METRONO.ME interview with Tony Rolando / Make Noise 12/03/2012

Your name and age, name of any co-collaborators

Anthony T. Rolando, 38 Founder/President

Also working at Make Noise:

CFO: Kelly Kelbel
Technician: Dash Lewis
Technician: Joe Moresi

We also work with a couple of people on project basis:

Robert Lowey: Firmware Engineer (René, Mystery Module)
Tom Erbe: DSP/ Firmware Engineer (Echophon)
Flemming Christensen (Phonogene)

Birthplace and present location

Born in Springfield, Ill.  Currently reside in Martshall, NC. Make Noise operates out of Asheville, NC.

How long have you been creating modules as Make Noise?

Make Noise has been in operation for 5 yrs. now.

How have your modules evolved since you first started?

Well initially I never thought there would be a need to build more then 50 of any given module, so I designed them to be soldered by hand in the spare bedroom. The first Make Noise module was the modDemod, released February of 2008. I ordered the parts to build 20 units, with the plan of keeping 2 for myself and selling 18 of them. Those first 18 modDemods sold very quickly thanx to a blog post on Matrixsynth. The modules had a very unique look since the faceplate was made from a printed circuit board instead of the standard metal. The graphic was done using the etched copper, black solder mask and white silkscreening on the circuit board. Shortly after those inital units sold, Shawn Cleary from Analogue Haven contacted me about stocking the modDemod at his shop. Analogue Haven wanted 50 modDemods and he wanted them to have the standard aluminum faceplate that Doepfer, Livewire, Harvestman and Plan B were using. I really liked the anodized graphics (Metal Photo) that Harvestman, Livewire and Plan B used, so I gladly switched to the Metal Photo type faceplates.

The modDemod has since been superseded by the modDemix, which is a more unique circuit, and like the rest of our modules, it is designed to be built by robots and loved by humans.

What got you into making synth modules in the first place and have you created any other devices prior to the modules?

I worked on several production lines at Moog Music, so I have a good understanding of how an electronic musical instrument is built. While at Moog I also took an interest in building modular synthesizers in my spare time. I'd come home from working on electronic musical instruments all day, eat something and then I'd go to the spare bedroom and start working on more electronic musical instruments! Eventually I left Moog to pursue freelance PCB design work. However, there was more interest in my synthesizer modules from folks like Shawn Cleary of Analog Haven and Andreas Schneider of Schneiders Buero, so I dove into building a small synthesizer business. Honestly, at that point in my life I really had nothing to lose.

Did you learn electronics and design principles in school or are you self taught?  Could you tell me a little about your education background?

Self-Taught. While I was still living in NYC, I'd go to the Brooklyn Public Library on weekends and even after work and read every electrical engineering text I could find. Esp. the books by Bob Pease were very helpful. I also learned a great deal from Cyril Lance, Amos Gaynes and Steve Dunnington in Moog engineering.  I'm the type of person that learns the most by just doing something. I built many circuits on perfboard before I started learning a CAD program and drawing circuit art to fab printed circuit boards.

What is the main inspiration for your work?

Design philosophy, Don Buchla. I've always been very inspired by his user interfaces. The Thunder, for example, is a fascinating musical instrument controller. Additionally, the sound of his 200 series modules such as the 259, 292, 291 and others just makes me happy.

Design implementation, Bob Moog and the engineering team at Moog Music, esp. Cyril Lance. I am inspired by the attention to detail in their instruments. Every input and output is covered. Almost everything is under voltage control. The MiniMoog Voyager modulation busses are incredibly flexible for a hardwired analog synthesizer. The circuits are very robust, practically bullet proofed. The documentation is also second to none. I think Moog has done a great deal of work in teaching musicians about synthesis.

Any other synth module or musical inspiration in particular?

When I was deciding to start Make Noise, The Harvestman was a great inspiration. I found Scott's company to be very exciting and I wanted to make circuits that could work with the Harvestman modules. After I started Make Noise, Harvestman founder Scott Jaeger and I became friends, which is something that I am really happy about.

Could you briefly describe your creation process?

