Pittsburgh Modular Interview

Pittsburgh Modular Interview

Modular synths are like custom hot rods, for  geeks. The level of detail and customization is as deep as your wallet  and both make loud noises that are heart-warming to some, and terrifying  to others. As a maker, you can truly create something unique and  special. Some manufacturers fancy futuristic fonts, others aim to  challenge the norms of composition with mysterious layouts or blank  panels. Pittsburgh Modular channels a design that's down to earth with a  dash of aesthetically-pleasing industrialism, allowing the facade to  take a backseat to a deceptively simple design which is in fact laden  with character and depth.

Pittsburgh Modular is a modular synth manufacturer founded in 2012 by  burned-out software developer turned soldering soldier Richard Nicol.  Michael Johnsen came on board later, bringing his particularly  interesting outlook on circuit design based on a history of modifying  film cameras and other, peculiar technical experimentation. The duo and 7  others hand build everything in the smoky city.

It's hard not to find some connection, deliberate or subconscious with Pittsburgh's industrial heritage. There is a consistent and almost  utilitarian gray panel design paired with a pleasing variety of knob  sizes, from the purely functional to the divinely chunky filter  frequency knob on the Lifeforms SV-1. You can almost imagine finding an  abandoned steel factory, blowing off the dust and coming face to face  with a massive control panel littered with similarly durable and  inviting knobs.

Pittsburgh Modular System 201

There's no shortage of interesting designs out  from various makers. But there is something particularly beautiful about  Pittsburgh Modular's aesthetic. It oozes warmth, strength, reliability  and sturdiness in a way that other modules don't. So it was with geeky  glee that I was able to grab the ear of Perry Willig, lead tester on the  PGH team, to explain some of the methods, challenges and inspirations  behind the modules. If the accompanying sultry snaps of Pittsburgh  Modular's headquarters don't excite or at the very least entice you,  then perhaps the world of modulars is not for you.

Do you plan things out methodically in advance or do you just experiment and see what happens?

Experimentation is key for discovering new sounds and finding creative  approaches to a problem. However, once we've found our inspiration for a  new circuit or case, our approach is methodical and planned out. We  find it vital to designing instruments that are well built, reliable,  and ergonomic.

Pittsburgh Modular Assembly Station

How do you stay focused?

Having clear goals and deadlines (both external and self-imposed) helps a  great deal. We have both weekly shipping deadlines and new product  release dates to help keep us on track.

Pittsburgh Modular Richard Nicol Engineering Desk

What relevant training do you have?

Richard's background is in software design, which gives him a solid  foundation for UI layout. It also helps when working with our engineer  Michael Johnsen to translate ideas into hardware. The rest of the team  has a wide range of backgrounds and skills, which allow us to handle the  variety of issues that tend to come up in synth production.

Pittsburgh Modular Tested Modules

What technologies, techniques or trends are you curious about incorporating in the future?

We have an exciting product roadmap laid out for the next few years. Our  current trajectory started with the Lifeforms SV-1 last year and will  continue with a refresh of our modular lineup this year. We work  primarily in analog circuitry, so developing new designs and techniques  is a slow process. Our Dynamic Impulse Filter incorporates a brand new  vactrol-less lowpass gate circuit (designed by Michael Johnsen) which is  unique in the synth community. Whenever feasible, we try to design our  own analog circuits rather than copy existing schematics.

What music have you and the team been listening to lately?

Our musical tastes are all over the place. On any given day, we usually  have some krautrock, Brazilian psychedelia, and jazz fusion. In recent  rotation, we've been listening to Fumaca Preta, Chicano Batman, and Mild  High Club. The newest Tame Impala record is pretty fantastic too.

Pittsburgh Modular Assembled Cases

What are some of the biggest challenges you've faced - technically, financially, etc?

Working through circuit designs (especially with the recent Dynamic  Impulse Filter) can be quite challenging, but is ultimately very  rewarding. Generally speaking, starting and running a business is a  tremendous challenge. Every day offers a new set of problems to solve.  Parts show up faulty or the wrong size (or don't show up at all), UPS  misses their pickup, bad weather interrupts our production schedule,  etc. All are pretty standard business problems.

Pittsburgh Modular Demo Area

What recommendations do you have for others looking to get into production?

Start small and be patient. Don't kill yourself by trying to meet an  unrealistic, self-imposed deadline. Assume everything will take twice as  long as you think it will.

What are some modules by other makers that you are really into?

We haven't had much time lately to try out a lot of the products on the  market. However, we have just started digging into the new LZX video  modules. They are a lot of fun.

What is the modular synth scene like in Pittsburgh?

There is a strong underground electronic music scene in Pittsburgh.  We've met a lot of local artists with huge variety of setups and styles.  Some even use modular synths exclusively. A few of our favorites  include  Nick Breinich and Kevin Lind,  Ryan DeNardis and  Jesse Hawley.

In an attempt to help build the local synth community, we started our free monthly  Synth Playground.  On the first Wednesday of each month, we hold a meetup at Spirit Lodge  in Lawrenceville where we set up a variety synths (some modular, some  stand-alone) and open it up to the public. Anyone can come by to play  with synths and ask questions. Later on in the evening, we usually have  performances by local and touring electronic artists (including those I  mentioned above). They've been going very well, so we intend to keep  doing them every month.

Do you use Pittsburgh Modular gear in your setup? Let us know what and how and why.