Electronic musician and artist Franck Martin has a lot to say about his modular synthesizer setup, and now that he’s on the judging panel for our music competition, Best Track of The 20’s, what better way to introduce him and his music than with an interview! Speaking with Franck is a pleasure – he truly knows his stuff when it comes to synthesis. So without further ado, let’s dive into the conversation.
Tell me about your modular setup. What is something unique about it that is simply inaccessible on other instruments?
“My modular synthesizer helped me to understand sound design. I started small, with a few basic modules: oscillator, filter, envelope, amplifier, sequencer, and some effects. Patching them together, gets you in to surprising places. I learnt from there to better understand how sounds are made, and I also learnt which type of modules I like and which ones I don’t like. For instance, I like dumb sequencers: the slider represents the pitch played and there is no memory to store a sequence. If you want to redo the sequence, you have to place the slider in the same position.”
“Choosing the modules helps me to have an instrument which is specific to me. My setup also has some very unique modules, or semi-modular synthesizers that I built at Moogfest: DFAM, Subharmonicon and Spectravox. These are very unique synthesizers. I add them or remove them to my setup depending on the mood. Lately, I have added a quadraphonic mixer and have started to perform with 4 speakers. It is a unique experience to be in the middle of spatial sounds. It is slightly different from the 5.1 sound you have in movies, not so much in the technology but the way the surround speakers are fully used.”
Working with other modular artists, have you run into any difficulty with the complexity of your machine?
“It is sometimes difficult to understand what some effects are really doing to the sound, or where sounds come from. I co-organize a monthly event where we invite several artists to jam for a few hours. We share a clock (to be on the same beat), but otherwise, everyone is free. Often a modular synthesizer performance is an individual performance. This event teaches me to listen to others, to match their sound, groove and be complementary. It is important to listen and in this kind of multiple artists setup you have to refrain yourself from trying to use all the modules you have.”
Sharing clock is often done via a patch cable with a CV trigger for each beat, although can also be done with MIDI. Franck’s synthesizer alone has tremendous power, so his monthly jam sessions must be unreal!
What are the biggest perks and obstacles of playing a modular synth?
“It could be expensive… Each module is between $99 to $500 and then you need a powered case. You don’t have to buy everything on the first day, (I don’t recommend it for new people, they need to learn what they like or not like) but there are DIY kits which are cheaper and recently there is VCV which a very good free software emulation. From a music point of view, nothing is tuned, so you need to tune your oscillators, set your scales, etc.. I don’t have much of a classic formation, so I rely more on ‘If it sounds good, it is good.’ During your progress, there is a step when you learn to bring diversity to a sound, so you can layer it with other sounds, and create a musical journey that lasts more than a few seconds: once I have turned that knob, and moved that slider, what else can I do? Modular synthesizers are very limited in the number of voices (sounds) they can produce at the same time. You need about 4-5 modules to make one sound. So changing the parameters, the mix, is what will create a rich musical journey.”
What makes modular synthesizers so complicated is also what makes them so unique – patches are not something that can be easily stored like on a software instrument, and must either be remembered or abandoned. If you’re using a modular synth in the recording of an album, it can be difficult to recreate it perfectly in a live performance, especially if different tracks use vastly different presets. By having these restraints, however, it can spur inspiration and vastly improve creativity.
What inspired you to perform your synth in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge?
“I saw the NPR tiny desk contest, and I thought that would be a fun project to release something within a timeframe. You may suffer from never delivering anything when you have infinite time. A friend had showed me a battery pack to power his modular synthesizer. I had bought one, but it was not yet field tested. This was the occasion. The tiny desk concert requires that everything fits in a small place, or on a desk. The contest is mainly for singer/songwriters, so I went for the WOW factor by choosing the right location: In the view of the Golden Gate Bridge and all in a 360 video. It paid off: the video was featured amongst the interesting location blog.”
You mentioned an upcoming album. Any word on an expected release date, and anything interesting we should know about the record?
“I have 2 performances lined up, one on the 16th of Feb in an event I’m organizing in San Francisco and one at Synthplex 2020 festival in Burbank near Los Angeles at the end of March. My goal is to release it before the festival so I can have it as a DVD to buy. If I can do it before the 16th of February, all the better. I have already recorded 4 tracks whilst I was in Lake Tahoe for my birthday. It is a patch that I have matured over a few months. I do variations around the same patch. I called this album “Symphoney”. The tracks are in quadraphonic sound, so I’m working on a binaural mix and a 5.1 mix. For the latter I will have to create a DVD and get it pressed, but this will be the way to get the full unaltered quadraphonic mix. I want to add another track, I have been working on it, but we will see. I have released 2 tracks (from the binaural mix) to my Bandcamp Community (subscription based tier). It helps me to get some early feedback and see if there is nothing really off. I will add the other tracks to Bandcamp, and get the album ready for digital release. Then once I am ready with the DVD, I will make it publicly available on all platforms, with the option to buy the DVD with digital download codes. At least that’s the plan, so stay tuned…”
Remember to submit a newly released song to our contest, Best Track of The 20’s! Franck will be on the judging team. We are looking forward to listening to your music.