For the past few years, modular synthesiser’s world has not stopped growing. Manufacturers have multiplied, which offers more and more possibilities, and users have never been so many. In Belgium as well there are genuine fans who contribute to this everlasting development.
Meeting with François Gaspard, founder of Shakmat Modular, a brand dedicated to modular synthesisers (Eurorack) that are exported worldwide.
What has been your first contact with modular synthesisers?
My first contact happened with Fabric Dubusquiel, a guy from Nivelles. Since the 90s, he has been making modular synthesisers, including the Lassence Venturi. It is a strange instrument, even now that I master much more the technology; it remains a peculiar instrument, with a peculiar sound. This instrument fascinated me, because of both the sound it made and the approach we could have, which was half technological half artistic.
When we talk about modular, there are different formats. Now Eurorack one is the most widespread, what do you like in this one?
For me, the Eurorack format is a device of technological avant-garde compared to all electronic music instruments. I think there is just the plug-in world that has the same thirst for breakthrough. In addition, there are much more manufacturers than any other modular formats. It creates a competition that pushes them to ever go further. That said, it is a healthy competition since the market is not swamped.
When and how did you decide to make your own modules?
I started a modular synthesiser with buying other brand’s modules. I wanted to make my own modules when I noted the lack of tools. Less than ten years ago there were very few manufacturers, so many functions were lacking. It is simply the lack of tools that brought me to do it.
I am specialized in electronic engineering and said to myself that in the modular framework it is not very difficult to build a tool. Indeed, we focus so much to one specific function that it makes things easier. If we want to build a “SH 101”, you need to look at the oscillator, filter, keyboard, modulation… it raises many side issues; whereas here we focus on one feature. So we can go very far into it. It was therefore more accessible; I could directly start making modules.
You decided to market them. This project quickly took shape?
The first module was entirely hand-made. I used it for me, for live performances, and people discovered it like this. Reactions were very positive with many feedbacks saying it could be marketed.
So I said to myself that it could be a good challenge for me to learn how to industrialise a project. I decided to make 20 of these for the interested people. We talked about it around us and shared a small video on Facebook to have people interested and then distributors contacted us.
It was crazy because we thought we would only make 20 and the week after there were already 50 to make. We thought we would stop there but after some days we were at 100, then 200… This is how we went from a small production to something that ended in shops in Europe and the United-States, and with all this we remained a small team of friends.
What were the steps to move from a prototype to a perfectly finished module both from a technical and aesthetic point of view?
It really was the longest-lasting process; I almost lost heart several times. Between the first and last prototype, which is industrial and resembles a genuine module, there has been one year and a half. With my engineering background I am used to materialising an idea to make an example, which I then give to somebody capable of replicating. Yet I knew nothing about industrialising. So it was an advice-seeking, tentative process but in the end the more you keep moving the more you come across good deal and tips, and we share these with others who work in the same area.
You created a whole range of modules. Has there been thinking behind it, such as to address an issue, or is it a logical sequence of events in your modules?
Yes there has been some real thinking, which address some issues either. Modular synthesisers have a tremendous power of creation and make very sophisticated stuff possible. But I have always found the instrument lacked something and it was in its ergonomics, especially for live use.
This has improved in recent years. However, at the beginning, when we had massively Doepfer or this kind of brand, we really had technical instruments, not necessarily ergonomic.
Faced with this lack of ergonomics and functionalities at hand to make improvisations, I thought that something should be done. I think that is why we were first known for – for sequencing and rhythmic creation instruments where we can do things “in flight”, where there is no menu and where we have space to put our hands on.
Do you work alone for Shakmat Modular or are you a team?
Yes, we are a team. At first we were two, with the particularity that I am the team’s musician, electronic engineer and programmer. Overall you could say that I am the guy who has the ideas and makes the modules. But there are skills I do not have and, due to my character, things I pay very little attention to.
For instance, I consider our modules’ look a detail. I am very pragmatic on this part even though I know I should not in this kind of job.
So I work with Steve, who runs a graphic design agency called “Made Inside” and who is in charge of the graphics. We also work together on the layout. He has a very practical mind in terms of ergonomics, of how functionalities should be accessible, etc. We always discuss it together. The marketing ideas and stuff like having a brand and a graphic identity come next. It is more his job. He really handles the visual communication aspect.
Do you assemble the modules yourself?
