Pittsburgh Modular Synthesizers

Pittsburgh Modular Synthesizers’ Homewood workshop is filled with the whirring sounds of electronic music. Founder Richard Nicol started the company in his basement in 2012. Now, he and his team design and develop synthesizers for creating electronic music that are used all over the world.

As digital technology became more accessible in the late 20th century, many musicians began trading their physical electronic instruments for computer software.

But the convenience of a digital instrument came at the expense of the satisfaction that came with playing a real synthesizer, Nicol said. Manipulating a real-life object, rather than an image on a screen, can be essential to the creative process.

“You need something to have a conversation with. You want some feedback, and you just don’t get that with a mouse and keyboard,” Nicol said.

Engineers working on synthesizers at Pittsburgh Modular.

Today’s musicians don’t see software and hardware as mutually exclusive, said Michael Johnsen, Pittsburgh Modular’s creative engineer.

“The digital tools are fantastic, but so are the analog ones, and we can use them both,” he said.

The company's newest product, the Microvolt 3900, is a box the size of a textbook. It has knobs and switches that allow users to manipulate how it sounds. How those knobs look and feel can be just as important as the sounds the instrument makes, said Johnsen.

“Even though a synthesizer isn’t really rubbed and struck as much as the way a guitar or drum is, there’s still a need for a physical interface that’s actually appealing to the user,” Johnsen said. “Things like the diameter of the knob, the color of the knob … that kind of stuff matters to the user.”

At $629, the Microvolt 3900 is Pittsburgh Modular's most affordable option. However the Lifeforms Foundation EVO, with its "deeply rich and creative laboratory," runs nearly $3,800.