What are the string synthesizers for beginners
Meet the makers of modular
When Dieter Döpfer, the founder of the musical instrument manufacturer Doepfer, decided to bring a brand new modular synthesizer system onto the market in 1995, no one could predict what would follow. Today, its "Eurorack" format supports an ecosystem of hundreds of manufacturers who have collectively created thousands of compatible modules used by famous musicians like Radiohead, Chemical Brothers and Aphex Twin and hobbyists alike.
Most of the companies in the Eurorack space are neither start-ups nor established OEMs. Instead - and this is noteworthy - the industry remains a long tail of boutique manufacturers, with some of the bestsellers still operating as one-person shops. Inspired by technology that is nearly half a century old and purposely not developed to scale, these companies could well be considered anti-crunch companies.
"My luck is based on the development and not on the amount of sales," a Eurorack manufacturer told me after I promised not to name his company because I was afraid of generating too many new orders. “Of course, I really appreciate it when someone decides to buy some modules. I know my job makes sense, but the current sales volume ensures that I have enough time to develop. "
He said that higher sales would translate into less time developing new designs and more time putting together modules and answering emails explaining why a particular item is currently out of stock . One solution would be to hire one or two employees, but the bureaucracy involved would also be an undesirable distraction.
"That's not what I like to do," he said, comparing it to a friend who owned a single cafe and enjoyed making great coffee and fine desserts, but who later expanded to three cafes and is now unhappy . "He's thinking about selling two of his coffee shops to get his luck back. More money doesn't mean more happiness," said the Eurorack manufacturer.
It's the kind of existential crisis that many founders face after a company has grown to a certain size, but for module manufacturers, the reason for its existence is often clear from the start. This certainly applies to Döpfer's own story.
In contrast to the previous two decades, the mid-1980s heralded the era of digital synthesizers made popular by Yamaha's DX7. This meant that instruments based on analog electronics - let alone a modular synthesizer system that had to be manually patched before a tone could be produced - were no longer in vogue. Modular systems from the 60s and 70s, such as those by Moog, Buchla, Arp and Roland, were primarily the domain of classic instrument collectors, while the modular synthesizers remaining in production were viewed as arcane high-end products, their price far beyond the reach of most musicians.
In those years Döpfer had decoupled his company from analog electronics and manufactured one of the first digital sampler cards, followed by a more successful line of MIDI keyboards and controllers. In 1994, however, the designer felt unchallenged and may have noticed the second-hand prices for Roland's TB-303 and other obsolete analog synthesizers had started to creep up, and Doepfer introduced his first new analog synthesizer in ten years. Called the MS-404, it was developed mainly for Döpfers "own enjoyment", but was sold better than expected and caused an even stronger, scratchy itch.
By the following year Döpfer had developed a fully modular synthesizer system that he called the A-100. The system consisted of ten individual Doepfer modules, each of which fulfilled a specific function, e.g. B. an oscillator, an envelope or a voltage controlled filter. Just like with the modular synthesizers of the past, the A-100 would require the user to create their own instrument by “piecing together” the modules. Using cables with a 3.5 mm jack at each end that can carry audio signals and control voltages, the synthesizer's sound can be shaped or modulated in a variety of ways and in a wide variety of configurations, only through the creativity and knowledge of the user are limited about synthesis techniques (or their appetite for experimentation), along with the number of different modules in their system and the size of their bank account balance.
"The idea was to make it affordable," said Döpfer during a call from the company's Munich office. “In my opinion, all of the modular systems available in the past were far too expensive for normal people. And so I said, "There should be a modular synthesizer that is affordable for ordinary people, not just the rich." That was the idea behind the A-100 ”.
Doepfers A-100 case
Despite its relatively low cost, according to Döpfer, the new synthesizer initially attracted attention from dealers. He was repeatedly told that no one was interested in a modular system and that he should spend his time designing something else. "I said no, I think it's a good idea, I want something like this, and that's why I kept doing it," he recalls.
