unfamiliar with synthesis and basic electronics.
- Many modules require the equipment to be assembled from a kit.
- Modular synths are highly customizable. Consequently, you may need additional modules to get the sound you want.
- Replacement parts and new modules can be expensive and difficult to source, making maintenance difficult.
- The price can be a limiting factor for synth enthusiasts. Filled cases can cost many thousands of dollars!
Are there any other kinds of synths?
What are my other options?
- A digital synth is an electronic musical instrument that uses digital signal processing to generate sounds.
- A hybrid synth is a type of synth consisting of both digital and analog components.
- A semi-modular synth is an electronic musical instrument that allows different synth components to be connected internally or to external sources.
- A sampling synth, or sampler, is an electronic musical instrument that uses digital signal processing to generate sounds by triggering samples stored in memory. Sequencers or other MIDI devices can also control them.
- A software synth is a computer program that generates digital audio signals that can be converted into sound. Software synths can create a wide variety of sounds. These can range from recreations of traditional acoustic instruments to futuristic sound effects.
- A granular synth is a relatively new type of synth that uses tiny fragments of sound called grains to create new sounds.
When would you use an analog synth over a modular synth?
Analog synths are often seen as being more user-friendly than modular synths. This ease of use is often cited as being due to that analog synth that comes with a pre-wired signal path. Therefore, patching all the modules in a working order to generate sound is not something you will have to worry about.
Analog synths also typically have more traditional controls, such as a traditionally-styled keyboard, with switches, knobs, and faders in familiar layouts. These controls often contrast the complex and mutable arrangements of modules possible in a modular synth. As a result, many fans of the instrument find analog synths very easy to use.
An analog synth would be used instead of a modular synth when you want a more self-contained, immediately playable instrument. For example, An analog synth is a better choice than a modular synth as the center of a dedicated keyboard rig or workstation.
When would you use a modular synth over an analog synth?
You would typically use a modular synth instead of an analog synth when you want more flexibility and control over your sound. Modular synths can be intimidating initially, but once you get the hang of patching together modules, the possibilities are endless. If you are looking for a centerpiece for your whole studio, look no further! A carefully designed modular synth can fill almost any sonic role. Sound designers especially truly enjoy the instrument for its precision and versatility.
Modular Synth Software
There are a number of different software modular synthesizers available on the market today. Some of the most popular software modular synthesizers include Cherry Audio PS-20, u-he ACE, Native Instruments Reaktor 6, and Arturia Modular V3. Cherry Audio’s PS=20 is a dedicatedly accurate recreation of the legendary classic synthesizer, the Korg MS-20.The modular environment provided by u-he ACE is both versatile and has an easy learning curve, with full support for saving presets.
Native Instruments Reaktor is another popular modular synthesizer that offers a wide range of sounds and effects. Arturia Modular V3 is a modern emulation of the Moog Model 55 vintage modular synth. VCV Rack is a free and open-source virtual Eurorack DAW. It features modular synthesis, sample playback, sequencing, and effects. VCV Rack is perfect for those who want to get into modular synthesis without spending a lot of money.
The user interface can be a bit daunting at first, but there are plenty of online resources to help you get started. VCV Rack is a great way to get into modular synthesis without breaking the bank. These are just a few of the different software modular synthesizers available on the market today. There are many others available as well, so be sure to do your research before purchasing one.
Analog Synth Software
Analog synths are, by definition, composed entirely of analog circuitry and components, many software emulations and derivatives do exist. Analog synthesizers solely rely on subtractive synthesis to generate their waveforms, and robust software subtractive synth options are present in the stock plugins of all common DAWs. These include ES1 or Alchemy in Logic Pro, Operator in Ableton Live, Harmless in FL Studio, and Vacuum and Xpand! in Pro Tools.
Another popular option in both software and hardware analog synth plugins is Analog Modeling. Analog Modeling uses digital recreation of the unique behaviors of analog components, via both careful multisampling and digital signal processing, in order to mimic the behavior shown by the original circuitries of the analog hardware. Many of the largest synth manufacturers, for example, Roland, Yamaha, and Arturia offer much of their analog synth catalog as Analog Modeling synths, as well as plug-in variations.
For example; Roland Cloud Anthology II is a synthesizer emulator plugin that gives users access to a wide range of classic Roland sounds. The plugin includes 12 classic synthesizers, each with its own unique sound palette. In addition, the plugin features a host of advanced controls that allow users to tweak the sounds to their liking, in workflow and with output similar to the original devices being modeled. With its vast array of sonic possibilities, Roland Cloud Anthology II is an essential tool for any producer or musician looking to explore the world of synthesizers.
Analog and modular synths have unique strengths and weaknesses. The right synth for you is based on your creative needs and preferences as a musician or producer. However, with unlimited time and resources, a clear winner in terms of versatility emerges in the modular synth.
A traditional analog synth will be the quickest way to find that sound you desire. In contrast, the modular synth allows you to build your synth perfectly according to your musical needs and enjoyments. It can fill all your synth needs with the correct modules. If that need consists of creating an analog synth made entirely of analog modules, so be it. As a result, you will create the synth of your dreams.
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