Darwin: So this week I am interviewing Jason Kramer. He's the co-owner and the face of the business, Control Voltage, really cool store in Portland that carries a lot of electronic music making products. It's one of the cool places because you can come in, try out a lot of modular systems, he's got some more standard synthss as well. Carrys some used products. We're meeting here in his store. So it's going to be a little echoey, but that's kind of cool too. It's a little bit before opening, Jason's given me a chance to interview him. Hey Jason, how's it going?
Darwin: Happy Sunday morning. I should have actually asked you where to go to get a coffee before we started, but I guess we'll have to work it out. I can put a pot on if you want. I think we'll be fine for the moment. Well this is quite a stor you have. Can you give me a little bit of background on how you position yourself to open something like this?
Jason: I think in general it was always an idea I had, wanting to share the little gadgets that I was into with everyone from just buddies in high school, and friends in college, to nieces and nephews, to coworkers at jobs I had, but not finding a lot of the stuff that I'm looking for in the shops around. Also involved in various communities like the Monome online community was a big part of realizing that there was a lot of little scenes out there, just to be part of one was, was quite awesome. There's a lot of support in that kind of community. So, just, I think getting fed up with trying to buy products online and taking them out of the box for the first time and getting to play with them and wanting to be able to play with them beforehand.
Darwin: Right. Well, you're one of the few Monome dealers in the world, I think, right. You're the one Monome dealer, Okay. It was actually pretty interesting to walk in and see some ARCs on display as kind of hard to even find those, that was really interesting. So before you started the stor, you were pretty into this stuff and, and active in the online communities. Yesterday we did a little workshop here where we kind of did modulars plus max, which was a really well attended. There was I think, approaching 40 people that came into the shop, which was really cool. That sort of implies the fact that you've got a scene going here. How did that develop? Is it something you tapped into or is it something you feel like you were developing and how does that start? How do you get involved in something like that?
Jason: I think it's a little bit of everything. First off Portland is a really supportive town. It didn't take long for a few, now really good friends, but acquaintances before the shop opened to find out about us before we even opened the door. And, we had a couple of people that I now consider some of my best friends that were knocking on the door when I had ***cray*** paper up over the windows. So when we did open, there was a lot of support in trying to get the word out, passing the message along. We don't really advertise besides giving out free stickers and doing a few cross promoted events. We subsist almost totally on word of mouth and letting people perform their music here. Whether that's, it is actually mostly locals, but some people that are in town from out of town or passing through on tour, or just passing through on vacation and get in touch that.
Jason: So we put on shows, we also consigned their music. We let people put their tapes and CDs and records and such on our media shelf and we sell it for them and we promote them that way. But I think mostly the scene is pretty spread out in Portland. There's a lot of different kinds of music going on and it's a pretty amazing place for lots of different genres of music, for sure. Portland likes to be weird, synths, and sample based, and computer hybrid machine weirdness fits in really well with the mentality in the city
Darwin: That seems to make sense. I know yesterday talking to some of the people after the workshop, it was really interesting to find people that identified themselves as composers or as a guitar player that's also looking at doing something crazy and new, or I want to integrate a lot of people talking about how they're primarily computer based, but moving more and more to hardware. And so it seems like you kind of tapped into something interesting and kind of important for those people. So this afternoon I'm going to be playing a gig.
Darwin: I noticed, or in talking with Tim, who's putting it on. He mentioned he was talking his way through the artists, and there are a lot of people that are going to be using modular or modulars plus something else. Did you feel like there was already a pretty extensive community in town before you opened up your shop? Or do you think that you were influential on getting modular synth in the hands of people? Or was it just one of those scenarios where everything kind of converge?
