Using A Physical Modular Synth With Reason Studios

I spent $1,369 to put together a modular synthesizer to be used with Reason. The idea was to use LFO (low frequency oscillator) CV (control voltages) from Reason and, using a line input and MIDI-to-CV converter, have the CV signals from Reason devices control different CV functions of the modular synth. I’m gonna’ talk about my experiences doing this, using modular synths with Reason / in general and why I decided to return / resell it all.

My background with modular synths

I spent three years of casual research and a few months of intense research leading up to buying my modular synthesizer setup. I read every page of the user manuals for each module before I bought them. I completed two paid video courses for modular synths totally 9 hours long. I had also been building mock complex patches using modular synth emulators (working with Reason via the External MIDI Instrument in fact). I essentially had been teaching myself basic and complex concepts of modular synths for a few months.

So first let’s start with…

What are modular synths in relation to Reason?

A modular synthesizer is like a normal keyboard or rack-mounted synth. Modular synths take sections and components that typically make up most synths (sound generators, filters, LFO’s, envelopes, etc). Components / modules are connected to each other via patch cables. Patch cables (such as the 3.5mm headphone-jack size ones used in the Eurorack-style modular synth in these photos) can be used for either audio or CV (unlike Reason, where a CV jack can’t be patched to an audio jack).

Different modules can be purchased from different manufacturers and can be used to create simple or complex “patches” (the term for how configurations and wiring is set up).

There are simple sequencers for modular synths (think a super simple Matrix from Reason lacking velocity control and many other features). But most modular synths are intended to be controlled via MIDI, which Reason does thanks to the External MIDI Instrument device.

So MIDI from Reason can control a modular synth either directly with MIDI controllers connected to Reason (keyboard, drum pads, universal controllers) or from MIDI data in the sequencer.

MIDI-to-CV converter module

MIDI from Reason is sent from a MIDI or USB cable to a MIDI-to-CV converter module. This module then outputs the needed CV signals. One for note pitch, one for gate / trigger (when the note is on or off), one for velocity… then you have a few other options, such as MIDI clock, “expression” (which can be your mod wheel, aftertouch, expression, LFO). As far as Reason CV (i.e. LFO) output, most MIDI modules will only have either mod wheel input (meaning you either get mod wheel control or LFO, but not both) or will have both mod wheel input and an extra “CC” input (meaning mod wheel and LFO input or two LFO inputs, etc).

Modular sound output

Audio leaves the modular synth and enters Reason via your audio interface’s input.

The audio input channel is then set to “monitor audio” in Reason so you can hear what’s happening. Of course, just like any live audio input coming into Reason, effects, modulation and whatever can be applied to the live sound and heard instantly with no noticeable latency.

So you would then build your modular synth patch in conjunction with everything else in Reason, treating it like any other device. Although…

Patches can’t be recalled

The thing about modular synths is that patches can’t be recalled like some digital hardware synths can. So you’ve gotta’ work with the patch you have and then record the synth’s sound (some call this “printing”).

Practically no one’s using Reason with modular synths

I don’t wanna’ give the impression there’s a bunch of modular synth owners using Reason; there aren’t. In fact, the first results for a web search of “Propellerhead Reason modular synth” shows nothing at all related to physical modular synths.

In the searches I’ve done over the years, besides a few standouts like Peff, practically no one’s using Reason and modular synths (likely because of issues below). And those that did do it, like Peff… they seem to have lost interest. But let’s change gears and get into…

The appeal of modular synths

Modular synths can’t necessarily do anything that devices in Reason can’t. For many, it’s about having fun playing with knobs, wires and buttons.

Most of the “sound character” produced by modular synths aren’t going to be noticed by listeners or even other music creators. Most modular synth modules are all doing the same thing, such as subtractive synthesis, but are designed to mimic near-microscopic imperfections of vintage synthesizers. For instance, one of the many different functions the Braids module by Mutable Instruments can do is reproduced the slight irregularities in a sawtooth wave form that were present in vintage Yamaha CS-80 synths. (The same sound is found in Reason, such as NN-XT patches sampled directly from CS-80’s.)

