It only makes sense that with a renewed interest in analog synthesis, modular synths would make a comeback. However, rather than the hulking beasts Keith Emerson tortured on stage, or pampered studio dwellers, like TONTO, the new Eurorack style systems are lightweight, portable and powerful, owing to the inclusion of modern technology, compact circuitry, and new ideas. Tony Rolando and Kelly Kelbel run Make Noise, a modular synth company in Ashville, North Carolina.
Kelly told me that you learned electronics on your own.
Tony: I'm completely self-taught. About ten years ago I went to the library and dug up every book I could find on analog circuit design. I wanted to know how synthesizers worked. I started trying to build stuff. Most of it didn't work immediately, but eventually I figured it out.
What first got you interested in synthesizers?
Tony: I've just always been interested in them. One of the first times I saw a modular was around '94, when Jim O'Rourke walked into a club in Chicago with a suitcase, took off the lid, patched some modules together, and did a set. Looking back I think it was an early Doepfer P6, but I didn't know anything at the time. It was really hard to find out about modulars, because the Internet wasn't completely in place yet. The second time was in New York City. A guy walked into a music shop, trying to trade in a basic, two row Doepfer system. They didn't want it, and he walked out. I considered following him and trying to offer him some money, but I had no idea how much it was worth.
Kelly: Tony started building drone boxes in New York. The first thing he got paid for was around 2002, when he made a light-controlled audio mixer, which was part of an art installation for Simon Lee. 1,000 pinhole cameras inside of a bus.
Tony: The pinholes were set up, as if the bus was the camera body, and you were inside, so as you rode through Manhattan, literally thousands of [moving] images being beamed into it.
A rolling camera obscura?
Tony: Exactly. He had hired musicians to compose a soundtrack for the ride. The visuals were dependent on the weather, time of day, and route. He wanted the soundtrack to be changeable, depending on the environment. The mixer had light sensors on the outside of the bus. The light would control the levels of individual tracks. Essentially, the tracks were being remixed by the bus ride.
So from there, what was your first job in this field?
Tony: Moog Music. We went to Asheville to visit some friends, and the Citizen-Times headline was that Bob Moog had passed away. Kelly thought they might need some people, and encouraged me to call. They said they might be hiring, and we arranged an interview. They just put me in a room with a schematic, pointed at stuff, and asked me what it was. It was pretty simple. They just wanted to see if I knew anything at all. I passed the test, so they gave me the job. I learned a lot about building electronic instruments there.
What was your job there?
Tony: Moog was still really small. The Little Phatty hadn't come out yet. I did warranty work and service for stuff that failed right off the production line. I ran the Voyager quality control line for quite a while. There were only 20 people there back then. People had many jobs, so I even worked in shipping every once in a while. Moog was just a warehouse at the time. There were a couple of windows in the front, but once you got inside, there was no sign of daylight! I worked there for about three years. The current space is really beautiful, with big windows.
Kelly: Everybody's got to start somewhere. The last Make Noise space was 400 square feet with really weird carpet and one window. It was really stuffy, and we were all on top of each other. We were only there for a few months.
While you were with Moog, were you developing what would ultimately become Make Noise?
Tony: Not really. I was building stuff for myself, and sometimes for musicians around town. They'd bring me some old stompbox so I could add an expression input or something. Sometimes people brought me old Moogs to fix, which was funny. New Moogs don't really have anything to do with the old ones. New analog electronics are very different than how they did it in the '70s and...