Synthwerks Interview

Before we get started talking about Synthwerks can you tell our readers a little about yourselves, specifically your backgrounds in electronic music equipment production?

Steve Turnidge - In the early 80s I wanted to start an electronics manufacturing company that made performance modules for pro audio, the first was to be a joystick controlled delay. I had a synthpop band called the UltraViolet Catastrophe, and the company was to be the UltraViolet Company; the band would use and demo the products. In 1986 I went to drafting school to prepare for this, and fortunately was snagged to start the drafting department at Rane Corporation.

This experience plunged me into the world of Pro Audio and I was at Rane for 11 years, ending up as Systems Manager. From there I was asked to come to Pavo - which created the MIDItools line of products documented in the Craig Anderton book "Digital Projects for Musicians". At Pavo I set up Engineering Operations and was the primary PCB designer there. This company morphed into Digital Harmony - a FireWire design house and then crashed in 2001. That's when I went solo and had a great time designing PCBs for many in the Pro Audio world (Alesis, TC Electronic, M-Audio, and recently designing all the circuit boards for Open Labs).

I have been a mastering engineer since 1998 with UltraViolet Studios and am the producer for Burning Sky Records. I'm also the chairman of the local Audio Engineering Society committee.

James Husted - I got hooked on synthesizers back in the early 70's (my first being a EMS VCS3 in 1974 - for $500 which was a lot!). I had always been a fan of exotic instruments. I was an Art major in college (Western Washington State College) and saw that the music department had a large Arp 2500 system and that was one of the few music classes that you could take without being a music major. I signed up immediately. After a few years I had rose to managing the Synthesizer studio and teaching the hardware side of the classes for 400 level credits. I'm indebted to a very forward thinking professor - Americole Biasini - for my current passion for synthesizers.

After college I worked a short stint as a salesman for a new store/studio in Seattle that sold Synthesizers and high end recording equipment - The Electronic Music Box. I taught basic EM classes and sold large Emu, Arp, Oberheim and Roland rigs whenever I could. The main engineer, Dane Butcher (engineer for the first gold Jazz record - Herbie Hancock's Head Hunters) and I did a little work as installers for some studios and he started up a pro audio company called Symetrix and I joined him and his girlfriend at the time and quit the salesman job (thank God!). I worked there for 25 years or so doing every aspect of manufacturing from etching/drilling PCB's, screening front panels, assembly, inventory - you name it. I designed the metalwork and graphics for over 60 products at Symetrix/Lucid and did layout and design for catalogs, flyers, websites, and owners manuals. Basically I was the graphics department there.

After Symetrix I worked with Steve as the graphics guy at Digital Harmony. After the dot-com crash in Seattle killed the company, I started as a graphics designer at Mackie Designs which later became a brand under LOUD Technologies. I worked my way through the department and became a product photographer there and took thousands of pictures of all the gear there. Then I moved to be the senior graphics designer for the M.I. wing of LOUD doing the design work for the Ampeg, Blackheart, Crate, Alvarez and St. Louis brand lines. I still show up on their website in their mixer section.

When did you decide to create Synthwerks?

James Husted - Like many synth owners I have bought and sold many, many pieces of gear over the years remaking my studio many times. I always remembered the 2600 I started on and the EMS Synthi's I had owned and the fun and open-endedness of modular systems. I had hacked and modded a few Oberheim SEM based systems I owned and wasn't afraid of "messing with the works" but the trend towards single piece keyboard units, and digital based systems tended to slow down my ability to customize systems. Then I fell into the Eurorack modular world. What an eye-opener! Here was a modular system with different manufacturers making modules that worked in the same rack - next to each other in the same system. This was so different from the modulars I sold at the Electronic Music Box that would work with each other but never co-habitate in the same cabinet.

I started to re-enter the music scene and join a few analog mailing lists like Analogue Heaven and some Yahoo groups. On one of those lists there was a yearly get together of synth owners showing off their gear and just having fun. I went and met the locals and was surprised to find a couple of my favorite module makers were pacific northwest located. I met Kevin O'Neill - Flight of Flight of Harmony, and Scott Jaeger - The Harvestman at these meetings and saw that they were making and selling modules full time and enjoying it. I had been making module suggestions to Deiter Deopfer on his Yahoo group and had many ideas. I decided since the job hunt I was currently doing was pretty grim, it was time to invest in one of the passions I still had in life and start my own business making synthesizer modules.

Steve Turnidge - James called me when I was headed out the door to a music festival on the east coast and mentioned he wanted to hire me to lay out a few circuit boards. When I found out what he had in mind, I jumped at the opportunity to fulfill my long term goal and suggested we make a real company out of his ideas. I'm lucky enough to know Brad Marvin - a great business person - and get him involved at an early stage of setting up the company. Now we are a going concern!

What kind of electronic musical devices are you going to be producing?

