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sobota, 21 marca 2020

Girts Ozolins-Erica Synths Interview ''We all are crazy about, what we do and none of us can imagine doing something else''

Erica Synths is a Latvian company founded by Girts Ozolins and also is a team of visionaries, engineers and musicians who work hard to provide you with modules and instruments that will distinguish your modular system from weight in terms of sound, appearance and function.

Currently Erica Synths has more than 110 eurorack modules, all systems based on them such as Techno System, Compact Pico System II and the newest Pico System III also modules in DIY version and recently also Standalone synthesizers as announced this year SYNTRX inspired by classic Synthi AKS and Bassline DB-01.

In addition, Erica Synths is strongly associated with the native electronic scene showing many live performances in their series '' Garage '' and they are also associated with the Kontaktor Festival.
Recently, I talked with Girts about what drives him to such a big development of the company, about inspirations, modules of their functionality or the new standalone synthesizers themselves.

Let's start with the fact that Erica Synths is growing very quickly ...
Can you say something about the beginnings of the company and about what drives you that Erica Synths introduces new modules so quickly?

It started with an extensive “research” – I accidentally came across electronic music instruments DIY scene on internet, and during 2010-2013 I build virtually all DIY projects, that were available back then. 
Ray Wilson ( even complained that he needs to invent something new, because I built all his site. And then I realized, I can contribute to the DIY scene with my DIY projects, and the Polivoks VCF was born. 
Like many eurorack companies, Erica Synths started in my bedroom (literary), where I had soldering station, did all packaging for sending first orders, etc. And I wasn’t in community of engineers and musicians – I was running one of largest advertising agencies in Latvia. 
But then, I still wonder, how it happened, I accidentally met genius people who are engineers and musicians, and now they are in Erica Synths team: Janis is engineer for most of our digital stuff, Kodek develops interfaces and sounds, makes demos, plays gigs on Erica Synths gear, tests prototypes both from musical and functional perspective, Marta takes care of manufacturing routines and planning, Eliza is in charge of marketing, media and artist relations, Ilga is the best in logistics. 
And in similar way few outsourced engineers appeared. Eduards aka D-tech, genius engineer and self-thought composer and blues piano player, used to work in huge company that develops high-tech communication devices, but, as he works almost exclusively during night-time and synthesizers is his true passion, he’s more happy to work for Erica Synths, and I’m happy, I met him. 
Also we have great collaboration with few engineers from Riga Technical University to develop some projects, and they are happy to see, how quickly they become real instruments. Long story short – we all are crazy about, what we do and none of us can imagine doing something else.
On the other hand, we have like 5-6 electronics assembly companies of different size here in Latvia, few PCB producers (I can get prototype PCBs in 3 days), companies that can make front panels, etc. – the best infrastructure in the world for electronics manufacturing!

Techno System is one big system with 10 drums modules, drum-inspired machines like Roland 909, Drum sequencer and Baslline module and double sampler module.
This is the characteristic System Named '' Techno System ''
Can you tell why you chose to create a drums-based system and why its name is '' Techno ''?

The idea about the Techno System was born, when a French company e-licktronic, developers of YOCTO and NAVA drum machine DIY kits addressed us on possible collaboration. 
Those are great, authentic sounding TR-808 and TR-909 drum machine clones, which I built some time ago, but they didn’t have proper enclosures for those amazing instruments, so we developed those, and they are still available on our webshop. 
This facilitated their DIY kit sales, and we agreed to split NAVA in individual modules and add more modulation possibilities for eurorack use.
TR-909 was genre defining instrument for techno, and we all like it here, therefore a name. But you are right, and we do stress it all the time – it’s not limited to techno, and even not to rhythm-based music. With some creativity applied, it’s damn powerful instrument!

Drum sequencer is also something you program beats on really fast.
You just wanted to give a user interface that can play on the fly and be more like improvisation?

