This interview is with Ben Davis from Malekko and is from issue 8 of DivKid’s Month Of Modular. Click HERE for that magazine issue.
This month I chat to Ben Davis from Malekko – Hey Ben (good name by the way), tell us who you are and what you’re doing. People that recognise you will most likely know you from recent work designing modules with Malekko.
I’m originally from North Carolina. My first musical instrument was the guitar which I started playing in elementary school. I didn’t get into synthesizers until much later. The thing that got me interested in synthesizers was most likely discovering artists like Aphex Twin, Autechre and Squarepusher. I picked up any keyboard or drum machine I could get my hands on to get started making electronic music. I made a few tracks but never released any of them. I started building a Synthesizers.com system probably around 2008. At this time my mind wasn’t open to the possibilities of a modular system and I basically used it as a keyboard monosynth. I eventually started learning some of the unconventional uses of this 5U synthesizer. This system sounded great but wasn’t quite what I was looking for as far as making really experimental music. I saw people like Richard Devine and Surachai posting pictures of eurorack modules and I had no idea what they were at the time. I started doing some research and realized the eurorack format was a better fit for me. I sold all my 5U and over the next few months had filled up a 12U rack. This was around 2010 just as more manufacturers were getting into eurorack. I played shows around North Carolina performing solo and as part of an industrial band called Mecanikill. I’ve always enjoyed performing live and my focus with Malekko is to make modules that work well in a live rig.
Have you worked with anybody else before Malekko regarding modular?
Yes, I moved to Michigan 3 years ago to start the company Macro Machines with my friend Nico Raftis. Macro Machines started with a module called the Storage Strip which took advantage of the MIDI capabilities of the Mungo 0 series modules. These modules could all pick up on program change messages allowing them to save and recall multiple presets. The storage strip made it possible to manage these settings into 16 locations and sequence through them or recall them manually. We also put out a dual 4:1 switch called the Dynamic Destiny. Nico has been working on a new module called the Omnimod which is a complex modulation source and should be available soon.
So what experiences music or technology based led you to eurorack?
My first experiences with modular were with software like Bidule, Reaktor and Max/MSP. While these options were very capable they just weren’t fun to use and took so much work to get results. I had a 5U system for a while but there were really no options to expand it other than to essentially create a Moog modular clone. The main attraction of eurorack was the amount of options available. When I got into it years ago there may have been 20 manufacturers or less. Today that number has gone way up and looking through sites like Modulargrid can be overwhelming with the number of modules available now. I really enjoy the immediacy of using eurorack. It’s fun to just plugged things in and start making sound. I got an Arduino Uno shortly after getting into eurorack. I was doing extremely basic stuff like turning LEDs on and off to just learn programming because I’d had very little experience writing code up to this point. My first things I worked on were gate/clock modulators and simple sequencers. These never turned into anything beyond a breadboard because of my lack of knowledge around analog and simple stuff like how capacitors and opamps work. Eventually through trial and error I learned the basics of getting a module to work standalone as opposed to using an Arduino hooked up to a breadboard. Out of necessity I learned how to create schematics and lay out PCBs. I use a program called Diptrace which I would highly recommend to anyone beginning to make modules as it’s very intuitive unlike other software like Eagle. Thanks to services like OSH Park I was able to affordably prototype some early designs and still use them to this day for initial prototypes. With Malekko my focus has been making modules that are made for live performance. This usually means making things as small as possible which has led me to learn how to solder stuff I wouldn’t never imagined possible to do by hand. Many of the new modules I’m working on are based on the Teensy LC which uses a QFN package type. Soldering this for the first time was a nightmare but after learning the technique and having proper magnification I’ve soldered them a few times since with no issues at all.
You designed the Varigate4 (click HERE for a video from me) and are working on the ADLFO as well. What’s next and do you see DSP / coding as your strong point?
I’m no expert at any one thing I do but I believe my main strength is that I can take a module from concept to finished product (schematic/pcb design, soldering, programming). I would say programming is what I’m best at. Up to this point the hardware side of things has been learned as I go to support what I want to do with the code. I actually don’t have much experience with DSP programming. I’m looking at a few platforms to start doing experiments with this summer. Many of my module ideas are based around sequencing, clocking and interesting ways of creating rhythms. I’m always trying to think of unique ideas that haven’t been done or making modules that perform functions that would’ve previously taken many modules to accomplish.
For example, the Varigate 4 allows for something I’d not seen in modular by being able to set probability within a sequence of a step triggering. I’d seen this applied to clocks but that wasn’t as predictable as what I created. Also the repeat function of the Varigate 4 is hard to replicate without using a few modules.
Finally anything you’d like to add?
I’ve just got home from Moogfest where we showed the Varigate 8+ for the first time. At the time it had only been together for about 2 weeks, but the code was more than 90% with only some minor things left ot finish. We got a lot of good feedback the few days we were there and I’ve come up with a few cool things to add to it. I also played a live set over the weekend using it which helped me figure out some things that would make it more friendly for live performance. The Varigate 8+ is my main focus right now and we plan to have it out this summer for $599. I’m also working on a few other projects as I have time which may be ready some time this summer or could have to wait til NAMM. Keep an eye on Malekko’s website or Muffwiggler for new nnouncements. We’ve got some really cool stuff in the works that I can’t wait to share with everyone. Thanks so much for having me this month. I really enjoy your work. I’m always recommending people check out your Varigate 4 video if they have any questions. Keep up the good work, looking forward to upcoming videos from you.
A big thanks from me to Ben Davis for the interview, it’s always great to get to know people a bit more and I’m excited to see more of his work in future Malekko products too.
And … why not take the opportunity to share a couple of others Malekko videos.