From the research I’ve done, I’d say 95% of people are into modular synths not for creating melodic music (the way a music producer or musician approaches music creation) but more about the process of sound design. And some use modular synths for a combination of live preforming or in regular music production.

My intention

I wanted to get a modular synth to give my music something unique and make things more fun. I already use complex CV setups in all my songs (used to create evolving sounds or to add randomness to things). So the idea of doing the same thing, but with physical hardware devices, intrigued me.

I didn’t have expectations that I would be producing music that sounded better than what can be done in Reason alone. In fact, even with complex CV routing being controlled by Reason devices, I expected sounds created with a modular synth to sound basic than what I currently achieve in Reason.

My setup

I based my system around a semi-modular synth, a Lifeforms SV-1 by Pittsburgh Modular, because it offered the most sound design and utilities for the money. Wasn’t a fan of the auto (invisible) routing that is present with semi-modulars, but every function of the Lifeforms SV-1 can be routed as if all components were separate.

So the Lifeforms SV-1 served as my MIDI-to-CV converter, mixer, two analog oscillators, filter, envelope, utilities and LFO’s.

I also had Braids by Mutable Instruments. Braids replicates complex wave forms and can modulate between wave forms (sounds like Europa but in reality not like it).

I also had a 3 band splitter module for taking the output of a certain band and applying effects to that band alone (while the other bands are left unchanged).

I had one non-powered “attenuator” (also known as a “VCA”) from Erica Synths and one powered from “2hp”, which functions like the CV “trim pots” (knobs) on the back of Reason devices (used to boost or limit CV signals). For modular synths, these kinds of devices are useful for controlling audio or CV levels. Powered VCAs with CV input modulation are also useable as separate / additional devices to control velocity.

I had an additional splitter module from Make Noise; useful for splitting signals (can also be done via patch cable splitters).

One of the modules was the power source that came with the “Happy Ending kit” by Tiptop Audio.

The last two modules were EQ. A 3 band EQ from Zlob and a digital signal processor (DSP) EQ from Erika Synths called a “Pico DSP”. The Pico DSP was mono input, stereo output and had one parameter that was CV-controllable. The Pico DSP had modes like a Leslie speaker, stereo delay, granular-type delay, reverb, distortion, etc.

This setup was more than enough to create really complex sounds. So how was it?

CV modulation from Reason was “numb”

I was able to get things working as planned, but the problem was everything involving the modular synth that was CV either preformed super “numb” or overly extreme. This was particularly true for things from Reason.

The main point of getting this modular synth was to use complex CV controls from Reason (like the CV outputs from Synchronous or Europa). Hardly anything “in between” the CV’s minimum and maximum values were being registered, likely because the companies that manufacture modular synths are expecting most people to run simplistic LFO’s such as sine, triangle, square and noise waveform-types.

CV from the modules themselves

The CV controls directly from the modules also weren’t up to my expectations. Modulation was either too numb or too extreme. People use modular synths to create very slow, evolving sound-scapes (many use the Make Noise Maths module for this). But the results are not at all like the CV control we get from Reason. Part of this is due to…

Modulation inputs are partially to blame

When you connect a simple sine wave LFO from one of the modules themselves and set its rate to be super slow, you expect decent results like you get from Reason. But the input of the modules handle things weirdly.

In the case of the Lifeforms SV-1 and Pico DSP, the modulation inputs seemed to act numb (even after making sure any available knobs were set for the widest control). But then with the Braids, the opposite was true. Modulation hardly ever worked because all the sources changed waveforms or tones so drastically, many times distortion-like sounds could be heard, even when on fairly slow settings.

Volume and filter modulation worked so-so, but the numbness of the CV signals prevents anything interesting besides simple “up down, up down” type modulation. Trying to tune complex CV or random CV signals was a mess.

