This interview was from issue #13 of DivKid’s Month Of Modular back in October 2016.
In this interview I talk to Girts from Erica Synths about how the company started, how they managed to create such a strong and large product line and where he sees the company heading in the future.
So Girts, tell us how did you get into synths and electronics prior to modular. Do you have a background in similar things?
I grew up in a small village and for some reason from early childhood I had a drive for inventing things, doing something that others don’t do, and so on. Ignoring the fact that I didn’t have any reasonable tools, advice, references or examples from others in my teenage years I built velomobile, a delta plane (which luckily didn’t fly), electrical grass trimer,
emulated space shuttle Challenger disaster with 80cm high model of it, turned accordion into aqualung, considered applying to military school in Moscow, performed crazy stunts on a bike, that I would never do today, and other totally crazy stuff.
When I was in 7th grade in primary school, I “borrowed” from school library a book about some DIY electronics and I totally fell for it. Back then Latvia was a part of Soviet Union, and we were basically isolated from information around the rest of the world, but I subscribed to both DIY monthly magazines available in USSR. In the secondary school I already have developed some synths and stompboxes. In beginning of 90s I moved to Riga, capital city of Latvia, studied physics and become a physics teacher. Then my skills of building stompboxes advanced to the level that I could sell them. But when Latvia gained independence, market opened, and western-produced electronics become available and I put DIY electronics hobby aside.
Some 7 years ago I decided to make an electronics DIY constructor for
my son. It basically was a modular constructor consisting of small boxes,
each hosting some component (LED, potentiometer, for example), that
were interconnected via patch cables to make electronic circuits. When I
had some 20 different boxes developed, I searched the internet for schematics of “something that makes sound”, and come across Music From Outer Space… In next three-four years I built virtually all DIY projects in all possible formats (my monster rack had both +-12V and +-15V rails) that were available online. But the eurorack boom hadn’t begun, yet.
The company started with models of the Soviet Polivoks synths. What was the connection to that sound?
It was more to do with the availability of original components. I just decided to make rack-mount Polivoks clone with a midi implementation. I found schematics and PCB drawings online, redrew PCBs, etched them at home, and actually made the synth. But before that I built the Polivoks VCF DIY kit, I ordered somewhere, and it was developed around western analogues of programmable opamps that were used in the original Polivoks. And it didn’t sound nearly as good, as my VCF. So, I decided to make my first DIY kit to offer it on Muffwiggler. And honestly, I do not give a f**k about that soviet heritage. That was pure nightmare.
You started with and since have made plenty of DIY kits, PCBs & panels available. Is the DIY something you will focus on in the future too?
Honestly, with launch of first modules from Black series focus has shifted to factory built eurorack modules. But, as I feel nostalgic about DIY, we definitely will continue offering DIY kits and will develop some more in future.
How did you manage to create such a wide range of modules so quickly? And not just cheap modules that people only keep for a while. You’ve a large range of very strong modules, Polivoks, Black Series, Fusion Series how did it all happen?
Like many eurorack companies, Erica Synths started in my bedroom (literary), where I had soldering station, did all packaging for sending first orders, etc. And I wasn’t a community of engineers and musicians – I was running one of largest advertising agencies in Latvia. But then, I still wonder, how it happened, I accidentally met genius people who are engineers and musicians, and now they are in Erica Synths team: Janis is engineer for most of our digital stuff, Kodek makes demos, plays gigs on Erica Synths gear, tests prototypes both from musical and functional perspective, Anastasija is my ex-student (I teach marketing in a university), she takes care about marketing and logistics, Ralfs tests every single module that comes from the factory and does cases assembly. And in similar way few outsourced engineers appeared. Eduards aka D-tech, genius engineer and self-taught composer and blues piano player, used to work in huge company that develops high-tech communication devices, but, as he works almost exclusively during night-time and music is his true passion, he’s more happy to work for Erica Synths and I’m happy, I met him.
On the other hand, we have like 5-6 electronics assembly companies of different size here, few PCB producers (I can get prototype PCBs in 3 days), companies that can make front panels, and a friend of mine owns a silkscreen company. All those are small-medium companies and therefore I can keep production processes effective and short. And within last year their doubts “who a hell buys all this crazy shit?” have been leveraged, and they kind of admire Erica Synths for what we do together.
