Bluetooth is a wireless technology that uses a radio frequency to share data over a short distance, eliminating the need for wires. Bluetooth technology allows for the wireless sharing of documents – so long as each device is paired accordingly. The process by which pairing happens varies by each device. Be sure to read the manual for each device you plan on using.
Bluetooth technology has made it fairly easy to connect devices without having to wire them together. In other words, getting devices to “talk” to one another without having to use a cord. Originally developed in 1989, bluetooth grew fairly popular in the 1990’s. At this point, nearly every device has bluetooth capability. Today, we’re going through some general bluetooth tips.
Minimizing Bluetooth Interference
Setting up bluetooth should be easy and stress-free. The range of Bluetooth is specified as roughly 30 feet. However, similarly to all other wireless devices (wi-fi, cell phones, etc.), Bluetooth range can vary on a number of factors. Before you get started, make sure you know what’s around you and your devices. Believe it or not, even if things are wireless, you can still get physical interference from certain materials. Try to not have any physical obstructions in the path of your wireless signals. Here’s a starter guide on bluetooth material and interference:
Potential low interference: wood, glass, many synthetic materials.
Potential medium interference: water, bricks, marble.
Potential high interference: plaster, concrete, bulletproof glass.
Potential very high interference: metal.
Troubleshooting Your Bluetooth Devices
Simple and quite often missed, make sure your bluetooth device is switched to “on” – for each of the devices you are planning to use. When pairing, it’s likely easier that each of the devices are as close to each other as possible. One of the most common causes of Bluetooth pairing difficulty is devices being paired to other (unwanted) devices. To solve this, simply:
Bring your devices closer together to troubleshoot
Reset or turn off/on each of the device’s Bluetooth capabilities
At Hosa, we know how frustrating Bluetooth pairing can be – but it doesn’t have to be. Whether you’re pairing an iPhone, laptop, or a digital audio device – these general principles still apply. Be sure to read the manual of each of your devices and troubleshoot when necessary. And if you’re looking to add Bluetooth capabilities to any older equipment, try the Hosa Drive Bluetooth Audio Interface.
Artist Endorsement Key Tips
Artist Endorsements and Sponsorships: The Right Approach
There are some helpful resources online about this topic, but many of them come from the artist or creator side of the proverbial fence. We here at Hosa work with many artists and creators, and get approached every day by people looking to build a direct relationship. While we can’t speak for other companies, we’ll go over some fundamentals that will make for the best approach when you’re ready to send that email.
Every Situation is Different
Companies come in all shapes and sizes, which means they have different sized budgets, marketing departments, staff, and requirements before working with artists. Some companies may require contracts, others a hand-shake agreement. Some may offer free product, others may only offer some kind of artist pricing structure. There is also the possibility there are certain metric thresholds that you’re required to meet beforehand, such as subscribers, follows, views, sales, streams, etc.
Important Things to Know and Do
We’ll list off 9 fairly universal things that will help you get off on the right foot and make companies more receptive to your approach.
Research the Company
If you’re attempting to create a relationship, you should already know about the company, what they do, and preferably already have experience with their product or service. There’s a big difference between someone who has a history and experience with them vs someone looking to try it for the first time.
Think of the Company’s Interests
It’s always helpful when the company you’re approaching can see that you understand some kind of equal value provided. Be as specific as you can with ideas so the artist rep has a good understanding that you’ve given this a lot of thought and value the mutually-beneficial aspect of the relationship.
Have a Plan
Like in the last suggestion, have your ideas already crafted to present. Know what it is you’re asking for and what you are offering in return. That could be promotion on social media in posts or videos, at events on banners, showcasing products in a tour or clinic atmosphere, etc.
Once you have your plan, be specific about your request and also the return value you’re offering, but also be open to alternatives if they’re proposed or required. The less specific you are, the less an artist rep knows where to start or what you’re going to do and may not take the time to respond.