I absolutely felt like I could create more complex, modulated setups with Reason 1.0 (released almost 20 years ago) than I could with this $1,300 modular synth. …Let that sink in for a second. $1,300! And my setup was frugal, most setups cost so much more.

There are more expensive MIDI-to-CV modules that claim to offer much better linear CV responses, such as the ones offered by an outfit called Expert Sleepers (I swear these names are so stupid). But I watched video demonstrations from various YouTubers using these advanced MIDI modules with the same modules I own; I saw the same issues. This stuff just does not perform as I expect hardware costing this much.

Complex patches don’t always lead to complex sounds

Yet another disappointing thing is that layering multiple sound generators, filters, envelopes and FX’s leads to patches that sound not much different than complex Subtractor patches (let alone more advanced synths and Combinator patches). Sure, having the Pico DSP at the end creates really rich stereophonic sounds… but so would throwing the Reason (v.1.0) half-rack DDL-1 delay effect at the end of a Subtractor patch.

I’ve heard some awesome-sounding evolving “drone” patches (many feature Mutable Instrument’s amazing Clouds Live-sampling module) on YouTube and I’ve even been able to recreate some of them… but most aren’t designed to be played from a keyboard or controlled from a DAW sequencer. You try actually controlling them and they don’t work at all as you expect. There’s a reason most people in the videos are all using modular sequencer devices.

For instance, listen to the pad sounds of Palma Sola from my Bradenton Ambient album.

Click to play in new window

Each sound I created from scratch. In order to test out these modular “drone” patches online, I used the MIDI notes (sequencer-recorded performance) of Palma Sola to control the modular synth. They all sounded like garbage. Either the MIDI melody (mostly pads) were completely lost (unrecognizable) or the MIDI notes warped the sounds in horrible-sounding ways. And don’t forget that modular synths are monophonic and not polyphonic, meaning only one note can be played at once, let alone playing anything like chords.

To be fair to this setup, I threw some random different Reason subtractor patches using the same MIDI notes and they all sounded so much better than what these YouTuber-created “drone” patches of the modular synth was producing.

I also contacted some of the ambient music creators found in my personal ambient music collection. Those that responded all said they don’t use modular synths.

Velocity performance is terrible

There’s an uncomfortable truth about modular synths hiding in plain sight in nearly all videos people have setup in support of modular synths; velocity performance of modular synths are so terrible, most people aren’t even wiring velocity control.

Without connecting velocity, playing a key soft or hard has no change in the sound. I thought, at first, that most people simply didn’t care about velocity. That is until I copied some monophonic MIDI melodies from various songs of mine to the modular synth.

The sound from the modular synth was so extreme. Notes either sounded full volume or were barely audible. Velocity for notes in Reason generally sound the way you’d expect. A note at 65 velocity (out of 127) will sound about half as loud as a note at 127 velocity. Yet on the modular synth, you could barely even hear a note at 65 velocity. Changing settings on the modular synth or in Reason likely makes any notes with a velocity higher than 65 way too loud.

I see why no one uses velocity, it’s terrible. I ended up simply not connecting velocity so I could get predictable results. But velocity is one of the few elements that gives a performance (or even a programmed one) a human touch. That’s just crazy the idea you can’t play more than one note at a time (monophonic), you can’t create stereo patches for most of the signal chain and you can’t even use velocity properly with modular synths.

Creating modular synth patches wasn’t as fun as I thought

This one really surprised me. I love connecting wires in Reason, turning knobs and pushing buttons. I had ordered patch cables that matched the colors of Reason, so that green would be when connecting FXs, red audio, yellow CV, white mastering (output). I put a lotta’ thought into this.

But connecting the patch cables and turning knobs of the modular synth started to feel like a chore real quick. I’d connect these complicated and creative connections using multiple patch cables, only to realize the end result wasn’t quite right and needed a VCA in another spot and for a filter to be placed on only one sound generator, etc. That meant redoing nearly the entire patch cables and massively slowing down the process of creating music.

