Mark Smith meets the man who's played a vital role in shaping the modular synthesis industry.
All of which is true, to some extent. But for the people who were in the scene before the hype, it's all a bit baffling. Modular systems historically had just a passing connection to popular electronic music. They were tools used by academics, installation artists, sound designers, hobbyists and the odd techno producer. Their appeal lay in showing how simple operations scale out into interconnected systems. Using them to make tonal, quantised music is contrary to their nature.
Modulars were anathema to traditional music equipment outlets. The companies that built them were overwhelming small, DIY ventures motivated by passion—the thought of profiting off them was laughable until recently. So how did modular synthesisers become so desirable?
Although many factors are at play, it couldn't have happened without figures like Andreas Schneider. Beginning as a representative for a few small manufacturers, Schneider helped develop a network of brands and retailers from scratch. If you needed help with your modular, you called Schneider. If you were trying to source a new module, you called Schneider.
He helped introduce small, exciting new companies to larger audiences by bringing them to mainstream conferences like NAMM in Anaheim, California. His shop, SchneidersLaden, continues to supply and support artists and enthusiasts around the world. Superbooth, his own tech conference, is thriving by reaching out of the insular world of diehard music-tech fans and connecting with the general public.
Schneiders' insights into the development of the modular scene tell a story of individuals and small groups working together and depending on trust. Much of this was dictated by simple economics, but it forged a rare type of interdependency. I went to SchneidersBuero, the office/workshop space that preceded the store, in Kreuzberg, Berlin to ask him about the unlikely transformation of an unorganised set of engineers and small stores into a global industry.
Was it your plan to end up in the music equipment business? Or did it evolve through circumstance?
It was somewhat by circumstance. I met a guy when I was helping a friend move to Berlin. He had an expensive car but it didn't really fit his character. He was pissed off, saying something about selling drum machines and how his sales rep had ripped him off and that he never wants to deal with reps or retailers of any kind again. This was Jürgen Michaelis, the founder of JoMoX.
After visiting him in his studio, I recognised that he's not the type that's patient enough to sit on the phone saying, "Don't you want to buy my amazing drum machine?" to a stockist. He's more like, "I don't have time to explain this shit if you don't understand it. Go buy something else!" He was angry about not being more successful with his great product. So I eventually asked if I could make some calls for him, and I set up a desk there.
I started as a rep for Jürgen running around visiting distributors and retailers all over Europe. I met likeminded people like Technosaurus from Switzerland and Future Retro from the USA. I started repping for other manufacturers, and by the end of the year I started my own business.
I'm guessing most DIY engineers weren't good salespeople.
Jürgen is an engineer. His job is to realise his ideas. He wants to concentrate on making something good. Maybe he shows off something new at a trade show every once in a while, but by then he's bored of it already and wants to make something else. There are plenty of people like this.
Was it common for engineers to have trouble interacting with the commercial part of the industry?
They had trouble interacting with their own customers! If someone buys a drum machine that's marketed as a 909 clone, like Jürgen's was, they're going to have certain expectations. They might be happy that it's a little different and maybe even superior to the original, or perhaps they're disappointed that it's not exactly like the real thing. So there's a broad range of customer expectations that a manufacturer might have to deal with.
Jürgen's original drum machine had a button that ended up with no real function. And people were complaining, "Why doesn't this work?" when in fact it doesn't do anything. Then they start asking for it to be assigned some new function.
So you started largely with desktop devices. When did modular systems come into the picture?
When I met the inventor of the Eurorack format, Dieter Doepfer. I always look to the people behind the machines. I'm not so interested in whether the frequency of this oscillator is more stable than another. I want to know what the people behind the business are thinking about. Are they thinking about the product or the profit?
This makes a big difference. As the scene has expanded and become more successful in recent years, we have people entering the market purely for business. Part of me doesn't want these types around, but we still include them in the Superbooth conference, for instance. It's good for these companies to be there, but they play up the passion rather than it coming from the heart.