Jason: It's definitely still in motion, but there was a solid scene. A lot of people that didn't know there were other people, that's what I found out after we opened. But for sure, like when a friend introduced me to modular, we've introduced people to modular. While I knew about modular since before friends introduced me and I got to put my hands on it, and then I got into it, other people knew about it too, and maybe they saw something on TV or on YouTube, or maybe they saw somebody perform at a weird art exhibition or something like that. A lot of times it does come to the whole slippery slope mentality where people want to put the blinders on. They want to stay as far away. Cause they know if they get into it, it's going to drag them in. It's too immediate and just makes your brain happy, it's strangely satisfactory.
Darwin: Well it is compelling. During the workshop you were kind of playing around with things where the modular would control the computer and stuff like that. And it makes a lot of sense because there are things that happen that you feel more than intellectualize. And I think that that actually is one of the things that's sort of joyful about analog synth stuff is, you have to kind of turn the knob a couple of times to understand how something feels and then you internalize it. And that becomes how you interact with the musical development rather than saying, well, I need a 2.5 second fade in right here, and that's pretty interesting. Now, in your role here at Control Voltage, you obviously find yourself in the position of introducing people to analog systems and modular synths. What do you find is the hardest thing to convince people of and what you find convinces people for you? How do people get sucked in when they get sucked in?
Jason: I like that you said, how does it convince them for me? Because a lot of times this stuff does, quote unquote, sell itself. We don't push anything on anybody. I never want to upsell. I never want anybody to leave here with something that they dont want to get into and want to take home and make music with and make sounds with. But we leave the devices set up for people to play with an experiment. So it's a very non committal, it just promotes an exploratory experience so people can go around, and they can absolutely ask questions and I'm more than happy to set things up and introduce other features to them and pit things against one another. But, the hardest thing to convince people, I don't know if it's the hardest thing, but one thing that comes up a lot is a lot of times people look at the modular and they say, Oh, that's just like Reason.
Jason: There's a lot of that or, can't I do all this in Ableton already? It's not that I have to convince people. But I think there's a fair amount of just explaining the difference between using a track pad or a mouse to interface with your music totally, versus having some hybrid combination of tactile interface with the benefits of modern techniques that you're afforded inside a computer. So, a lot of times people get it right away because you say, well, when's the last time you went to a show and you know, the guy only had a laptop on stage and how much fun was everybody having in the crowd. They know that they've been to that kind of event and it is seeming like that's not what audiences are into. They want to see someone tweaking, knobs, playing an instrument for interfacing with, you know, the device that's communicated.
Darwin: Yeah. That's actually a really good point. This there's kind of a long running thing about watching a performer and wondering if they're getting their email. But, there's also something about seeing a performer, primarily use of computer that seems to take the risk out of a performance. And there's something about risk that seems to make a performance more interesting.
Darwin: There's this sense that if, if everything could potentially go to hell that if it doesn't go to hell, then you actually saw something amazing. Looking around you have a pretty awesome set of little modular systems all around. And I noticed that, yesterday when we were here setting up, people kind of wander in and play for a while and we'll wander out and you certainly aren't pushing people to buy, which is kind of interesting. But to what extent you find people coming in and working with these systems to just learn what's going on and understand as part of a longer learning process for themselves
Jason: A lot of times, it's not just in modular, but absolutely. Very few people that are just dipping their toe into modular come in and that day leave with a case with a ***full voice*** or even just a few things a lot of times. They want to come in and they want to look around and get a feel for it. The first thing is almost like, wow, I didn't know they were that small. On the internet nobody holds up a quarter to anything anymore, you don't know. Just seeing things in person and seeing how the modules fit in the case is one thing. Connecting them through cables and the difference between audio rate and control voltage. Those are the building blocks and like the next time they come in, then it's time to talk about what the hell would BCA does, or something like that. Or why would I need a final stage output? So they've gone home, they've done some research, they've maybe talked to some friends or looked at friend's cases. But besides that even just synthesis, we get a lot of people that come in that just want to put on headphones and just pick any random synth in here and just play around and move knobs and see what the attack does and see how many different programs are in the presets and play around.
