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Meet the makers of modular

When Dieter Döpfer, the founder of music instrument manufacturer Doepfer, decided to launch a brand new modular synthesiser system in 1995, no one could have predicted what would follow. Today, his “Eurorack” format supports an ecosystem of hundreds of manufacturers that have collectively produced thousands of compatible modules used by famous musicians, such as Radiohead, Chemical Brothers and Aphex Twin, and hobbyists alike.

Fuelled by passion not venture capital, most companies in the Eurorack space are neither startups nor established OEMs. Instead – and quite remarkably – the industry remains a long tail of boutique manufacturers, with some of the best-sellers still operating as one-person shops. Inspired by technology that is almost half a century old, and intentionally designed not to scale, these businesses might well be considered the anti-Crunch.

“My happiness is based on developing, not on the amount of sales,” one Eurorack maker told me, after I promised not to name his company for fear of generating too many new orders. “Of course I really appreciate if someone decides to purchase some modules, then I know my work makes sense, but the current sales amount ensures I have enough time for developing”.

He said that increased sales would lead to less time spent working on new designs and more time assembling modules and answering emails explaining why a particular item is currently out of stock. One solution would be to take on an employee or two but the associated bureaucracy would also be an unwelcome distraction.

“That’s not what I like [doing],” he said, comparing it to a friend who owned a single coffee shop and was happy making great coffee and fine desserts, but had subsequently expanded to three coffee shops and is now unhappy. “He’s thinking about selling two of his coffee shops to get his happiness back. More money does not ensure more happiness,” said the Eurorack maker.

It’s the kind of an existential crisis many founders find themselves facing after a company grows to a certain size, but for the makers of modular the reason for existing is often clear from the start. This is certainly true of Döpfer’s own story.

In contrast to the preceding two decades, the mid-80s ushered in the era of digital synthesisers, popularised by Yamaha’s DX7, meaning that instruments based on analog electronics – let alone a modular synthesiser system that had to be patched manually before it would produce any sound – were no longer in vogue. Modular systems from the 60s and 70s, such as those produced by Moog, Buchla, Arp and Roland, had mainly become the domain of vintage instrument collectors, while the modular synthesisers that remained in production were seen as arcane high end products priced well beyond the reach of most musicians.

In those intertwining years, Döpfer had pivoted his company away from analog electronics to produce one of the first digital sampler cards, followed by a more successful line of MIDI keyboards and controllers. However, by 1994 the designer was left feeling unchallenged, and perhaps noticing that second hand prices for Roland’s TB-303 and other discontinued analog synthesisers had begun creeping upwards, Doepfer introduced its first new analog synth in ten years. Called the MS-404, it was mainly designed for Döpfer’s “own enjoyment,” but sold better than expected, creating an even bigger itch in need of scratching.

Dieter Döpfer

Dieter Döpfer (Photo credit: Theo Bloderer)

By the following year Döpfer had developed an entire modular synthesiser system he called the A-100. Using repurposed circuits from the MS-404, the system consisted of ten individual Doepfer modules, each fulfilling a specific function, such as an oscillator, envelope or voltage-controlled filter. Just like the modular synthesisers of the past, the A-100 would require the user to create their own instrument by “patching” the modules together. Using cables with a 3.5mm jack on each end that are capable of carrying audio signals and control voltages, the synthesiser’s sound could be shaped or modulated in a vast number of ways and configurations, limited only by the user’s creativity and knowledge of synthesis techniques (or their appetite for experimentation), together with the number of different modules in their system and size of their bank balance.

“The idea was to make it affordable,” Döpfer told me during a call from the company’s office in Munich, Germany. “All modular systems that were available in the past were far too expensive for normal people from my point of view. And so I said, ‘there should be a modular synthesiser available, which is affordable also for normal people, not only for rich ones’. This was the idea behind the A-100”.

A100 suitcase

Doepfer’s A-100 suitcase

Despite its relatively low cost, Döpfer says the new synthesiser was initially met with bemusement by dealers. He was repeatedly told that nobody was interested in a modular system and that he should spend his time designing something different. “I said, no, I think it’s a good idea, I’d like to have something like that, and that’s why I continued it,” he recalls.

Once again, Döpfer’s instincts were good. When the A-100 made its first public appearance at an industry expo the following year, it was the company’s new modular synthesiser at the back of the Doepfer stand that grabbed most of the attention, relegating its bread and butter MIDI keyboard and controllers to a rather lonely looking affair.

Meanwhile, Doepfer wasn’t the only company developing a new low cost system in a bid to re-introduce modular synthesisers to today’s musicians. Unknown to Döpfer, the British company Analogue Systems had been working on a similar idea.

Purely by chance the A-100 and Analogue Systems’ RS Integrator System 1 were both “3U” in height (based on the 19″ rack standard), shunning the larger and more expensive “5U” design of most existing modular systems. The two systems also took inspiration from the Eurocard standard for printed circuit boards (PCBs) and faceplate dimensions, where width is measured in a unit referred to as horizontal pitch or “HP” for short.

Unfortunately, the exact position of the mounting holes on the modules’ front panels differed between systems, leading to gaps if the two brands were placed adjacent to one another. The power cable configuration was also different, although that was later solved when Analogue Systems redesigned its power supplies to provide Doepfer-style outputs so that systems could be mixed.

Quite brilliantly, however, Döpfer decided early on to publish the specifications of the A-100 module format on the Doepfer website, and in doing so had laid the groundwork for a Eurorack modular synth standard to emerge.

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