Once again, Döpfer's instinct was good. When the A-100 made its first public appearance at an industrial exhibition the following year, the company's new modular synthesizer at the back of the Doepfer booth got the most attention, relegating its sandwich MIDI keyboard and controllers to a rather lonely looking one Matter.
In the meantime, Doepfer was not the only company that developed a new low-cost system to make modular synthesizers available again to today's musicians. Unknown to Döpfer, the British company Analogue Systems had been working on a similar idea.
Analogue Systems' A-100 and RS Integrator System 1 were both "3U" tall (based on the 19 "rack standard), which is the larger and more expensive" 5U "design of most existing modular systems Systems avoids. The two systems were also inspired by the Eurocard standard for printed circuit boards and faceplate dimensions, where width is measured in a unit called the horizontal distance, or "HP" for short.
Unfortunately, the exact location of the mounting holes on the front panels of the modules differed from system to system, resulting in gaps when the two marks were placed side by side. The power cord configuration was also different, although this was later fixed when Analogue Systems redesigned its power supplies to provide Doepfer-like outputs so the systems could be mixed.
However, Döpfer made an early decision with flying colors to publish the specifications of the A-100 module format on the Doepfer website, thus laying the foundation for the development of a modular synthesizer standard from Eurorack.
"I thought that if the people and the musicians were interested in a modular system, it should be an open system because it was clear to me that we couldn't offer all kinds of modules that people want," said Döpfer.
“And so I said that I would publish everything, like the mechanical dimensions and electrical specifications and so on. After two or three years, I don't know, the first others asked me if it would be okay to offer modules on the Internet of the same format and design.
"I said okay, it would be best if there were more modules available from other companies because people would have more confidence in the system than in a situation where we were the only supplier of such modules."
When third-party modules emerged, Döpfer admitted that he was initially concerned about the impact competition could have on his company. However, as more companies came onto the market, Doepfer's sales increased, especially since the first generation of Eurorack companies concentrated on more special modules or closed gaps in the now growing Doepfer system. "That was really surprising to me," he says.
"What Döpfer did is that he created an industry out of Eurorack," says Allan "J" Hall, the founder and designer of the British Eurorack manufacturer AJH Synth. “Without Döpfer there would be no Eurorack. And he's also very generous in his approach. He doesn't go around and say, "Well, you know, it was me who started this, I should have all the fame." There's nothing like that at all. "
"I was hoping that we could sell the system, I don't know, maybe for 5 or 10 years or something, but now we are almost 25 years," reflects Döpfer. "And I never thought it would take so long and that so many companies and so many modules would be available."
My own trip to Eurorack is less than 12 months old, although I've always loved the sound of analog synthesizers, especially funk and rock musicians from the 70s. Until recently, the only hardware synthesizer I owned was a relatively simple single voice synthesizer that was still underutilized in my home studio. As a “semi-modular” design, however, it offered a number of patch points, either for internal pathing or - you guessed it - external synthesizer modules. One day at the end of last year I decided to build a small modular Eurorack case to expand the synthesizer's sonic capabilities.
My tiny 32 HP Eurorack case
After buying a few modules, mostly second-hand from a bustling second-hand market, it wasn't long in coming before I grew out of my humble 32-horsepower case and developed a pattern that was familiar to everyone who made the Eurorack. Had bug. I upgraded to a larger case and was curious to see which modules I should buy and sell in order to get my perfect system (if the financial and spatial conditions allow). Putting together a modular synthesizer is the epitome of personalization, as no system is likely to be exactly the same. It's also an ongoing journey of discovery, fueled by the wonderful “what if?” Moments that are common in patching.
