Meeting: Pittsburgh Modular

Tonight we got to play in the basement studio of Pittsburgh’s very own modular synth Stradivari – tucked away on unassuming Pocusset Street in Squirrel Hill.  Headed by local Richard Nicol, Pittsburgh Modular is fast becoming a contender in the world market of modular synthesizers – supplying analog enthusiasts in the US, Europe and Australia (and possibly elsewhere, but I got too distracted by the beautiful glowing oscillators)…

Interest in Pittsburgh Modular is picking up speed – and it’s no wonder.  The modules are as pretty as they are solidly built.  Nicol, who now shares design and manufacturing duties with Thomas O’Connor (Australia) and Scott Swartz (USA), had moved away from producing electronic sounds digitally, in part, because analog is more fun.  “The key to modular synthesis is that its captivatingly fun,” he says. “After playing with it for 5 minutes, you get sucked into its world… and the next thing you know, you’ve created something new.”


…And that’s just what Nicol did as we sat in his tiny studio space – staring at the pulsating, blinking silver switchboard covered in knobs and colorful cables.  Effortlessly, he plugged and unplugged, tweaking this knob – then that. Pitches bending and doubling over themselves and pulsing. “There no soul in the computer,” he emphasized. “But with the modular, you can see and feel what you’re creating.”  He then graciously surrendered the helm as both Max and I took turns plugging/unplugging cables and turning knobs.  (I eventually gave up when the square wave I was playing with sounded like a limping robot…)

Like many of my other basement-bound, mad science friends (I’m looking at you, Rob), Nicol began Pittsburgh Module as a hobby to fuel his passion.  However, at the rate orders are pouring in, Nicol estimates he’ll have to take it on full-time at some point to keep up with demand – a move he never anticipated at the onset.  Despite  the promising success of PM, however, Nicol’s primary interest is getting people excited about sound synthesis (see that face on Max?  Like a kid on Christmas day…) and educating people about where and how sounds are made. “It’s that understanding of sound generation that turns a sound producer into an artist,” he says.


But make no mistake, though it’s pretty and fun, modular ain’t cheap.  “People have this misconception that when they go modular, they need a lot of modules to start,” Nicol warns.  “That’s not necessarily true. You don’t have to start with everything if you want to make noises or soundscapes.  Start small and get to you know your modules.  People lose sight of the fact it can be $250 or more for an oscillator – that’s why I’m working to keep things cost effective for people.”

Keep your eyes on Pittsburgh Modulator!  I know Max will… Actually, I’ll probably have to forcibly drag him away from PM’s basement.  I should go do that…