Frank Murder is a child of the hybrid street culture of the late 80s and 90s who’s been on the Reykjavík scene ever since. After growing up as a skater kid, making a name for himself as one of Iceland’s pioneering graffiti artists, and then a stint at art school, he turned his hand to electronic music. His work covers notable contributions to renowned Icelandic and international labels, including a deal with the seminal label Thule Records. Frank is participating in the Sonar+D programme, including an exhibition, a talk, a Q&A session and a concert. We asked him to explain his use of modular synths.
What are “modular synths”?
I could talk about the long history of the modular synth for days, but I’ll try to explain the essence. It is a selection of modules—or building blocks—that together form a whole. So if you are into electronic music generation and processing, it can be pretty much anything you want it to be. It can be a simple drum machine, a synth, or a complex analogue digital hybrid polysynth with self-contained effects and melody sequencing or anything in between, or all of the above. You as a user set up your own machine the way you like it. You just select or build the components you want and away you go.
How did you get into modular synths, and why?
So, I’d come back to making music after a long break. I sat down in front of the computer and after a few minutes I thought, “This is fucking boring,” and remembered why I’d stopped. Instead, I started to accumulate analogue gear, and before I knew it I’d filled my studio space with various synths and effects. It was great fun, but not very mobile. So I sold all that, and started to design and build my modular. I never looked back—working with sound has never been this much fun.
What’s the modular landscape like in Iceland?
I don’t know about a “scene” in Iceland, really. There are a few people using modulars in Iceland. Some have been doing it for ages. But it’s not genre-specific, so there isn’t really a music scene around it—you can make any type of music with a modular. Some of us talk amongst ourselves with technical advice and such. But if you’re thinking globally then yes, there is a modular scene. There are record labels that strictly release modular music.
How has modular synthesis affected how you make music?
It has affected the whole process, in a positive way. It allowed me to let a few of my weirder musical fantasies come true, in both sequencing and sound generation. I used to sit at a computer and select each note with a mouse and then draw in shapes for automations for filter movements etc. Now I make a few short musical relevant sequences and run them at different speeds, and mix them together, creating a sort of musical algorithm. This can give me huge variating sequences, reminiscent of jazz improvisation or classical music—stuff that would take ages to come up with on the computer. Also, there’s no save button, which I find very exciting. Maybe this is too complex to explain in a short interview but if you come by at Sonar D+ I can show you!
Any suggestions for people thinking about getting into the technology?
Read a lot. There are excellent forums. Most people who are into modulars are quite helpful and like to geek out over their machines. Do a bit of research. And just start small, you can always expand. Also come see me at Sonar if you want advice in person.