Even though you’re emailing a company, you have to remember that you’re talking to another person, and they will be paying attention to how you present yourself. It’s okay to be smaller and growing, but it’s not okay to exaggerate your audience or buy followers/likes/engagement because those can be detected quickly and come off as dishonest.
Make it Easy to Find You
A good idea is to have a link or a document to copy from which includes clickable URL links to anything requested. Don’t just send @ handles or tell them they can Google your name or band, because you’re asking the person on the other side to do the work to find you, and that increases the odds that they may not.
Don’t Just “Fish” for Free Stuff
We get it, lots of companies send promotional products to artists and creators in order to advertise directly with their audience. However, remember that this is viewed as a relationship, which may be long-term or short-term. If it seems like all you want is something free for yourself and you don’t value that relationship, chances are very low that you get any type of response.
Have Confidence in What You’re Offering
If you’re approaching a company, you should have some honest understanding of the value you bring. You don’t have to over-promise or exaggerate. Part of that value is how you show sincere confidence in what you’re able to bring. Actions always speak louder than words, so this should be supported and emphasized with some kind of established content or example, such as a previous post or video that shows how you present other products and brands.
Spell Check and Format Properly
It may seem kind of silly, but we promise it’s not. While we’re all musicians and creative types, this is still a professional email and request. You should take care to spell correctly and use proper fonts and colors. It’s a simple thing to show respect to the recipient, and they notice.
Don’t Make Assumptions
It’s ok to take “no” as an answer, or accept less. Remember, if you value this relationship enough to make that initial approach, then you should understand that relationships can change and grow over time.
Business is Nothing but Personal
You’ve probably heard the old cliche that, “It’s business, it’s not personal” when in actuality, the polar opposite is true. You’re emailing another person who will read your email through their own prism and respond to you through theirs, as well. If you’re respectful, patient, personable, and reliable, people will notice. The music business is the people business.
Hopefully that gave you a little insight from “behind the curtain” that companies like Hosa are looking for, but a lot of these tips are just generally good rules to follow in many aspects of life. While we’d love to work with every artist who is interested in Hosa, there are only so many we can accept every year. If you have any interest in applying to be a Hosa artist, you can find our online form here.
Getting Started with DI Boxes
DI Boxes: Getting Yourself Started
If you’ve spent any amount of time in recording or watching studio recording breakdowns, you’ve likely heard the term “DI” or “DI box” thrown around quite often. It’s so commonplace that often it’s accompanied with little-to-no explanation.
What is a DI Box?
DI boxes, or “DI’s” (standing for Direct Inject) are primarily known for use in guitar and bass applications in the studio. However, their function is to correct mismatched impedance signals between instruments and equipment. For example, guitars have a high impedance, unbalanced output that is prone to pick up noise and degrade signal over longer distances. A DI box will convert that signal to a low impedance, balanced signal that will be compatible with outboard equipment and reduce noise for longer runs.
What is Impedance?
In simple terms, impedance is the opposition of a circuit to electrical current, or how much the circuit impedes the electrical flow. Unbalanced signals, like those in a guitar’s output jack, would have higher impedance and thus need to be converted for use in microphone preamps or mixers without picking up a lot of undesirable noise.
High-Z vs Low-Z
“Z” is the letter and mathematical value given for impedance. When you see “High-Z” or “Low-Z” labeled on an input or output, it’s telling you the type of impedance signal coming from that respective input or output. The Hosa DIB-443 Sidekick Passive DI Box, for example, has a switch on one side for you to select an instrument (High-Z) or line-level (Low-Z) input, and a “Low-Z” output on the other end.
DI Box for Guitars
The most common use for DI boxes are with guitars. In a studio setting, these are most often used to track a clean guitar signal at the same time as an affected signal through an amplifier. This helps the performer play and react to the sound being recorded while preserving the original signal should that need to be altered or reamped later. This can save a lot of time without having to re-record or perform already recorded parts.
