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In 2015: Makers responses to Roland entering the modular market

HannesHannes

In 2015, when Roland first unveiled their Aira Modules and their plans for the System 500, inspired by a Facebook post by Ginko’s Jan Willem, we asked some (mainly small) module makers what they think about this move, about big makers entering the market. This was supposed to be part of a bigger article, a follow-up to Big Fish Little Fish, but unfortunately it never happened.

In the meantime, almost one year later, more mainstream companies and classic synth manufacturers like Moog, Waldorf and Oberheim also joined the Eurorack world, Dave Rossum of E-MU fame unveiled his new modular synth company Rossum Electro-Music and guitar pedal makers like Strymon and Zvex turned their guitar stompboxes into modules. A lot has changed.

It’s even more interesting to read these statements in retrospect. I’d say a lot of what is written here, turned out to be pretty correct, and the rest… well, everything is still pretty fresh, as Davide Macini says below “The next ten years will be really, really interesting!!!

So, without further ado, here’s the statements from 2015!

As usual if you want to share your view on the matter, feel free to leave a comment at the end of the article!

Jan Willem (Ginko Synthese):

Around a week ago I posted my concerns about the exploding eurorack scene on facebook. I never expected to get that many comments on what I wrote! This is my original post:
“I am very doubtful about all new stuff coming on the market for eurorack. In July Roland will release a new line of eurorack modules as well. There are several reasons why I am doubtful. It is great for people to be able to get into the modular world as well. And our community is growing! But the word ”community” means there should be a kind of connectivity between the users. I am afraid the connectivity will decrease and the fun of being part of the community may go away if it grows too big.
On the other hand it may concerns me more than others as an one man company (with amazing help of Mels). Companies like Roland have lots of widespread knowledge and can develop faster and cheaper new modules than boutique builders.
What will the future of eurorack be when the market further explodes?!
Will all these modules be dumped on the market as these companies will produce many more modules than the market can handle?
Are there people starting with modulars because it is a hype, not knowing what they want and selling their setups soon thereafter on marketplaces?
What is our role as small passionate builders in this?”

Let me clarify that my concerns are not intended to be positive or negative. They are just thoughts about what can happen to the eurorack scene as the market is exploding.
I did not post it to criticize the effort Roland is taking to get some great modules on the market. Actually I really like a lot of new modules. And having released the Sampleslicer last year, in a way I still feel like a newcomer as manufacturer on the eurorack market too. The difference in what I can do as small manufacturer compared to companies like Roland is the number of modules produced in one product line. When a company like Roland is entering the eurorack market, their batches will most probably be big and maybe even bigger than the present scene will adopt.

Companies like Roland may want to sell as many modules as possible and attract newbies who are unknowing of what they actually can or want to do with their modular. These people are probably now making music in DAWs like ableton and they may think those big walls of modules and all those cables must sound fatter and must trigger my musical creativity more than ever! My biggest concern is that a lot of those people will be disappointed because a modular has different workflow and has its own character, you have to give it the character yourself. A modular grows with the person and does not have presets. Starting with modulars just because it is a hype does not fit in the way I see a modular as it is a very personal instrument. And I am really curious to see what the future modular noodlers will do with their instruments.

Danjel van Tijn (Intellijel)

There is a hope that having a big company like Roland support the Eurorack format will lead to more awareness in the mainstream music shops and an increase in sales to the boutique  Eurorack manufacturers. 

Eurorack has certainly received a disproportionate amount of attention at events like NAMM and Musikmesse this past couple of years and the large corporations have clearly taken notice. The small boutique companies continue to make daring and innovative products since they have a freedom of operation and product development not usually found in the traditional big corporations.

In the world of electronic music production there is always going to be a limited subset of people who are technically minded enough to want and use modular synthesizers in lieu of the more popular and conventional tools available.  For this reason there is a limit to how large Eurorack will ever grow and why the development of products will always be best suited to the passionate but highly specialized boutique manufacturers who have very personal and direct connections with their users.

Stacy Gaudreau (Hexinverter)

So, Roland has entered the eurorack market! It’s about time! What does this mean for us small manufacturers? Some of us are running for the hills and screaming, it seems. Social media posts about Roland’s bold move have been exploding with flame wars over whether Roland making eurorack products is the sign of the End Times for boutique eurorack module availability, or whether it’s a good thing for users and makers. As a small designer of eurorack modules, I am thrilled to see a legendary company which has largely disappointed synthesists over the past fifteen years place a stake in a format that us “small guys” have believed in since the very beginning. It really validates everything the founding companies like Analogue Solutions, Harvestman and Doepfer have been doing since the start of this modular resurgence.

Roland entering this market is probably not a great thing for absolutely everyone making eurorack. Companies whose business models rely on cloning vintage filters, effects modules and basic synthesizer building blocks will probably be unable to compete with the large-scale manufacturing power and resources of a huge multi-national company like Roland. But this isn’t the end for them! It is just time to adapt or die. If you ask me, the market is already well saturated with vintage filter clones. We have enough 4-pole low-pass filters available to us to select from. We have enough triangle-core VCOs and buffered multiple modules available.

