Modular Synth and Studio

Two music-making activities of playing with modular synth and working in a studio are in one article because they:

  • are often done alone ("single-player"),
  • have broad possibilities of very diverse sound creation,
  • give methods of precise sound control.

On one hand, the conditions above mark an interesting game design space, but they also make it hard to let electronic musicians participate in a typical music game from our library to a satisfying end.

Historical background


Among the post-war avant-garde and experimental composers there was a connected parallel interest both in indeterminacy and in electronic music. At the time, both provided a novelty and satisfied quite diverse artistic aims. Music on a computer (or with tape) tended to more control, in this spirit e.g. Iannis Xenakis and Milton Babbitt wrote about using computers in music composition and in both cases our reviews of their texts don't go into details about that aspect. Still, the very lack of control could also be also explored within technologically mediated pieces, like John Cage's Reunion (1968) which emits electronic sounds based on a chess game played live.

The plugged and unplugged modes are explored both for gaming and music, but if a creator embraces "advanced sound electronics", then it's often natural to take also the advantage of gaming opportunities that the technology provides. Only andecdotally, but it seems like the "physical game+electronic music" mode might be the most rare of four possible combinations; while the most popular being "electronic+electronic".

physical game electronic game
acoustic music this wiki contemporary concert hall/GDQ?
electronic music this article all over the internet

GDQ — Games Done Quick, a charity event about speedrunning.

The term "analog" is sometimes, especially for games, used for "non-electronic" ("non-digital" i.e. traditional/physical/cardboard…), which may cause misunderstanding in this specific context. Technically, analog/digital relates to using continuous/discreet values1 and a lot of hardware that falls into the scope of this article is both analog and electronic.

Modular basics

DAW — Digital Audio Workstation

Making music/games with modern computers gives plenty of options. What you can do with existing software will differ vastly depending on its configuration. There are many unique apps, and many of them might be helpful at a music gaming meeting. On this occasion, you may expect links at the bottom of this page (and feel free to add yours!), but this kind of design is only sometimes related to our field, and by itself is artistically deep and to be covered elsewhere. There is also a family of programs which basically recreate the possibilities given by modular synths and other hardware equipment — these provide similar options in a clickable form. Especially powerful, general applications with broad capabilities are called DAWs.

Hardware-based, modular synths might be brought to a game just like any instrument. Despite the diversity there are some typical features of modular synthesizers to consider. The usual setup is that there are modules, which may serve different function, often having knobs (or buttons) and sockets where you plug cables to connect the modules with each other. Sometimes modules are parts of a single pre-designed instrument, and sometimes it's the artist's task to mix-and-match separate but interoperable modules (and also acquire them one by one).


For beginners, modular synth as an instrument may be intimidating and with most models it is not trivial to achieve any sound showing up without some guidance (especially models not equipped with a piano keyboard). But despite this skill floor there are some playful features within the instrument itself which are visible when a "patch" is set (appropriate cables are plugged in). Thus, a proper patch will now provide an audible result, when a key is pressed or while a either repeating or randomized loop is playing. When approaching such a start, a new player's explorative actions may consist of "turning the knobs in a module where a cable is present" and will have these favorable features:

  • distinctness — if you turn the knob (one from an active module), more often than not you should hear some change in the sound,
  • reversibility — when the knob is turned back to the starting position, the shape of sound should usually be restored,
  • discovery — the changes introduced might be hard to name and unfamiliar (especially when compared to acoustic instruments).

As the plugs for the interconnecting cables resemble pins, there is a reoccurring idea in the synth community to use this type of instrument for playing a form of "Battleship", but for now no well-described system is to be found online. In this type of a game the activity would be based on making a patch and not on using an existing patch, and it is fitting, as coming up with a patch is an important field of creative engagement for musicians specializing in synthesizers.

The simplest area to look for a synth game ideas comes from the fact that plugging a cable (making a connection) is a physically individual action, so it is similar to a turn in a game. Then following all the many design options of multi- and single-player, cooperative and competitive, with constraints both conceptual or physical, and some goals, will let you arrive at some sort of a game, but unfortunately the features of this activity will usually be very dependent on the exact hardware that you use for your design and playtesting. This is visible as an inconvenience even in already published games intended for synths that you may find linked at the end of this article.

For multiplayer activities, there is a popular jamming method (for compatible equipment) where participants use a common clock. Players are connected to a single module which ensures that they all play always in the same tempo; same might be done with a quantizer module to share a set of pitches. For this type of situations there is an easy "gamification" possibility to have some randomization with Event Lists Game Template (or similar methods) adjusted specifically for instruments in use.

Current wiki presence

As for the music with computers, hosts of Auki Podcast are declared Ableton software users and some of their games are explicitly based on the possibilities given by such a studio tool. Quotas is an example of this "hybrid" live/electronic style where players improvise music but have a task of playing a specific number of notes. The notes are counted by the computer, taking over an administrative, boring yet difficult task. Other example would be Patch Exchange (as the name suggest, improvise with a patch you don't know), and a few activities based on found sound (a "sampler" may be a module, or a separate instrument).

Accompanist (role) — Participant that plays music during the game but doesn’t have to follow the rules.

Dimension — An aspect applicable to a single sound and continuous.

Electronic musicians may have it relatively easy to serve as accompanists, especially in games based on rhythm, although in this case it's sometimes even too easy (not much to do). Manipulating a single dimension is also quite natural for a modular synth as you just turn a single knob, but if that is the main challenge of the game suitable for acoustic instruments, then played with a synth the game will not be satisfying. With all that in mind, here is a list of games where the main idea is suitable for playing with electronic instruments mixed with acoustic ones:

External links

Some published games to stimulate your creativity in the studio or at the synth.

7 links here (see all).

Editor's notes (photos used)

Chess on a MIDI controller, CC0
Urban Music Game devant l'IRCAM, CC BY 2.0, Knowtex
Enticingly technical synthesizer 2, Control Voltage, CC BY-SA 2.0, Cory Doctorow
Hra námořní bitva, CC BY-SA 3.0, Pavel Ševela

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