Whether you’re a guitar player or a synthesizer geek, some of the most unique instruments and pieces of equipment on the market today are coming from Canada. Canadian musicians have long had a reputation for exploring the weirder ends of the spectrum, so it’s not that surprising that many of the Canucks designing and building musical equipment are also committed to strange sounds and concepts. Maybe it’s the result of cabin fever over long winters, or maybe it comes from seeing the advantages of specialization when you’re a small company.
We caught up with some of the people pushing the limits of gear, giving artists the tools to push into strange and interesting new directions.
Daft Punk's Modcan System
If you're the kind of person who would consider buying a synth bigger than your couch for the kind of money that could buy you a college education, you've probably already heard of the boutique synth company Modcan.
When Modcan’s Bruce Duncan started building modular synths as a hobby in the mid-'90s, it was a very limited market, but trends have shifted dramatically. Unlike the keyboards most people picture when they hear the word "synthesizer," modular synths look more like the controls for a space ship than conventional musical instruments. Typically, a modular system is made up of many discrete little boxes, which are wired together with patch cables, allowing the musician to create custom sounds that would be next to impossible to achieve otherwise.
Duncan has made giant systems for big name artists like Daft Punk and Deadmau5, but what really helped his business explode was the introduction of the Eurorack format by European company Doepfer. This platform helped enable companies like Modcan to build modules which could play nicely with pieces created by other companies, at a much lower price point than the larger systems, which can cost more than a nice car.
A Modcan system owned by Deadmau5
“A lot of it was the price point,” Duncan explains from his Toronto shop. “A lot of people couldn’t afford to get into the bigger stuff, so the budget stuff allows them to get involved.”
Modcan is one of the more high-end brands in the modular scene, which is why electronic music superstars commission Duncan to build them giant systems. However, you don’t get the sense that Duncan is thinking so much about their needs when he’s working on new pieces. He approaches it more like a kid trying to build the coolest toy.
“When I’m thinking of a new module, I’m thinking of something that I’d like to try doing, and not so much about the customer. I’m thinking about what’s interesting to me. I want to do stuff that no other module could do easily. Getting things happening that you couldn’t do easily, and putting a lot of functionality in a small space.”
Toronto’s Kilpatrick Audio are also respected players in the modular synth world, although the company originally started out more focussed on the needs of guitar players. Andrew Kilpatrick had released a few guitar effect pedals that had been well received, when one day a friend loaned him a Buchla synthesizer. Kilpatrick fell in love with the sounds, and decided to switch the focus of his company to modular synths instead.
“I got a way better response than I’d ever got for my pedals,” Kilpatrick explains. “I think in the first day that I posted the my pattern generator module online I sold ten of them. It made me realize that this is what I should be doing, instead of the guitar stuff.”
More recently, Kilpatrick has shifted direction again with the Kickstarter-enabled release of the Phenol synthesizer. Technically, it is still a modular synth, but it’s a small, self-contained tabletop unit, and much more affordable than a conventional setup.
“It’s expensive to get a full system, so we wanted to take a lot of those ideas and shrink them down, while still offering something compelling. It was kind of design challenge to make something small that had everything you needed, and cost less than $1000.”
Kilpatrick Audio can build you a monster modular synth system, but where they've found their most success is in finally making that kind of technology affordable and portable. It's a niche that has garnered them a lot of love from live electronic musicians in particular, and for good reason.
“Lots of people have a modular in their studio, but it’s not the kind of thing that you bring to someone else’s place to jam with them, or take to a gig. I ride a motorcycle, and that was a big part of the motivation: something I could take places on my bike.”
The Phenol has already become their biggest success, and they’ve again turned to Kickstarter to help fund the development of a standalone sequencer unit called the Carbon, which is scheduled to hit the streets in April. It doesn’t generate any sounds of its own, and is instead designed to control other gear and help with live performances and songwriting.
Crowdfunding has allowed Kilpatrick to take some chances it might not have otherwise. Not only has it provided the funds to get the initial production runs going, it’s also become an invaluable part of figuring out whether his ideas are appealing to a broader market.
“You really never know. You might make something that you think is the coolest thing ever, but it might not resonate with anyone else. It also lets smaller companies who don’t have a lot of cash flow to finance projects that would be way too expensive to build otherwise. It means you can take that risk because you know you’ve already sold a bunch.”
