On the 4th of December a new tradition might be established. Two Hungarian modular synth composers & performers will be accompanying a classic science-fiction novel for 6.5 hours live.
The idea for the project StanisłAV that came from composers Bálint Baráth and András Hargitai (Banyek) is that just like in the case of silent movies, some background music, timbres and atmospheres would be provided while the novel (Staniław Lem‘s classic, the Invincible which tells the story of one high-tech space ship landing on a planet with a rescue team trying to understand what had happened to its identical brother and its crew) is projected onto a screen behind the instruments. However, all the sounds that are described in the novel will also be performed live. The textures of the visuals (created by Hungarian media artist David Mórász aka micro.D) will also be controlled real-time by the same modulation sources that control the audio.
An incomplete list of euro gear that will play a key role in the performance:
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.
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?
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?
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 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
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Konstantin 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 were 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!
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 the 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.
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 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 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
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).