Best Synth Modules 2020
We run through a selection of the best Eurorack synth modules for beginners and experienced musicians alike.
The Eurorack modular synth format has spawned some of the most exciting, innovative and inspiring musical instruments of the last decade. From oscillators to filters and effects, the format encourages and celebrates original ideas.
To help guide you through the thousands of options on the market, here we run down our favourite Eurorack modules, from absolute classics to new favourites. Whether you’re just starting to put together your very first setup or looking for ideas to refresh existing racks, we’ve got you covered.
We’re breaking the rules of our standard 10 Best format this time. There are just too many amazing modules for us to narrow it down to 10, so we’re going for 10-and-a-bit on this occasion.
Released in 2018 as a successor to the excellent Braids module, Plaits is already a modern classic, and must rank as one of the most versatile modules you can fit into just 12hp of rack space.
Described as a macro oscillator, it’s a digital module that offers eight synth modes and eight noise/percussion modes, meaning it can cover a huge range. With a mode selected, the Harmonics, Morph and Timbre controls allow you to twist and shape the sound, but the real fun comes from modulating things via the CV inputs, which allow you to control those three main parameters, plus frequency modulation.
All in all, it’s a hugely powerful sound source that covers everything from basslines to drums. If you’re looking for a brilliant all-rounder as a starting point for a rack, it’s an ideal choice – that’s why it’s a permanent fixture in our own review rack. It’s compact, easy to use and surprisingly capable as a self-contained synth or drum voice, before you even run it through filters and other processing modules.
UK brand ALM Busy Circuits have become firmly established as purveyors of carefully considered, quirky but ultra-useable modules. We’ve picked a couple of their modules in this list, but the best starting point is Pamela’s New Workout, a master clock and modulation source that appears simple at first glance but reveals hidden depth and power the more you use it.
Each of the module’s eight outputs can produce clocked trigger signals or waveforms, which in practice means they can be used for a huge range of purposes: trigger drum modules, sequencers or other rhythmic parts; generate LFOs or other modulation signals; create complex clock patterns and gates; quantise CV outputs to musical scales.
In terms of packing utility into a small amount of rack space, it’s hard to think of many modules that can beat Pam. And all that’s before you even hook up one of the optional expander modules.
Make Noise built their reputation on weirdness. Founded in 2008 by former Moog Music employee Tony Rolando, the brand prioritised innovation at a time when many other brands were content to churn out replicas of classic synth circuits – a Moog filter here, an ARP oscillator there.
Maths is “an analogue computer designed for musical purposes”, which hints at the kind of approach we’re dealing with here: unconventional and borderline scientific, drawing heavily from the West Coast synthesis approach of synth pioneers like Don Buchla. Maths requires a bit more effort to understand than your bog-standard filters and oscillators, but its ability to process signals reveals itself as hugely versatile the more you dig into it. The module can do all sorts of things, from very simple, everyday functions like mixing signals and generating slew/glide, all the way through to functioning as an oscillator, an envelope follower or a kind of basic filter. A hugely creative and versatile module to have in your arsenal.
Make Noise describe their own instruments as “strange, but thoughtful”, a perfectly fitting summary of the hugely versatile Maths module.
Doepfer Musikelektronik has a history stretching all the way back to the late 1970s, but the brand’s major claim to fame is that they invented the entire Eurorack format with their 1995 A-100, a flight-cased modular synth based around smaller units than the previous Moog-inspired 5U standard. The format was released as a standard and adopted by other manufacturers, leading us to the thriving scene we now have 25 years later.
Doepfer have a slightly unfair reputation for focusing on fairly safe, workaday modules. That’s sometimes the case, but it overlooks the fact that the brand is a trusted go-to option for high quality, affordable basics.
Alongside the straightforward, effective utility modules, there are also plenty of characterful little gems. The A-124 Wasp Filter is a case in point: based on the circuit from the late 70s EDP Wasp synth, it’s a brilliant little weirdo, very quickly turning out uniquely wonky sounds as you crank up the resonance. Brilliant value for money.
In the early days of the Eurorack format there was a tendency for analogue purism, almost in the belief that modular synthesis should stick with the technology and ideology of its 1960s roots. Things have changed a lot in recent years; there’s still plenty of room for classic analogue synthesis, but most brands and musicians have acknowledged and embraced the potential for digital technology.
Erica’s Sample Drum is a relatively conventional, straightforward two-part sampler module designed primarily for drum and percussion use. It’s quick, easy to use and most importantly takes advantage of the benefits of modular synths, with six CV inputs allowing you to twist, slice and warp samples and loops creatively. Great value, and one of our top choices for sampling.
Sampling might be the quickest and easiest approach when it comes to drums, but many of us still prefer the challenge and creativity of synthesising percussive sounds from scratch. The Basimilus Iteritas Alter is a brilliant option, offering digital drum synthesis based on six additive oscillators, noise and wavefolding.
It’s very easy to use, with seven knobs controlling the key parameters and CV control of just about everything. Quick and rewarding to dial in unique percussive hits, but also just as effective when played live in real time, making it a great option for live performance. It’s one of Surgeon’s favourites, which should give you an idea of the kind of techno territory it suits so well.
