KMR Audio's Top 10 Semi Modular Synthesizers
Semi-Modular Synthesizers are becoming more and more prevalent in the synthesis landscape nowadays, with a staggering array of options available each with a unique flavour and feature set, we’ll take a look at some of the options on the market right now and give you a rundown of what to look for when picking the synth that’s right for you.
In this article we'll outline our top 10 favorite semi-modular synths, explain what they do and also try to give some insider tips to get the most out of them.
Over the last few years it would be somewhat of an understatement to say that there have been some significant innovations in the synthesis market; we’ve had numerous re-issues of vintage synthesizers, countless new and unique analogue synthesizers and exponential growth in the Eurorack modular domain. With the rise in popularity of modular designs we are starting to see more and more semi-modular synthesizers hit the marketplace.
Most synthesizers that you’ll see are pre wired, with a signal path that is set from the factory. Almost synths allow you to modulate different parts of the architecture, the VCO’s, Filters or the VCA for example, but those destinations are fixed or normalized internally. Semi-modular synthesizers are pretty unique as they offer a normalized pre wired signal path whilst also offering the ability to re-wire the synthesizers functions to create unusual sounds and behaviours.
This unique feature means that a whole foray of different tones, texture and timbres is available to you with a few simple patches. Or you could just leave the synth un-patched and enjoy the intended signal path…….but where’s the fun in that!? If you’ve ever considered working with a modular system - a smaller, less expensive semi modular is a great choice for those who want to explore the modular format.
Whilst the format isn’t exactly anything new, it’s fair to say that there’s been a wide variety of different semi-modular synths arrive in the marketplace as of late, some offering more complex sound generation capabilities than other. So, onto our suggestions for some of the incredible semi-modular synthesizers currently available for your music making pleasure.
A quirky, boutique semi modular synthesizer from Greece that offers deep modulation capabilities and paraphonic playability. Built around two multi-wave wide range oscillators, this synth is seriously capable; smooth enough for dense ethereal pads and angry enough for some hard hitting acid bass lines, this synth can do it all. With 6 patch outputs and 9 patch inputs there’s enough patching potential to keep even the keenest wiggler busy.
If you’re a fan of Oberheim sounding filters then is one worth playing with. A rich, sonically unique and very flexible synth.
Insider knowledge; patch the LFO output into the external audio input to give you a third VCO. Plus you can use EREBUS as a paraphonic MIDI to CV converter.
I’d be very surprised if you hadn’t heard of the Mother-32, this little synth caused quite a stir when it was announced as it basically brought Moog into the eurorack marketplace, since the synth can be removed from its housing and mounted into a standard eurorack case.
The Mother-32 provides an astonishing amount of patching capabilities, it packs in an authentic Moog ladder filter, a 64-step CV sequencer, a single dual wave VCO, AD envelope generator which all comes together to create that fat, classic moog tone.
And if run of the mill synthesis tones aren’t your bag, then re-wire the synth to generate a plenthora of unique tones and textures. An excellent first synth for modular beginner or equally useful for those with existing systems looking to add an extra voice to their system…..heck the filter is worth the price tag alone!
Insider knowledge; whilst the specs might say the Mother has a single VCO, you can sacrifice the LFO and use it as a second sub oscillator to fatten up the sound.
A new kid on the block, the Modulor 114 from SoundMachines has already raised some eyebrows in the modular community….and it’s not even fully released yet! Based around the architecture of the NS1 Nanosynth, Modulor 114 provides a complete modular synthesizer architecture in a single synthesizer voice.
Eurorack compatible also, Modulor 114 like Mother-32 can be removed from its outer housing and will comfortable live inside a eurorack enclosure, great for beginner systems or for those who want to add a second voice to an already existing system.
With USB MIDI IO and a full range of digital logic gates and controllers, the Modulor 114 take the semi modular concept further than any other commercially available system available.
Modulor 114 includes two analogue oscillators and more modulation capabilities than you can shake a stick at….plus it has a ribbon controller and built in DSP effects!
Insider knowledge; the red sections of the synth represent a normalized architecture, press the onboard synth button to ignore the patched signal path and use it like any other monosynth!
When Roland announced the AIRA range, it's safe to say everyone went a bit mental. I mean, finally Roland re-issuing (sort of) their legendary drum machine, bass synth and.....also releasing a rather interesting digital synth that was unlike anything else they had ever made.
The System-1 at its very core is a two oscillator digital polysynth, that contains a deep synthesis architecture and is capable of some pretty impressive sounds. One of the things that some people didn't agree with however was the keybed; a flat, actionless portable keybed designed for inputting sequences and one hand chords, it was made for players.
The follow up, System 1m allowed Roland to do two things;
- Drop the keybed that most people couldn't gel with.
- Improve the already impressive sound design capabilities by making it semi-modular.
But one other thing it also did was bring preset storage capabilities to the modular domain making it a solid choice for those who want to use a modular system in a live performance situation.
With 20 patch points and the same "tweak friendly" architecture from it's keyladen bredrin, this semi modular workhorse is perfect for any level of synthesist.
Insider knowledge; Just like the other synths in the AIRA range, System 1m can sync with the MX-1 using AIRA sync over USB, allowing perfect timing plus audio and power to be passed between your TR-8, TB-3 and your modular rig.
How could we have a conversation about anything modular without an appearance from Doepfer? Probably the first semi-modular synthesizer to rise from the neo-analogue era, the Dark Energy is a gorgeous, pure monophonic synthesizer that originally started as the A-111-5 mini synth voice module.
