The Future Of Modular Synthesis (An Interview With Noise Engineering)

Noise Engineering started when co-founder Stephen made a prototype Ataraxic Translatron on a dare one weekend. One module led to another and Noise Engineering is now known for digital oscillators, quirky sounds, and their “Latin-ish” naming scheme.

Noise Engineering currently makes hardware products in Eurorack and in 5U, and Rack Extensions for the Reason platform.

Based in sunny Los Angeles, all products are designed in-house by husband-and-wife team Stephen and Kris, with copious input from tester/modular extraordinaire Markus, and are manufactured in Southern California.

Tim Butler aka Special Circumstances caught up with Stephen of Noise Engineering to have a chat about all things modular.

Photo Credit: Britt McTammany
Why Eurorack? What does it mean to you? Where does the drive for you to build Eurorack come from?

A few years ago, a co-worker bought a Eurorack system. Being the sort of person I am, I started critiquing a lot of these modules and my friend basically called me out on it *laughs*. He was basically like “stop whining about my modules unless you can actually make some”. And so I made him a module which actually became our first product.

Designing a standalone synth would be a tremendous amount of work (though we would love to work on one too). Eurorack, on the other hand, is a lot more flexible. It’s very freeing because you can take a very simple concept and turn it into a product really fast. And they’re just a lot of fun just to work on.

What are your professional backgrounds, pre-Noise Engineering?

I spent over 10 years as an audio programmer working in video games, and got very burnt out because that’s kind of what the video game industry does to people! And my wife Kris was a biologist at the time. She also was getting burnt out with her career. We were fortunate enough to get to a point where we could do Noise Engineering full-time, and so we took that leap.

(c) Britt McTammany
Photo Credit: Britt McTammany
What are your musical influences and how do they influence your module design choices?

I’m old enough to have gone through a few music fads in my lifetime, and you certainly hear specific time periods in some of our modules. You can probably also tell that I listen to a lot of industrial and techno, just by the way our stuff sounds.

Your modules are considered ‘modern classics’, and have become quite ubiquitous in modular setups around the world. They are quite unique in both function and sound — it’s as if you’ve found your niche. When coming up with new modules, are you actively looking for gaps in the market, or do you design the modules and hope that people catch on to them?

Thanks! And both! We try to not make a product that already exists. With some of our utility modules, it’s kind of hard, as one of our goals is to work up to being able to make a full system.

But in general, we try not to imitate unless we really need it for that context. In any case, we always try to make it at least somewhat of a different take. When coming up with ideas, it usually starts with “I would really like this module” and then we have to consider if it already exists. And if the answer is “no”, then we’re like “OK — we’ve gotta make that”.

If it does already exist, then it usually ends up being a lower priority, or we just don’t bother with it because we don’t want to make exact replicas of existing modules. It really has to be a unique take if we’re going to make something close to something that already exists.

(c) Britt McTammany
Photo Credit: Britt McTammany
Talk us through a bit of your creative process when you design modules. Is it the same process every time, do you have a set way of how you do it, or does it just develop organically?

I have a notebook that has over a hundred ideas in it. Most of them won’t ever become modules but it’s where we keep the master list of ideas. Sometimes we pull ideas from there and they combine in interesting ways, though, so it’s handy to have them in the book.

And I guess these days we do have more of a pipeline. We get people sending us module ideas all the time, which is great, but sometimes they are things that either don’t fit within our aesthetic or just won’t realistically work.

But it’s great, it’s always fun to just hear people’s ideas. We talk to a lot of musicians who have specific requests or want something that can make a particular type of sound. The Manis in fact, was developed directly with two musicians. We have another whole line slated for next year that is based on some interactions we had with another musician.

As a team, we talk through feature sets, options, possibilities etc — and in that discussion come to an agreement of what the feature set should be.

Once we know what the Ins and Outs and the knobs are going to be, Kris does a front panel layout and we fight over that for a while.  Once we’re all happy with that and we want to make a prototype, then Kris and I will make a schematic from it and Markus is assigned panel art.

Kris does the PCBs as well. We then ship the prototypes off to a manufacturer and they assemble it, and in a couple of months, they arrive in the mail. In the meantime, I work on the firmware if it’s a digital module.  When it arrives, Markus starts on test, we get feedback. make fixes, design changes and iterate. We do a lot of iteration on hardware for most of our modules.

(c) Britt McTammany
Photo Credit: Britt McTammany
Do you have any plans to expand beyond Eurorack and 5U modular stuff into ‘semi-modular’ or larger format?

My goal is to make something in every format imaginable *laughs*. We have a lot of stuff in progress, a lot of it which we can’t talk about it just yet!

But the bottom line is yes, I want to make tabletop stuff, software, everything. I’d also love to do some sort of like standalone/semi-modular toys which could be a lot of fun. And guitar pedals — a part of me really wants to do guitar pedals… I’ve got to do at least one!

How difficult is it to maintain interest and longevity in a market where people constantly want the craziest and latest modules?

It’s a good question. I mean, to some degree the market tells us what they’re interested in. We ran a giveaway where we were overstocked on a certain item that was a slow seller, but then actually got a lot more interest because of it.

And we don’t sit still at all, we’ve had a module come out almost every month this year — we’ve already done 6 in 2019. So to some degree, we’re just always releasing new stuff — which is one way to do it!

Some of the older stuff like the Basimilus Iteritas Alter (check out demos here) continues to do well, too, which helps.

On that note, what’s your favorite module you’ve designed and why?

It changes a lot, and “favorite” can mean different things too.

I think the best sounding oscillator that we’ve ever done is the Cursus Iteritas Percido (videos of it in action here) that came out this spring.

It was based on the original Cursus Iteritas, and I knew that platform really well: I knew all of its limitations and how to push it. And so like I feel like that one really pushed the envelope in terms of quality of sound and ways to modulate it.

We have a clock divider that we showed in NAMM. It’s on a slower development track, and it’s 4HP. It’s one of my favorite modules because it’s just so useful. You can just dial in polyrhythms and it’s very musical and intuitive.

The state of Eurorack is quite healthy at the moment. Do you think this boom that’s happening at the moment will continue? And if so, where do you see module design heading in like 5 to 10 years down the track?

True longevity? I don’t know… but I don’t think we’re anywhere near the end of it, minus some kind of world catastrophe happening or something *laughs*.

It could be a 5-year fad, a 20-year fad or even an 80-year fad. Kind of like how electric guitars are here to stay, you know?

In terms of near-term trends, I think stereo is going to start becoming more universal. That’s one of the things that we are actually dabbling a lot with this year. Technologically, there’s going to be more and more processing power in smaller and smaller spaces.

Right now there’s actually one kind of tier of processing density that we’re going to start seeing in the market that hasn’t been seen before, and then in another year or two there actually is going to be something that’s about 10 times more powerful than that, and I think it’ll quickly become the standard.

People who are developing software plug-ins will be able to do more serious DSP stuff in hardware. There are already a bunch of companies that are actually marketing hardware to make that easy for companies.

Personally, I’d like to see more ways of performing with modular — more tactile and user-interface focused stuff. That’s something I think about a lot and something I want to see more of in the future.

Honestly, I feel like there’s going to be some pretty cool breakthrough in the way that we interact with modules, though I don’t quite know what that will be yet!