The Drum Sequencer is inspired by the one on NAVA, and initially it felt – we just transfer the firmware and, perhaps, add some features. But it turned out to be really challenging and long project, where all firmware was basically developed from the scratch, and “few features” extended to lot of great features, essential for contemporary sequencers. Also – it’s not limited to triggering drum modules. The CV and Gate outputs allow to program basslines in sync with drums and LFOs are added to modulate sounds in the system.
All Erica Synths instruments are designed for the live performances, they are intuitive, easy to use and reliable.

You also decided to add a sampler Sample Drum and Bassline module fully analogue synth voice module for ultimate basslines and leads. It features AS3340 VCO with three waveforms, a filter inspired by Erica Synths Acidbox and unique features - transistor-based suboscillator and two BBDs that emulate VCO detune there which looks like the heart of this system
was it something you think is developing this system more?
Can you say something about him?

We did not want to end up with a modular drum machine, we wanted fully featured techno production/live performance instrument that has it’s own character and unique sound, therefore we designed the Bassline module from scratch for really massive, unheard before, basslines and the Sample Drum to add lot of variety in sounds which is not otherwise possible in such formfactor. With some creativity and imagination applied, the Sample Drum can be a centerpiece of any electro-acoustic  music production system.

To this you added FX sections are two modules like Dual FX combines two Spin FV-1 chips in one module, each filled with eight custom effect programs with two adjustable and CV controlled parameters per effect and analogue dry / wet circuit. The effects repertoire of the Dual FX has been specially tailored to drum sounds and all parameter settings can be saved with the effect and double Overdrive / Distortion in the Dual Drive module.
They make Techno System sound more aggressive and spatial?

Effects always expand the perception of sound. There’s Dual Drive module to make the System sound more aggressive and Dual FX to sound more spatial, but modules themselves do not make change in a sound – it’s how a user approaches the sound design, use of effects, etc. Also, we do not think that the Techno System is the ultimate setup, even though everything is carefully considered there – we encourage people to alter it, personalize it and adjust to their specific needs or vision about the ultimate system of that kind. This is the beauty of modular synthesizer – personalization and chance to create truly unique instrument.

But the earlier System was much smaller but also extensive in the functions of Pico System 2.

Is the world’s smallest modular synthesizer.
Can you tell some about it?

I would rephrase “world’s smallest modular synthesizer of its functionality”. Because you can take couple of 2HP modules and some Pico Module also have a great modular synth, but it will be limited to specific spectrum of sounds, it can produce. 
Or take a Sample Drum and some simple sequencer, and again – by choosing samples wisely and controlling different parameters of the Sample Drum via sequencer you have a system, which is not limited sonically, but it will be limited in ways, how you can perform on it. 
Basically, with the Pico Series we challenged ourselves – can we squeeze ANY module, no matter how advanced it is and what functions it has to provide, in 3HP. 
And the answer is – yes! With the right user interface it is possible and even enjoyable in use. Obviously, there are some limitations, what 3HP modules can do and there are some functionality sacrifices, but – they still make nice, compact systems (and 3HP is the smallest size of a module to design nice looking and easy to play system) or they can add key functions to larger systems without stealing much space. 
Therefore Pico Drums and Pico DSP modules are one of our bestsellers.

So basically it's more like a portable Grovebox in modular?

The Pico System II was intended to be a modular groovebox – we wanted to make a super-tiny system with can play proper 1-hour techno live set without getting boring. Like something different to many exaggerated monster systems that make beeps. 
The Multilux, electronic musician, music teacher and now – our colleague has really mastered this tiny system, and I really enjoy his performances, like this one:

But, as the system consists of 14 modules and is truly modular system, it is extremely expensive to manufacture…

Recently also appeared Pico System III is affordable, compact, yet powerful sounding, full analogue modular system. but different from earlier Pico System II.
Can you explain what it is different and who is it to choose one of them as a beginner?

