A Guide to Standalone Modular and Semi-Modular Synths

Getting into modular gear as a novice synthesist presents a unique set of challenges, but none are insurmountable. The learning curve is a bit more difficult than getting up to speed on monophonic synthesizers like the Sub Phatty and Korg Monologue—and adding modules to a rig, while a necessity from the outset, will also become addictive (but what gear lust isn't, really?). You'll also have to say goodbye to any notions of polyphony—modular rigs focus on monophonic and paraphonic synthesis.

On the other hand, a modular system can help budding synthesists develop a far more personal expression of sound, given that different brand modules can be added and removed instead of getting locked into one manufacturer's traditional keyboard or desktop synth.

For those thinking of entering the modular fray, but who would also like to save time and money, it might be best to find some modules that are more or less all-in-one packages—at least to start. That is, modular synthesizers that won't demand immediate research and purchase of modules for oscillators, filters, envelopes, mixer, and so on.

With that in mind, below we talk about a range of options for the all-in-one modular solution. Our list includes a few fully modular systems (meaning that all parameters are patchable) and semi-modular units (which means some parameters are pre-set). Yes, these are stripped-down, minimal modular and semi-modular rigs, which may not satisfy the more adventurous and neurotic musicians among us, but they are doubtless great places to start.

Moog Grandmother & Mother-32

Debuting in late 2015, Moog's desktop semi-modular analogue synthesizer, the Mother-32, boasts a signal chain that produces instant tones and notes via its onboard sequencer or a MIDI controller. However, its 32 patchpoints, located on the right side of the synth, allow for a wealth of patching possibilities to create pure modular goodness. While not as deep as Moog's Voyager and Sub 37 series synths, it's an incredibly musical synth—thanks to Moog's circuitry know-how—that helped establish a template for semi-modular synths (see: Studio Electronics Tonestar and Behringer Neutron), while paving the wave for Moog's most recent offering, the Grandmother.

Moog Mother-32
Moog Grandmother

A successor of sorts to the Mother-32, but a quite different machine in its own right, the Grandmother is a beautiful-looking and -sounding semi-modular synth. Instead of sticking with the desktop form factor, and the Mother-32's circuitry, Moog decided to shake things up a bit. For one, the Grandmother is a keyboard synthesizer, but one with patch points located across its nine modules. While its two oscillators are derived from the Mother-32 circuitry, the rest of the modules are inspired by Moog's vintage modular systems, especially the IIIp. This means it is even more instantly musical than its predecessor.

Moog Mother-32 Semi-Modular Synthesizer | Reverb Demo Video

Pittsburgh Modular LifeForms SV-1 Blackbox
Pittsburgh Modular LifeForms SV-1 Blackbox

Pittsburgh Modular is well-known within the Eurorack modular community. With LifeForms SV-1 Blackbox, they created an entry-level modular synthesizer that is a stripped-down, all-in-one solution.

The LifeForms SV-1 Blackbox is a two-oscillator modular synth, and is related to Moog's semi-modular Mother-32 tabletop synth, with built-in filter, modulation, envelope, and mixer modules. Thus, like the Mother-32, there is immediate sound creation potential, but the LifeForms SV-1's 53 patch points allow players to build out with other modules to add more sonic complexity. While it has an arpeggiator, you will need a sequencer if you want to create your own sequences.

Noir Et Blanc Nie's Moog Mother-32 vs. Lifeforms SV-1 video

Make Noise 0-Coast & System Cartesian

A little background. Traditionally, analogue synthesis was historically delineated as either East Coast (Moog) or West Coast (Buchla). That is, either the subtractive synthesis of Moog and other synth makers like Oberheim and Arp, or the additive, non-linear synthesis of the Buchla. (For the curious, we dive into the differences in "The Basics of East and West Coast Synthesis.")

With the 0-Coast, Make Noise attempt to combine these different philosophies, although the synth does lean a bit more toward Buchla's additive synthesis architecture. It's slim (easily fits in a backpack), rad looking, and capable of both traditional and very experimental sounds. In a very real way, it is the avant-garde answer to the more traditional, yet still cool Mother-32.

Make Noise 0-Coast
Make Noise System Cartesian

Make Noise's System Cartesian, which they describe as a "complete modular synth," builds on the 0-Coast philosophy, but combines it with the company's René Cartesian Sequencer. On top of subtractive and additive synthesis, the System Cartesian does FM synthesis, phase modulation synthesis, ring modulation, amplitude modulation, and more. And it does much of this simultaneously, resulting in some truly mind-bending sounds. If you're looking for a synth for experimental synthesis, whether its drone or ambient techno, or you're just looking to add some sonic complexity to your rig, the System Cartesian might be just the ticket.

