The Teacher Learns

Sarah Belle Reid on connecting acoustic instruments with modular

We all have our ways of coping with despair: one of mine is learning something new. You may not be too surprised to learnt that my lovely theremins have led me to the ‘rabbit hole’ that is synths in general and perhaps most dauntingly, modular synths in particular. I have become a knob twiddler.

It’s spring break. It’s okay.

I suppose in part I can blame Sisters with Transistors for firing that particular neural path. Pauline Oliveros has long been an inspiration and I was fascinated as a youngster by Wendy Carlos’ Switched on Bach, but I admit the latter seemed so intimidating and opaque that it never sparked a desire to pursue it. Eliane Radigue put a spark in my brain: moving from musique concrète to her own experiments I realised was all about sound and fit more closely with the fascination I developed back in grad school for noise recordings.

To have all of these instruments at your fingertips, the infinite capacity for expansion and for experimenting. Having an orchestra and a wealth of weird sounds in the palm of your hand — or at least on your desk top — was such a richness. But overwhelming too! Where to start learning?

The first step was a free course offered by Sarah Belle Reid (see the video above for an introduction to her style), Your First Modular Synth Patch. I had watched different videos about synth patches but they were mostly like that cartoon of Learning to Draw (sorry, can’t find it easily) which goes from ‘draw a circle’ to ‘add some shapes’ to a sudden leap in quality that jumps over all the things you actually need to know to draw. It’s frustrating. Lots of dudes who don’t remember what it’s like to not know these things.

Reid broke it all down in short video lessons with clear steps and repeated concepts so you could put it all together by the end, understanding the basic concepts. She’s encouraging and clear, and breaks down the steps with examples that allow you to piece things together and go back if you stumble. If you’re even idly curious about synth patching I’d say sign up for the course. I’m on the waiting list for a more advanced course now. Also she uses a terrific open source app VCV Rack, which is free to start, but infinitely expandable.

The other thing I signed up for was Composing Experimental Music with Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu through Atlas Obscura. It was a whim. As the start approached, I doubted whether I was ready for such a thing (this is academia speaking through me: lacking credentials = scorn). If nothing else, I told myself, I’d get an inside look at the process even if I would just figure out that I really knew nothing, which can be a useful thing. Learning is a process of finding out what you do know.I didn’t really know much about Xiu Xiu; the first thing I bought was the Hilma af Klint inspired album. The first class I completely got over any sense of intimidation (though there were plenty of dudes who seemed bent on demonstrating that they knew everything already [so why are you in this class?]) because Jamie was so much fun and such a silly geek (I say this as a great compliment). I’m not sure what I expected but certainly it was not so many plushies 😉

Jamie Stewart creates a song in 10 minutes

What comes through is the joy of experimenting; a zeal to understand the process. I guess I was thinking of ‘experimental music’ as a category, but Jamie presented it as a a thing you do. Not necessarily trying to find a specific sound as seeing what you could create–especially if it was gnarly or noisy or even unsettling. And fun. So much fun. Have you ever considered the use of vibrators for percussion? The percussion class was a hoot and a half. The last class dealt specifically with modular synth and while it was still overwhelming (so many options) I could follow it. That’s a major breakthrough. I’m so glad I took the course.

I know my learning curve: it’s a long low sustained tone until a sudden rise of attack when I finally grasp the Gestalt of the thing. Sometimes it takes a very long time to reach that moment. Yet I feel as though my fingers are brushing against it. That’s an exciting feeling.

Arturia MicroFreak: an affordable introductory synth with a host of possibilities