Let’s admit it: today there’s such a wide selection of Eurorack modules that it can be anything to anyone.
Subtractive synthesis? Check! Digital clangor? Check! Ratcheting sequences? You guessed it…
And for those like me who start dribbling at the sound of ringing low-pass gates, there are a few names that come to mind. After the interview with Mark Verbos and Andreas and Moritz of Endorphin.es, it’s time to strike some vactrols with Tony Rolando, founder of Make Noise.
Horizontalpitch: Imagine you’re talking to someone who’s new to modulars. How would you explain what’s Make Noise?
Tony Rolando: I usually describe what we do as a merging of science and music… I inform the person that the instrument we produce will make no sound when you take it out of the box and power it up, that the artist must define not only the musical notes but also the entire signal path of the instrument. If the person is still feigning interest I might discuss how using a modular synthesizer is a collaboration of human and machine… that the machine is highly capable of being guided, but must also be allowed some freedom… and so on, until the person either hides from me or ask how to find Make Noise.
HP: What’s West Coast to you? Can you define the impact it has on Make Noise modules?
TR: For me, West Coast was Barry Schrader, Morton Subotnick, Pauline Oliveros, Terry Riley… the San Francisco Tape Music Center… and then most important to this conversation Don Buchla and his 200 series modular synthesizer, which several of the above mentioned artist utilized. However, Suzanne Ciani was using the Buchla 200 series instrument to great ends on the EAST COAST haha. Sometimes I feel the West Coast/ East Coast thing is just a convenient and simple tag for a movement in music composition and technology that was quite complex and reaching far beyond a single coast.
HP: I heard you used to work for Moog…now you’re making some of the most West Coast inspired modules. Is there something that can be traced back to that experience?
TR: True I did work for Moog… at times I’m trying to merge the coasts West, East and Far East. Take the DPO for example, where VCO B is clearly taking great inspiration from Buchla’s 259 Complex Oscillator, VCO A implements oscillator SYNC a functionality that was greatly utilized by Moog in the Voyager and other Moog instruments. I found such inspiration from Grant Richter, founder of Wiard Synthesizers. I always liked how he described his Borg filter as a Buchla model 292 + kORG ms-20 = BORG… he told me the idea for the circuit and the BORG name came to him in a dream where he was at a party with Don Buchla and a designer from Korg, at least that’s what I recall.
HP: You started Make Noise in 2008. A lot of things changed: what’s your perspective on this?
TR: When I founded Make Noise, there was not much of a market for modular synthesizers. That’s why the larger, established companies where not interested in it and nobody offered to invest in, or partner with me to do Make Noise. In fact I could barely find an accountant and only two shops, Analogue Haven and Schneiders Buero, would carry the products! I had some ideas, and I wanted to implement them, so I came up with a name and a logo and saved some cash in order to do so… today modular has grown into an industry with investors, speculators, partnerships and some big business interests. People are now highly interested in what we are doing, where even just 4 yrs ago some of those same people that told me modular was “…just too complicated and un-musical…” to ever be of interest to most musicians. I feel that Make Noise is a leader, not a follower, so all these changes are not something we are reacting to but rather something that we are a part of causing. My goal is to continue to contribute to these sorts of changes by developing innovative, fun musical instruments.
HP: What’s harder: reimagining a classic or coming up with something that’s never been done before?
TR: For me neither is harder, they are both hard, but very different processes. I’ll elaborate below…
HP: What’s the development process like?
TR: When re-imagining a classic, the first step is to actually appreciate the classic that is the source of your inspiration. We must use the classic and get to understand why it is so wonderful. While using it, I immediately start thinking about how it fits into today’s musical processes and more importantly how it could be re-imaginined to inspire future musical processes, and thus the experimentation begins! This is the most enjoyable and frustrating part of the design process!
When designing something that did not previously exist, we start by having conversations with our collaborators. We establish a goal, and then discuss how we could achieve it with the hardware we have available. We must initially prototype the hardware in a very open way in order to accommodate the many ideas we want to try. Often we do not even know what parameters will be useful! After much experimentation we identify some group of parameters that modulate nicely, and work well within a modular system. At this point we are able to move closer to the final hardware revision.
In either case all development cycles end with a great deal of beta testing which typically results in revisions to the design. Eventually the comes a moment where the module feels completed. Sometimes it happens in 3 months other times it takes 3 yrs.
HP: Is there a Make Noise module you’re particularly proud of?
TR: My favorite modules are the René and the DPO. The René is a completely unique approach to a classic modular synthesis composing technique, step sequencing. There is still nothing else quite like it! The DPO is my ode to Don Buchla and his Model 259 Complex Waveform Generator. A decade ago I spent hours staring at photos of that module, wondering what it was like to use it. While designing the DPO, I was lucky enough to spend much time with the 259. Today, even with the progression of DSP based waveform and tone generators, I still feel the analog complex waveform generator is at the very heart of what makes modular synthesis so special and fun.