Pico System III is completely different kind of beast – it’s more open for creative patching, experiments, and of course classical east- and west- coast patches. The imagination is a limit. 
BUT it’s more demanding – it requires more advanced patching, you can not change patches so easily and for longer performance you will need several systems or other instruments. Same time, it’s affordable, great sounding instrument. And it’s also great for education, because on this small system you can try out most of the modular sound design basics and also – quite advanced things. Beginners? There’s no straight-forward obvious answer. 
The Pico System II gives instant gratification, if you want easy, fast results. There are lot of approaches how to design your first system. It’s like visiting a doctor. 
First you need to talk about “symptoms”, consider possible causes and then prescribe treatments. In modular terms – what a beginner wants to do with a modular, what music he is in, studio or performance use, budget, etc., etc.

Do you prefer somebody to try a small system first and then go to other large systems?
Also, many modules are unique functions for the development of your own system, do you recommend something or some way for people who choose your modules one by one?

We have two predefined Pico systems, but Pico modules find their places in larger multi-brand systems and I really encourage people to come up with their own, personalized systems. 
The benefit of Pico modules is that they are compact, yet, great sounding, but there are some design compromises, like lack of CV attenuators, because there is no space on the front panel. So, do not limit your imagination and ambitions, when designing the system – there’s tens of thousands of modules to choose from. 
Spend some time on , read manuals, watch demos and make a reasonable decision! I do not want to push Erica Synths modules only. There are lot of great manufacturers around, and there are areas, where others are better. 
We start development only, if we see that we can do something completely new and innovative, or do it radically better.

You also can't miss the Polivoks series.
Why did you decide to copy this synthesizer in your modules?

We did not “copy” a synthesizer. We used some of ideas from Polivoks circuits in our designs. The closest to the original one is the Polivoks VCF, and honestly – this is the only part of the synth, that is really interesting. But the Polivoks modules actually started as DIY kits and this was a beginning of Erica Synths. 
Back in 2012 I built some Polivoks VCF DIY kit based on some western programmable opamps, but I was not impressed by the sound of the filter. So, I went to the local flea market (yes, we have a flea market that specializes in electronics, tools, and some vintage stuff) and found the opamps that were used in the original Polivoks. I etched a PCB and made my first DIY kit, and it did not disappoint. So, I started to sell it on muffwiggler, and a one man company in a bedroom slowly took off.

Polivoks modules and not only these modules are from the DIY series and Erica Synths for 2020 announce further DIY projects with more detailed descriptions for beginners.
tell me what is the purpose and what motivates you to provide more DIY modules?
Do you think people will prefer assemble your modules yourself?
From the advanced approach of DIY what can you tell about it i this why this idea is important to you?

We actually decided to discontinue current DIY modules and replace them with simpler, yet more educational ones. In recent years a DIY scene has grown exponentially, and more and more great projects appear, and more an more people are encouraged to build DIY modules. 
But some of our DIY kits are quite advanced, and people overestimate their skills. So we very busy with a support to find the issues in builds, and very often, when we receive the kit for repair, we see that a person definitely did not have a skill to build it. And I regret to say that most of DIY projects now do not have proper documentation – schematics, etc. This means, that builders, basically, have no idea, what they are doing… So, we in collaboration with Riga Technical University, decided to come up with series of DIY kits that are simple, affordable, easy to build, and most importantly – each kit comes with an extensive documentation on how the schematics are made, how it works, why it works, what are possible mods to make it work differently, what are possible measurements and calculations to find optional components, etc. 
Each kit will be like a laboratory work in electronics. Maybe the VCOs will not tune perfect for 8 octaves, but all modules combines will make a nice system. I believe, at DIY module choice, we have out there, for us this is more valuable (not money-wise, of course, but ideologically) direction to go.

You also announced the release of SYNTRX [sintrex] this year, inspired by the old AKS Synthi is developed from scratch, all analogue synthesizer with digitally controlled analogue patch / mixer matrix.
Why this synthesizer?

