by Kevin McHugh

Make your passion a profession: Build
your own instruments

We speak to four musicians who have successfully turned their hands to
building and sharing the tools of their craft.

In this series, producer, DJ, label head, and mix engineer, Kevin McHugh sets out to explore some of the less obvious ways in which music makers can turn their existing skills towards a fulfilling career. Along the way, he’s speaking to successful figures from each field and diluting their wealth of combined experience into practical advice for aspiring music makers. In this installment, he speaks to some of those who have turned their attention from creating music to making a separate career of creating and sharing their own hardware and software instruments.

We’ve explored a lot of really great professional creative outlets in this series, but this entry might be one of the most intriguing. As musicians, we’re all working towards finding our own “voice” – that unique imprint that you bring to your music that no one else can copy. So much of what we’re doing, particularly in the electronic realm, is cobbling together a number of decisions and elements that stamp our work like a signature. Nearly every musician, from guitarists to pianists and studio-alchemists, default to using instruments that were made by someone else, albeit in their own unique way. But the set of artists we’re talking to in this entry have gone a step beyond. They’re conjuring up a tool to achieve something they haven’t yet seen or heard, building it, and then making that instrument available to other artists to use.

It’s a unique creative act – to build the instrument that will make the music. Sometimes it’s a piece of hardware that can plug into other modular units, sometimes it’s a bit of code that reimagines how a signal can be created and manipulated, sometimes it’s a combination of all the above. The extraordinary amount of imagination and ingenuity they each apply to their work, creates endless new opportunities for other artists to explore in their own creative practices. But they all start from the same place – they are all musicians whose passion led them to hear not just a new sound, but a new tool to make that sound. Let’s talk to them.

Katerina Mantzari

Katerina Mantzari is a Greece-based violinist, programmer and core member of Audiomodern – an audio tool creation company who specialize in building virtual instruments and effects – both for KONTAKT and as standalone plug-ins.


What led you to pursue your love of music into making instruments? How did you develop the skills you bring to Audiomodern?

As a musician and programmer, I wanted to find ways to combine my two passions, music and computer programming. In the first years of my studies, I started building some simple Kontakt scripts and I was surprised by the ways you could bring something to life. After a few months of self-training, searching and asking the KSP Gurus in the Native Instruments forum, I was yet able to start working with Audiomodern and build more advanced software from scratch. My general knowledge of other programming languages helped a lot, but KSP keeps being a really accessible way to combine music with computer programming.


How much of your instrument-making practice is aimed at creating something for your own music, and how much of it aims at creating something that others will use? 

Since I started building Kontakt Instruments, I wanted to share the software with other musicians to help their workflow. It is a pleasure to know that the software I have worked on is being used by other people to create music. Their positive feedback gave me the opportunity to focus on computer programming, to get improved and try to build more advanced and creative software.


Aside from yourself, is there a musician or user you hope will use your instruments?

We are happy for all the supportive people and music producers who use our instruments.

We have also received feedback and support from very popular producers who frequently use our software in their projects and i am very proud of this.

It is also very important that we often receive valuable feedback from users, explaining the ways they use our software, and we bring their methods into the projects with a clear and easy to use interface.

Do you find that other instruments you use in the studio give you a sense of something else you want to make? Do you take inspiration from what you already use, or from what you find doesn’t yet exist?

Our team consists of highly skilled music producers, who have released their music through popular record labels, using music production software and hardware since the 1990’s. Their experience helps our team to determine the type of projects that do not yet exist and definitely could provide innovative solutions.

When we start designing a new project, our team spends many hours in brainstorming sessions, trying to implement creative features that could provide a new approach with modern sound-design techniques and engines. As technology progresses on a daily basis, we believe that modern music producers appreciate fresh ideas that do not repeat older types of approaches and, for this reason, we don’t spend time designing products that already exist.

We do take inspiration from the ways we use existing software, including Audiomodern’s, in combination with creative features that do not yet exist and could ease, or even automate their usage.

It is also very important that we often receive valuable feedback from users, explaining the ways they use our software, and we bring their methods into the projects with a clear and easy to use interface. We regularly update our software and are proud that we manage to implement 90% of the features requested by users.

Our main goal for our tools is to provide modern and simplified processes, while keeping them useable for anyone who uses music production software, from a beginner to a professional music producer.


What are some of the “wrong” ways your instruments are used that have inspired you? Did they give you new ideas about developing new products?

