Interview: Marc Verbos

VB: Can you explain how you started manufacturing modules? Have you been trained? Did you learn from books?

MV: The way that I started... well, I was interested in using synthesizers and making electronic music since I was very young. So I started to make music using electronic instruments when I was 13 years old. And at that time, in 1989 or something like that, all the analog instruments from the seventies were not interesting to most people, so it was very easy to find them for very low prices and so I was starting to - as a teenager - buy old synthesizers and a lot of times, they were not working. Then I started to experiment with electronics, trying to fix them. When I bought an EMS VCS3 for very low amount of money, but it wasn’t working and I couldn’t fix it myself so somebody gave me the phone number of somebody who could help me. So I talked to him on the phone and went over to his house and he had a huge collection of modular instruments: 8 panel Serge, EML instruments, Synthi and Putney and a huge fifty space Buchla 200 which came from Cal Arts University, Music Easel. That was Grant Richter. So that was the beginning of my digging in more to repairing synthesizers and learning about them. Also he showed me the prototype he was working on of what became the Wiard. So, in those early years, he acted as a kind of mentor to me. When I tried to build something on my own and it didn’t work, he would help me to figure out what was wrong. He was the guy who was doing repairs on all the vintage Buchla instruments that were out there. There aren’t many of them, something like 30 systems in total, so he would get things for repairs and he would show me inside and compare the one that he was repairing for someone to one of his system and we talked a lot about the history of electronic musical instruments and about the reason why this one or that one is better. Over the course of some years, then he didn’t really want to be the guy who was fixing the Buchla for everybody anymore and sort of passed it on to me because I was still very hungry and excited about it.


VB: So you didn’t learn from literature. It was really from one guy: Grand Richter.

MV: I did learn from books but in those days, in the nineties, there was not so much information on the internet. I was a member of a mailing list and I’m still am, called SynthDIY where people from all over the world are sharing ideas about building synthesizers and how to fix them. But there was not, or at least at that time, so much information in the books because it is something so specialized. I think the studying of all the synthesizers was more important for developing my personal style of synthesizers design than a formal electronics education.

VB: What would you recommend to someone who wants to start making synthesizers now?

MV: In the same way that I said related to the last thing, studying what has been done before is the most effective way to learn because they say, “there is nothing new under the sun”. When it comes time to make a new synthesizer module, we don’t invent the oscillator, we try to think of a way that we can use the existing things that are out there and draw the best ideas or the most useful musical elements of the things that were built before and then try to bring up the things we like from the past and turning it into something that is new. So, in a way, building a synthesizer, is not so far away from using a synthesizer. Because behind the scenes, each module is actually a series of sub-circuits that are working together.

VB: It seems that you prefer analog technologies to digital technologies in your designs? Can you explain that?

MV: Well, what I at least see is that if you design an instrument where the musician working together with it is the plan, then it shouldn’t matter so much if it’s digital or analog, or what’s going on behind the scenes, because that’s not so important to the user. What is important to the user is how the interface works and how the relationship between the instrument and the user is happening. So, I don’t have a commitment to analog because it sounds so great. I have a commitment to making functional, inspiring musical devices, not powerful tools. It should be something that is inspiring to the musician and my area of expertise in electronics is more with analog than with digital. I’m not a programmer. I design electronics. But not because some kind of purest standards, I just work with what I know, how to do it to get to the result that I’m looking for.

VB: But you have to deal with digital technologies?

MV: Yes sometimes but it’s not my preferred method. It’s just because of the way that I prefer to design not because of some rule that it can’t be anything digital because I’m an analog purist. No, it’s about what the process would be for using it.

VB: How do you proceed when you create a new module?

MV: It scares some people that I still design the schematics for electronics on paper, not using software and I design circuit boards from what-you-see-is-what-you-get not using any automatic things. But I do the hard work : the panel design, circuit design, and it’s very important to me that the idea grows and then is turned into something how I wanted to function, to be, and then the electronics follow that.

VB: Do you have a big synth collection?

MV: I have a lot of old synthesizers, a lot of Buchla stuff and also other ones that are vintage. And for me, when I was involved in music production as a recording engineer producer and worked with bands and musicians from all styles of music but my personal music that I made on my own had been techno. So for me, the sexiest instruments were always ones who didn’t have keyboards that were more in the programming than they were for playing like a keyboard player. So I have some of the classics : I have the EML 400 and the sequencer (EML 401), EMS VCS3 and I have two big Buchla cabinets : with 200 series and 100 series modules.

VB: So you’re more drowned into vintage synths for your productions ?

MV: These days when I’m performing I use only products from my company but we also in our shop have a system with eurorack modules from other manufacturers because we have become friendly with all of the other brands and we often trade them. So, we have a collection of modules from other brands. And some other brands are quite close friends of ours like 4ms and Koma, and we have modules from theses companies because of friendship. I think it says a lot about the individual styles of the people designing it. It’s the personality coming through the products and so for me it’s / I feel like if I didn’t think that my brand was the best then I should do something else. I do it exactly the way I think it’s perfect. But I’m mostly inspired by the vintage things that I think were the great, unique, points in history and I think that it’s much better right now to be taking the great ideas that happened before and imagining how that could have been developed more or it could be…. What was the success of this idea and what was the failure of it. How can I develop this idea to be more what it could have been?  I think it’s a lot more important to do that than it is to clone something because the easiest thing a manufacture could do to clone something because they don’t have to do the design and they don’t have to convince people that it’s an interesting product. It’s more interesting to me to learn lessons from all the things than it is to copy them freely. An example of that is the Buchla 100, 1960 era Buchla stuff, every parameter that has a cv input, there’s a switch that chooses between cv input or the panel control not at the same time and so when you using that it makes you crazy. It’s not what you want, it’s not the way you want them to work but it’s the first generation synthesizer so lessons were learned still at that time. So to me it seems crazy to clone that and do it that way so many things from that I would have changed.