It's also a trip that you don't have to go alone. The Eurorack ecosystem is well established. Along with the creators themselves, there are online forums such as the groundbreaking (and strangely titled) “Muffwiggler,” various Facebook groups, subreddits, YouTube channels, independent stores and marketplaces like eBay, Reverb and Etsy. The community is generally open to both novice and experienced users, and residents of the scene are often ready to share their experiences.
As I immersed myself in Eurorack, I was also surprised to learn how small most Eurorack companies are: from retail stores to boutique manufacturers with no more than a dozen employees. Sure, some manufacturers outsource manufacturing and assembly, but it's common for much of the work to be done in-house, pricking circuit boards and milling faceplates. In some ways, it's a look back at the early days of the hardware industry, somewhat reminiscent of the very first days of the personal computer and the homebrew computer club, except that Eurorack is nearing a quarter of a century.
Despite appearances, Döpfer only employs four people himself (when I sent the company an email for customer support, it was Mr. Döpfer who answered!). Other examples are the AJH-Synth in Great Britain with three full-time and one part-time employees XAOC devices in Poland, where eight employees are employed. In the meantime, Mutable Instruments, arguably the most notorious company in Eurorack after Döpfer, is only founder Émilie Gillet.
"It's a lot of home business, and I think it's on purpose," says Ben "DivKid" Wilson, who produces the popular Eurorack YouTube channel DivKid. “I don't meet a lot of people who are motivated enough to want to run it like a company, or they want a lot of employees. It's like, you know, if you're an engineer for a car company and you're going up the ladder, you probably will doing less tech and more management. I don't think anyone wants to let go of that. They want to hold on to the reason that they got into it ”.
Jason Brunton, who runs Beeps, Eurorack retailer based in Glasgow, Scotland, compares manufacturers of modules to the independent record labels he's worked with on a previous job. "The people who run modular companies have a very similar attitude," he says. "For a lot of companies, it's just one person's vision ... you can generally speak to the person who designed, made, and created the logo. In some cases, it's all the same person."
This is a big difference from giant music companies like Roland, Korg or Yamaha, says Brunton, who never have the chance to find out "what's going on in the minds of the people who make the equipment" and only ever hear from salespeople . "You don't get any insight into why the designers came up with certain ideas."
You don't have to look very carefully to get into the head of Allan "J" Hall, the founder and designer of AJH Synth. Hall has been involved in synthesizers, electronics, and music for "more years than he remembers," according to the company's website, and like many Eurorack manufacturers, his entry into electronics began by making guitar pedals. An interest in synthesizers and electronic music soon followed. For the past 20 years, Hall has been part of the DIY synth scene, building and modifying synth systems for both himself and other electronic musicians. He was a service technician for five years, repairing and modifying Moog, Arp, Korg, Roland, and other analog synthesizers, as well as doing some pro audio engineering, including two years designing and building "boutique" valve guitar amps.
"The reason I chose Modular was because at the time no one had tried to make Eurorack modules that sound and work like vintage equipment," says Hall. "I was looking for the sound with no reliability issues, and Eurorack's open architecture allows them to be linked together in ways that weren't possible before."
Allan Hall from AJH Synth with an extended minimod system
AJH's first set of modules consisted of the minimod for eighteen months, which was released in 2016. The system is a careful replica of Moog's Minimoog Model D, arguably the most famous synthesizer of all time, which has been used for countless hits in rock, disco, soul, EDM and hip hop.
“The Minimoog Model D ... was the Stradivarius of the monosynths for me. Then a couple of people said, "Will you make me one? Are you going to make me one?" And I ended up being a Eurorack maker. I wanted this thing to sound as good as a Minimoog, but I didn't want the restrictions that the Minimoog has. If I wanted to try using it with a SEM filter, I can just patch it and see what happens. Or if I want to try it out with six VCOs I can include it. "
Hall says developing a module that accurately reproduces the sound and response of familiar and beloved vintage circuitry requires chasing down the last percent. It's pretty easy to get 90 or 95% of the way up. To do this, the circuit diagrams must be taken from the service manual and replicated. But it's the tiny nuances that require real work.
