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Tatsuya Takahashi: Synth Designer

Making Synthesis Engaging, Immediate And Affordable
By Kim Bjørn

Tatsuya Takahashi: Synth DesignerPhoto: Dan Wilton

Former Chief Engineer at Korg, Tatsuya Takahashi is the man who brought analogue synthesis back into the mainstream.

In his time at Korg, Tatsuya Takahashi brought us the Monotrons, the Volcas, the Minilogue and much more. Now nearly 36 years old and searching for new ways to make synthesis engaging, immediate and affordable, his latest creation is the unique Granular Convolver.

Hearing Voltages

The first instrument that Tatsuya Takahashi can remember building was a simple square-wave oscillator with a potentiometer. "My pivotal moment in realising what circuits are capable of was this experience of electrons going from one place to the next, charging a capacitor and then discharging again really quickly. That, happening a thousand times a second, is creating sound. Rather than a circuit being just a conduit, a pipeline from one place to the next, it's a completely different thing when the circuit itself is the source of the sound. Being able to experience voltages and signals directly was an amazing thing.

"One of my favourite quotes is from Cyril Lance from Moog, who said that a circuit is an organisation of the universe. It's a beautiful thing, and like saying: all that engineers are doing is to put all this stuff happening around you together, and organising it in a way that humans can interact with. It resonates with a lot of the ideas I have about how technology can be interpreted in the way of using these instruments creatively."

He started soldering at the age of 11, and soon began hacking cheap keyboards. Tatsuya continued his electronic self-education all the way through school.

"At university, I did a Masters degree in Electrical and Information Sciences. It was a four-year general engineering course, which meant that before I could choose a specific field to study further, I was doing structural, mechanical, fluid dynamics and all the different disciplines in engineering. That was my formal training in circuits and signal processing. But I was always into analogue circuitry — probably because of this experience of actually hearing voltages, I was more into the analogue side of things than, say, the DSP stuff, which was fascinating, but at that point, more of an academic endeavour for me than a creative."

Tatsuya's final project at university was an investigation into the distortion behaviour of transistor differential pairs, and involved building a low-distortion sine-wave oscillator and measuring the distortion for various circuit topologies and biased states. "They're the fundamental blocks, and appear everywhere. For example, a ladder filter schematic has two rows of transistors, with each pair being this long-tail pair. In the case of the ladder filter, it is used to control current so that you can get the filter effect, but you can use it as an amp, an oscillator, a comparator; it has so many uses.

"On a conceptual level, I find it interesting how the quantum effects are realised as sounds, like putting a transistor into avalanche mode to create noise. It's a very abstract idea, but that fundamental fact somehow channels creativity. Something as simple as a string on a guitar has these mechanical and physical properties of the tension, the thickness, the body shape, the material and the volume, and when plucking a string, its a very basic effect you're experiencing. I think that's why it is so direct and why people can connect with the experience of playing the guitar. One of my goals is to kind of 'beat the guitar'; be better than the guitar, but with electronics."

Fun Stuff

A year after university, Tatsuya finished his Masters at Cambridge, moved back to London where he grew up, and found himself building instruments. "I didn't have much interest in finding a job, I wasn't even really aware of the necessity, and in London, I was working behind a bar, and just building fun stuff for myself."

One of the instruments he created in this period was a big, but portable, eight-oscillator synthesizer with a sequencer, which Tatsuya sees as a direct forerunner of the Korg Volca and Monotribe. "I don't think you should have to sit in a certain studio or space to make music. You should be able to take it to the camp fire, singalong, whatever. The internal speakers take the formality out of making music, because you can be on a couch just doodling stuff, in the park or on a train with headphones. That's the way I wanted to make music — and it turned out that other people wanted to make music like that as well."

At some point, it dawned on Tatsuya that he probably should get a job, so in 2006 he took a flight to Japan, with a vague idea of working for Korg. "I just thought it was a cool company. My first synth was the Korg MS2000, which maybe isn't the best-sounding instrument, but it does have a very analogue feel to the interface, which I liked. It was also one of the synths I could afford at that time."

