In the world of modular synthesis the population of makers seem to be growing immeasurably. Conversely, the modular synthesis community of collectors, buyers and enthusiasts seem to be enamored with all things eurorack modular. The seen really has a cool “indie hip” vibe that reminds me of ’90’s underground hiphop purely based on its cool niche. Even the big boys like Roland, Moog and Dave Smith are joining the fun by bringing their eurorack modular offerings to market.
But there is one particular company that seems to be leaping outside of the confines of the beloved eurorack format with an all-in-one solution that maintains the patch-able modular synthesis spirit. That company is Kilpatrick Audio founded by Andrew Kilpatrick and that all-in-one solution is the Phenol.
Here in this interview we had a chance to catch up with Andrew Kilpatrick to discuss a bit about himself, Kilpatrick Audio and the Phenol – modular synth.
Tell us a bit about who Andrew Kilpatrick is?
I’m a musician at heart and have been into music, sound and technology equally since I was a kid. I studied violin and played and sang in school music groups all the way through high school. I was also playing around with electronics, programming computers, doing live sound for shows, and building up a studio to make my own music and also do recording for others.
In the early 2000s it wasn’t clear what was happening with music hardware, and the hot products at the time were sound cards and stuff that I wasn’t very interested in designing. I did other types of electronics work but kept coming back to music projects for fun.
One day the reverb tank in my guitar amplifier broke and instead of replacing it I thought it would be a good chance to teach myself about audio effects programming and make my own digital reverb pedal. I started making guitar effects pedals in around 2008. Once I learned that modular synths were popular I started making Eurorack modules in 2010.
How did you get into designing circuits and such?
When I was a kid in the 80s I had those little electronic project kits from Radio Shack that you wire together and learn about basic circuits. Before the Internet was accessible it was hard to find people to ask about electronics, so I got into amateur radio so I could meet others that knew about electronics. When it was time to go to high school I chose a technical school with a dedicated electronics program. The teachers were great and I was finally able to learn from experienced engineers. That really gave me an important foundation that I’ve used to this day.
Musical background? What style?
I took Suzuki violin all through my childhood learning classical mostly, but eventually got into playing some jazz. I still play and have both a conventional acoustic, as well as a 5 string electric fiddle which is great fun to play with amps and effects. I also studied voice starting when I was about 16.
At university I studied voice performance (mostly opera) at the University of Western Ontario. It was a great experience but I didn’t want a career as a performer.
Photo Credit: David Waldman
Why do you think the whole modular thing is so addictive to most folks?
I think there are two reasons:
The first is that it appeals to folks who enjoy collecting things. For years the market was so focused on plugins and software that if you’re into physical music making, it just wasn’t very interesting. Also, if you’re into buying and selling gear, or want to trade with friends then physical hardware is the way to go.
The other part which I think is even more important is that it doesn’t require a computer. Now more than ever before, most jobs require use of a computer. Modulars are still technical, but they are also stand-alone instruments. I think this is why people are still like old Yamaha sequencers and MPCs because they are dedicated, reliable stand-alone instruments.
Are there any other modular companies out there that you admire or are a fan of? Who and Why?
There are too many to name them all. Obviously Doepfer is to blame for ushering in this new revolution. Some of the newer companies are surprising with their approach. Companies like Malekko and WMD not only make awesome modules of their own, but they also help smaller companies manufacture their designs. It’s a very friendly community and one that I’m proud to be a part of.
Of course I have a ton of respect for folks like David Smith who we have to thank for MIDI, as well as the late Robert Moog who probably helped to make me realize that it’s worth learning all the theory and using a solid engineering approach for musical instrument design.
What other modules had you designed and brought to market before you came around to the Phenol?
I did a few Eurorack modules, most notably the K4815 Pattern Generator which got me started in the synth world. But since about 2012 I’ve been mostly working on my own system called Kilpatrick Format which is now an open standard so others can make compatible modules. It’s designed to be a bit different than Eurorack, and it was this system that inspired PHENOL.
