This month’s Sonic Drop, Noise Engineering Modular Motifs, is a collection of melodic and bass loops created using a Noise Engineering modular synthesizer system. Noise Engineering was founded in 2016 by husband and wife team Stephen McCaul and Kris Kaiser after they both quit their full time jobs to pursue a passion. Their modules have a very distinct sonic aesthetic that I was quickly drawn to, and I’m humbled to also call them very dear friends. In addition to a growing catalog of hardware synthesizer modules, Noise Engineering also produces a series of plugins that bring their sound to a much wider audience. Check out the Freequel Bundle, which is indeed free and includes two synthesizers and a very fun distortion. Below is a brief conversation with Stephen and Kris about the company and their unique approach.
Throughout the existence of Noise Engineering, you’ve always had a signature sound and aesthetic. How would you describe the ethos of Noise Engineering?
Kris: Mostly we are a small team of awkward nerds who really love sound and music. Seriously though, we try to focus on creating products that facilitate experimentation, encourage creative expression, and ultimately redefine the possibilities of electronic music production. Central to that is making things really immediate: when you plug in a module or instantiate a plugin, we want it to be obvious what to do to get started.
Stephen: We both grew up listening to a lot of industrial/goth music and that certainly shapes a lot of who we are. But we often get pigeonholed into an industrial/techno sort of sound, so it’s fun to show how our products do soft and pretty too.
Kris: We could probably sum up our ethos as work hard, have fun, make cool things.
Stephen: Don’t take ourselves too seriously. And don’t forget the Oxford comma (it’s a core value).
The Noise Engineering team
Modular Synthesizers have had a huge boom in the last decade. What would be your theory as to why there has been such a meteoric rise in popularity and why should an artist consider getting into the modular game?
Stephen: Modular synths offer a completely different way to interact with an instrument. We talk to a lot of artists who spend a lot of time in the box, and they almost inevitably tell us that the tactile nature of modular makes them engage with and think about their music-making process differently than other instruments.
Kris: Also, modular synths are infinitely versatile. There’s a learning curve, but when I teach workshops, I describe it as potentially a different instrument every time you patch it, even if you don’t change the modules. And with the number of amazing module companies out there, there is no shortage of different modules if you get tired of one. It’s far easier to swap out the filter in a modular system than it is on a fixed-architecture synth.
Noise Engineering was also one of the first modular companies to jump into developing plugins for non-modular users. What was the reasoning for doing so and what advantages and disadvantages might come with using a plugin version of one of your modules versus the hardware counterpart?
Kris: We love to engage with our customers. Many of them are film/tv composers or touring musicians. Both groups of artists had the same issue: modular is rewarding and they love it for so many things, but it has a lot of drawbacks. In the extremely fast-paced world of composing, being able to recall a patch is critical. On tour, fussing with a complicated patch can be daunting; most artists are looking for fewer things that can go wrong with their set, not more. Our entrance to the world of plugins was a direct response to those pain points that our users expressed.
Plugins have lots of other advantages, too though. Plugins are a bit more affordable than going fully into modular for most folks (and we even have three free plugins, our Freequel bundle). Plus, they are portable, tucking into the DAW you already use.
Stephen: Our plugins are built on the same DSP as our hardware, but they aren’t subject to the same space and processing constraints, so they are generally just more powerful. We can allow more complexity and expose more parameters on a plugin version. On the downside, a lot of our users come to us for the tactile experience of modular. That’s obviously lost once you bring the plugin back into the box.
What have been some of the most rewarding or inspiring moments of Noise Engineering so far?
Kris: When we are far into the development cycle of a product, the whole team jumps on it for last-minute bug testing (we’re a small team). The moments of magic that happen then as we pass sessions or small recordings back and forth are some of the best times.
But the other thing that never stops amazing us is that we get to make the tools for artists to create with. When artists send us pieces that they have created using our modules or plugins, it’s always such a great reminder of why we do what we do.
Stephen: Hour long design arguments where we end up with way more than what we started with. The very end of projects where we are arguing about the most subtle minutiae. Two weeks after a hardware release without any serious bug reports.
Beyond designing some incredible modules, you actually donate a share of proceeds for some of them to conservation efforts such as Bat Conservation International and Save Pangolins. How did this come about and why those specific foundations?
Stephen: We both always loved music, but we ended up in very different careers. I was an audio programmer in the video game industry and started Noise Engineering as a hobby to do something that was not on the computer all day. Kris was a biology professor, and one research focus of her work was conservation.
Kris: When I left that world, it was a slow transition, and I knew I wanted to be involved in some way. And one of the first products we developed once we decided to do this full time together was Manis Iteritas.
Stephen: I had a tongue-in-cheek naming scheme that was based on Latin if you use the term “Latin” extremely loosely. Manis was your idea to start, Matt, and was meant to be gritty and aggressive. I named it Manis, from the Latin “ghosts of the dead.” (ed. note: the idea came up during a conversation one night with Stephen, Kris, and Anthony Baldino. All genius of the Manis Iteritas belongs to Stephen and Kris.)
Kris: And I said “Wait, that’s the scientific name of the pangolin, the world’s most endangered mammal. Maybe this is where I can do our tie in?” I got in touch with the kind people at savepangolins.org and our first conservation partnership was formed. When we launched our reverb, Desmodus, it seemed like something that uses echolocation (get it, reverberations?) made sense, so I got in touch with Bat Conservation International. A portion of the proceeds of every Manis Iteritas or Desmodus plugin or module goes to these charities. We’ve also supported macaws, amphibians, and kelp forests, and have more planned.
Kris Kaiser of Noise Engineering
Lastly, for an artist looking at Noise Engineering products for the first time, where should they start?
Stephen: Our Freequel Bundle is a great place to start. We entered into the plugin world with three free plugins and they are fun. Ruina is a distortion that goes with everything. Sinc Vereor is a really pretty simple synth and Virt Vereor is a synth that is based on the same algorithms that we contributed to the Arturia MicroFreak.
Kris: We get this question a lot and I generally ask what someone wants to do with the product. In the absence of that information, in the plugin world, I’d say it’s hard to go wrong with Desmodus and Basimilus Iteritas. Desmodus is our reverb (the one we mentioned supports bat conservation; the “batverb,” if you will) and everyone loves reverb. Basimilus Iteritas is a “universal drum” but really can do so much more.
Sinc Vereor synth of the Freequal Bundle
Huge thanks to Stephen and Kris for joining us as this month’s Sonic Drop, Noise Engineering Modular Motifs. Check them out at https://noiseengineering.us/ and download the awesome and free Freequel Bundle here.
Like all Pro Tools | Sonic Drops, Noise Engineering Modular Motifs is FREE with your active Pro Tools annual or monthly subscription or current Updates + Support Plan (for perpetual license holders). Check the Sonic Drop tab in Avid Link (version 2023.3 or later) for a list of all the latest Sonic Drops. This is also where you can play audio samples and manage your content downloads. Watch this video to learn more.