Bypassing the traditionally lengthy process of applying for jobs in Japan, Tatsuya simply called Korg up. "I was very fortunate that they were very open to this random guy calling them up, so I sent them my CV. I went in for an interview but didn't know what to say, so I brought the eight-oscillator synth. After my first interview they asked me to come back in a few weeks, and my second interview was with the founder of Korg, Tsutomu Kato, and his son, Seiki Kato, who is now president of the company — and they were like 'When do you want to start?'"

Tatsuya believes that his different background and his self-taught skills helped in getting the job at Korg. "In my last few years at Korg, I was trying to get people into internships. You don't get the best people if you're just picking them out of university on this 'conveyer belt' of job applications; you get the best from meeting people and from being introduced by other synth enthusiasts. So many people make instruments as a labour of love and simply because they're super interested in it."

Tatsuya with some of the instruments he has created. In front of him, left to right, are a Korg Volca FM and prototype Monotribe, the Granular Convolver designed for the Red Bull Music Academy, and a Korg Monologue. Nearest the camera is the eight-oscillator synth with battery power and built-in speakers that helped to get Tatsuya his job at Korg.Tatsuya with some of the instruments he has created. In front of him, left to right, are a Korg Volca FM and prototype Monotribe, the Granular Convolver designed for the Red Bull Music Academy, and a Korg Monologue. Nearest the camera is the eight-oscillator synth with battery power and built-in speakers that helped to get Tatsuya his job at Korg.Photo: Kim Bjørn

The Mighty Micro

When Tatsuya joined Korg, no analogue instruments were being produced, and his first project was the hardware design for the Microkorg XL. It was a stripped-down version of the Radius architecture, in the same way as the original Microkorg was a stripped-down version of the MS2000. "The project had already begun when I joined, and the panel was already laid out, so it was back and forth between the mechanical engineer and me, fitting all the controls in and making it work. That was an excellent experience as it involved a lot of digital circuitry, which was new to me."

Tatsuya also designed some aspects of the Microsampler, which came out around the same time and used the same boards. "But the voicing department was designing the algorithms that went into the DSP chips, and I had no control over the user interface, and I missed those parts of the process."

While finishing the Microkorg XL, Tatsuya got into a conversation with colleague Tadahiko Sakamaki from the product planning department, which would prove to be the first step along the road that led to the Monotron. "We talked about doing an analogue synth, with batteries and four knobs. This was the first product where I had pretty much full control over the UI, the parts, the ribbon controller, etc. The juiciest part of the Monotron is the MS20 filter circuitry, redesigned for battery power. Our thought was: how could you get the maximum enjoyment of a filter with the minimum amount of control? For the company, it was very low-risk, and Korg is pretty good at just trying stuff out, so they gave the new guy a shot — and, yeah, it went well."

Instant Gratification

This was a tipping point for Tatsuya in 2010, but Korg as a company took longer to realise the potential of analogue. "There was a lot of skepticism around designing and manufacturing analogue products because everybody was in this world of digital, which was so much easier to control. So it was an excellent test case of 'Can we build analogue today?' That's where my studies in discrete circuitry helped, as I could go into detail on simulating how the variability in semiconductors would affect the result."

Tatsuya spent a lot of time using the test results to convince the quality assurance department that analogue circuitry was stable and that they could manufacture without problems. Soon thereafter, in 2011, the Monotribe arrived — with a sequencer, and drum voices -— followed by the Monotron Delay and Monotron Duo. All were small, portable instruments that invited the user to have fun and experiment, with a limited interface.

The prototype of the Korg Monotribe.The prototype of the Korg Monotribe.Photo: Kim Bjørn"Doing the user interface is an exercise in really defining what's important," explains Tatsuya. "I think the more market research you do, the more knobs you end up with. It's more of an exercise in reduction: finding the one idea that will be effectively communicated. To me, one of the essential things about instrument design is that you [ie. the user] can approach the instrument without prior knowledge. It should be instantly apparent what it can do, like a postcard inviting you; 'Oh, I wanna be on this beach and drink a cocktail.' So you do have to be reductive in your choices and only keep the good stuff."

