Modules: Simple or Complex?

For a while now I’ve been knocking around the question, “what kind of modules do I want for my system?” Not a question of which particular modules, but of the nature of those modules. A big part of that has been debating simple vs complex. And I’m finding, as time goes on, that my view of that debate has really changed. Two years ago, I would have said “complex” without hesitating. I mean, bang for you buck and all that. Not to mention awesome per-hp power in your rack. But, I find myself thinking less and less along those lines.

Let’s talk about toys for a minute (don’t worry, we’re still on point, just laying out down a parable ). I grew up in the late eighties, early nineties. And for a boy during that time, two of the great and classic toys were Legos and G.I. Joes. Legos really were quite simple: blocks, squares, rectangles, of various proportions, and not much else. Even today with all the new bits and bobs, each block is a simple unit. But then there’s G.I. Joe. Those guys had ball joints, and even some rubber-bands holding their torso and hips together. They were articulated. Each one had his own special mold with embellishments and accents. But at the end of the day, complicated as he was in his design, all that a G.I. Joe would ever be, was a G.I. Joe. His complex design ultimately resulted in rather simple function. Whereas the very simple Legos can be interlocked in an infinite number of ways. From completely basic, to convoluted, to exquisite, the simple block offers greater complexity…

And this is how I’ve begun to view certain aspects of synthesis. The complex goodies are cool (and I believe they have a place) but if we neglect the simple building blocks of synthesis we lose-out on access to some of the real, creative complexities of our art.

For the last two months my head has been swimming in the possibilities of clock manipulation. A square wave sent into a clock divider gives us a whole new range of time-signatures, to drive our sequencers, or drums, or to fire off envelopes, or reset LFO’s. But then with simple logical processes, and, or, and exclusive or functions create wild new possibilities. And what if we take several logical processes and put them in series (Animodule XXX_Or anyone)? Throw in some probability with a module as basic as Branches… Now with three very simple modules (clock divider, logic, branches), we can take a tame square wave/clock and turn it into a wide array of different, yet related time signatures. Instead of bopping along boop-boop-boop-boop, we now have a full-fledged groove breaking out and going wild! Blippidy-bop-bloop-boop-blam! All because we got creative with some of the most basic blocks of synthesis.

This article isn’t my declaration of war on “complex” modules. I believe they’ve brought us some brave new possibilities, and do great things within surprising confines of space. I’m not here to wage war, but to remind us, that with all the allure of the shiny, new, do-it-all modules, the old, the simple, the tried-and-true still have much to offer us. Perhaps we’ve just forgotten how much fun, how much creativity, how much expression and art one can find in a simple pile of blocks. Don’t get pulled away entirely by the turn-key promises of the complex. It’s time we started dumping our blocks on the floor again! Experiment. Explore. Create!


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Honourable Mentions
4MS Rotating Clock Divider
Animodule XXX_OR
Mutable Instruments Branches