Twenty years ago, few companies were still producing modular synthesizers. The mighty Moog Modulars, ARP 2500s, and Buchla Electric Music Boxes were reduced to studio camp or tucked away in university storage rooms. Boomer-era sonic pioneers focused their interests elsewhere, often finding fertile ground in new digital realms. But an important lesson of the recent analog re-revolution is that no computer can replace a great user-interface, and so reemerged the greatest sound synthesis interface of them all. Today companies like Analogue Systems, Analogue Solutions, Blacet, ModuSonics, Wiard, Synthesis Technology, and-you guessed it- Synthesizers.com, are all manufacturing new modular synthesizers for a new generation of passionate synthesists.
Two of the most unique new manufacturers are Bruce Duncan's Canadian Modcan company, and Cynthia Webster's California-based Cyndustries operation that produces modules in the Modcan format. Both have used the best lessons from synthesis history to produce cleverly updated modules with distinctive functions. The breadth of a typical Modcan/Cyndustries system far exceeds that of the canonical VCO/VCF/VCA architecture associated with classic modulars; Modcan and Cyndustries offer modules for logic processing, advanced sequencing, accessing digital wavetables, mixing in quadraphonic stereo space, and for other advanced and often abstruse applications. The build quality of these modules is exceptional, and the black aluminum panels with color-coded jacks are intuitive and beautiful. What adds to Modcan/Cyndustries' exclusivity is that the Modcan format is one of the few to utilize banana cables and jacks, eliminating the need for multiples, saving space, and offering longer jack life.
Modcan expands on classic standards, offering full- featured VCOs, VCAs, and other obligatory modules. For example, Modcan's Envelope 04a offers voltage control of every ADSR stage, a Trigger Delay feature, and a Hold feature that overrides the duration of incoming gates. Modcan also faithfully recreates some time-honored filter designs, including the Moog 907a fixed filter, the Moog 904a lowpass filter, the EMS Diode Ladder filter, and the ARP 4072 filter found in late Odysseys and 2600s. Many Modcan modules are multifunctional, like the versatile Dual LFO 05a that doubles as an envelope follower, AR envelope, audio oscillator, pulse divider, or single-pole lowpass filter. Modcan also offers modules with relatively obscure functions, like the Boolean 24a that provides an array of logic gates, and the Frequency Shifter 39a that takes an input signal's individual frequency components and shifts them by the same number of Hertz. Modcan also includes various mixers, audio processors, envelope followers, ring modulators, and more among their abundant offerings.
Cyndustries adds a number of more esoteric modules to the Modcan format, including many which provide clever ways to process gates, triggers, and CVs. Cyndustries' Gated Comparator (designed by Ken Stone) compares an onboard reference voltage to an incoming signal upon each incoming clock pulse, produces a pulse if the input voltage is greater, and acts as a shift register as it slides the sequence of resulting pulses down a column of outputs. Other Cyndustries' "Tribute Modules" are based on classic circuits like the mysterious Buchla low pass gates often associated with Morton Sobotnick's rubbery percussive patches. Like the Buchla gates, Cyndustries' Quad Low Pass Gates module uses low-tech Vactrol opto-couplers as the basis for the unique VCA/filter hybrids.
For veteran synthesists, the Modcan format's color- coded banana jacks and abundant pulse and trigger- processing functions will evoke the most extraordinary of all modular synthesizers, the Serge. Serge systems are uniquely powerful because of their built-in emphasis on user ingenuity and exploration: they encourage the free interchange of CV and audio signals, stretch time-based functionality to extreme limits, use inverting attenuators to create reciprocal functionality, and do not come with user manuals-all to facilitate experimentation to great ends. Modcan and Cyndustries use many of these and similar strategies to give their systems the same spirit of creativity and unpredictability. It is telling that Serge is the only first- generation manufacturer that never ceased production since its inception almost three decades ago, and Modcan and Cyndustries will hopefully enjoy the same long life span. (Modules start at $240 direct; www.modcan.com, www.cyndustries.com)