Modular maestro Colin Benders is mapping the modular universe one patch at a time.
Colin Benders is a conductor. But not the kind you’re thinking of…
There’s no maestro jacket, no conductor’s baton, no red bottom loafers.
Instead, there’s patch cords, filters, oscillators, sequencers, control voltages and maybe a comfy pair of house slippers—The Dutch producer is a conductor of synth modules.
Colin Benders: Going Modular
Of course Benders DOES have experience as a traditional conductor. Shortly after quitting the music conservatory he attended in the Netherlands, Benders formed and conducted the Kyteman Orchestra, a 30 piece group that included less conventional sections like 10 rappers along with more conventional instrumentation like strings and percussion.
But more recently Benders has traded it all in to focus on mastering his Eurorack modular synthesis rig: A giant, colourful wall of wires and lights—an orchestra in its own way with Benders leading the flow.
At first glance Benders’ instrument may seem like a Twizzlers factory exploded and there’s licorice everywhere. But look and listen closer… From the mess of wires a meandering, morphing symphony of electronic sound science chugs along. It’s the strange universe of modular synthesis, and Colin Benders navigates it better than most.
It’s not a journey he takes on alone either. Benders live streams his entire process via Twitch, YouTube and Facebook channels. He even invites viewers to ask questions live and control the rig during marathon jam sessions that often last several hours.
His open approach to creating and sharing is refreshing in the often intimidating world of modular and brings complicated subjects down to earth for the enjoyment of casual fans and seasoned modular heads alike.
Benders let us into his modular world long enough to capture his thoughts on the importance of live streaming his process with his community, his favourite Eurorack companies and the popularity explosion of the Eurorack format.
You have been making music in many different modes since you first picked up an instrument. How did you arrive at where you are now as a musician?
My first encounter with making music came when I was about 3 years old, when my uncle brought a trumpet to a family party. I was obsessed with the instrument, which led to my uncle giving it to me. I waited patiently until I had enough teeth to actually play the thing, which came a few years later when I was 6 or 7 years old. From there, music has always been my primary focus. I suck at everything else, my ADD gets in the way of focusing on the simplest of things but whenever music was involved, things just made more sense to me.
I went to the conservatory when I was 12 and started playing live with bands, mostly jazz and hip hop. I quit school & the conservatory when I was 18 years old and started focusing on my own project, which later became The Kyteman Orchestra. It was a 30 piece group with strings, brass, drums, percussion, bass, keys and 10 rappers, with me as the conductor. The project became immensely successful in Holland, which allowed us to keep going for years. Eventually, the projects became more and more experimental, resulting in the development of a sign language which allowed us to write scores on stage. my work with The Kyteman Orchestra also allowed me to work with other orchestras and gave me the chance to write music for bigger formations.
It was a 30 piece group with strings, brass, drums, percussion, bass, keys and 10 rappers, with me as the conductor.
The funny thing is that what I am doing to day has little to do with any of this. I took quite a drastic turn and went fully into modular synthesis, a conscious decision I took about 2-3 years ago. Since then, I have started to phase out my work in the orchestral side of things, focusing more and more on modular electronic music. Today, it’s all I do.
Has each stage of your music career informed what you do now with modular synthesis?
I think the most important thing my career has brought me is knowledge of music theory on a broader scale than just my instrument. I learned how to think of music on a more macro scale, trying to always think of the bigger picture before losing myself in a single line. From my role as the leader of an orchestra, I had to always empathize with all players simultaneously, trying to listen to what we were playing from the ears of their section while also staying in touch with the piece of music itself. I started envisioning music as silent frameworks, waiting to be filled with the interpretation of others. That was always the joy for me, I had an idea of what we could sound like but I never knew for sure until we did something.
The music is what something could sound like, the performance is what it sounds like today.
This doesn’t really answer your question, but I think the biggest thing I learned so far is to separate a single performance from music. The music is what something could sound like, the performance is what it sounds like today. In a different setting, with different people on different instruments, it will sound like something entirely different but it’s still a reflection of that musical potential. It somehow makes music non-temporal for me.
How were you first introduced to modular synthesis and why were you drawn to it?
I was looking for a replacement for my plugins. I always felt like my synth sounds were too dull, too plastic in a way. Of course, I also somewhat fell for the idea of “analog is so much more [insert superlative]” even though I did not have any experience with analog synths. The myth surrounding them was just that it would make everything sound awesome and that I would need it. So when I started looking for a decent synth, I was a little disappointed that it always did only a little bit of what I was looking for, but never everything. Then there was also the fact that I was no good with keys, so it felt like a waste to invest in keyboard synths.
When I heard about modulars, I kind of liked the idea of being able to build my own system. Like if I wanted a Minimoog voice with a SEM filter, I could do that. I ultimately felt this would be the perfect match so I ordered a bunch of modules and eagerly awaited their arrival.
All it would do was make weird fart noises and I had no clue how everything worked.
Well it didn’t work out so well. I hated the thing, all it would do was make weird fart noises and I had no clue how everything worked. I later discovered that I had assembled the most random instrument one could have and I had spent a ton of cash on it in the process. In the end it just stood there, as a fancy piece of wall decoration, for about two years.
