July 30, 2021

Every spring, the United States Institute for Theatre Technology, Inc. (USITT) conference is a gathering point for performing arts design and technology communities, offering workshops, discussions, tech displays, and more. The presenters are a who’s who of respected industry experts, and this past March, UMass student Siena Moraff was among their number with a presentation entitled “An Introduction to Digital Synthesis, Modular Synthesis With VCV Rack,” a way of building sound.

Her mentor sound design and technology, Professor Amy Altadonna, suggested her for the panel and knew she’s made the right call when industry friends attending the presentation started texting her effusive compliments about Moraff’s natural abilities as a teacher. 

“The Commissioner reached out to me and said, ‘You know, this is somebody who I'd like to see in our leadership at the Sound Commission for USITT because she has energy, she has a passion for sound, she's a really good communicator’,” Altadonna said.

“I'm really glad everyone took something from it and had a good time,” Moraff said. “I'm still learning VCV Rack, so I’m always messing around with it, and I'm always happy to teach other people how to use it.”

Siena Moraff
Siena Moraff


An interest in exploring and sharing

Moraff, who graduated this May, was a BDIC student with a concentration in Multimedia Stories, which meant she took a number of theater classes as part of her self-designed course of study. Moraff looks at how different mediums communicate narratives: for example, how certain musical chords might create or resolve tension to set a mood in a song. Moraff is a musician and a theater artist, and she explored sound recording, production, and design elements, in Altadonna’s design and production classes.

Altadonna is currently part of the leadership of the Sound Commission for USITT, and one of the priorities, as the conference was being organized, she said, was “how can we serve everyone who's a part of sound design and technology…from the upper-tier echelons to the people who are really just walking through the door for the first time.” 

When the need to be online due to the pandemic scrapped an in-person demo of sound equipment, the commission decided to offer an entry-level workshop about digital synthesis. It's a tool that can be used to create everything from songs to sound effects.

One of the reasons modular synthesis, and particularly VCV Rack, is exciting to creators is its accessibility — which is one of Altadonna’s top concerns for her field. The thousands of dollars to set up an analog version, which requires lots of individual pieces of equipment, means potential new users are intimidated or financially barred from even trying this type of sound design or building. Being able to access the virtual version for free means lots more people being able to see if this type of creative work is something they like.

“It’s a much more accessible version of the analog version,” Altadonna said, “because you're not paying for all these devices and you're not taking up a bunch of room in your dorm.”

The other bonus of doing the work on a computer is that it can be saved as a file, so that a sound composition doesn’t have to be rebuilt from scratch every time — and if an effect doesn’t work, it’s easy to return to a previous version.

Building blocks of sound

Once the decision was made to offer this entry-level session of VCV Rack, Altadonna pitched Moraff as the presenter. “I said, ‘Look, I know somebody who's really into this and can speak passionately about it’,” she said. “I’ve had Sienna do a demonstration for my class. I knew that she was able to put herself in the shoes of somebody for whom this is unfamiliar and say ‘I'm going to help you step through these initial fundamentals, so that you have, now, the capacity to take this and run in any direction you want to go in’.” 

Asked to explain the topic of her presentation, Moraff slipped right into that teaching mode.

“I'll start with modular synthesis,” she said. “Modular synthesis is a way of making sounds. The way it works is you take a sound wave, and then you take other sound waves and you plug those other sound waves into the original sound to change the shape of the sound wave. Basically, synthesis in general is all about taking a sound wave and changing its shape, and different shapes give you different pictures and different volumes. (Modular synthesis) is just a particular way of doing that that involves these little blocks that are all individual synthesizers that either output sound or control the sound, and you can use them for both or either of those purposes.”

This idea of taking bits of sound and manipulating it to create larger pieces has existed for a long time in the analog world as well as digitally. At the most basic level, think of a band — you have vocals, drums, guitars, and bass tracks, some using effects, and all being recorded and mixed together to create a song. 

“On VCV Rack it's a lot more fluid than that,” Moraff said. “You might start patching something that you think is going to be drums, but then you plug it into a melodic sequencer just to get a little bit of tonal variation, and all of a sudden you've got a melody. So I don't think about things in terms of drums and rhythm and all of that. Instead, I think about filling out the frequency spectrum. ‘Oh, this drum is very low on the frequency spectrum, so it can live over here.’ But now I've got all the space up higher in the frequency spectrum so I'm going to put something up there.”

“It feels sort of like communing with some kind of digital music monster,” she concluded.


Click the video below to hear the modular synthesis piece Moraff worked with during her presentation. The accompanying image is a visual presentation of what she sees on her screen while she works.