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środa, 18 marca 2020

François Gaspard-Shakmat Modular Interview ''Our philosophy is to make simple and deep modules''

Shakmat Modular is a Belgian company founded by François Gaspard and Steve Hackx.
Currently, Shakmat has quite a large range of eurorack modules particularly developed in terms of sequencing, triggering and time games in modular systems flowing from extensive musical experience in many projects.
This year Shakmat  has also announced a large series for quadrophones and also several modules in 1U format.
I talked to François about his work, company, ideas and inspirations to create such unique eurorack modules.

Hi Francois, can you say a few words about Shakmat  yourself?

Hi ! I've been playing music for more then 25 years now and this is my main insparation source for making musical instruments. Like we described it on our website we are musicians making instruments for musicians, meaning modules we released have a very obvious and direct application to create music intuitively, on the flight.

Our philosophy is to make simple and deep modules. Each modules have a very obvious use (for example this is very direct to tap and record a beat with Four Bricks Rook) which is very accessible in term of user interface. And almost all of the modules have more advanced functions which require a little more complex manipulation which means you have to read the manual (the Four Bricks again has a auto filler / random generator feature which might require some reading before use). We understand musicians want to be able to open a box and have fun with a module. But they also want more advanced features when they get used with basic features.

So what was your first module and how was the idea for the company born?

Our first module is the Bishop's Miscellany, a dual stepped cv/gate recorder. Actually I created crappy diy versions of the module for myself (like the Knight's Gallop and the Four Bricks Rook). After playing some gigs and a small music video featuring the Bishop, several people showed interest to have one, I accepted the challenge to do the things right and to deliver a proper product (instead of replicating the prototype version by hand) and Steve aka MadeInside (our layout designer, graphist and man of many talents) joined the team. We realised we had to create a brand, choose a name and so on, Shakmat was born !

Have you already been a eurorack user?
What inspires you about this?

Yes using eurorack modules is the thing that led me to create new ones. I always prefered hardware to software : as I was first a guitarist which slipped to the dark side of pedals and  synthesizers, the fact to have a physical interface with potentiometers, faders, buttons is something fundamental to make music for me. I did for a quite long time electronic music without really using a computer, just plugging stuff together and experiment with the setup to see what's coming out. This plus the fact I have an electronic engineer degree brought me quite naturally to modular synthesizers. I bought first a Lassence µVenturi (a 90s belgian 5U modular synth) and then I started to buy eurorack modules around 2010.

What inspires you to create new modules?
Are these modules that you think are a missing element?

I have two jobs : making instruments and making music. Each discipline is interdependant : I use my modules to create music and practicing music is bringing me ideas for new approach or enlight the fact that a certain function is not well represented in the eurorack world.

You are currently not one person in the company.
Can you tell about your team and how does your daily work flow in your office?

We started the company with Steve and since september David joined the team as the head of production. So everyone have his own focus at his own rush, me when I m developping a module (hand to hand with beta testers and Steve), Steve when a module is about to be released (for graphic work, documentation making, videos editing, and so on...) and David has a more weekly based schedule as we have to produce modules constantly. For some modules we are also working with external developpers.

Great, but all projects are your own ideas?

Yes all my project are my own ideas that evolves with the feedback of our beta testers and modular friends.

All your modules are time based, is it because you were previously very interested in sequencers?

Our first releases (Four Bricks Rook, Bishop's Miscellany and Knight's Gallop) are based on sequencing because back 6 years ago there was not much ergonomic and intuitive tools to improvise and create sequences very fastly and easily. The Time Wizard was first designed to be the main clock distributor for the other modules but the module got more features during the development process – leading to a more versatile module. We also released the Clock O'Pawn because it was a bit weird to have so much modules needing a clock and not having a clock generator modules. This plus the fact start and stop buttons seemed absent from the Eurorack world led to the module concept.

Let's talk about modules.
You have a whole range of modules that I named for sequencing, triggering and time games, did I put it well, if you can tell me exactly what functions these modules perform?

So we have a strong focus on trigger generation because rhythm is something I really dig in music. Like I said we have three modules dedicated to trigger and rhythm generation :
the Four Bricks which allows to tap your beat and mangle stored pattern, the Knight's Gallop which create triggers based on algorithms and the Time Wizard which work as multipliers / dividers that interracts together. This is three different approach with a different feeling that complement each other.