The instruments also invited users to open them up and modify them, thanks to a feature that Tatsuya sneaked into the first Monotron. "The test points were actually just for me. I wanted to be able to open it up and hack it myself. In Japan, I had this band with another guy from Korg, and we would do gigs with just handmade instruments, breadboards, etc — and I always wanted a basic analogue synth that I could hack and modify in a way that would work with other stuff I had. Tadahiko saw that I'd put the test points on the back, and labelled them. Eventually, this initiative was supported by the President of Korg himself, and because it was analogue, it was nice to translate the vintage hacking culture to a new instrument."

Elemental

After the success of the three Monotrons and the Monotribe, Korg were comfortable with designing and manufacturing analogue instruments again, and the first Korg Volcas arrived in 2013. These were a lot more complicated, and Tatsuya had to develop three of them in one go — with the same team of two or three people, and in the same amount of time.

"From the Monotron to the Monotribe I was adding things, but if I kept adding stuff in the Volcas, the message wouldn't be clear any more. So we had to split the ideas into sub-units: drums, monosynth/bass, and chords — the three elements of music-making. I need clarity, as well as the users; I have a terrible memory and hate to look in the manual, so it was important that the instruments were natural to get back into after being away for a while."

Collaboration, and bouncing ideas back and forth, have always been important to Tatsuya, and never more so than in the design of the more ambitious instruments that followed the Volcas. "Tadahiko was always my partner in coming up with, and refining, ideas. But after designing the Volcas I needed my own engineering resources and more control for the Minilogue project, as this was far more complex. For example, in my team, I had a keyboard player (because I'm not), specialists in UI control, keyboard scanning, and more. The spring-back stick instead of the wheel, the industrial design with the curved surface, the wood on the back; it all was a collaborative process, and defines the way the instrument feels."

The Minilogue and Monologue were great successes, and Tatsuya's role in reissuing the MS20 and ARP Odyssey further cemented his position as one of the brightest new synth designers around. The flip side of this was a feeling that he had lost some of his freedom to do different and 'weird stuff'.

"Just before this point, I met some people at Red Bull Music Academy while doing a lecture for them in Tokyo 2014. It seemed like a cool place to do stuff, and without really mentioning what I'd like to do, I approached them. The thing that I was attracted to was the fact that it was not only about education, but about fostering creativity and collaboration, and different ways of making music. Though I'm still an advisor for the company, my departure from being full-time at Korg was because I wanted to explore different paradigms in making instruments. That would mean that the instruments themselves would end up being very different as well."

The Language Of Collaboration

When Tatsuya met his future boss, Torsten Schmidt, at Yadastar GmBH, who are running the Red Bull Music Academy, a particular statement resonated with his vision. "He said something to the effect of: 'What's the point of hoarding the good shit with people who already know?' And that's precisely my point about making all these instruments, and making synthesizers accessible, fun, and reaching an audience outside the synth-nerdiness. Although I like that world as well, synthesizers have a unique factor capable of going beyond it."

Like some of Tatsuya's other designs, the Granular Convolver can be hacked — if you dare!Like some of Tatsuya's other designs, the Granular Convolver can be hacked — if you dare!Photo: Carys HuwsThough his title is Manager of Technical and Educational Partnerships, Tatsuya still calls himself an instrument maker, and believes that creation is a transformative experience. "You could even say that the goal of an instrument is to provide that experience. It's like you're a different person before, and possibly a better person after making music."

One of the projects he has been involved with at the RBMA is 100 Cars, an art installation that used automobiles as instruments. "The 100 Cars project was interesting because I was there to fulfil the needs of the artist, Ryoji Ikeda, and the requirements to perform this big drone piece with a hundred sine-wave oscillators. For me, it was about car lovers becoming performance artists, and I think that having a solid chunk of metal with only two significant controls, volume and octave, was essential to the participants in that experience. The frequencies are hard coded in the units, and a number defines which car it is in, and which score it has. This was very different from anything I'd done at Korg."

