Small Systems: Limited is not crippled

Eighty-four hp and Five modules…

That’s my current system. And do you want to know a secret? I really enjoy it.

To hear us talk about modular synthesis, it often seems as if small systems are either impossible or crippled. But why? It’s not because you can’t make a good small system. No you say? What about Moog’s Mother 32? How about Make Noise’s 0-Coast? Doepfer’s Dark Energy? Kilpatrick’s Phenol? Dreadbox’s Erebus… These semi-modular synths aren’t exactly huge. Oh, and what about that Buchla Music Easel? It’s a bit bigger, but most of that space is taken up by the controller. All of these synthesizers are capable of making great sounds and providing great experiences in synthesis. Stepping into the world eurorack, consider Make Noise’s System Cartesian (104hp, 8 modules) and the Shuttle System (84hp, 5 modules). I dare say that any modular synthesist could find a lot of pleasure and plenty of great sounds in either of those systems.


What is so difficult about small modular systems then? It’s not that they can’t be good. Clearly, they can be excellent. The problem is that they are limited. Our space is not only finite (in any system our space is finite); it is immediately and painfully finite. And we find difficulty grasping anything more than its limitations. And now I believe we’ve stumbled upon the crux of the matter.

The problem is not the limitations inherent in a small system. The problem is our perception of those limitations. Rather than accepting the terms of a small system, we rail against them. We try to cram in as many modules as possible. Braids? No! micro Braids! 2hp Modules, and Pico systems. Then we have modules that do it all, more features per hp than you thought humanly possible! And the king of them all Disting! It’s microscopic and feature packed! And when all else fails, in fact, long before all else fails, GET A BIGGER RACK!*

The difference between our small systems and the one’s mentioned above is that the manufacturers accepted their limitations and learned to thrive within them. We on the other hand, in every way, subvert and sabotage the small system. I remember when I had decided to put Elements in my little 84hp rack, someone said, “that’s nearly 40% of your rack!” And they’re quite right! People have asked, “Branches, what good is that in a small rack?” “How do you use Frames in such a small rack?” It is as if the size of the rack itself deprives these modules of their purpose and usefulness. But, having been “stuck” with 3u 84hp for a year, I think this: A small system does not cripple modules. It lets them shine!

We have to learn to embrace limitations. If you’ve ever studied any of the arts, you should realize that limitations are part of what makes art, in any form, excellent. A writer does not use any or every word, but his words are carefully selected for his purpose. The painter is not like a toddler with a new crayon box, but expresses himself with his choice of pallet as much as his brush. The photographer manages his depth of field to draw our eyes to the wonders he shares with us. In a world full of sounds, the musician carefully chooses, not only his instruments, but the key of the music, the chords and the notes.

So, if you’re just starting out. If you don’t have that much money. If you just want to try and challenge yourself with a small system. Do it! We’ll talk more about putting together your small system later. But for now embrace its limitations. It will never have all the modules. It will never do all the things. But it can still be excellent! Acceptance is the first step.


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Honorable Mentions:
System Cartesian
Shuttle System

*I’m not down on small or deep modules, or even big synths. These products are all pretty sweet in their own right. But I think they are somewhat symptomatic of the modular synthesist desire to have and do it all. And that runs contrary to good, small-rack philosophy (IMHO).

**These quotes aren’t meant to paint anyone badly. They came from awesome, sincere, and intelligent members of the synth community. I’ve had great conversations with all of them and am glad to have had the opportunity to interact with them, and hope to continue to participate in the community with them in the future. I bring up these quotes because they have provoked me to introspection on the matter.

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