If you read our Eurorack 101 article, you may remember we promised an interview with Girts Ozolins, the man behind Erica Synths. We got in touch with him: here’s what he told us.
Horizontalpitch: I understand you started with do it yourself electronics. Now, you’re offering an interesting selection of erica synths DIY modules. How do you reckon DIY influenced you and how will it influence your company in the coming years?
Girts Ozolins: Back in mid 80’s in my small village’s primary school library I “borrowed” a book called something like “Junij Radiolubitjel” (Young radio amateur), and started experiments with all kind of simple electronics. Those involved extracting parts from disposed TV sets (there were no DIY electronic suppliers), installing AM antennas on the roof, wrapping transformer coils to get 250V anode voltage for vacuum tubes, etc. In secondary school I started experiments with all kind of music instruments, but when I started my studies at the University, I focused on other, as I thought back then, more exciting stuff. On January 2011 I accidentally came across the Music From Outer Space website, and it began again… And I was amazed about size of DIY community worldwide!
Basically, today you can find a DIY version of virtually any classical synth or at least a module based on some part of it. And within 3-4 years I built A LOT of them. But then, I realized that there’s one synth which hadn’t been DIYed yet – it’s the Polivoks! I had access to original Russian parts – ICs and transistors. Initially it looked like there were unlimited supplies, but they run out in a couple of months. Then, a kind of miracle happened – it appeared that here in Riga, in an ex-USSR military factory, they still produce original ICs – exactly those that were used in Polivoks! So, our DIY line philosophy is to make that technology available worldwide. I believe that any DIY, especially with musical instruments is one of most meaningful hobbies, and we’ll keep DIY in stock, as long the company will exist. Also for nostalgic reasons.
HP: Looking at your modules, especially newer ones, I see attention to both form and function. What does design mean to you? What’s the design process behind an Erica Synths module?
GO: I believe that any interaction in the world has to be pleasurable. Therefore I want our products be both good looking and intuitive to use. Meaning, I don’t want to read 100 pages in the user manual and afterwards recall exactly what page 32 said: I want all controls logically placed, prioritized, so that I subconsciously can access any function. Plug and play! Somehow I have developed a skill to tell instantly what can be improved in any device or service around or what is fundamentally missing. On graphic design, I have friends who are great designers in advertising agencies, but industrial design is a chance to make something lasting. Erica Black series was collaboration between Erica Synths and Ineta from www.carredesign.lv, and Graphic series with pixel artist Inese Verina.
HP: Is there something you would like to tell us about your new products?
GO: We are developing modules that really make a difference. This could be from the perspective of electronic engineering, functionality or a way how modular synths are played. All modules are designed from scratch, and use solutions not seen before. Black series is really Hi-Fi – every detail is thought through, inputs and outputs are protected against overloads, etc. Schematics of Black series are designed by a friend of mine, genius engineer and musician/composer in one person. We wanted to develop the ultimate quality modules. Also we sacrificed module width in favor of usability – I wanted them to be easy to operate and intuitive. Big knobs really make a difference in sound. Matrix Mixer fundamentally changes the way modular synths are played and how patches are put together. Having patch and performance memory makes modulars more controllable without having a laptop connected to it.
HP: On one side you come up with some really advanced stuff like the graphic VCO, where you can draw your own waveforms, on the other you make some classic analog type of modules. Where would you go if you had to choose just one thing?
GO: I’m always for innovations. Both analogue modules and digital modules are really advanced stuff, and both have innovative, unseen before solutions. Honestly, there is no “classic”, if by that you mean updated clones of classic synths. I believe the entire modular philosophy is about experiments, creativity and new ways of creating music, therefore I’d choose the modules that support the above. But those are found in all Erica Synths series.
HP: What’s your favourite erica synths module?