All of our instruments have been built with a very simple logic and it is almost impossible for me to find a wrong way that they can be used. The only “wrong” way that caught my attention a few years ago, was a video from a user who had combined one of our loop-based Kontakt Instruments, with our MIDI generator plugin, Riffer. Although the Kontakt instrument was built to provide long loops from Modular synthesizers, he used it to trigger only small sections of the loops and this created a really interesting result.


Is there something you can not make at the moment, but still dream is possible?

As new technologies and innovative solutions are being discovered, there are many new things that I want to learn, or improve on. Technology provides solutions that we already use in order to build music production software and there will be even more techniques implemented in the next few years. That would be really interesting for me to be able to work on a project that uses machine learning, as this sector is still in an early stage for music production software.

Corry Banks

Corry Banks is the owner, founder and designer of Modbap Modular – an American-made line of Eurorack instruments aimed at beat-driven, hip-hop–leaning electronic artists. Based in California, Modbap is a fusion of the language of modular synthesis and boom bap hip hop. With a background in instrument development and IT, he brings a unique technical element as well as a focus on a sound that is often overlooked in the modular world.


What led you to take your love of music into making eurorack modules? Was the process of developing hardware a daunting part of that decision?

That’s a great question. There were a series of events that seemed to push me in that direction. I have always wanted to be a maker of some sort. When I studied electronics in the ‘90s I’d planned to build a Theremin for a class project – circuitry and all – but it never happened. I was pulled in many directions back then. Over time and many moons, I began reviewing gear with and that led to beta testing. Through the natural course of testing and reviewing I started to see my ideas/suggestions and feature requests be implemented into some of my favorite gear. So, at some point, I knew I could do for myself what I’d done for others. It made Modbap Modular seem attainable and doable.

Being a musician actually fueled my confidence in my own ideas. I felt like, “Yo, I need XYZ and I’m going to start jotting down my ideas.” Then I started doing mock-ups in photoshop. I built a journal of these ideas and mock-ups then one summer I found myself “unemployed with a crown.” Despite my rock-star employee status, the organization evolved and my job ended. I left on a high note. and with a nice severance package. That severance package became seed money for Modbap Modular.

I then realized that by way of, I had become a part of a community. I had attended NAMM for many years. I had met and interacted socially with so many developers and designers etc. that I amassed a great group of friends who taught me and even mentored me in many ways. Again, that gave me the confidence to use the “seed money” and knowledge I have gained to go for it.

As for the development part being daunting? Well, it’s not really. It doesn’t feel that way. It’s a process and I learn more each day, but it never feels like a daunting process. It’s worth mentioning that my day job is in IT. I’ve worked in IT since the late ‘90’s. I’ve grown through the ranks into IT management where I tend to manage projects full of long arduous tasks day in and day out. So, the reality is that I’m exercising that muscle memory for my own company and product development. It all feels very natural and the fact that I’m developing my own products makes for a convergence of my technical life and my creative life. The reward is in the end result: Getting products that I’ve dreamt up into the marketplace and into the hands of creatives like myself.


How much of your instrument-making practice is aimed at creating something for your own music, and how much at creating something others will use? Can you describe the musician or user you’re hoping to inspire? 

Yes, indeed. Modbap Modular’s tagline is “made for Eurorack, strong enough for boom bap.” Admittedly, it’s a play on the words of a certain other tagline. My products are in Eurorack format and appeal to those in the Eurorack modular world. Still, hip-hop heads and beatmakers can pick up these products and incorporate them into their creative processes and feel confident that certain concepts remain unchanged. To simplify it even further, I want to make products that appeal to the best of both worlds. That’s the goal.

I was told years ago that successful business owners know their customer because they are their customer. So, yes indeed. Absolutely every product in the pipeline is exactly what I want and what I need in some cases. But it’s not lost on me that this is a business. I have to consider the viability of the product for the customer. That is why every little detail matters so much to me. When I design a product, I’m thinking about the user interface and how the user interacts with the product. I’m thinking about problem solving. I’m thinking about the fun factor and the practical use because I want to be sure it appeals to other creatives in the same way that it appeals to me.

Can I describe the musician that I hope to inspire? Of course, he is I and I am him. I make beats. I love synthesis. I am HIP-HOP. I want to learn and create. I want to experiment and explore new territory. I want to push the envelope a bit for myself creatively and for the culture. I think my customer shares that passion.

Do you find that other instruments you use in the studio give you a sense of something else you want to make? Do you take inspiration from what you already use, or from what you find doesn’t yet exist?

