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Synth City, Part 2 of 2

Chris Randall of Audio Damage talks about the March 5, 2016, Sync 01 event at Codeword in San Francisco.

By Marc Weidenbaum

Sync 01 is the name of an event, due to be held at Codeword in San Francisco on March 5, celebrating modular synthesizers, with an emphasis on the Eurorack format. The featured manufacturers will include Audio Damage, WMD, Dave Smith Instruments, Rossum Electro-Music, Roger Linn, Makenoise, Toppobrillo, Mordax, Industrial Music Electronics (formerly The Harvestman), Blue Lantern, Noise Engineering, 4MS, Synthrotek, and Percussa. Featured retailers include Robotspeak and I/O Music Technology. And there will be four performers: Rodent, Bana Haffar, James Cigler, and Tyler Thompson. Sync 01 was organized by Audio Damage’s Chris Randall, whom I interviewed via email for an article at 48hills.org. Below is the full transcript, lightly edited, of the interview:

Marc Weidenbaum: How did Sync 01 come together?

Chris Randall: I was thinking about having an Audio Damage clinic at one of our retail partners in the Bay Area, since your city is one of the main loci of experimental music (and thus our customer base). The opportunity presented itself, through the good graces of the owner of Codeword / DNA, to have an event with a somewhat larger scope, and it just kind of fell in to place. All of the boutique synth manufacturers in the Western US are fairly friendly with one another, and these sorts of events are a very good promotional opportunity for us, so it’s not a complicated thing to put together.

It’s worth noting that, as experimental and boutique synth makers, we don’t really have anywhere to advertise, and our products aren’t in every Guitar Center in the country. These sorts of events are how we connect with the users, so we’re always looking for ways to make them happen.

Weidenbaum: It’s Sync 01. Is Sync 02 also going to be in San Francisco, or are you taking this medicine show on the road?

Randall: We’ll see how the first one plays out. My intention is to make it a going concern, but I haven’t really sat down and thought about the potential scope of it yet. The Midwest has a very large boutique synth show every year in the fall, and I think there’s a need for one on the West Coast as well. At the risk of sounding remarkably self-absorbed, I simply can’t bring myself to actually pay money to go to Schaumburg, Illinois. I’d very much rather spend my time in San Francisco, since it’s much closer and isn’t Schaumburg, Illinois. As to whether I could justify doing it elsewhere, well, that remains to be seen.

Weidenbaum: That’s pretty great to have Roger Linn and Dave Smith Instruments involved. Were there any San Francisco Bay Area must-haves you didn’t manage to convince to participate?

Randall: I wanted to get Dave Rossum to come, of course, and I was very pleased when he decided to attend. While he’s obviously part of the pantheon of great synth builders, he’s new to our little Eurorack market, and it’s great that he’s involved and engaged. So Roger and the two Daves were at the top of my wish list. I actually had to turn away a couple small manufacturers, which really pained me, but this quickly grew to fill the available space, and I don’t want to bite off more than I can chew.

Weidenbaum: For an unfamiliar audience, could you characterize some of the smaller firms who will be participating?

Randall: Well, I think the over-riding commonality among the companies participating is that, with the obvious exception of Dave Smith Instruments, they’re all one- and two-man shops. That’s par for the course in boutique musical instrument companies. My point being that “smaller”is a hazy term. I mean, there are hundreds of thousands of instruments out in the world with Roger Linn’s name on them, but he doesn’t have any more employees than Audio Damage does. Ditto for Dave Rossum.

Weidenbaum: Could you talk a bit about the first modules you developed, and how it used different parts of your brain than software or composing or performing had previously?

Randall: While my business partner Adam Schabtach (who is the coding half of the company) tried to warn me about the pains of hardware development, I didn’t internalize it. The designs themselves were actually fairly easy, since we initially decided on a platform, then figured out what code we could shove in it from our existing stockpile. What I wasn’t prepared for, at all, was how long everything takes. I was used to having an idea for a plug-in on Monday, and having a more-or-less working prototype, or at least a functional design, on Friday. This is the same, except add three months. So my desire for immediacy, which is easy to satisfy in music-making, and relatively easy in plug-in making, was soundly thrashed when it came to hardware.

We now have a beautiful and (for hardware) extremely fast prototyping system in place with the help of William Mathewson of WMD, and our digital platforms are designed by Eric Brombaugh to allow that rapid prototyping, so we’re nearly back to plug-in speed. At least for the prototypes. When it comes to actually shipping a product, add three months. Still.

Weidenbaum: Did you have significant hardware-design experience before making your early Audio Damage modules?

