Interview – Low-Gain Electronics

low-gain-electronics-master-logo

This interview is from Issue #3 of DivKid’s Month Of Modular back from the December 2015 issue. 

Hi Logan, great to be chatting to you and asking some interview type questions for the magazine. So tell us about yourself for those that don’t know. Who are you, what do you do etc.

My name is Logan Erickson. Born and raised in Duluth, Minnesota, USA.
Relocated to Minneapolis/St. Paul MN in 2003. I’ve always been a tinkerer of circuits since I was 14 when I got into electronic music, specifically the experimental/soundscape/ambient noise scene. I found Circuit-Bending around that same time and I was hooked (Thanks Stavros!). I began bending toys, converting them into musical instruments and building my own little noise synths and getting into modular SynthDIY. Kind of ended up it into a job through out high school. I found myself involved in the 8-bit/chipmusic scene around that time up until 2009 when I was building and developing a lot of products and DIY projects/tutorials related to that scene. Around 2009-2010 Eurorack was not quite popular but some really great products had come onto the market (MakeNoise / Harvestman /B ubblesound to name a few) and that was when I changed my focus to designing for modular. Having worked for a highly respected company in the Pro-Audio market, I felt I could take my experience and knowledge from that field and apply it to my own products. I quit my day job just about 2 years ago (this July) to focus on Low-Gain Electronics full time and haven’t looked back. It has had its challenges but it has been on of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

My knowledge of the scene isn’t great but I’ve heard a few times
now that you were involved in the chiptune scene, is that right?

That is correct. My first experiences with the chipmusic scene (if you can call it that at the time), was around 2000. I had purchased program called Nanoloop. Which is a 4 track synth / sequencer program on a Nintendo Game Boy cart that allowed you to create sounds, patterns and create songs using the synth engine of the Nintendo Game Boy. Being from the small town of Duluth there wasn’t anyone else in the area to my knowledge doing this. I used to perform in my high school talent show’s. My only outlet was MP3.com for this music and to my surprise there was a very small “scene” located on the internet. At some point I put the Game Boy down around 2002, and got a little more involved in my “real” synth lust. In 2006 though the chipmusic scene kind of found me again and I found this new program called Little Sound DJ (LSDJ) for the Nintendo Game Boy. At the time they were so obscure and hard to get because it involved using these hard to find programmable carts, that a used copy would sell for upwards of $300 on eBay. I loved the program, it was tracker based, which brought me back to using fast tracker and such when I was younger. I loved it so much that I wanted more people to be able to use this software. I sourced the programmable carts, and started selling the carts and offering a service of programming the carts for people if they could provide me with proof of their license purchase. I had no idea how much effect this would have on the scene at the time. I guess it was kind of like being a drug dealer I was asked to be an admin of a small online forum (8bitcollective) around 2006-2007. It only had about 500 members when I came on board. By the time the website went under we had grown the community to over 10,000, I had a monthly podcast with a good friend of mine (Unicorn Dream Attack) where we would showcase songs uploaded to the site. When the collapse of 8BC was inevitable a small group of us went on to start the current largest chipmusic forum that I’m aware of, chipmusic.org. I was heavily invested in this scene for 5 or so years. There was a lot of drama that went down during the 8BC end of days… I ultimately had to step away from the community for my own sanity. I still love the genre and dabble from time to time on my Game Boys. But I don’t think I’ll end up doing a 100% chip/8bit album ever again.

lowgain-short-bus-angle-01If people are following your Instagram and Facebook they’ll see you often work across many formats including circuit bent stuff, 5U and eurorack. What do you think the benefits of working across different formats are?