DI Box vs Reamp Box
These two are often confused for each other, or at least why each must exist independently. The reason you want to use a designated Reamp box for any reamp functions is because it’s built to perform the opposite function, taking a low impedance signal and converting it to a high impedance signal that guitar amplifiers are supposed to receive. Reamp boxes can also be useful in very complex live setups where you send the guitar through a DI into line-level processing that then needs to be converted back to instrument-level to feed into an amplifier on stage. With so many players opting for digital and computer processing, that kind of setup continues to grow in popularity.
What is a Wet/Dry Signal?
In guitar terminology, a “wet” signal is a fully affected sound. If you have your guitar running through pedals, effects, amplifiers, or anything that alters the original clean signal out of the guitar, that is considered a “wet” signal. The “dry” signal is the unaffected signal from your guitar. DI boxes allow you to preserve your “dry” signal even while manipulating it with other pieces of equipment.
Passive vs Active DI Boxes
If you’ve spent any time looking at DI box options, you’ll have noticed there are “active” and “passive” options. The most common DI boxes are passive, which use an internal transformer to isolate ground-level voltages and eliminate any ground loops. The impedance will be matched to that of a low-Z microphone preamp. Passive DI boxes are straightforward and simple in design, making them the less expensive option.
Active DI boxes, on the other hand, include an active preamp, creating more headroom than passive DI boxes. This includes a “signal boost” for the preamp, which also helps preserve a stronger signal for very long cable runs, though any boost will often be accompanied by some kind of sound “coloration”. Active DI boxes can be a favorable option for keyboard players or instruments that use active electronics. These will require power, whether in the form of a battery or external power supply.
Things to Look For in DI Boxes
DI boxes perform a relatively limited function, so there’s not much deviation between models. However, here are things you would most commonly see and what function they perform.
Balanced signals are designed to cancel noise by carrying 2 duplicate signals with reversed polarity. However, introducing more equipment and even the environment itself can add hums and noise to balanced signals. The “ground lift” on a DI box disconnects pin 1 of the XLR on the output in order to break the ground loop, if necessary. As a general rule, the switch should be left in the “ground lifted” position unless otherwise needed.
Sometimes referred to as “throughput”, this output is for the unaffected signal to pass. This is necessary for any guitar tracking where you need a “wet” and “dry” signal to be recorded simultaneously, or you have multiple signal paths. On the Hosa DIB-443 Sidekick Passive DI Box this would simply be called the “output”.
This is a built-in attenuation on any DI box, reducing the levels somewhere around -20db. A pad is especially valuable to keyboard players that use line-level outputs rather than instrument level. Typically, this would mostly be reserved for any active electronics going into the DI box.
Cables You’ll Need With a DI Box
While there is some variation, most common uses begin with instrument cables. Instrument cables are shielded to resist noise and interference since they carry unbalanced signals. If you are using the thru/bypass, you would need another instrument cable running to your signal chain.
While the outputs in a DI box are usually XLR, once the DI box has converted the high impedance signal to low impedance, you’d need a balanced interconnect with the proper connector types for your equipment.
To purchase the Hosa Sidekick Passive DI Box or learn about the functions and features, visit the product page here.
Shielded Cables – Braided vs. Spiral Shielding
Shielded Cable – Braided vs. Spiral Shielding
Cables today have an infinite number of designs and purposes. Outside of musical equipment, cables of the same build help run video, computers, and telephone and video networks. Cables using more than a single conductor tend to use twisted pair construction. One major area where construction still differs from cable to cable is in its protection; its shielding. Today, we’ll be discussing the differences between braided and spiral shielding. It’s important to note that each type has its own unique advantages and disadvantages so we’ll let you be the judge on deciding which one is the best fit for you.
Twisted Pair Cabling
First, let’s talk about what’s inside of a typical cable. Twisted Pair cabling is the industry norm used for multi-conductor cables on the market. By standard definition, “twisted pair cabling is a type of cabling in which two conductors of a single circuit are twisted together for the purposes of improving electromagnetic capability.” But what does it mean?