During soviet times Riga Musical Instruments Factory (RMIF) was the largest musical instruments producer in Soviet Union, so I want to make Riga great again! In terms on synth reputation, of course.
Do you have any connections to tube amps or bits of tube driven vintage gear? I’m wondering what led you to develop the Fusion series.
In my early DIY experience back in 80-ties I made some tube stuff, but that doesn’t count. The inspiration for Fusion series and early designs came from Aivars Kreivics, DIYer, engineer, self-taught musician and sound engineer. He was a mastermind behind monster drum machine RMIF ES25 that was being developed in Riga. Only single prototype was built in 1991 before factory gone bankrupt. Check it out here: www.ruskeys.net/eng/base/rmifes25.php He was 65, when I met him performing live in festival Night of Wonders, organized by Kodek in his small hometown, on his creation – one of kind synth HIDRA built solely on vacuum tubes (https://soundcloud.com/senators-1/sets/hidra). We become good friends, and developed first versions of Fusion modules. Unfortunately, Aivars passed away this January. R.I.P.
With Fusion V2 we have way more experience both in design and production, and D-tech has taken over schematics part of the project. V2 brings Fusion series to brand new level! I hope to release the missing links in the series Fusion VCF and Fusion VCA in next 2-3 months.
Recently you’ve developed a DSP platform with the Black Hole DSP injecting digital FX into your line up of modules. Are you working with DSP developers on new digital projects and FX too?
The Black Hole DSP is developed around well-known SPN1001 chip, which is found in many DSP modules. But we didn’t want to have native effects on the chip, therefore we collaborated with Gary Worsham developer of Spin CAD software dedicated to SPN1001 programming (http://holycityaudio.com/spincad-designer-2/ ). He did several major
adjustments in the software, and Kodek spent 3 months in row to develop effects so, that they sound really great. The success of the module confirms that. We’ll have expansion chip with 8 more effects out by the end of the year.
One of the standout series of modules has been the PICO range of 3HP modules. Not just for their small size but also the sound and functionality. Were you dreaming of filling small gaps in people’s systems or dreaming of a small portable system when work on those began?
Pico Series was, kind of, accidental sidestep! Janis was pissed off working on Graphic VCO firmware early this year, and said out loud something like: “I wish I could do something small!” And same day we came up with concepts for 16 Pico modules. We were so excited about these ideas, that we put aside Graphic VCO and focussed on Pico. It didn’t only take a lot of engineering, but also – a lot of creativity to develop user interfaces so that modules are really playable and do the work of regular sized modules. We did lot of revisions and prototypes before we were happy about the result both musically and functionally. And I would never ever again launch 16 modules simultaneously! 😀 Just imagine all production routines with 16 modules! Production files, front panels, designs, manuals, packaging, logistics!
But I’m really happy about the result! I can proudly say that we have developed the world’s smallest self-containing (no external interfaces needed) eurorack modular system that really works! You can play serious one-hour gig only on 42HP system.
Will we see more PICO modules soon? And do you think there’s anything you can’t fit in 3HP?
Yes, the second run of Pico modules is arriving from the factory these days, and then our Pico series will be complete. We’ll launch pre-assembled Pico System mid-November. We’ll have 6 more Pico modules: Pico DSP (8 effects stereo FX processor), Pico STRINGS (string sounds VCO), Pico Logic (2×8 logic algorithms), Pico SEQS (voltage controlled
4-channel sequential switch), ALOGIC (“analogue logic” signal processor – takes two incoming signals and derives sum, difference of them, as well as max and min curves) and MASK (advanced S&H module, based on Mask Value principles).
The only limitation for 3HP is physical space of the faceplate. J It would be hard to imagine 8 channel performance mixer in 3HP!
Finally, what’s next for Erica Synths? Anything you can tell us about?
As Pico series are temporarily complete, we shift our focus back to Graphic modules, and I hope to have Graphic VCO ready before Christmas! Also we have Fusion VCF and VCA on the way. And couple of very distinct VCFs. To date we have only Polivoks VCF in our line, therefore we want to fill that gap.
To end on I’d like to say a huge thanks to Girts for all his support of my work and for taking the time to answer my questions.