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George Mattson Interview

January 2010 via Google Wave by Paul Clark.

Before we get started talking about Mattson Mini Modular, can you tell our readers a little about yourself, specifically your background in electronic music equipment production?

I started learning electronics and music when I was 10 years old. I was one of the youngest Amateur Radio Operators in the US and was learning classical and Flamenco guitar.

In 1968, I overheard a discussion between my father and older brother discussing this new electronic instrument called a synthesizer. It could create sounds similar to conventional instruments, imitate environmental sounds and create sounds never heard before. The concept just called to me. I was already involved in electronics and music, it made sense to dive in.

In 1978, I invented the first "portable, self contained synthesizer that had a neck and was worn utilizing a guitar strap. It was called the Syntar. I formed a company called Performance Music Systems and started producing them in 1980. The term "keytar" hadn't been coined yet.

After two years, I had sold a few and the trend was turning toward polyphonic, digitally controlled systems. The market turned down for the analog instruments and there was no way that I could remain in business.

I closed the company and accepted a job as the keyboard technician for Jefferson Starship. I toured with them for two years, moved my family to Seattle and disappeared into the work force for the next 23 years.

When did you decide to create your company?

In 2006, I was laid off from the fourth job that just folded out from under me. My job prospects and searches usually resulted in statements of "you're over qualified for this job."

I had been lugging around all of my NOS components for the Syntars for the last 25 years and decided to see if I could sell a few to generate some immediate revenue. I sold one to Stephen Jones of Synthwood and one to Jean Michel Jarre'. I was trying to sell one to Matrix of http://matrixsynth.blogspot.com/ and he said that he had plenty of keyboard synths and was really leaning toward purchasing a modular. He asked me which brand I would recommend? I told him "None of them, I'd rather build my own." Matrix responded with three words that changed my future focus. "Why don't you?"

I really didn't have a response. So, I decided to build a system but, go against the tide and design an entirely new format to suck the air out of these systems and design a full blown modular system that was portable.

What kind of electronic musical devices do you produce?

George Mattson: I developed my own format and an entire line of products. At the moment, I have 19 or 20 modules in my catalog and plans for about 9 or 10 new modules in the very near future. After I'm done with the analog modules, I'll be switching gears and start with all of the digital modules that I want to build.

How did you get from an idea to the production line?

Work. A lot of work. Total immersion for a year before I announced the system.

How do you make these modules available to users?

Basically, I just post on Synth-related blogs and work the popular forums.

How happily do different brands of these synthesizer and controller modules play together. Is there a gold standard?

If designed correctly, quite happily. The specifications are clear. Control voltages are typically 0-5VDC, signal levels are +/- 5V or 10V P-P, which is a huge signal for audio generating devices and keyboard control of oscillators has to be 1Volt/octave. The power supplies are either +/- 15VDC or +/-12VDC for some formats but, the signal specs are the same.

There are differences for gate levels. They're either 5V, 10V or 15V. I just designed my systems so that they generate 15V gates and can receive any gate over 3.5V. That allows my systems to be used to control any other system or be controlled by any other system.

What's on the drawing board for future releases?

There's no end. Every time I design a new module, I get the idea for two or more modules. My design and prototyping time has been cut to a minimum just due to the time I need to keep my customers happy.

How easy is it to make the US version sized module as opposed to eurorack?

There's no such beast as US sized. Euro is based off of an old telcom format, The standard huge sizes are all based off of 19"rack specifications and fractions thereof.

It confused me so, I just made all of mine 3.5"x3.5"

Which modules would you suggest for anyone new to modular synthesizers?

I would recommend a case and a power supply to start.

Everything else is dependent on the customers' style, what they envision doing with the system and how they expect to utilize what they do invest in.

People that want to utilize a system like a "normal" synthesizer, I would recommend a MIDI-CV controller and at least one each: Oscillator, Filter, Envelope Generator and a Voltage Controlled Amplifier. That would round out a "standard" voice chain with a method of controlling them with a MIDI keyboard.

Expanding from there, I would recommend a noise generator for creating environmental sounds and a low frequency oscillator to use as a modulation control source.

One aspect that a lot of people forget about is the utility modules. Specifically, modules to combine signals and modules to distribute signals to different destinations. Mixers and buffered multiples fill those needs.

After those criteria are met, there are multitudes of modules that create control voltages either internally or, through an external stimulus such as body movements: breath, finger, foot and hand movements........

As you can see, it can get fairly involved based on the needs and desires of the customer.

What is the biggest system you currently offer?

Once again, it depends entirely on the needs of the customer.

I designed my system to be a true modular. That indicates that no signal is "normalled" internally. The signal flow is entirely dependent on the customer creating the signal flow by utilizing patch cords to connect modules together. Every module can be removed and placed in a different position within the cabinet.

I designed my cabinets to have enough real estate to contain up to twelve modules. That can create a relatively basic, fully functioning modular synthesizer in a cabinet 11" by 15".

The cabinets themselves were designed to be modular. They can interlock to each other to create a modular synthesizer that can fill an entire wall. They were made to expand based on the customers' needs.

The largest system I've created specifically for a customer was a MMMega custom synth for Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins. It was named "Ichabod" under the premise that there will only be one Ichabod. The case was hand made from African Padauk, measured six feet across, four feet high and has the capacity to contain 192 modules. After we determined what to fill into the cabinet, we had about 22 panel spaces left over.

It was well documented on the web. I delivered the system in mid September 2009. Google "Billy Corgan Ichabod" and pages of information returns in the search results. Steven Fortner from Keyboard Magazine contacted me about it, I connected him with Billys' people and it is my understanding that they will be publishing an article in the Jan. or Feb. 2010 issue with Ichabod in it.

Website: www.mattsonminimodular.com