The initial design ideas come from a personal perspective. I aim to build the modules that I desire in my dream system. I've always been excited by small synthesizers, the ones that fit into briefcases such as the EMS Synthi and the Buchla Music Easel. My dream system is quite small; a powerful electronic instrument that I could carry with me on journeys. I am attracted to the idea of devoting myself to this single, small instrument that I carry at my side. For this reason I prefer functionally dense modules. I like to put voltage control over everything, even if it does not seem immediately useful, because that is where the chance for musical innovation hides. What seems like a silly idea could very well initiate an entirely new and unique sound. I spend many months building versions of these ideas in my shop. Many ideas never leave the shop and even more ideas never even see a completed prototype. There is always more ideas then completed modules.

How you design modules from start to finish?

Once I am happy with the initial prototype, I will call upon my team of beta testers to get feedback on the design and to make certain that the module is useful for many different types of musicians (and not just myself), and that the module works with many of the modules available for the Euro system today.This process could take several months as prototypes are passed from one beta tester to another, all over the country. Once the design has reached a point where I could see no further improvement, I finalize all component values, checking for possible errors and areas that might cause troubles. Finally, a Bill of Materials is written up and CAD files are converted to proper formats for use in the fabrication of the Printed Circuit Boards, stencils, metal work and other parts required in the assembly of the module. All of these files are sent to shops where they program the machines to print, cut, punch, drill, etch and build the boards and metal work into the parts to build a synthesizer module. These parts are delivered to Make Noise in Asheville, NC. where we assemble, calibrate, test and package each module with great care.

Do you have a home design setup?

Not anymore. I've moved all of my oscilloscopes and tools to the Make Noise shop.

Where do you build the modules and can you tell me a little about your manufacturing process?

Our metal is fabricated in Ohio. Our knobs are made in Chicago. The parts are put on the circuit boards at shops in California, Tennessee and North Carolina. Once the parts are on the boards, they are shipped to Make Noise in Asheville, NC. where we put the metal faceplates, nuts and knobs on them, transforming them into a synthesizer module.

These built modules are then passed through our calibration and Quality Control stations. Units that pass are then cleaned and inspected for cosmetics and finally packaged at our packing station. Units that fail are boxed up for re-work and will eventually make another pass through Quality Control.

Any other favorite modules  or music items you're into? Anything you're looking to acquire?

The only thing I am seeking at the moment is a unique reverb algorithm to design a Make Noise reverberation module around. Tom Erbe and I are currently chatting about that one.

Who is Surachi, and how did you cross paths? Do you have any other beta testers that help with production?

Surachai is a man that makes wild sounds with modular synthesizers. Much of his music is available for download here:

He is also responsible for putting together some really fantastic modular synthesizer events along with the rest of the crew at Trash Audio. Surachai does beta testing for Make Noise and he is working with us to create a series of modular synthesizer records called "Shared System Series."

He is also a friend.

What music did you grow up listening to?

I lived in the midwest so I had to listen to Classic Rock. in an effort to rebel against Classic Rock I took a liking to Punk and Reggae music when I was 14. Those records were hard to get where I lived, but I made friends that had older siblings with good record collections. So cassettes of the 1st Bad Brains record, all the Misfits records, Husker Du, Minor Threat, Dag Nasty played oddly along with the entire Bob Marley catalog, Jimmy Cliff and other reggae artist that I can no longer remember. At that time even Bob Marley records were hard to find where I lived in central Illinois and punk records were even harder to find. There was one really great record store called Apple Tree records. They had a limited but well appreciated selection of punk. I later discovered the Creation Records catalog at that shop, purchasing MBV "Loveless," RIDE "Nowhere," Slowdive "Just for a Day," and other records which really changed my interest in music and sound.

I was introduced to electronic music through the record collection at the Springfield Public library. Believe it or not, they some how offered an small collection of Morton Subotnick records. The cover of Silver Apples of the Moon captured my attention initially. I fell in love with those records, but there was no information about them anywhere. I had no idea how they were made until much later in my life. When the library sold off their record collection I purchased some of the Morton Subotnick records as well as a mint copy of the John Pfeiffer record "Electronomusic" for a dollar a piece. 

What's the first song you remember listening to or that sticks in your mind?