Darwin: That's actually an interesting point and something I hadn't really thought of because we've become so attached to the internet as a way that we learn things, but reading about and sort of like intellectually understanding what an attack phase on an envelope does is one thing and hearing it, or feeling it. I tend to always go back to phrases like feeling and internalizing things because it seems like these analog systems in general have a lot more of a feeling quotient to them and then an understanding quotient. So it sort of would make sense that this isn't something you can just kind of point to a Wikipedia page and say, go read that and you'll understand what an envelope actually does because there's this sense that without it actually being hooked up to something and trying it, you're not going to get a real understanding of what's going on. So since you were involved with a lot of online stuff, you kind of understand how communities work, how do you transform the things you learned and the experiences that you had, in an internet type environment to now meeting people face-to-face?
Jason: It's energizing actually. Unfortunately I wish I still had the time to, I don't, to be a bigger part of the online communities again, but the business is pretty much all encompassing. So now I do almost total face-to-face or on the phone or email directly with customers or friends and such. How is it different? It's, it's amazing to see people who would largely be Googling and looking on Wikipedia and looking at ***sound on sound*** articles to put the pieces together, to be able to come in and ask questions, and lean over. And when they know something that a stranger in the shop that has headphones on is struggling with, we see people all the time say, oh, you got to turn this up, or wow, you're into that, I have one of those too, or I had one of those that goes really good with this thing. Let's jam, and people exchange numbers, emails, and get together.
Jason: We've had a whole lot of connections to be made since, opening. It's pretty energizing to see people in the flesh and get to shake hands and find out what's important to them and be able to help them out in some way. And we can't help everybody out. There's a large DIY community here getting into caring and supporting tiny components and lots and lots of that kind of stuff may not be where we're going, but we try to help, we offer services and we do have a random surplus DIY drawer that sort of changes with what I end up buying extra of for little projects I'm working on. So we'll see how much cooler it can get. I mean, I have all the faith that people are still gonna continue to get into it. So there's a lot of new blood.
Darwin: The primary place online that people need is the ***Muff Wiggler*** forum. I just remember, when I first got into it too, they have the little tag thing on the bottom. And when I first got into it, I think there were like 1800 people signed up to the forum and now there's like 10 times that number. It seems to be kind of growing quickly. But the one thing I will say, when I walked through your shop is that you are not a fundamentalist about, modular stuff or about particular manufacturers. So you have a bunch of modular stuff, but you also have keyboard synths, a variety of different types, which are fun to play with. And you also have like these kooky systems, like the ***Atari critter*** stuff. And I see that you have little kit packs for making ***things about goops*** and stuff like that. So you see that you're not really doing the DIY thing, but it seems like you kind of embrace it all. For yourself, what is it that determines whether you're going to have something in the shop and whether you're going to put the time in to promote it,
Jason: We'll put the time in to promote it comes naturally. If I like something or I get like really good feedback from a good amount of customers on something, then that just comes naturally. I don't have a sales background, I have service background honestly, and obviously music, but professionally, a lot of service. So, the whole upselling or whatever it's not my wheelhouse at all. What I carry depends largely, if you're talking to moduls, because there are so many options out there and so many manufacturers, we are constantly expanding. We've done a couple of major ads of maybe three to five manufacturers once or twice a year in the last year and a half.
Jason: We go for manufacturers that either are doing something unique, interesting, or DIY and inexpensive, or they have an enormous awesome catalog of stuff that's just excellent quality. And the other thing too, is obviously people come in through the door and they're like, I want to buy this, I want to buy this, I want to buy this. Then, that's going to happen as well. But the kooky stuff and the DIY stuff, it's a lot of stuff that I bought as a consumer and enjoyed. So when we chose products to start out with was a lot of things that I had, or I knew that friends had that I played with could vouch for, just the quality or the overall benefit, even if it is inexpensive, it's small. And you take the the cheapest MIDI keyboard with a grain of salt. It's not going to sound like a hammer action, but it is going to fit in your back pocket.
