Analog For The People: Synth Master Tatsuya Takahashi On Engineering Fun
In music and the culture it reflects, 2017 was predictably unpredictable: idols fell, empires shook, consensus was scarce. This conversation is one of five on The Record with artists, makers and thinkers whose work captured something unique about a chaotic year, and hinted at bigger revelations around the bend.
Last summer, killing time on a work trip in Manhattan, I wandered into the Guitar Center near Union Square. An hour later I was still there, late for an appointment but having a hard time leaving.
On the basement level, away from the "Stairway To Heaven" shredders on the main floor, tucked between pristine stage pianos and aggressively vintage analog noisemakers, was a strange and beautiful object from which I couldn't seem to tear myself away. I'm no keyboard player, but nor was this like any keyboard I'd ever seen: its face a muted silver, dotted with rubber knobs pleasing to the touch, the control panel curved slightly upward as if to say, c'mere, you. In one corner was a postage stamp-sized screen on which an animated line danced and wobbled when I pressed down a key, the pattern changing with the music as I tested buttons and sliders one by one.
What I didn't know then was that my experience was both far from unique and very much the point. "That was actually a real headache to manufacture," Tatsuya Takahashi told the makers of Push Turn Move, a 2017 coffee-table omnibus on instrument design, about the creation of his Minilogue synth. In a section of the book devoted to his work, the engineer lays out a three-point philosophy for how a well-made music tool accosts its user: "You first recognize what it is, then learn what it can do, and then you have fun with it. Then probably loop back — many times, for a good instrument."
If good instruments are more often associated with players than makers, Takahashi is the kind of exception you find only a few times in a generation. Born outside Tokyo, raised in London and hired just out of engineering school by the Japanese instrument maker Korg, he has spent the last decade designing music devices meant to stop people in their tracks, whether they are skilled players or total beginners. His Volca series, a set of tiny single-purpose synths that can function alone or be yoked, Voltron-like, together, is the vessel for countless YouTube jam sessions. The Monotron, his first Korg project, produces an impressive range of spacey theremin sounds for an object the size of a cassette tape. The Minilogue, which so captivated me, spawned a younger cousin called the Monologue, whose custom tuning features were co-designed by Aphex Twin's Richard D. James. Few of his instruments cost more than what you'd pay for an entry-level guitar.
In February, Takahashi made his biggest news yet since joining Korg — by leaving. Though he'll remain with company in an advisory role, the end of his tenure as chief engineer of analog synthesizers led the press that covers electronic music to ponder just how much has changed in that time. "Ask a few years ago what would have the biggest impact on synthesis reaching new audiences," wrote Peter Kirn at Create Digital Music, "and I'll bet a lot of people would have pointed to mobile apps. Instead, in his role leading design and engineering for analog synths, Tats made synth hardware the democratizing force."
Browse the display cases at an instrument store today, and you'll see budget-priced, pocket-sized machines with exposed circuits and wooden keys and science-fiction names begging to be picked up. Takahshi didn't create that landscape alone — but unlike his peers tinkering away in garages and bedrooms, he made his impact from within one of the most prestigious instrument companies in the world, setting an example for other big players to follow. Speaking from his new hometown of Cologne, Germany, where he moved this year to develop projects for the creators of Red Bull Music Academy, he joined me to reflect on how he discovered his art — and why it's so important to him that others do, too.
Daoud Tyler-Ameen: What first drew you to synthesizers — working on them and building them? Did you play another instrument first?
Tatsuya Takahashi: I was into electronics before playing instruments, but not synthesizers — I was into building speakers and amps. This all started when I was about 11 years old. I think I was about 14 or 15 when it dawned on me that it would actually be interesting to create sound signals with electronics rather than reproducing them.
Forgive me for what feels like a broad question, but how did you learn to do that? I have to imagine that the resources that are available on the Internet now were a lot more limited for hobbyists 10, 15, 20 years ago. Where did the knowledge come from?
Lots of books! And old Japanese magazines. Also, a lot of the components came from Japan. Akiabara is in Tokyo; it's a whole kind of mini-town where you can buy electronic components in real shops.
I have to ask, since affordability is also a theme in your work, if there was a piece of gear when you were younger that you coveted, that was maybe out of your price range or too rare to get your hands on.
