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How to use modular synths to create ambient music

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Modular synths are useful for many genres of music, but possibly none more so than ambient. The nature of modular means there are vast swathes of tools and options for creating everything from subtle evolving soundscapes and drones, to generative melodies. 

There are sequencers that can be used to build evolving pitched patterns, sound  sources for every timbre imaginable and all the utilities to control everything. A lot of ambient music has subtler elements such as drones that can shift and warp over time and for these things, modular really is the best tool, as using modulation sources to control VCAs allows you to set up a near limitless piece of music. Lay melodic lines over this with a more standard sequence but even then they have the ability to adapt the output of pitches and triggers to generate complex and shifting lines. Modular is the way forward for all this and more. 

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Of course, most modules out there have many uses across many genres, but it feels like some have been designed for ambient production. The surge of granular modules over the last few years has helped ambient artists in the search for new textures, their popularity bringing new artists into this wonderful area of sound design. That sense of adventure is the key. More than any other genre, ambient is a place where sound designers can flourish, scratching that creative itch in exciting new ways. 

Ideas that hold for lengthier periods

Ambient music tends to run for longer and, while there is rarely a hook, generally doesn’t remain static. Modular is perfect here too. As mentioned, there are often slow and subtle evolutions to the music, which might be very difficult to do using a traditional synth. Texture is key here, with that evolution maintaining interest. Many modules allow for this in one way or another. Washes of varying timbre can be achieved using modules like Mutable’s Tides, or simple LFO chains via a module like Maestro, that can be chained for controlled diversity over time.

An emphasis on textured rhythm

Then there’s rhythm and beats. Ambient doesn’t have to mean a lack of percussive elements, although there will rarely be any four to the floor in this arena. Look more to euclidean rhythms or other random but timed triggers, again whatever breaks from the norm. 

Percussive voices are often not the standard 808s/909s heard elsewhere, although they do pop up. Instead you can try samples of found sounds with a wider spread across the soundstage. 

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Sample players are a great tool for introducing non-standard percussive hits: 1010 Music’s Bitbox, with its 16 samples at a time, is a good example of CV controllable sample playback. Modules like Akemie’s Taiko are more akin to a typical drum voice but have lots of headroom for creating interesting, usable sounds, plus CV controls to humanise hits.

Reverb is often a huge element of ambient but, as with other areas of the genre, modular offers reverbs of all styles to suit all tastes. You can go from huge, lush shimmers to tape delays or even connect a tank for authentic spring reverbs. 

While the voices and trigger methods may be the showstoppers, what makes modular so perfect for ambient is all the control on tap. Logic modules, sequential switches, matrix mixers, triggers and a slew of other options make modular a sound designer’s dream and sound design is a huge part of the attraction of ambient music. All in all, modular, especially Eurorack, could be the perfect playground for the ambient artist seeking new ideas.

6 great modules for ambient

What do you look for when seeking modules to harness ambient textures and sounds? As noted below, capacity for generative creation, plentiful reverb and granular options are just some of the multifaceted factors to bear in mind, but the modular world really is your oyster…

1. 4MS Spherical Wavetable Navigator

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The SWN has a lot to offer the ambient artist, with a huge range of timbres on offer, built-in LFOs to control pitch changes, scan through wavetables and more. Great for generative melodies.

2. ADDAC 112

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Of all the notable granular modules on the market, ADDAC’s 112 takes the crown. It’s a large module but has so much to offer, from its ability as a looper and granular synth to its huge amounts of control both on-board and CV and the separate patch bay.

3. Erica Synths Black Dual VFC

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Having two filters in an ambient rig can be really useful and Erica’s dual VCF is a good option, as it offers low-pass, band-pass and high-pass. Both filters can be linked and there is a summed output, alongside buckets of CV control with attenuverters for each.

4. Intellijel Metropolix

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Another option for generating pitches and triggers, Metropolix’ two channels have many options for generative work and jamming. A highlight is the accumulator that allows each sum of the sequencer to adapt the pattern in a really musical way.

5. Mutable Instruments Marbles

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Marbles can be the beating heart of an ambient rig. It’s perfect for generating controllably random triggers and pitches, with the ability to define scales, options for timing variations and repeatable patterns via the wonderful deja vu controls.

6. Strymon Starlab

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Ambient benefits from huge reverbs and delays and no module does this like Starlab. With reverb types, shimmer and lots of CV for integration, there’s a lot to love. A Karplus feature adds to its versatility, along with great delay and an on-board LFO and filter.

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