Guests didn’t dig it

One of the biggest draws towards getting a modular synthesizer was when I have guests over. Reason is too complicated for them to drag and connect wires in the virtual rack (too easy to accidentally click-drag devices instead of patch cables). So the idea people could plug cables themselves and twist knobs should have been a blast for them.

But… nope. People downright hated it. Completely the opposite of my expectations. I was shocked.

The reason is because people would randomly plug in cables and turn knobs and the results would be terrible. They’d then ask “How can I get it to stop making a wobble sound?” (due to an LFO invisibility autorouting to something in the Lifeforms SV-1 for instance).

I’d then have to debug what was happening in the modular synth. Because the labels on the modules are stupidly placed under knobs instead of over them, this means I have to angle my head to see through cables and knobs… which means the guest feels they’re in the way and backs up. Once I get it set for them, they’re either reluctant to go back in, afraid they’re gonna’ “mess something up” or… worst… they ask me what they should do next. Kids, the most inquisitive of all, were quicker to get frustrated or tired of it than adults. …The kids.

People… they just hated it. I tried to talk about this “fun, cool thing” in the most positive light but they weren’t buying it. Even when they simply watched me creating a patch with the modular synth, they got bored.

Contrast that to when guests would be able to twist knobs and buttons on the Push universal controller and the Behringer X-Touch mixers and they have a blast. It’s because people go…

From fascination to frustration

The problem is that the modular synth makes people frustrated and, when they finally do get something right, the results are so underwhelming for them. I’ve had people create a patch with Reason’s Europa, controlling it all from the knobs and buttons on the Push (not using a keyboard and mouse) and they actually enjoyed themselves. I would tell them “turn this knob to control this part” on the Push and it would work.

But with the modular synth, because everything is so small, I’d tell them “plug this wire into that jack” and they’d plug into the wrong jack or accidentally turn a knob while doing it and screw things up. They were constantly being told “Oh, that’s the wrong thing” or “we gotta’ fix that”.

I was completely shocked people liked twisting knobs and clicking buttons with the physical universal controllers for Reason but didn’t like working with the modular synth. But after seeing the struggles people had, I don’t blame them. Also…

Being rack-mounted was awkward to use

This isn’t necessarily a fault on modular synths as a whole, but it was so hard to see the tiny labels that are all placed under knobs, jacks and other elements. This clearly works out if a device is laying completely flat on a table, but most people have their modular synth upright and nearly always under (not over) their eye-line.

So the ergonomics of using the modular synth just wasn’t good for my situation. I really liked the idea of having the modular synth be rack-mounted and I’d still keep it that way just because of how important / cool the idea is of having a synth rack-mounted like how synths are in Reason. But the modular synth…

Slowed down the process of creating music

This one may not be true for everyone, but for me, the modular synth massively slowed down the process of creating music. I understood this process is not as quick as doing the same thing in Reason, but I wasn’t seeing a trade off in that slowdown. It wasn’t inspiring creativity, it (shockingly) wasn’t more fun than working in Reason and the audible results were far worst than what could be accomplished in Reason in the same amount of time. Also…

Photographing patches for recall doesn’t work

I had the idea, for patch recalling, to take a photo of the modular synth and save the photo in the folder of the song project. The problem is, for complicated patches with multiple patch cables (which is the majority of patches I would create), the patch cables end up blocking from view knob settings and even which patch cable is plugged into what. The way modular synths work, all it takes is one knob or wire to be off and it can make everything sound completely different. And this…

Discourages you from moving onto different songs

I expected this would happen, but having a modular synth makes you less-likely to switch between unfinished songs. I’d sit primarily in one song for days for fear of undoing a patch that could be perfected a little more. It created a sense of worry about whether or not I should undo a patch or leave it. It wasn’t inspiring the so-called “happy accidents through experimentation” so many modular synth owners wax on about. If anything, it prevented me from experimenting. However…

Importing / recording audio worked fantastic

People have mentioned there can be issues bringing audio into DAW’s, but I hadn’t seen any issues with Reason. This is one aspect that not only met my expectations, but exceeded it.