"It's not uncommon for designs to have me still working at 1am," he laughs. "When I lay out a complex circuit board, I pretty often put 14-15 hours in a day. I only stop to eat and go to the bathroom and just be full of it. You find that a lot in electronics, computers and everything else ... it's almost the norm, it's human curiosity. The only thing I can't understand is that some people don't have it. "
In considering what to design next, Hall says he's not really "commercially oriented". As he continues to expand the AJH product range, he is still building what he thinks is his perfect modular system.
"For something like the 'next phase' I just thought, 'I need a phaser.' I don't really stop and wonder if there is a market for a phaser. I just go ahead and build it anyway. The original idea is: Something is missing in my system, that's it, so that's what I'm going to do. So it's certainly not market-oriented. "
To transition from design to prototype, Hall uses the simulation program LTspice, which is used to model various components in order to get an idea of the performance of a circuit. Then he built a prototype circuit and says it usually takes three different prototypes before everything either works as expected or he decides that there is a better way to do it.
As soon as a module receives production approval, the front panels are designed and then manufactured by a company in Germany, with circuit board production being outsourced to China. However, all assembly is done by AJH's small team in the UK, including SMD soldering and the required calibration of each module.
Allan Hall in his workshop
"We didn't assemble anything in China," says Hall. “It's something I learned not to do very early on. If you're a big company and you're in control, you've got someone out there, then definitely go this route. And Behringer has proven that you can do it can drive very big and very cheap, but for small businesses like us you are very much in the hands of the fitters and they tend to be quite creative with the parts list.
He adds that a small change to a component may seem harmless to a third-party assembler, but it is often fundamental to the design and functioning of a module.
Distribution and retailing are something that AJH Synth's founder likes to outsource, and unlike many boutique manufacturers, the company doesn't sell directly to consumers. "We try to do what we can. Pack the modules together and take them to the post office or have couriers pick them up. We can't do that as well as Amazon or the Big Box Shifter. We only thought if we did we can get rid of that, we can too. Concentrate on what we are good at, namely designing and manufacturing. "
"This was not a product of decision-making, but a story that turns one thing into another," said Jason Coates, founder and sole owner of Manhattan Analog in Kansas, USA
In 2008 he worked in graphic design and layout while building a modest studio on the side. This took him "down the DIY path" by making some custom panels for available circuitry intended only for his own use. After posting his design on a few forums, he quickly realized that there was a need for panel designers in the Eurorack community.
“I started sharing my designs and doing bespoke work,” recalls Coates. “At some point I got a request for a simple 3-channel mixer in 4HP, so I designed what the mix should be. After sharing this, I had a ton of requests for more, so I did a run of 10. That sold out in hours so I took the money and invested it in a run of 100. "
By the end of 2011 he had earned twice as much in his "hobby" as in the layout design. "So I quit my job to focus on Manhattan Analog, and I'm still doing that today."
For production, Coates states that nowadays he generally makes editions of 6-12 for a single module (and always in multiples of three). He admits that at least up to a point it would be faster to produce larger series, but says that he is limited by the space in his workshop.
"It all still happens in a guest room that is also shared with my studio," he explains. “I started outsourcing a little bit more than the division grew, but honestly, I still enjoy doing the work. I feel like it gives me an edge in terms of build quality, and I can also opt for certain components that may not be available in the machine-assembled SMT component space. "
For sales, Coates was able to partner with a number of retailers very early on, but also sell directly through the company's website, including offering DIY kits for people who like to put their own modules together.
"From a manufacturer's standpoint, Eurorack is fun to work with because it really gives you the freedom to do anything you can think of," he says. "You can offer short-run or niche products with very little risk and not a lot of overhead because the 'bones' of the systems, such as cases and power supplies, are already well established in the market."
