Modular Synth - Part 1

Ilia Rogatchevski

Modular Synth making - Part 1

The night was dark, but the mood jubilant. For his set, which closed the Friday night festivities at Liverpool Psych Fest 2013, Ralph Cumbers (aka Some Truths/Bass Clef) toyed, in static ecstasy, with a weighty rectangular case. Its lunar surface was littered with crater-like ports and numerous pots, each set and reset by Cumbers’s expert fingers to values beyond the comprehension of any layman.

Cumbers patched in the box and turned it on. For the next forty-or-so minutes, the generous crowd rode high on gold leaf sine waves. Fragile and ephemeral, these bursts of voltage provided a well-deserved contrast to most of the reverb-soaked guitar dirge present at the festival. The fact that Cumbers performed with his back to the audience, effectively opening up his process to them, invited curiosity and helped to deconstruct the awfully tired ‘God is a DJ’ cliché. It would be inaccurate to say that I was hooked, but intrigued, certainly.

Ralph Cumbers - Some Truths/Bass Clef - Doepfer A-100 Ilia Rogatchevski

Beyond guitar pedals

For a few years now, I have been becoming increasingly aware of the limitations my ignorance of technology was imposing on my performative abilities. Playing with guitar pedals is all well and good, but surely knowing what happens to the signal inside the stomp box is even more advantageous.

This knowledge can only help to improve one’s understanding of sound, its behaviour and the emotional effect it has on an audience. Furthermore, it expands the colour palette, so to speak, contributing to the diversity of the sonic range for the artist concerned. There’s a lot to be said for freedom arising from limitation (punk music is a staple example in this respect), but if an artist is concerned with longevity, as well as immediacy, knowing one’s instrument inside and out will not hinder your creative trajectory.

Synth modules Ilia Rogatchevski

Bass Clef’s studio and the Doepfer A-100

In order to correct this moribund state of being, I have, half-heartedly, tried to entice my learned friends to give me a tutorial in soldering kit-electronics. Not one of them relented (perhaps I should have offered them money?). It wasn’t until the tail end of 2014 that I started thinking about this subject a little more seriously. There were two reasons for this. First of all, I managed to invite myself over to Bass Clef’s studio. For a couple of hours, on a bitingly bitter day that fell into the limbo crevice between Christmas and New Year, his Doepfer A-100 modular system was at my mercy. Patch cables meandered like rivers from one port to another, generating an incessant electronic rabble that grew in complexity as more modules were activated.

I’m not entirely sure what it was that I was doing, but the fleeting nature of the work made the whole experience seem like magic. The second reason was that my lovely girlfriend, perceptive as ever, booked me into a synth building workshop as a yuletide gift: a commitment from which I could not escape, had I even the desire to do so.

Music Hackspace workshop Susanna Garcia @sus_mtf

Music Hackspace synth building workshop

The two-day event was organised by Music Hackspace and held at Container Ville, directly beneath the romantic rust of the Cambridge Heath gasworks. The group runs talks, tutorials and workshops that explore the versatile middle ground dominated by DIY aesthetics in the music and electronics venn diagram. Members from Befaco, a modular synth developer from Barcelona, supplied the workshop with pre-booked kits, soldering irons and hands-on advice throughout.

Music Hackspace workshop Susanna Garcia @sus_mtf

Soldering tutorial

My weekend began with a quick soldering tutorial from Diego. It turns out there is not much to it: you must first heat the printed circuit board (PCB) and component leg(s) for a few seconds, so that the solder adheres to them and not the iron; then ensure that you have melted enough solder (but not too much) and quickly pull away. The solder solidifies almost instantaneously. Simple.

This process is then repeated many, many times with each component soldered to its specified place on the silkscreened PCB. Each module comes with step-by-step instructions and providing these are followed with care, the process becomes uncannily reminiscent of Meccano. The only things one needs to watch out for is the polarity of the capacitors and directionality of the diodes, but if one enjoys delicate, methodical work then this is definitely the place to be.

Synth modules Ilia Rogatchevski

Power bus and output modules

I had decided to build my synthesiser from scratch. This meant that the first two modules had to be a power bus and an output module. Essentially, the power bus is a long PCB wired to a +-15V power supply. The Befaco model has fourteen IDC connectors, permitting it to power fourteen individual modules. The bus is also designed to house redundant blade connectors, allowing for easy chaining and paving the way for a large, sophisticated system. The output module is a mediator between the synthesiser and the outside world. It has a high-pass filter (for attenuating low end frequencies), little LEDs that show there is a signal going in/out, as well as Mono/Stereo and Phone outputs, which ensure that the sounds generated by the machine can be heard by people too.

Putting together the above took up a significant portion of the workshop. There was enough time in the second session, however, to build a third module: a contact microphone designed by Thonk (see video below). This little piece of kit is pretty simple to put together and did not take me much longer than an hour. It’s quite fun too, as it entitles the user to generate extraneous sounds during a live set by utilising the built-in (or plugging in an external) piezo microphone.

Seasoned musicians and beginners

The workshop attracted an interesting array of people. Seasoned electronic musicians sat side by side with complete beginners. Next to me was a couple, working together, who decided that a modular synthesiser would be an ideal Christmas present for each other. The atmosphere was one of relaxed avocation. Conversation was sparse, as the work required austere concentration, but there was always someone on hand to help and dogmatic egotistical jibes were out of the question.

The old dictum that a man must do three things in his life – plant a tree, build a house and father a son – may be uncouth and outmoded, but the desire to build something, nevertheless, inspires a surge of much needed energy that helps to battle mundane activity prevalent in our surrounding passive environments.

Music Hackspace workshop Susanna Garcia @sus_mtf

Freedom and experimentation

There are many companies out there that offer ready built systems, but part of the fun, at least for me, was starting from the ground up. Modular synthesisers differ from their hardwired keyboard cousins by their flexibility. A modular system will not only allow you chose your own filters, envelopes and oscillators but also to direct the signal flow. In a way, it is a project, that once begun, is never truly finished. Perhaps it is this underlying freedom which attracts an ever increasing number of experimental musicians to the format.

Music Hackspace workshop Susanna Garcia @sus_mtf

Befaco workshops are free, but modules have to be booked in advance. Circuit bending workshops cost £45 and provide all the tools, materials and components. For more information or to make a booking, please contact Susanna at

Upcoming workshops:

22nd March: Circuit Bending Workshop with Tasos Stamou
18th and 19th April: Modular Synth Workshop with Befaco

Music Hackspace workshop Susanna Garcia @sus_mtf

  • Ilia Rogatchevski is a Russian-born multimedia artist living and working in London. His prolific output varies from painting and collage to video and sound art installations. His methodology revolves around appropriation, montage and the relationship between word and image; taking cues from subversive modernist artists like Guy Debord and Marcel Duchamp. He also fronts an experimental post punk band called Sebastian Melmoth, writes reviews for various online music publications and runs a cassette label in his spare time. He is a member of the band Parva Hinton.

For more information, please visit:
Sebastian Melmoth Interview