In short, a twisted pair can be used as a balanced line – which greatly reduces the amount of noise transmitted through the cable. What the “twisting” provides – in theory – is that the currents in each of the cables are near equal. The twisting simply ensures that each is equal distance from the interrupting source – which would in turn, affect them equally. On the other hand, twisted pair cable’s resistance to interference depends on the twisting scheme to remain in place, and so its efficiency can vary.
Now let’s look at shielding, the first line of defense against external interference in a traveling signal.
This is a spiralling shield of strands of copper running parallel that is made fairly inexpensive. Since the ends of the cable do not need to be untangled, its build can be done pretty quickly.
Because the strands are in a spiral – it is easier to extend. The stretching, theoretically, makes the strands less likely to break when pulled. When the cable is bent or twisted, the spiral strands can gap apart – allowing exposed areas – resulting in frequency interference. For example, patch cables are generally bent and twisted the most – so spiral shielding may not be the best fit for such use, whereas for guitar cables, it’d make more sense.
Advantages of Spiral Shielding
typically cheaper to make
easy handle and installation
Disadvantages of Spiral Shielding
easier for frequency to slip through exposed areas
breakage is much more frequent
Braided shielding is the most “traditional” form of shielding. Braided cables are woven – thus making it much more difficult to assemble. Typically, braided shielding is stiffer and just as flexible.
Advantages of Braided Shielding
as strong as it is flexible
can be installed next to products without power loss
performs best at low frequency
Disadvantages of Braided Shielding
does not guarantee 100% coverage as its coverage is dependent on how tightly it is woven
typically, a bit bulkier
If You Wish To Learn More
Part of audio quality is in cancelling or limiting noise that the conductor picks up between sources. In the case of balanced cables, shielding is less important because they typically transmit line-level audio signals that don’t need to be boosted, and part of their design is to carry two identical signals in opposite polarity before reversing one in the end, which cancels the noise. Hosa carries both a variety of cables with braided and spiral shielding.
For more information on cable shielding and signal flow, check out our video on Do Cables Matter?
Patch Bays: A Beginner’s Guide
Patch Bays: A Beginner’s Guide
As your recording setup grows from a laptop with a few plugins to include more outboard gear, the process of getting behind your desk and changing cables to adjust the signal chain becomes more and more time-consuming. This is when recording professionals and amateurs alike should invest in patch bays, which allow for quick and simple connections to be made on the fly from an arm’s reach. We’ll take you through a quick guide into what patch bays are, how they work, and the different kinds available.
What is a Patch Bay?
A patch bay is a hub that allows you to control your inputs and outputs from any device connected to it. In most cases, the patch bay comes in rack format, so it can be set in the same rack as the rest of the outboard gear in use. Once in place, all the connections from other pieces of hardware are made in the back, with the front reserved for the user to create or add to the chain using patch cables.
Types of Patch Bays
When looking into a patch bay setup, you’ll come across different types based on their “normalling” capabilities. Normalling refers to how the patch bay in question deals with signal flow in and out of the patch bay. Some allow you to control the types of normalling, while others are strictly made with one type of normalling, so it’s important to know what they mean before purchasing.
Full-Normal Patch Bays
For a full-normal patch bay, the traditional setup includes running your device outputs to the top row on the back of the patch bay, allowing you to then route through the corresponding inputs below it. If a patch cable is connected in the front, whether to the input or output, that original link in the back is broken and it is instead routed directly through the patch cable.
Half-Normal Patch Bays
Much like a full-normal patch bay, a half-normal patch bay routes the output on the back through the corresponding input below it. Unlike the full-normal patch bay, that link is not always broken with the use of a patch cable. When you insert a patch cable into the bottom row, the input jack, the link will be broken and the input device will receive only the signal connected by the patch cable. However, when a patch cable is connected to the top row (output jack), the original link is not broken. The signal continues to the normalled input with a duplicate of the signal running through the patch cable. This comes in handy in a dry/wet recording, which is where one signal is fully affected with other pieces in the signal chain while the other is not.
