Richard Nicol is the creator and founder of Pittsburgh Modular. Richard prides his Pittsburgh Modular brand on being “handmade with the look of 1950′s science fiction laboratory equipment using bold components and unique layouts to promote interaction and experimentation.”
We recently caught up with Richard Nicol to discuss his unique modular synth products and his background.
How did you get into modular synthesis?
I found modular synthesis as a reaction to my life as a software developer. Spending 8 hours a day coding left me with little interest in using computers to play music. I wanted to spend my hobby time interacting with something real. My path to modular started with a few vintage mono and poly synths (Roland Juno 60, Korg MS-10, etc..). They were great but did not offer the kind of control I was looking for so I purchased a small Synthesizers.com modular system. It was obvious to me as soon as I started using the Synthesizers.com system that modular synthesis was the answer. Total signal path freedom limited only by imagination. I finally had my own audio science lab.
Whats been the biggest hurdle in developing your own synth and marketing it?
Everyday is full of hurdles when you own a small business catering to a niche market. For the first year I worked a full time programming job during the day and spent every night designing and shipping modules. There was not a lot of time left for sleeping. The biggest ongoing hurdle is trying to bring something new to the table. Analog synthesizers have been around for a long time now. Trying to create a new product that is uniquely Pittsburgh will always be a challenge.
I recall that yo mentioned that your larger modular system, The Foundation, is similar in some respect to the Minimoog. How are they similar and how do they differ?
The Minimoog defined what a monophonic analog synthesizer is. People understand what is going on when they look at the panel of a Minimoog. The Foundation was designed to share modular synthesis with the masses in a way that sounds amazing but is easy to understand, so it made sense to look at the Minimoog for inspiration.
The Foundation is laid out in the same way as the Minimoog. We work left to right from the Oscillators and LFOs to the Mixer, Filter, VCAs, and then output. The important difference is that our system is completely modular. The Foundation can be patched up to replicate a Minimoog but it can also become a powerful duophonic synth, a self running soundscape generator, or anything else that you want to create.
Whats been the highlight for you while marketing and creating new modular systems?
An unexpected pleasure has been all the great music sent in by our customers. I get a new track every couple of days. It is amazing to hear the variety of sounds and musical styles that can be created with our synths.
What’s your favorite Pittsburgh Modular product ?
Recently I have been working with the new Cell Complete System. It is amazing how much can be done with this synth. A small system with a huge variety of modules. I love the idea of a huge sound canvas with such a small footprint.
Are there any other synths that you use and respect?
Over the years, I have owned dozens of analog and digital synths. A few have stuck with me. One of my favorites is the Roland Juno 60. A classic polysynth. The Dave Smith Tempest drum machine has blown my mind recently. Easily the best drum machine I have ever owned. Very inspiring gear.
I’ve noticed that a lot of beatmakers (drum machine heads, sampler heads) havent had the luxury of owning or playing with real synths so the understanding of subtractive synthesis is sometimes limited. Still I’ve noticed that many would like to know more and understand more. What are your thoughts on the best way to begin to learn synthesis in an effort to incorporate it into their own music?
The best way to understand synthesis is to dive in. Starting with a subtractive synth plugin is a cheap way to get your feet wet. There are a lot of great synth walkthrough videos on the web that explain how to make specific types of sounds or explain how a specific synth works. All subtractive synthesizers use the same basic set of tools so once you understand the signal flow it is easy to transfer your knowledge from one instrument to another.
What advise would you give to a young aspiring electronics guy regarding developing his own musical instruments?
Start small. There is a lot of great information on the web to digest. Project kits are available for all skill levels to help improve soldering skills and understanding of the circuitry. Once you start designing your own circuits, if your designs are awesome, call me.
Too funny. I love that “Call me” part.
Are there any new Pittsburgh Modular systems or instruments on the horizon?
We are always working on new products. The next batch of modules is in development along with a few longer term projects that we can’t wait to share.