Eastwood Guitars' Warren Ellis Tenor
Collectors of obscure classic electric guitars often discover that what looks great onstage in Jack White's hands aren't always that enjoyable to play, especially when it comes to some of the more low budget oddities of yesteryear. Toronto's Eastwood Guitars has tackled that problem by combining the look of dusty pawnshop treasures with modern reliability and components.
Eastwood Guitars has also discovered how useful crowdfunding can be when it comes to bringing new products to market. The core of their business is making tributes to obscure and quirky old instruments, but with more modern electronics and playability, as well as fairly affordable prices. Last year they started up a custom shop, which allows anyone to propose a design and put it up on the website for customers to pre-order. If the design gets enough advance support, they make it a reality. One of the first success stories of the concept came with some help from new wave legends Devo.
“We had a call from one of Devo’s road crew, and they wanted us to make a copy of this bizarre old thing called a La Baye 2x4. I didn’t think we could sell even a dozen of them, but we put it up on this Kickstarter thing, and within three weeks we’d sold 250 guitars. And that was before even making them! That has turned into a really cool concept for us, where anyone can come to us with an idea, then we throw it up there and let people start bidding on them.”
Eastwood's La Baye 2x4
Eastwood's arsenal of strange string instruments holds more than just guitars. They've worked with frequent Nick Cave collaborator Warren Ellis (also of Dirty Three) on a line of four string tenor guitars. Tenor guitars are an obscure old format that combine aspects of banjos, guitars, and mandolins, and vintage models are quite rare.
“We met at an All Tomorrow’s Parties festival years ago, and he’d called me about making a Mandostang, which was a four string version of the Mandocaster. When we eventually got together, he’d changed his mind and wanted to get a tenor guitar. I had no idea there was even a market for these things, and he talked me into doing it. I had low expectations, but it’s turned out to be one of our top selling models.”
This small Alberta company puts innovative and technologically advanced spins on the standard familiar guitar effects, as well as making some less familiar devices that produce sounds you'd never hear on any classic rock album.
While Eastwood made its name from digging into the obscure past of guitars, the husband and wife team of Dr. Scientist are dedicated to the future. Their line of guitar effect pedals include strange and futuristic devices, and even their more conventional products achieve their results in very unconventional ways.
When you first read the description for their Heisenberg overdrive pedal, it sounds like they’re joking around about the high-end nanotechnology involved, but it turns out they’re completely serious about incorporating the brand new type of diode technology called a molecular junction. The innovative pedal came about after they received an intriguing email from a scientist and guitar enthusiast named Dr. Adam Bergren, who was working with the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in Edmonton.
“He told me about the molecular junctions that the lab was working on and how they could be a part of overdrive/distortion effects,” Ryan Clarke explains. “He asked if I'd be interested in working with them to develop something that could demonstrate the junctions in the real world and I couldn't say 'yes' fast enough!”
While Dr Scientist effects are primarily marketed to guitarists, they’re been designed to work well with any instrument, and Clarke is a big fan of synthesizers. The next big project of the company is going to be to take some of their more space age effects like the BitQuest and make them work with the Eurorack modular format.
Toronto’s Industrialectric also makes strange guitar pedals, but the young company take things way further into bizarroland. Not only do they look like props from a Mad Max movie, they also mangle sounds like nothing else. They often spit out static and feedback, and generally sound like something is about to explode. Don’t expect them to ever release anything close to a normal effect pedal.
“No, conventional doesn't really get me excited, and it's hard to be creative when I find it boring,” says Andrew Ferrari. “My designs are based on my taste, and conventional isn't what I like.”
Experimental music isn't a genre that many equipment manufacturers focus on, but good luck making anything resembling normal music with the effects that Industrialectric make.
Making avant-garde effects was actually Ferrari’s plan B, which he settled into after going to audio engineering school and realizing that recording studio work was increasingly hard to come by. Most of the demos of his creations are made using guitars, but he insists that his boxes are designed to be used with anything.
“It's not just about guitars - I've always had an interest in synthesizers and any kind of weird noise makers. So no, it's never guitars first, it's for any instrument that you want to sound fucked up.”