In other words, it's partly the modular aspect of modular that makes Eurorack an industry that attracts long-tail businesses. “Even as a student, you can design a single module,” says Döpfer. “You can design a very limited project because there is already a pool of thousands of modules that can be used in combination with your specialty module. This is very different from other markets. "
"The other aspect that is fun on the supply side is the close community that comes with it," adds Coates. "This direct connection to the customer base is probably just as important for the makers as it is for the musicians."
"Oh, I have to want it in the first place," says Garren "G-Man" Morse, founder of G-Storm Electro in Oklahoma City, USA. “Analog circuits are something that I'm really interested in. And luckily, others wanted the same thing. So it works pretty well. "
As a trained engineer and architect, Morse was unemployed after the outbreak of the financial crisis in 2008. While looking for a job, he studied electronics, which began with "bending circuits" on an old Casio keyboard.
"I bought used textbooks, Forrest Mims manuals from Radio Shack, and studied old synthesizer service manuals and circuit diagrams," he tells me. “I built some pieces of equipment. When I felt confident enough I got the synthesizer restoration and flipping synthesizers hands on. And finally bought a small Eurorack system. I didn't know where it was going to take me. "
The growing range of Eurorack modules from G-Storm Electro
He wouldn't open his own Eurorack hardware business until 2017 and in the meantime, among other things, tried his hand at writing and selling software instrument plugins based on his fondness for vintage string synthesizers like the Roland VP. 330 and Logan String Melody. He said he quickly realized that the plug-in game is all about how many platforms you can serve and decided it wasn't for him. "I only wanted to do these plugins once, not twelve times."
"Hardware has a very satisfying, tactile interaction that you can't achieve with software," adds Morse. "Hardware has this physical presence that draws your attention and rewards the senses in a very dedicated way."
However, he admits that he still spends an estimated 60% of his time on a computer doing module design, cost analysis, ordering, social networking, customer interaction, and advertising. "But it feels more rewarding to me," he says.
The soft aspects of running a Eurorack business, including promoting social media, apply to any business regardless of its size. However, this is even more important for companies like G-Storm Electro that don't have distribution or retail partnerships. Currently, the only place you can buy G-Storm Electro modules is from the company's store on Reverb.
"My appreciation for the Internet and the forums is very high when I think of musical instrument representatives who have advertised their product by shining at various dealers around the world, or DIY synthesizer guides that have been published in magazines "says Morse. “Access to products, information and special electronic components was relatively limited compared to today. On a tight budget, I can't fly around the world to advertise. So I fly it on social media, Youtube videos, and good old-fashioned word of mouth. I love Reverb, their business acumen is so close to mine. Their fees are very fair and I really feel like I have my own shop in a bigger shop. It was essential. "
Since not every module sells equally well, Morse's strategy over the past six months has been to diversify by bringing new modules to market rather than just replenishing its previous designs. As a rule, he produces batches of around 5 to 10 modules at the same time, which, according to him, are manufactured by hand in a "work-at-home scenario". His latest creation is a faithful Eurorack adaptation of the key features of Roland's revered SH-101 synthesizer. At the beginning of the year Morse also adapted the filter circuit of the Arp Odyssey Mk1 synthesizer (called "G-Storm Electro 4023", I bought number 3 of the first 5 modules produced).
"My operation is small and nimble," he says. “My space and budget for parts, assemblies and inventory is poor. So I always work within these limits. I can imagine opening a store or selling in stores one day when I can move more units. As long as I can keep up with the demand, there is still no need to outsource. I am having fun with it. When it's no longer fun, I call someone for help or move on to the next thing. "
"My name is Émilie and I am a product designer, hardware / software engineer, salesperson and customer service representative for Mutable Instruments," states the Mutable Instruments website. “Mutable Instruments by nature has no employees! Just me!"
Another one-person shop, Changeable Instruments hits its weight like no other Eurorack manufacturer. Over the years the company has developed a number of innovative and best-selling modules that prove that digital has a well-deserved place in Eurorack and, as one Reddit user put it, "is as elegant and organic as analog".
