As a medium of expression and practice, music inevitably evolves with technology. One such innovation that is a testament to this union is the modular synthesizer. Characterized by their intricate configurations and limitless sound possibilities, modular synths have reshaped the sonic landscape and have become a cornerstone for many music producers, enthusiasts, and collectors. So much so that modular communities have popped up in virtually all corners of the globe, and Bucharest is no exception.
Bucharest Modular, organized by Marian Ciungu, aka local music veteran Dualtrx, seeks to bring modular enthusiasts from across the country together for an inspiration community of enthusiasts. A place to connect, share, and create, the group also organizes the 2023 edition of Bucharest Modular Meet at DjSuperStore. With the event on October 28, I traveled to Dualtrx’ studio to journey through the multifaceted world of these remarkable devices.
"From a young age, I've always been community-oriented. My journey into music began in the mid-90s, relying initially on just a computer and a MIDI controller," Marian begins, setting the stage for a narrative that traces his personal evolution alongside the growth of the modular scene. "This early engagement with digital tools was the foundation, but the allure of tangible, hardware synthesizers, especially the Eurorack modular systems, was irresistible."
It's essential to understand that the Eurorack modular system, which Marian frequently references, is a standard format for synthesizer modules, ensuring compatibility and offering users the flexibility to design their unique sound machines. "This passion led me to establish a local community where like-minded individuals could come together, share, and inspire one another," he shares, highlighting the communal essence of the modular world.
Circling back to the genesis of his modular interest, Marian recalls, "It began around 2015." But beyond the allure of creating music, another dimension captivated him. "I've always been a tech enthusiast, building computers from scratch as a kid, and diving deep into modular systems' intricacies." Marian continues, "With modular systems, there's this incredibly satisfying blend of music and technology. I've spent countless hours poring over manuals, understanding the mechanics and the nuances."
For those unfamiliar, stepping into the modular realm can be daunting. The endless possibilities, while exciting, can also be overwhelming. He advises, "Beginners should start simple. While the vastness of choices can spark creativity, it can also lead to decision paralysis. I often isolate specific synths, creating 'sound islands' to focus and develop ideas."
This approach underscores an important facet of modular synths: their individuality. Each module, each synthesizer, has its character. "For instance, the Eurorack system has specific control voltages, making it incompatible with other standards like Buchla."
Discussing the differences in intent and design of various synthesizers, Marian mentioned iconic names like Moog and EMS Synthi. "Most enthusiasts are familiar with Moog synthesizers. Moog transformed the synthesizer landscape with portable versions like the MiniMoog. In contrast, the EMS Synthi is more experimental, using a matrix with pins to create sounds. Such unique designs inspire musicians to explore and create differently," Marian explains. He emphatically adds, "Every synthesizer is designed with a specific intent by its creator. One needs to grasp its functionality and use it as intended to get the most out of it.
On his own equipment preferences, Marian has a few, but also a philosophy. "I'm drawn to gear that offers a steep learning curve," he says, referencing the Moog Subsequent 37. He continues, "I also have a soft spot for boutique synths from smaller manufacturers," specifically the Monome/Norns Shield, which runs on a Raspberry Pi. On Monome/Norns Shield, he explains, "users worldwide create scripts for this device, turning it into a synth, sequencer, sampler, or anything else you can imagine.”
In the context of live performances, especially in genres like techno, modular synths have carved a niche. "Techno has seen an evolution, with modular gear becoming increasingly popular. Techno enthusiasts often gravitate towards iconic synths like the Roland 909. But with the evolving scene, Eurorack and modular gear like the 'Perkons' by Erica Synths have also gained popularity, especially for their stage presence."
The conversation then transitions to the broader music ecosystem. "Our local scene is diverse," Marian shares, delving into Bucharest's musical tapestry. "We have many producers, especially since the pandemic encouraged many to delve into synths for inspiration. While many produce techno, especially the minimal genre, which Romania is quite known for, there's a growing interest in modular synthesizers. Most don't openly discuss their gear, but it's evident in their production."
This interest isn't confined to the confines of studios or homes. Events like the Bucharest Modular Meet have begun to sprout, offering a platform for enthusiasts to share, learn, and collaborate. "I organized the first Bucharest Modular Meet in 2018. Connecting with enthusiasts through 'Modular Romania,' a Facebook group, was the beginning. Investing in modules requires substantial research due to their cost. Such events help in demystifying the world of modular synths and fostering a tight-knit community," Marian explains of his intentions with the event.
However, every community faces its set of challenges. "The popularity of minimal music in Romania sometimes overshadows other experimental genres," he mentions. "Many newcomers might opt for the tried and tested route. The challenge is to shift this mindset and introduce them to the vast possibilities that modular synthesizers offer."
The term 'community' frequently surfaces, emphasizing its centrality. This is formed around a central question: is an industry a community? "It's essential to differentiate between the two. Our event is genuinely for the people, by the people," he emphasizes. This is a sentiment I wholeheartedly agree with. While industries are inherently exclusive, communities are inherently inclusive. Unfortunately, in the social media age, these two diametrically opposed things are all too often conflated.
Delving into the artistic integration of modular synths, Marian observes, "While performances dominate, modular synths can be art pieces. In an art exposition, a self-playing patch can narrate a story, resonating with the ambiance, paintings, and audience, for example." Drawing on his professional experiences within visual art, he continues, "experimental music often collaborates with visuals or within a film context, offering live
Discussing challenges, Marian highlights the niche nature of modular synths. "Like any city, small businesses, including promoters, need to thrive. Most aren't interested in this niche as it's not always profitable," he says. The modular scene is less about commercial success and more about passion. It's about the artisanal craftsmanship behind each module. "This modular scene is for those who are genuinely curious. While this type of music isn't for everyone, its appeal is subjective Micleușeanu Mitoș, for instance, organizes events that delve into these themes."
Concluding, Marian reflects on the physical allure of modular synths in our digital era and their rising popularity. "In a world dominated by screens, the tactile experience of tweaking a module, feeling the knobs, and seeing the immediate sonic result is unparalleled. It's enlightening and educational". He continues, "People also like modular because they like the collectability of it." In the abstract, "each piece is made on its own. It has its own character and its own value. It has its own morality," Marian explains in his interest in artisanal technology instead of corporate mass production.
In a world increasingly dominated by digital interfaces, the tactile experience of modular synthesizers offers a refreshing counterpoint. One that could even be categorized as dissenting. It's about the music and the journey of discovery, experimentation, and community. For Marian "Dualtrx" and Bucharest Modular..., there is a place for this in a welcoming and inclusive environment where everyone can explore the world of modular synthesis.