Randall: None at all. Adam had built a huge modular synth, and is quite handy with electronics. My hardware knowledge largely consists of knowing that you shouldn’t pick up the hot end of a soldering iron, and I didn’t have the vaguest notion of the logistics of manufacturing. So much of this has been on-the-job training for me. But then again, I’d never touched 3D Studio Max or written a line of code before I started designing products and user interfaces, and I didn’t have a single minute of musical training before I decided to be a performing musician, and I did okay at those things. I’m a quick study, and the one thing common to all of these careers I’ve had is that they revolve around my main skill set: working through a problem to its obvious solution, not being afraid to ask for help, and having an intense desire to reach that solution. The only thing that changes is the definition of “problem.”Whether it’s putting together an event like Sync 01, recording an album, shipping a piece of software, or shipping a piece of hardware, the process is always the same: get the right people together working on the same goal, and if that goal is worthy, the solution will present itself.

Weidenbaum: Just for a broader sense of your musical experience here, are there clubs — existing or long gone — you use to play at here that you have formative memories from?

Randall: We played the Trocadero a few times; I don’t recall if Sister Machine Gun ever headlined there or not; I feel like we did, but I can’t be certain. There was a venue in Palo Alto called The Edge where I have some really great memories. It was a large Quonset hut, wasn’t it? I fell off the front of the stage there once while playing guitar. Landed on my feet and didn’t miss a note. However, DNA Lounge is, and has always been, the best venue in San Francisco.

Weidenbaum: My favorite Audio Damage plugin is Automaton. Any chance that’ll be a module someday?

Randall: While it seems like a fairly simple plug-in, translating it to hardware would be a real bear. There’s a lot going on under the hood that would be difficult to do in an embedded context. However, rest assured that it’s on my wish list. When I bring it up, Adam gives me the side-eye, but I’ll get my way.

Weidenbaum: Is there a house rule, an overarching approach, that you could use to describe Audio Damage’s approach to modules?

Randall: First and foremost, a potential product has to be something either Adam or I (or ideally both of us) wants to use. We very rarely (never?) do something just so it will generate income. This is probably not the wisest business practice, but it works for us. When one of us has an idea, he has to be able to make a convincing case to the other that it is a viable expenditure of resources, and at the end of the process, it’ll be something that one or both of us needs to make our own music.

The other main consideration is more practical: we have a lot of big ideas, but our business model relies on a steady release schedule. So we have to look at any potential product in a return-on-investment light. As in “is this big idea going to take both of us working non-stop for months?”Because if it does, the company will suffer as a result. In general, Adam tends to work on the bigger, more long-term products, specifically products that generate a lot of intellectual property, while I tend to work on smaller products that utilize subsets of that generated IP. For example, while he was making Sequencer 1, I was working with Eric to design our ad-ab-03 platform, with which we’re able to make multiple small products utilizing existing code (basically all of our current line except for Sequencer 1).

Weidenbaum: What was your own education about using modular synthesizer? How long was there between your using the technology and your making the technology?

Randall: At the end of the day, synthesis, sound design, and production are synthesis, sound design, and production, whether you use a hardware workstation, a stack of vintage synths, a modular synthesizer, a computer, or any combination thereof. I’ve been comfortable with that world for 30 years now, and don’t draw any particular demarcation between the tools. Like most people my age that have been in this business their whole lives, the first patchable synth I had experience with was an ARP 2600. The first large modular synth I owned came much later, a Frac-Rack system from Blacet. I got rid of that a few years ago and switched to Eurorack.

To actually answer your question with hard numbers, I believe my first fondling of a patchable synth was in 1987, and our first modules were released at the end of 2012, so 25 years.

Weidenbaum: When you hear music made by someone else with your modules, does it ever feel — to the musician part of your brain/identity — like you’ve been sampled, like you have some partial authorship of the music?

Randall: It doesn’t feel like I’ve been “sampled,”per se. When you’re a tool-maker, the ultimate joy isn’t in making the tools, but experiencing the creations made with those tools. Yes, I do feel like I had a hand in it, though. The first time it happened, I was watching a movie, and I heard what sounded like one of our plug-ins, plain as day, in the score. I immediately paused the movie, found out who the composer was, and checked our database to discover that yes, he had purchased that very plug-in. (To answer the obvious follow-up, it was Man on Fire, with Harry Gregson-Williams.)

That was a satisfying experience, and I’d say that it was a similar experience to hearing one of my songs on the radio for the first time, or the first time one of my videos played on MTV. (Back when they actually played videos.) But that’s our goal: making things that help people make music. When that lofty event actually occurs, we can’t help but be happy about it.

Read more about Sync 01 at 48hills.org.

Tag: / Comment: 1 ]

One Comment

  1. [ Posted March 1, 2016, at 4:13 am ]

    I enjoyed that, thanks very much! I’m a big fan of Chris’s work.

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