Non-Normal (or De-Normal) Patch Bays
A non-normal patch bay is when none of the points are routed until a patch cable physically routes them. This is a more time-consuming setup and requires many more patch cables, but allows you the greatest flexibility to route complex signal chains.
Sometimes a patch bay isn’t necessarily to create complex chains, but simply to hide cable clutter behind the desk or rack and turn the corresponding jacks on the front into direct “throughputs”. Throughput, or “point-to-point” patch bays like the Hosa PDR-369 and MXL-369 XLR Patch Bays, allow all the connections to be made behind the patch bay so a single cable can be used when any of the inputs or outputs are needed.
Make a Plan for your Patch Bay
When setting up your patch bay, the best starting point is to see how many inputs and outputs you will need, then what kind of normalling will be required, and finally drawing out the wire diagram to know how your connections will be made. Some patch bay manufacturers even offer blank templates to help you visualize and plan your signal routing.
It’s also important to know whether you plan on running any mic setups that require phantom power so you can get the right patch bay to accommodate those requirements.
Once you have your plan, you will know approximately how many patch cables and what length you’ll require. Several different patch cable types are used with patch bays, but the most common are TT Type TRS cables and ¼” TRS cables. It’s important to check if your needs and patch bay are TRS (balanced, stereo) or TS (unbalanced, mono). If you have a TRS patch bay, you’ll need TRS patch cables otherwise you won’t be able to pass a true balanced signal.
Organize, Organize, Organize
The purpose of a patch bay setup is to keep your signals clean, but also your physical environment by cutting down cable clutter. Don’t overlook how helpful simple organizational tools can immediately solve headaches. Some of the obvious ones are using scribble-strip tape to label the equipment or output assigned to each jack on the front. You can also label the cables themselves. Cable ties and split looms will keep cable clutter under control behind the desk, as well. For cables not in use yet, rather than stuffing them somewhere or having them sprawled around, you can invest in a cable holder to keep your space tidy and your cables quickly accessible.
To purchase Hosa patch bays and other organization tools, visit our Shop page. Happy patching!
Cable Assembly – Your How-To Guide
Cable Assembly – Your How-To Guide
Some people will say a cable is just a cable, that varying prices and shiny features don’t really matter or make a difference. Today we’ll be filling you in on how to assemble your very own guitar cable and will hopefully explain why the makeup of a cable is of more importance than anything else. Like a chef, no matter your experience, it is the ingredients that determine the quality of the meal. And for cables, it is the types of materials used to build them that determine the quality.
What is Cable Assembly?
Cable assembly, simply put, is putting together your very own cable – from scratch. We’re going to let you know all of the materials you’ll need and how they work together to ensure signal flows from one end to the other.
What You’ll Need
– wire stripper
– wire cutter
– a thin spudger
– soldering iron
– crocodile holding clips (or something to hold the cables still)
Cable Assembly Step-by-Step Process
Step 1: Mark off 5-10 inches from either end of the cable
Step 2: Using the pliers, cut off any exposed copper at the end to create a new tip
Step 3: Using the wire cutters, gently round the cable to expose the copper — careful not to cut too deep and gently pull the sheeting away
Step 4: Carefully separate the strands and gather them to one side of the cable. When done, twist them into a bundle
Step 5: Place a ¼” cable nearby to reference length. Using the wire cutters, cut the outer and inner conductors down to about an inch. Use the ¼” for reference, and if done correctly the inner and outer conductors should align with the outer and inner parts of the plug
Step 6: Using the crocodile holding clips, stabilize your cable & solder
Step 7: Using the soldering iron, apply it to the conductors. If done correctly, the conductors should be shiny and spread evenly
Step 8: Cover the tip of the plug with tape to protect any plating
Step 9: You then apply solder to create the joint between the tinned wire and the contact point. Repeat for inner conductor
When to Buy a Cable vs. Assembling Your Own Cable
For more in depth information on the makeup of cables, head over to our video titled “Do Cables Matter?”
Digital Audio Interfaces
Digital Audio Interfaces and Formats – What gives?
