A Pittsburgh company’s synthesizers are stretching the bounds of sound
Michael Johnsen still remembers the reaction he had when Richard Nicol first approached him about starting a business designing electronic instruments. “I said that was a bad idea,” Johnsen says, during a conversation in Pittsburgh Modular Synthesizers’ workshop and office in Homewood. Starting a business just seemed daunting. Plus, the market for their products was small.
Johnsen, the circuit designer at Pittsburgh Modular Synthesizers, and Nicol, the company owner and product designer, had already worked together on occasional synthesizer designs by the time Nicol thought of taking it full time 11 years ago. Despite Johnsen’s reservations, Nicol thought it could be a good side project to delve into design to understand more about how it worked.
“To be fair, I was pretty ignorant of that scene,” Johnsen says. “When I said, ‘Don’t start a company, that’s a terrible idea,’ I was just thinking that starting businesses is hard. I wasn’t even really all that aware that Eurorack as a format was getting interest.”
At that time, Nicol and Johnsen estimated they were part of a community of about 200 active users on a few online message boards and forums dedicated to Eurorack instruments, a type of modular synthesizer. Now, that niche has grown. So has Pittsburgh Modular Synthesizers, who’ve sold thousands of their own units to musicians around the world.
Nicol first became interested in synthesis after hearing electronic instruments in songs by industrial ’80s groups like Front 242, Skinny Puppy and Front Line Assembly. “It was just alien, what they were doing,” Nicol says. “I was just fascinated by the sounds.”
Johnsen, who grew up in a family of technical people, began designing his own instruments to recreate the strange, esoteric sounds he heard in films and television. “The so-called ‘FX,’ that’s the sounds that I cared about,” he says. “What’s the sound of the explosion, or the rumbling earthquake, or all those things that weren’t just tunes?”
From the outside, their partnership appears to be a fusion between Johnsen’s knowledge of circuitry and Nicol’s penchant for creating intuitive interfaces, but they both emphasize that no one at Pittsburgh Modular has a particular job title or is responsible for any one thing.
Many people know synthesizers, or synths, are electronic instruments. Images of Kraftwerk standing stiffly on stage and playing their keyboards might come to mind when you think of them, or maybe you envision Herbie Hancock jamming on a keytar — the keyboard designed in the shape of a guitar.
Compared to other synths, modular synthesizers are complex. Generally, they don’t come with a keyboard, but you can attach one to them. Modular synths consist of interconnected boxes called modules, rather than being an all-in-one unit. That means there are lots of parts to link, knobs to twist, and cables to patch, or plug in, to create and modify sounds.
Individual modules can be as small as a paperback book; a collection of them can fill an entire room, like the Tonto synth Stevie Wonder used throughout the 1970s. Eurorack synths, the style used by Pittsburgh Modular, are known for their compact designs and small audio jacks: 3.5 mm cords, the same that would typically be found attached to a pair of headphones.
After starting as a boutique brand, Pittsburgh Modular Synthesizers sales grew quickly. Nicol says that the first dealer he ever called ordered 50 units. The next dealer, hearing of that purchase, ordered 60. They were the only two Eurorack sellers in the U.S. that Nicol was aware of at that point.
“Right out of the gate, I had sold 110,” Nicol says. “At that point, I was hand making everything myself. I had to sit in my basement, with my soldering iron, and spend a month making 110 modules.”
Dealers kept ordering more, and consumers responded positively to their no-nonsense designs and big sounds. The company grew at a rapid clip, at one time employing 11 people. Now, they’ve scaled back, with just five people working there.
Pittsburgh musician Dave Crimm, who has played and released electronic music since the early 2000s, calls Eurorack a “niche of a niche.” He’s been buying Pittsburgh Modular products for over a decade. “They had affordable, straightforward, bread-and-butter modules, but also some weird things,” he says. “I think that’s what was so appealing about them.”
“I want to make sounds that are never heard before or are abrasive and kind of visceral,” Crimm explains. “I’m not looking for perfect tones or something that’s lovely, and Pittsburgh Modular has made these modules where I step back and giggle with glee at the cacophony I was able to make.”
Pittsburgh Modular Synthesizers’ larger standalone modules — something like the Taiga, which is a little more than a foot wide — are about $600 to $700. (Many flagship synthesizers developed by big-name companies, like Moog and Roland, can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000 retail price.) Slimmer modules, like those in Pittsburgh Modular’s Safari series, are as little as $99, but they’re severely limited in what sounds they can make on their own.
While still relatively niche, Eurorack synths have increased in popularity over the last two decades. Because they are smaller in size and lower in price compared to larger units, they became an entry point into the format for musicians who wanted an alternative to software synthesizers, which often don’t offer the same tactile, mad-scientist feeling that comes with twisting knobs and untangling wires.
“You can start with a very small system, just a couple of modules,” says Nicol. “You can, over time, add to it. Not only are they priced fairly, but it’s designed in a way that you don’t have to buy 10 modules up front.”
Johnsen expands on that idea. “It’s like you’re buying a set of tools. You’re creating a toolbox with which you make an instrument, as opposed to somebody telling you what you need to buy,” he says. “You can create a set of musical tools that you think are interesting. That’s the appeal of modular.”
Johnsen and Nicol largely phased out in-house manufacturing after partnering with Cre8 Audio two years ago, which allowed them to focus almost solely on design. Their approach to design has also changed over the years. While older modules had a plain, silver finish, their current line of modules features artistic renderings of exotic animals.
In addition to their engaging interfaces, Pittsburgh Modular Synthesizers has maintained a loyal fanbase with their casual approach to customer interactions. They host regular livestreams on their YouTube channel to show what kinds of sounds can be squeezed from their machines.
“For instruments, specifically, we want to give the artist a tool they can use to create art,” Nicol says. “If we gave them every possibility for that tool, it would be overwhelming and useless. Our job is to curate these technologies and give them what we believe to be a flexible, but focused, instrument.”