But honestly, I am most proud of the Black & Gold Shared System. I feel the Shared System has inspired some people and that makes me happy. The Shared System represents Make Noise… one foot in the grave of the past and the other on stairway to the future. The Black & Gold version is just exactly how I always wanted an instrument to look, feel and sound.
HP: What about other manufacturers?
TR: I was quite inspired by the Harvestman to start Make Noise.
HP: Is there a module you’d bring with you in a very tight case?
TR: For pleasure, I play the Shared System almost exclusively these days. I also have the complete Harvestman System and I really enjoy that collection of modules. In the past I’ve kept a 4ms Rotating Clock Divider in my system for use with the René and more recently I think the 4ms QCD works fantastically with the René, however we’ve been developing our CTRLSEL-C clocking module so I’m using that for complex clocking these days.
HP: Regarding the CTRL SEL modules, in some situations, being able to recall a patch could be a game changer: how far can the Eurorack standard be pushed?
TR: I don’t think total patch recall is actually possible, and even if it were I think it could destroy the spontaneous creativity that modular synthesis practically bleeds. A modular synth with presets might create the opportunity for people to pretend to play modular, and that would be upsetting.
I do think we could produce modules that have some form of memory allowing for deeper programmability by the user. If these modules could talk to each other to synchronize events in some way, that too could be useful. This is what the CTRLSEL series is exploring. It has been a very long development cycle and the only thing I know is that we will not release them until I am 100% happy with both the interface and functionality of those modules.
HP: You were among the first manufacturers to offer complete systems. Where do you reckon self contained systems stand right now?
TR: Our systems are very attractive to some people, but most folks want to build a system themselves, which is fine so long as they actually plan the system. I often see systems containing all the latest popular modules, unfortunately that often does not make a fantasticly playable instrument.
We spent a good deal of time planning our systems. We built them, tested them and made music with them to be certain they are a good combination of modules. Yo could even use them as starting points, subbing modules of similar functionality from other manufacturers, in order to get some basic and functional system together.
HP: Here at Horizontalpitch we’re big fans of music made with modulars. Is the shared system the spark that made Make Noise Records happen or was it the other way round?
TR: The Shared System was created for the purpose of producing the record series. The idea was to have several artist create compositions using the same instrument in an effort to exhibit the unique qualities of the artists involved. In other words, to show how electronic music is voiced by the artist more then the machine. I suppose it was a project of human vanity!
HP: What’s running a music label like?
TR: For us it is a very slow process… Surachai has joked that the MNR motto is “… we’ll get to it…” and that is true, it does take a back seat to nearly everything else we do at Make Noise. I’m not sure we are running a record label as much as we are just making some records when we are able to do it, with artists that we feel a connection to.
It is very rewarding to work with artists and to be in some way a part of the production of art. I love all of the recordings, the artwork for the covers and the printing of the record covers. I even love the record label design. So it feels very good to hold these records in my hand, put them on a platter and play them.
HP: What’s the modular scene like in your area?
TR: The modular scene is Make Noise. We’ve hired almost everybody in Asheville that has passion for modular synthesizers
HP: In a recent interview, Dieter Doepfer said he doesn’t have a modular at home. Do you?
TR: Yes, I have a Black and Gold Shared System at home.
HP: What would you say “playing a modular” actually means?
TR: To many people music is purely a form of emotional release. To many people music is songs about emotions, feelings and playing a musical instrument or singing is an emotional outpouring. The trouble with this is that so often music mimics itself and becomes less an emotional outpouring and more a performance of what people consider emotional behavior. It becomes highly predictable.
What is exciting about playing modular synthesizer is that the mannerisms and techniques have NOT yet been forged, and with efforts they might never be! There is no blue print for what it looks like to play modular synthesizer. We are literally defining and redefining modular synthesis every day now. So I cannot tell you exactly what “playing a modular” means…
HP: Does your musical experience influence the way you design modules?
TR: Absolutely. In fact I feel I need to be making more music in order to continue to progress in my designs. When Make Noise began to grow a few yrs ago I all but stopped making music, as I was working 6 to 7 days a week, 10 to 12 hr days. Now that I have a crew and a business partner, I’m back to making music again, which is a fantastic thing.
HP: What would you do if you were hypothetically forced to find a different job?
TR: Pick up shifts at a nice cocktail lounge, I like mixing drinks. Make coffee, again.
HP: Imagine being handed over the keys of a time machine: what would you do?
TR: I’d head straight for early 1900’s NYC, hoping to get in with a crew of Dada artists.
HP: On a related note, what’s in the future of Make Noise?
TR: We just moved into a new space, and we are all very excited about that, as it holds so much possibility for new ideas and projects. We just released the tELHARMONIC! We are beginning a new project with Tom Erbe.