Darwin: Yeah. That's one of the things we noticed is you tend to really focus on things that are smaller in size and stuff like that. And what I'm wondering is to what extent that is sort of like your personality being brought to bear on what you like to sell.
Jason: Perhaps, but people like small stuff too. I like small stuff, small stuff is less expensive. A lot of times, we are introducing a lot of new people to it. So, your average guy, he may to come in and play on the ***mini mode Voyager***, but he's probably going to settle on a ***court Buchla*** or a ***microbrewery*** or something.
Darwin: The small stuff, you don't have to make such a like psychic commitment to it. That ***Voyager XL*** is pretty incredible, but I can barely lift it up, it's enormous. Let alone imagining touring with it or something. So let's talk a little bit about, your background. Cause you mentioned that, you have background doing music and stuff. What kind of stuff were you doing from a performance or per production kind of standpoint were where were you coming from on that?
Jason: I mean, as a kid rock stuff, garage rock and playing around jam and metal, all that kind of everything that can make noise after the guitar I was plugging into and making crazy stuff. And then it got maybe a little more, towards the production side, I started helping friends produce and got really interested in having with the means that we had available the best quality that we could put out. It was just friend projects, nothing professional at the time. But when the time came to choose what to do after high school, I went pretty much straight into music technology. My local community college didn't have any kind of music technology program, but the county next to mine did, and they were developing a recording studio.
Jason: So it was the second year and I ended up becoming really good friends with the director and helped them set up the studio. We set it up pretty much together. We had a pretty good friendship going on too. And then immediately after that, I got a couple of internships actually during college too and then right after. ***The community I went to was SAE in New York.*** I think it was either the second or third graduating class of that first SAE. And then I worked in studios and New Jersey and Manhattan, basically intern assistant engineer. And when work until 6:00 AM on other people's music became cumbersome, I went into computer repair and at the time it was a great thing to just shift. I was introduced to Macs actually through, I'm sorry, Apple computers through working in studios on ProTools rigs and became the guy that had to fix the Protools rig when it went down.
Jason: So post that to work in at a wonderful company in New York, a third-party Apple services and a retail place on 23rd street for a long time. And I really enjoyed the community aspect of that business. And I took a lot of what I saw there with the way that owners let the employees pretty much self-manage. I started there when there's 50 people, by the time I left, there was 200, it was an amazing amount of experience. And I put a lot of things in my virtual backpack. Well, if I ever have a company I'm gonna think about things a little bit more. I'm going to think about the design of the store and how people are gonna walk around and how they're going to interact, and whether salespeople are going to be harping on them or, and how customer service was going to be.
Jason: I also had other experiences at other companies to the contrary that also went in my backpack of, what I would do is if I could ever start the company that I wanted to. So those things help as well. And then we visited Portland quite a bit. We had a lot of friends up here. We moved to Philly for a little bit. And we really wanted to move here, but Philly was the, was close enough from New York where we could see if we could actually leave New York because a lot of times we get sort of stuck. You feel like there's nothing else out there but New York. So dip a toe into the rest of the country found out it was totally cool and visited Portland. I actually came to Mississippi where we are now. And I knew that this was the joint, that this was the street, and this was six, seven years ago.
Jason: And, when we moved here, I got another job in service, but that company unfortunately was on a downturn that I wasn't aware of. So it went under not too long after I started, which actually afforded me the time to start planning this. And I spent a lot of time at the library and a lot of time talking to the small business administration and the volunteers there, just out of a cold call to a realtor, she told me about a space that was opened up by Mississippi. And didn't take one for us to jump on.
Darwin: That's really interesting. You carry yourself like a person for Portland. So I just assumed that you you're here because you've always been here apparently not. It's interesting that you kind of fell in love with Portland. I find it pretty fascinating place a little bit. I've been here so far. What is it about Portland to you? That is like the draw, and the keeper?