Then one day I gave it another chance, it bugged me every time I looked at it. Surely something could be done with it? I started working with it and ended up with a fully polyphonic patch. It was a complete song, actually. everything was there and I loved it. The whole way of playing the instrument all of a sudden made so much more sense. And I also saw all the flaws in my setup, which led me to give it a drastic upgrade and fix all the weird holes I hadn’t thought about in my initial assembly. But I still have this feeling of knowing that all this time, my wonky clumsy setup was capable of doing something magical. I just did not know how to get it done. It’s what ultimately draws me back to my synth every day, hoping to find another one of those experiences with it.
It somehow gives me the feeling that I am dealing with a device that is willing to show me wonderful results, as long as I ask it the right questions.
Now that I am working with modular synthesizers, I feel a lot of similarities with an orchestra. I still have my lead section, my supports, my rhythm section etc. And each have their individual part to play in a bigger sum. Each part has the chance to go out of control, but only if I allow it to happen or know how to get it there. It somehow gives me the feeling that I am dealing with a device that is willing to show me wonderful results, as long as I ask it the right questions. Every day I am still finding things I had no clue were possible, but as soon as I do it, it seems to make total sense. There’s a strange sense of brutal logic to this instrument, it always makes sense. All you need to do is understand its logic, which can be a daunting task if you have 20 parts interacting with each other.
So your connection to your modular system is quite special?
For me it’s knowing that there is always a possible patch in there that will completely blow my mind.
My instrument will play me anything, if only I know how to ask for it. I’ve had others play my synth, where I hardly recognized what it sounded like as my own instrument. this fascinates me, how personal a result can be. I have witnessed people making sounds on my system that I didn’t even consider possible.
Could you explain what Eurorack is and how you’ve seen it evolve over the years since you first started experimenting with the format?
Eurorack is a format of modular synths that has grown into the most popular format. It’s a smaller size than its bigger siblings, which makes it more attractive for those who don’t want to convert their living room into a Hans Zimmer studio, if they could fit the same number of modules in a briefcase. I think the size factor has been the most important one in winning the popularity race.
When I started, people were still choosing between Eurorack or 5U (bigger panels, 1/4″ jacks instead of 1/8″ jacks) and then ended up with Eurorack because it was smaller and cheaper. Now people go for Eurorack because there is so much more available. There are quite literally thousands of modules to chose from (Modulargrid says 4896 at the time of writing) and more are being developed as we speak. I think this is one of the biggest changes I have witnessed so far, the popularity boom—most of which happened even before modulars really started hitting the stage.
Many artists working with modular synthesis create abstract sound collages rather than tracks with distinct parts. Your approach seems to emphasize the more traditional elements of electronic music (like kicks, hi-hats, bass line etc.). Why do you feel drawn to this approach over more abstract uses of modular synthesis?
I think it has a lot to do with my background with beats and orchestras. At the same time, I must say I am still looking for a way to bring the abstract into what I am doing. That said, at the core I will always have a more tonal approach than some. I’m a sucker for chords and epic passages—The Neverending Story is probably my favourite soundtrack of all time. Ideally I’ll find a balance between chordism and sound design but I still have a lot to learn on that front.
Is it hard to resist the temptation to be constantly buying all the new modules that are released at a very high rate these days?
Heh… it’s not called Eurocrack for no reason… Seriously though, I must confess the craze has been quite insane at times. I can justify my purchases by forcing myself to look only at what would be a logical expansion, but even then my system expands on a monthly basis. Right now my problem is that I simply have no more room for new modules which keeps the new stuff at bay.
It’s a synth collector’s dream, Pokemon for grownups: gotta patch em all…
Also, I’d like to think my system is about done by now. The things I am most interested in are multiples of what I already own. Some of my modules having been built in very small batches and then never again. I guess this is also a part of the Eurorack scene, It’s a synth collector’s dream, Pokemon for grownups: gotta patch em all…
What are some of your favourite manufacturers of Eurorack modules?
One of my favorites is MacBeth. He designs something absolutely brilliant, builds a batch of maybe 10 pieces, gets bored with it and never does it again. It always ends up sounding brilliant with an amazing design behind it. Another one would be Orthogonal Devices, who built the sequencer I use for everything. I think that sequencer has unlocked so many possibilities for me, stuff that used to take me days can now be done over the course of a few minutes.
Without Doepfer there would not be the Eurorack scene the way it is today.
Last but not least I have to mention Doepfer in this list. Simply for being the very first to start the Eurorack movement and encouraging others to adapt to the format. Without Doepfer there would not be the Eurorack scene the way it is today.
Do you ever use fixed architecture synths in your practice? If so, do you find it frustrating and limiting after working with the freedom that modular synthesis gives you?
Right above my studio there’s this place called Sonar Traffic, which is two guys with a tremendous synthesizer collection. Everything from the Roland System 100 & 700 to the Arp 2600, the Jupiters, Synthon, basically every drum machine in existence… You name it, they have it. I find myself in their studios quite regularly for a few minutes at a time, listening to various instruments. I’d love to someday just sit there for a week and record everything but somehow I don’t really see how it would fit in my regular workflow.
