Small Systems: Support modules

We’ve come to terms with the limitations of a small system. We have chosen a focus for our system, be it a particular module or concept. Now it’s time to consider the supporting modules, which will help us to fully express ourselves within our chosen space.

There are three principles for choosing support modules in a small system.

  1. Each module must serve the focus of the system.
  2. The synth must function as a closed system.
  3. Synergize whenever possible.

First: Each module must serve the focus of the system.
We must stay focused when building our synth. Carelessness is the bane of a small system. I started out creating a basic system in my 84hp rack. It was all good up until I grew aimless. I made decisions based on my aspiration for a larger system, and sometimes just on whimsy and “hey that’s neat!” or “hey that’s on sale!” Once I started down this road, my synth became muddled and frustrating.

Space is at a premium in the limited system. We can’t afford to waste hp on modules that don’t serve our purpose. If a module doesn’t help us accomplish our artistic goal, or serve to get the most out of the module around which our system centers, it doesn’t go in the rack.

Beware the word “and”. If you see a spiffy new module and think, “my synth could do this, and this…” If you want a do-it-all system, go big. This is not meant to stifle curiosity, discovery or exploration. But only to remind us that small means focused.

Second: The synth must function as a closed system.
When designing our small system, we must always think of it as an isolated system. Yes, it can certainly interact with other compatible systems, and that’s fantastic. But we are creating an instrument which must be able to stand on its own. If at any point in time we depend on modules from a second system to achieve our sound we’ve failed. I love what Olivier Gillet (of Mutable Instruments) says in this quote, from a Reddit AMA:

Good desktop units should be “convex” – if you use feature A and if you think “hey, I’d need feature B to combine it with”, then feature B should also be available in the unit, and feature B should suggest feature C that’s also available in the unit… That’s why I think putting 3 or 4 existing MI modules in a box would result in a very frustrating device – it’s normal for a module to create a need for a modulation, a source that can be found elsewhere, but this craving shouldn’t happen in a standalone unit.

This rule is most difficult to follow. Obviously given the nature of modular, we can enjoy the greater interaction between a wide variety of modules. The functionality of our synth should not require external support. It must flourish within its boundaries.

Third: Synergize whenever possible.
It is not always possible to have a deep synergy between supporting modules. (Serving the focus of the system must always be primary) but in a small system when we can find strong synergies between our support modules it helps bind the instrument as a whole and multiplies our power to explore the sonic potential of our chosen territory. It is important therefore, to remember the cohesiveness of the whole.

These three principles should help us to maintain the focus of our system, bring definition to our ideas, and cohesiveness to the instrument.


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