Oh, so something I couldn't have? I don't think I had one, to be honest. I had this very naive idea that synthesizers were wonderful things, and I would be able to do wonderful things if I had one, but I'd never tried one. I think I built one before I actually laid my hands on a real one.
[Laughing] What? How can that be? How did you know where everything goes?
I didn't! I didn't. Which is why the stuff I was making was really weird, because I didn't have real-world, existing examples to work from. I mean, they were around, but I guess I wasn't interested enough. It just seemed beyond what a kid could buy with his pocket money.
How did you end up at Korg in the first place? Did you apply for the job or did they find you?
I went to them. I was at university doing my engineering masters, and after I finished that I had a bar job that was paying for the synths that I was making. I actually spent a year just developing my own instruments until it dawned on me that I should actually get a job rather than just doing it for myself. I called them up and they asked me to come in for an interview — so I brought this thing I'd made, this sequencer synth thing. I showed it to them and they gave me the job.
What did that device do?
It kind of looked like a mixer, but the faders were controlling the pitch — so you had eight layers making this textural, droney kind of sequence. It was battery powered, it had built-in speakers on it and I put a strap on it so you could carry it around like a guitar. That was actually inspired by [the American sound and visual artist] Christian Marclay, who did the turntable on a strap — I thought that looked cool.
I came to know your work through your product videos, which are quite entertaining. The promotional side of the musical instrument business tends to be kind of corny and gaudy, but when you introduce an instrument you keep things simple — and you make a point of stopping to demonstrate each new idea so that people can hear and see it for themselves. How did you come upon that approach?
That kind of happened by chance: I was the one presenting the products mainly because I was the only person around who spoke fluent English. But I think it's a good look if you have the engineer speaking about the product rather than some sales guy pitching it to you. If you look around at small synth makers, all the modular guys, their faces are there next to the products, and you can feel that it's real. So although it happened by chance, it kind of turned out all right.
In terms of scripting it so that we take it a step at a time, I think it helped that the products themselves were extremely simple: If you take the Volca series, for example, it would break down the music into the rhythm, the bass and the chords. So because they were already broken down, it wasn't too hard to break each product down into their respective elements and explain them step by step.
The Volca series is one of your most celebrated projects: It's these extremely small, $150 synths that each do one thing — there's the Volca Beats for drums, the Volca Bass for bass sounds. One of them is functional on its own, but the idea is to chain them together, and the more you add, the more you can do.
There's a great element of fun there, and that accessibility and simplicity is what's drawn a lot of people to your work. But to me there's also a danger in aiming for accessibility, which is that if you're not careful your stuff could get a reputation for being cheap — like those department-store turntables that are cute and affordable but will ruin your records. How did you walk that line so that people would understand that just because these things were simple didn't mean they weren't real instruments?
You've already mentioned the fun aspect; that was the most important message. You've got to have fun to connect with an instrument. You've got to have fun to understand an instrument. You've got to have fun to appreciate an instrument. As long as we had the fun aspect there, there wasn't so much worrying about the products being perceived as cheap or toyish. Toyish, I actually find, is quite a compliment, because it means we did our job of engineering fun. As long as people can connect to and understand a product, I don't think there was any danger of being perceived as not up to making music on.
Another of your most best known instruments is a keyboard called the Minilogue. I remember spotting one in a store and being really mesmerized by one feature: There's a tiny screen on the front panel that shows you, when you press down a key, what the sound wave you're generating looks like. Tell me about what that's doing there.
That's the real analog signal being displayed in real time on an oscilloscope, basically: It's showing you exactly what you're doing to the signal and giving you visual feedback. That was both for the fun factor — because it's just really fun to watch waveforms while listening to them — but also for this kind of educational idea, so people could understand what's going on inside. A lot of the stuff that I did at Korg was about promoting this idea that, actually, you don't need to be a scientist to use a synthesizer. I really believe in that: I think it should be in every school, in every country.
Do you think electronic instruments have a capacity to be educational in their design in a way that more traditional instruments don't? With an acoustic instrument, form has to follow function really closely, because the shape of the thing is what determines the sound. With electronic instruments, especially today, there's a lot more freedom to decide how something is going to look and how you interact with it.
I think it's got great potential. I mean, electronic instruments are inherently disadvantaged in that, unlike an acoustic instrument, you don't feel the physical thing happening. You can't pluck a string harder to make it louder, and distort.