Yes, to both. One day I was working on a beat set for an upcoming performance. I had my SP404 in use. I snapped a quick photo and posted it on social media with the caption “they should make this effects section for eurorack.” One minute later I deleted the post because it dawned on me… “F that! Who is “they”? I’m going to do it myself.” And right in that moment Connekt4 was born. Connekt4 evolved into my first product for Modbap Modular, Per4mer.

On the flip side of those types of revelations, I often design and mock-up things that I’d like to use that don’t exist. Mostly those are features or processes from my beat making process that don’t translate well in the modular world. I spend a lot of time thinking of and philosophizing about how to wrangle modular frequencies into grooves and beats that resemble hip-hop. Sometimes it requires creative patching and other times the tools just don’t exist.


What are some of the things you’ve learned about building hardware that you didn’t know before starting? Are there modules you want to make that aren’t possible yet, but you envision for the future?

Things evolve. You don’t always go in with all of the answers. Some things will work as you imagined, and others will not but the end result will most times be better than imagined. I think I understood that developing hardware is a process, but until you are actually in it, you don’t understand just how much of a “process” it really is.

I have more modules planned for the future. I wish I could share more about them now, but I wouldn’t say that there are things that I envision today that aren’t possible today. With enough R&D, imagination, and money, one could make anything. I just focus on what I have access to and what I can acquire in order to make my designs. To see the end result is part of the fun and the reward.

What I envision for the future is a growing and evolving line of dope Modbap Modular modules that form a cohesive Modbap-focused system.

Taiho Yamada

Taiho Yamada found his love for synthesis as a child – even before he really understood music. Through a fascinating ride from making synth-pop to actually developing synths for some of the most popular brands in the industry, he learned the craft of imagining and building the tools that cut the front edge of synthesis. He co-founded MOK after stints at Alesis, M-Audio, and has put his expertise into the Waverazor synth, which exists both in the digital world and as a dual-oscillator version in the modular hardware world.


You’ve worked on a number of well-known hardware and software instruments while also making your own music. Now you make an instrument that exists as both hardware and software. How has your experience helped you there, and what originally led you to take your love of music into making instruments? 

One day when I was very young, we were getting out of the car to visit my grandparents. My dad and I heard the sound of someone playing a synth from an open window of a nearby apartment building. The sound was mesmerizing and utterly new.  My dad asked me if I liked it and I said yes. A short time later, he gave me my first analog synthesizer, a Moog Prodigy. As a nine year old, I began learning intuitively about Oscillators, Filters, LFOs and Envelopes.

I formed a synth-pop band in high school with a good friend, and this project eventually turned into our current band, Command Line. But back in the 80s, each album we completed, and each live performance, taught me more and more about music creation and the technology behind it.

It was through some of the friends I met as a student at UCLA, and by some strange twist of fate, that I found myself in a fetish dance club called Sin-A-Matic, speaking with an Alesis engineer about sample rates, looping, and bit depths. I didn’t know it at the time, but while people were getting voluntarily (and literally) whipped in the back room, I was being interviewed for my first job.  Without the technical background I had gained from my high school synth band, I would not have been prepared for this opportunity.

In 1993, I started as a contractor working on samples and presets for the Alesis Quadrasynth, their first synthesizer. Over time, I gained an understanding of engineering processes and how to prioritize design choices against the availability of engineering resources. I became Director of Sound Development, learning how to manage a small in-house team, and scores of external contractors, in order to produce the factory preset banks for all of our products.

Unfortunately, by April of 2001, Alesis was bankrupt. It’s hard to find a silver lining in an event such as this, but of course there are lessons to learn from failure as well as success. While it was disorienting to leave Alesis after 13 years, it gave me the opportunity to join the team at M-Audio, which was a vibrant and successful workplace filled with talented and driven people. M-Audio also afforded a work/life balance that allowed me to make music again. It was during those years that I released albums with Command Line and Simple Human Element that are the most fulfilling creative projects I’ve worked on to date.

Bootstrapping a tech business from the ground up has been the most challenging work I’ve ever done, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the experiences I gained at Alesis and M-Audio… which in turn wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t gotten into making synth music as a teen

Of course I also worked on many keyboards during this time, but the one closest to my heart is the Venom synthesizer, which I designed with the help of an amazing development team.  Although M-Audio was tremendously excited about the instrument, the Great Recession hit and conditions became extremely challenging.  Layoffs and process changes took their toll, and productivity slowed to a crawl. I used every trick I had learned up to that point just to get Venom released. Unfortunately M-Audio was sold in 2012 and I was again without a job.

