Instrument of construction: Two local manufacturers talk inspiration, sales and famous fans

LOUD AND PROUD: Daft Punk, Alessandro Cortini and Trent Reznor have all purchased Make Noise systems or modules. Make Noise owners Kelly Kelbel and Tony Rolando (front center and right) and their team have set up shop in downtown Asheville. Photo by Alicia Funderburke
LOUD AND PROUD: Daft Punk, Alessandro Cortini and Trent Reznor have all purchased Make Noise systems or modules. Make Noise owners Kelly Kelbel and Tony Rolando (front center and right) and their team have set up shop in downtown Asheville. Photo by Alicia Funderburke

Moog Music leads all local instrument builders in name recognition, and for good reason. With a legacy that dates back to Robert Moog’s first theremins in 1954 and first modular synthesizer in 1963, the company has remained at the forefront of the electronic music scene, thanks to steady innovation and popular events such as Moogfest.

In 2014, Moog Music will ship 1,500 Minimoog Voyagers, 7,000 Etherwave Theremins and 17,000 effects pedals, according to spokesperson Jill Lieberman, but it’s far from the only game in town. A handful of smaller operations, including Make Noise and Blackout Effectors, are increasingly having an impact at the national and international levels.

The modular synth alternative

Armed with a knowledge of electronic circuit design and analog electronic engineering gleaned from reference books at the Brooklyn Public Library, Make Noise founder Tony Rolando began making one-of-a-kind drone boxes and special requests for installation artists. A little over six years ago, he and Kelly Kelbel moved to the Asheville area, where Rolando, looking to expand his skills, started working on the Moog production line. There, he developed a great interest in modular synthesizers, particularly the pioneering efforts of Don Buchla, and began working on his own creations in a spare bedroom in his home in Marshall.

“The first module Tony made was the modDemod. He built 20 by hand, kept two for himself and sold the remainder through an Internet forum in a matter of hours,” says Kelbel, the company’s president. “An instrument dealer contacted him right away and placed an order. After that, [the profits from] every run of modules were invested into making the next run and creating new designs. In some ways, not much has changed.”

After a brief stint in West Asheville, Make Noise now operates out of a downtown space on Carolina Lane. A staff of six builds and tests the current line — 18 individual modules and seven systems — which are then sold all over the world. “Folks who play Eurorack modular synths we’ve found to be a rather lovely group who build community with one another,” says Kelbel. The same holds true for folks in Asheville, she continues.

Daft Punk, Alessandro Cortini and Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, and Stewart Pico Cole of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros are among the well-known artists who’ve purchased Make Noise systems or modules. But though Rolando is pleased to have such esteemed clients, his admiration isn’t limited to famous folks. “Anybody who learns to use a modular synthesizer and creates music with it is notable,” he says. “It’s not an easy instrument to learn, and there’s not a predetermined path of study. The folks who use these instruments share patch tips and create community around sound sculpting.”

A lot of Make Noise’s customers, he continues, “are not professional musicians. They’re simply people who enjoy exploring sound and music.”

That passion for their customers is also what prompted Rolando and Kelbel to start Make Noise Records. The label’s initial five albums are all part of the Shared System Series; each record showcases a different artist using the company’s Shared System collection of modules. “We hope the records will purely illustrate the intentions of the artists rather than the designer of the instrument,” says Kelbel. “Making records is not a way for us to make money: It’s a way for us to share music and promote some of the artists who support what we do.” Info at makenoisemusic.com

Pedal to the metal

In April 2008, Kyle Tompkins began building guitar effect pedals while living in Vancouver. Working full time in the graphic design field, he viewed instrument tinkering as just one of many hobbies that kept his nights busy. But as interest in his products spread via online guitar forums, “It eventually became another full-time job on top of my day job, leaving me struggling to keep up with both and extremely sleep-deprived,” he says. “Eventually I had to make a decision, and the day job got the boot.”

But Tompkins knew he’d need dependable help to make Blackout Effectors a success. His older brother, Ross, was living in Asheville at the time and expressed a strong interest in helping take the business to the next level. That enthusiasm prompted Kyle to move here in 2009, and the brothers now jointly own the company. “The city has been a very good home base for us, and the name Asheville is now so intertwined with our brand identity that it’s hard to imagine leaving. It would almost be like rebranding,” says Kyle.

Although Blackout’s pedals are primarily used with guitars, they’re designed to work with bass guitar, organ and other electronic instruments too. Packed with informational videos, the company’s website sells directly to the public, but the bulk of Blackout’s business is wholesale, to guitar shops around the world. “We keep them stocked with new, exciting sounds for their local musician customers to stumble upon and compare against the effect pedal that they thought they were going into the shop to get,” says Kyle. “As nice a tool as online videos are, there’s just no replacement for hearing something in the real world.”

Wilco, Robert Plant and Deerhunter are among the many musicians and bands who showcase Blackout Effectors’ wares while on the road. Kyle also had a chance to hang out with Band of Horses when the group was recording at Echo Mountain in downtown Asheville. The band, he remembers, was searching for “a really great fuzz tone for a particular track,” and one of Blackout’s pedals provided it. “Artist endorsements are a big part of spreading the word about what you’re up to,” says Kyle. “It also gives us a chance to meet up with a lot of artists who we admire and get their input on sounds they hear in their heads but can’t seem to find in the real world. We can use that as a jumping-off point for new effect designs.”

Having experienced growth almost every year since the company’s launch, the Tompkinses have added two more members to their Merrimon Avenue-based production team to meet consumer demand. Still, they’re not completely insulated from the effects of the recession, notes Kyle, though strong international sales do give them a bit of a buffer. Understanding the seasonal nature of the business also helps. “When bands are out on the road in the summer, they’re buying less gear,” he says. “When they’re holed up in the studio during the colder months, they’re buying a lot.” Info at blackouteffectors.com

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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin is a freelance writer and a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA), North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) and the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS). He also contributes to the Asheville Citizen-Times.

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