Modular synthesis has historically been focused around monophonic patches, for fairly obvious reasons: polyphonic modular patches typically require multiple oscillators, multiple filters and all the complexity and expense that entails. That being said, there are options if you want to play chords and multi-note parts. One of our favourites is the second-gen Qu-Bit Chord module, essentially four wavetable-based oscillator voices in a single module.
The module can be configured to play chords, four separate voices or a single unison voice, making it versatile for a lot of different applications. Most importantly, it sounds great in all three modes. There are eight banks of wavetables included as standard, but you can also load your own custom wavetables via the SD card slot on the front panel. All in all, a very handy little module at a very reasonable price.
Originally launched via a Kickstarter campaign in 2017, the Field Kit FX is a real powerhouse, available as a standalone boxed unit or a Eurorack module. The list of features alone gives a good sense of how many different creative things you can do with the module: looper, frequency shifter, sample rate reducer/bitcrusher, digital delay, analogue spring reverb (requires a reverb tank to be connected), VCA mixer, mini sequencer and envelope generator.
Essentially seven separate circuits built into the same module, the one downside of the module is that it’s fairly large compared to most of the other choices on our list, but if you have the rack space available then it offers a lot of possibilities.
Our second pick from Mutable Instruments is the Marbles, described as a random sampler, albeit not in the sense of sampling audio. Instead, Marbles is a source of (semi-)random gates and voltages; we say semi-random because the real beauty of Marbles is the way it makes sense of the randomness. Fundamentally, it allows you to repeat and tweak the randomisation in order to humanise signals or general pseudo-random sequences and patterns.
Via a clock input, Marbles can synchronise with your sequences and add a sense of feeling and movement that works perfectly in time with other sequencers and patterns. Perhaps more impressively, once you dig into its features you realise that it can act as the centrepiece of a modular setup, controlling everything else and operating as the creative focal point of your patches.
A very different type of sampler comes in the form of ALM’s Squid Salmple, released in 2019 and immediately becoming a huge hit. Typically for ALM, it’s a multi-faceted module, with eight channels of sampling that can operate as audio, CV or both. You can sample in real time via a mono input or load and save samples via USB input.
Much like Pamela’s New Workout, it’s a module that simultaneously intuitive and deep; you’ll immediately enjoy its basic features, but the more you explore its potential the more you’ll realise how much it can do. Trigger samples, warp loops, create unique modulation signals and perform in real time alongside sequenced CV modulation.
It’s well-worn cliche that you can never have too many VCAs in a modular setup, but cliches are often based on truth. Used for everything from simple level control to modulation, VCAs are crucial building blocks in most patches. Intellijel’s Quad VCA does exactly what it says on the tin, but it’s not just about VCAs. The four channels also acts as a cascaded mixer, allowing you to create submixes from the four CV inputs and four outputs.
We won’t pretend that VCAs are the most exciting modules, but they’re essential nonetheless. The Quad VCA strikes a nice balance between straightforward, neutral VCA and slightly more interesting creative tool. You can use it for the basics, but if you want to get a bit more adventurous then the neat little touches like sweepable linear/exponential response make it incredibly handy and easy to use.
LFOs are some of the most fundamental building blocks of modular patches, representing one of the easiest and most effective ways to add modulation. There are plenty of nice simple LFOs on the market, but it’s also possible to go for something a little bit more advanced. Xaoc’s Batumi module is a great example, offering four LFO channels with a range of waveforms.
Things get a little more interesting when you explore the sync and CV control options. On the sync front, you can use each channel independently or in quadrature, phase or divide modes, allowing you to set up complex, interconnected modulation signals. Each channel’s frequency, reset, and external sync can be controlled via CV. It’s a nicely designed module that manages to stay user-friendly while offering just enough complexity to keep things interesting.
Relative newcomers to the Eurorack world, Belgian brand Joranalogue focus on updating the classic analogue synthesis approach for modern music, “making waves in the stagnant waters of analogue synthesis”. That provocative mission statement is backed up by products that genuinely offer something new. The Filter 8 is a prime example, based around a traditional 4-pole low-pass VCF but with eight separate outputs, offering various different filter modes including high-pass and band-pass options.
At higher resonance settings, the filter will self-oscillate without losing any bass, unlike most traditional VCFs. But things get even more interesting when you use the module as an oscillator, outputting eight sine waves in different phases, with frequency modulation to add harmonic complexity. Effectively, it’s not just a filter but also a VCO, slew modifier and voltage-controlled LFO. Proper analogue innovation in an inspiring, musical form.
As well as incredibly handy DIY rack components and the game-changing Z5000 digital effects module, Tiptop Audio’s extensive range also includes a brilliant series of drum modules inspired by classic Roland drum machines. The BD909 is a reverse-engineered clone of the legendary TR-909 kick drum circuit.
Clones of vintage gear aren’t uncommon in the world of Eurorack, but they tend to succeed or fail based on more than just their sound. It’s relatively easy to clone a vintage circuit, but the bigger question is how you can make it work as a patchable module. If all you’re doing is recreating the original, what’s the point?
The BD909 gets all the basics right, with an authentic impression of one of the most iconic kick drums in electronic music, but it also adds value with a voltage-controllable oscillator tuning knob, adjustable overload (again voltage-controlled) and knobs to control the attack and decay of the tuning. All in all, a fitting tribute to the original which also expands its capabilities in a modular context.