Sometimes we order parts from abroad that can arrive partly assembled. We cannot do everything here in Belgium. Otherwise, we work locally; we assemble, test and pack the modules here in Brussels. We also have to prepare the DIY kits. A small team of passionate people we met via the modular scene helps us on this.
Speaking of DIY, the Shakmat Modular’s series of modules is available both as an assembled module and DIY kit. What advice would you give to those who want to start DIY?
Do it, simply; it is really not complicated. For some people the idea of soldering electronic components seems like hell but they quickly realize that soldering an electronic board with components on it is actually like a small Ikea plan. A little more complicated but with a final result much more exciting than an Ikea piece of furniture…
There are also modules for beginners and great shops for it, like Thonk in England. Beginners can take a module provided with good assembly instructions as a first kit. Do not hesitate either to send an email to a manufacturer, like us.
Modular synthesiser’s world is wide. The choice of modules and brands is relatively large. How do you do, as a brand, to distinguish yourself and continue to exist?
When we launched Shakmat Modular, there were fewer manufacturers. It was more limited. We arrived during their first manufacturers’ growth. At the time, there were about 200 manufacturers; 10 years ago, there were 10 and now we are 300-400, I don’t even count them anymore.
But I think we make an identity by having an idea behind it. It must always be an identity both easy to summarize and original. Ours is about ideas of ergonomics and user-friendliness. The possibility to quickly create patterns partly shaped our identity; we have been launched by and known for it. If people like an idea, they will probably like the other modules too.
Every brand I know that distinguishes itself has something very clear, very strong. It might be related either to the identity of what they do or the cost. Some brands are known to be low-cost. For example, their modules are a little cheaper than the others but it works well. You just don’t have to be the guy who releases the hundredth analogue oscillator or the hundredth MS 20 filter clone. This person will not go far, because there’s no need for that. You just have to do things people need.
Speaking of low-cost, Behringher plans to launch into modular. Is it positive or negative in such a niche as the modular synthesiser domain?
Personally, I am doing a niche in a niche… this means that low-cost brands do not really threaten mine. For instance, Behringer is interested in the wider niche because it is huge. I also see that they come in a sector where they will offer a much cheaper entry-level model, with a much wider communication reach.
On that matter, some people are really panicked in the modular world. Others are very excited simply because, as always, Behringher will bring new people. These people will, at some point, drop their products and go for other brands or they will give up because they would never have been into it anyway.
This is what I believe, without being sure either because I do not really ask myself about it since it will not compete with our brand.
What is the atmosphere between the brands?
Many brands produce modular synthesisers. So we see small set-ups created with associations of modules from different brands. For example, at Superbooth – the Berlin modular exhibition – collaboration is clearly part of the brands’ mindset. Indeed, people build instruments by associating brands together. So brands need not compete. On top of that, the atmosphere is super cool, even with big brands like Intellijel or Mutable Instrument. And for the smaller brands, there is even a form of mutual help because, fortunately, we generally do different stuff. It is the case among the few Belgian brands for instance. Klavis has a technical look on my doing and I have a user’s one on his. We consult each other. There is a community aspect in this domain, which distinguishes it from the others.
What advice would you have for beginners who are starting out in the modular system?
First of all, ask around, maybe you know somebody who already has a modular synthesiser. Otherwise, read a lot; there are forums, books and if you start on your own, go to the shops. At the time being, you had better go to Berlin or Amsterdam. In Brussels, Music City will soon open an entire section dedicated to modular. What is nice with this kind of shops is that they give much more precise advice than in shops not specialized in this domain.
Also, begin small. Do not buy 20 modules at once; it is the best way not to do anything nice with them. Buy an oscillator, a filter, a Maths (Make Noise) and a VCA, and also something to sequence everything, be it a module or something external.
You have an impressive collection of module from other brands. Which would be the 3 essential modules for you?
- Maths from Make Noise. It is one of the first modules I bought, when it then came out. I am still convinced it is a great investment and still surprised with what we can do with it.
- Still from Make Noise, the QMMG, which has sadly become impossible to find. These are 4 parallel filters making a peculiar sound. This module has never left my live set-up.
- The Rainmaker from Intelligel, it is a special instrument, peculiar as well but it allows being creative.
For more information and to discover the whole Shakmat Modular series, go to their website: www.shamatmodular.com
English translation by Raphaël Rozenberg