HELP! any tips for creating expressive modular covers of classical or piano music?

Hello fellow rack guys and gals.

Inspired by the modular workflow and Wendy Carlos’s Switched On Bach, I am hoping to do some modular covers of simple classical or contemporary piano music. I am finding it an interesting challenge.

NOTE: I would like to keep this fairly non-MIDI for the (admittedly silly) reason of maintaining and developing a more comfortable and traditional “modular” workflow. Also the challenge.

For those who are more experienced than I:

  • How would you recommend going about managing tempo stretching and flowing?
  • What do you think that most comfortable sequencer is for this type of project? (I recognize this is a personal question)
  • what are ways you enjoy sequencing velocity/dynamic information?
  • best ways to have timed (or sequenced momentary) modulations? (is there maybe a better way to think about this?)
  • any other pro tips for expressive modular covers?
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Interesting! Entrian Sequencers is going to provide a lot of what you want out of the box (integrated note and CV sequencing for dynamics, expression, etc.)–only question is whether it’s too much like a MIDI sequencer for the challenge of the project! You could always start there and lock in the sound generation, and then move to a more classically modular sequencing approach a couple of songs in.

Regarding tempo, the basic concept is to have a clock advancing the sequencer, and then modulate the speed of the clock (possibly from within the sequencer itself). If you’re modulating with a stepped sequencer, make sure to either run the control signal into a slew processor, or turn on glide (which is just internal slew) so that you get nice rubato-like tempo slides, rather than jumps.

Will post back if anything else comes to mind…


Thanks for the response @gc3! very helpful note on the slew! I own entrian sequencers and like them a lot. I feel conflicted about the midi-like feel of them for this project though. :slight_smile:

IMO I don’t think it is possible to sequence Bach. Just take a look at some rather ‘simple’ Bach pieces and try to find repeating patterns. Wendy Carlos was a gifted pianist and played Bach on the keyboard with all that expressivenes a skilled piano player can pull out.

If you listen to sequenced modular music you will notice the lack of tempo changes and musical modulations like changing keys and complex chord progressions. This kind of stuff can be done within a DAW.

Modular sequencing is more about creating generative music and dealing with the unpredictable.

For covering classical music you will need a sequencer that provides a number of different patterns that can be chained, and if you want to stay away from stuff like the Entrian sequencer, the one thing left from my opinion is using a tracker.

Maybe you like to describe your workflow.
Is it by taking the music-sheet and programming sequences that reflect what’s on the sheet?
Or is it by playing on a keyboard and recording CV signals?
Do you want to stick to the original compositions as close as possible?
Or do you want to improvise over classical melodies?


Thanks for the reply @Ahornberg. The pieces I have an interest in covering actually happen to be more simple and more pattern-based than most Bach as this is my first cover. Some are a bit more contemporary as well. I appreciate your thoughts. I do think it is possible for sure. Thinking in terms of patterns does seem to be key in what I have been reading and watching.

My current projected workflow (I say current because it will most likely grow and change as this project happens and as I learn more) is to take the track and copy notes (transcribe). I have midi controllers to help audition things as I go as well. I would like to get the idea down, and possibly change the structure a bit to make things longer or shorter.

Also! what is a tracker? @Ahornberg

A tracker is a special kind of sequencer. Maybe check out

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Another approach you can take is:

  • use the modular system as a modular synthesizer, i.e. find the sound you would like for your composition/interpretation and use the MIDI approach (with an external DAW or MIDI player) to record the track
  • then put the track back into the modular system to add other modulation stuff: delay / reverb / granular synthesis, fm, long LFO modulations (not tied to the notes) … clearly the events must carefully timed (or control them in real time during the playback)
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There are a bunch of options, as everyone has pointed out. Some people like doing it in the DAW rather than in VCV. Some people really like trackers, etc… As the first response indicated, Entrian seems the closest to what you want to do. I also have a “daw” like Sequencer in VCV. It’s a little limited compared to the Entrian, but it is free and is arguably the easiest way to type notes into a VCV module.