Paris-based founder Émilie Gillet has a background in software engineering, having previously worked for technology companies such as Google, Last.fm and MXP4. She first made a name for herself in the music industry when she developed “obscure” music software, including a granular synthesis tool for BeOS and Bhajis Loops, a digital audio workstation (DAW) for PalmOS. However, Eurorack's forerunner was in the summer of 2009 when Gillet started building and selling DIY kits.
The first of these was the Shruti-1, a hybrid digital / analog desktop synthesizer that was initially sold at a loss before being sold for a profit in September 2010. A year later, Mutable Instruments was born.
“I quit my main job in February 2012 because the company I was working for wasn't making any progress. The first quarter of Mutable Instruments has shown that I can make a decent living from the DIY kits, even if we are not there yet, ”says Gillet.
The first four Mutable Instruments modules were developed at the same time, with Braids, a "macro oscillator," digitally modeling a variety of synthesizer voices and timbres and proving to be the most popular.
"I did an informal demo of braids at a local store and everyone agreed it had a lot of potential," she recalls. “The other modules were considered less original or seemed to fill smaller niches. But the attraction of braids seemed universal. "
Due to Gillet's reputation for developing DIY kits and music software, Mutable Instruments, unlike other modular companies, did not have to go through a “cold start”. This meant that retail partnerships were forged early and the company only had to sell directly for a short period of time. Today, Mutable Instruments modules are available from most independent stores and big box shifters in the US and Europe.
A selection of the modules from Mutable Instruments
Gillet typically prototypes new digital modules by writing C ++ code and a command line tool to process or generate audio files, or by writing a patch for the Pure Data visual programming language. To get a better feel for how the software interacts with the hardware, it may write alternative firmware for an existing module so that it can be tested directly with CV inputs and physical controls.
Analog modules are prototyped on a breadboard, sometimes with through-hole circuit boards connected together. "I actually made a very large through-hole board for my latest analog design," explains Gillet. “I find it easier to swap out components and create small networks of additional diodes, capacitors, and resistors in 3D over the board when they are made up of large pieces. In parallel, I manage LTSpice simulations and Python notebooks with all calculations for part values, cutoff frequencies, amplifications, etc. ”.
The circuit diagrams are then entered into the Eagle PCB design software and discussions are held with the UI designer Hannes Pasqualini, with whom Mutable Instruments has had a long-term partnership. "Features can be added or removed from this dialog box to make the panel more symmetrical or elegant," says Gillet.
Finally, the design is sent to a company in Germany that specializes in the manufacture and assembly of prototypes, and the front panels are ordered from Mutable Instruments' production partner.
“At this point, the prototype looks good and works well enough to fool people that it is a finished product. Then there is a pretty long test phase. All you have to do is play around with the module to get a sense of how long the excitement is going on and send the module to the only tester that actually finds bugs. There is a lot of balancing and curating with digital modules.
"I'll put the project on hold for some time (then), and if I'm still excited about it, I'll move on."
Further development includes FCC / CE compliance testing, writing a user manual, and taking photos for the Mutable Instruments website and retailers. This is followed by a pre-series run of 20 modules to check that everything runs smoothly.
"I'm usually in the factory the day they're made," explains Gillet. “They are (then) thoroughly tested and sent to people for additional field tests. At this stage, it's no longer about getting feedback on the design, it's just about making sure that unexpected things don't happen in very different and wild configurations. "
If there are no reports of problems for 3 months, a much larger order is placed with the manufacturer, typically between 480 and 980 units, while a single module on average sells 3,000-5,000 units over its lifetime. Plaits, the successor to Braid, has so far required eight or nine batches of 1,000 units.
