Modular Synths are getting a LOT of interest at the moment and one of the nicest thing about the whole movement is that unlike the mainstream manufacturers, it’s usually fairly easy to contact and speak to the actual designer of the equipment you are using, the person who did the graphics, the person who packs the boxes and the person who runs the company. In fact it’s most often all the same person.
You only have to look at a Snazzy FX module to know that you’re dealing with a person or people who are a little bit off the beaten track. With their tripped out graphics and company strapline of “Travel At Your Own Peril” you can tell you’re going to get something a bit different here…
Which leads us back to the person behind the company, Dan . Having met Dan at the NAM show in LA a couple of times we knew he was a pretty cool and unusual guy so we asked him to take an hour out of his busy schedule of travelling across the physic multiverse landscape to have a chat about his work, history, modular synthesis in general and of course… psychedelics.
Can you tell us a little bit about what you did before Snazzy FX? Did you have a general interest in circuit design or had you worked for any other music companies?
I was a musician /producer/audio engineer type mostly , working in bands and also on electronic music production full time until I moved to NYC in 2003. I had done a lot of music as half of BILL DING (hefty records) and also as Dan Snazelle (surveillance). That move meant I started doing a lot of recording studio work and mixing. When DAWS (Digital Audio Workstation, Cubase, Pro Tools, Ableton Live etc) became affordable around 2000, I really started doing lots of projects and teaching people DAW production as well as teaching programming. I was an original co-founder of the DUBSPOT school in NYC but we don’t talk anymore 😉 That was the last thing I did before really getting serious about electronics.
Ultimately I ended up getting into designing electronics around 2007. I’d been an analog synth lover since 1993.
Cool, so, Snazzy started life when? Is it your full time job?
Let’s see….Snazzy started when, after a large scale commission for the Audio Ark Synth for Charles Lindsay, he offered to help me move from studio work to synth work. I guess it was around 2009 that everything was official.
(Charles Lindsay is the artist in residency at the american SETI project, or Search For Extra Terrestrial Life)
Snazzy started off with guitar effects pedals – are you a player at all or was it just that was the best way to realise your ideas at the time?
It’s funny I’m both a guitar player (it’s so a part of who I am, playing since at least 1987), and a synth freak. I can play improv guitar for hours and never get bored ….even without effects 😉 but I also love the POSSIBILITIES inherent in creating new sounds so I love synths. Heck I love any instrument. I’ve written hundreds of songs so ultimately I just see all of this as MAKING MUSIC. I’m excited about the cello right now.
Then came the Eurorack modules – what got you interested in working in this field?
Well i got into electronics purely because I couldn’t have ever afforded to buy any synth over 400 or 500 bucks. There was just no way!!! So I decided one day to learn to read schematics, and learn to solder. I built the Music From Outer Space -Weird Sound Generator with all radio shack parts and never looked back.
(Music From Outer Space is one of the oldest Synth DIY web pages out there – it’s worth checking their page out before it gets updated as it’s an excellent snapshot of what the web looked like in the late 90’s)
The second thing I started building was a VCO and I began building my own “DanRack” from there..it was so unprofessional looking but it was great !! And all three rows still work.
From there things just sort of happened. I had no knowledge of euro when I first built that modular….at first ….as I didn’t own any or known any owners! So it was frack dimensions sort of… But I built my own panels anyway . And used an ikea rack too.
Anyway David from Bubblesound became a very close friend of mine around when I was getting the first three snazzy fx boxes ready as prototypes. I’d already built much of my home made modular and of course the Audio Ark ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jVvboxlnvno) had two VCOs. VCFs, ADSR etc…it is a full synth but the patching is all done with switches….and it also has a more complex version of the “mini ark” in it!!! It’s really powerful ….anyhow david would come over …he had his filter done and had JUST finished it. He’d show me what he was doing …I remember when he chose his knobs …etc… And he was already where I wanted to be …selling his modules and designs.
I always knew I’d do synths. But you have to remember, Eurorack was WAAAY smaller in the USA at that point. My boxes were almost done when Tony (Anthony Rolando from highly respected modular company Make Noise) came to NYC for a synth meet at Tonys to debut that MATHS!!!
And there were like ten guys with systems. Funny thing is…I didn’t know it until Tony walked in but we actually knew each other from back in the days when we were both in bands in Chicago playing Lounge Axe.
Ok so that night , seeing what euro was all about …and David …well before I even released the first three boxes (two of which had already been designed with cv) I saw that Snazzy was going to take my synth amid and focus them on Eurorack.
But back then that was a whole different world.
I’ll never forget the first NAMM….coming out of it knowing that as soon as I had time, I had to start getting my synth ideas out.
And you wanna know the main reason? I just thought my ideas are too weird for any other world. Eurorack was wide open.
Is it an area that has particular challenges that you enjoy taking on?
Yes. Size being one of course!!! The tidal wave panel took me a couple weeks just to be able to figure out how to fit everything in a way that didn’t sacrifice ergonomics!! We went through three revisions or three sizes of the panel before we were able to figure out how to fit everything and fit everything onto one circuitboard!
Another challenge is getting across the ideas that I’m trying to bring to the euro world. My big passions are live performance /self generative musics / attractors / and in the future I’d like to incorporate more and more cellular Automata and possibly genetic algorithms for musical or sound creation. To me these ideas make sense and are just a given based on what I’m interested in but for some they are either completely new or confusing. So real challenge for me at Trade shows/ synth meets/ and in one-on-one contact with customers has been to explain and shed light on things in a way that makes people excited.
