Saturday, December 20, 2008

Elby Design interview

Elby Designs interview

The man behind Elby Designs is Laurie Biddulph. If you are interested in building synths from scratch Elby Design have heaps for you to choose from. If want to add to your euro modular system take a look at the Panther Series. If you want build a complete modular look at an ASM2. The list of things to build are huge. I took my soldering iron and PCB and chatted to Laurie.

What got your interest in electronics and DIY?
I first became interested in electronics when at High school back in England. I had just become aware of an electronics magazine called Practical Electronics when they published a design for the PE Sound Synthesiser. As that time I was also taking piano lessons and the synthesiser seemed the obvious hobby to incorporate both of my interests. With the aid of a friend I built the PE Synthesiser, the project was not only interesting because of the electronic/music combination but also because it was a complete stripboard design and proved to be a great introduction in how to prototype designs.

An off-the-cuff visit to a record shop resulted in me coming across Walter Carlos. At that time I bought Switched-On-Bach and then my interest in electronic music was given a healthy boost. Jean Jarre and Mike Oldfield have been inspirations for me since then.

A while later, Elektor release the Formant and my interests were re-kindled. This time I built the project entirely myself and again took the path of doing it all on stripboard. Later, the Maplin 5600 (formerly ETI 4600) came out and along with the Elektor Piano I was well into electronics and music.

Once again my interests were diverted including getting married and then emigrating to Australia. For the next 10 years or so, work and family kept me well occupied and my hobbies slipped in to the background.

Some years later I was somewhat frustrated having bought a Christmas present for my son to find, on Christmas day, that not only did the unit require a power supply and/or a battery but it needed cables for connecting to a computer and came with software that did not work with the OS we had at the time. As my, then, job was with an e-Commerce company and I was involved with the main day-to-day duties of running the business, I saw the opportunity to offer a `full' kit for the product that include all the `missing parts' along with an improved manual and a series of projects notes. The unit was the `HotChip' from Dick Smith Electronics, an ATMEL AT90S8535 based core module.
Shortly after offering this kit I came across the ASM-1 by Gene Stopp and saw an immediate problem (certainly here in Australia) in getting all the parts together to build the unit plus I realised that again there was a need to `complete the manual'. Conversations with Gene eventually resulted in me taking over the project and I started offering component kits for the ASM-1. Some design guides were created withe the ASM1-Genie being the first solution offered as a complete ASM-1.

When the stocks of ASM-1 boards ran out I took the opportunity to release the ASM-2 which included some additional modules to help make a more complete synth-on-a-board.

Having now started sourcing components for the ASM-1/ASM-2, it seemed an obvious step to see what else was being offered in a PCB-only option and I was pleasantly surprised to come across the Cat-Girl Synth from Ken Stone - a locally based person. When I first spoke it Ken it was with regards offering component and hardware kits for his designs as they stood on his website. These kits are still offered and, hopefully, I have helped some budding electronic-music enthusiasts to achieve their aspirations of building a synth with some exotic modules.

2 or 3 years ago I spoke to Ken with regards the options for offering his designs as complete modules. I had planned with going down one of the large module formats but the Eurorack format came up as the only non-existent format for his modules at the time. Ken also indicated that he had already started looking at the Eurorack as a format for some modules and his CGS35E came out almost immediately.

The opportunity had presented itself to be able to offer the Eurorack synth DIY market access to a range of popular designs and in both kit and assembled format. The smaller format has required some re-assessment of some of the designs and Ken has been briefly involved with that in most cases.
The Oakley Modular family have also been added as a component/hardware kit again with the intent to offer the synth DIYer a single-stop-shop.

Have you got a favourite modular synth or module?
Although I took piano lessons and music exams and played in a dance band for a few years, I have never had the time to sit down and get serious with my electronic music interests. The DIY side and the developing business of Elby Designs has seen that I spend nearly all my free time on that side of the business. Not having delved anywhere enough in to the synths I have built or been involved with, I don't have any module that I would pick out as a favourite. When it comes to synths I still have a fondness for my old Elektor Formant just as much because of the way it spurned my interest in synth DIY as anything. The similarities in its design to the ASM-1 means I have an affection for the ASM albeit in its current form as the ASM2-Wizard. These synths don't, I think resound of any strikingly singular characteristic that makes them stand out from the crowd. They are just good, honest and predictable work horses around which any good system must evolve.