Video Courtesy of Kilpatrick Audio
Now how about the Phenol… How’d you end up conceptualizing the “The patchable modular synth experience”?
Well it was sort of a game that I decided to play to see how great a synth I could make that would fit into a single tabletop box. I had a broken wrist so typing was very difficult, so in my spare time I wanted to do something that only required the mouse. Since I had figured out my recovery time I decided to try a project that would take me at least that long, since I wouldn’t be able to actually build the prototype until I had the use of both hands.
I liked the idea of offering a lower cost modular synth, and the only way to do that but still keep the quality high was to choose which modules it would have and present them all as a single product. Because I was interested in using banana jacks for the patching (like Kilpatrick Format uses) it wasn’t easy to make something semi-modular. So the concept was really all about complete creative freedom for the player. When you turn on PHENOL nothing happens… you need to start patching to get sound. This is the concept behind offering the “patchable modular synth experience” and people seem to really love it!
So what did you hope to accomplish initially with the Phenol idea?
Well, part of it was portability and the other part was cost. Modulars tend to be big expensive studio pieces which rarely get moved. That’s fine for midnight knob twiddling but if you want to take your synth to a gig it’s a bit of a problem.
So with PHENOL, you just buy one piece of gear. PHENOL costs $849 and comes with cables and a power supply. So it’s really designed as a small, portable modular synth. If you don’t have a modular then it’s a great place to start. You can easily control it from your keyboard or computer since it has USB and DIN MIDI ports. But it can also play nicely with bigger modular setups because all the patch cables use voltages that can interface with other systems including Eurorack.
If I wanted to represent all of the capabilities of the Phenol in a typical modular build, how many modules would I end up with and how money would I be out of? In other words, how does the phenol compare in terms of functionality and cash on the table to a similarly functioning modular synth rig?
PHENOL has thirteen distinct “sections” or modules if you want to call them that, although some are very simple like the filters and VCAs. But I would guess that building a similar rig out of Eurorack modules would cost probably $1500-2000 or more depending on what you chose. Plus with the sheer number of modules on the market right now, it would take quite a while to figure out exactly which modules to buy. We’re trying to make getting into modular / patchable synthesis simple.
Your Kick starter was chosen as a staff favorite at Kickstarter. Dope! What was the experience like for you on Kickstarter with the Phenol?
Kickstarter is an interesting platform. As someone who normally works in secret, it was a bit of a different experience having to discuss the progress of the project with the world. Although PHENOL was mostly designed by the time we launched the Kickstarter, we actually did take feedback from backers and made changes based on this. The feeling of support and excitement from people who helped back the project was amazing.
Photo Credit: Kilpatrick Audio
Why did you choose the “Kick Starter” crowd funding route?
This project was bigger and more ambitious than we have done before. We wanted to judge the market and make sure people were going to get into our concept before spending a lot of time and money on production. The funding from the backers helped up get through the production process and end up with a completely top-notch product.
What sort of hurdles did you face over the course of this product launch?
Manufacturing is hard. If people tell you that you “just send it to China” or whatever, they are sorely mistaken. Managing production of even a relatively simple product is still a lot of work. We had the usual problems with suppliers being late or delivering bad quality parts that needed to be redone. But we ended up shipping on time so we’re satisfied with how it all turned out.
How has the response been since it hit the market?
People seem really happy! We get emails every day with people telling us how much they like the synth. It’s the best response we’ve had from any product so far!
Are there plans for other version, in terms of expanding the line, so to speak?
Yes! We’re working on new ideas for modules and also stand-alone products, but it’s too soon to go into details.
What’s next for Kilpatrick Audio?
Our next product is called Carbon and should be announced very soon! It’s a special type of sequencer and I think a lot of people are going to be very excited about it!
How can we keep up with you and Kilpatrick Audio?
We are on Facebook as: https://www.facebook.com/kilpa
Twitter is: @Kilpatrickaudio