Modular Mayhem: A Conversation with Jas Shaw of Simian Mobile Disco

With their daunting rows of plugs, switches, and knobs all criss-crossed by webs of colorful cables, modular synthesizers can seem more like scientific instruments than musical ones. That’s not a far-fetched comparison, as many musical pioneers experimented with modular synthesis to create the foundations of electronic music.

These days, modular synthesizers are growing more popular among both established producers and novices. The marketplace for individual modules used to create, shape, and sequence a signal is booming, providing artists with a wealth of choices and fewer hassles.

To help provide a sense for how artists use modular synthesizers, we spoke with expert Jas Shaw from the English duo Simian Mobile Disco. Shaw and his production partner, James Ford, have been using modular synths in their studio and onstage for nearly a decade. Combined with their restless pursuit of new sonic territory, the duo’s malleable rig has kept their music fresh and unpredictable — just as likely to rain down bombastic techno beats as fluttering, majestic ambience.

Communicating via email, Shaw discussed his entry point into modular synthesizers, how they impact SMD’s live performances, his thoughts on the modular boom, and some unexpected advice for the modular-curious among us.

How did you start getting into modular synthesis? What was the rest of your setup at the time?

My first modular rig was an Analogue Systems Eurorack system that I bought secondhand. It was already full, so I didn’t have the “what-shall-I-buy-next” moment. I just sat with it for months — years eventually — and worked out how it functioned. Like some sort of lowbrow “Dogme 95” methodology, I restricted myself to making/treating all sounds with just the AS boxes. So I learned a lot about synthesis by forcing myself to make everything from scratch.

How has your setup changed as you've incorporated modular elements into it?

Then Analogue Systems rig was my first real core element. For a long time, I did everything with just that and a computer. I still take the AS rig on tour and often use it in the studio. I’ve accumulated a bunch of other bits along the way. But the modular rigs are generally the first boxes I turn on if I want to make a sound, so I suppose you could say my setup hasn’t changed that much.

What are some of your favorite synth modules?

I’ve just gotten back into my MOTM format system that’s impractically enormous, like Duplo is to Lego. It’s largely DIY stuff and has been “fixed” and calibrated by me to a pretty questionable standard. I had a year or so where I didn’t have the space to set it up, and it’s kind of a pain because it requires lots of babying. But it sounds so lovely that it’s worth it. Coming back to it has been great, as I’ve gotten back into some of the modules that I had previously written off.

How do those synths integrate into the rest of your setup (how does everything connect)?

The appeal of the studio has always been that it can be approached as an instrument — something that can be played, something that’s expressive in it’s own right. Once you get your head around a studio patchbay and how to mess with the signal flow in fun ways, it’s really all “modular.” Anything can be connected to anything else in (almost) any order, and then you push faders and turn dials until techno comes out.

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Does what you're making change how you use modular synthesis? Like dance music versus something more experimental, for example.

Not especially. I tend to turn the boxes on and just see what they have to say that day. Sometimes it’s suitable for clubs, sometimes not. It seems that I have little influence on the outcome.

Is it possible to get pinpointed sounds or is it always some form of approximation? How do you keep yourself from falling into a productivity wormhole of endless messing around?

In my experience, the synth is often right. You have to be willing to compromise with it. If you want something specific, you should either sample it or do it in software.

You've toured extensively with modular synths. How are they as live instruments? How do they change your set?

On one level, they’re a pain. We tour with a voltmeter and a soldering iron, and they get used. On another level, they’re fantastic. If something blows, you can just pop the module out and, with a bit of lateral thinking, find a way to patch around it. Not perfect, but it gets you through the gig. You can then just send that broken module off to be fixed or replaced rather than having to send the whole rig away.

Ergonomically, it’s a mix too. There’s lots of cable clutter and some knobs that, if touched, will make everything go to shit, forcing you to retune or recalibrate. This is embarrassing on stage, but it’s just one dial per function. You learn the layout very quickly, to the point where you can navigate them in the dark. My AS rig is the longest-standing part of our touring rig by a mile — it has been on the road as long as we have. The rig has needed fixing a few times but has never missed a show.

Simian Mobile Disco

Modular synthesis has become more popular recently. How has that affected consumers' options and the quality of what's out there?

Honestly, it’s good. Good for the manufacturers who are all small companies — often just one person building stuff in their home. Good for people who previously would have had to DIY some circuits if they had wanted them. Not everyone wants to spend time soldering, after all. It’s good for music, too.

Certainly a full modular rig is an expensive prospect, but you can buy a cheap case and put a handful of modules in there for less than the price of a mid-level guitar and amp. You don’t need a wall of stuff to get going. Then you can swap and sell stuff that you don’t get on with. You can pick up new bits as and when you have money. You have a tactile instrument that’s fun to use, so make some music.

You can buy a cheap case and put a handful of modules in there for less than the price of a mid-level guitar and amp.”

I guess where I depart from the new generation of modular types is that I like simple modules. Much of the current market features packages of several basic circuits that are patched together in an interesting way with the controls laid out to be mostly in the sweet spot. That’s great for live PAs. There’s nothing wrong with it in the studio. But I’ll often see a new module, look at the functionality, and build it out of my simple, unglamorous modules rather than buy it. That process teaches me more than just buying the module and fiddling with it.

What advice would you give someone looking to start on the modular path?

Be wary of advice. There are some wonderful sources of information out there and some genuinely useful advice from people who want to help. But taking too much stock in that advice can make you less individual, more like the others. Worse, it can foster the habit of asking others for solutions that you could find for yourself. We are not smarter than you, your solution is valid. Get some modules and a pad of paper, start plugging and twisting, and write down the things that interest you.

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