People are approaching modulars from so many directions – In conversation with Justin Owen from Abstract Data

Justin Owen has been building synthesizers and audio effects for about 10 years. As an ex-labelowner and deejay, his inspiration is not only derived from analog circuits from the 70s and 80s, but also from truly live electronic music situations. We had a really positive and optimistic conversation with him. Don’t forget to catch him live at Analogue Zone’s booth @ Budapest Music Expo!

Analogue Zone: What was the first product that you thought you might want to produce and sell to other users?

The first pieces of electronic music hardware I considered manufacturing and selling were the self-contained desktop format synths that I started building when I first got into electronics. These were mostly 1 or 2 oscillator mono-synths with a simple step-sequencer built in.

The first serious production run I did was the ‘Hex Series’ of analog ade-logosynths and effects – that’s pretty much when Abstract Data was born and everything has grown from that. I’d like to do more desktop format designs in the future – but Eurorack is definitely where my main interest lies right now.

AZ: What were the challenges back then in manufacturing and what are they like nowadays?

Manufacturing is definitely a lot easier and a lot more efficient now. When I started making music hardware I was etching and drilling my own PCBs, hand-soldering every component and doing all the internal wiring – it was a big job. As Abstract Data grew, I was able to employ proper manufacturers and now we have everything made and assembled at a high-quality plant right here in the UK.

Manufacturing in the UK can be more expensive than outsourcing to places like China – but we have great quality control, a high-quality product and a really good team of people to work with.

AZ: Where do you see this resurgence of modulars going?
Justin Owen – the man behind Abstract Data

I can definitely see it getting bigger for a while yet – it’s such a useful and diverse format – but it’s hard to predict where it is going because people are approaching it from so many different directions. I think there are a lot of people – like me, who wanted to move away from using computers for music and get back to using hardware – especially analogue hardware, but it seems now there are also people considering setting up a Eurorack system who are just taking their first steps into electronic music.

I don’t necessarily see it going ‘mainstream’ – I think the knowledge and cost-barriers are still a bit too high for the mainstream consumer – but I do hope it continues to grow as a format. I’d like to see more people using their modular as a live ‘instrument’ – playing it on stage in the same way that someone might give a performance with a guitar or a piano.

AZ: To what extent do you see and find an impression from the Eastern European synth scene?

Many years ago I ran a small record label putting out Breakbeat and Tech-House influenced 12’s. I DJ’d around Europe pretty regularly and played some of the Eastern European countries. Hungary was always one of my favourite places to play – people there are obviously very serious about their electronic music and they were always up for a party!

It’s good to see new European manufacturers coming in from places other than Germany and the UK – they bring new influences and styles into the Eurorack arena and I think that diversity will ultimately be a good thing. I would hate to see Eurorack end up in a place where everyone was building the same system filled with the same modules from the same small set of manufacturers.

AZ:  Why did you stop deejaying btw? As you said that many people are “approaching” – I’d even use the phrase “jumping on” – modulars as first steps, don’t you think that something similar would happen as it was with deejaying before it exploded?

I stopped DJing when I wrapped up the record label. It had grown from nothing into a small, well-respected underground London label – but it was still basically just a hobby for me, something I did for fun. At that point, to take a label from selling 1000-1500 copies of each release to a level were you were selling 2500-5000 or more, of each release would have meant going full time and turning it into a proper business – and I wasn’t ready to do that then. It wasn’t really until I started Abstract Data that I wanted to get serious about running a business.

Can I see people selling their CDJ1000s and buying Eurorack in the same way that people were supposedly selling their guitars and buying CDJs? Hmmm – nah! I can’t really see Eurorack suddenly becoming trendy or fashionable in the same way that DJing became fashionable, I can’t really see celebrities pretending to wiggle knobs in the same way that they might get up and pretend to mix records. I certainly fucking hope not anyway!!

AZ: I hope it won’t happen either, but there is a bit of a likelihood of that imho..
Really? You think that modular might become trendy or fashionable – that’s very interesting. I guess we’ll see!I can see a situation where someone who, a few years ago, might have started out using a laptop with Ableton and some sample packs, might now look at setting up a small 3U system for doing analogue basslines, or filter sweeps or FX. I think one of the big changes will come from people realising you don’t need an entire wall of modules to make sounds – you can actually start out with a fairly small rig.This is all difficult to predict though – it’s pretty easy to describe a stereotype of a young guy (and it’s mainly guys…) that wants to be a superstar DJ (or a guitar hero) – it’s lot more difficult to describe a stereotype of someone that wants to get into modular.
AZ: You are talking about “basslines” and “filter sweeps” – kind of a starter thing.
I wasn’t really referring to it as a starter thing – more like having one simple element in a track that brings it to life. If your whole rig is a laptop running Ableton – then (IMO), unless you’re an experienced producer, chances are, your tracks are going to sound like that – which for me is not interesting at all. But – if you start adding elements from outside that rig – like analogue hardware for example – your sound will change. It won’t sound so one-dimensional. So, my point was – adding one simple element from a small Eurorack rig can help your productions improve in the same way that replacing just one programmed percussion loop with a really good piece of human playing can have a positive effect on your productions.
AZ: How do you feel about collaborative modules, e.g. SSF-WMD? How would you start a collab with? Or is it already on the way? 🙂

I think collaborations can be a good thing. Most Eurorack companies are small, one-person operations, so finding good people to team up with can be vital. The Abstract Data ADE-32 Octocontroller was the result of a collaboration with Paul Soulsby from Soulsby Synths who also designed the Atmegatron series of synths. He handled all the coding and Firmware development – the project would not have happened without his hard work. That was definitely a collaboration that worked well and I hope we can do more together.

Who else would I work with in Eurorack… I’d have to think about that 😉

AZ:  Do you think your Octocontroller module as a kind of message to the users: “hey, do something more comlpex already with modulars!”
Abstract Data – ADE-32 Octocontroller

Designing the Octocontroller was about solving a problem. In Eurorack, one of the challenges is getting multiple modulation sources running in sync. Even in a small rig, trying to sync 2 or 3 free-running LFOs takes a lot of other modules to set and reset and you still won’t have perfect timing because you’re setting the tempo of the LFO’s by hand. So – the current option is to slave your modular to a computer – which I have no interest in. I don’t want a computer as part of my music making process anymore.

The Octocontroller, gives you a solid toolbox of triggering and modulation sources with a load of options for modifying their behaviour and options to sync – or not – in a low HP count module. So – not so much about doing something ‘more complex’ – most of the music I make is actually pretty simple – I guess, it’s about doing ‘as much as you can and pushing your modular as far as you can’.

AZ: Have you already seen some applications of that that were beyond your expectations already?

Yes – all the time. It’s one of the great (and very challenging…) things about being a product designer – especially in the modular environment – that you never really know how people will end up using your products. I love seeing people set up patches using my modules in ways that I would not have thought of.

With the Octocontroller? Yes – a couple of things I’ve seen already is people setting up multiple arpeggios and using one arpeggio to transpose another – you can get these amazing, developing polyrythms going. Another good idea I saw recently was using a S&H Gate output of the Octocontroller, set to the longest Clock Division, then run back into the Ext. Reset – so you get all these weird, psuedo-random Resets – but that are still all in time with every other modulation source. For me – combining multiple output types is where the Octocontroller starts to get really deep and really interesting. 🙂

Analogue Zone: Thanks, I hope you and our users will find a lot of inspiration in our booth!
Come and visit our booth at Budapest Music Expo (Hall A, Booth A7) in Hungary from 02.10. to 04.10. 2015!