"Obviously I don't build anything with my own hands," says Gillet. “I receive the modules in their box, ready to ship to dealers. My contract manufacturers take care of everything i.e. board assembly, panel assembly, testing, and packaging. Thank god for that ”.
If you go back and read or watch various interviews with Döpfer, something resembling an old joke emerges. For years the father of Eurorack has been saying that he thinks the bubble may have finally reached its peak, only to concede that the industry has grown even bigger the following year. However, throughout many of the interviews for this piece, there was a general feeling that growth in the last year or two may have begun to slow even if the market is more saturated than ever.
“I don't think it's at its peak, but maybe a slight plateau in its growth,” says Wilson, who recently designed and launched his own “DivKid” branded module in a relationship with Befaco, a Eurorack maker based in Barcelona, Spain . "There's definitely larger growth in people making modular devices than there is the market ... Sales haven't increased as much as the outside world looking at modular may think it has".
“If I had to put my finger up in the air and sort of take a guess, I would say things are about static at the moment, definitely not the growth that was there about five or six years ago,” says Signal Sounds' Brunton . “The (other) thing is that the mainstream retailers have moved into modular quite a lot, so it's actually quite difficult to tell if modules are consistently selling. It may well be that it's selling consistently, it's just selling less per individual retailer.
“People always want the new thing. And the other issue is, there's always a new thing ”.
For anyone interested in creating the next new thing and starting their own Eurorack business, what advice might existing makers and retailers have to offer.
“You have to know the scene,” says Matt “Matttech” Preston, founder of Matttech Modular, an online retailer in Manchester, U.K. “Immerse yourself in the scene, know what’s popular and then think whether you could either add something, make it smaller or make it cheaper… Come up with something that you can see there’s nothing like it out there”.
Mutable Instruments product shot
Another aspect to watch out for is the visual representation of your module, which, Preston says, too many makers initially overlook. “You need front on photos, you need demos - video demos, ideally, but at the very least audio demos - and you need all the text and information to be there”.
“You should focus on your idea,” advises Döpfer. “If you have an idea which you think is great, you should follow your idea and stay on track. Don't look to the left. Don't look to the right. If you are sure that you have a good product, you really should release it ”.
AJH’s Hall says it is still possible to have a successful Eurorack product but you need to have something that’s different and that people want. "If you're lacking in either of those, then all you're gonna do is waste a lot of time and certainly a small amount of money, and possibly a large amount, depending on how you do it," he says.
The first AJH Synth Minimod prototype PCBs
"Decide straight away what route you want to go down," advises Brunton. “Do you just want to make 10 of them, or 20 of them and sell them direct? Or do you want to turn it into a business? Make the decision at the beginning and stick to it. And if you're going to turn it into at least a part time business, get your pricing right at the beginning. Factor in not just your time and cost on components, but factor in a retailer's margin and, if you can, a small distributors margin ”.
Mutable Instruments ’Gillet argues that quitting the day job too soon is a rookie mistake, and instead you should aim for organic growth and“ don’t expect things to work out right away ”. She also warns that you could be “too late to the party”. Rather than releasing one more module, consider other clever ways of contributing to the Eurorack ecosystem, such as cases and power distribution, patch management, and interfacing with other tools.
“At this point in time I would advise caution,” echoes Manhattan Analog’s Coates. “If you're going to get started now, you have a lot more to worry about than we did a decade ago when a hobbyist with some skills like me really could add meaningfully to the landscape… With fewer gaps in the market that need filling , you'll need to be an order of magnitude more innovative and creative ”.
“At no point in creativity can you say it's all been done,” counters Brunton. 'Everything's been done, we won't paint any more pictures or write any more books, because what's the point?' Within modular, there's room to either reinvent the wheel, which is taking old ideas and doing them slightly differently or there's infinite different combinations you can have just by taking an idea and plugging it into another idea. So sometimes it's just combining certain things in one module, and then at other times it's making interesting ideas more accessible ”.
