No two modules sound alike - In conversation with Michael Beim from Birdkids

Birdkids started out as a music label, but the creative work did not stop here. Interesting to see that music labels nowadays morph into instrument manufacturers: Justin from Abstract Data was telling us a similar story – after all, only ideas matter,  and they should not be limited to one field. Among a lot of things, we were talking to Michael Beim from Birdkids about the development of their analog VCO / synth-voice The Bateleur, which has been seeing more and more popularity thanks to its hands-on and intuitive controls, sounds and possibilities.

Analogue Zone:  What pushed you to realise an oscillator / synth voice and why do you find thru-zero FM so interesting?

Coming from a music production background, my main concern is always:
How does it sound? How does it perform in a real-life scenario be it a studio, performance or gig? Is there real innovation to the concept?
I always thought of the Eurorack concept as a bit of a compromise, yet an agreeable common ground for development.  When the decision came to port our circuit concepts to the Eurorack Format, meaning break it down into constituent parts – the voice would be at the heart of it, obviously. Since we have our special way of doing things at birdkids, we didn’t see the necessity of having a myriad of modules each fulfilling only one single function.

Our R&D process is: start with the things we do very well – then push them to the absolute limit of our abilities, possibilities and understanding, then question everything, learn as much as possible, take a lot of risks, put it out there for scrutiny in the hands of a merciless evaluation team, succeed a little, fail a lot, start all over – nail it. Birdkids would not exist were it not for the artists, engineers, scientists, hard-core users, friends and family surrounding us.

We’d like to see ourselves as our biggest critics, but the reality is – there’s always room for more scrutiny. You always have to factor in even more space for mistakes and give your concept time to grow naturally – give it its own voice!

Let’s take for example the concept of Through-Zero modulation, It might seem absurd that so many manufacturers are “jumping on the bandwagon” – seeing as this concept is essentially something we’ve been subjected to since the heydays of the DX sound. The biggest challenge for us was to see if we can approach the concepts of Through-Zero modulation from an absolutely musical angle in a 100% analog context. It was always meant to be a natural extension of the core’s palate – not a flavor of the month gimmick. It took a while to get it right from our own set of goals and expectations, but it was worth it!

Analogue Zone: You mentioned at the expo that a new VCF was in the works – is there anyhting else being developed?

At any given time we might have about 4-5 different modules in development. It is quite likely that only one will make it into production, It is a very long process, the amount of ideas and influences is almost infinite. One has to have a very strong opinion and position on a certain design for it to filter through the mincer of scrutiny.

Currently we’re finalizing a 100% analog dual VCO/LFO/CLOCK with hard and soft-sync, it is the perfect complementary modulation unit for our System but will go beyond the initial purpose, as a standalone, central Voice without a doubt. Furthermore there will be a complex multiple EG and an exotic VCF. 2016 is shaping up to be our busiest year yet 😉

Analogue Zone:  What is the biggest lesson you have learnt so far as a manufacturer?

Generally in a product line we like to focus on a small number of functional elements and execute them flawlessly and coherently in the long run, there is no set deadline for a product, it’s either all that we ever wanted it to be, or it isn’t released at all. We’re always looking for an organic symbiosis between sound, functionality, intuitive operation and design – but above all – ask ourselves over and over again – does it contribute musically? With that concept in mind from day one we had to learn to be even more patient in daily operation.

Sometimes things do not go as planned, sometimes a set deadline is disrupted by failed deliveries, a manufacturer’s  failure to produce components in time, botched runs of material, discoloration etc. etc. However the biggest lesson – and perhaps one that seems painfully obvious, even banal once you articulate it for the first time:

The product and brand always has a market value, which is transient, the main value though is an intrinsic one. This intrinsic value has to be cherished and nurtured. It can never fail, it is the very modus operandi – the spark that drives us. We’d like to see ourselves, as a permanent start-up, always struggling for more, always young and foolish and idealistic – unique in our approach, unique in our aesthetic values and self-set goals. We will always strive to develop something that is simply impossible to develop in a given context, and break the rules of what is deemed possible or advisable.

Analogue Zone: Where do you think this intrinsic value lies? Your oscillator has truly become an instrument, it gives you a feeling where you don’t feel limited and confined when you are using its interface. Could you just give some details on the process about how you managed to craft it like that?