Jason: I'd definitely have to say its not the weather. Although the four or five months that the sun is out are amazing. I actually, I don't mind the mist. It doesn't take long for the mist to just sort of become background noise. It's not really a big deal, but really, it's the people here. It's just the attitude. It's just super laid back. There's a lot of nature I'd like to soak in some good hikes and some good camping. We take advantage of that as much as possible. It's just, it's isolated from the country, it's not exactly easy to get to, it's not a major city. Seattle is a pretty huge city and it's only three hours away. It's got a total different vibe, I think Portland has a lot of connections. And a lot of real connections with people that have moved back and forth from San Francisco to Portland, from Austin to Portland, Portland to Austin. So there's a lot in Asheville, North Carolina, surprisingly, there's a lot of people that it's sort of in that triangle.
Darwin: Yeah. That's interesting because I certainly know a fair number of people that are here from San Francisco. This seems to be like a good transition point because you have a lot of similar cultural senses, I guess you don't have to worry about Twitter buying your block and turning it into loft jobs spots. San Francisco's climbing out of its own ass right now. I think, Portland seems to be a nice escape point for a lot of people. Given that you kind of have your arms around a lot of different parts of this particular corner of the, of the music industry, the music equipment industry, you probably are in a pretty interesting place to be able to imagine what the future looks like. And especially because you work not only with some ***Moog and DSI*** instruments, you work with some of the people that are kind of like major manufacturers, ***Korg*** as well. You have equipment from the modular manufacturers from some of the smaller people like ***Keith McMillan*** and some of these other folks and even the tiny people, like the ***Critter*** stuff. Where do you see the future of some of this stuff going, is it just going to expand to the point where almost everybody is making something or is where do you think it's going to go? Do you think that modulars continue to expand? Do you think it's going to move in a different direction?
Jason: I like the question. I think it's gonna, I don't know obviously, but I do foresee some crossover, big guys going little, little guys going big. Whether that's modular going standalone or standalone going modular or new formats coming out, perhaps even. I'm not sure but I'm excited as hell for whatever happens because, I think we are in a position to quickly adapt to what people are putting out and what people want. But yeah, there are so many people that come in that look at modules and they just want to turn them around. I look at the circuits and they say, I can do that. I can do this. When I build this, will you buy it? They say it all the time. And a lot of it's a lot of cases, a lot of people have woodworking background and see how easy it is to make the case and what the markup is on that. And there are many complexities to building a case that go overlooked? I think a lot of times, I don't know that I've had very many DIY cases come through. We've had a couple people build DIY modules, and then we sell them at a DIY type price, obviously with a different kind of warranty.
Jason: It's impressive how much people want to be a part of it. There's definitely prospectors. There are people that are in electronics that aren't in music at all that come through. And Mississippi is a great place to spend the day, honestly, just with your family, going restaurant to shop, to bar, to pizza place, to venue at night and all that. People come in and they're there in parallel market, but they see people in the shop playing around, they see the momentum and they're like, well, maybe my business can get into this side of electronics. I don't know. What I would like to see? I'd like to see some module makers go standalone. I think that there's a big benefit to having a unified system from one maker. That's partially because, I think I'm just personally interested in seeing some of these things that might come out that might be akin to some of the reverse of what mutable did, you know, going from standalone to modular.
Jason: Maybe there's some learning that can happen in the modular sense that might bring a company like that back to standalone, we'll see. It's going to be interesting for sure. I hear people say a lot, that it's almost a Renaissance of analog right now, but it's more than that. There's a hybrid thing happening with digital and analog. And, and I think that one of the biggest, maybe not overlooked, maybe sometimes overlooked benefits of analog is that the parameters are broken out to the front of the panel. You almost always have to interact with them on a one-to-one basis. This is a weird example, but if you want it to drag your forearm across 16 knobs on an analog synth, you could on a digital synth you can't, but some combination of that analog interface with the benefits of modern digital technology.
Darwin: So there's a couple of module people in a couple of other hardware, people that are starting to do preliminary systems that are oriented towards doing video and visuals. Do you see that as an area that you could dig into a little bit, or do you think that's too obscure?