The Granular Convolver was designed as a limited edition to be distributed to participants in the 2018 Red Bull Music Academy.The Granular Convolver was designed as a limited edition to be distributed to participants in the 2018 Red Bull Music Academy.Photo: Carys HuwsFor this project, Tatsuya collaborated with Maximilian Rest, co-founder of E-RM Erfindungsbüro. The two would also collaboratorate on the Granular Convolver, which kicked off in June 2018 and finished in October the same year. "The Granular Convolver was designed for the 20th year anniversary of Red Bull Music Academy, and was very different — there were several goals in this device. One of them was that I wanted to present a new way of working with sound. Convolution is usually used for reverb, but is a fascinating way of combining two sounds. The device was designed specifically for the participants of the Red Bull Music Academy and sent out before they started, so they could collect sounds from their local environments. This was just another tool to provide a different language of collaboration, and also for people to listen more. To collaborate you have to listen to each other."

It was important for Tatsuya to design the battery-powered device without familiar synth controls, so that it could be accessible to participants from other musical backgrounds. "That was the kind of thing I was thinking about in designing this instrument. It was a proposal from me, as I wanted to build something for the Academy that was not just yet another subtractive synth. It needs to have that transformative experience, rather than just being a nice item.

The intention behind the Granular Convolver was to allow users to incorporate and process environmental sounds.The intention behind the Granular Convolver was to allow users to incorporate and process environmental sounds.Photo: Carys Huws"The manufacturing process always leaves a certain feeling in the final product. I wanted to use brass, but it was too expensive. The people at the metal factory were really into processing sheet stainless steel, so that informed the final shape of the Granular Convolver, which by far is the simplest instrument I've designed. Having simple instruments is a way of avoiding having to make assumptions. The Granular Convolver cuts the grain and convolves, and that's it. We could have added a compressor, a shelving high-pass, a spray function; all these things that would make it nicer. But that would just have been in my interpretation of how this should be used, and at the Red Bull Music Academy I saw it used in ways I wouldn't have thought of — for example, convolving flute with voice. The whole brief was that it doesn't have its own sound, and participants have to give it a voice. I like convolution because it's free from the traditional notions of subtractive synthesis, that you have to start with a waveform."

The Granular Convolver was a collaborative project created by Tatsuya with Christoph Hohnerlein (left) and Maximilian Rest (centre).The Granular Convolver was a collaborative project created by Tatsuya with Christoph Hohnerlein (left) and Maximilian Rest (centre).Photo: Carys HuwsTatsuya finds that working with new people opens up new ideas and things he didn't know about that he wants to look into — even if it's programming, which he doesn't do himself. "Christoph Hohnerlein joined us to do the DSP for the Granular Convolver, and Maximilian sent us papers to study. I went into reading about how to achieve convolution, how to minimise processor load, how to avoid glitches and spikes; all these interesting techniques that are around. I like to be involved in the details — and the Granular Convolver can be hacked too — though at your own risk!" he smiles.

Not Finished Yet

All of these new experiences are likely to feed into Tatsuya's next voyage into the world of electronic instruments, which will also involve becoming more familiar with the business side of things. "At some point, I would like to return to this commercial paradigm of selling a product, and I will be very much concerned about affordability, because that's stuff you can't avoid. But it's refreshing to me right now, not to work with the regular elements like VCO, VCF, VCA and LFOs. For me, it's all about how you make an instrument intuitive, creative and accessible. After the experience with Red Bull Music Academy, I now pretty much know for sure that there's still a lot to do in hardware, and there are still people we can reach and should reach with synthesizers."

Kim Bjørn is a writer, musician and designer, and the author of Push Turn Move and Patch & Tweak books.

Synths: A Power For Good

Though he laughs while he says it, Tatsuya Takahashi seriously believes that if every child in the world were using a synthesizer, they would have a means to express whatever they feel inside, and that as a result, there would be less dispute in the world.

"I say that because it's a very immediate way of expressing yourself, and also a medium where you don't necessarily have to be taught in it. It's a world where people find their way into it and their own thing to do with it. This is unique in the world of instruments, as with traditional instruments, there's a certain school you have to go through to be able to use them. Synths are inherently more open to being used in the 'wrong' way."

Granular Data

Learn more about Tatsuya Takahashi's latest creation, the Granular Convolver, here: http://youtu.be/OcNa22CGmDEEngineering drawings and blueprints for the Granular Convolver.Engineering drawings and blueprints for the Granular Convolver.Photo: Carys HuwsTatsuya Takahashi: Synth Designer - Granular Convolver: more blueprints.Photo: Carys Huws

Published February 2019