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New synthesizers make sounds musicians want

| Saturday, July 19, 2014, 7:57 p.m.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Richard Nicol founder of Pittsburgh Modular Synthesizers sits in front of an example of his synthesizers at the company's office in Point Breeze, Wednesday. The company has become very successful in a short period of time, designing synthesizers for musicians and studios. Stars like Trent Reznor/Nine Inch Nails, Pretty Lights and Depeche Mode use their synthesizers.

Sounds and styles shift so frequently in pop music, you can almost guarantee that whatever's currently passe, corny or uncool will eventually come back into fashion.

Remember when synthesizers were like that?

Now, of course, they're everywhere — found in all manner of electronic music, dance music, pop, hip-hop, even plenty of rock bands. It's probably harder to find musical genres that don't use it.

For Richard Nicol, owner and builder of Pittsburgh Modular Synthesizers, these are good days. It's hard to tell who's using his instruments, which are handmade in the former Mine Safety Appliances headquarters in Point Breeze. But he's spotted a few.

“The famous people that are big fans — Pretty Lights (the Grammy-nominated electronic dance music producer Derek Vincent Smith) is the big one,” Nicol says. “I know Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) has a bunch of my stuff. Depeche Mode used a bunch on their last album. That's cool. I'm a huge Depeche Mode fan.”

Thomas Cox of Pittsburgh Track Authority, a fast-rising name in international dance music, is another customer.

“It's a great product,” Cox says. “We see people all the time involved in techno music who use it.”

Cox recognizes the growth and use of synthesizers in music today.

“All music is electronic now,” he says, “unless you're Jack White.”

The synthesizer — an instrument that electronically generates and modifies sound — has been a fairly ubiquitous presence in music since the 1960s. Early synthesizers — like Mellotron and Moog — were controlled by keyboards, allowing the user an almost infinite array of sounds through controling voltage changes, like pitch, timbre, attack and decay of tone.

Like most new technologies, there were enthusiastic early adopters, like avant-garde composers and some of the more adventurous rock bands. There were plenty of others who found it annoying. The synthesizer's versatility soon made it ubiquitous in certain genres, like progressive rock and disco, which inspired the occasional backlash against its perceived excesses.

As technology advanced, the pattern would repeat itself with the slick, overproduced pop of the 1980s becoming synonymous with the synthesizer. Then, a backlash in the '90s banished it to underground subcultures, like techno and industrial music.

That was where Nicol first heard it.

“It started as a hobby,” says Nicol, 39, of Squirrel Hill. “I was a full-time computer programmer. I was a musician in my spare time, a drummer and keyboard player in a bunch of college bands around Pittsburgh.”

Everything changed when he heard the industrial band Front 242.

“I couldn't believe you could make music this way,” Nicol says. “It didn't sound like rock 'n' roll, or pop music, or everything on TV. It stood alone — ‘This is what we're doing, and we don't care what you think.' The sounds were so alien and harsh, that I didn't know what to do with myself. I needed to hear more, and needed to make these sounds.”

So, he did. The cost of a synthesizer was a bit prohibitive, at first.

“They were so expensive,” he says. “I had my Casio (synthesizer), and it would make some weird sounds, but you couldn't modify it.”

That led him, eventually, to the world of modular synthesizers.

“I'm a tinkerer,” Nicol says. “There's not much to them — just a little bit of circuitry.

“In a modular synthesizer, each individual component is chopped into its own parts,” he says. “For example, with a standard mini-Moog, the quintessential synth from the '70s and '80s, several pieces of technology do very specific things. The oscillator makes the sound, a constant tone at a predetermined pitch, a constant sine wave or triangle wave. This very basic sound, a triangle wave — what you want to do is shape that in a way to make it musically interesting.”

A lot of people play modern synthesizers without the keyboards, which leads to a lot of self-generating soundscapes, Nicol says. “You sort of set up a patch, and it'll play an infinite melody. I find that fascinating. Instead of a paint-by-numbers canvas, it really lets you create something different.”

Nicol started tinkering with some hardware synthesizers and eventually came up with some of his own designs. He tried selling them online, mostly as a way to raise money to buy more.

“I didn't know there was a market for it,” Nicol says. “Pittsburgh Modular was never was meant to be a company. I never had world domination on my mind.”

Pittsburgh Modular Synthesizers started its own record label, too — Pittsburgh Modular Records. Its first release was “Encryption Cypher,” featuring Herman Pearl, who makes music under the name Soy Sos, of Tuff Sound Recording, who joined synthesizer sounds with beats from some of the top names in Pittsburgh hip-hop.

Michael Johnsen — an experimental musician and filmmaker who teaches “circuit-bending” (making audio circuits from scratch) workshops at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, has lent his expertise to the company.

“Pittsburgh (Modular Synthesizers) are among the best designed and built out there,” Pearl says. “Having Michael Johnsen involved in the design process is a real boost, too. He's consistently offered unique insight and approaches to every circuit he's been involved with.”

Pearl helps test a lot of Pittsburgh Modular's new products. Synthesizers are inherently flexible, limited only by one's imagination.

“Soy Sos (Pearl) has this thing where he puts transducers on big steel sheets,” Nicol says. “He'll modulate these giant sheets of steel and get these ridiculous, clangorous sounds.”

Nicol has a theory about how the synthesizer eventually won over music-makers and listeners to become the ubiquitous instrument it is today.

“They're understood by the generations (now) making music,” he says. “They're not a big deal — ‘I've had this in my computer since I was 2.' They're not fighting the technology any more. It's just an instrument.”


Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7901.

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