Dark Energy's architecture whilst "standard" in terms of the signal path, what it can do when it comes down to synthesis capabilites is really quite impressive, for example;
There's dedicated FM sections for the VCO and crossmod FM on the VCF, plus AM modulation for the VCA, all of which are controlled by their own dedicated attenuators and have two switchable modulation sources.
Whilst the internal patching potential of this synth is fairly limited, there is already enough onboard to enable you to dial in a wide range of monophonic tones.
Insider knowledge; Dark energy can actually be used as a monophonic USB MIDI to CV converter, just like the Dark Link.
The Sound expander module or SEM from Tom Oberheim heralds from the first wave of popularisation of analogue synthesizers, originally released back in the 1970's the SEM module was intended to be used alongside other synthesizers and keyboards to provide a second sound source for solos and bass lines.
The SEM gained popularity because it didn't sound like anything else available at the time, it's unique filter architecture mean that it didn't have the feel or responsiveness of a Moog or an ARP, it has a sound all of its own.
The reissue of the Two Voice Pro has also meant that the original designs of the SEM modules have been remade. The new patchable SEM module includes the same 2 VCO, variable VCF and single LFO architecture as a normal SEM, but it also includes 31 patch points for integrating external signals and also re-routing the intended signal path for extra sound sculpting power.
Insider knowledge; the VCF doesn't self oscillate on a SEM, whilst this can be seen as a downside to some it does mean that there are more subtle FM tones to be achieved when modulating the filter and sweeping the resonance, since the VCF doesn't disappear into self oscillation these subtle tones changes are far more obvious and pleasing.
The Vostok from Analogue Solutions is one of those special kind of synths, if you've ever played with one you'll know what I mean. It doesn't really sound like anything else but at the same time feels "vintage" and familiar.
Always ahead of the curve, Analogue Solutions brought out the Vostok way before analogue synths became "cool" again. Heavily inspired by the EMS Synthi AKS, the Vostoks patching duties are handled by shorting and resistor pins which are pushed into the patch matrix allowing for new and unusual connections to be made within the synths voice structure.
The 22 x 22 matrix allows for a huge range of modulation possibilities and treatment to be dialed in from advanced cross oscillator modulation to more linear applications like simply routing the CV pitch information to the VCO's....
Everything has been carefully considered on Vostok, there's a mixer section with both positive and negative outputs, handy for inverting and mixing CV signals, a multi mode filter section with separate modulation sections, user assignable joystick controls, 3.5 to 6.5 adaptors, acutronics spring reverb plus much more.
This tidy little suitcase is one of those synths, that those in the know love and revere.
Insider knowledge; the different resistor pins technically work as static depth controls, the higher the impedance of the resistor pin used in the patch matrix, the less depth or intensity is applied to that modulation location.
Whilst the MatrixBrute doesn't have physical patch points on its front panel, it's a as semi-modular as anything else on this page. Based around the oscillator circuitry from the MiniBrute, the MatrixBrute includes two of the aforementioned minibrute VCO's.
Each waveform that the VCO circuit produces has it's own dedicated mix control and a colouration / modifier tied to it, meaning very complex, evolving tones can be generated with ease and manipulated to your hearts desire.
The modular side of things isn't handled pay the standard forray of patch cables, it is instead handled by a rather ingenious LED patch matrix akin to that found on the Vostok and the EMS Synthi AKS. The Matrix provides instant visual feedback for your currently wired patching points and it also provides individual depth controls for each patch made within the matrix.
In keeping with their sequencing prowess, the matrix also doubles up as a 64 step sequencer, which can handle pitch, glide, accent and also modulation, the later of which has its own dedicated lane for routing that information around the synth.
Another interesting feature is the dedicated oscillator mod section, which allows for different forms of FM, AM and ring mod to be applied to the VCO's.
There's three envelope generators, two LFO's and the third VCO can also be utilized as an LFO for even more modulation potential.
Cram all this in with two different filters and an analogue effects section and you have a synthesizer unlike anything else currently available.
Insider knowledge; though currently unreleased, we have had some time with a prototype unit and whilst playing with said unit we found some very interesting features when using the offset (master cuttoff), there's lots of different filter tones that can be dialed in with relative ease. Play with the filter settings and the offset to generate new and unusual sounds.
Best known for the CODE and the SE-1X, Studio Electronics have become somewhat of a staple in the analogue synth domain, the Boomstar range which they have become quite famous for in the last couple of years are all essentially the same synthesizer, but what sets them apart are the different filter circuits each model emulates.
The 4075 in particular is a favorite here at KMR, designed to emulate the lawsuit 4075 circuit from the legendary ARP 2600, the 4075 is fat, ballsy and acts every bit like the original 2600 did.
Built around two VCO's, the Boomstar range is capable of some pretty impressive sounds, thanks to its well thought out front panel and modulation capabilities.
There's looping envelopes, which can act as a pseudo LFO a syncable multi-wave LFO and plenty of patch points for triggering the envelopes in weird and wonderful ways.
Insider knowledge; there's quite a lot of grunt on this synth, plus plenty of different overdrive modes for getting different saturated tones...use sparingly!
Semi modular synths are a perfect entry point for any budding synthesist, since their unique form factor teaches you way more about synthesis than your average synth ever could.
Then again, if you want more you could always go the whole hog and get yourself a modular system.
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By Tom Lewis