Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Yoa on Synthesizers Vol. 2

"Why are modular synthesizers so expensive?"

This is a question I get asked pretty much any time after I tell a friend about modulars. Why is a basic VCO $200? Why is a simple mixer $80? Why are mults $50??? There's a simple reason for it. Well, three reasons:

1) Price of parts. A lot of electronics parts are very cheap, often just pennies per unit. Others average about $5 or more. Most modules are built to be high-quality, so panels are thick, jacks are strong, and connections are over-secure. Custom knobs are often employed, as well as silk-screened panels. A normal oscillator, like the Doepfer A-110, costs about $40-$50 to make.

2) Price of design. The real only reason Moog isn't the only modular brand, aside from they moved on, is because other people have different ideas. With this, of course, comes the fact that people should get paid for their time. Often, the people who design electronics for modular synthesizers went to school or have other formal training, and would at least like to make that money back with the skills they learned.

3) Profit. There's no real purpose in running a business if you make no profit. Profit is useful for stuff like, you know, food, and houses, and stuff.

Now, are there some examples of outrageous prices? Of course. Cases in point being anything by Cyndustries and Cwejmann and Modcan and MakeNoise and probably a few other brands. But, then you also have other things, like Apple, that want you to pay $3000 for a computer you'll mostly use for Facebook and cat videos. Or Gibson, who want you to pay $3000 for some wood and metal. But, since they have larger markets and have the same three reasons for their prices as modulars, people buy their products. They still complain about prices, but you also have people who complain about the price of a $1 phone app, which is something I'll never understand.

Am I saying that modulars are cheap? Nope. Am I saying that all prices are now justified? Negative. All I am saying is that usually, there is a reason behind the pricing.

"But why is it I can buy a Minibrute for $500, when that wouldn't buy but three modules?"

It is true that you can get a synthesizer for much cheaper than a modular and be perfectly happy with it. It is also true that, section for section, mainstream synths are cheaper (mainly because they can sell more, but still). But, with most mainstream synthesizers, they have a fixed signal path and few modulators. With a modular, you can design the signal path to be the most crazy, outrageous setup ever. Everything can make sound if you press it hard enough, and everything can modulate and be modulated.

What this means is you get a LOT more out of your $1000 modular than you do with your two $500 Minibrutes. "More bang for your buck" I think is the proper phrase there.

"But I can modify my mainstream synth to have jacks and it will be the same, right?"

If you have the skills and knowledge to modify your instrument with patch points, I say go for it. But, even still you are using what the synth comes with. That means you get that filter, that oscillator, that LFO. Modulars, sure, you can get one type of oscillator, or VCA, or whatever, but you can also get different ones from different people, and they will look, sound, feel, and interact differently. It gets unpredictable, which is usually where the "magic" comes from.

"But it is a lot of work!" or "But I can't save anything I do!"

All I can really say to this is why the **** are you trying to use a synthesizer at all? Yes, it takes half an hour to get your modular in tune, and yes it can take ages to get any sound out of it. No, there are no presets, but you can take pictures or use patch sheets, and you can record the resulting sound. You want easy and presets, either buy a new Moog or go digital. Modulars are about learning and exploration, either you want to do it or you don't. That's what you pay for, the ability to explore.

I'm not sure what the next Yoa on Synthesizers will be, so if you have a topic you want covered, just comment!