Free, Open Source Modular Synth Software Lets You Create 70s & 80s Electronic Music—Without Having to Pay Thousands for a Real-World Synthesizer

In the past decade or so, the ana­log mod­u­lar synth—of the kind pio­neered by Robert Moog and Don Buch­la—has made a come­back, cre­at­ing a boom­ing niche mar­ket full of musi­cians chas­ing the sounds of the 70s and 80s. These inscrutable racks of patch­bays, oscil­la­tors, fil­ters, etc. look to the non-ini­ti­at­ed more like tele­phone oper­a­tor sta­tions of old than musi­cal instru­ments. But the sounds they pro­duce are sub­lime and oth­er­world­ly, with a sat­u­rat­ed warmth unpar­al­leled in the dig­i­tal world.

But while ana­log tech­nol­o­gy may have per­fect­ed cer­tain tones, one can’t beat the con­ve­nience of dig­i­tal record­ing, with its near­ly unlim­it­ed mul­ti-track­ing capa­bil­i­ty, abil­i­ty to save set­tings, and the ease of edit­ing and arrang­ing in the com­put­er. Dig­i­tal audio work­sta­tions have become increas­ing­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed, able to emu­late with “plug-ins” the capa­bil­i­ties of sought-after ana­log stu­dio gear of the past. It has tak­en a bit longer for vir­tu­al instru­ments to meet this same stan­dard, but they may be near­ly there.

Only the most fine­ly-tuned ears, for exam­ple, can hear the dif­fer­ence between the high­est-qual­i­ty dig­i­tal­ly mod­eled gui­tar ampli­fiers and effects and their real-world coun­ter­parts in the mix. Even the most high-end mod­el­ing pack­ages don’t cost as much as their real life coun­ter­parts, and many also come free in lim­it­ed ver­sions. So too the wealth of ana­log synth soft­ware, mod­eled to sound con­vinc­ing­ly like the old and new­ly reis­sued ana­log box­es that can run into the many thou­sands of dol­lars to col­lect and con­nect.

One such col­lec­tion of synths, the VCV Rack, offers open-source vir­tu­al mod­u­lar synths almost entire­ly free, with only a few at very mod­est prices. The stand­alone vir­tu­al rack works with­out any addi­tion­al soft­ware. Once you’ve cre­at­ed an account and installed it, you can start adding dozens of plug-ins, includ­ing var­i­ous syn­the­siz­ers, gates, reverbs, com­pres­sors, sequencers, key­boards, etc. “It’s pret­ty trans­for­ma­tive stuff,” writes CDM. “You can run vir­tu­al mod­ules to syn­the­size and process sounds, both those emu­lat­ing real hard­ware and many that exist only in soft­ware.”

The learn­ing curve is plen­ty steep for those who haven’t han­dled this per­plex­ing tech­nol­o­gy out­side the box. A series of YouTube tuto­ri­als, a few of which you can see here, can get you going in short order. Those already expe­ri­enced with the real-world stuff will delight in the expand­ed capa­bil­i­ties of the dig­i­tal ver­sions, as well as the fideli­ty with which these plug-ins emu­late real equipment—without the need for a room­ful of cables, unwield­ly racks, and sol­dier­ing irons and spare parts for those inevitable bad con­nec­tions and bro­ken switch­es and inputs.

You can down­load the vir­tu­al rack here, then fol­low the instruc­tions to load as many plug-ins as you like. CDM has instruc­tions for the devel­op­er ver­sion (find the source code here), and a YouTube series called Mod­u­lar Curios­i­ty demon­strates how to install the rack and use the var­i­ous plu­g­ins (see their first video fur­ther up and find the rest here). Mod­u­lar Sys­tem Begin­ner Tuto­r­i­al is anoth­er YouTube guide, with five dif­fer­ent videos. See num­ber one above and the rest here. The longer video at the top of the post offers a “first look and noob tuto­r­i­al.”

VCV Rack is only the lat­est of many vir­tu­al mod­u­lar synths, includ­ing Native Instru­ments’ Reak­tor Blocks and Softube’s Mod­u­lar. “But these come with a hefty price tag,” notes FACT mag­a­zine. “VCV Rack can be down­loaded for free on Lin­ux, Mac and Win­dows plat­form.” And if you’re won­der­ing how it stacks up against the real-life box­es it emu­lates, check out the video below.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How the Moog Syn­the­siz­er Changed the Sound of Music

The Mas­ter­mind of Devo, Mark Moth­ers­baugh, Shows Off His Syn­the­siz­er Col­lec­tion

Hear What Music Sounds Like When It’s Cre­at­ed by Syn­the­siz­ers Made with Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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