Studio Electronics Tonestar
Studio Electronics Tonestar

Studio Electronics, a longtime maker of boutique analogue synths, got into the semi-modular game shortly after Moog debuted its Mother-32. With its Tonestar, Studio Electronics created a semi-modular synth inspired by the iconic Arp 2600 modular synthesizer (famously seen and heard in Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Looking nothing like the Mother-32, the Tonestar naturally sounds nothing like it either.

The Tonestar's sonic palette is colorful and dynamic, with a VCO and filter delivering incredibly rich, fat, and vintage depth. Its noise, drive, and feedback features also give it a gritty and experimental character as well. While it lacks an on-board sequencer like the Mother-32, it might ultimately offer players more sound design capabilities.

Synth City's Tonestar 2600 demo

Arturia MiniBrute 2
Arturia MiniBrute 2

Even after the twin successes of its Minibrute and MicroBrute synthesizer ecosystem, Arturia decided to up the ante. With the recent release of its MiniBrute 2, Arturia essentially blended the MiniBrute and MicroBrute to deliver a semi-modular keyboard synth that is something of a direct competitor to both the Grandmother and the MFB Dominion 1, at a fraction of the price.

Like the MicroBrute, the MiniBrute 2 features a patch bay. But this time, Arturia really expanded the modular programmability with 48 patch points, as opposed to the MicroBrute's eight. So, in a sense, the MiniBrute 2 is nothing like its forebears. Like the mark 1, the MiniBrute 2 features a primary oscillator that generates saw, triangle, and square waves simultaneously. But things get different in the oscillator section when the patch bay is exploited, allowing players to really modulate the VCO in interesting ways. And this new version also comes with a second oscillator, which is always a good thing.

The MiniBrute 2 is also packed with a 64-step sequencer, a feature that was only available on the MiniBrute SE model (now discontinued). Also notable is a suboscillator that, unlike its predecessor, comes with saw, triangle, and square shapes. These and other features guarantee that the MiniBrute 2 isn't just capable of raw bass sounds and leads, but more subtle electronic textures, whether it be ambient atmospheres, drones, or the strange harmonics of FM sounds (via the FM knob).

Plankton Electronics Ants!
Plankton Electronics Ants!

Though it features the cleanest, most minimalist design of any semi-modular synth on this list, the Plankton Electronics Ants! is no slouch in the sound department. This highly portable desktop synth features 51 patch points, four oscillators, and is paraphonic, which means it can play two notes at once via the MIDI input.

The Ants' four oscillators can generate Sine, Triangle, Saw and Pulse (with PWM) waves. It also comes with two LFOs, which can be turned into four by switching two of the XT oscillators into LFO mode. This flexible patchability allows the Ants! to be everything from aggressive to subtle, depending on one's inclination. Like the Mother-32, it might be one of the better entry points for those looking to get into modular synthesis.

Plankton Electronics' Ants! demo

Sonicsmith Squaver P1
Sonicsmith Squaver P1

Think of the Sonicsmith Squaver P1 as a guitar pedal meets modular synth. Billed as an "audio-controlled analogue synthesizer pedal," the Squaver P1 features an oscillator they call an ACO, or audio-controlled oscillator. This sets it apart from other semi-modular synths, which may be able to accommodate external audio from other CV-ready gear, but aren't specifically geared for audio input like the Squaver P1 is. It even has three footswitches that hint at its foot pedal influences—one for Sidechain In, one for ACO CV In (as mentioned above), and the other a Bypass function.

The Squaver P1 comes with a +40dB gain input gain amp, which allows it to not only process other electronic instruments, but line-level sources (guitars, bass, etc.), dynamic mics, and even samples. In other words, players can essentially turn non-electronic signals into synthesizers.

Outside of the oscillator section, which features a mix knob that blends square and sawtooth waves, the Squaver P1 comes with a Voltage Controlled Amplifier (VCA), two envelopes, a resonant Filter module (Low-Pass, Band-Pass, and High-Pass), Ring Modulation input, and CV input control, among a few other features. While the Squaver P1 is not as packed with as many prewired or patchable modulation capabilities, it's definitely still a handy tool for both synthesists, guitar and bass players, and even other instrumentalists looking to synthesize their signal.

MFB Dominion 1
MFB Dominion 1

No offense to the Korg MS-20 Mini, a modern, scaled-down retread of a classic semi-modular synth, or the Moog Mother-32, but the modern semi-modular synth arguably begins with the Dominion 1. Made by Berlin-based boutique synth maker, the Dominion 1 combines the best of monophonic analogue keyboard synthesizers with modular patchability—and a sound that is decidedly beautiful.

Like MFB's other synths and modules, such as the Tanzbär and Tanzmaus analogue drum machines, the Dominion 1 is inspired by Berlin's electronic scene, as well as German electronic music of yore. If you're looking for an intensely programmable instrument that is both musical and rhythmic (it features an arpeggiator and a 128-step sequencer), then the Dominion 1 is probably your synth.

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