It wasn't so long ago that that there was no international scene to speak of.
When I became aware of it, there was nothing. No hype, no one was interested. In those days, it was mostly people over the age of 60 using big American modulars and thinking everything else was child's play. So it was interesting to discover that there were in fact some open-minded techno people getting into it, too.
There were only three companies offering analogue Euorack systems. Analogue Systems was the top-of-the-line option, Doepfer had the widest range and then Analogue Solutions, who clearly copied Analogue Systems' name, copied both in a rather low quality way. Nowadays, there are countless companies.
Some artists were using modulars for installations, some of whom are now prominent figures. Then there were plenty of people inviting me to their studios to see their work in order for me to give them recommendations on other modules. I also helped them with their problems because very often they didn't understand the modules.
This lead to opening SchneidersBuero. The first office was in the so-called Haus Des Lehrers at Alexanderplatz, which was full of a colourful mix of architects, lighting designers, photographers, sound designers and musicians like myself and my neighbour Monolake—it was the days when he had just founded Ableton with Gerhard Behles.
At the first Superbooth in 2002 there was just Doepfer, Analogue Systems and Technosaurus presenting modular systems. Bob Moog was there with his modular effects pedals as Big Briar. Vermona had their 19-inch rack units. Elektron introduced the Machinedrum. Back then, the fight was more for analogue gear in general rather than specifically modular stuff.
It should be said that many early adopters of modular gear weren't necessarily producers. One client was a guy who runs a well-regarded restaurant in Berlin. He had a huge modular system that he used exclusively to make experimental baroque music to play for his customers!
So you became the go-to guy in Berlin if anyone had problems or questions about modular systems. But how did you gain the knowledge?
It was from hanging out in the office and playing around. For a few years, I was there every day with my sole employee having jams on the equipment. Other people would show up and join in. And they'd ask, "How did you make this sound? Can I combine this with that?"
Then people from around the world started calling me on the phone with the same questions. Jay Ahern would be calling me from Ireland with some issue. I'd set up the same modules he had hundreds of kilometres away and try to figure out the problem while we were on the phone together.
These same artists would be asking if I can find them certain modules. So I'd search the web and call the manufacturer. If one of my clients wanted a module, I'd ask the manufacturer for a good price and buy three so that I have two in stock. And that's how the shop started. To be fair, I didn't really have much stock in the early days—I was more like a purchase manager for artists who didn't want to go to some big music store that had no idea about modular companies.
Eventually I started visiting these big retailers as a rep for the modular companies. They just ignored me and said, "Forget it, music is made on computers nowadays. You have to sell digital synthesisers and Ableton Live." I never wanted to be a retail store, but the clients came to me with these same stories. I was more interested in connecting manufactures with the preexisting stores so people could go to a shop and try the modules out to see if they really want them. It's important to be able to do this rather than ordering something from Amazon, reading the manual and then returning it two days later realising it isn't what you want.
When did DIY engineers at large realise it was a good idea to get in contact with you?
It was mainly artists telling other artists about this small specialist shop in Berlin that's only open twice a week. Then I'd be at the trade shows, and if I saw someone making something interesting I'd buy a couple of their products. For a very long time I was buying just a few pieces at a time. Then it got bigger once we started hosting our own areas at trade shows like Musikmesse and NAMM. People who had no idea about modular stuff could come up to a table with some speakers and have it explained to them for the first time.
So the function of the shop and the promotion of the brands' products were linked?
Yes, from the beginning, and it still is. The difference is now there are plenty of shops and distributors around Europe doing the same thing. Initially it was me selling little brands to 20 people. When it became clear I wasn't going bankrupt, those big retailers who weren't interested a few years earlier started asking me about the brands I was representing. Some of them didn't want to be in these big stores, but others were getting bigger and wanted to expand.