But by another twist of fate, my old Alesis friend, Rob Rampley, had just left Line 6, and we hatched a plan to make synths again.  Together, we founded MOK and developed a synth engine with an innovative wave-slicing oscillator that we patented.  This became our flagship synthesizer, Waverazor, which won Sonicstate’s best plug-in award at NAMM 2017. Two years later, we released the Waverazor Dual Oscillator, bringing our oscillator technology to real-world hardware as a Eurorack module.  We wouldn’t have been able to do this without drawing from our collective industry experience to make the right decisions with our partnerships, consciously establish a code base that’s easily leverageable into embedded systems, and to select and secure an ARM processor–based hardware platform.

Everything I learned over the past 40 years went into the product planning and business development strategies we’ve used to establish MOK as an innovative synthesizer and effects company. Bootstrapping a tech business from the ground up has been the most challenging work I’ve ever done, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the experiences I gained at Alesis and M-Audio… which in turn wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t gotten into making synth music as a teen… and that wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t answered “yes” to my Dad, and been lucky enough to receive a Moog synthesizer as a child.

How much of your development of Waverazor and other tools at MOK is aimed at creating something for your own musical ideas, and how much of it’s aimed at creating something that others will use? Aside from yourself, is there a musician or user you are aiming for?

That’s a really interesting question… Our aim is to provide tools to a wide range of musicians, and we consider them first, ahead of our own concerns, but I find that there’s an inherent element of personal taste, even when conceptualizing an instrument at a deep engineering level. With the Waverazor plugin, we developed our wave-slicing oscillator because we really liked the aggressive character of the prototype algorithm.  We also found it exciting that Waverazor offered brand-new sonic possibilities, calling back to the exploratory tradition of the first synthesizers. These core aspects of the engine helped us make the decision to develop the instrument. But beyond that, there’s the aspect of “voicing” the engine, that is, programming a factory preset bank with a particular vision for how the synth will sound.

For example, the DSP chip for the M-Audio Venom was originally designed to make simple General MIDI sounds like grand pianos and strings. We changed the engine algorithms to produce a gritty virtual analog voice path, and then I directed the sound development team to avoid presets often heard in other VA synths. There have been plenty of instruments offering well-polished analog brass patches, so I asked for unusual, modern presets instead, and gave free-rein for the sound designers to explore. We wanted to give Venom a distinctly new identity and I think we succeeded.

With Waverazor, we were primarily aiming for hardcore synth enthusiasts who have a deep knowledge of synthesis and want to experiment with new technology. A wave-slicing oscillator is inherently more complex than calling up a single wave shape in a normal oscillator, and since Waverazor had strange new synthesis parameters, we didn’t want to do anything to inadvertently restrict the power of the engine. If we had, we might have missed valuable synthesis techniques that sound designers tend to discover during the voicing phase.

As a rule, power and complexity rise together, and in order to manage Waverazor’s vast parameter set, we implemented an innovative contextual editing system that allows you to focus on any synthesis module and follow its input and output connections to any related section of the synth. Since there are no fixed pages in the Waverazor GUI, you can do things like having zero LFOs in one patch, and 100 LFOs in the next, without ever having to scroll through scores of unused LFO pages.

Although Waverazor appeals to the advanced synthesist, it’s never a good idea to limit your audience, so we also implemented a main performance page with programmable macro controls that allow even beginners to audition presets and tweak them quite drastically while playing. There’s also a central oscilloscope to easily monitor your shifting waveforms, and dual X/Y pads enabling two-dimensional performance gestures.  In this way, we offer an amount of immediate flexibility and expression that expands the appeal of Waverazor to a larger audience.

At this point in my career, I’ve worked on hundreds of products aimed at all different kinds of musicians, everything from the high intensity of Waverazor to simple home console pianos for families. In each case, I think about who the instrument is for, and what problems it solves for them.  Nevertheless, decisions are inevitably filtered through us as developers, and the choices we make will still reflect our individual tastes and biases, even though we do our level best to remain objective. Ultimately, the better you can empathize with a musician, the better you can make an instrument for them.

Bob Moog remains a huge inspiration to me, with the sheer number of synthesizer concepts he introduced (having no precedent to follow), and most of which have stood the test of time. I absolutely do not take what he did for granted.

Do you find that other instruments you use in the studio give you a sense of something else you want to make? Do you take inspiration from what you already use, or from what you find doesn’t yet exist?

Actually, it’s a little like getting inspired to write a song, in that the impetus seems to come from various sources at various times. Sometimes the lyrics come first and sometimes the music, if you know what I mean.

