VCV Rack is a software emulation of hardware modular synthesizers. In this article you’ll find an overview of modular synthesis, and a crash course in how to get started right away with VCV Rack.

Retro

The OG VCV Rack.
A Moog brand modular synth.

Modular synthesis was big in the late 60s and early 70s. A modular synthesizer looks a lot like an old telephone switching board – the user connects various parts of the synthesizer with patch cables. Through routing voltages between various components, the user can create a wide variety of sonic textures, and can reconfigure almost an infinite number of sounds even with a limited number of modules.

Musicians abandoned these systems en masse in the 1980s due to the release of sleek, keyboard contained synthesizers. These keyboard based synthesizers were routed in very normal and predictable ways. They were easier to tour with than modular systems, that could sometimes be as big as a refrigerator, and they were more predictable. The performer could save presets, making it easy to have predictable sounds at the press of a button. Modular synths do not do predictability well!

Background

Another OG VCV Rack predecessor - a Buchla system.

I love modular synthesizers. I’ve been fortunate enough to play on a few of the rarest systems in existence. Pictured here is a system created by the late Don Buchla. He would go on to found the massively influential “Buchla Electronic Musical Instruments”. The system pictured here is so old that the tag on it reads “San Francisco Tape Music Center” – meaning it must have come from before the formal creation of Buchla’s company. Two of my other favorite rare experiences were with a rare Soviet-era ZSK modular synth prototype (only one in existence), and a vintage Polyfusion system from circa 1970, in excellent condition, and with a quadraphonic joystick panner! The former was particularly fun and magical because I couldn’t read Russian or even make out cognates due to the Cyrillic script making it a fully tactile and blind experience led by the ears.

Anyways. The issue with these systems is that they are fucking expensive, and mostly out of production, which drives the price up more. A number of engineers began building modules in a newer, and hyper-compact format about a decade ago. This format, dubbed Eurorack, underwent a massive resurgence in popularity which only now seems to be receding. Key manufacturers include Mutable Instruments, Doepfer, and Pittsburgh Modular to name just a few. Sadly the entry points for this format of synthesis are still unrealistic for most hobbyists with an entry level system coming in around $3000 and ascending as high as you can imagine. Due to the reconfigurable and customizable nature of these systems, many owners have redubbed the format “EuroCrack”.

VCV Rack

The solution to the price-of-entry issue has arrived in the form of free software (Mac/PC/Linux) that emulates the Eurorack format. VCV Rack (vcvrack.com) is a software modular system that is customizable through downloading or purchasing packages of new modules (each developer can choose what and if to charge). The process is further streamlined through VCV Rack’s built-in package manager. Simply logging into your VCV Rack account in the software will sync your plugin acquisitions made on VCV Rack’s plugin directory. As of this writing, there are 141 plugin packages available, many of which contain multiple modules, and most of which are free.

Let’s take a step back though, what if you’re new to modular synthesis? Maybe you’ve only experimented with a DAW before if that. I got your back. At the end of this article, there is a download link for a super simple starter patch in VCV Rack. Let’s take a look at it.

Getting Started

I won’t explain the entire patch here – serendipitous discovery is part of the fun of modular synthesis. I will give a brief overview though. There are 2 sound-making components here, both titled VCO-1. The outputs of these sound-makers are wired to a module called AUDIO. AUDIO simply inputs or outputs audio through your computer system. If you click the text that says “Apple Inc.” you can reconfigure the audio output for your own system – it may look different than what I have here depending on what OS you’re using and what software you’re using. Just mess around with this first until you get audio. If you have issues, Google is your friend.

So good, you’ve now gotten audio from the two VCOs out through the AUDIO module and into your earholes. What the fuck is the SEQ-3 doing? There are three rows of dials. Dials in VCV Rack can be moved by clicking and dragging up or down (not clockwise or counterclockwise). Dial a few of those knobs in rows 1 and 2 around and see what happens to the sound – you’ll figure it out quick.

Two Experiments to Try

  1. Move all knobs in each of the VCO modules and the SEQ module. See what kind of sounds you can make. Be methodical, or let the spirit move you, see what happens. Keep a mental note of what knobs don’t seem to make any effect on the sound – which brings me to the second experiment.
  2. Break it. Disconnect and reconnect wires. Remember that the VCOs are the sound generators if you disconnect both of them from the AUDIO module you probably won’t hear anything unless the modular experience has caused rabid audio hallucinations, in which case you should attempt to sing them onto an audio recording for later reproduction, trust your instincts here. Anyways, try to hook up some different connections. Handy shortcuts: click and drag wire terminals to move them elsewhere, right click to eliminate a wire.
  3. If you FUBAR the patch, just quit and open it again, or redownload it if you already saved it. If you get something good, save your patch!

Further Exploration

Add some modules – they’re free. Right-click in a blank space of VCV Rack to open the new module dialog. Add one or many. Start patching.

Expand your library. Check out the plugin library on the VCV Rack site and indiscriminately download new module packs.

If you come up with anything great, please post here. If you need some inspiration, check out my live streams. I do a few live VCV Rack creations per week. Here is a recent favorite:

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