I am a great fan of my mess of wires and how everything fits within my format.
I am a great fan of my mess of wires and how everything fits within my format. But when I do work with a fixed synth I somewhat enjoy the limitations it has, forcing me to focus more on how to make it work.
Live streaming is a major part of your process. Why is so important for you to share your process and how does it help you to promote your own music and get heard?
The live streaming process actually happened pretty randomly. I just decided one day that I wanted to do it and now, 1 year later, I am still doing it. I found it gave me a lot of focus, since all of a sudden there were people with expectations having a peek into my every day workflow. Random studio jams became performances and stuff that would usually take me hours now happened within minutes.
With my sound varying heavily from super melodic to techno-rave things, so no one really knows what to expect, including me.
At first I only used Twitch for streaming, later I brought in Youtube and ultimately Facebook. I was quite shocked when I saw that Facebook started going around like crazy, with up to three thousand viewers at a time (before that, I usually had about 20 to 50 people watching me through twitch).
The funny thing is that I haven’t released anything yet. I’m still deeply into the production phase of my modular project so in a way the viewers are a part of my productions. Recently I have started receiving requests for live shows which is a bit confusing since I have no songs yet, with my sound varying heavily from super melodic to techno-rave things, so no one really knows what to expect, including me. But in a way this just adds up to the fun of it all. I guess things will start making a lot more sense once I start releasing things, until that time this is a lovely chaos to work with.
Many of your live streams are extremely lengthy, some even 12 hours long! Do you find that your process demands long sessions in order to get the most from them?
I guess the length of my streams has a lot to do with the fact that I am literally just streaming my working days. In the end I am still looking for song ideas or sketches to expand on at a later stage.
Since streaming it forces me to focus on what I’m doing a bit more by adding a bit of healthy pressure to the mix, so I benefit from the situation. But in the end it’s not a live show or performance, it’s just me building tracks. I guess that’s also why the streams are so long. Sure I could cut the feed after an hour but since I’ll be there for a while longer, why would I do that?
Your compositions are often long jams that meander all over the place to many different areas. How do you edit your tracks after you’re done?
This is something I am still working on right now. I really enjoy the one-take approach of playing all parts simultaneously. The downside is that mistakes can be quite brutal, since it basically means redoing the entire take. I have tried doing edits and such, but so far I feel more comfortable just doing the entire track from scratch at a later date. So right now my workflow is jamming during my streams until I find something cool, repatching it at a later date, then doing as many takes as I need to get a good recording of it. This process takes more time and a more surgical approach so I don’t really stream it.
How did you discover LANDR and why is important to your process?
I discovered LANDR when I was sending tracks around to others. I wanted them to sound better than my own regular processing technique but did not want to pay a mastering engineer for every random thing I needed processing for. I still use custom jobs for bigger releases but for everything else I first check the LANDR result to see if it works for what I have in mind. Most of the time it ends up being either spot on or something I can fix on my end in the mix.
How do you use channels like YouTube and Twitch to interact with your fanbase? Do you use feedback to inform what you decide to make and stream?
The interaction is what I enjoy most during my streams. A lot of the people on my streams have at least some understanding of how these instruments work so I sometimes end up getting great ideas from what they are discussing among each other. Lately a lot of people have joined the stream who have no clue about the instrument but just enjoy the music, which is a great compliment. When a good jam happens, it’s usually the user feedback that helps me filter it out and reshape it at a later time.
When a good jam happens, it’s usually the user feedback that helps me filter it out and reshape it at a later time.
You interact a ton with your community by answering questions that your fans send in about your setup and process. There also seems to be a very strong sense of community in the modular world through sites like Muff Wiggler. Is that community something that you consciously try and participate in as much as possible?
Without the community feedback I probably would not have been able to do what I am doing today. Modular synths have been around for a long time. However, knowledge on how to play these instruments is not as widespread as, for example playing the piano. Especially now that the Eurorack format is bringing in functionality that was previously impossible in the modular format, techniques must first be discovered before they can be passed on.
Without the community feedback I probably would not have been able to do what I am doing today.
This is where I think the power of the community lies. When it comes to this instrument, no one knows it all or has all the answers. But with everyone eager to learn, sharing our discoveries may well lead to someone coming to a follow up insight that will boost the possibilities to the next step. It’s a very open source approach to studying music I think. If you look at communities like Muffwiggler, Modulargrid and all the smaller Facebook communities, everyone is dead set on uncovering all the sounds these instruments hold. And when someone finds something cool, you can be sure everyone will know about it.
What is your prediction for the future of audio production?
Heh… That’s a pretty tough one without going all tinfoil hat on you. But I somewhat expect music production to always find something to keep producers on the edge of obsession, whether it is a new piece of software, a genre of music or a technological breakthrough that pulls it off.
The potential is infinite, which literally means that, compared to what we can do now, we haven’t seen anything yet.
Follow Colin through his beautiful website. Tune and subscribe to Colin’s streams on his Twitch, YouTube and Facebook channels. And catch Colin’s upcoming live modular sets including a slot at the superb Dekmantel festival.
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