Small Systems: The Dark Side

All this time I’ve spent literarily and philosophically pandering to small systems, you might think they could do no wrong. You might think that they are morally, intellectually, and artistically superior to large systems. We’ll, you’d be wrong. The truth is that they are just smaller. And just as there are advantages, there are drawbacks. So wipe that smug look off your tiny-rack loving, knob-twiddling face. It’s time to face the dark side of small systems!

In my experience, I’ve found two main drawbacks to small modular systems. Certainly there are more, but these hit the hardest.

  1. Compromise
  2. Hindered Experimentation

First off compromise. This one is really hitting me square in the teeth right now. Ever since I began to conceptualize my miniature Mutable Instruments system, a pair of Tides modules has been part of my plan. But my case is only so big. There is room for a second Tides, but something else has to leave. I can gain the functionality of another Tides, but other functionality must be sacrificed. The truth is, I have several good options, but each of them involves making a compromise. Each of them involves sacrifice. When we set out to build our small system, we accepted there would be limitations. Compromise is a result of those limitations.

Second, hindered experimentation. It isn’t impossible to experiment with a small system. You can pull stuff out, and put stuff in and try out new configurations. But, for one, constantly swapping modules can become a nuisance. Furthermore because you can’t keep all the modules up and running at once, you may well miss out on some cool interplay between certain groups of modules. However, unlike the compromise inherent in a small rack, we can facilitate experimentation by simply acquiring a supplementary rack. (I am seriously thinking about horking out some cash for a Happy Ending Kit just so that I can prototype some possible iterations of my system without tearing it asunder repeatedly.) The real agony of making experimentation difficult, is that experimentation is often what leads us to discovery. And discovery is a beautiful and exhilarating part of what we do. Experimentation and discovery can take place within the confines of a small rack, even one with which you are quite familiar… but they are still hindered by the inherent limitations.


Beyond these are other drawbacks, for example creating an entire song in a single pass is quite unlikely, unless it’s a relatively simple piece. I still think small racks are beautiful in their own right. But at the end of the day, sometimes having a bigger rack and more modules is just better. You have to decide if the trade-offs of a small system are right for you.


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