Even a few years ago, these big stores—and some of the big manufacturers—had no understanding of or respect for people making music without a classical education. Now they're slowly changing their tune.
What's the relationship like between the big retailers and the modular companies?
I am taking it to a commercial level. Companies like Make Noise, Pittsburgh and Doepfer, too. It makes sense for them to be stocked in these giant stores, for the visibility and accessibility. On the other hand, there's the boutique, DIY manufactures who don't see any point in going through these retailers. It adds another 25% margin to the street price of their products. It's better for them if you bought it direct.
But if the retailer is doing their job properly, it can be a good thing for the companies. You can go in and ask to have a product explained to you. Even though it might cost more, it's worth it for the service and support. In this case, everybody wins. Because then you go there and get the product you really need and nothing else. But for this to work, you need trust between the manufacturer and the retailer. If the retailer does a great job of explaining and promoting the product but then the client goes home and orders it for cheaper direct from the manufacturer, it doesn't make sense for them to stock and support the brand.
If you understand this dynamic, you can see that the distributor, retailer, manufacturer and promoter are all linked and somehow dependent on each other. I have to take care with the brands we support in our distribution and promotion. We have to support those who support us. If I promote a brand but they're making it easier for you to buy it from somebody else, that makes no sense for us.
How does product distribution factor into the picture?
Getting into distribution helped make things sustainable for me. It's important to be part of a network. From the beginning I worked with other shops in France, Spain, Italy and so on because they're better able to communicate with customers in their own countries. It doesn't make sense having people call Berlin and struggling to speak English. And having an actual place to go and talk to a person in person is important. Customers are happy when they have a place where they can have a real-world interaction with someone who can assist them.
So the smaller shops are important for the overall network?
Very important. I should help them as much as possible because they struggle to survive in the face of Thomann, Just Music, Amazon and the rest. So if I want to order a module from a company, first I ring up my buddy in Munich and Barcelona and Milan or wherever and say "Hey, do you want one or two of these modules?" Then we all go in on the purchase together, which makes it cheaper for us, the manufacturer gets more money and the product ends up in more places. This is how the distribution started for me, and we built up trust with the manufacturers, and the orders increased in size over time. Eventually I had a professional company take over it who represents old friends like Make Noise, Doepfer, Sherman and the like.
Did you ever get the sense that the interest in modular gear was getting a little crazy?
I never felt like it's going crazy and I don't think it really is now. I think we have a group around us that is moving in the right direction together. There's energy in the smaller companies and they're being exposed to bigger things. If they stay on the ship, maybe it gets bigger and bigger. Perhaps from the outside it looks like it's exploding but it's really just doing its own thing and more people are jumping on it.
Say that a new distributor appears and begins competing with me and starts trying to lure brands away from my business. I could try and fight it by changing my prices. Or I could approach them and say, "We're colleagues now. We have a big trade show where you can represent your companies." You might not recognise it being at Superbooth, but all those brands are selling through different distributors. All the magazines there are in competition with each other. But we've found a medium where we don't fight but rather see what everyone's doing and grow. Everyone gets a sense of where they fit in, how they should develop and find their niche. We watch each other. But it's constructive.
So you think that the supposed hype around modular gear is constructed outside the scene itself?
People are consuming music randomly. Ten, 20 years ago, you had a record and you'd sit in your living room and listen to it. Now you have a giant database of sound that you can randomly skip through until you land on something you like. And you're doing this on the go, there's no separate focused act. I don't think this is really making anyone happy, and the current generation of technical tools are flawed in the same way. A lot of it is pollution. A product exists for three years and it disappears. And then you're buying the next generation of scheiße.
I think when it comes to creativity, people want influence and control. Of course, creativity comes from all sorts of sources for different people. But there is a type of person who wants to understand things from the ground up. They ask, "How can I do it myself?" People are moving away from complex protocols and back to simple on/off messages. Even though people might think modular stuff is complex, this is what it represents, a sort of simplicity. Maybe this is part of why it's connected with more people.