One of your most popular modules, the Ardcore, is based around the Arduino platform – can you tell our readers a little about the platform itself and maybe also why you chose it? Has anyone used it in a way that surprised you at all?
I’m constantly surprised by what people do with the ardcore! The tapped out program which works for the ardcore plus expander is basically a complete eight output step sequencer with individual control over each output, shuffle value and pattern and it even comes with a manual!!
You have produced a couple of Chaos based modules – is this a general interest you have outside of the music production world?
Yes. Ever since Gleicks book CHAOS, which I read in the early 90s I’ve been interested in chaos. READ THAT BOOK! But not just chaos – complexity science as well. And of course chaos and complexity especially turned me on to bottom up organizations. Not just top down.
This has implications for music as well as any creative endeavor. I love science and it is a great source of insight and joy for me as I gather joy from learning. If I could ever improve my math skills I’d probably love science even more!!
Anyone taking a casual glance at your website would assume that you are a fan of psychedelics – are you on the Timothy Leary “Set and Setting” side of the fence or the Ken Kesey “you’re either on the bus or not on the bus” side? Or do you just like the aesthetic that goes along with that world (i.e. the imagery and philosophy?)
Well my first answer would be “no comment” 😉 but I think it’s important to understand that although the two camps of Kesey and Leary didn’t coexist very well at the time, for me they are two sides of the same coin. Leary’s eight circuit model of consciousness is a very helpful model (which was presented in his book “Info Psychology “) which was then taken up even better by Robert Anton Wilson (and I highly recommend Wilsons cosmic trigger series or “Prometheus Rising” or the lluminatus trilogy and of course Thomas Wolfe’s “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”)
And set and setting is crucial. But Kesey and the pranksters got it right too. And the absurdity and newness is so important. Leary and his Milbrook gang were older and maybe a bit more stuffy 😉
But Kesey’s idea of “graduating ” is important too.
But hey let’s NOT forget John Lily!! He’s really important!!
Your latest module is called “Telephone Game” – we talked about the naming of the module back at NAMM in January. I explained that in the UK that game is know as “Chinese Whispers” where children will whisper something into their friend’s ear and that person has to pass on what they think they heard to the next person and at the end of the chain the last person compares what they think they heard with what the first person actually said – it’s essentially about how information is often degraded or changed from point to point. It’s a very unusual design ethos, maybe you can tell us a little about that and give some practical applications of the module (keep it simple!!!)
It’s really hard to answer this in short! The telephone game like most of my products started with an idea that I was very excited about and then I spent a long time trying to figure out how to implement that idea. I like to work off inspiration. (Never off of projections of what will sell , etc ) if I feel it’s the right idea..,I grab it. So with the telephone game there were a few things I was really aiming for. One was the idea of riding the wave of self generative music as a performer but being able to harness it and use it as a tool for live music creation.
You take that module..give it a source that’s random or chaotic and then give it a clock . Then you take it’s output clock and feed it to a gate sequencer or clock divider . Why ? Because you want to drive four or five Envelopes. These four or five Envelopes are used to drive VCAs to cut the five Control Voltages the Telephone Game puts out in response to the initial input AND the amount of feedback you choose.
There are five cells. Five track and holds. These five memory cells each record one snippet of whatever the last cell had.
So on one hand it’s a Bucket Brigade. But then the last cell and the sum of all five cells feedback. Feedback based on how much you turn it up.
And one of your five outs is the sum of all five.
Well depending on how fast or slow you drive it , the results are endless.
You can make boss nova music or techno. And you can make It all live!
But it can be so melodic. It doesn’t just sound like “noise”. I use it in conjunction with a step sequencer as my main sequencer.
Sequencers seem to be one of the hottest areas in Eurorack modules at the moment, there’s the Audio Damage Seq1, the Intellijel Metropolis, TipTop’s Circadian Rhythm, Orthogonal Systems ER-101, and many more. Any suggestions as to why this might be and is it an area you’d like to cover in the future?
Well first off, we have already made the Ardcore which has about four or five different sequencers already and the Telephone Game is my pitch sequencer, but why are sequencers so popular? Well I think a lot of it had to do with people stepping back and saying OK ..I got this modular, I can make a lot of interesting sounds . But you want to make more than sounds. You want to be able to arrange and invent and modify. I know I want more sequencers.!! They allow me to really use the power in my modular.
I’ll never forget the first time I sequenced my prophet 600 back in the 90s…”ahhh…that’s what this synth can do!!’ Anyway as I said earlier Eurorack and Modular is growing like wildfire and it only makes sense that tools that help with music making are exploding. At least that’s my thought on it.
Anyone else in Eurorack/Modular land that you particularly admire?
Bubblesound!!! Woo hoo! And Verbos Electronics! Woo hoo. My really good friends. 4ms…I love those guys. Obviously I admire the founding fathers and I try to learn from the past…in the sense of trying to see how much they created. Not in the sense of trying to make vintage stuff but they created so much. Buchla and Moog. Alan Pearlman (ARP), Dave Rossum (E-mu Systems) and many more.
My apartment has such a huuuuge collection of old documents. Magazines and books on electronics and synths. We are running out of room. Come over and see it!
You’re based in New York state – tell us a little about your locality. Does it have any influence over your designs and what you are doing.
I live in NYC. 13 years now. Well it sure is cramped and loud!! But I live on the same subway as Verbos Electronics and Control. I love it. But it’s main influence is I’m broke a lot. !! It’s so expensive. Come visit !!
Booking my ticket right now!