The NTH Synth. A Beautiful, Kickstarter-Funded Synthesizer

photo by Amy Glass

The NTH Synthesizer is an Open Hardware project between Kevin Holland and John Staskevich of Columbus, Ohio.  I recently came across this amazing instrument during a random search of sound-related Kickstarter projects.  Being first blown away by its beautiful design, digging deeper I found that it was beautiful on the inside as well.  It is more than just a novelty:  it is actually a viable tool for sound designers and musicians alike.  Equipped with MIDI ports, it also plays well with others!  Going even further, the NTH is hackable.  Advanced users can reprogram the NTH’s firmware to adapt the device to their specific needs and tastes.  Below is an interview I conducted with Kevin and John.  For more on the NTH Synthesizer visit nthsynth.com

MC:  How did you guys meet?  Was it a chance meeting?  Was it ill-fated?  Was it destiny?

J:  Kevin and I met in January 2011 at an open house event at a local hackerspace called Columbus Idea Foundry.  I think we were both trying to meet people with similar interests.  So it was lucky, but not completely by chance.

K:  There is a consortium of local makers in Columbus, Ohio called The Idea Foundry.  My understanding is that it was formed to be a meeting ground for people to collaborate on projects together, network, and brainstorm.  They had an open house in January of 2011.  I’ve had poor luck in finding collaborative partners over the years, so I was not too keen on attending.  But my wife encouraged me to check it out, despite my grumbling.  John had a space there where he did work for Highly Liquid (highlyliquid.com) and I was very excited to find someone that had overlapping interests.  Had it not been for my wife’s insistence, I would not have gone to the open house, I would not have met John, and the NTH would likely not exist.

MC:  Do you guys have day jobs outside of the world of music/sound/synth/midi/gear building?  And was the creation of the NTH a way to give yourself a tool you could use in your daily toil?

K: Teaching music pays the bills, but I also run sineqube.com which offers freeware and shareware music software, and do freelance commission work for tv, film, web, ensembles, and custom Max/MSP work.  My degree is in music and I’m classically trained as a guitarist, but synthesis is my love.  The NTH is definitely a helpful creative tool in my arsenal, and has made its way into several pieces of music.  The soundtrack for our Kickstarter video is all layered NTHs with a bit of percussion.

J: My day job is designing MIDI electronics for my company, Highly Liquid.  The NTH is mostly something I use for pleasure rather than a tool I use for work.

MC:  Why synths?  What got you started down the road you’re on now, making audio equipment?  Was it a hole in the market?  Was it as you say, “relief from layered menus and obscured functions” that stood between you and your creativity? 

K: We are well aware of the saturation of gear in the music equipment market, and we didn’t want to clutter the world with more consumer noise.  It was very important for us to create something that bridged the gap between synthesis beginner and pro, and we kept that theme in mind during every step of the NTH’s development.  We wanted seasoned experts to grab the thing and create astounding sonic landscapes in seconds.  It’s probably no exaggeration to say that every aspect of the NTH, from the firmware to the manual to the interface to the enclosure was met with hours of analysis, to make sure that the NTH was as easy to use as it was complex in output.

J: I’ve been very interested in synths since childhood and have been designing related electronics for a long time.  Our market analysis was minimal.  We just built something that we thought was cool and hoped other people would like it too.  The simple control scheme was a result of that approach.

MC:  Where do the NTH’s roots begin?  How did this collaboration and project come about?

J: Shortly after we met, we decided to build a synth that could function as a cool stand-alone toy.  We wanted something universal and approachable.  That was the starting point, but then we made sure it was also very musical and could interface with other gear.

K: After the Idea Foundry open house, John and I met for coffee and discussed the type of work we were involved in, and found a good deal of common ground.  He asked me to write a little Max/MSP patch to help demonstrate one of his products on video.  Since I had helped him with a project, he gave me the opportunity to suggest the next collaboration.  I said, “I want to build a synthesizer.” We began prototyping and quickly saw the potential to release it into the wild.  People at the Idea Foundry would stop by John’s studio as we were working to see where all the noise was coming from.  Queries like “When can I buy one?” became more common, and a fun side project became something more.

MC:  At what point in your creation of the NTH did you decide to take it more large-scale?  At what point did Kickstarter factor into your financial plan?  Was the NTH always meant to be a Kickstarter project? Were you surprised that you met your Kickstarter goal? And, not only met but more than doubled your initial request?  Is it something you expected?

