The story is hardware—and at first brush, it wouldn't seem like much of a development at all. Electronic music is the child of physical synthesizers and drum machines, but like so much in our world, those tools were reimagined as software once processing power caught up with analog circuitry. Many bemoaned the loss of instrumental tactility and (debatably) better sound, but DAWs and soft synths did things those old boxes couldn't. And they almost certainly lowered the barrier of entry for the young producers whose bass-forward excursions fed the evolution of the last decade of tunes.
You'd think a return to hardware would mean a step backward, but whether it takes the form of a guitar pedal, a beastly analog filter or a bespoke Eurorack component for modular systems, it's what nearly all of the producers I've spoken to over the last couple of years have been most excited about. That a high-tech digital reboot of some '80s holy grails would arrive not as soft-synths, but hardware—and become one of the biggest stories of the year in electronic music, amongst production nerds and laypeople alike—is certainly a sign of the times. As hardware proliferated, I became curious about who and what was behind these machines. Music journalists devote much of their time to people who make music with synthesizers, but I guessed there was an equally interesting story behind the people who make those synthesizers in the first place.
It was in this spirit that I wound up at the headquarters of Korg, a Japanese instrument manufacturer with a reputation for following their own beat. The company's Tokyo offices are in a simple glass building next to an amusement park on the outskirts of Tokyo's city center, and I wonder if some of the spirit of the place has rubbed off on Korg's design team. When I visited late last year, they were wrapping up their 50th year in business, and it had been an exceptional one. At that January's NAMM Show in California, they introduced the MS-20 mini, a slightly scaled-down, MIDI-enabled reboot of a synth Korg made from 1978 through 1983. A few months later, at Frankfurt's Musikmesse, they rolled out the Volca series, a trio of pint-sized but feature-rich units that recalled Roland's holy-grails: the 303, 808 and 909. The Volcas, small enough to fit on a cramped desktop and priced not to terrify producers who'd previously stayed in the box, seemed especially of-the-moment. Korg's promotional videos showed Tatsuya Takahashi, the youthful engineer who headed up the project, demonstrating the series' workflow while programming warm, dubby house that could pass for some of Move D's more introspective material. Takahashi was my main reason for coming here. I thought he might shed light on how hardware finds its way into the world, and help draw a link between the creativity of music production and the very different sort that goes into designing a synthesizer.
Takahashi and Tadahiko Sakamaki, a product designer with whom he works closely, met me on the ground floor of the headquarters. Wearing thick-framed glasses and a crisp white shirt, Sakamaki could have passed as an architect, and Takahashi, in a blazer, his cerebral protégé. The main lobby at Korg is set up like an instrument shop, the company's keyboards mingling with guitars, amps and other musical fauna from the brands Korg distributes in Japan. Nothing is for sale, though, and it was clear off the bat that I wouldn't be invited upstairs; an artist might offer a tour first thing, but Korg's workshops and studios are full of closely guarded trade secrets. After swapping business cards, we took a seat around a low table, where the Volcas had been set up in series. It was hard not to ogle—they'd just been released, and the initial stock was still a rare sight.
I noticed that Takahashi and Sakamaki's cards were double-sided, with English on one side and Japanese on the other, and asked Takahashi to explain the rough parameters of his title, chief engineer. "That's my foreign title, actually," he said, with a lightheartedness that peeled back the formality that can accompany a Japanese business meeting. "I'm a nobody if you've seen my business card." His translated title is something more like "product leader," meaning he oversees and organizes specific projects. "Because I don't have very many engineers working on them"—company policy dictates he can't say exactly how many—"I tend to do a lot of the engineering for them."
You sense he likes it that way. Takahashi was born in Japan but spent most of his life in England, where he started tinkering with electronics and sound by the time he was 11 or 12. He wasn't a gear freak in the traditional sense—instead of lusting after what was already on the shelves, he thought about what sounds he'd like to make and how he could build tools to make them. "I think the problem with me," he says, "is that I got into electronics before I got into music." It led to studies in electrical engineering at Cambridge. While there, he bought an MS2000, Korg's now-discontinued virtual analog synth—his first point of contact, along with the MicroKorgs, KAOSS Pads and Electribes his music-making friends were using.
The plan worked. "We talked about him a lot," remembered Sakamaki, who was already working for Korg at this point. "He was amazing." Takahashi started out working on bits for projects like the microKORG XL, the microSAMPLER and the KAOSS mixer, a run of projects that now feels a little like the end of an era for the electronic-music-leaning side of Korg's business. (It's worth noting the company, which got its start in the '60s with primitive drum machines, also makes digital pianos, drum pads and even keyboards for toddlers.)
After Takahashi had been on board for awhile, Sakamaki had the feeling he wanted to shake things up a bit. "I wanted to restart a lot of things from scratch," he said, so he made a pitch that was destined to appeal to Takahashi's love of analog circuits: a diminutive, all-analog synth they could sell for $50. The synth that resulted, the Monotron, was like nothing else on the market when it arrived in 2010—a true analog synth that ran off batteries. You were tempted to buy one even if you had no real use for it in your studio. Its defining feature, a ribbon controller, was less a creative flourish than a necessity to stay within Sakamaki's size and cost limits. You couldn't get precise about playing particular notes, but Sakamaki and Takahashi realize now that wasn't really the point. In doing away with what's intimidating about analog synths—most of the controls, namely—the Monotron could emphasize their gorgeous sound, priming ears for the more fully featured machines that would come in a few years' time.