Impromptu’s Foundry is probably your best bet sequencer vise :slight_smile: Omri Cohen made a cover of Eric Satie’s pieces with this sequencer a loooooong time ago :smiley:

Perhaps Master @Omri_Cohen will have some good advice :slight_smile:


I think the most important thing in making expressive music at the synthesizer is to put the robots to bed. The issue I have with a lot of things done on the synthesizer whether software or hardware is that expressiveness lies in carrying some emotional traffic in time. It’s about getting in touch with our human nature and sharing it with others. It’s not an analytical thing. While sequencers can serve as a backdrop on which to “paint” music, they are basically reproducing devices with very rigid, even to the point of being somewhat unmusical, characteristics. With the mention of Satie, let’s consider the 3eme Sarabande. There’s a lot of interpretive room in the score that gets washed away by creating a sequence. What you bring to the piece one day may differ from what you bring the next. Machines don’t share in such epiphanies.

I suspect that Carlos wrestled with how to interpret Bach on Moog’s modular, and I think that Tomita had much work crafting a good performance of Debussy and Mussorgsky. When I think of synthesizer performances that are memorable for me, I think of the work of Lyle Mays, George Duke, Chick Corea, and Mark Parrish (Dregs). I strongly think that if you want to produce intentionally moving pieces on VCV, you should try to play them even granted the frustration of getting something that satisfies even you.

Hi! Well, I have a few things to say about this :slight_smile:

First of all, as @Olival_Clanaro mentioned, I did a few ‘covers’ to piano pieces and it was lots of fun. bringing such beautiful music into the modular environment is so interesting and can really help to learn all sorts of nice techniques and ways of patching with a more human feel. I think there’s totally space for this in modular, and the results might be different yet still interesting and unique.

I will start with a sequencer. If I understand correctly, you want to stay away from Midi and things similar to Midi so I would recommend Foundry from Impromptu. It has 4 channels for pitch, gate, and CV, and you can create whole songs and progressions with it. Of course, if you need more than 4 voices, you will need to use another one and sync the two so they will run together.

I also recommend having another Foundry for modulation and triggering events. You can use also the pitch output for modulation, maybe adding some glide to it, and the gate output you can use for triggering events like, for example, ritardando and accelerando or even micro timing for playing rubato. Just make sure to have them all in sync so they’re running together. The same goes for velocity, you will have to sequence it together with the pitch sequence.

Since we’re in the modular environment, mixing sequenced modulation (tempo changes, velocity) with slow smooth random voltage, can add a lot of variation so try using something like Caudal (Vult) or Walk (BogAudio) and mix it with the sequenced signal.

You can add random smooth modulation to your clock as well so there’s always movement and it’s not so static. You can use an LFO as your master clock and FM it.

One more thing about Foundry. Depending on the piece you want to work with, you might need to use a higher clock resolution so you can add notes also in between when needed.

What I did with Satie is I sat down with the notes, and picked the 4 most important lines at each given time so I ended up with 4 voices all in all. This might help you stay in control and not have too many things going on at once.

All in all, it’s a lot of work but if you’re having fun, it’s totally worth it :slight_smile:


I’m thinking that a crucial advice would be to suggest that you curate your choices very rigorously. Satie’s Gymnopedies work well, as they just don’t contain that many events. Here’s a Philip Glass I did a while ago with plenty of notes but they’re all the same in constant motion, again and again. Stuff like this translates well into being programmed. But even Satie’s Gnossiennes will be harder although the repetition will help. I just don’t see how to do, say, a sensible rendition of Claire de Lune in modular short of actually performing it on keys.

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Foundry’s CV2 can serve as velocity, and when I used Foundry to make In a Landscape by John Cage, I was happy that there was not too much polyphony, so if your piece has this characteristic (and like the Philip Glass and Erik Satie that was also mentioned above), then it can work, although it’s a bit tedious. If you go the Foundry way, definitely look into the advanced gate modes (aka racheting) for those special timings, as mentioned by Omri.

If your piece has a reasonable set of distinct chords, then a neat trick is to use one track of Foundry (or any sequencer) to trigger chords in Impromptu - ChordKey. It can store up to 25 chords, that can be recalled using a single note/gate from any sequencer (notes C4 to C6 index the 25 chords).

If you have lots of polyphony, then Seq++ would be a good choice if you can do without Velocity. If you want the least painlful experience for a complex piece, then Entrian Timeline might be your best bet.


I did a Bach piece with Squinky’s DAW but I entered all the notes manually, before I learned how to import a MIDI file. It took ages but it works.


That’s a really impressive rendition, @marc_boule! I really like the technique you used here for introducing both random and expressive variations to the tempo. Clever and effective!

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Thanks for all of the responses! I found another helpful video for others trying to do something similar by @Cabotage_KSM. This obviously won’t fit every application but still a neat way to do chords.