The first record that I really remember is Michael Jackson's "Beat It." I was  8 yrs. old when that album dropped. It was the first time I remember caring about music. It was the gateway. Eddie Van Halen's guitar solo was mind blowing! I wanted to be EVH for that moment. Following Thriller, I became obsessed with Prince "Purple Rain," and Van Halen "1984." I was probably 11 yrs. old when that record came out and I think that was when I took an interest in actually playing an instrument. I begged to take guitar lessons. My folks complied, but my lessons came from my 5th grade teacher, who did not know any Van Halen songs. Instead she taught me traditional folk and religious hymns, which I hated. So I quit going to my lessons.

Who are your influences in general, in terms of engineering and design, as well as musically and artistically?

I've always liked the artist Francis Picabia, mostly the pieces he did after he met Duchamp and Man Ray, the Dada period I think...

Are you a musician at all? Been in any bands? Do you play any other instruments ?

Yeah I played in a band called we Ragazzi. I played guitar, drums, piano… but all pretty badly. I play the synthesizer pretty ok though.

Where have you performed?

All over the USA, Canada and also in the UK a couple of times for All Tomorrows Parties festivals.

Are you involved in any other groups or projects that you'd like to mention?

At the moment the only music project I have in motion is Make Noise Records, a label I have started along with Surachai. We will be releasing our first record in December, Richard Devines contribution to the Shared System Series "Creature I b/w Creature II."

Where do you live now?

Marshall, NC.

Is Make Noise your full time day job? Do you do anything else to make a living?

Yes. I work for Make Noise only.

Have any hobbies like stamp collecting or knitting?

Skateboarding. I also swim a lot. I like walking the dog and spending time with my partner Kelly.

Do you collect anything or are you a minimalist?

I'm pretty minimalist. I have a lot of synthesizers but that's what I do for a living. I have 3 Earthwing skateboards: 2 Drifters and 1 Superglider. They are all set-up for riding different terrains.

What was the last book you read?

No idea. "Op-Amps for Everyone" is sitting on the desk right now.

What are you currently listening to that you're really into?

Richard Devine RiSP
Keith Fullerton Whitman Generators
Rob Lowe Liteo Folk

Do you watch TV or listen to the radio at all? Any favorite shows, movies or broadcasts?

I listen to NPR in the car. I watch Glee and Chopped. I also like Pawn Stars on the History Channel.

Where do you go to discover new sounds/music/tech?

Richard Devine's house.

Been to any good shows lately?

Yes. The show we put on last month at the Make Noise shop. Solo modular synthesizer performances from Richard Devine and Alessandro Cortini.

Describe a day in the life of Tony Rolando.

All synths, all day. Take a break to ride the skatepark in the afternoon when I can (it is only 3 minute walk from the shop). Walk the dog. After 5pm in the summer I drink a beer and in the winter I drink a bourbon.

What does your family think of your creations and do they support you? Do they have any idea what you do or what your project sounds like?

They are happy that I have a good job, but they are not musicians so the instruments that we build are not useful to them.

Any advice for people who are starting out on the DIY path creating synth modules or electronics?

If a person is serious about learning to design analog electronics, I would say that person should try to understand what they are building. It is easy to learn how to read schematics and put parts on a circuit board. To truly understand analog electronics is a lifelong pursuit, at least it seem so to me. Additionally, folks should understand that even a digital design is still an analog circuit :) If I were just getting started in the design of electronic musical instruments today, I would first try to get a job working for a company that designs user interfaces for the medical instrument or tablet computer industries.

Any new upcoming modules, besides the mystery module? (which i'd love to know more about and it's present state of production)

We are still tweaking the Mystery module.

Because customers were upset about the delays in delivery of the DPO and ECHOPHON, we will no longer be announcing modules in advance. We have almost no control over delays in the manufacturing process, but we do have control over the information that we give regarding the development of modules. By not discussing future developments, delays are no longer an issue. We do have two great analog designs already prepared for 2013. These designs are currently in line for production at our facility in California and Tennessee. When we have them stocked and ready to ship, we will announce them.

Any parting words or pearls of wisdom you'd like to share with whoever's reading this interview?

If you've read this far, then you should probably turn off the internet, turn on your synthesizer and go make noise!

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