I got my start doing SDIY 5U projects. At the time that was what was available to me. Embarrassingly I hadn’t grasped the concept of Serge until I was able to use my friends Serge system a few years ago. It was kind of a life changing moment. It made me think about synthesis in a completely different way. I was shown the light! Since then I’ve always had a passion for 4U (Serge/Banana) and 5U (MU). This is going to sound terrible coming from a Eurorack Manufacturer… but I don’t care for the eurorack format honestly. The vertical height doesn’t lend itself to quite the interfacing that I prefer and due to it’s lack of standards, it tends to set off my OCD when it comes to what I feel is important in an instrument, Interface… And banana jacks!!! Eurorack is convenient, portable, relatively affordable and as far as options go… there is nothing that compares. It’s a larger market for sure. Which ultimately lead me to manufacturing mostly in that format. I have am however retooling the shop to support 4U and MU format manufacturing. I’ll continue manufacturing in
Eurorack, but my love for the interface and concepts behind Serge (Banana) and MU format modular synthesis will never die. They just work better for me.

lowgain-24728250706_e710d3fae6_o

Possibly a daft unanswerable questions as different projects or needs call for different things but do you have a favourite synth / instrument? I.e. a closed system such as your Verbos case, The Harvestman Polivoks stuff, etc. The reason I’m asking is I’ve seen you building lots of 2600 DIY projects which really appeal as a full instrument and voice within itself. So I wondered if you had a particular soft spot for that or any other set up.

This might be a lengthy 2 part answer, but I’ll try to bring everything together at the end… 😉

In the last couple of years, I’ve come to a few realities in my life (and I don’t throw these around lightly with respect that those who battle with it worse than I do). I probably have some form ofADD and mild OCD. Because of this, it greatly effects my productivity in both music creativity and and in my personal / professional life. With regards to modular, I have been down the road (a few times!) of building the largest system I can in Eurorack. 4-6 voices running at the same time, a module per function, etc, etc. But what I’ve found happens to me is I get overwhelmed, can’t focus or have a lack of creativity because I go to the same modules for the same function every time. When I started making chipmusic, I was using a Game Boy… You have to understand the hardware to appreciate the music. The Game Boy has a 4 channel sound synthesizer.

You have to build every single sound from the ground up. It’sfour mono synths, so no more than 4 sounds can play at once. To create a song that has all of the complexities of what you’dnhear in a typical song you have to get really creative in your sound synthesis and structure. You have to exploit the limitations of this crappy little micro processor that ultimately was never meant to be used that way.

When I lived in Duluth we used to host these weekly events called “Experimental Tuesdays.” I performed for it quite often. My friend Alan (Sparhawk, of the local band Low) came up to me one night while I was setting up. He told me I had too much gear. I laughed and said that’s impossible. And he gave me the some of the most important words of wisdom. “Simplify, the more you have the more there is to go wrong.” I took that to heart. Specially after that performance, one of my circuit bent Speak&Reads literally smoked on stage. Thanks Alan, lesson learned! 🙂

I have learned A LOT from using such a limited piece of hardware (Game Boy) and apply this similar mind sent to the way I produce music now. Setting
limitations for myself and really try to focus on a simple setup and really force myself to push that system/instrument to it’s maximum potential. Exploit it’s weaknesses and use them to my advantage. So when I built these dedicated systems of say… The Harvestman Polivoks Iron Curtain system, or my Verbos Electronics System. I like the idea of sitting down in front of this relatively smaller/simple system and using just that. Maybe a few extra external FX, but just try to see what I can do with it. I view these systems as a dedicated
instrument. One that I have to learn and master. By learning the system, each modules potential, what they can and cannot do, it forces me to get really
creative with sound design. This keeps the creative part of my brain well
exercised. Instead of focusing on the non-important battle of… “What this system lacks is X & Y modules” also known as Euro-crack. Consumption. (worst words to ever come out of a manufacturers mouth right!? It’s not about what you don’t have, but rather how you use what you do have. Right?

Interface is everything when it comes to a synthesizer or drum machine for me. I have different experiences with different synthesizers based on two things.. how they sound and how they’re laid out physically.

Every time I sit down on an Arp 2600, two things happen, I hear all the classic sounds I’ve heard on records/films since the 70’s. But the interface also gets me inspired to create. I tell people this all the time… When I sit down to test a TTSH (Arp2600 clone) for a customer, I tend to spend a couple hours just
jamming on it every time because it’s just so much fun to play.

low-submix6_product_lglowgain-193x595_1427382592_5091

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s one of the only synths I can sit down in front of and literally get gitty and hyper-inspired to record an album using just that synth. Some of my favourite synths to use are the Arp 2600, Oberheim SEM/TVS-1, Serge/BugBrand format Modular, Roland Juno-60 and Tr-808.

