Meet Steve Harmon, the founder and brains behind Synthrotek, co-founder of Harben Audio, and Captain of the World’s Largest Online Pirate Store, among other clever entrepreneurial adventures. We caught up with Steve to talk about how he got his start making pedals and eurorack modules, his music, and what’s been inspiring him lately.
In your own words tell me who you are and what you’re doing?
This is Steve Harmon from Synthrotek. We are a small business located in Portland, Oregon specializing in console and modular electronics and kits for the electronic musician. Since starting in 2009 we have had a large emphasis on DIY. We offer a full range of products aimed at all skill and technical levels. In 2012 we started getting into Eurorack, which has been a great success. The business has grown from just me in my basement to seven employees. We are all very passionate people who love what we do.
How did you get into designing and producing Eurorack modules?
I started making handmade “lo-fi” audio electronic circuits in 2009 while living in Seattle on a hiatus from photography for a few months. Photography was starting to take too much of my focus and energy and I needed a break. Fairly quickly I started selling some of the projects that I was making and I stuck with more lo-fi kits (and a few more complicated projects, like our 16 step sequencer) for the first few years. I had some health issues that laid me out for a few years, at which time I did not pursue much business growth, but as I started to get better I decided to take some of our more simple circuits and get them into the Eurorack standard. Our first projects were the Chaos Nand and the Atari Punk Console. Dan Green from 4MS and Tim Ressel From Circuit Abbey are Portland locals and helped me tremendously with the modular transition.
How did you come up with the name Synthrotek?
When I came up with the name, I thought it might have two pronunciations. 1. Synth ROW Tech or 2. Synth RAW tic as in erotic. Seems like the synth ROW tech version stuck with most people. I wasn’t thinking marketing, rather it started off as a hobby business to take my mind of the work I was doing at the time.
What is your favorite module? What’s your favorite module that you make?
Picking a favorite module can be really hard in modular, as you kinda need multiple modules to produce a patch. I find myself using our Sequence 8 and ECHO modules on most patches. So I guess it would have to be one of those.
Synthrotek makes both pedals and modules, do you approach the design of these two types of electronics differently?
After my initial lo-fi products, I just wanted to add a few things that would just be practical kits to sell from a business angle. So we modded and updated some popular pedals like the Tube Screamer and Pro Co Rat pedals and made kits. I think additional pedals with more soul are going to be made in the following years, but I have never been a ‘tone-hound’, which is why I started Harben Audio (HarbenAudio) with my buddy and boutique amp builder Chris Benson from BensonAmps.com. When it comes to synths, I really like noise, so if it sounded crazy or made lo-fi laser noises, then I was stoked. Making the MST full voice is more of a larger process with more vision, much more vision that I have had with guitar pedals.
What does your music sound like? Links?
My music is kinda all over the place, but I have been interested in synths prior to modular, so much of that music was produced with analog synths with Midi sequencing and drum machines. Here is an album made that way called Holophonic X.
I am mainly interested in dated synth music of any sort. Sci-Fi, soundtracks, 60’s psychedelica, VHS sounds, New Age, Library music and more recently music solely made with modulars. Here is a link to a mostly modular piece that I contributed to on our recent Synthrotek comp.
I also help run the label on which this comp was released which is Wil-Ru Records: www.wil-ru.com. We are proud to put out music by some great electronic artists.
What’s been inspiring you lately?
I have been inspired mostly by getting my hands on new synths (new to me). I was blessed to get a Music Easel from BEMI this last year. The interface is different than what I have been accustomed to, so this has expanded my mind and access to sounds. I also spent some time with my business collaborator George Mattson on his massive EML. Had a blast doing that. I would like to spend some time on a an EMS system as I feel like Synthrotek needs to make “Briefcase” synth that is not fully modular. Since we have been releasing the MST line with George, my attention has been mostly focused on getting this full voice out as soon as we can (almost there). I think it will be the first analog Eurorack “Full Voice” in kit (and factory built) form to date. I am stoked to be getting a very solid mono (or duo…) voice into the hands of builders. Makes me happy and it sounds real good!
Any advice for someone interested in getting started making their own pedals and modules?
I have never gotten all my ducks in a row before I started doing something I loved. I was a pretty big noob to modular when I started making modules, but I was so excited and I didn’t really care too much about making the headiest or most sophisticated modules out there. We have grown in professionalism, knowledge, quality and complexity over the years. You don’t have to be an expert to start on a journey. I guess my advice would be just get a breadboard and mess around. Find something you like and make it. Odds are someone else will like it too.
Check out this video of Steve demoing the Synthrotek Drum Synth Module: