Interview – Abstract Data

This interview is from the November issue of DivKid’s Month Of Modular. Find that magazine issue HERE.

Hey Justin, thanks for answering questions and chatting to us. To start with can you tell us what your background is? Be that music related, engineering etc.

My background is pretty mixed. I was born in London but I ‘grew up’ (still growing up really…) in Sydney – London has been home again for nearly 20 years now but my accent often sounds like I just arrived. I got into music seriously through late 80’s Punk and Hardcore but by the 90’s I was making and playing Techno, House and Breaks. Over the years I’ve played in bands as a guitarist, DJ’d, produced, remixed and run record labels. My engineering and electronic design background is mainly self-taught – I started repairing bits of my own music hardware and studio gear to keep it running and at some point, I started thinking about building something for myself.

How did Abstract Data come about? You were making desktop units before modules if I remember correctly.

Yes, I started building one-off, self-contained, desktop designs around 2008. Basically, small sequenced, mono synths with some basic CV control over stuff like PWM. It’s interesting for me to see the current crop of smaller sequenced synth designs that companies like Korg and Roland are doing now – I do wonder if I would have started on this path if those designs had existed back then.

My first ‘commercial’ builds were the Hex Series – a set of three, complimentary synth/effects boxes that covered signal generation, filtering/morphing and modulation.

I started doing my own designs for two main reasons. I was doing a lot of music and audio writing and production for television and advertising companies. This work was all ‘in the box’ – everything was done in a DAW and while I really enjoyed and appreciated the power and flexibility that gave me – especially for all the last minute or short-deadline changes that work requires – increasingly, I felt more and more like I was spending my entire day just sitting at a computer and less like I was doing anything really creative. Increasingly, the computer became much less interesting to me as a creative tool. That hasn’t really changed for me since then if I’m honest.

The other was that I really started missing playing a physical instrument – be it a guitar or percussion or a synth and I started thinking about buying a decent, fully-featured analogue synth. This was before the current crop of smaller, cheaper builds and back then – you were either buying a modern, monster-synth or you were trying to track down one of the few really good modern analogue synths that existed or you were buying one of the old-school legendary synths like an SH-101 – but also paying the ridiculous prices that those builds often go for.

From there, since I’d been tinkering with more of my own gear anyway – I started looking into building my own designs.

You had a great core set of modules early on with the ADE-10 Reactive Shaper, ADE-20 Multi-Mode Filter and ADE-30 Wave Boss. What inspired these as the first modules?

I got into Eurorack kind of by accident. I bought a couple of modules to set up a bench test rig for the desktop builds I was designing – I figured it would be a good way to get a decent sine wave and a power supply without buying expensive lab gear. From there – I was hooked very quickly. About the same time I was offered a good deal on a large – but very badly treated – Doepfer rig out of a studio that was down-sizing. I repaired the ones I could, sold some on and suddenly I’d gone from having 3 or 4 modules to approaching 9U of Eurocrack.

The first Abstract Data modules covered a lot of different bases for me. The ADE-10 was more experimental – it definitely didn’t take the safe, clean, linear approach that many Euro designers take now – there were great sweet spots but you had to find them and you could also fall off the edge with it. I like that element in sound creation.

The ADE-20 was my first attempt at doing a serious discrete analogue design. That’s ‘proper’ electronics as far as I’m concerned. I’m no purist, I have no problem with digital – but for sound generation – analogue is where it’s at for me. It wasn’t perfect but I learnt a lot from that design and I’m really looking forward to some of the designs that build on the core circuits that were developed during that stage.

Your modules are densely packed and full of features yet easy to use. Do you always set out to cover a wide range within the type of module that it is? Take the ADE-31 Logic Boss for example. It’s a comprehensive logic module with multiple channels and multiple logic types. Personally do you prefer that over say breaking anything into separate modules?

I think there’s an important balance between giving the customer something fully-featured, something that is absolutely usable in any situation – be it noodling around in the studio or doing some sort of live performance but also something that is genuinely interesting – something they can experiment with, something that doesn’t give up every feature in the first session. Getting that balance right is one of the great challenges of Euro design.

I like modules that pack a lot in, I don’t like modules where the functionality is hidden or obscured and I don’t like modules that bring absolutely nothing new to the game. I guess I try and aim somewhere between those three points.

It’s fair to say you made a big splash with the ADE-32 Octocontroller. Were you aiming to make something that would really ignite a small system? Or was it making a swiss army knife module that filled any sort of “I wish I had more modulation” type thoughts users may have?

Yeah, obviously I’m very proud of the Octocontroller, it’s become Abstract Data’s flagship module and it’s great to see that new people are still discovering it and experienced users are still finding new things to do with it.

The ADE-32 design came out of trying to solve a problem that I was having with my own rig in that, if you’re doing music that relies on clocked and quantised sequences – like most forms of dance music for example and you’re running a rig that is stand-alone i.e. you’re not slaving it to a DAW – then getting multiple, synced modulations going is actually really challenging. That seemed like a glaring hole in my early Eurorack experience – so I set out to fill it.

It ended up being a lot more than just a bunch of synced LFOs but I found that once we’d sorted the navigation method – which gives you access to all the key features right on the front panel – then we could squeeze in some bonus features like looping CV and arpeggios.

The upcoming waveshaping VCO, envelope generator and VCA flesh out the Abstract Data system into a full and comprehensive voice. Was an all Abstract Data rig always a goal?

That idea evolved over the first couple of years of designing modules but it is the long-term plan to have a complete Abstract Data signal path.

We have VCO, VCF, VCA, VC-AHDSR and a number of modulation and utility designs in development and the current Abstract Data demo rig has prototypes of all those modules running.

So where do you see Abstract Data going next? FX, sequencing, drums maybe? Any particular avenues you’d like do explore?

As far as new modules go – there’s currently a half dozen new designs working through prototyping – so that’s the next couple of years work sorted right there. The priority right now is to have a complete Abstract Data system that handles sound creation and modulation.

I am still committed to ADE-32 development, there’s some ideas for future firmware upgrades that I really want to explore and I am seriously looking at expander development.

There’s currently no plans for sequencing or percussion – but there are some digital synthesis and sound generation that I’d like to explore. There’s also loads going outside of product development, I’m looking to move out of the spare room and into dedicated work space and I’m also looking to bring some people into the team. Small steps – but all things that will hopefully keep Abstract Data growing.

Slightly off topic but you play guitar (as do I) so I wanted to ask if you see guitar and Abstract Data crossing paths at any point? Pedals maybe, or even just playing the guitar through or alongside modular.

Yes, I’ve played guitar on and off for years and I’ve been playing seriously again the last few years.

As far as using the guitar with my modular, in all honesty – I see them as two totally different music projects. The music I do with my modular leans heavily towards Techno and the stuff I play on the guitar, these days, leans heavily towards slow, soul and gospel-influenced Blues. There’s a few key styles of music that I’ve been into for most of my life – but they’ve always been part of their own thing.

As far as doing some non-modular, guitar-oriented designs – then yes, that’s definitely something I’d like to pursue.

Thanks to Justin for talking to us. Check out his site www.abstractdata.biz and watch out for updates on his Twitter and Facebook.

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