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How should we record our Analog or Modular Synthesizers?

Updated: Jun 18

When making music and producing, especially in the realm of electronic music, aside from the creative process, recording is also a crucial aspect. Some of us may be familiar with topics like sound engineering or have been professionally involved in this field for years. Others may be new to this endeavor, having set up a small system at home for making music in their spare time. Generally, one common characteristic among us is the desire to step away from the computer at least a bit; hence, we prefer music production to deepen our knowledge and expertise.

The modular world offers vast and limitless possibilities. However, recording is a significant point in this process. As professional or hobby musicians, at some point, we may want to share the sound or video recordings we create on a platform. Using analog equipment and modular synthesizers and recording these sounds correctly requires serious knowledge, expertise, and experience. For those unfamiliar with these topics and jargon, this process can be confusing.

The purpose of this article is to help you at least in the basic aspects of the recording process.

Levels of modular and analog synthesizers are generally higher than those of professional recording systems. I recommend being careful when connecting your synthesizer and recording system to each other.

We can categorize the levels as follows:

  1. Microphone Level (-60dBu to -40dBu): The microphone level is very low and is largely amplified using preamps (approximately around 1.2Vpp).

  2. Instrument Level (0.077Vpp): Used for low-voltage instruments like electric guitar, electric bass, etc.

  3. Line Level (2Vpp): Used for equipment like rack units, keyboards, some drum machines, etc.

  4. Analog and Modular Synthesizer Level (between 5Vpp and 10Vpp): Has high-voltage outputs.

The important point here is that all recording equipment and sound cards are usually designed for live instruments and microphones. Since synthesizer levels are much higher, we always need to significantly reduce our output level. We can usually do this by reducing the passive attenuator located at the output of a VCA or by adding a passive attenuator to the final output. Passive attenuators reduce the sound more transparently and naturally compared to active circuits. If you reduce the sound from the input of the VCA or from the mixer on it, you will be closer to the noise produced by the VCA, which carries a greater risk of recording more noise.

If we have 3.5mm TS jack outputs, we can convert them to 1/4 TS jack. We can do this using a 3.5mm to 1/4 TS cable. We can also use an interface like a converter or hub for this type of conversion. It is important to remember that when carrying the signal this way, it will be referred to as "Unbalanced." This may be an acceptable method if we are not carrying the signal over long distances (e.g., 3 meters). However, in the professional world, signals are always considered "Balanced," and using balanced cables (TRS or XLR types) prevents the signal from picking up noise during its journey through the cable.

There are more practical and accurate 'Output' modules available to capture this output signal. These modules also perform DC filtering on audio signals. Some Output modules may be Unbalanced, but Balanced versions are also available. Some models include transformers. They are generally designed for stereo signals. Most of these modules can be used in Dual Mono mode or to duplicate a single mono signal. They also feature a stereo headphone output and a level control potentiometer for all outputs. While using such an output module is not a strict rule, I recommend its use.

Pay attention to setting your preamplifier to the most appropriate and lowest level possible. Many preamplifiers have a 'pad' (attenuation) switch, but some can introduce signal distortions due to the circuit elements through which the signal passes. Check if using the pad is beneficial and reconsider attenuating the sound through a passive attenuator. We already have a wide range of colors available with components like VCAs and filters. You may not necessarily need a preamplifier with a colored sound. However, it's worth noting that transformer-based or tube designs can have significant effects on sound. You may not need the best and most expensive preamplifier; this applies especially when recording synths and drum machines where excessive gain isn't necessary. Passive attenuation of high levels in electronics is straightforward, but achieving a 2x or 3x signal amplification requires high-quality components and serious engineering experience. Hence, preamplifiers tend to be expensive. You typically invest more in tubes and transformers. Indeed, if using an AD-DA converter, you can simply record your synths by attenuating them passively and directly inputting them into the converter. While tube equipment (such as preamp-eq-compressor) is less preferred, it's worth noting that transformer-based designs can impart really nice effects on sound. Rather than just adding a preamp, you can use something like a rack EQ or compressor to enhance the sound. Remember, not everything you add necessarily complements your sound or patch. The most crucial way to achieve good sound in electronic music lies in sound design and programming techniques. If you don't like the sound of your synthesizer, consider improving it first. Only then should you consider setting up another signal chain.