Your Time Wizard is named as Multiple Clock Divider but you can use it as a sequencer / trigger, can you tell about the size of the application for this module?

The Time Wizard is a quite versatile module, we meant it and I'm amazed how much different set up and patches around this module people are making : rhythm sequencer, clock and reset provider for other modules, division source for pingable LFOs, but mostly wigglers tend to use it as a multifunction tool (“ I'm triggering my hat with the second divider because of the logic function and the auto reset”, “5th divider is used as a square LFO”, “Finally I have this option to easily create reset signals in a odd time signature track)

Knight's gallop is a module described for algorithmic rhythms, how important are algortmatic rhythms and are they valid in eurorack?

I think some years after sarting being popular, Euclidean rhythms have now prooved their validity in electronic music. What I really like with the Knight's Gallop is the compute mode which mathematicaly associate Euclidean patterns together with quite simple formulas. For example a 6 pusles on 16 steps pattern goes quite well with the 3 pulses (6 divided by 2) on 8 steps ( 16 divided by 2) – this is an example of how a very simple algorhithm can be used to create music.

Very often you also use the recording function in the module, that is, they have some internal memory?

Three modules have a record : the Four Bricks Rook (which got a 128 patterns memory),
the Bishop's Miscellany (no memory – the module was meant to be a kind of CV/gate looper, the name recorder came just before the release) and the Knight's Gallop (no memory – the module got an extra recorder function - because it is still usefull even if the module is working on a completely different idea). Now, all our new stuffs in the lab have a non volatile memory.

Four Bricks Rook -Quad Trigger Sequence Generator is also the first module that I always associate with samplers MPC or SP 1200 by the style of work of pads. has 4 track sequencer, button that you can play with your fingers and tap your rhythm, record, rewind on the fly and reduce the sequence from 1 to 32 steps and also record it.
was it some similar inspiration with the old samplers for this module, or the pure idea that you want triggers drums or samples in this crazy way?

I never worked with an MPC but as a multi instrumentist musician it is more natural for me to tap a beat then to edit it on a sequencer. Plus as the Four Bricks allows non quantised recording you can place of the grid triggers which is quite complex to do with a step sequencer.

But Four Bricks Rook has several other functions like mute for flight triggers, FILL, PTRN and Quantize.
can you say more about these functions?

The idea inspired by machines like the Elektron range is a pad can be used in many ways. For example you can decide per track to recall a certain pattern, this is the PTRN mode. You can also decide to make breaks or rolls, actually to read a pre programmed pattern temporarly when pressing the pads, this is the FILL mode. The MUTE mode is pretty obvious as you can mute each triggers per track. The module has then several other function like Quantize (per track) and a Random generator that acts an auto filler / randomiser.

Then when you see these modules on your page you can see Bishop's Miscellany is a dual stepped CV / Gate Recorder.
What can you say about this module?

Even if this module is now 5 years old and quite less complex then our newest releases, it is still a very creative and easy module. One of our beta testers described it as an instant riff maker which I think is true. In studio while creating rhythms for example I m using it a lot with drum modules such as the Noise Engineering B.I.A. I create random loops using the 4 outputs and I m still very amazed by the results I obtain very quickly.

Also on-the-fly recording, does it mean that you have a lot of quick thoughts during live performances?

In studio or while playing live with other people yes of course ! For my solo lives ( actually not really solo as I m playing in an audiovisual project called Alea(s) ) things are now more pre written for “melodic” sequences that's why I'm using a XOR Electronics Nerdseq.  For the rhtyhmic sequencing part, I m all Shakmat as I like to have the opportunity to improvise breaks or decide on the fly which feeling I want for my hi hat line.

You also added a main clock to the collection Clock O 'Pawn module.
And he also has two clocks and the ability to fight the clock by midi with external gear.
do you prefer when you connect outside the modular system with other machines?

I don't prefer it is just it is something that happens a lot – in studio or live situations. Plus I'm not exclusive with my gear – my studio is composed of modular synthesizers, regular synthesizers, a sampler, a drum machine, effect units and a mixer.

