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A modular synth breaks down the main components (modules) of a synthesizer – the tone-generating oscillators, the tone-modifying filters, the amplitude-shaping VCAs, and the modulation sources that create envelopes, tremolos, and more – into individual modules you can purchase and install. At the most basic level, this allows you to play mix-and-match in building your own custom synth: You can combine one oscillator from this manufacturer with a second, different-sounding oscillator from a different manufacturer, and so forth.

But beyond that, the modular philosophy is to give you access to each useful individual parameter inside a given module. For example, in addition to knobs to control a filter’s cutoff frequency and amount of resonance, you might get control voltage input jacks for each to vary their response using another module. As another example, you can connect the oscillators in different ways to the filter – not just as an audio input, but also to modulate its cutoff frequency.

And beyond that, there are over 100 module manufacturers who are coming up with new (as well as reviving old) ideas for modules every week. Unencumbered with having to develop an entire instrument, they can come up with a single module that gives you options you may not have imagined before. So that’s why many love the modular approach to synthesizers.

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