Sure. An acoustic guitar, you actually feel vibrate against your body.
Right, all these very kind of human and primitive bodily expressions that we have. But I do believe that electronic instruments have a bigger potential in being educational, simply because we can configure the educational aspects into them. We could create a product that would teach people about chords and chord progressions, and build that into the interface. There are so many possibilities that only electronic instruments have.
What changes for you when an instrument is beautiful? Like, your stuff is very pretty to look at. And I think, by contrast, of something like Ableton Live — one of the most widely used, influential, revolutionary pieces of music software, but the basic visual design looks like it hasn't changed in 15 years. So what's going on in your head when you decide how an instrument is going to look?
Again, this is related to making things simple to understand: I believe the way an instrument looks should represent the way it sounds. Take the Minilogue, for example: We had a clean, minimal silver face with very simple, rubber-coated knobs — but it had this big wooden plank on the rear. That was our way of saying, this is analog, but it's not just redoing vintage analog: It's actually a modern-day rendition of what an analog synth could be. I think the visual design is really, really important in communicating what that instrument is about, almost as important as the sound itself.
I can't imagine somebody being this committed to making their work accessible if they hadn't had some kind of formative experience with education. Is there anything in your schooling background, a particular teacher or mentor figures, who instilled you with an idea about making sure that everybody in the room can understand you?
I never thought about that before, but now that you ask, there was a math teacher called Paul Caira that was great. He would connect logic with music, or he would tell you about this great book called Gödel, Escher, Bach, which is about philosophy and logic. Just a really inspirational figure. Maybe there was some of that that rubbed off on me.
I read an interview once where you said, "I work at Korg at Tokyo, where there are four Tatsuyas and four Takahashis." At the time you were just explaining that you go by the nickname Tats to avoid confusion. But like we said before, you spent a lot of your youth and early adulthood in London, and you speak the Queen's English.
Not quite, but yeah.
I'd say so.
[Laughing] Yeah, close enough.
Do you think that gave you a different experience than your peers? We talked about the public part, doing launch videos and being a public figure, but I'm wondering about your daily experience at work. Was your Western upbringing an advantage? A burden? Did people look at you differently?
I think it was both. It meant that I was probably unintentionally rude on many occasions.
How do you mean?
Because I didn't understand, not only Japanese culture, but Japanese corporate culture: When to speak up, how to deal with Japanese clients. My emails were weird. But I was very fortunate that Korg is actually still family owned: It's only about 300 people in Tokyo, which is about a tenth of what Roland is and a hundredth of what Yamaha is. So it was very forgiving to someone like me who wasn't getting all of the culture right.
Earlier this year, we ran a story about an instrument called the DJ-808, which is the Roland company attempting to combine the controller devices that DJs use with a physical drum machine. What was intriguing to me is, nobody needs that device, so why do people want it? It feels like there's still a real demand for physical hardware, even when you can find a powerful sequencer in a $5 iPhone app. Do you think about why that is? And do you feel differently about that idea than you did when you first started in the business?
I never designed any of my products from what people might need. When you start thinking like that, you're going to be like, "OK, people use this kind of compression," or, "People want this kind of bass" — and you start to think in terms of music that exists already. I don't think that's inspiring if you want to create your own music. So, one of the solutions is to keep things simple, to break things down into very simple elements so that people can deal with it — and then use them in wrong ways if they want to. I mean, I love it when people hack the products I worked, on, because it means they made it their own.
Take them apart, reconnect stuff.
Exactly. Even if you don't take them apart, connect them in weird ways. And that kind of thing wouldn't really originate by thinking about the necessities of a prospective user.
What's important to you about analog? Can you describe the feeling you get from interacting with a machine and understanding that it's just turning electricity into sound, without help from a computer?
Yeah, I think analog is fundamentally different. I am not an analog purist — and ultimately, once you've made some music with an instrument and put it in the mix, it's very hard to tell if a certain melody line was played on a digital or an analog synth. But I think the part where it does make a difference is in the actual creation of it: the interaction between the musician and the instrument. That is really, for me, the beauty of analog, is the responsiveness — that feeling you get of the signal being generated by these electrons on a circuit board in real time, and manipulating that to make your own sound. I think there's something really beautiful and special about that, that helps the creative process.
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