Modular companies seem able to bypass traditional media in the promotion of their products. The attentiveness of the market means all they need are good YouTube videos, then the consumers do the advertising for them. Whereas in the past, companies might've been looking for reviews in magazines, for instance.
A good example is the latest module from Future Retro. They stopped dealing with distribution and retailers altogether. They post a YouTube video and people buy from them directly. Of course, these online platforms are important but they are not everything. I have the impression that the monopoly and power of the big online tech companies will become understood by more people and we'll move to doing things offline.
This way of doing things involves a degree of trust. When we are calling each other to make an order and sending the invoice and the money, those who aren't reliable fall out sooner or later.
How has the design of the modules themselves changed as interest has developed?
Modulars were originally made up of very raw components. You had an oscillator with two or three waveforms, you could set the frequency and control it with an incoming voltage. It was so simple that you didn't need to know exactly how it worked. You didn't need to read a manual. This would cost about one hundred bucks.
Now it's not as simple as it used to be. You can pay ten times as much for a huge, complex oscillator that takes months to understand. Even though it's capable of many things, it's not as flexible as if you spent that $1,000 on ten modules rather than one. This was already happening, say, five to ten years ago.
There are people who expect a modular system to be able to do all the things they're used to in the digital world. They say, "How can I make a beat? How can I put my own sounds in there?" Then manufacturers fulfil these expectations to get those customers on board.
Now you can buy modular samplers and sample players with built-in drums. You can buy modules that are just a 909 kick drum. For the same money, you could buy an oscillator and make your own kick sound. But people want the convenience.
Years ago, modulars had nothing to do with music. There are circuits that generate frequencies and waveforms and you connect them in such a way as to make a sound. Now people approach them with the mentality that modulars should fit into the way they're used to making music.
So I think this change has more to do with the expanding market and the demands of customers than the manufacturers themselves. We have a joke at the shop that downstairs at Kottbusser Tor are the drug junkies and upstairs are the modular junkies. It's about having all your demands met and consuming.
So as the market grows, you and the manufacturers become more successful, but the products begin to contradict the premise that made modulars interesting in the first place?
This is the question. My fridge is full. I don't want to be a millionaire.
Superbooth seems to be a steadily expanding operation drawing in more and more manufacturers and industry figures. What's the goal behind the growth?
Getting bigger isn't a goal but the world is running away from you if you don't expand. If you stay where you are, it's dying. The growth isn't necessarily to do with the business side anyway. Right now, we're split between about 95% men and 5% women. Years ago, at least 60% of us were over 50 years old.
So we need a new generation, we need more women and we need people to understand that this scene can be interesting for opening your mind in physics and maths and art, not just music. Understanding the connections between these fields is very important.
Superbooth needs to be more than a trade show. That's why it's critical to have these small, innovative companies pursuing ideas without boundaries because this is something that cannot be copied by big industry. On the other hand, we have the corporations involved because we need to acknowledge what this field has become and to not be shy of the opportunities it gives us. That's my personal vision at least.
It's hard to be sure from the outside but it seems like you're an important figure in establishing a united front for these smaller companies.
I am the motivator and the trainer perhaps. I don't have much to do with SchneidersLaden anymore. I'm more the presenter. It's the same with the distribution company and Superbooth.
Another goal I have is to provide information about where these instruments are coming from. If a certain type of person buys an apple, they might wonder, "Where does this come from? How was it grown? Is it ethical for me to eat this? Has it been polluted somehow?" No one is asking this about electronic instruments. So I would like to educate people to understand whether it's good to support this or that manufacturer with their money.
What's the biggest challenge facing the industry?
The next generation has to find its own passion. We can offer our experience but it's up to them to learn from it or find something else. This is why we invite school classes to Superbooth. You'd be surprised how many families and children were there. This never happens at the other conferences.