Elby Design Panther Series, tell us why that came about, why Ken Stones modules?
As I stated earlier, having established the ASM-1 kitting options I was looking to expand the range with an aim to bring the opportunity for other synth DIYers to get access to synths and modules that they may not have bothered with if they had too go through the hassle of sourcing their own components. My browsings through the various synth DIY websites had popped up the CGS site on a number of occasions and when Ken released the CGS35E I spotted an opportunity to develop the kits I was offering for the CGS family in to `complete' kits and modules. The Eurorack format was the only format that had not been supported at that point and so the Panther became a Eurorack system.

Are you just making Kens designs or other peoples?

No, I also offer the Oakley Modular family and have been doing some of the Music From Out of Space modules with the SoundLab being an obvious choice inline with the desire to be able to offer `complete synth kits.
I have recently started adding modules from Ian Fritz.

What made you choose the eurorack format?

Mainly a question of politics. Having established with Ken Stone that I could offer both full kits and assembled modules, Ken indicated that all the other formats had been `spoken for' and so the Eurorack was it. As it happens this was not a concern for me as my Elektor Formant had been built in to a Eurorack system and the size of the modules and racks along with the availability of systems like Doepfer confirmed this to be a good all-round format.
Other projects that I have been working on like the MonoWave(X) and Transcendent 2006 also use 19" racks (2U and 3U respectively) and so access to the mechanical parts was abundant.

What can we expect from the Panther series in 2009?
More modules from the CGS family including the Cynare Drum Simulator, Bi-N-Tic Filter, possibly a version of the VCO and the Wave Multiplier. More from the Ian Fritz family including his TGTSH (which is due for release shortly) and a version of his US VCO. Other modules will include a Dual Lin/Log VCA from Mike Irwin, The PolyDAC(X) from Paul Maddox, a Hertz/Octave/Volts converter module based on the Korg MS-02

You seem to be the only modular company selling either kits or fully assembled modules. I know VICMOD love the kits, why don’t you think other companies sell kits?

This almost definitely boils down to 3 factors:-

1) the management and maintenance of supplying kits is quite extensive requiring bagging and labelling along with the handling of VERY small quantities of components in a kit (1 of this resistor, 2 of that capacitor etc). The overheads of time and effort can be quite extensive and I doubt if most companies see the demand for these kits being justified over the costs incurred
2) support - problems with missing parts or maintaining supplies of the `same' part can also lead to problems and costs. In a manufacturing process it is relatively easy to use substitute parts and make adjustments in the circuit accordingly. With kits the need is to stay with exactly the same part to ensure continuity of performance and support.
3) variations - offering a single kit for a design does, of course, mean that that specific configuration is catered for. However, many customers may only want part of a kit because, for example, they are designing their own front panel, or already have the resistors and capacitors. Offering variations to kits incurs a massive overhead in additional paperwork and stock management and is definitely something most companies won't entertain. The `this is all you get' approach however does reduce the attraction of a kit to some potential buyers thus reducing the possible sales.

VICMOD is somewhat of a special case even for Elby Designs. 99% of all sales are to individuals buying one of a kit and, often, several different kits. Being able to kit for a larger quantity of the same kits results in slightly less costs for materials such as the plastic bags, and reduced time in counting/kitting each bag. However this is a (relatively) rare occurrence Elby Designs is well aware of all of these factors but being a single-man business, it is able to better handle these factors. I have had to write my own MRP software allow for these factors (specifically (3) above). The, recently introduced, software is able to generate picklists based on the total contents of all kits as well as allow for variations to kits to be handled. In addition it produces Bills of Materials as well as the various reams of legal paperwork required to complete an order.

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