Tom Whitwell – Mr MusicThingModular

[Editor: I gotta preface this interview with the fact that I’m very pleased that Mr. Whitwell has agreed to be interviewed. His blog, MusicThing, was a wonderful resource and a great inspiration to me back in the heady days of the late ’00’s… and one of the original reasons I wanted to start a blog for nerding music gear. So without further ado…]

1. Favourite knob/fader/switch on a piece of gear and why?

So many: the start button on a Technics 1200, the Intensity knob on a Princeton Reverb, the rotary mode switches on a Makenoise QMMG, the aluminium mod wheel on a Nord G2.

Princeton amp and Telecaster with a deadly tremolo

Of things I’ve designed myself, I’m still proud of the random/lock knob on a Turing Machine, the way it steers between randomness and repetition. And the Station knob on a Music Thing Radio Music is always pleasing, you never know quite what you’re going to get. 

2. Do you have an ‘almost’ perfect bit of kit? What would you change?

A Wurlitzer 200A. I’d known about them forever – that sound on Supertramp and Beck and Joni Mitchell’s ‘Woodstock’ and so many other records. I first met one for real in a second hand shop in New York. I stared at it, then finally asked the woman in the shop if I could try it. They came over and turned it on, I played a chord and that incredible sound came out, the feel of the wooden keys, the two speakers, it’s like a hug. I bought one a few years later from a guy in London and have gradually upgraded it with a new amp board from RetroLinear, replacement legs and pedal. It’s the only vintage thing I own – about the same age as me. It would be improved if I was a better piano player.

Wurlitzer 200A with friends at the beach

3. What setup do you bring on holiday/tour/commute etc.?

My favourite place to research and design circuits is on a laptop in a beach bar, watching my family playing, completely relaxed with no pressure, a cold beer, and the ability to spend hours trying to work something out. Those ideas often lead nowhere, but turn into things years later.

4. What software do you wish was hardware and vice versa?

The Moog Model D app is great. I’d love a hardware version of that. I’ve just built a version of the external input section for my modular, because it’s such a cool effect. 

Eurorack modular and patch cables

5. Is there anything you regret selling… or regret buying?

When I was about 14 I bought a Korg MS10 for £75, then sold it to a friend for £50. [Editor: Ouch!]

6. What gear has inspired you to produce the most music electronics?

Eagle is the software I use to design circuit boards. You start by drawing the schematic and end up routing all the traces on the circuit board. There’s a long learning curve, but it now feels like a superpower. I can have an idea like “what if I had the Minimoog drive circuit in a 4hp euro module?” and have the thing my hand a few weeks later.

Big knobs and Motu UltraLite mk4 soundcard

7. If you had to start over, what would you get first?

A laptop or an iPad and some headphones. 

8. What’s the most annoying piece of gear you have, that you just can’t live without?

I have a love/hate relationship with coding. At the moment I’m enjoying the Monome Norns (I have the DIY Fates version). It’s clever and powerful, but also it’s coding, so a bit annoying.

9. Most surprising tip/trick/technique that you’ve discovered about a bit of kit?

Always feedback everything. Whether it’s feeding back the reverb sends into themselves in Ableton, or self-switching feedback loops using the Turing Machine Vactrol Mix Expander, it’s always always interesting & unexpected.

Nagra 4.2 with books

Artist or Band name?

Tom Whitwell / Music Thing Modular 

Genre?

Solder 

Where are you from?

South East London 

How did you get into music electronics?

I’d always been interested in music gear. In 2005-8 I wrote a blog called Music Thing, which was a celebration of gear for the sake of gear. In 2009 I got an arduino kit and started making guitar pedals, then in 2011 I bought a small Eurorack system and started making modules for myself. 

What still drives you to make music electronics?

I keep having ideas for things that I want. 

How do you most often start a new circuit?

I normally start with a sketch, sometimes a part of a circuit, or a panel. It’s a very round-and-round process, so there will be sketches, bits of circuits in Eagle, maybe bits of circuit on a breadboard, articles or papers to read. 

How do you know when a ‘thing’ is finished?

When there’s nothing else to remove. [Editor: Sounds like a Dieter Rams fan]

Go on… show us your current studio!

A window in a studio

Best creative advice that you’ve ever heard?

If in doubt, leave it out.

Promote your thing…. Throw us a link

[Editor: Mr. Whitwell has a severe case of British modesty and won’t self-promote. So I’ll be cheeky and do it for him. Find his eurorack modules here musicthing.co.uk. Also, leave a comment if you ever read his blog back in the day?]


Dr. Sauce – Rollin’ in Roland

1. Favourite knob/fader/switch on a piece of gear and why?

Moog Minitaur Frequency Cutoff

Moog’s Minitaur holds a big spot in my heart, this analog bass synth is the perfect size, vintage looking giving them a classy look and smooth travel; not to mention a phenomenal FILTER CUTOFF KNOB, with freaks ranging from 20Hz to 20KHz allowing me to reach deep down underground and talk to HERMES.