Jason: It's just obscure enough. We don't sell video modular synthd yet but, there's a lot of dudes that do it. And whether it's a hybrid of computer with, some analog modules helping out, or a total modular video system, there's quite a few people in town that do it. It's surprising because I don't know how many fold more expensive it is than regular modular audio sense systems. But people are really into it. I kind of want to see it go to the next level. To me it's amazing. And it's fun and it's the same sort of exploratory, learning experience, problem solving that I love getting out of a modular synth, but it kind of looks like Nintendo-y to me. I want to see what the next year holds for that. I think that there's probably some interesting hybrid type systems I think come out that I'd like to see.
Darwin: Yeah, you make a good point. It seems like in a way where those systems are right now are kind of paralleling what we saw in the very earliest days of the Renaissance of modular synths, which was the first bunch of things that came out were sort of a re-introduction of the basic subtractive synth stuff. And then all of a sudden we started seeing the kind of hybrid, weird ***wave cable, oscillators, kooky DSP*** based things that kind of provided a hybrid interface. So maybe it's just that the very early stages you see that there's a lot of people around here doing that stuff. Just what, with like home built crazy stuff?
Jason: No, a lot of ***LZX*** systems really, I say a lot, it's maybe a dozen.
Darwin: I can see this as being a town that would support a bunch of peopledoing that kind of stuff. So two final questions, first of all, what's the thing that you really want that no one's made yet. Second question is kind of a flip side on it. What is something that you've seen happening that you wouldn't. I'm curious about it because, let's face it for me. Wonderful. So it was really great was I came in yesterday. I wanted to get a replacement for a filter I had in my system. And so I was able to run around and all of a sudden now, instead of having to like buy one, try it, hate it, sell it, try another one. I was able to try like eight filters. To check it out. You have the opportunity to experience that everyday. And so my feeling is that somewhere in your gut, you have to be like this. If there was this one thing that would really be a game changer. Conversely, it's like, everyone's starting to do this thing and I wish they would just knock it off, you know? Maybe it's not stuff you sell, maybe it's stuff out in the bigger, greater community, or mayb, we talked a little bit about video synths where maybe there's like, I don't know, maybe it's like bread synthesis you. I really wish it was just this.
Jason: I get little ideas all the time. I think genetically, my family is this funny Cramer sort of family thing where there's all these ideas. Nobody does anything about them, but we got a thousand ideas. So I got all these little stupid ideas that are just like little simple ones that I wish I'd see. Like, I was talking to my friend the other day. I wish that there was a module and granted it would take up too much space, but that just had a little mini, regular one octave white and black key keyboard on it, just to perform in. And granted ***critter and guitar*** has the ***melody mill***. But the idea is even simpler than that, you know? So that's just something like that.
Jason: Out of the modular world, I am very excited for the ***electron analog rhythm***. I think that a MPC, I definitely don't want to say killer, but an MTC rival like that with philosophy sensitive pads on the power of the sequencing. That's a machine that I've seen in my head for years. Just something that does something similar to the MPC, but with a much different approach. Those are a couple things, stuff that I would wish people stopped doing, man. I don't know that I want anybody to stop doing it, even if I don't like it. I think people should keep doing stuff. You know, if the ass falls out because it was a bad idea, well, at least you tried.
Darwin: Everybody learned too. I think that's a really good approach and in a good way to frame it. Well, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate you taking the time out of your schedule, opening up the store for me to come in for on the last swing through before I head out of town, and for giving me a chance to interview you, any last words for our listeners or prospective customers
Jason: Make more music!
Darwin: Make more music, all right. For people not in Portland, they can check you out on ***controlvoltage.net***, right? Check it out. He's got a lot of cool stuff and he's an absolutely cool person. Thanks a lot, and we will talk to you again soon-ish.
Copyright 2014-2021 by Darwin Grosse. All right reserved.