Thank you very much, it’s very satisfying to have that kind of resonance! We’re very humbled by the amazing response – this encourages us to transcend the boundaries of a given medium! Our approach is purely a musical one, we work by ear. This might seem counter intuitive when talking about circuits, but the actual circuit, as complex as it might be – is just a means to an end.

During development you’ll see us talking in a synaesthetic manner, our vocabulary is that of color, shape&form, association and emotional impact. We’ll refer to a filter as bubbly-sharp, squelchy and silvery, or buttery muted with a shimmering halo around the edges. Same goes for our design choices when it comes to the tactile interface. Our strength lies in the amalgamation of our individual talents. We nurture those talents and give them space to evolve. Even our calibration process is performed by ear when it comes to final waveform output. No two modules sound alike, no two sounds will ever sound the same.

We like to think of listening to our VCO as having the privilege of zooming-in on a point in time and space, it will never recur, constantly shifting, constantly evolving. Everything we do at birdkids, be it development, design or presentation occurs from first principles – we’re looking for a fundamental truth in everything. From initial explosion of ideas around a core-suggestion, throughout extensive development and ferocious elimination process to a zen-like state – that is the birdkids way.

Analogue Zone: How did you like your stay at our booth at Budapest Music Expo and what were your impressions?

Coming from Vienna – Budapest is always like vacation at your older, rougher, artsy Brother’s place! A remarkably beautiful city.

Michael Biem (Birdkids)
Michael Biem (Birdkids)

I love the slightly shadowy quality, the contrast between the old, European Architecture and iron-curtain Era remnants. It’s a fascinating mixture and I always want to explore more, no single visit is enough!

Analogue Zone’s hospitality during our stay were exemplary. The Team made us feel at home from the minute we set foot in the Expo. The dedication and energy these guys exude is second to none. It takes true spirit to build something, especially on grounds that might not seem fertile at first, but Analogue Zone is doing it every day. I wish them the best of luck, success and full support – we’re very eager to return and really looking forward to 2016!

Birdkids Official
Birdkids @ Analogue Zone 

Dave Smith Instruments to Ship Desktop Version of their Acclaimed Analog Poly Synth in November

Dave Smith Instruments today announced that they will begin shipping a desktop module version of their acclaimed Sequential Prophet-6 six-voice analog synthesizer at the end of November. Like the keyboard version, it features an all-analog signal path and discrete VCOs, VCAs, and filters.
Sequential - Prophet 6 Desktop
Sequential – Prophet 6 Desktop

The knob-per-function front panel is free of menu-diving and offers immediate access to virtually all parameters. As Dave Smith explained:

“The Prophet-6 has been our most successful product launch ever. In the four months since its release, a huge number of artists have already added it to their setups. Apart from its awesome sound, we feel that a big part of its appeal is the immediacy of its user interface, so we made sure that the desktop version retained all of the same controls as the keyboard version. As a bonus, we’ve added a poly chain feature so that any two Prophet-6s can be paired for 12-voice polyphony. The biggest sound in modern analog poly synths just got bigger.”

Key to the vintage sound of the Prophet-6 is its two newly-designed, discrete voltage-controlled oscillators (plus sub-oscillator) and two discrete filters: a four-pole, resonant, low-pass inspired by the original Prophet-5 filter, and a two-pole, resonant, high-pass filter. Voltage-controlled amplifiers complete the all-analog signal path. Said Smith:

“The desktop module sounds every bit as good as the keyboard because, on the inside, it’s exactly the same — the
same VCOs, VCFs, and VCAs and the same classic, punchy, analog poly sound that’s been earning raves from
customers and reviewers.”

The module weighs approximately 13 lbs (5.9 kg) and measures 21.25” L x 7.43” W x 4.4” H (54.0 cm x 18.9 cm x 11.2 cm). “It’s an ideal mix of portability and power,” Smith said. Pre-order yours now at Analogue Zone!

"Avoid the trap of sounding like a plugin with CV inputs" - In conversation with Scott Jaeger aka The Harvestman

The Harvestman designs and manufactures odd audio performance instrumentation. How can an audio performance be “odd” when nowadays everyone boasts about the sounds or tools they use or make in a similar fashion? We had an eye-opening conversation with Scott Jaeger, the man behind The Harvestman which shed light on what drives building and designs forward, why analog and digital did not – and has not ever really mattered – and what is on the horizon in the eurorack modular scene.
Analogue Zone: You started getting really into modular designs and offering to a small number of people back then, which you described as a receptive audience? Could you give us some insights on those days and compare it with what is going on now?

