Modular people

Switched on: Subtlety and precision are essential elements of operating a Make Noise module. Photo by Zach Smith

Approaching Asheville from any compass point gives visitors a similar impression: a quiet, idyllic town nestled in the mountains, boasting a vibrant community of craftspeople and artisans. Without much back story, it might be hard to believe it’s the home of a burgeoning electronic music scene.

That peaceful seclusion is the very vein that Tony Rolando and Kelly Kelbel tapped into when they relocated from New York to the Blue Ridge Mountains a few years ago. “Being isolated in the mountains, nurtures new ideas and innovation,” Kelbel says. “This place, while steeped in mountain music and craft, also has a love for the avant-garde and experimental. Asheville is a place that celebrates creativity.”

Rolando, a former production-line worker at Moog, spent the better part of the aughts sequestered away in the Brooklyn Public Library, learning everything he could about analog circuits for electronics and radios. In 2008, he designed his first synthesizer unit, the ModDeMod. After selling an initial run of 18 in one day, Rolando opted to join his know-how with Kelbel’s letterpress skills, essential to the company’s future promotional and marketing materials, and Make Noise was born in their Marshall home. Seemingly overnight, the folksy little town found itself the home of two synthesizer manufacturers.

Make Noise trades in the purely modular; there are no keys or preset buttons on their equipment. Each module they make allows for the manipulation of its signal. Units can be linked together through various ins/outs and patch cables, forming a daisy chain of sound generation. It’s up to the user to decide the sonic output, down to the very wave. “The artist must develop the sound, as well as the composition,” says Kelbel.

It’s this distinction that separates electronic music from traditional styles. While analog and digital instruments have been used interchangeably with acoustic ones for years, the desire to craft the very form of the sound is where the soul of electronic music lies. “We believe that electronic music is unique to other forms of music in that the sound, or timbre of the music is of as much importance as the composition,” says Kelbel. This spirit of individuality has led artists like Keith Fullerton Whitman, Aphex Twin, Daft Punk and Depeche Mode to use Make Noise products, and led to their Echophon unit winning the Editor's Choice Award from Electronic Musician, who called it “the most inspiring module of the year.”

With so much upward movement in such a short time, Make Noise has grown past its simple beginnings. Last year, Rolando and Kelbel moved operations out of their home and into a space in West Asheville. Within two months, they hired two new employees: local musicians Dash Lewis (Curtains; Gardner) and Joe Moresi (Subtle Body). With graphic design intern Zach Smith (Difference Clouds; co-founder of Apothecary) added to the roster, the expanded family moved into an even larger spot in downtown Asheville’s Chicken Alley. It’s here that they’ll be hosting a series of free workshops at the end of the month, giving a hands-on introduction to their equipment. 

In December, Make Noise dropped the first release for its new record label — a new 7-inch from Richard Devine. Dubbed the Shared System Series, future releases will feature new music from Lichens and three others, with design supplied by Kelbel and Smith.

Each artist will compose two tracks using the same system — a process that encapsulates what Make Noise stands for and allows them to step into the local community and spread their gospel outward from our mountains.

“We don’t know exactly what will happen next, but we’ve realized that growing will allow us to enjoy having the business,” says Kelbel.

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