The elephant in the room; price

With all these issues, I could overlook them if this all cost like $300. But at $1,300… no way. This $1,300 figure is on the low end because I bought every last component (aside from the patch cables) as either discounted demo models or as used. After looking at the market for these devices for a month, I got an absolute great deal on all of them. Yet they still cost over $1,300??

Even if everything worked the way I was hoping, I still had reservations about this “hobby” (as people call it) because of how expensive it was. In the end…

I didn’t look forward to using the modular synth

After a couple days and all the issues above became clear, the prospect of using the studio to create music bummed me out. Here, I’ve got this expensive thing… the most I’ve ever spend on music hardware (almost combined). So I felt obligated to use it, even if it makes creating music less fun.

If it wasn’t fun for me, not fun for other people, doesn’t speed up the process of creating music, doesn’t sound special and costs more than it ever should… why even have it?

After three years of casual studying and a few months of intense research, including completing two paid modular synth video courses, I had done more than enough pre-purchase research that there shouldn’t have been this level of disappointment.

So I ended up uninstalling the entire thing and returning / reselling every last module. And I’m so happy with it gone from my rack.

It’s crazy, but I feel great after getting rid of it. I wanted this to be an awesome experience; I wanted it to be anything but a disappointment… but reality turned out to be completely different.

Some rarely told facts about modular synths

People who are into modular synths seem to gloss over certain unflattering aspects of the “hobby”. So here’s what I think everyone should know about modular synthesizers.

Modules are monophonic

You can only play one note at a time. Forget playing chords or complicated melodies. People say you can setup dualphonic or polyphonic modular synths, but you can’t. What they’re referring to is setting up different sound generators and setting them a few octaves above or below. That is not polyphonic. If I hit two or three keys at the same time on a keyboard, it’s not going to register those keys… only one of those keys (either the “first hit” or “last hit”) will register.

Granted, some non-modular synths are monophonic so this isn’t something unique to modular synths, but be absolutely 100% aware of this. Nearly all synth sounds of my music are actually polyphonic melodies.

Modules are mono

This is a pretty big deal. There’s only a hand full of mixer and effect modules that handle stereo. It’s almost best to pretend modular synths are all mono.

This matters because, when sculpting a sound, it’d be nice to be able to at least pan part of a sound to one side of the speaker to create a rich, widening effect or to create a tremolo-style sound. It’s kinda’ ridiculous the concept of creating these deep, complex modular synth patches when nearly the entire signal chain is mono.

Velocity and live performing may not mix

I had already touched on this, but I feel it’s important to point this out for performers. Before you think about getting a modular synth for its admittedly awesome-looking esthetics, take a virtual synth, disable its velocity and try playing as if you were in front of a crowd. If not having velocity is a big deal then it may be an issue using a modular synth for preforming.

I had great hopes for a modular synth setup

I didn’t expect to be writing a depressing article about how horrible this modular synth setup turned out to be. But I definitely wanted to write this as a cautionary tale for people, especially Reason producers. Modular synths may be one of the coolest looking things you can add to a studio. Heck, Reason Studios even occasionally uses an image of a $2,000 – $5,000 modular synth suitcase setup on their front page for Reason.

But for any of you out there that are considering getting a modular synth? If you read every word of this article and still feel this will work out for you, feel free to get it.

I went through two courses totaling 9 hours on modular synths, I read every single page of the user manual of the modules before I bought them and I spent months (technically years) researching modular synths. The issues I had hardly anyone brings up. I don’t feel people in the modular synth community are being fully honest about the realities of modular synths. It’s not to say they’re not critical, but they’re critical on the wrong aspects.

I’m sharing my experiences as open and transparent as possible because I don’t want anyone to have the same experience I’ve had.

Later. – MJ