James Husted - I used to own three Synthi AKSs at one time and did a lot of abstract soundscapes with them. I never connected them to any keyboards or MIDI to CV converters and ran them totally with their own Joysticks. My current eurorack setup had a couple of AS joysticks in them like many synthesist, I craved more control. Synthwerks will strive to make a variety of modules but we are really focussing on performance modules. Modules that the player interacts with to control the rest of their rig.

The first set of modules in production include a module based on FSR (Force Sensing Resistor) technology and will produce control voltages and gates based on the pressure applied to 4 pads on the front panel. There also will be two different manual gate modules using light touch arcade style pushbuttons. Synthwerks will also be producing utility modules such as our 5V supply modules that will provide not only a 5 volt source to the bus, but offer a patch cord checker and either a gooseneck LED light or access to the 5V source to frontpanel jacks.

We have many designs in the queue and there often will be various versions of the same modules so the user can pick one that really fills the hole they see in their system. That is what Synthwerks is all about - looking at the market, seeing what holes are there and filling them. You will probably not see any standard, vanilla modules from us - no VCOs, Ring Modulators, LPFs and the like. There are plenty of those to choose from other companies.

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

James Husted - This is the learning curve part! Both Steve and I have worked in large companies and have been intimate with the design/manufacturing part of the process. There are things that we know we can do really well and things that we know are better suited for outside shops with equipment in place and people we know have the expertise and have worked with before. So far at Synthwerks I have done the research and concepting part of the design - I do all the frontpanel design, metalwork design, and feature specifications. Steve does the project management, PCB layout, and had a huge resource list of vendors and local job shops that he has dealt with in his freelance career. We scour designs from lots of sources and modify them or combine them for our needs.

We also have a few contract engineer to pass things through because having a different set of eyes is always helpful. We know analog designers too - which is getting rarer every day. The metalwork and PCB manufacturing are outsourced. The parts buying is a combination of internal and external sourcing. The Synthwerks byline is "Handmade Eurorack Synthesizer Modules" and that is very true - the modules are handbuilt by us.

Steve Turnidge - To expand on that; James (for Symetrix) and I (for Rane Corporation) both had the task of taking marketing input and physically generating the front panel (and other mechanical) design. One challenge in that spot is that the marketing department typically want more controls than will physically fit on a panel. It has been refreshing to work on James designs with that stage completed. The other challenge in bigger companies with sales and marketing departments are look and feel of a product. In Synthwerks, the designs already come from the head of the company - so we don't have to waste time on debating cosmetic issues (James is a design genius...).

So, James generates a front panel design to scale, and the artwork for the panel. I then either get our contract engineer (Ray Miller) to make a napkin sketch schematic of the functionality of the device. With the design and schematic in hand, I'll generate part numbers for new parts, capture the schematic into PowerLogic and define the PCB in PADS PCB. Any new parts will get 'decals' made (which are the little pictures of the parts on the PCB designs). Then, the standard PCB design process begins with placement of parts that are fixed (pots and jacks), then sensitive parts are placed, then the rest. This creates a "rats nest" of parts with the connections just straight lnes. From there, I decide the routes between the parts and after it is checked, we generate GERBER film files and send those off to our PCB manufacturer for quote.

How do you intend to make these modules available to users?

James Husted - We hope to be in all the major online vendors as soon as we can. We are looking into direct sales but probably won't be using that methodology for a while. We will try and be in as many places as possible. There are very few brick and mortar stores selling modular synthesizers though so we will be all the online stores that we can.

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

James Husted - The standards are pretty even in the eurorack space. The 1v/octave standard seems to rule heavily over the rare Hz/octave standard. Gates are mostly +voltage and Moog seems to be the only different one there. Luckily the manufacturers want to sell to as many people as possible so have gravitated towards a standard. If you deviate too far then you miss out on market share. The things that you would connect between different companies modules are most likely to work fine. That is what is so exciting about the Eurorack format.

Here is one chassis size, one power supply spec, one module format that many diferent manufacturers can design for. The user can buy from something like 20 different companies and they can all co-exist with each other in the same chassis. There are some little differences that can get a little annoying at times. Analogue Systems for instance, one of the two biggest players in the space, has a different power connector and slightly different hole spacing than the rest of the makers (who seem to have followed Doepfer's lead). There are adaptors and off panel sizes to correct these things of course - still something to be wary of when designing your rig.

I know it's very early days for Synthwerks, but what's on the drawing board for future releases?

James Husted - We have three main families of modules. Controllers, Utility, and Audio modules. In the controller family there will be a few more FSR modules. A single larger FSR module, and possibly a XYZ controller, and a poorman's version of the Buchla 222e Multi-dimentional Kinesthetic Input Port, a 4x4 programmer, and a performance desktop cabinet to put these all in since the typical vertical cabinet is harder to use. In the utility space maybe some switching and patching modules.

In the audio space we plan on a limiter module (essential in saving your speakers if you do noise/bug music), Headphone Monitor, a new filter we call a Plateau Valley filter, and maybe a Mic preamp. Basically as many things as we can make - each new product funded by the last.