How to Use Modular Synths to Create Ambient Music

Modular synths are useful for many genres of music, but perhaps no more so than ambient. The nature of modularity means there are vast swaths of tools and options to create everything from subtle evolving soundscapes and drones to generative melodies.

There are sequencers that can be used to create evolving patterns, sound sources for every imaginable timbre, and all the utilities to control it all. A lot of ambient music has more subtle elements like drones that can move and warp over time and for those things modularity really is the best tool because using modulation sources to control the VCAs lets you to configure an almost unlimited piece of music. Lay melodic lines on them with a more standard sequence, but even then they have the ability to tailor the pitch and trigger output to generate complex, shifting lines. Modular is the way to go for all of this and more.

Sure, most of the mods available have many uses across many genres, but it looks like some were designed for ambient production. The rise of granular modules over the past few years has aided ambient artists in the search for new textures, with their popularity bringing new artists into this wonderful field of sound design. That sense of adventure is key. More than any other genre, ambient is a place where sound designers can thrive, scratching that creative itch in exciting new ways.

Ideas that last longer

Background music tends to last longer, and while there’s rarely a hook, it doesn’t usually stay static. The modular is perfect here too. As mentioned, there are often slow and subtle evolutions in the music, which can be very difficult to do with a traditional synth. Texture is key here, with this evolution keeping the interest alive. Many modules allow this in one way or another. Variable timbre washes can be achieved using modules like Mutable’s Tides, or simple LFO chains through a module like Maestro, which can be chained together for time-controlled diversity.

An emphasis on textured rhythm

Then there is rhythm and rhythms. Vibe doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of percussive elements, although there are rarely four on the ground in this arena. Instead look at Euclidean rhythms or other random but timed triggers, again anything out of the norm.

The percussive vocals are often not the standard 808/909 heard elsewhere, although they do appear. Instead, you can try found sample sounds with a wider spread across the soundstage.

Sample players are a great tool for introducing non-standard percussive hits: 1010 Music’s Bitbox, with its 16 samples at once, is a good example of CV-controllable sample playback. Modules like Akemie’s Taiko sound more like a typical drum voice, but have plenty of room to create interesting and usable sounds, as well as CV controls to humanize the hits.

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

While the voices and trigger methods can be the show’s highlights, what makes the Modular so perfect for ambience is all the control at your fingertips. Logic modules, sequential switches, matrix mixers, triggers and a host of other options make modularity a sound designer’s dream, and sound design is a big part of the appeal of ambient music. All in all, the modular, especially the Eurorack, could be the perfect playground for the ambient artist looking for new ideas.

6 large modules for the atmosphere

What do you look for when looking for modules to exploit textures and ambient sounds? As noted below, generative creative capability, abundant reverb, and granular options are just a few of the multi-faceted factors to keep in mind, but the modular world really is your oyster…

1. 4MS Spherical Wavetable Browser

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

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

3. Erica Synths Black Double VFC

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Having two filters in an ambient rig can be very 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, as well as CV control buckets with attenuators for each.

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Another option for generating pitches and triggers, both Metropolix channels have plenty of options for generative work and jamming. A highlight is the accumulator which allows each sum of the sequencer to adapt the pattern in a truly musical way.

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

6. Strymon Starlab

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Ambient boasts huge reverbs and delays and no module does it quite like Starlab. With reverb types, reflections, and plenty of CV for integration, there’s a lot to like. A Karplus feature adds to its versatility, along with a large delay and built-in LFO and filter.