Because it’s completely different! It’s the most creativity-inspiring synthesizer ever built. It’s not necessarily the most musical one. When you check all Synthi demos on youtube, none of them makes any musical sound buy “conventional wisdom”. NONE! 
The exception is On The Run by Pink Floyd. I think, what sets Synthi apart is the user interface, and I am the fun of user interfaces. I mean in all areas of life, not only synths. I admire companies that invest in perfecting their user interfaces, and that is where Erica Synths puts a lot of effort, as well. 
The user interface makes the instrument special and enjoyable to interact with. You know, if the sound alone would be the criteria by which we choose the instrument, we would not have so many instruments. And eurorack take this to extremes. 
We have a residency studio in Erica Synths with lot of unique synthesizers, most of them are DIY or very unique, but none of them have keyboards (ok, mini Korg MS20 is the only one with a keyboard), and we encourage people to experiment un be creative. The SYNTRX is  exactly the instrument for that purpose. It is designed from scratch with a Synthy AKS functionality in mind, and what sets it apart is a patch matrix that features switching ICs specially designed for matrixes, in the factory Alfa RPAR here in Riga, by the way.

So do you have a weakness for old synthesizers yourself?

No, I prefer motorcycles.

Every new product looks quite modern but always black and subdued like your Bassline DB-01 as the description says: From basslines and rave sounds to massive drones and drums - the Erica Synths Bassline DB-01 synthesizer lets you explore new territories of sound and performance techniques and go from a melody to noise and back in no time. The DB-01 packs analogue Erica Synths signature sound engine with an advanced sequencer on top of it.
These are ideas to give people a nice product in the box to exceed certain limits that are ignored in other desktop synthesizers?

Modular synths have advantages and drawbacks, major one is – they are comparably large, if you are aiming for a good functionality. When designing our modules, we have accumulated an extensive know-how, and now it can be used also in a standalone instruments design. But above all, as I mentioned before, we aim to develop the instruments with enjoyable user interfaces. The Bassline DB-01 sounds great, has tons of features, a user would like to have in the instrument like that, but most importantly – it’s super-intuitive and easy to play! Both for advanced users and beginners. And we have several other standalone instruments of the same form-factor in mind.

There is one module that also defines the name and the functionality, I mean Graphic VCO.
This is one of several digital module with many functions
What can you say about him?

 We also have the Wavetable VCO, Pico VCO1, and then there are plenty of digital control modules. The idea of the Graphic VCO came, when I built Ian Fritz Double Deka VCO back in 2012. 
The prototype of the Graphic VCO was developed on 2014, and we showed it on Musicmesse, our first international appearance, same year. But with other priorities, we never managed to complete it till 2018. 
During the development we completely redesigned the user interface and functionality, and now it’s one of most powerful oscillators, I’m aware of. 
You can try out virtually all methods of synthesis on the single module! With enormous sound spectrum, an extensive CV implementation and opportunity to save configuration settings (Snapshots) and instantly recall them, it’s irreplaceable module for live performances and sound design.

Also a fairly large series after Pico and Techno is the Fusion series.
Is a series based on Tubes where you have basically all the voice like Fusion VCO and new versions of VCO2 or Fusion Filter, VCA and delay effects or tubes based on tubes.
Why did you decide to add the tubes i why they are unique from the other modules?

The modules with the vacuum tubes sound different, because tubes pass through distinct spectrum of harmonics. And also – they look cool and different. I believe, the music is all about creativity and uniqueness, so with hundreds of VCOs, you can find, it’s really difficult to stand out both, how your production sounds and how your system looks on stage. 
The Fusion modules are a bold statement of distinctiveness. The drawback is comparably high power consumption, but we managed to find some workarounds there. 
And few upcoming Fusion series modules are based on miniature pentodes that have a power consumption comparable to a LED. 

In addition to your own choice of modules for the embedded system, you offer ready-made systems such as Black Syetem I and II or Liquid Sky Dada Noise System or Fusion Drone System.
Are these systems arranged and selected by you or your team for a specific type of music that you can buy without thinking about each function?
Just something like trust in this Fusion Drone System when you only want to do drone?