In the 1980’s, as digital audio was in its infancy, manufacturers developing hardware had no choice but to create their own digital formats. Unfortunately, this meant the devices were incompatible, so none could be connected to each other. This is why there were so many formats such as AES/EBU, S/PDIF, ADAT, TDIF, MADI, AES3-id, and several others.
What is a Digital Interface?
Since different digital formats were incompatible when directly plugged into each other, the market was soon demanding a way to help these devices communicate. Digital interfaces provided a solution that could be connected between the devices and internally convert, or translate them into the same format. Now you could utilize devices from different manufacturers together without being plagued by previous incongruencies.
What is AES/EBU?
In 1985, to try and solve the issue of digital formats, the Audio Engineering Society (AES) and European Broadcast Union (EBU) created 2 open-source digital interfaces for stereo and multi-channel audio. These are commonly referred to as simply “AES” or “AES3” and “MADI” (Multi-channel Audio Digital Interface). The AES/EBU format made the transition to digital audio feel less foreign to users since it utilized a standard and familiar XLR connection, which was also cost-effective since no proprietary connector was needed.
What is S/PDIF?
Sony and Phillips entered the digital audio realm with a domestic format of their own, S/PDIF, which utilized both coaxial (phono) and Toslink (optical) connections. The auxiliary information and metadata for AES/EBU and S/PDIF differ slightly, but the audio formatting is the same, meaning both can be interconnected without much trouble.
What are “bits” and “kHz”?
Bits are the basic unit of data when transferring digital audio. Bit depth refers to the dynamic range while bit rate refers to the speed and playback quality. Kilohertz, or kHz, refers to bandwidth and is related to the speeds of bits per second. Greater bandwidth means faster data speed overall.
The Hosa ODL-312 is designed to take S/PDIF Optical to AES/EBU. This is a 2-channel interface that can do simultaneous conversion in both directions if required, and supports up to 24-bit/96 kHz S/PDIF audio.
S/PDIF Coax (RCA) to AES/EBU
The Hosa CDL-313 is designed to take S/PDIF Coax to AES/EBU. This is also a 2-channel interface that can do simultaneous conversion in both directions if required, and supports up to 24-bit/96 kHz S/PDIF audio.
*Be aware that these are digital format converters, not to be confused with analog-to-digital converters, which function very differently.
To learn more about the Hosa digital interfaces and where to purchase, follow the link here.
Testing Cables – Why Use a Cable Tester?
Cable testers verify the electrical connections in a signal cable — confirming things are wired correctly between the ends of the cable. If there is a broken connection, the Hosa CBT-500 Cable Tester will let you know exactly where that connection is, which may have a simple solution such as resoldering a single contact point, saving you from throwing out a perfectly good, salvageable audio cable. Diagnosing these issues can help save a lot of headaches in the long run. Always test your cables before gigging, which can be done quick and easy with the Hosa CBT-500.
How to Test an Audio Cable
Turn knob to position 1
Plug one connector into corresponding jack on the left side of tester
Plug other connector into corresponding jack on right side of tester
Turn knob to each position to check wiring of each contact
Alternative Continuity Test
For any electronic connection to be tested, a complete loop must be present. The additional continuity testers allow you to test any pin and contact point in order to complete the circuit. These allow you to test the connectivity of any circuit, not just audio cables. To use the continuity testers:
Apply the tip of each lead to the corresponding contacts
If continuity exists, the tester will beep
Always make sure to check that the battery has life before testing any cables so you don’t misdiagnose any connection as faulty. The steps for the Hosa CBT-500 Cable Tester are simple:
Turn knob to battery check
The LED will illuminate if the battery is charged
Hosa’s Cable Tester – Better Safe Than Sorry
Hosa’s CBT-500 Cable Tester is constructed from metal to withstand field abuse and operates with a standard 9-volt battery (included). The device also provides a battery check function to ensure proper working condition prior to use. The CBT-500 Cable Tester makes an invaluable addition to one’s ‘tools of the trade’ and is ideal for use when preparing for a concert, studio recording session, or an installation as well as checking cables afterwards in order to ensure working operation the next time. Get yours today.