2. Do you have an ‘almost’ perfect bit of kit? What would you change?

With all these fantastic magic boxes out for purchase it’s difficult to come to a point of satisfaction. I go weak in the knees for gear, specially gear that is portable and gear that allows me to play without the need of a DAW. I’d agree that my synth collection is ‘almost’ perfect, the couple of things I’m lacking is a polyphonic keyboard synth to lay down proper pads and keys.

Arturia DrumBrute and MicroFreak

3. What setup do you bring on holiday/tour/commute etc.?

The portable synth that I take with me on Holidays/Tours/ & Commutes is non other than Teenage Engineerings OP-Z. The OP-Z is a powerhouse, this synth allows me to arrange and create complex tracks within five minutes time. The foot print is of minimum real estate, generously leaving space for other gear and nonsense in my backpack.

4. What software do you wish was hardware and vice versa?

I’m a DAWLESS Artist, all my gear is physical, no need for software.

Korg Electribe and Volcas

5. Is there anything you regret selling… or regret buying

I’m not one to sell my gear, but I have some regret of not buying a Subsequent 37, the DFAM and Mother-32

6. What gear has inspired you to produce the most music?

The gear which inspired me to produce the most music has been the Roland’s MC-707, SH-01a, and TR-09.

7. If you had to start over, what would you get first?

Roland’s TR8s, MC-707 and Korg’s Monologue DX

Roland Grooveboxes

8. What’s the most annoying piece of gear you have, that you just can’t live without?

My most annoying piece of gear is Roland’s Boutique TR-09, this has ben the most challenging piece of gear to learn and operate, the manner in which the synth is programmed to delete patterns in step mode is a pain in the ass, not to mention laying down the steps for the track write mode is alien when you try and learn to use this part of the synth. Even though it gives me headaches when I don’t play it for a while and forget the procedure to delete patterns and tracks, I just can’t live without it, this machine holds the classic clap and hats sounds of house and techno.

Roland TR-9

9. Most surprising tip/trick/technique that you’ve discovered about a bit of kit?

Teenage Engineerings OPZ along with the Pocket Operators have a sort of subtractive synthesis when applying effects to patterns, I really like this, stimulates creativity, but it can be a double edge sword, once you move on its nearly impossible to reproduce the same sounds.


Artist or Band name?

DR.SAUCE

Genre?

Techno, Deep House and House Music

Dr. Sauce

Where are you from?

Currently I reside in San Diego, California – Born in Delicias, Chihuahua, Mexico.

How did you get into music?

In 2004 depression preceded by a night out to a famous night club in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico called La Serata, Dj Carlos Elizondo laid down a phenomenal set that pulled me out of the depression instantaneously; that night the Dj and his underground electronic music saved my life. Days following that night I purchased a pair of Pioneer 200 CDj’s and a Djm 400mixer, this was the start to my Dj career. [Editor: the healing power of music is the closest to real-life magic]

What still drives you to make music?

Currently I’m finishing up a medical degree, soon to graduate this June I’ll become a full fledged Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine; Balance is why I make music, it allows for me to engage the artistic side of my brain allowing for a break and disconnect from the more analytical/logical side.

How do you most often start a new track?

Four to the Floor

How do you know when a track is finished?

Around minute six after the second drop past the last break, all layers removed allowing for a kick solo without the bass.

Show us your current studio

1222_Records Studio

Best creative advice that you’ve ever heard?

Limitations lead to enhanced creativity

Promote your latest thing… Go ahead, throw us a link.

Follow me on IG @1222_records for updates

[Editor: Anyone else experience the healing power of music? Leave a comment]


A773 – Melodic Modular Maestro

1. Favourite knob/fader/switch on a piece of gear and why?
I just love my Horstronic joystick! I’ve been trying out a few different touch/grab/turn modules and somehow didn’t gel with most. But the joystick is great. I removed the spring from it, to keep it from returning to center position, it makes much more sense to me, that it stays where it’s left. It feels really good and the gestural nature of if makes it such a joy to “play”.
To cater for the muscle memory I mostly have it patched up the same way: X controls “skipping of something” (left is no skip, right is more skip) and Y is “brightness of something” (up is bright, down is mellow, middle is neutral).

