Photo by Torrey Bailey
In the past ten years, vinyl records, cassette tapes and other forms of physical media have reinfiltrated the mainstream market. Regardless of whether this is a lasting trend, the rejuvenation of pre-millennium mediums signals a pseudo-rejection of technology. Now, it seems, the trend is creeping into music production, especially electronica.
Analog modular synthesizers are pushing aside digital synthesizers, providing a tactile landscape for those uninspired by computerized presets, says John Noble, who produces techno, ambient and other genres on a modular synth under the name prettyhowtown.
“Plug-ins, software instruments, software recordings and studios-in-a-box on laptops have not fulfilled its promise for a lot of people,” says Noble. “[The scene] has gotten oversaturated with it.”
Noble has seen more producers accessorize their sets with such analog modulars, which are customizable hodgepodges of effects boxes, drum machines, oscillators and other gizmos. These modulars are controlled by flipping switches, pushing buttons and plugging cables to create ever-changing patchworks of sound.
“It’s choose your own adventure,” says Noble. “This particular patchwork will never happen again. That’s the other thing. There’s no presets. It’s ephemeral.”
Sound generation is unpredictable by nature, which could scare producers from performing live with only a modular, but Noble says he’s attracted to that very quality.
“I’ve actually shut down in a middle of a set because I got into a weird spot. I just shut it down and reset everything. That’s how you know it’s live. Then you fire it back up, drop a kick drum again, four on the floor and everyone goes crazy again.”
Aside from producers attracted to its spontaneity and tangibility, modulars are relatively more affordable and widely available than before. Roland and Moog are manufacturing the equipment again and Guitar Center now sells modular-compatible gadgets.
“The technology is 1960s with 21st century manufacturing,” Noble says. “Knowledge that used to be in a few esoteric books somewhere or in someone’s head, has now all been published. A lot of it is people taking ideas and doing a mash-up of them, adding a twist and some of those twists are pretty magic.”
That “magic” will be on display when prettyhowtown plays at Eternal Architecture of Sound 2, a festival in Tijuana from April 28 through 30, which also features Nortec Collective founder Pepe Mogt.
“We’re going to point the speakers at the fence,” Noble says. “We’re going to make the border great again.”