Hosa Guitar Cables: Hear the Difference
The audio cable market is small, yet competitive. With competition, there may be companies making big claims about why their cables are better than others. All in all, does cable quality matter or is all just “marketing fluff”? What makes one guitar cable more special than another? Today, we will be testing out and recording through our very own Hosa guitar cables (Essential, Pro & Edge) and we’ll let you be the judge.
Does Your Audio Cable Affect Sound Quality?
They certainly can, but it’s important to note that cables don’t “improve” your sound. Their main purpose is to translate sound from its source as transparently as possible. So, when it comes to “making a difference” — we are referring to a cable’s durability, internal build, and longevity. To dive more into cable specifics, check out our article on Do Audio Cables Affect Sound Quality?
Capacitance, What Is It?
Capacitance is the ratio of the change in electric charge of a system to the corresponding change in its electric potential. In the cable world, it’s ideal to have a lower capacitance as that means less resistance, allowing a more pure signal to pass through. This is especially important in instrument cables because they tend to be unbalanced, and the longer the length of the cable, the more inherent capacitance you introduce. The easiest way to explain this is: the longer the cable, the less pure the signal.
Original Neutrik® connectors for security and durability
20 AWG Oxygen-Free Copper (OFC) conductor to reduce resistance
Low capacitance wire for a crystal-clear high end
So, do cables affect sound quality? The short answer is not really – but still want to learn more about why cables are important? Check out our video which goes in more depth about what the specs mean and why they matter:
Do Cables Matter?
Modular Synthesis — A Beginner’s Guide
Those familiar with Hosa will no doubt have seen the number of modular synthesizer products we manufacture. When we set out to make a “beginner’s guide”, we thought this would be the perfect opportunity to get some of our modular friends involved. This week’s blog is by Kris Kaiser from Noise Engineering. Kris shares a basic rundown on modular synths and demystifies a few things along the way.
What is this weird spaghetti monster?
At Noise Engineering, I get a lot of questions from musicians who are interested in modular synthesis. Many seem entirely intimidated by it, or just don’t even know where to start. Introductory modular tutorials abound, but few I’ve found are written to really help musicians capitalize on the knowledge they already have. Today we’re going to dive into modular synthesis using concepts and techniques that you, the musician, already know. We won’t focus on specific modules, but rather concepts. For more information and details, pop on over to the Noise Engineering blog.
I’m a synth player. That doesn’t look like a synth.
I’ve had more than one person approach me at NAMM with the challenge to “teach” them how to play a modular synth. The reality is that a modular synthesizer is still a normal synthesizer, it’s just presented differently and with a lot more flexibility. Like any instrument, it takes time to master. Most people don’t pick up any instrument and master it in 20 minutes; a modular synth is no different.
So, how do modular synths differ from prebuilt synths, exactly? And more importantly, how are they the same?
Think about the standard Korg, Yamaha, or whatever fixed-architecture synth you last bought (or drooled over). In a traditional synth, it comes with a lot of things built in. Everything is prewired and preprogrammed “under the hood.” You press buttons and turn knobs, select the premade sounds, and tweak the parameters that have been built in for you. These can run the gamut of really basic and easy to use to incredibly flexible, but you don’t really get to change the basic architecture of the product.
As the name implies, a modular synth is modular. Instead of an off-the-shelf solution, you pick and choose the components that will allow you to create the sound you desire. Each module does one (or a few) things, so you’re choosing it specifically for that function. This means that if you don’t like the filter you’re using, you can just use a different one, either by putting a different one in the system or pulling the patch cable out of one and putting it into another. Traditional synths aren’t built for that, making it much harder to do in that landscape. In a modular system, you get to build it, not the engineers at SYNTHCORP. You choose your parts and then you make the connections using patch cables (check out Hosa’s Synth Playground for all your cable needs). Just like with a fixed-architecture synth, you make patches, but here they are physical, tangible things.