The layouts and structure of these synths are perfect to me. Well spaced, thought out, comfortable and of course, they happen to be sonically amazing. A TR-808 has been beat (pun intended) to death with regards to it’s sounds. A classic for sure, but there is nothing really that new and creative about its sound. But when you sit down at the actual machine and start jamming on it, it’s a completely different world. I don’t know how else to explain it other than it comes down to it’s interface. And I’m pretty anal retentive when it comes to how I connect with a synth or drum machine. It could have the best sound ever but if the panel layout isn’t well thought out, it can be a deal breaker for me.

You’re most recent Low-Gain modules (both the SubMix6 and the CVP-1) have a new look and further support your previous range of modules which are more utility based. What draws you to want to make utility style modules as opposed to say a sound processor or generator?

I’m a little embarrassed to have had to change my aesthetic 3 times since starting to manufacture in Eurorack. Part of it was due to parts availability and the other was logistics. The first round of modules; ShortBus V1 and SubMix7 were done with PCB’s as front panels. The ShortBus was my first module and I wanted the panel to fit the theme of the module. School Bus yellow. SubMix7 was done with a green pcb simply because of conveniences of ordering PCB panels at the time. I used
Re’an knobs and when they dropped the soft touch knob (remember the great MakeNoise change of 2012!?!?) I kind of had to find a new knob that worked. At that time I wanted to re-brand my product to make sure it’s aesthetic matched the build/design quality that I wanted to be known for. The powder coated steel panels were inspired by two synth aesthetics, Roland System 100M and the Arp 2600. At the time I handled all manufacturing in house and had the panels manufactured in town. So I could drive over to the metal shop and inspect the panels in person. About 2 years ago though I switched over and retooled to having my PCB’s assembled out of house via pic’n’place to free up my schedule to focus on design. I ultimately just retooled to the Eurorack standard of Metal Photo processed aluminium panels. Surprisingly not cheaper to make, but cheaper to ship. One of the biggest headaches when dealing with module manufacturing is the vertical pitch of parts that fit on the front panel. Jacks, switches and Pots specifically are a royal PITA! The jacks I used on the gray panels, limited the variety of pots I could use. When I changed to the smaller style jacks it allowed me to have a smaller grid size (without sacrificing too much comfort) which in turn made me want to use a smaller knob. It just made a lot more sense to use a lot of what my manufacturer was already sourcing for their builds. There are A LOT of things to consider though when changing your aesthetic/product brand/image. You kind of have to think about every other product you want to make and how that will work in the long run.

That brings me to the Utility Question. I honestly cringe when I hear that word applied to the CVP-1 and SubMix6. I find signal routing to be essential building blocks and just as important as a VCO, VCF and VCA. You find mixers in every synthsizer made. Having said that, I’ll cave and accept the fact that they are in fact Utility style modules. I honestly don’t know why I chose to go the route. They are the essential in my work flow on any modular system, regardless if I’m using my own modules or another manufacturers. And having design them myself, I know they’re going to work how they’re supposed to, and fit a format that is comfortable for me.

In the long run, it hasn’t helped my business to have chosen these modules,. I mean I get it… there’s nothing glamorous about a mixer, a control voltage processor/signal router or a passive Logic OR combiner. Definitely not huge sellers in regards to numbers. But I take pride in the fact that they do what they’re supposed to do very well and my customers
who chose to support me, understand my design philosophy and “Get It”. I rarely see my modules come up second hand and that really tells me I’m doing something right.

lowgain-submix-front-01Tell us about your new module 2-Bits which is coming soon. What does it do?