I am for a reasonable consumption. You have to think well before making any decision. Yes, the Systems are well considered selection of modules for specific use, and, as Erica Synths has over hundred different modules, we have a privilege to design complete systems. 
When buying a complete system, you get a case for free, so it’s a good deal, as well. But I personally strongly encourage people to design their own systems, because this is what the modular is about – highly personalized, unique instrument! 
I can hardly imagine any other category with such a level of possible customization.

But running a business is not easy to control everything and have ideas for it.
How do you currently control production and find time?

As all manufacturing is done in Latvia, we can easily control every step of manufacturing routine, and all stages of manufacturing can be efficient and short. It’s not so easy as it may look, because, we do not do everything in one place. 
There are several companies involved: the enclosures and front panels are made in EHT Fabrik, then they go to another place for powdercoating, another company does silkscreen, then there are three factories that do electronics assembly and final testing and calibration, and finally we have an outsourced logistics company that sends out orders. 
We have invested a lot to develop our online system that includes webshop, production planning, logistics and warehouse management. 
So, when the order comes in it’s automatically processed, and typically it’s sent out same day or next day, if the instrument is in a stock. And typically they are in stock; we may have some stock shortages of new instruments, when they are just launched.

Erica Synths now only manufactures everything in Latvia alone.
You can say something about it?

Latvia has the best infrastructure in the world for electronics manufacturing! We have all companies in place in the chain of development to ready product! The Electrical Engineering and Electronics Industry is the fastest growing industrial sector in Latvia.

But also you are connected and you are promoting the electronic scene in Riga quite strongly with the help of your 'Garage' where many artists can show their usual performances which you report on your youtube channel.
Can you say something about that?

We want to export no only hardware, but also music, therefore we set up a Garage project. And it gradually has developed into something larger than just performances of local musicians in our studio. 
We invite more and more international acts, as well, and last autumn we moved the Garage to the coolest club in Riga – The Mill. Now Garage performances happen with an audience, and it’s even more motivating. 

It shows that music is important to you and that is why you even launched the Kontaktor Festival?

The music is not just an artist performing on the instrument, and it’s even not just an audience watching him/her performing. It’s a culture. And if there’s no cultural background for specific kind of music, it doesn’t prosper. So, we asked ourselves – if we don’t contribute to that culture, who will? And we did it without compromise – the Kontaktor is genuine celebration of electronic and experimental music. 
There are artists from all around the world, and there are live performances only – no DJs (ok, they are more than welcome in the audience). Also – we do not view Kontaktor as a business; we never considered making money by organizing the festival; in fact, in Latvia you cannot make money from the festival, like this – the electronic music is too niche, and we do not have enough population. 
It’s a significant investment to make it happen, but I’m happy we do it for the third time. Unfortunately, Kontaktor III, which was announced, and fully ready to go, is canceled due to Corona virus outbreak, and we’ll make it on May 28, 2021.

Is this all your ideas like Garage or Kontaktor or does your team have a strong input here?
Can you say something about it?

:D it’s not a “strong input”. We do all Garage and Kontaktor production ourselves! 
Eliza, our artist and media relations person, is in charge of organizing those events, and we all are directly involved. 
Of course, we have volunteers that work on site during the Kontaktor festival, but otherwise – this is our idea and our execution.

What do you currently think about the eurorack market - if I can call it that.
Are you following it?
Is everything on the right track, is the fast growth of small businesses good or bad?

I am soooooo happy that eurorack market happened, because it changed my life (and that of my colleagues) forever. It’s a bright example, how small businesses can develop, grow, collaborate (I always stress that we are friendly competitors, that develop the entire category) and make a change! 
This is absolutely amazing! 
I want to use a chance to pass regards from Erica Synths to all our eurorack colleagues and everyone, who’s in!

More about modules and synthesizers Erica Synths here : 

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