Scott Rise Interview

February 6, 2010 via Google Wave by Paul Clark.

Before we get started talking about Division 6, can you tell our readers a little about yourself, specifically your background in electronic music equipment production?

I'd have to say that my desire to make electronic music gadgets officially started in 1979 when I was just a wee lad. My big brother George (George Mattson of Mattson Mini Modular) made this crazy contraption called a "Syntar" that you could wear around your neck and run around the room with. It had lots of knobs and blinky lights and made neat noises. After being surrounded by stacks of circuit boards, soldering irons and strange electronic sounds at such an impressionable young age I couldn't help but get hooked.

In high school I got involved in technical theatre. I was especially drawn to the audio side of things, which to this day is often neglected in small theatre. I was never satisfied with playing crummy tapes through the one fuzzy speaker hanging over the stage. I was doing things like building digital surround-sound rigs by hooking the space bars of multiple Mac Classics together. This allowed me to start their media players at the same time and have more than two channels of playback. Theatre has managed to keep my interest for quite some time now. I'm currently tech director at the Bellevue Youth Theatre.

While I was doing my day job as a sound tech, I created a secret night life for myself designing and manufacturing portable game system mods (for frontlight dimming, overclocking, etc.). I've been doing that for several years now, but I didn't start making synthesizer products until 2007. George was working on the MMM and muttering that he wished he could find a MIDI to CV converter that did this and did that and could be incorporated into his power supply module easily. As he was muttering I was thinking to myself "I could totally build that". I built it, he liked it, and that started my career as a synth manufacturer.

When did you decide to create Division 6?

Division 6 has been around since 1998. What's a "Division 6" you ask? At the time I started the business I had all kinds of things I wanted to do (IT work, web design, electronics manufacturing, show-control systems, etc.) So, I picked a technical-sounding but non-descript name that didn't lock me into one particular product or service. Imagine buying your synth products from "Scott's Roofing and Cheese Supply" or something.

What kind of electronic musical devices do you produce?

Well, there's the MMM MIDI to CV converter I mentioned previously.

I also produce a tiny board called "Midify" that is primarily designed to add a MIDI In port to your Nintendo Game Boy or DS, but it can also be used to add MIDI control to just about anything (I hear you can even microwave corn dogs with it).

I'm just about to release a 4-pole VCF in Eurorack format called the Filtare SEIII. It's based on SSM2040 architecture. It's unique in that it has low-pass, band-pass, high-pass and notch outputs available simultaneously and on the notch output you can change the balance between low-pass and high-pass. All the controls, including notch-balance, have CV inputs so the filter is pretty versatile.

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

The process usually starts with lots of doodling on those yellow legal pads. In between pictures of dinosaurs fighting UFOs sometimes I find pretty good ideas. Once I like an idea enough to actually do something about it and I think I have everything figured out I breadboard it. If any microcontroller coding is required I do it at this point. Once everything works, I design the board, close my eyes and click "order". After the boards arrive I put one together, turn on the power and really hope I don't have to get new boards.

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

Division-6 Midify PCB

This is the layout for the Midify board. It was a bit tricky because the whole thing had to fit into the only open spot inside a Nintendo DS (it's only about an inch wide). I wanted to make it single-sided so nothing shorted underneath. Just in case you're wondering why I laid it out the way I did, it's because it pretty much only fit together one way.

How do you make these modules available to users?

There is a shopping cart set up at www.division-6.com so that people can order right from the site. I'm also talking with a distributor about carrying the Filtare SEIII.

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

I don't know that there's a gold standard; and, given that most of this stuff is based on decades-old technology, there probably won't be. There are standards that are generally more popular than others though.

Back in the day, most people couldn't afford to have a ton of gear from different manufacturers, so I think synth designers didn't worry about interoperability so much. For instance, a company would make a synth and not bother to put a volts-per-octave adjustment on the VCO because you were using their keyboard too. It was just as easy to scale the output of the keyboard until it was in tune. Of course, when you wanted to use a keyboard from a different synth to control that VCO, you either had to re-scale that keyboard or find something else to do.

These days the market is largely driven by hobbyists and small manufacturers rather than large companies. Very few of them make entire synths. You end up buying some modules from company A and others from company B and people want everything to work together. This has led to certain standards being adopted. For instance, 1 volt per octave made more sense than .657049 volts per octave, so that one stuck.

The existence of MIDI has also had an effect on standards. It used to be that keyboards and other controllers were part of a synth or at least available for purchase with it. Today, people make synths and expect that you'll just send it a control voltage from whatever MIDI keyboard, DAW, pedal or breath controller you want.

What's on the drawing board for future releases?

I've got a few things in the works. I think the next thing I do will be a buffered multiple for Eurorack.

Another big thing I'm excited about is a performance-oriented MIDI to CV converter. It seems like most MIDI-CV devices are designed to be hidden behind your desk with all the spaghetti. Not to mention, you have to dig through menus to access any of their fun features. In a world where synth modules have a knob for everything that can be adjusted in real time this seems kind of goofy.

Website: Division-6