When it comes to the recording stage, there are several different approaches you can take. Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages. Stereo recording is generally the preferred method for most people. If you're already making music and summing your signals to a stereo output sent to speakers or headphones, recording this won't be much different. This method is practical but comes with its downsides. It's possible to achieve professional sound and publish this recording to get very good results. However, since you can't individually manipulate each sound, they may sound more natural. Of course, there's a trade-off. Everything must be correct the first time, and there shouldn't be anything to fix afterward. This requires the right acoustic environment, monitor system, and substantial knowledge and experience. If mistakes occur, you can still use some plugins to process the stereo track and make corrections. However, these adjustments and processes come at a cost. There may be distortions in varying degrees in every processed note. Some may be very noticeable, while others may be acceptable to you. Yet, while working on a stereo track and trying to correct errors, dealing with just one instrument or channel's mistake means all channels corresponding to that second must be processed, causing distortions during the process to begin affecting all music. This is the most challenging part of working on a stereo track.

Another approach is to record in multitrack. At this point, as long as your program allows, you can send channels separately to a recording device without summing them. This way, each channel is recorded individually. Later in the editing and mixing stages, you can make changes and add more creative ideas to the mix process. When you record in multitrack, you may feel more liberated while playing music. This is because if you make a mistake, you have the option to correct it later. Additionally, it's a significant approach in today's music to layer sounds and record a single sound across multiple channels. For example, recording a synth bass as 4 channels - 3 layers, separately recording kick-snare-hi-hat, and mono lead synth, you can easily reach 8 channels. You can record all effects such as delay, reverb, granular, etc., as 100% Wet as separate layers and channels. This way, you can EQ or compress effects later.

Even if music is recorded multitrack, there is no obligation to remix later. If you are confident that the sounds are good enough and have the knowledge and equipment to evaluate them, this method can indeed be a professional option to achieve the desired sound and music style. If you have a multitrack-recorded song, spending as much time mixing it as in the production stage, processing the song with a computer or analog gear can have significant musical effects. It's possible to achieve significant musical effects through mixing alone. With the capabilities offered by technology, many corrections and musical touches can be made in this production logic.

Field recording devices are designed to facilitate recording anywhere, as the name suggests. These devices can usually record with their own microphones, but they can also be used with external dynamic or condenser microphones. Additionally, these inputs can be for both line and XLR, allowing you to directly record synthesizers anywhere. The recording quality and performance of these devices vary. However, they are not suitable for professional studio recordings. A recording made with a good converter, good clock generator, good cables, and good preamplifiers in a real studio environment can make a big difference. Soundcards and AD-DA converters can be evaluated similarly. Soundcards, like portable field recording devices, are smaller, functional, and portable designs. Soundcards can combine many features such as MIDI, clock generator, converter, headphone preamplifiers, and microphone preamplifiers. Professional converters, on the other hand, are simpler and designed to do their job exceptionally well. For example, an 8-channel converter is usually in a 1U rack format and only offers basic functions like input-output. Most converters do not include headphone preamps and cannot be used as monitor controls. These devices are more professional but also more expensive and cumbersome. When designing a device, reducing some components, abandoning some features, or using smaller versions of large components may be necessary to make it small and functional. This can negatively impact sound quality.

Eurorack modules, particularly Expert Sleepers modules that can function as in-out and soundcard converters, are highly beneficial in this regard. Their DC coupling provides both advantages and disadvantages. Expert Sleepers modules, being DC coupled, allow you to record high modular signals and CV signals into DAWs. However, when recording audio signals, AC inputs or transformer models are more suitable.

When recording, it's essential to consider monitoring and latency rates to choose the right converter. Opting for low latency rates will be more satisfying if you don't have direct monitoring capability or if you're simultaneously processing live with plugins. Another crucial aspect for low latency is to set your DAW's buffer size as low as possible, such as 128 samples.

In conclusion, understanding how to record properly is not an easy task; it requires expertise. What you hear and see here is just the tip of the iceberg. Nonetheless, our aim is to provide some guidance and shed light on these matters with this article. Hopefully, it proves useful to everyone :)


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