Let's look at your latest Gemini's Path module.
This is a pretty crazy module called Stereo-Dynamics processor but it is much more like Dual VCA, Stereo panning or Granularizer - element of Granular Synthesis.
can you develop it and talk about functionality?

This module has the following architecture : two analog VCAs driven by a dual modulation source triggered by a signal to trigger convertor. Based on that we tried to do everything possible  in term of dyncamic (expander or pump), stereo panning (several algorhythms with different modulations) and more – like the granuliser for example.

Was this what you missed in the system and wanted to bring more dynamism to the eurorack system?

I use a lot of sidechain compression  ( and I know I'm not the only one ;) ) gater or panner in my music - so yes having a compact multitool module that can take in charge all those functions (plus it works with stereo signals) without having to unpatch, patch and calibrate different modules helped me a lot in my workflow. I always put the Gemini's Path at the end of any patch in order to control the dynamic or the stereo.

At Superbooth 2019 you showed some new modules, a lot focused on quadraphones like Quadraphonic Mixer, Quadraphonic Processor or 4/4/4 Preset Programmer.
why just quadraphony?

Speaking about the quadraphonic line : the  Aeolus Seeds (quadraphonic processor / modulator) and the Aeolus mixer (quadraphonic unity mixer)  : because quadraphony is already a niche in the niche – going to octo may be conceptually super exciting but I'm not sure there is a real scene / application field for this.

The 4/4/4 Preset Programmer called the Harlequin's Context is a scene / preset manager which allows to create very complex modulation and sequences with an intuitive interface.

 It's fascinating, but what can you say about these upcoming modules and how long do you have to wait for them?

Aeolus modules were planned to be released in May but we are now in crazy times and I cannot guarantee how things will go with manufacturing and so on, but we are using this period to anticipate furhter works so when things will be back to normal we'll have a bunch of modules to put in production, with some surprises !

You showed not only this but a whole new 1U series like 1U Octave Switch or 1U Clock Divider, are these your earlier modules translated into 1U format?

The Time Apprentice shares of course a common DNA with the Time Wizard – we think the 1U version is a compact tool for small monophonic systems or to clock and reset a sequencer.
The Octave Switch is a brand new one which has nothing in common with the rest of our modules – it is an old concept that was missing in the available 1U modules on the market.

You are also associated with the Aleas live performance project and you have shown a great deal on SB19.
How do you find time for both of these things to create modules to ride with performances?

I have to find the time – first because I need music to make modules and modules to make music. Secondly I 'm not able to be full time on music for a long period because I need more “rational” activities. On the other hand only making modules is sometimes missing the fun part I really enjoy in music.

Do you also find a lot of inspiration while playing for new modules?

Yes I ve used every module we made in a way that was not imagined when the module was created. For example : combining the Gemini's Path and the Sum Dif to make MS stereo mangling or using the Bishop's Miscellany always in record mode with a random gate hitting the random input which leads to have two random CVs and two random gates playing while the control gate is high – very cool to make end of musical cycle randomish interventions.

Your modules are also in the DIY version, what do you think about the current DIY scene, are you OK?

As long as people learn things (even how to repair the module or change a LED colour) by doing a kit, I'm happy with DIY. Bonus is DIY is cheaper, in resumee your learn and save money great deal no ?  

It is definitely worth adding your DIY modules, do you prefer to sell assembled modules or maybe both worlds connect in parallel?

I like both – I understand some musicians want a ready-to-play module some prefer to mount the module. 

Is there anything outside the SB19 announcement modules that you want to do this year?

Yes of course ! With Shakmat we are working on further announcement and releases – we planned to tease our new ideas at the SB20 but as it is cancelled, it will be shown but at another place. On the music related side I m working on our first EP with ALEA(s) and the fourth album with another musical project called Glü.  I'm also involved in a project called Sine created by the collective Ohme also based in Brussels, which is an educative and interactive show - starting from a sinewave it leads the audience to learn synthesis and create a music track in one hour – we are now upgrading the project and create new variant such as a kind of educative video game. 

Thank you very much for the conversation.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to give us some space on Your blog ! Cheers :) 

More info about Shakmat modules here

Also check the previous interview here :

More Shakmat videos :

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