Back in 2006, the audience could be better be described as a “community” instead of a “market”. There were only 3 or 4 active Eurorack designers operating in the United States, and the methods of sharing information between designers were more straightforward. Now, there has been a significant advancement in the state of the art, and the rate of innovation is much better. However, the instrument designers have largely been forced to operate their companies as legitimate businesses, as the demand for retail products increases. Without adding the overhead of personnel and administration, much time is distracted from the design and development of the instruments. I’ve spent much time over the last few years finding a balance that is appropriate for the operation of my company.

Scott Jaeger aka The Harvestman
Scott Jaeger aka The Harvestman

Darkplace Manufacturing deserves a special mention for skillfully taking on the labor of producing the modules for the last two years. Their type of operation simply wouldn’t have been possible a decade ago, and with as much as I complain about the recent challenges of running a synthesizer company these days, their enthusiastic help has made the task of physically producing the devices so much more exciting than it would be otherwise.

AZ: In general, Don’t you see a larger risk in mass production?

Yes. Significant investments must be made, particularly in large quantities of custom parts that are often unique to a single product. The failure to sell sufficient quantities of a single product could be disastrous at the small scale that The Harvestman (and similarly sized companies) operate. I refuse to compromise the features of the designs to influence sales of a product, so instead only the designs that are most likely to sell shall make it to production. Fortunately some dealers seem to like the majority of my offerings, so I’ve rarely run into trouble with unpopular designs.

AZ: You were working with a Doepfer system earlier which made you realise a couple of things you wanted in eurorack which had not existed before. Have you already realised all these ‘early dreams’ or are there still a few things you have not completed?
Malgorithm MKII – based on the first ever voltage controlled bitcrusher design by the Harvestman

The last of the ‘early dreams’ will be realised next year. Some involve advanced digital processing that is optimized for the live performance of modular sound. The ideas are still relevant and are unable to be realized by any designer other than myself – the peculiarities of these designs’ algorithm, interface, and application are simply too specific to my own experiences as an engineer and musician to easily fit into any extant product category. Occasionally new ideas develop from the successful completion of an earlier project and that has been a distraction from completing the first generation of these early ideas you mention…

AZ: …And to what extent has user feedback “distracted” you as well as your own expolration into making?

I don’t see it as a distraction. The users of my product are, generally speaking, aware of the character of The Harvestman designs and their difference from other approaches. I don’t usually have to deal with fundamental misunderstandings of the work.  Some particularly enthusiastic users do offer feedback and it’s helpful for addressing the reality of selecting ideas for development into retail products.

AZ: Digital has stopped becoming a ‘dirty word’ already, as you have predicted. Do ever users urge you to revisit old analog designs apart from the utility modules and the Iron Curtain series?
The Harvestman - Polivoks VCF MKII
The Harvestman – Polivoks VCF MKII

I don’t feel a lot of pressure from customers to design “analog” or “digital” materials, but the designs usually are demanding enough that digital implementations are the better choice. Vladimir Kuzmin is always full of good ideas on new and old analog circuits that he is designed, and we’ll produce a few items beyond the Polivoks series in the future. I’ve also become much better at engineering my own (digitally controlled) analog designs, some will be produced soon.

I don’t feel that the spirit of digital synthesizer design is explored to its fullest today. Look at some classic digital designs from the 80s like the Prophet VS or Microwave. These, probably the most characterful of digital synthesizers, derive much of that character from the limitations of their support circuitry instead of the synthesis algorithm (this is not a discussion of user interface.) Other than my own designs, I’ve not seen many modern digital modules that deliberately address this source of sonic character. I take great care to avoid the trap of sounding like “a plugin with CV inputs”, so my own personal discrimination of “analog” versus “digital” is less strictly defined.

AZ: Stephen at Noise Engineering mentions “dirty digital”. Are you referring to that kind of sound? Could you give me an example that you are personally fond of?

Here’s a good example: take a Sequential Prophet VS and a Dave Smith Evolver. Set up a simple patch with the filters wide open, single oscillator, identical waveforms selected, no modulations, etc. While the Evolver is an astonishingly good design in other ways, the VS has a “weight” to the sound that few other synthesizers do.