2-Bits is a module I have been throwing around for a few years. The first prototype actually came into light around the time of the first Knobcon (2012?). Your most basic sequencer is centered on a few function blocks; A clock source, binary counter, multiplexer and a voltage source. In a nutshell I stripped the binary counter out of a 4 stage CV sequencer, added a fixed stage trigger sequencer, and a voltage scaling switch (0-5V or 0-10V). You have 2 bit inputs which are tied to the address lines of the multiplexer. Which is what controls what stage the sequencer is set to. If you understand how to count in binary then you can easily get the 2-Bits module to count from stage one to stage four sequentially. But where’s the fun in that? By using the two bit selection switches and external signal sources you decide which stage the sequencer goes to. The point of the module is to generate patterns that would take a long time to
conceptualize or would otherwise be very difficult to create. It’s kind of a happy accident machine! In the last few months I decided to add a trigger output on it which fires out a trigger every time the stage changes. If it helps to see how the stage selection works, here is the truth table.

lowgain-2-bits_render_edit

The module was originally inspired by a panel drawing Tom Bugs posted when he announced he was working on a new modulation sequencer for his BugBrand line of modular. It was kind of hyper inspiring and I said to myself… “Brilliant! I need something like that in other formats other than Bug!!” And drew up a schematic did a prototype pcb to proof the concept of how I would
have done it and it worked. I ended up tabling the project though for a couple of years because I’m not someone to just toss something together quick, slap my name on it and call it a product. A module design has to percolate a bit with me. Last year at NAMM I announced the DAC sequencer line (which is still happening BTW!) that was a heavily
expanded version of the 2-Bits module. An 8 stage version with built in flip-flip functions and trigger/gate sequencing with expansion modules. All in all I think I have 5-6 modules planned for that system. But it needs a bit more work on the interface design. One of the best things I got from NAMM this last year was the blank expressions on peoples faces of how the module worked. Once I explained it they kind of got it.. When they saw it in action they were hooked and loved it but still not quite sure what was going on. When it comes to instruments of creativity, I am a firm believer you should feel inspired to use something just by looking at it. It shouldn’t need a lot of explanation or demo videos to sell it. So I tabled the product line for a little while. In a way the 2-Bits module will be a nice entry level module to understanding the DAC sequencer system. And so far the responses I’ve heard with people are perfect… Once they understand the 2-Bits the DAC makes perfect sense to them! Mission Accomplished! Laughs

I think people will really like the 2-Bits module when it becomes available.. Hoping for January availability at this point (slightly delayed from my original projections of Fall 2015, but I wanted to make sure it was just right!) . Just proofing the last prototype! Street price should be the same as my other modules currently available, $199USD.

Finally, can you tell us about any new products or projects coming up?

Earlier I mentioned the my battles with the ability to focus. This has played into a HUGE part in my lack of product development/release schedule over the last few years. I am working on so many different things that I’m spread very thin and unable to focus on just one or two things. There are just too many things I want to do, and not enough time to do them! So I am making a small amount progress on a lot of really great things! That said, this new year is a chance to try forcing myself to focus on 1-3 projects at a time instead of 20! 2016 should bring a few of the main building blocks of a synthesizer though, which is a personal goal. Get my product line to a point where I can perform using my own instrument/system.

The “short” list currently consists of a dual vco, dual EG/VCA, 2 filters, wave shaping and the DAC Sequencer system. Not to overload that plate, but I also have an entire line of stand alone 1/4” desktop/rack devices that will compliment modular and guitar fx pedal users quite well. Next on the block though for completion after the 2-Bits is released will be the multi-mode filter and a drum/synth voice module that I think will turn quite a few heads. I don’t want to leak too much about it before it’s ready.

It sounds like a lot, and it is. I’m not planning on getting All of that out in 2016, but we shall see how it goes. I’m not a fan of the recent “rush to market” approach that I’ve seen start to happen in the last year or two. The market is booming right now but we shouldn’t be in a rush to flood it. I’d rather take my time creating something right than to push a module into production prematurely and only to be a splash in the pan for a week. Quality over Quantity: The lost business model

It’s being great to chat to Logan and get to know him, his ideas and more about Low-Gain too. Be sure to check out his website linked below and check out his Instagram page “lowgain” for picture and video updates lowgain-audio.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *