How Modular Synths Rekindled My Love of The NAMM Show

It’s strange how even something you are passionate about becomes boring and tiresome as it transforms into part of the monotony of life. The NAMM Show in Anaheim had become this way after many years of participation. Working for one of the exhibitors, it became more about the work needed to pull off the show as the years passed. Even walking and experiencing the show felt like an elephant migration, taking the same route through the aisles each year.

My first NAMM Show was in 2009. Being new to the company, my main purpose was to shake hands, meet sales reps and customers, and answer product questions. This left ample time to gaze at surrounding booths and walk areas of the show during lunch breaks in lieu of eating a meal. As years passed, responsibilities increased and the wonder of NAMM faded.

Three years ago I began doing research on modular synthesizers for a new project as demand for accessories for the Eurorack modular synth format increased. While it successfully led to a new product line for the company, it also sparked a new personal musical interest that grew as the research and development progressed.

The concept of modular synthesizers requires some explanation. When not in use, modular synthesizer rigs can be confusing. When they are in use, they are a chaotic combination of metal, knobs, lights, and cables. They can simply be overwhelming at first glance.

Thanks in large part to the 80’s, the average synthesizer image that comes to most people’s minds is that of an electric piano with some additional knobs to control the sound you hear. Modular takes the all-in-one synthesizer and breaks it down to its various components. Manufacturers then modify each component to create something unique to their sonic ideals.

Electronic musicians and enthusiasts piece together a synthesizer rig consisting of various components, or modules. Patch cables are then used to make the physical connections between these modules. The sound you hear is the result of painstakingly building and adjusting sound waves, sequences, and signal paths—the essence of music synthesis.

Perhaps the ultimate thrill of modular synths is the lack of permanence in the process. The golden age of audio recording gave the world wide musical experiences in spite of—and possibly as a result of—the limitations of analog. Recording depended on things like microphone placement, editing by splicing tape, and bouncing tracks to record various instruments. As digital recording improved, those teachings were slowly lost. Tape machines were relegated to the corners of tracking rooms as symbols of a more “difficult” time. Today, studios large and small wield unlimited tracks and effects. The danger of analog recording is gone. And with it, so is much of the experimentation.

Modular synthesizers are a lot like those older days of recording. After spending hours perfecting a piece, it’s imperative to record it or risk never getting it back again. Accidentally pulling one cable or tweaking a knob is all it takes to permanently change what has been created.

It was at the 2016 NAMM Show that my excitement levels began to increase. That year, I spent most of my free time within the growing area of modular synthesizers. It was the first time I got to witness players showcasing their abilities and novices (myself included) getting their first taste of patching these perplexing instruments.

It was that same year that saw Moog take modular to a new level. Their booth was transformed into a sort of cactus garden where you used nature and Moog synthesizers to relieve stress. The folks at Moog deemed it the Island of Electronicus (This concept was topped in 2018 when Moog took their booth off-site and created the House of Electronicus).

There were multiple stations on the floor with pillows for visitors to sit and play. While a few different Moog synths were present, many of the stations were devoted to their latest release: the Mother-32 semi-modular synthesizer. It was Moog’s first product designed specifically for the Eurorack synth crowd.

The Mother-32 is the ideal introduction into modular because while it includes a patch panel, it functions like a small Moog synth when cables are avoided. One can simply turn up the volume, hit a key, and hear a sound. The patching ability then becomes a new level of depth for a Moog synthesizer. It also means the Mother-32’s various components can be used in combination with other Eurorack modules should the player decide to expand.

Moog is an iconic symbol of electronic music and owning one was always a dream. The question of how to begin experimenting with modular had been answered. I spent the rest of 2016 learning about modular in my free time and finally picked up a Mother-32 after NAMM 2017.

With the 2018 show upon us, my company decided to put together a few demo units for the show. One of these demos was to be a Eurorack rig. Assembling, understanding, and utilizing the rig became my project. I was able to take the rig home on the weekends to familiarize myself with its components and capabilities. Each morning at the show, I implemented a simple patch. Visitors then had the ability to play with the rig as they came by to check out our products.

My love for music creation and sound manipulation had finally returned—as did my excitement for NAMM. The show was again a space for creativity within a business environment. The week was filled with not only musical ideas but also ideas for future products. I was renewed at both a personal and professional level. The wonder of that first experience in 2009 had finally returned.


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