Used Sound Module Buying Guide

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Used Sound Module Buying Guide

A sound module is essentially a synthesiser, or electronic musical instrument, without a keyboard or other control interface. The module can contain sound-generating and modifying components, sample playback capability, or both. Control interfaces for sound modules can include keyboards, guitars, drum pads, and sequencing devices, either in the form of standalone sequencers, or of computers running sequencing software. Some keyboards are available now without any sound generation capability of their own, merely MIDI output for the purposes of controlling sound modules and samplers, and these are referred to as master keyboards.

Evolution and Flexibility

The integration or segregation of sound modules from their controlling keyboards or other instruments has seen three distinct phases. In the early days of synthesiser development, makers recognised the benefits of a modular approach and built discrete systems intended for studio use, and not portability. Live performance requirements then led them to the development of self-contained keyboard instruments, with a traditional piano-style keyboard and sound generators all in one unit. The development and growth of Musical Instrument Digital Interface, or MIDI, a method by which control signals can be sent to and from keyboards and other musical devices, led to the modular approach being adopted again, and developments in miniaturisation have made modular components much more portable.
Separating the sound module from the controller means that the sound module can be upgraded without requiring replacement of the controller or controllers. With suitable MIDI interfaces, multiple sound modules can also be controlled from one controller.
Drum modules are a sub-genre of sound modules, and are dedicated specifically to drum and percussion sounds. They are typically controlled with trigger pads and other MIDI devices, but can also be driven from sequencers.

Physical vs. Virtual

Many sound modules are designed for standardised 19-inch rack mounting, but some are intended to be freestanding. However, the sound module as a physical hardware item is largely being replaced in modern studios and in live performance by software synthesisers, running on PCs, laptops and sometimes tablet devices. For the purposes of this article, we'll only look at sound modules in physical form, not as computer software.

MIDI Standardisation and Compatibility

Excluding the early modular components from the 1970s and thereabouts, which were generally only compatible within the manufacturer's own systems and couldn't be cross-connected between manufacturers, the earliest standalone sound modules were introduced shortly after the introduction of MIDI. The advantage of the standardisation brought about by the MIDI system is that in the vast majority of cases, even the earliest models of sound module will work with the most up-to-date master keyboards and controller devices or instruments.

Tone Generators and Synthesisers

These come in a number of styles; some are dedicated to a particular style or instrument, such as those with only piano sounds, or those dedicated to replicating the sound of classic Hammond Organs. Others are loaded with a variety of synthesiser sounds, and some of these are dedicated to replicating the sounds of classic synthesisers, such as Moog, ARP, and other vintage models.

Retro/Nostalgia

Those looking for classic retro sounds could consider a number of the early models. The Yamaha TX7 utilised the sound generation circuitry of their DX7 keyboard synthesiser, a popular choice of the time for percussive sounds. This model evolved into the Yamaha TX81Z, which essentially took the sound base of the DX7 and DX9 and stacked these modules four-deep into one unit. A buyer with a leaning toward a classical style could look at the Roland D-110, which, in addition to keyboard-style synthesiser sounds, offered pianos, a selection of drum kits, and a full set of orchestral sounds.

Piano

The typical unit aimed at reproducing piano sounds, from Kurzweil for example, might include their Micro Piano, a freestanding unit, or their PC2 rack mounting module. Alternatively, the Yamaha Motif Rack XS might be considered. The Micro Piano was regarded as highly-priced when first introduced, but reviews at the time praised the quality of its samples and ease of use. Other choices might include the Alesis QSR, Ensoniq MR-76, or Roland JV-880.

Organ

For classic Hammond organ sounds and drawbar functionality, consider the units made by Hammond themselves or others by Oberheim, Wersi, or Roland. Most, if not all, of these feature a subset of Hammond-style drawbars in the form of a replica of the classic instrument.

Strings

Another subcategory is dedicated to the production of orchestral sounds, typically that of a string section.

Synthesiser

For exotic synthesiser sounds, there are many units made by the likes of Yamaha, Roland, Casio, Korg, Ensoniq and many others to choose from. In terms of broad buying guidelines, the prospective purchaser should look at the number of voices provided, whether or not the unit is aimed at reproducing classic sounds from vintage synthesisers, or if it is dedicated to the formulation of new and untried sounds. Some sound modules offer scope for expansion, whereby extra sounds can be added by the use of expansion cards.

Samplers

A sampler module allows a musician or producer to play back segments of audio stored as sample files. These files can either be supplied as a pre-determined set, on disc or by file transfer, or can be recorded and stored on the sampler by the musician or producer themselves. As sampling technology has moved on, the fidelity of sampling has improved, and generally speaking, most samplers use a sampling rate that corresponds to the audio CD standard that has been in use since 1983 – 16-bit, 44.1kHz. Various older units can be found with 8-bit and 12-bit specifications.

Drum Modules

Early drum modules by Electro-Harmonix and Pearl were novel for their time, but time has not been kind to their limited range of sounds, which are seen by many as useful only as novelties. Simmons pioneered the development of a complete drum module system, with pads optimised for specific drum types, and with modules that were usable with either the pads or with external drum machines or sequencers. The expense of Simmons' system, however, proved their undoing, and when modules with much the same functionality came to the market at less than a quarter of the price, the writing was on the wall for them. Other more recent notable makers of electronic drum modules and trigger pads to go with them are Yamaha and Roland.

Condition

Sound modules tend to have few moving parts and are generally very reliable devices. Since their only inputs are from MIDI devices, the likelihood of any input overload is remote, and those that have had only studio or home use should generally be expected to be in good cosmetic condition.

Ongoing Maintenance

While it may be difficult to get parts and servicing for the earliest sound modules, the makers of more recent and current models seem set to remain in business for some time to come, and support for their products, even if used or discontinued, should be easy to find.

Finding Used Sound Modules on eBay

From the eBay homepage, select Buy and All Categories. Select Musical Instruments, Pro Audio Equipment, and Synthesisers and Sound Modules. From the subcategory list on the left, choose Sound Module. Select Used from the Condition menu.
The search can be further refined from the Brand menu, such as those by Roland or Yamaha, or by the use of keywords (string, piano, and the like) in the search box above the search results.

Conclusion

Sound modules can offer a lot of flexibility to an electronic music studio or live performance system. The standardisation brought about by the use of MIDI means that any MIDI-controlled sound module will be compatible with any other MIDI controller, whether a keyboard, guitar, or other controller device.
In the main, sound modules have few moving parts and, unless seriously abused, are likely to give many years of service. This generally means that purchases can be made with a reasonable degree of confidence, given some idea of the cosmetic condition of the unit.

 
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