Tag Archives: Korg MS-20

The Difference Between Modular and Semi-Modular Synthesizers

The Kilpatrick Audio Phenol is a stand alone modular synthesizer, not a semi-modular synthesizer.
The Kilpatrick Audio Phenol is a stand alone modular synthesizer, not a semi-modular synthesizer.

There has been some confusion in the last year with regards to the difference between modular and semi-modular. Some people for example have been calling the Kilpatrick Phenol Semi-Modular. This however is not accurate, the Phenol is in fact a standalone modular synthesizer.

The difference between semi-modular and modular is that semi-modular has a hard-wired signal path that can be altered through patching, and fully modular instruments on the other hand requires patching. Modulars do not need separate units can be replaced. This is why the EMS Synthi and the Fenix are considered fully modular instruments. Semi-modular instruments of course are the Arp 2600, Korg MS-20, and more recently the Moog Mother-32.

The extent one can patch with a semi-modular synthesizers can vary greatly. The MS-20 for example lacks pre-filter/pre-mixer outputs for its oscillators. While the Arp 2600 allows for a great degree of patching between the various functions without such barriers.  The Moog Mother-32 adds a feature in that it can be hooked directly into a modular system.  The Buchla 208 was really what pushed out this concept.  These instruments can even be experimental, many of the Ciat-Lonbarde instruments are also semi-modular, such as the Sidrax. These limitations though often allow for some benefits, specifically the ability to approach the instrument without patching.  This can be helpful for those just learning synthesis to ease into modular functionality.

Modular synthesizers on the other hand come in two variety. One is modular systems, where you have cases or cabinets with modules you place modules or panels in. When you think of Moog, Buchla, and Eurorack, you are looking at a modular system.  This is a common standard where functional modules can be taken out and added. There is another category of modular though, which is the stand alone. EMS pushed forward with this concept with it’s Synthi pin matrix synths. The Fenix, and later the Phenol bring this concept to the realm of patch cable synthesizers.  These stand alone instruments do bring certain advantages, such as having all the necessary components for a voice, but still having all the advantages of signal path routing as a modular system. They also can bring increased portability, which can be an issue as modular systems grow in size.

Whether one is going with a fully modular synthesizer or a semi-modular, is often more about personal preference and budget.

The (Diminishing) Barriers of Entry to Modular Synthesizers: The Kilpatrick Phenol

The Kilpatrick Audio Phenol
The Kilpatrick Audio Phenol

The entry point to modular synthesizers used to be significant. The price points used were high enough that those who could afford the synthesizers was a limited audience.  Modular instruments were above all boutique instruments of enthusiasts and DIY builders.  Do not get me wrong there is nothing wrong with this, many of these early enthusiasts were composers such as Laurie Spiegel, who used them extensively in her early recordings. For women it was a way to compose and produce music without the institutional barriers of the conservatory.

While the barriers to synthesizers in general fell, modular synthesizers were a different story. In recent years the price barrier have been falling, the introduction of the Eurorack format by Doepfer in 1995 started opening up these instruments to a far broader audience.  In the last five years however the format exploded in popularity. The barrier to entry began to lower even more as a result as multiple manufacturers producing modules for the format.

In the last few days, Kilpatrick Audio, a Canadian company, announced the Phenol. While I will try to avoid endorsing products directly without trying them, the value of what they are offering is pretty impressive. It’s $850 retail price point (and I think that’s Canadian dollars) is lower than any comparable device . While the device is not a specific format, it does allow cross compatibility with other modular synths.  The added bonus is that it uses banana jacks, which are easily one of the most fun formats because the wires are stackable. The one thing that will never disapear with modulars though is the differences in jack formats. However, unlike the Korg MS-20 mini, the Kilpatrick Phenol synthesizer uses the standard voltages found in modular synthesizers.

The $1000 price barrier is a bit mythical in the realm of musical instruments. It is the real difference between enthusiasts and professionals, and a larger general audience and hobbyists.  While I can recommend several synthesizers to people, and I will on this blog, modular synthesizers which are close to my heart, tend to be out of reach to most people. It is hard to spend thousands of dollars on instruments with student loans, kids, and a mortgage. It is hard for teenagers to save up for modular instruments as well. The Phenol on the other hand could provide of an excellent entry point, one that can bring this type music technology into homes and schools.  I can only imagine bringing something like the Phenol into a Girl’s Rock or Women’s Rock program.

While I am not going to make a final verdict on the Kilpatrick Phenol until I play it myself, the effort to make a high quality affordable modular instrument is commendable. While I will be reviewing and discussing instruments that are expensive,  I am happy to start off this blog focusing on the announcement of a modular instrument that is accessible and more affordable.

When the Kickstarter opens up, I will be posting more about the Phenol.

Kilpatrick Phenol Specs:

  • Banana patch system with colour-coded jacks and voltages compatible with Kilpatrick Format and other modular systems
  • Two analog VCOs – triangle, ramp and pulse outputs
  • Two analog filters (low pass and high pass)
  • Two analog VCAs with level control
  • Two envelope generator / LFO combos with many unique features
  • An LFO with sine and random output
  • Internal MIDI to CV converter with DIN and USB MIDI interfaces
  • Compact mixer with digital delay with over 330ms of delay time
  • Digital pulse divider – divide MIDI clock or LFO output to create 4 musical time divisions
  • Buffered mixer / mult / inverter with level control
  • External audio input allows a stereo input to be patched like an oscillator signal – process your drum machine or other source through the system
  • Designed and made in Canada using high quality parts
  • Warranty: 1 year