The Harvestman - Zorlon Cannon MKII
The Harvestman – Zorlon Cannon MKII

The signal path of that instrument is more complicated and there are numerous opportunities for unintended corruption of the audio signal in musically beneficial ways. I have my own ways of introducing that kind of behavior into otherwise well-meaning circuits.

I’m saying that there is far more to the good character of a digital/analog hybrid musical instrument than the software program, and it’s not a contest of specsmanship.

AZ: The capabilities of digital circuits have also been occupying my thoughts recently. How do you like the Black Digital Noise module of Erica Synths? The revisited idea of using data scrambling – typical for anyone who have heard a dialup modem working – is just amazing to me.

I’ve only seen the Erica module at Musikmesse and haven’t had the chance to use one myself. The operating principle is similar to some of my favorite Eurorack modules – the Malekko Richter Noise Ring, the Livewire Chaos Computer, and my own Zorlon Cannon mk2, but with a different style of realtime control.
AZ: What has been the most popular design of The Harvestman so far?

The Polivoks VCF, being both an analog design and a version of a “classic” synthesizer circuit, has naturally been a strong seller. From my own designs, the Piston Honda mk II has been the best.

AZ: Where do you get inspiration other than certain genres of music and circuit descriptions?

Other than my own performance needs, I am inspired to design interfaces that allow musicians to access novel sound and control techniques that haven’t been explored in the context of a performance synthesizer. The sonic qualities of early industrial

Scott's current workshop
Scott’s current workshop

music, or obscure devices and performance techniques can sometimes inform my design process. We are still cleaning up after several decades of restricted information flow – so much of what defines an “analog” synthesizer or “experimental” electronic music has traditionally focused on a very narrow set of examples in public discussion, leaving some very interesting ideas to be forgotten until now. Some of my ideas react against this.

AZ: What are the Harvestman module highlights for next year?

The long-awaited “Escalation Dominance” 6-channel mixer will finally see release, as well as the updated Bionic Lester mkII. Sales of the Iron Curtain and Industrial Music Electronics systems shall continue, augmented by the occasional release of specialist modules. Other than that, the release schedule of new devices shall be determined by the market. I have no shortage of largely finished concepts that I’ve kept to myself for years, and I’ll soon evaluate the risk of producing some of them.

Harvestman Official
Harvestman @ Analogue Zone

A new paradigm – Analogue Zone Booth at Budapest Music Expo

This year’s Budapest Music Expo was special groundbreaking for a lot of reasons. At Analogue Zone‘s booth, visitors were having a lot of fun and exclusivity around, since for the first the time in the Central-European region, they were able to meet eurorack modular manufacturers coming from Eastern-Europe to Brooklyn, and try out their custom built systems. On top of that, a eurorack prototype of a well-known Hungarian stompbox manufacturer also debuted at the booth. They had a lovely vibe in their well-designed booth – it was certainly a place where a lot of thought-provoking conversations, introductions to synths and also exclusive workshops took place.


Bastl Instruments

Bastl Instruments were getting a lot of attention thanks to their servo-motor modules which were controlling various small percussion instruments. Their wooden case and booth design was really fun and aesthetic – their case will be seperately available later. All their handmade modules and synths are produced locally in the Czech Republic, including the PCBs.

Girts from Erica Synths

The Erica Synths crew occupied one of the largest spaces in the booth, showing their prototypes new Graphic modules (the graphic VCO and sequencer) and their dual ADSR / LFO also one could see their brand new simple but lovely MIDI to Trigger module, which generates simple trigger signals based on MIDI notes and was used during non-stop underground live electronic music. The module was announced for the first time during the time of the exhibition and a few lucky raffle winners were also able to take it home.

Erica Synths – Graphic VCO and Graphic Sequencer prototypes

The Erica Synths crew were really enjoying their stay here, and were getting a lot of attention. Girts, the man behind the company was emphasizing that they intended to bring a less masculine and more aesthetic type of approach are coming with plenty of new designs this year.

