In an industry filled with characters of all stripes, Pittsburgh Modular founder Richard Nicol manages to stand out. Tall and with an easy-going manner, Nicol is quick to answer questions and easily led into long, drawn-out discussions of not only his own creations, but other instruments, music and life in general. In short, on top of being one of the current crop of modular builders, he’s fun to hang out with and terrific company to boot! During a lull in the action at Sweetwater’s Gear Fest 2014, we cornered him and got the lowdown on how Pittsburgh Modular began:
“Pittsburgh Modular started as a hobby in my basement because I liked the idea of modular synthesizers. I had a Dot Com system and I wanted to expand it, but my wife didn’t want me to spend any more money. I started doing some DIY kits, some Music from Outer Space kits, some Cat Girl Synth kits, and I thought, ‘Well these are pretty cool: they’re easy!” I’m a software developer, so schematics instantly made sense to me because I could find an analog in coding. I was like, ‘Schematics are easy! I get it!’
So I started tweaking around and I thought there were a couple of things I built that sounded good, but I thought, ‘What if I could turn it to 11? Or four instead?’ I decided, ‘How do I do that?’ I would go in and read a little bit about how the circuits worked and started to tweak them ’til one day I made a terrible error on something and came up with something unique. I figured, ‘Well, this is cool! Maybe I can sell this one particular circuit and offset the cost of this debilitating habit that I’ve created for myself – then my wife would stop yelling at me and I could be a happier man!’ So I put it out for sale and I figured if I could sell three a month, that would be awesome, because I could sell three, cover my costs and it would be a wash. That was the goal.
I made my thing and I thought, ‘Where am I going to sell this?’ I knew that Analog Haven and Big City Music were selling modules and I thought, ‘I’ll give them a call and see what they say.’ That day, Analog Haven put an order for 30 in and Big City Music wanted 20. So these handmade circuits that I thought I had to make three of a month I now had to make 50 of in the next couple of weeks.
And I did! I hand-built every one, I hand-populated every pcb, put them together in my basement as the kids were running around me, my wife was running around me and my buddies came over and helped. And that’s sort of how it started: it was a hobby for a good two, two-and-a-half years. We added a couple of small modules in addition to the original one, but it was never what it is now.
But it just kept growing. Sales kept going up and up and up. About a year before I stopped working as a programmer, I went in and said, “You know what, guy? I have to go part-time because I’m killing myself. I’m coming to work; I’m falling asleep. I’m going home; I’m falling asleep, ’cause I’m working at home eight hours on my job and I’m coming in here and working here, coding for eight hours a day and I’m dying.’ So I went to part time, but slowly sales kept coming and coming until one day my wife – after several weeks of in order to do laundry she had to go out the front door, down the front steps, in through the garage to get to the laundry room because I had filled the basement with stuff – she came to me and she goes, ‘Rich, you’ve got to go into your job and you’ve got to quit tomorrow. And then when you quit, you need to go find a place to get this shit outta my house!’
OK! That was sort of the kick in the pants I needed, because, you know, I have a wife and a mortgage and two kids and a car payment and I figured, ‘You know, my wife feels confident that it’s a business now, then maybe it’s a business!’ And it did! We got a 1300 square foot warehouse and I thought, ‘How are we ever going to fill this giant space as opposed to the 350 square foot basement I have?’
Well, it took about a year and a half and we filled the entire shop up to the point where we just moved a couple of weeks ago to a much bigger space. It’s gone from a couple years ago being just me to nine of us doing this full-time. Plus I have two engineers who work at home – not in the shop – doing the hardcore engineering ’cause it’s way above my head at this point. The guys are too good now.
And yeah, we’re going full-steam ahead with it … and I hope to never code again!”
As our time dwindled, Nicol hinted at things to come (“Keep watching” he teased) and was grateful enough to demonstrate his Foundation 3 synthesizer for us and some lucky passersby, showing us all how to build a simple, but very funky rhythm with just a monophonic synth. We left him with a wave and a smile on our faces, confident that whatever he and his crew do next, Pittsburgh Modular will be one company to watch.