The Signal State’s new sandbox mode lets you play around with virtual synth modules for way less money than the real thing
Gif: Reckoner Industries / Kotaku
Released in September of last year, The Signal State was a surprising and fun way to translate the process of making modular synth patches into cool logic puzzles—which is kind of what modular synthesis is all about in the first place. In a new update, developer Reckoner Industries has added a fun new sandbox mode to the game that lets you dive into the more creative side of modular synthesis. Instead of tackling puzzles, you can now just toy around and create cool sounds, seeing and hearing what happens when you plug different things into one another while learning how these instruments work at a fraction of the real-world cost. The results translate well to the real thing, which is particularly cool if you’re looking for a fun opportunity to learn how to create synth patches in a friendly, affordable environment.
The Signal State, available for Windows and Mac on Steam and GOG, takes the most fundamental concept of how modular synthesizers work and wraps a post-apocalyptic plot around it. The game takes what are basically “modules,” discrete sound devices that have specific functions and can connect to other sound devices via voltage not too dissimilar from how a GPU works in a computer, and characterizes them as components necessary to rebuild various electrical systems on a farm. Through its puzzles, you learn how to route voltage in different directions, while also being tasked with choosing the right modules to affect the flow and amount of voltage in a circuit. It’s a super chill, but challenging, logic puzzle game that closely mirrors what it’s like to work with a real Eurorack synthesizer.
Previously, the only way to play with The Signal State’s modular devices was to go through puzzles that often had very specific, if not a little mind-bending, solutions. You couldn’t actually just connect modules together into “patches” and see what kinds of sounds develop. With the addition of the new sandbox mode, however, the developer has added some new modules that let you explore the fundamentals of modular synthesis and sequencer-based music.
While this new mode is far from a reason to abandon a real synthesizer or even complex software synths like VCV Rack, the new mode is kind of a perfect set of training wheels for understanding how a modular synth works. The answer, as veterans are likely aware, is all about where the voltage is coming from and where it’s going.
“Training wheels” are kind of a perfect way to describe this game and this new mode, because if you really want to get into the very awesome (and potentially very expensive) world of modular synthesis, this game will help you cover the basics, but if you really get sucked into this world, you’ll have to consider pro-audio software or gear if you want to go further. That’s not a point of criticism; this game will cover the basics in ways that many folks don’t know when diving into the real thing. On top of that, The Signal State does a little bit of the fundamental work for you behind the scenes, and in that it can feel a little restricting and confusing to those who already know how to use the real-world equivalent of these instruments.
Most of the game’s way of routing an audio signal, for example, doesn’t really track with how these devices work in the real world. As an artist who works with modular and semi-modular synthesizers, I actually struggled a bit to figure out how to get things working. And I ended up creating music that felt more rigid than what I know I can make on an actual synth. Also, the way it works with its clocks feels strange to me, and the low-frequency oscillator module (LFO) doesn’t totally behave the way I’m used to it behaving in a real-world synth. I felt less self-conscious about my early struggles when I watched electronic musician Benn Jordan stumble a bit in the beginning too on his stream of the new mode.
As someone who’s quite familiar with musical instruments and synths, there are a handful of things I would do differently if I was teaching someone. The way the game handles the actual sound-generating modules, for example, isn’t the way I’d go about breaking down the principles of sound design and electronic music, but that’s not a loss, just a difference in what Reckoner Industries thinks makes sense for a stripped down, beginner-friendly environment. For all of the little ways I found myself saying “yeah, I’d teach a student differently,” the game completely makes up for it by providing a far easier approach to learning with clear explanations, hints for when you get stuck, and very handy visualizations of where voltage is going and how much.
That said, if you do jump into the real world of modular synthesis after playing The Signal State, be ready for some growing pains that are par for the course when graduating to a higher level of music making. On the whole, this game will give you the vocabulary and perspectives necessary to cover the very basics of designing a “patch,” which is just a term to refer to a specific arrangement of modules and how they’re connected.
The only real critique I have concerns ambient music that the game just plays over sandbox mode which, while it sounds pretty, can be very distracting and isn’t too great for a learning experience, since you may not know where that sound is coming from. You can mitigate it by selecting “sync” in the “System Source.” Turning down the music in the game’s settings will kill all sound, so it would be nice to have a dedicated option to kill the background music for the sake of learning and exploration.
While real music production software like VCV Rack is free and The Signal State is not, if you’re a beginner, you might find this game to be more helpful, as it offers tips and more clearly spells out the exact function of each module, which is something most pro-audio software doesn’t do. Also, modular synthesis can get really, really expensive. So learning on a $20 game might save you from making some costly mistakes in the future, such as spending money on gear you don’t yet know how to use or don’t actually have a use for. Buying an expensive piece of audio gear and then not using it is super normal for musicians (like that $3,000 custom guitar that’s been sitting in my closet for the last few years…), but The Signal State will help you avoid a lot of expensive bumps in the road that many fledgling musicians come across. But expect the real-world equivalent of what’s in this game to be expensive. I put a very simple synth together this year with just five modules for around $1,000. A perpetual $20 lesson in the form of this game can be a lifesaver if you’re serious. Then you can move onto VCV and go from there.
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If you go through all of the game’s main puzzles and spend enough time in sandbox mode exploring and planning out patches, you’ll be way more ahead of where most people are when they get into Eurorack. So have fun making all the beeping sounds, setting up fun sequences, and try not to spend too much money after you plan out a real synth on modulargrid.net. Tip: Buy used and look for DIY kits. You’ll save a ton of money.