Tom Bugs builds instruments, that is, fantastic instruments imbued with a knowing wink to the history of electronic music/instruments and a look toward the future. His company, BugBrand, provides an outlet for his creativity and his passion. He has created small standalone devices such as the Weevil Series and is now slowly producing modular synths that are not only beautiful but capable of producing a fantastic array of analogue sound possibilities...and his patching option is the banana cable...fantastic! He kindly answered 3 questions...
I know your are a guitarist; how did you make the jump to making and
creating music with synths and other electronic devices? Was there an epiphany
of some kind?
I wouldn't call myself a guitarist! I'm more a jack-of-all-trades (and certainly master of none) - guitar was my main thing for a while in solo work as Knowledge of Bugs, but also my early setup for that was mainly electronic hardware (in particular Nord MicroModular and Yamaha SU700 sampler machine). I actually started off on piano and trombone (you know, proper music lessons!). In more band setups I've tended to play drums and the recently have been playing as a duo with Silver Pyre where I mix acoustic and electronic drums - lots of processed contact mic cymbals etc. Rhythm has long been really important to me and you can see that in the current range of module designs for example.
So, the jump.. Well, I guess it came from starting off using computers for audio - gosh, the landscape, power & potential has shifted enormously over the last 10-15 years. I was fascinated first by VAZ Modular software and then I started dipping in to Reaktor. But then I gradually got turned off computers and at a similar point I also was getting much more involved in electronics. Early designs tended to be standalone - the real epiphany moment was when I started trying some modular designs, both in terms of a scalable system and in the improved togetherness of the electronics. You can see the jump in the fundamental differences between the standalone Weevil designs (lofi electronics - very chaotic) versus the modular systems which are much more integrated electronically and thus much more stable (though still very capable of utter chaos).
So nowadays I don't tend to play so much (shamefully) but I still feel that I'm building and designing with a large focus on making a system *I* want to play. In my old solo music I got quite frustrated by how linear the computer based approach was - you had to really plan and I wanted some surprises to react to. It was when I started plugging together the early modular tests that the system 'came alive' and put a massive grin on my face -- when the electrons somehow form into a wonderful melody or rhythm. I see the systems as a sort of sonic clay - you gradually mould and shape as you play, hoping for a wonder to appear for you. And then you push too hard and it all falls apart into a mess and you have to start shaping afresh.
You've embraced the banana cable as your patching option of choice. Was
your choice influenced by Buchla and Serge?
I've actually had very little exposure to other modular systems (or 'regular' synths for that matter) - many design choices are probably more prosaic. I can't now remember why I made the first test modules with bananas - maybe it was due to some exposure to bananas at university while doing a technical course - the stackability was also something I was very keen on. But then there was also the cost and availability factors (which are often choices I have to make in designs) - I could get decentplugs and sockets easily from my regular supplier and for good prices. Time-wise they're great too (very quick to make cables) and of course they're super reliable and colourful -- once I'd begun using them for my own personal test setups there was no way I was going to go back to jacks for any production modules. Foolish in business terms? Possibly, but I believe in what I do and that's more important to me than churning out loads of units.
So, no, my choices weren't influenced by Buchla or Serge - I've barely ever played any systems of either and have (very small) bug-bears about both systems. On the Buchla side I find it hard to understand the desire to have two different plug types separating audio and control as I see the boundaries of these areas being extremely vague. And on the Serge side I'm still puzzled as to why inputs and outputs are not differentiated between. But the few hours I got to play a vintage Buchla 200 series in Stockholm was really quite amazing - the module designs are mind-blowing.
Production of spectacular BugBrand modulars has been limited. What does
the future hold for BugBrand?
The growth of my setup has been very gradual as I've learned both the electronics approaches and how to design stuff to be replicated -- it took me several years to move from total DIY of the circuit boards to finding ways to get 'professional' PCBs made but in small quantities. The last couple of years I've moved to using surface mount components (bloody tiny!) and so probably the next logical step may be to get certain parts built by machines - eg. stuffing the boards with the passive components and then hand finishing them with the pots / switches / jacks. But, saying that, I don't really have the desire to really grow production all that much - I am very happy at present to be able to support myself (and a helper 3 to 4 days a week) and keep things 'real' - on my own terms and with friendly dealings with users. The close work with the modular system users is incredibly important to me, much more so than making lots of money or churning out loads of units.
The Modular stuff is really my main focus today, though I still do think on a few standalone devices too. I'm lucky to have generally had a situation the last few years where demand has outstripped supply - there have been a lot of people asking to get a modular system since I launched my range at the start of 2009 and I do want to get someway to meeting some of that demand, but also want to keep things personal and relatively small scale still. I do have to typically think in terms of systems because my choice of going Frac with Bananas means that I'm kind of out on my own - there aren't other people really building compatible modules etc. and that's why I've had to design the whole shaboodle of frames and PSUs to make complete systems. One thing that has also kept wider availability in check has been how the systems have grown - when I started offering them I imagined people generally having 2 frames or maybe 3 at a push - already we've got a few people rocking on 4 frames and a couple of brave explorers now trying to fill 8 frames. This is totally beyond what I'd imagined! And while publicly the releases may have seemed very limited in availability, we've actually made a staggering quantity of modules - at very rough estimates I think around 80-90 frames are now out in the wild so that probably means about 1000 modules in two and a half years.
So, really I want both to continue developing new parts for the existing systems (Sequencers being one area soon to be introduced) and also try to allow some further people entry into the group. Oh, and I would love to get some music made on the modular systems released on vinyl (blue, naturally.)