Under Sakamaki's guidance and Takahashi's technical prowess, Korg expanded on the Monotron line in 2011, introducing versions with dual oscillators (the Monotron Duo), delay (the Monotron Delay) and a feature set more like a full-on synth (the Monotribe). Along the way, Takahashi was coming into his own not just as an electrical engineer, but as an electrical engineer designing musical instruments. Korg's team is built on generations of the company's engineers, including Fumio Mieda, the designer behind the original MS-20, so Takahashi had no shortage of inspiration within the building. "When I first started work on the Monotron," Takahashi said, "I had a prototype that didn't sound very good, and [Mieda] looked at my circuit and said, 'You know, this is from a textbook. This looks like a measurement tool. It's a very cold circuit.' If you look at his circuits, they're kind of out there. If you're not an engineer you won't get it, but he'll use transistors in a way that would be unimaginable. You look at the circuits and can't understand how they work—until you've been looking at it for hours and hours and you kind of work it out. But they sound wonderful."
Crafting the sound of a synthesizer, as opposed to crafting sound with a synthesizer, is less about artistry and more about meeting concept and costing through creative problem solving. I asked Takahashi how he conceptualized the sound, and he seemed a bit thrown. "That's quite an abstract thing to talk about, because to be honest, I don't think, 'Alright, I want this kind of sound, therefore I will use this circuit.' It's more, kind of, 'I want to use this circuit' first for me. I don't know if you can really understand an engineer's view, wanting to use a certain circuit." He offered his filter choice for the Volcas as an example of his thinking: with three oscillators, they'd need a filter that could work with the abundance of frequencies the synth would be outputting, though Takahashi also seemed in awe of the way a diode-bridge filter creates resonance and distortion.
Putting the metaphysics of engineering aside, there's a definite limit to the amount of tweaking you can do with a hardware synth once you're off the breadboard: Takahashi described the beginnings of the Volcas as "a kind of Frankenstein of different circuits that I wanted to play about with," where he and his team could home in on an overall approach. He said he kept tinkering with the Volcas long after would have been advisable, but at some point he and his team had to let the circuits lie. And by all accounts, they've made the impression Korg had hoped for. Takahashi had set out to wire a series of boxes that could be used to make tracks, but he was hoping to make connections you can't merely solder. "We wanted to just get that tactile feel back and into having something in your hands—just get people back into hardware," he said. "And we thought doing it analog was actually the best way to do it now, because sonically it is so rich, it's very tactile, it's very kind of hands-on. You get attached to your hardware more easily that way."
For his part, Takahashi has forged his own relationship with the finished Volcas. As he demonstrates the boxes for me, he doesn't come off as the engineer who made them but as another producer who's cutting his own path through the workflow. He and Sakamaki mentioned that they've been making music together with the Volcas—mostly for fun, though it's undoubtedly planted the seed for further development of the series. Takahashi said they'd like to expand, but not surprisingly, he's careful not to divulge any firm plans. "I get told off all the time for saying stuff," he told me, no doubt conscious of the Korg press official who'd been tapping away on a laptop a few feet away from us throughout the interview. "You can probably tell."
Testing for the series was all done in-house, but they had a few artists in to play around with the finished products. "When I see these guys play it," Takahashi said, "I give them a really brief explanation on how to use the sequencer stuff, but people—they just get instantly attached to hardware. They can feel how it's working, and they can be really spontaneous with it after 15 minutes of playing around. That is the thing that I think is important for a piece of hardware—for people to be able to make that attraction and relate to what it's doing, without really thinking about what parameters you take. And I think that's the biggest appeal of having hardware."
Before parting ways for the afternoon, Takahashi moved the Volcas to the side and laid out about a dozen little circuits. Surprisingly enough, they comprised a forthcoming Korg project in finished form: when assembled, it's a tiny, fully analog and fully modular synthesizer, built in collaboration with the New York-based startup littleBits, who make snap-together electronic modules. Takahashi arranged the chips in series and snapped them together at their bright pink ends. The set comes with a little speaker module, but he plugged the synth into a larger cabinet to show off its surprisingly full sound. "We've got a modular upstairs," Takahashi said, "and it just feels great, you know, just to have it there. I like it, but it's just too expensive, and it's too condescending to be practical. This is our kind of answer to doing a modular synth."
As Takahashi mixed and matched the modules, he grew as excited as I'd seen him over the course of our time together. The littleBits collaboration might not make a synth stable enough to be stage-ready, but I wondered if it was the Korg product that best communicates Takahashi's nearly inscrutable feeling of connection with what's happening behind the knobs of his Volcas. "I'm kind of hoping that if people who don't really know what an oscillator is, if I just told them that you start with blue"—the power module—"and you end up with green"—the speaker—"and you do whatever you want in between… I think seven times out of ten it won't make a sound, but if you try long enough and do ten different combinations, or do it ten different ways, I think that anyone can get into shaping sound."