Erica Synths Black Dual EG LFO
Erica Synths Black Dual EG and LFO
konstantin-mannequinsKonstantin came to the both as the representative of Tiptop Audio – showing up their upcoming quantizer module. He was also announcing a new case, when talking about the new quantizer module which was exhibited, he confirmed that new Serge modules tiptop-systemwere on the way from Tiptop, and it is said that many of them are in really advanced stages already! His techno jamming and general approach to live electronic dance music was also enjoyed and appreciated by the people around the booth. He – as other exhibitors – was playing in sync on the last day with other modulars as one master clock signal was sent from the Erica Synths case which was distributed in the whole booth! A pretty nice and often forgotten approach!
An AJH MiniMod system

The UK side of the booth was also buzzing. Allan J. Hall from AJH Synth got a lot of visitors as people wanted make sure how his MiniMod system sounded like. His months of hard work of fine-tuning a Model D sound and realising it with 21st century electronics is a convincing achievement indeed. As he said, people were afraid that he was going to lose the characteristic sound of the classic – along with eliminating its inherent flaws – but no doubt that he won that game as well. It was especially nice of him that he helped around to install the Doepfer Monstercase at the corner of bernardthe booth. Its robust size and the oscilloscope next to it with laser projection on the wall gave the basic sound a synthesis a visual dimension which continuosly attaracted visitors too. Bernard from Doepfer Musikelektronik was controlling the synth, giving insight to a lot of people around.




Analogue Zone Booth @ Budapest Music Expo 2015
Justin from Abstract Data

Next to Allan, Justin from Abstract Data was having a great time with his system, especially when it was also synced to the other modulars in the booth. His Octocontroller module was busy every day and he was – as all other manufacturers – giving a short demonstration going into details about his system.

Michael Biem (Birdkids)
Michael Biem (Birdkids)
The Birdkids booth

Michael from Birdkids had an impressive table with a small but powerful modular system – their Bateleur VCO with both of its 2 new expanders made it an outstanding synth-voice which was played around by several visitors. He was mentioning a “stackable” filter in the works, and he was kindly discussing design difficulties, and even came up with DIY tips for more advanced users.

Trent from Mannequins

Trent Gill from Mannequins – who had also held a Monome / Mannequins workshop at the Analogue Zone showroom 2 days before the show was having lively conversations with the people around. Even manufacturers were amazed by the complexities and odds (and evens) of their Monome Mannequins combo systems. However, it turned out quickly how playable and musical they are. He said that a final stage that had not been designed yet in their systems is their envelopes. Not able to leak a lot of details here, though I can confirm that he decided on the Serge-way of doing things. 🙂

Analogue Zone a lot of other new synths to the public, including the new Sequential Prophet 6, people often queued in front of that wonderful new/old polysynth. Not to mention such rare instruments as the Buchla Music Easel, and its latest version, the Easel K, which had its European debut at the booth as well, but recent euro modules like the Roland AIRA modular series were on display. As a Hungary-based

Kasleder - Acid Fuzz  - the prototype of the first voltage controlled fuzzer/limiter
Kasleder – Acid Fuzz – the prototype of the first voltage controlled fuzzer/limiter

retailer, they were happy to announce the prototype of a Hungarian eurorack module by stompbox manufacturer Kasleder Effects, which luckily made it to the show – it is going to be out soon exclusively at Analogue Zone with a lot of audio and viceo demos! As a voltage controlled germanium fuzzer / limiter, it adds subtle grainy or harsh textures even to a simple sinewave – people praised for its versatile sound and also for the build quality – it will surely be loved by a lot of people. All sound was put out on lovely Monkey Banana studio monitors which offered a good taste of the signals people were able to check out.

All in all, the unprecedentedly exclusive Analogue Zone booth with its workshops, friendly and open mentality and intimate environment at the Budapest Music Expo, a new paradigm was set both for the local and global synth scene and surely, visitors and manufacturers benefited from it, and will be likely to experience a larger edition, next year (click here for the 2016 show’s facebook event).
Youtube videos from the show and Mannequins’ workshop are available on Analogue Zone’s Youtube-channel – subscribe now!

Further links: 

Analogue Zone – Analogue Modular Store
Bastl Instruments
Erica Synths@Analogue Zone
Birdkids@Analogue Zone
Abstract Data@Analogue Zone
Tiptop Audio@Analogue Zone
Roland AIRA Modular@Analogue Zone
AJH Synth@Analogue Zone
Buchla@Analogue Zone