GO: This question is something like “which of your children you love most?” J But, still – the Matrix Mixer is really special for me. Some say it’s a game-changer, because it really helps to design live modular performances and stores in memory your hours spent patching. But also the idea of the Matrix Mixer, which came to my mind some 3 years ago, in great deal, it was the idea that led to establishing Erica Synths. Besides, it took lot of time in experiments and prototyping – Matrix Mixer has really advanced technologies inside and development continues to make it even more sophisticated.
HP: What’s your favourite module from other companies?
GO: I do not have much modules from other companies (I have made tons of DIY projects from other producers, and consider it something like in depth market research), but, from those I have, the Make Noise Echophon is really great because of its experimental nature. And the O’Tool oscilloscope is almost a must have module in any system even if it doesn’t make any sound itself.
HP: In a recent interview Dieter Doepfer said he doesn’t have a modular synth at home. Do you? (In case you do, do you play with it? Portable or monster-case? Would you care to talk about it?)
GO: Of course, I do! As mostly I do assembly of prototypes and all experiments at home, time by time my bedroom turns into something like the lab of an insane scientist who’s about to invent a time machine. Then I bring some stuff to the office. But when I began building DIY modulars, I was experimenting with all possible standard and non-standard formats, voltage supplies, etc. in DIY cases, which were more on the “monster” side. Once I was invited to perform live at an electronic music festival and 2 hours before the performance it appeared that I can’t fit my pre-patched modular into my car. I had to borrow a bus from a friend of mine. Maybe that was what gave me the idea of standardizing modules, and ultimately starting production of transformable eurorack cases. Our cases can be easily configured in almost any size and usage specifics.
HP: What would you say “playing a modular” actually means?
GO: It depends on what kind of person are you and what (english have this strange saying) you do for a living. Some try to play techno, some drones, some something experimental, some just enjoy experimenting with modular instead of watching another TV series. Generally I believe that modulars develop cognitive skills that are important ant any age. 😀 It’s very much about creativity, imagination, experimenting and making music available and understandable for those who maybe previously, with conventional musical instruments, had nothing to do with music. I’m not a musician and at the moment I do not have much time to actually play a modular. Actually, I realized I do something like alchemists did – over the last two years in modular music experiments I’m trying to come up with something like the ideal/ultimate modular setup. And that gives looooooots of new ideas for new modules.
HP: I you were forced to doing something else in your life that is not designing modules, what would you do?
GO: I am not forced to do something else, I am actually doing. I can quote one of all-time greatest copies from Playstation ad “Double Life”:
“For years I’ve lived a double life.
In the day I do my job,
I ride the bus,
Roll up my sleeves with the hoi polloi.
But at night I live a life of exhilaration,
Of missed heartbeats and adrenaline,
And, if the truth be known,
A life of dubious virtue.”
I’m managing director and strategist in one of largest advertising agencies in Latvia – IDEA, I teach marketing and advertising at a University and run seminars on creativity and innovations. Erica Synths is what I do at night. But I have decided to quit advertising this year. I used to be a Physics and Math teacher back in the early 90’s, and I believe being a teacher is the most meaningful profession in the world, good teachers can and do show the path of life to students. So, I’ll focus on Erica Synths in daytime and continue teaching.
HP: What’s your favourite colour?
GO: 😀 teenagers have favorite colors. I think, some colors are more relevant for specific purposes than other. Time by time together with one of my friends I build a motorcycle (I’ve built 5 motorcycles over last 20 years); last year we built Erica bike, and this spring there will be Erica bike MarkII. And here I 100% agree with Henry Ford, who said: “Any customer can have a car (or a motorcycle in my case) painted any color he wants as long as it’s black.” This also works with our synth design. Black stands out in modulars. But I do not, for example, wear black much.
HP: Imagine being handed over the keys of a time machine. What would you do?
GO: We need to think in both terms of time and space. When some invented gunpowder, others hadn’t seen a wheel, yet. The same was true when the first man stepped on the Moon. I like the end of the 19th century/beginning of the 20th for the rapid innovations and the 60’s for fundamental changes in society. But I like it here, and, as reality is very much about our individual perception, not so much outside conditions.