Scott Jaeger Interview

By Paul Clark via Google Wave, February 2010.

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

I was born into brotherhood with a pair of hairfarmers - thrash is in my blood. The younger of the two (drummer) was gifted with a Casio SK-1 and some Synsonics drums in late 1986. That was my first hands-on encounter with electronically generated sounds. As he reached adulthood and moved off to Hollywood to do his thing, I became the caretaker of the SK-1. I really enjoyed the strange synthesized tones, drum patterns, and demonstration song. I soon graduated to putting one of the batteries in backwards when I really wanted to have some fun. Around 1998 I began reading Q. Reed Ghazala's text about modifying the instrument and that inspired my efforts in equipment design.

Around then I had been listening more closely to the music around me, and drifted towards densely layered compositions with abrasive aesthetics. I guess the gateway into investigating what made the sounds I heard was equal parts "Mirror Saw" and "Screaming Slave". I did a lot of work on electronic music from 1996 onward, but didn't really feel good about my technique until I began using circuit-bent SK-1s, pedals in feedback loops, and modular synthesizers in that order. I recognized the utilitarian importance of the digital audio workstation and sequencer, but I was uncomfortable pursuing instrumental competence exclusively as a sequencer jockey or keyboardist. By devolving much of the control from the performer to physics (analog circuits, unstable digital circuitry or feedback network) you're left with the need for as much elbow grease as a guitarist and the same demands of realtime parametric vigilance. I didn't feel that way when trying to interface with a synthesizer engine whose primary input method was an organ keyboard, its voice architecture presuming keyboard event data as the supreme sound agitator, and the rest of the bloated enclosure full of sailboat fuel.

I purchased my first modular system (a small Doepfer unit) following a year of academic work on Moog and ARP systems. Remembering the raw ambition and boundless hardship that led to Bobby Beausoleil's instrument designs for his "Lucifer Rising" soundtrack, I taught myself the basic skills necessary to construct digital audio systems and designed a bitcrusher effect that became the Malgorithm. At the time, the strangeness present in the Doepfer/Eurorack format was just starting to emerge with the efforts of the EAR Consortium/Livewire and Doepfer's Buchla-inspired digital modules. I wanted to augment the sonic capabilities of my instrument but nothing like what I wanted was for sale, so I began designing my own.

My small collection of modules was used for improvised music performance while I lived in Chicago, mostly with a jazz/noise ensemble named Backgammon. My experiences in performing with the gear influenced functional upgrades on my own designs, system-level layout geometries, and of course ideas for new module designs. I wish I'd had some of 2009's modules and enclosures back then. Especially joysticks and touchplates, other devices of maximum functional density, and my two digital oscillator designs.

The brother that gave me the SK-1 now assists with the production of the modules, mostly russian suboctave generators and Stilton Adaptors, built by hand.

When did you decide to create The Harvestman?

I started design work in summer 2006 and made an academic thesis out of several early designs. After getting out of there in 2007, I was building small numbers of these devices on a custom basis with no business motivation whatsoever. Some overwhelming persuasion from my US Distributor convinced me to revise the Malgorithm design for easier construction, and start supplying him with devices. Soon after that I arrived at an agreement to license the Polivoks filter design from Russia, and I found a very receptive audience. That was all the support I needed to continue development of newer devices.

What kind of electronic musical devices do you produce?

Most of my composition, performance, and recreational listening of predominantly electronic work these days can be vaguely organized in the direction of industrial, power electronics, dark ambient, and other degenerate methods of low art enforcement. I make my devices able to reach the sonic extremes that these forms of performance demand, but of course they are appropriate for any application of voltage-controlled synthesizer module.

My "company's" tagline is "digital audio electronics" because I have the naïve belief that "digital" will one day stop being a dirty word when it comes to music synthesizers. Unimaginable cultural damage has been done to a generation of upcoming electronic musicians who grew up believing analog supremacy fantasies told by marketers and some really disinformative artist interviews. Towards the end of the 1990s it felt almost like it had reached the point of tone-quester superstition and meanderings of tool worship. Personally, I feel that no one method of signal processing can fully replace others, and it is the responsibility of the electronic instrumentalist to assemble a vocabulary of tools and technique appropriate to their desired level of versatility instead of having it dictated to them by a shallow marketplace of small variations on the same old thing. Fortunately the boutique instrument scene has grown to a huge size in recent years, so a bunch of sickos can provide instrumentation to disband interface tradition without seeking consensus approval, and electronic music performers can have ready access to these devices without having to suspend their artistic activity to build it themselves. A modular synthesizer able to accept subassemblies from a number of different designers, in a totally custom configuration is a great example of power regression from market to artist.

I really don't care about how the sound is generated or processed, just about my ability to interact with its behavior. To me, "digital" doesn't mean a single data slider and contempt for your market. It's more about the possibilities of strange and interesting sounds that can be reached by computation, nothing to do with the user interface at all. Digital devices are at the core of my design effort. So, I tag all my product as "digital audio electronics" even though many of the designs contain no digital circuitry whatsoever (the Polivoks filter, some utility devices, and my range of "feedback console" mixers and amplifiers).

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

Sometimes I get ideas of things I need to perform in a new direction while I'm actually playing music with the devices. That feels good and usually has satisfactory results. I don't engineer for convenience. Other times, I get ideas while doing unrelated activities, and sometimes a name pops into my head and I am compelled to design appropriate musical circuitry. The digital designs require extensive programming sessions. My production process is fairly mundane compared to the design stage, mostly consisting of simple and repetitive mechanical tasks.

Can you show us what the circuit board design looks like and give us an overview of what we're looking at?

The Harvestman PCB

I prefer red solder mask with 0805-size passives and thru-hole headers, 12mm potentiometers, all mechanical components vertically mounted to the circuit board. Until mid-2009 I never made a silkscreen layer or an exclusively thru-hole layout.

How do you make these modules available to users?

That's the business of my few dealers and distributors, I prefer to focus on design and manufacturing. They operate retail and mailorder sales better than I could ever do. They order lots of modules, I spend a few weeks getting them manufactured and calibrated, I ship them a big box, and then I figure out what to do next. I'd have to hire someone if I was responsible for mailing every single package out to end users and that's just not a smart use of business resources at this time.

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

Well enough. I can imagine very few instances where you could destroy a modern modular design through ill-informed cross patching with other equipment. There are some mismatches in signal levels, trigger polarity, power supply voltages, and so on, but I think the hassle of dealing with these differences in action is an important part of the creative process. Right now I'm having a hard time deciding which is a greater threat to art: consensus or convenience.

What's on the drawing board for future releases?

I am completing the Feedback Console with a quad VCA/envelope follower named "Homicide Censor".

I am also working on some small, inexpensive DSP effects, as well as a large and fully featured granular processor.

The cooperation with Vladimir Kuzmin will continue with the impending release of his suboctave circuit, and later the Polivoks oscillator.

Very soon I will release a small set of tools for modular percussion work, both in trigger processing and sound generation.

I will be busy for a while, but much of the product line has moved to factory production so I am able to spend more time making music and designing devices.

Website: The Harvestman

Facebook: industrialmusicelectronics