Horstronic Joystick

2. Do you have an ‘almost’ perfect bit of kit? What would you change?
I recently got a 2nd hand MicroFreak, that I’ve fallen in love with. It has a quite simple synth engine, but the modulation matrix opens it up and makes it easy to get organic and dynamic sounds. I was a bit skeptical about the Buchla-style keyboard, but it feels great and the polyphonic aftertouch is very nice. It has a few quirks, for instance although the engine is polyphonic, everything runs through a monophonic filter, but for me it just adds to it’s charm.
There are, however, two things that annoy me. Most importantly: it always powers on on preset 1, something I hate so much that I sold modules, I otherwise liked because of them not remembering their state between powercycles. I’m hoping they’ll change that in a new firmware soon! Secondly, it’s quite a shame that it doesn’t have CV in, but I’m not sure they can fix that with a firmware update 🙂

Arturia Microfreak

3. What setup do you bring on holiday/tour/commute etc.?
I actually stopped bringing stuff on holiday and trips. I prefer to take time off, do nothing, maybe read a book. Currently I’m reading Schoenbergs “Theory of Harmony”, which contrary to what many people believe, is not at all about 12-tone technique, but rather sums up and marks his departure from tonal music. Last time I was on an exceptionally long and boring train trip, I brought the computer and took the opportunity to work with csound. I mostly use it to generate batches of samples with slight or drastic variations for later use in the ER-301.

Orthogonal Devices ER-301

4. What software do you wish was hardware and vice versa?
The ORCΛ “sequencer” would be great to have in modular format, just a screen, connections for USB keyboard and a bunch of trigger and CV I/O. A friend of mine has made
a module for himself from a raspberry pi, that kind of is that, but it’s too much DIY for my skills and it’s also a bit rough around the edges. The only software I use on a daily basis is Reaper, I’m not sure I’d like to have that in hardware. I think software and hardware have their strengths and weaknesses, and the power of Reaper to me is the extreme flexibility, which I don’t think would carry over to hardware.

5. Is there anything you regret selling… or regret buying?
I had a Yamaha SY77 some years back, it was an amazing synth, not really sure why I sold it.

6. What gear has inspired you to produce the most music?

I’ve become much more productive since I got into modular, maybe it is because you can’t make anything new before you pull the cables. When using software I often had a hard time finishing anything, there was always this feeling of unrealized potential in every track.
With modular there’s no way around it, just finish the patch, record it, pull the cables and then move on.

Eurorack modular and audio mixer

7. If you had to start over, what would you get first?
I’d get a modular and an acoustic piano!

Night time modular lights

8. What’s the most annoying piece of gear you have, that you just can’t live without?
I have a very brutal attitude towards annoying gear, to the point that I’d rather change my workflow, than live with something that annoys me. So I can’t really think of any piece of gear I have that annoys me.

9. Most surprising tip/trick/technique that you’ve discovered about a bit of kit?
I recently found that the mystic circuits vert can make sound without any input, which surprised me, since it’s basically an AD converter. I had to switch it off/on to convince myself it wasn’t due to some old input still stuck in there. When sending it random voltages it makes some wonderful, glitchy bursts, all with a bit different flavour, depending on what output you use.

Mystic Circuits Vert

Artist or Band name?
a773

Genre?
Melodic electronic music.

Selfie?
Please no!

Where are you from?
Copenhagen, Denmark

How did you get into music?
I taught myself to play the piano as a teenager, then eventually ended up studying jazz piano at the conservatory in The Hague. Around the same time as I started playing the piano, I got interested in electronic music, and read all books (which weren’t many) available in the public library on synthesizers, and soon after I bought my first synth, a Roland JX-8P.

What still drives you to make music?
Music in general is the most satisfying activity I have ever been involved in. And when it comes to making music, the whole process of making something out of nothing is so fulfilling. I love all the small and large decisions that it takes, to make a piece of music. I also immensely enjoy improvising, that whole interacting with the music in the moment and making split minute decisions represents something very special, something that keeps the mind alert and the music fresh.

How do you most often start a new track?
That’s deliberately very different. Sometimes I have a rhythmic idea, sometimes I have a chord progression or a modulation in mind, sometimes it’s just an experiment on the modular that develops into something.

How do you know when a track is finished?
When my teletype is full (not entirely untrue). On a serious note, I make all my music on the modular, and perform it live in one take. So it’s a process, where I patch something up, then play it, then patch some more. At some point I’ll explore what I have, try out different forms, find ways to take it down dynamically, or ways to go wild. I might find there’s a tricky part I need to practice, or feel something needs to be added, a variation in the bass or more texture, so I might work a bit more on the patch. When I can play the patch confidently and don’t feel like anything is misssing, I multitrack to reaper, and at this point I consider it finished. More often than not, I do a quick mix right after the recording, to check if the performance was ok. If not I do another take, I very rarely do any overdubs or edits.

Show us your current studio

Best creative advice that you’ve ever heard?
“Don’t be afraid to imitate, the closer you get to your heroes, the closer you get to yourself”

Promote your latest thing…
latestyoutube.a773.dk

[Editor: Have you gone modular or have you deliberately stayed away?? Leave a comment]