Which, perhaps, brings us full circle, back to the very beginning when Dieter Döpfer took an old idea and made it infinitely more accessible.
"I'm still excited to go to work every day and I'm very happy," he tells me. "So as long as this lasts, I think everything’s okay for me and for our company. We had ups and downs during the last years, but we are such a small company we are not that much depending on if sales increase by 20% or go down by 10%. For us, it's important that it's fun every day.
“We also have a lot of friends here in our neighborhood, which use the modules in their system and also play live on stage. It's a lot of fun for us if we can go to a concert where we see that 50% of the equipment on stage has been manufactured by our company. That’s something that’s incredible. And that's why we still love this job ”.
The Eurorack allure (in their own words):
“Modular is a spectacle. It is producing crazy sounds, patch cables going everywhere, flashing lights, and this beckoning conglomerate of knobs and faders. Musical instruments, guitars, and drums are already very personal in nature - it becomes a part of you, an extension of your spirit. Then add to that what modular brings, a highly customizable instrument, tailored by you - for you. I think modular enthusiasts are mostly hungry to discover things, new and old, in the realm of electronic sound. The more you discover, the more it feeds into the imagination, thus sparking curiosity to discover more - it is a virtuous cycle ”.
- Garren “G-Man” Morse, founder of G-Storm Electro
"One of the great things about Eurorack is there is a choice ... It's different things to different people. That's why there are over 200 manufacturers and each of them have their own approach ”.
- Alan “J” Hall, founder of AJH Synth
"There's some separation for me between sound and music. I think you can explore sound for sonic qualities, and learn and engage in that, almost separately to music. Of course, there is a huge crossover and a big gray area between the two. But I just really enjoy all aspects of it, just exploring sound, learning on a technical level, making music, it just felt right, for some reason ”.
- Ben “DivKid” Wilson, producer of the DivKid YouTube channel
“It attracts and appeals to non-musicians, by which I mean non-standard musicians. So there's a significant portion of people who get into modular and Eurorack who are coming from completely outside the industry, which means they haven't really played a keyboard or guitar or any other instrument before ”.
- Jason Brunton, founder of Signal Sounds
“To be your own mad scientist; the tangibility of tweaking knobs with obscure descriptions, making indicator lights flash to patterns clear to yourself but mysterious to the onlooker, to building the musical instrument of your own design without any limits (besides the size of your wallet) ”.
- Tom Verchooten, DIY-er and founder of ThreeTom Modular
“From a musician's perspective, I think the allure of modular synthesis is the absolute lack of limits, the near-infinite customization. There are modules out there that can help you make nearly any sound you can imagine (and many more besides) and that's very attractive. On top of that, modular synthesis is just plain fun. There are always moments of serendipity where the instrument will surprise you, and in my case at least, that’s irresistible. It's also very satisfying to work with such a tactile instrument. Software is fine, I've used (and still use) my share like anyone else, but it really is missing something compared to working with real knobs, patch cables, touch interfaces, etc ”.
- Jason Coates, founder of Manhattan Analog
“It felt for me like a very natural thing to do because with my electronics background, we are used to having components and wiring them together to create something bigger. Modular was a perfect fit for me ... I feel flexibility when you can connect things in the way you want ”.
- Dr. Leonardo Laguna Ruiz, founder of Vult
"I think the main difference to another instrument is that you don’t have an already built instrument. If you go to the guitar shop, you buy a guitar and then you have the final instrument. For a modular, it's totally different: you have to build your instrument first. It means you have to collect the modules and install them into the case and so on before you can start using the instrument. So that's totally different compared to other instruments. That first creative process is to design the instrument. So that's a lot of fun from my point of view.
The second is that, in most cases, you have a very special instrument, which is probably the only one in the world unless you buy a standard system. But I think 90% of all the modular systems are totally mixed with multiple modules from different manufacturers. Each system is very unique ”.
- Dieter Döpfer, the father of Eurorack
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