And the choices! The choices are part of the joy, but also can be overwhelming. There are hundreds of manufacturers, each making anywhere from one to a complete line of modules. In general, they all work perfectly fine together. This means that you can choose a suite of modules from a single manufacturer, build a system with modules from all different manufacturers, or anything in between. The world is your oyster with modular synths.
Key differences between a traditional (keyed) synthesizer and a modular synth
Both types of synths have a primary sound source (an oscillator)
When you want to make a sound with a keyed synth, you hit the key. When you lift your finger, it (generally) stops making sound. The oscillator in a modular synthesizer, on the other hand, just…oscillates. This means that rather than “telling” the instrument to make sound, you have to “tell” it to not make sound, typically by patching it to other modules.
While most traditional synths have a keyboard, modular synths do not
Sure, you can find a keyboard module or interface with an external keyboard, they are not part of a standard setup. So you control modular synths differently, not just starting and stopping and shaping the sound but also pitch sequencing. Rather than the key you press determining the sequence of pitches, modular synth composition is generally more sequencer or DAW oriented. That’s great news for those of you who never mastered those piano lessons, less good for the piano proteges out there.
Since a traditional synth comes prebuilt, its functionality is constrained by what’s inside
With modular, you build the connections every time you use it, which means you essentially have a brand new synth each time you patch. You can change patches or even modules at will. Tired of the sound of one oscillator? Replace it with another! Don’t like that reverb? Drop a different one in. The possibilities are infinite.
A traditional synth is ready to make sound when you buy it
Power it up, plug it in to your monitors, bang on the keys, and you’re making sound. Modular synths require you to do a bit more work: signals flow between components through patch cables, and you decide where it goes, so you have to set up a signal path. Before the fear comes back out, know three things.
You won’t break it by patching modules together
I’ve had literally hundreds if not thousands of people plug patch cables into our cases at this point, and we have never had someone break something. The worst thing that can happen is that you get no sound or you get a sound you don’t like, and you try something else.
Patching isn’t that different from routing modulation to parameters on a traditional synthesizer
The LFO envelope amount knobs on a subtractive synth? That knob lets you make a connection between the envelope and the filter, which you’d just do with a cable in modular. Many synth plugins also let you route modulation sources to a plethora of destinations: that’s almost exactly like patching a modular synth.
Repeat after me: You won’t break it by patching modules together.
Modular synths have a reputation for being finicky
It’s kind of a well-deserved reputation. To be fair, vintage analog AND analog modular oscillators drift over time and need to be re-tuned regularly; both are also dependent on the temperature. Digital oscillators alleviate the drift and temperature issues in both fixed-architecture and modular synths, and some digital oscillators have the benefit of “remembering” their pitch after power cycle. But the real issue with modular is that it can be painfully difficult to replicate sounds. There are solutions, but many are more advanced. For a lot of touring musicians, performing with modular can take a lot of prep work.
If you’re already a synth person, modular isn’t that different. There are tradeoffs, and while some people we know use modular as a tool in every piece they compose, others use it for very specific applications, while others love noodling around on it and finding happy accidents. You will never be disappointed at the diversity of timbres you can get out of a modular synthesizer, even with a comparatively small setup. Most manufacturers are small and friendly and happy to help answer questions.
Ready to get started? Check out Noise Engineering’s blog for some ideas on small systems to get you started, and lots of other useful guides to getting started in modular synthesis.
There are a lot of moving parts to a modular setup, and with a ton of accessory options to keep you patching and help keep things organized. Hosa offers traditional patch cables, Hopscotch piggy-back patch cables, Knucklebones passive mults, and Monkeybars, an extremely versatile cable holder that can be set up three different ways depending on your needs and space requirements. It’s not usually on top-of-mind, but don’t overlook the importance of cable ties to keep your OCD at bay. For more information on Hosa’s modular synth accessories and where to buy, visit their Synth Playground landing page.