Soundchips as Modular Synthesizers

I recently found the SID Guts rack, which turns the SID into a rack unit for modular composing. It seems to be really interesting to work with, and follows in the footsteps of eg POKEY.synth and myriads of DIY-projects. Long before that there was the Sidstation that made commercial synthesizers from the SID-chip. We’ll probably see more of this in the future, seeing that modular synthesizers is getting popular again.

So far, these platforms lack features (and bugs) that you get when working with these chips on a computer. With the original setups you could do multi-speed, sample playback, new waveforms, etc. To put it differently: you can’t use these systems to play the original chipmusic files, which rely heavily on various software trickeries.

Good riddance, maybe. To me, these rack units detach the soundchips from a context that has been tormenting them for decades: cheap and simple, nostalgic and videogamey, and used more for “programming than playing”, if you know what I mean.

Working with modular units means that you can have sounds/electricity affect eachother in complex setups. This is something that trackers are really bad at, because they work according to a linear logic, from top to bottom or vice versa. With these new machines, you can work in a more chaotic way, setting up systems that will play new music forever.

Or you know, “music”. Of course, it often turns into noise/drone/ambient which is a lot more introvert than the dance/pop aesthetics of the chip- and demoscenes. It seems to come with the territory. But anyway. These new gadget show two things that I think is important:

1. Soundchips are not as different from synthesizers as many people think. In fact, some of the early “synth music” like Cindy Electronium (1959) sounds very much like chipmusic. But in the 1990s these sounds were hi-jacked by 8-bit references, instead of being called analogue.

2. Even if you can technically make “any music” with a computer+soundchip+tracker, the music made with the rack interfaces are very different. For one, the cultural contexts crave for different music. The chipscene has been pretty obsessed with dance music, and modular synth geeks are … not. Secondly, the interfaces affect the way you compose. Trackers influence you to make music in certain ways. And I think this is an important point, which I was reaching for in my thesis. But if you want to make music, it might be a good idea to stay away from that topic…

10 Responses to “Soundchips as Modular Synthesizers”

  1. vainavpo Says:

    Ahh dood, modulars are not about drones. Thats just a damn stereotype! :D
    And were going to change that!

  2. KODEK Says:

    Ahhh.. thats a damn stereotype what you are saying about modulars! And I’m about to break it :D >>>

    • goto80 Says:

      Looking forward to you breaking a stereotype that doesn’t exist, then!


      Maybe it’s just me, but almost all concerts with modulars I’ve seen have been extremely introverted. Saw a duo from Malmö once, think they were called Plug, and they made incredible electro jams with machines from space.

  3. Linda Says:

    Is a modular synth also part of your definition of a modular unit? :-) (aahhh yeah, the being-buried-by-a-lot-of-keyboards-geeks…!)

  4. sand neil Says:

    (I would have thought a computer with, e.g. a BASIC interpreter on board would be maybe the perfect platform for “systems that will play new music forever”.)

    To me the interest in chip music really comes from the fact that it’s attached to a (certain kind of) computer and some implicit ways of interfacing with it (interfaces are /really important/). Take it out of context and it’s just a synth module that makes square waves. Which seems to me more conducive to “cheap, simple, nostalgic” music than before, like NINTENDO VST or the chiptune midi file player… but more expensive.

    The sexy dance f*ck-tune vs shoegaze drone is certainly a thing, but I’d say it’s a people thing not a technology thing – no shortage of people making cccllluuubbb bbbeeeaaatzzz on hardware synthesizers anyhow!

    Keep us posted on 8 bit modular thingses anyway. Bleep bloop~

  5. linde Says:

    I sometimes think of the difference between DAWs and modulars as compromises of immediacy and musical abstraction, respectively. Modulars have very few musical abstractions (maybe the volt/octave tuning scheme can be thought of as an abstraction for the sake of musical sense, or the naming of envelope parameters) and deal mostly with physical properties of the sound, and DAWs take on a more “MIDI level” type of abstraction where you are dealing with notes, velocities, measures, beats etc. One lets you get lost in atonal and unpredictable patterns, and the other lets you think more in terms of a musical ensemble.

    In that sense I think some trackers may be closer to modular synthesizers than they are to a modern DAW. If you look at Protracker, a lot of the musical terminology (notes, portamento, BPM, instruments etc.) are just really shallow abstractions of programmatically simple modulations, and more closely adhere to the features of the playback routine and the hardware than the musical properties they intend to emulate. The “instruments” aren’t really instruments, it’s just a table of sample playback pointers with corresponding sample data and loop settings. The pitches don’t really have much to do with musical pitch, it’s just a set of different period lengths that mean different things depending on the samples. “BPM” isn’t really BPM, it’s just close approximations that fit different player timer settings (assuming speed 6). “Portamento” really just means “increment/decrement the linear period value of the channel by this much on every tick” and don’t really make much musical sense… In the end I think Protracker is like a modular synthesizer in that it once you get over its superficial abstractions it favors thinking like the machine! Like, subconsciously transposing scales because your sounds are sampled at different pitches, or guesstimating the effect of a portamento depth based on the speed setting, switching samples mid-note because you’ve completely abandon the concept of separate “instruments” after a while…

    It’s fun to then look at Renoise, where the tracker concept — that might only have existed because it was “hard” (CPU/RAM/disk expensive?) to model musical ideas more closely at the time it was conceived — is made into an abstraction in itself. Now we model the tracker and apply it to VST instruments that primarily deal with very high level control signals. And the result is that we can’t have proper pitch slides on VST instruments :)

  6. Pavlov Says:

    I have always felt that you gave a point in this sentence: “the interfaces affect the way you compose”. I found it in the same line that the marxist quote: The base determines the superstructure.

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