Earlier this month we popped in Justin Owen’s studio in Gaunson House on Markfield Road which is fast becoming known as Tottenham’s creative district. Justin runs Abstract Data, which he started from home eight years ago.
Abstract Data design and build electronic musical instruments and produce modular synthesizers in the Eurorack-format – ‘you build your own.’
When did it all start?
Like a lot of people in this industry I started building my own little tinker toys, I sold one, and I built another one and I sold that. I did a run where I built three of them and then I did a run of 100 and it was about that time that I was looking to start taking it a bit more seriously. I got into Eurorack and I started using it in my own music. I was pretty much bitten by the bug, and I haven’t looked back since.
So you were already creating music yourself?
Yeah, I was earning my living as a music producer doing freelance studio work. Whilst that was really enjoyable, and it was lovely to be earning a living from music, everything was in front of a computer. It could be 14 hours in front of a screen. I started playing guitar – that was my first instrument and my first experience making music. The computer is the complete opposite of that. It’s a very powerful tool but there’s no spontaneity. There’s no sitting down and jamming. It became work so I started looking at [different options]. ‘OK, how can I have music in my life that is back to just playing, jamming and making music?’ That’s where the synths came in.
Cool, so you knew you wanted to do something more hands on?
Yeah a bit more actually playing music. If you were to get out a guitar, it’s a physical object, you pick it up and you’ve got your hands on it. Using a mouse is just not the same. The end result through the speakers might sound amazing but the making process, the performance and the interaction is lost when you’re using a computer.
Do you still make your own music now?
Right now I do two completely contradictory projects. Guitar-wise I play a lot of blues. Electronic music-wise I do a lot of techno.
What are Abstract Data’s key products?
The flagship model – the one we’re best known for – is the Octocontroller. An eight output controller – it’s a control module that tells the other modules what to do.
How many other products do you have?
We’ve got nine modules in total. That’s split into two halves, you’ve got digital which is all the control stuff and analogue stuff [which creates the sounds].
For someone with little or no knowledge, why would you use Eurorack or modular synths?
One of the cool things for me is there isn’t really a typical user. If you’re looking at someone using a modern drum machine online, chances are they are going to be using them for some kind of beat orientated music. With Eurorack it could be anything from techno, house, dancefloor stuff to ambient and experimental. I’ve got some customers who do sound design so they create samples for games and movies. They might need a sound that they don’t want to buy off a sample CD ’cause they don’t want to find that sound somewhere else so they use Eurorack synths to make their own. Coming back to jamming, for a lot of people it’s just a bit of fun to play with. They’re not writing songs or using it for performances, it’s just something to do on the weekend.
How did you first get into building electronic instruments?
I literally woke up one morning and thought, ‘it would be nice to have a nice analogue synth but I know I can’t afford any of the ones that are currently available. What do I do? I’m not the only person who must be thinking this. Do you do it yourself or do you buy a kit? How do I get started?’ Researching that basically. ‘How do I get a really nice analogue synth that’s got some knobs on it and I can play with, and just jam with?’ I started off tinkering with breadboards where you can plug the leads in and out.
So it makes a circuit?
What was the first thing that you made?
A little bass line generator.
Is there a particular sound that you enjoy?
I’ve always had a thing for techno. Heavier bass lines – I have a bit of a thing for bass I guess.
In order to starting designing the Abstract Data products, did you have to have a certain level of knowledge in terms of circuits and electronics?
Yeah ideally. I’m largely self taught. Before I worked in music, I worked in magazine layout design, which meant I had the fundamentals of design and layout and getting things spaced… There’s a lot of resources online and there’s some really great forums where you can get help and you can ask questions, but a lot of it is just working at it.
You have to dedicate a lot of time…
Yeah exactly, and I work with good people as well. I work with a freelancer, Paul Soulsby, who’s also local, that does the coding. I do the things that I’m good at and what I can do, but I outsource as much as possible.
What tips would you give someone just starting out?
Start saving, start small. It’s really easy to google Eurorack and see people with walls of gear. You don’t have to have a lot of gear to do this and I would suggest to anyone that’s new to it, don’t start going out and blowing your life savings on tonnes of gear that you won’t understand. You’re not going to have first principles, and things aren’t going to work properly, and it’s all going to be just a pain in the arse.
Assuming this is a person that’s already making or has an interest in making music, they’ve downloaded some apps on their iPad and they’ve had a bit of a play with the synth or thought this is pretty cool, I could get into this. Think of one kind of noise that you want to make, it could be bass lines, it could be weird space effects, it could be a noise that you heard on a record that you like. Think of one noise and do some research on how to make that noise. That’s a good place to start. Think of one thing and work from there.
Have you got any well known customers?
One of the main guys in Eurorack is Richard Devine from America, he’s been around for quite a few years now and has a stereotype of being into glitchy stuff, erratic kind of beats. I’ve seen him play live a few times and his sets go from very melodic to very glitchy. He’s got an ADE-32 and a couple of the new products that we’ve just done as well.