 J: The NTH was meant to be a Kickstarter project from the very beginning, as far as I can recall.  We did some production cost estimates pretty early in the design phase and it was clear that we would need a 5-figure funding target.  We had no idea what kind of response to expect.  The pledge activity during the first few days was a pleasant surprise.

K: Using Kickstarter was John’s idea, as he had been following and supporting other projects.  It is a great vehicle for connecting creative people with patrons.  As is our way, we kept tweaking our launch plan right up until we clicked the green button.  We went into the experience feeling confident that we had done everything we knew to do to ensure its success.  If the NTH failed, we would learn from that data.  It is very difficult to gauge the reaction of a large group of people, so we spent less time worrying about that, and focused our energy in trying to make the NTH a high-quality product.  We are humbled and grateful that so many others seem to “get” the NTH, and are excited to hear what people do with the instrument.

MC:  What are your favorite features of the NTH?

K: My favorite features change every time I use it, but overall I love that we were successful in making something where you could get to its creative punch quickly.  I’ve used so many great pieces of gear over the years that take forever to set up and get going.  With the NTH, you flip the power switch and you’re ready to go. I also enjoy using it as an extensive MIDI controller and sequencer.  The NTH is a great solo synthesizer, but it sits very well in the mix while syncing it up with external drum machines and other synths.

J: I like how anyone can pick it up and start experimenting without any instruction.  Most people seem to be able to figure out all of the control functions with a few minutes of experimentation.

MC:  Can you talk more about how you expect people to hack your design to make the NTH their own?  What is the most common modification you think will be made to the firmware?  In your opinion, how difficult would it be for a beginner to dive into the hackable capabilities of the NTH?

K: John is responsible for the firmware, so I’ll let him speak to that in more detail, but I imagine that people will add their own gliss/scale patterns, tweak the available waveforms and envelopes, and test out different filters and DSP functions using the on-board prototyping area.  I think there is potential for people to use the NTH in ways we haven’t thought of yet ourselves.  Because of John’s MIDI-implementation, there is a lot of power lurking inside that little box.  I’m very excited to see what users will do with the NTH.

J: The easiest firmware hack will be to change the data tables in the EEPROM.  These define the oscillator waveforms, amplitude envelopes, gliss envelopes, and note frequencies.  So anyone that is willing to change some constants in the code will be able to experiment with those.  The code is written in assembler, so algorithmic changes will be more challenging.  But we have setup a Google group for code discussions.

MC:  Where is the least likely place you think that you’ll stumble upon an NTH?

J: In the future, all synths are NTH Music Synthesizers.  They will be everywhere.

K: Walmart.

MC:  If you could give an NTH to one musician to use for an entire album, who would it be?

J: Ryuichi Sakamoto

K: Well, I’m a fan of Autechre, and appreciate the ways they incorporate disparate pieces of gear into their work.  But I think I’m most excited about hearing what random people do with the NTH.  I’m curious to see if our design philosophy was effective, and compare what beginners and pros create with the NTH.

MC:  Do you have any more open hardware projects in the works that we can look forward to?  Do you plan on an NTH2 or any other NTH versions that expand or focus on a particular element or feature?

K: We are always brainstorming when we are together.  We often laugh that “ideas are the easy part.”  We are hesitant to discuss future designs and releases at this time, but haven’t ruled anything out of the realm of possibility.

J: We have informally discussed some kind of “NTH2″.  I think we could make some improvements based on what we’ve learned from the initial project.  We haven’t pursued any ideas in much detail yet because we are still quite busy getting the NTH shipped.

MC:  How many rounds of production are you going to go through?  Will more people be able to get in on the fun of creating with such a wonderful and inspiring instrument?

K: That’s a great question, and one that we have gotten from others.  There are many people that missed out on the Kickstarter and are interested in getting their hands on the NTH.  All we can say at this time is that we are taking names for the NTHSynth mailing list, and if people are interested in being kept informed about future releases, contact us: nthsynth@gmail.com.

J: It’s very difficult to say.  If there are enough buyers to make a second production round viable, it is a possibility.  Anyone that is interested should email us.

MC:  Who do you think will be the most likely of folks to use your tool?  Musicians?  Sound designers?  Film? Games?

J: Almost all of the buyers are people that we don’t know personally, so it is hard to guess.  I hope they enjoy using it.

K: It’s early to tell, but I hope that the NTH will appeal to a wide variety of people.

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