I do get inspired by other instruments. My vintage Minimoog Model D never sounds bad, no matter what I do, and the user interface strikes the perfect balance between sonic flexibility and speed. Bob Moog remains a huge inspiration to me, with the sheer number of synthesizer concepts he introduced (having no precedent to follow), and most of which have stood the test of time. I absolutely do not take what he did for granted.

You might laugh, but I also get inspired by taking a shower. It’s a peaceful time without interruptions, where I can think deeply about new concepts. Often, I can take those concepts and immediately patch together rough prototypes using my modular, or hook up the necessary DSP blocks in MOK’s proprietary development software. I towel off first though, so I don’t electrocute myself.

I’m also really inspired by newer companies like iZotope, who use bleeding edge DSP and artificial intelligence to manipulate sound in ways that still feel like crazy voodoo magic to me, even though on a conceptual level I know what they’re doing. Oh, what I wouldn’t give to have had these tools back in the ‘90s when I was working on sample ROMs for Alesis… We would have been able to get a lot more sleep.


What are some of the differences between making a hardware instrument and making a software instrument? Can you tell us about something that’s currently only possible in one version that you hope to make possible in the other?

Hardware is just harder. It requires a lot more planning upfront, and a much larger development team that spans multiple disciplines, including electrical engineering and mechanical design.  Every step takes time for physical processes like circuit board fabrication and shipping logistics. And if you make a mistake, you have to go through it all again just to make one revision.

It also requires a lot more cash outlay upfront for parts, and for tooling the machines that make your custom moldings. If you’re in mass-production, you also have to pay someone for assembly. On the back end there are warehousing costs, and even more schedule and shipping concerns as you send your instrument to distributors and retail outlets. On top of that, if you want to sell your product worldwide, there are import duties, customs, and other governmental regulations to meet.

Believe it or not, making hardware is an even more involved process than what I’ve laid out here, but for some products there’s no other way to do it.

For instance, the infinite resolution and randomness of analog hardware can never be completely reproduced in digital software.  We can only hope to push the artifacts of digital representation past the threshold of human perception.  The music technology industry has already come a long way in bringing analog qualities to the digital world, but I think we’ll always be finding new innovations to improve the experience, and it’s my hope that someday MOK will be at the forefront of this kind of exploration.

Erik Wiegand

Erik Wiegand is better known to some as Errorsmith – a sonic alchemist who cuts the bleeding edge as a solo artist and as a part of duos Smith ’n’ Hack and MMM. He’s also the creator of RAZOR – a groundbreaking digital instrument that’s found its way into a range of music as broad as pop tracks by Dua Lipa and experimental forays by Mark Fell. You can read more about how Erik created RAZOR here on the blog.


Your productions have long had an element of your own personally-developed tools. Many artists might have been tempted to keep some ideas private. What made you decide to share those personal tools with other people?

I spend so much time developing these ideas and tools, it makes a lot of sense to release them to be used not only by me, as a possible source of appreciation from others, but also as a second source of income beside music-making. It’s great if producers get inspired by the tools I made, and most of the time, they use them differently to how I would use them – so I don’t have the feeling that I give too much away.


Now that your instruments are out in the world, when do you decide which tools to share with others and which to keep for yourself? Do you spend more time thinking about creating something that others will use, or are you the primary user in mind each time you develop something?

I am mostly driven by my own interest when it comes to instrument building. But not everything I create would make sense as a product, as a product needs to bring something new to the table and should be easy to use in my opinion. Often I develop something to learn about a topic, but the results aren’t necessarily innovative. The ideas that I want to keep for myself are more on the experimental side and a special interest in my own music making. It wouldn’t be so clear for others what these are good for.


Do you find that other instruments give you a sense of something else you want to make? Do you take inspiration from what you already use, or from what you find doesn’t yet exist?

It goes both ways. If I like a sound, I want to learn how it has been made. If it is from a synthesizer or effect, I often try to recreate it in Reaktor. I enjoy this learning process and if I am successful, it enables me to reuse parts of the recreation in Reaktor in my own patches and I can adapt or develop them further. But I often start from something which isn’t there already, like it was with RAZOR for instance. “How does it sound if I emulate a sawtooth oscillator filtered by a resonant lowpass filter with an additive synth” was the starting point. This lead to developments like arbitrary filter shapes and new ways to bend the harmonic relation of the sine waves. When I started to work on RAZOR, there weren’t any other synthesizers that had this concept, at least not to that extent.


What are some of the ways your instruments are used that have inspired you? Did they give you new ideas about developing new products?

I get inspiration from music made by other people and try to understand how they are doing it. But so far it hasn’t happened that I’ve been inspired by the way someone used my instrument. I did get interesting feature requests though.

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