I am a professional software developer. Most of my spare time is spent writing code for side projects. When I'm not writing code or hanging out with my wife, I'm creating music. I'm just a music hobbyist, so my toolbox isn't as full as I'd wish for.
During my explorations of music, I've evolved from playing the piano by ear as a kid to being obsessed by modular synthesis in recent times.
I've always known that music is very much like software development. You have a certain language that you use to create a product using certain rules depending on what outcome you are trying to achieve. That's obviously oversimplifying music and development, but it makes my point.
Modular Synthesis is even closer to programming (either Object-oriented or functional) in that you have modules (objects/functions) that you patch to other modules (a function on another object), setting dials, knobs, and sliders to get the desired result (function parameters, default constructors on objects), taking the output and sending it to the amplifier (the user interface).
I get the same satisfaction out of playing with modular synthesis as I do writing code. It's instant feedback. The faster the iteration, the better I feel for the session.
When I don't hear the desired sound while working on a patch, I have to follow the wires from start to finish, finding the culprit along the way. This is no different than what I do when I debug my code. When debugging software, you have to follow the operation call from start to finish, examining the variables along the way. The lessons I've learned in my 20 years as a professional developer have prepared me for creating patches with modular synthesizers. I felt instantly at home last week when I got my hands on the Softube Modular plugin. Everything just worked the way I understood it was supposed to.
I think this is why I am so intrigued by modular synthesis. I can imagine that there's a bit of "Inception" in the Softube shop as those developers are writing code that emulates a modular synthesizer in software.
I created a live broadcast on Twitch during my evaluation. You can view my Twitch channel at http://twitch.tv/cerkit. It contains the archived footage of my broadcast.
Here is my entire session on YouTube. Fast forward to around 2:00:00 to watch me record the performances in Ableton (and hear my audio clipping due to CPU overload :) )
Installation of the software was a bit tricky as it involved a third-party license manager. They use iLok, so you have to have an account with iLok and install their software. I was able to breeze through it in about 5 minutes. If you're less comfortable with computer installation, then it might take a little longer to read the instructions (I'm one of those types that skips reading the instructions until I have something halfway put together backwards and I have to take it apart and start over with the instructions).
There is a 20 day demo license available for Modular. Just click on the DEMO tab on the Modular page to have the license deposited into your iLok account.
Once the iLok license was activated, I opened up Ableton Live and added the Softube modular plugin to a MIDI track. There is also a Modular FX plugin you can use to process your audio, but I haven't used that feature yet. I clicked on the wrench icon on the plugin at the bottom of the page to open up the modular rack.
I started with an empty rack because I wanted to jump right into playing around with various things I've seen on YouTube videos. I have a moderate understanding of modular synthesis, but Eurorack has been out of my price range (I'm just a hobbyist and only have a little bit of disposable income each month. I've heard the reference to Eurorack as "Eurocrack", so I'm a bit weary of buying the hardware just yet). I wanted to try it out first, and this is a good way to understand how the different modules work together.
The interface is really easy to use. The screen is divided into horizontal sections. The first two sections are divided by a control bar that contains the Module management buttons, performance mapping button, main output, volume, output level meter, auxiliary outputs (I haven't learned how to use these, yet), and a section labeled "Block DC On AUX Out" for each of the auxiliary outs (1-4).
To add a module, you just click the add button and select from the menu of available modules.
I started with the basics: Voltage Controlled Oscillator(VCO), Voltage Controlled Filter(VCF), An envelope generator, and a Voltage Controlled Amplifier(VCA). I then wired them up in the standard formation to create a sound that I could start working with.
I really liked that I could save my patch at different points of development so I could go back and explore other avenues (and even get back a sound I liked from earlier).
Saving your patches
To save a patch in Ableton Live, select the MIDI track that contains your Softube Modular plugin. Then, look for the legacy floppy disk icon (if you've never seen a 3.5" floppy disk, this might be confusing. It's a running joke among software developers that we're still using an "ancient" disk as a save icon (we could be using the 8" or 5.25" floppy, so count your blessings), but no one has come up with anything better). Here is the icon circled in green:
Clicking this icon will allow you to save your patch as a preset. I use the instruments folder in the User Library (I created a folder named "Modular" just for this plugin)
Loading your saved patches
Click on the folder icon to the left of the floppy disk icon to load any patches that you previously saved (or downloaded from the Internet).
Sharing your patches in the public domain
If you're interested in sharing your patches and downloading patches from others, I have created a GitHub repository to share patches in the public domain. It's a little technical to get started sharing your own patches, but downloading patches from the repository is easy to do.
I browsed through a few presets and even used them on the recording I made during my Twitch session. I haven't gone through them all, but there are quite a few. I believe that this is the greatest benefit of having a software modular synthesizer - changing patches is super easy. However, I can see where the fact that you can't change patches as easily with real world hardware would encourage you to explore more with what you have. I can also see where the limitations of real world hardware would push you to be more creative.
When recording with the Softube Modular, none of the dials are mapped to your MIDI performance (there's no automation recording capability), so to record a performance, you'll need to route your audio output to an audio channel and record it that way. There is a way to get the basic inputs from your MIDI controller (MIDI clock, pitch, velocity, aftertouch, mod wheel, and pitch bend), but anything beyond that is not possible.
I am a user of Properllerhead Reason, so I am a little unfamiliar with Ableton. I was able to get into the plugin pretty easily, but I was fumbling around trying to figure out how to set track levels.
It's also a Time Machine!
This plugin is a time machine. Unfortunately, it only goes one way - into the future. Once I started working with the Softube Modular, I lost all sense of time. Before I knew it, I had been working with it for over two hours.
It took some time, but I eventually found the limitation of my machine. I had so many modules in my rack that my CPU usage was spiking over 100%. This caused a complete cutoff in sound from Ableton. I managed to remove some modules that I wasn't using and closed some programs on my computer to get back some CPU. I have 16GB of RAM, so I wasn't wanting there.
I'm running a low-end AMD processor on a computer that I built myself. I'm going to try to get a CPU cooler and overclock it to see if I can get more out of it (there is someone who has figured out how to overclock it to 4.8GHz on the same motherboard that I have. I am running at 3.89GHz), but I'm most likely going to have to replace the CPU with an Intel i5 CPU. That means I have to invest in a new motherboard, as well. It's always something...
This plugin is addictive! It's everything I've been wishing for in a software modular synthesizer. I've had a lot of fun with Reason's rack extensions for synthesis, but I just couldn't get the workflow I wanted. I also can't get my Novation Launchpad MK2 to work with Reason as the Automapper is not recognizing it. The Launchpad "just works" with Ableton, so I had it connected with my keyboard and was recording and performing my "song" with ease.
Currently the Softube Modular is available for $75, instead of the original price of $99. I hope that it stays at $75 until next month when I can pull the money together for it and the third-party plugins from Intelligel, plus the Heartbeat plugins from Softube.