Roland entering the market is good for eurorack. It will drive innovation. It will drive new products and ways to approach modular synthesis. I as a developer am truly excited that they’ve made the leap into our weird little cottage industry, and cannot wait to see all the cool innovations to the eurorack format that come because of it.

Václav Peloušek (Bastl Instruments):

I think that for a big company with years of development behind, such as Roland, making a single modules might be a homework, but still how they approached the task by inviting Malekko into it was very smart. The massive use of faders is really tempting especially.
My opinion on these products as such cannot be complete without seeing the pricing, but most of what they presented (but not all of it !) seems as quite basic modules (but still very well proceeded).
The consequences are something we can already discuss. I think that they will now approach a much larger audience in terms of marketing and sales, which might be good for the eurorack market as such, since there is not much marketing going on at this moment. It would be really interesting to see how everybody (including Roland) deals with the customer support for instance, which I think is really needed when it comes to modular and a wider audience. I think it was just a matter of time when the Eurorack market had to professionalize and I think this is the kick-off.

Girts Ozolins (Erica Synths):

Roland. It depends very much on the price level. I like the fact they have an integrated synth, so those, who are new in modular, can get modular sounding instantly, and afterwards they will start to look for other modules. This could expand modular penetration significantly and all producers may benefit from this. Other modules from Roland – interesting concepts, but for me build quality is huge area of improvement…

Bret Truchan (Microbe Modular):

One of my favorite modules is the HD-Rot. The HD-Rot is a hard drive platter which is spun to generate increasing or decreasing voltages. The font panel, which appears to be made of sheet metal, has no markings on it whatsoever. The circuit board is hand soldered. To order one, I had to email Gijs Gieskes using his Gmail address. There’s something uniquely personal about modular synths.

It’s interesting that there’s so much buzz surrounding Roland’s return to the modular format. The synth community seems concerned that larger manufacturers like Roland might push out the smaller, boutique manufacturers.  However, we have an ecosystem where manufacturers really need each other.  The diversity of modules make them more attractive to consumers, which in turn helps support all of the manufacturers. If manufacturers continue to play nice together, I think it will only strengthen the market – but that’s a big “if”!

Some people seemed disappointed with Roland’s Aira modular line.  I’m not at all!  I think that they look awesome!  Plenty of CV controls, handsome front panels, good build quality (from what I can tell)… yes please!

Matthew Heins (HackMe Electronics):

As far as Roland entering the market, I see at as a generally positive development. For me personally, the impact can only really be positive. I
don’t sell anything which is directly competitive with Roland’s new 
offerings. Roland joining Eurorack is validation that the market is growing
and has massive room for growth. Once a new user buys some of Roland’s gear, they will need to buy other modules to interact with it and they’ll be ringing my digital doorbell. Eurorack is a disease for which there is no known cure. Once bitten, users tend to return for more sustenance, buying more modules to build a truly unique and personally configured instrument.

One-man operations like Hackme Electronics and others like it will continue to innovate at breakneck speed. Roland, or any other major manufacturer, will never be able to keep up. Compared with the mechanical engineering required to make a new desktop synthesizer or tabletop device, the costs to develop a Eurorack module are incredibly low. This has had a democratizing effect, as you can see with the hundred or so manufacturers producing modules today. Roland can’t do anything to change that. If Roland comes out with a VectrAira tomorrow, I’ll make something else. My plan is to keep on hustling and making devices that make me happy. Plus: Those Aira things are hideous. Who the hell signed off on that hot mess?

Davide Mancini (Soundmachines):

It’s a big opportunity to propel the awareness of the instruments and the growth of the market. In any case, it’s something that was bound to happen soon!!! 

On a ‘threat-related’ point of view, which has to be considered as well, this will raise the bar (though not immediately) in terms of quality, safety standards and economics. This will probably have most impact on small manufacturers of ‘vanilla’ modules. I don’t see a big threat to the most innovative and ‘peculiar’ modules and/or companies, the big guys will be more than cautious to enter this sub-sub-niche! 

The next ten years will be really, really interesting!!!

Graphic designer, illustrator and modular synth enthusiast. Founder of Papernoise, a small design studio located in northern Italy, specialised in graphic design for the world of music.

Comments 1
  • Adam Jones
    Posted on

    Adam Jones Adam Jones

    Reply Author

    You know comming from a guitar noddeling background, i must say that i find the modular market and guitar pedal market similar. Roland (Boss) make guitar pedals but that doesnt stop many boutique pedal makers making quality pedals and charging a premium or what they are worth.

    I think the two markets are driven by passionate sonic explorers searching for new exciting tones and sounds. That is the creative geniuses making the products and the end users.. they are both broke usually.

    I have added a bitraiser to my collection of modules and its actually awsome in terms of functionality and build. But my next purchase will be a mutable instruments braids simply because it offers alot of room to explore the new. I dont think anyone will stop being attracted to what excites them and it doesnt matter who makes it when desire / gear lust takes hold. If its good the masses will flock. If its vanilla then it will fizzle out.
    If Roland / Boss do manage to produce a good pedal it has its place in the market but there has always been exciting boutique manufacturers poping up and changing the landscape…regardless