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Downtown Reflections. Photograph by Brian Cohen.
Downtown Reflections. Photograph by Brian Cohen. | Show Photo

Music : Pittsburgh Innovates

3 Music Articles | Page:

Pittsburgh Modular makes synthesizers used by musicians around the world

Richard Nicol is the creator and founder of Pittsburgh Modular, a synthesizer company that sells its music gear worldwide through about 25 dealers in the United States and a dozen more overseas. As a musician, Nicol has been fascinated with synths for many years and enjoys experimenting with them to produce new sounds. 

“You can create thousands of different worlds with the smallest turn of the knobs,” he says. 

About five years ago, Nicol took an advanced circuit building class at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts (PCA), where he met his instructor Michael Johnsen, who is now the “mad scientist” who designs the equipment that Nicol manufacturers and sells at Pittsburgh Modular. Johnsen still teaches analog circuit building classes at PCA, and is currently teaching a beginner level audio circuit course that covers such basics as soldering, construction, schematics and the idiosyncratic world of “circuit bending.”

Johnsen, who also teaches filmmaking to high school students, has nurtured a longterm interest in electronic music and the techniques that have been used to make it throughout the years. Helping people understand electronic music — all the way down to the circuit board — is practical knowledge to have in a very digital era, says Johnsen. 

Nicol began building handmade synthesizer modules in his basement as a hobby while working as a full-time software developer. Using bold components and dynamic layouts to promote interaction and experimentation, his creations resembled something built in a 1950s science fiction laboratory. It didn’t take long for people in the synth community to take notice and express interest in purchasing Nicol’s creations of modern analog circuitry, marking the birth of Pittsburgh Modular.

Pittsburgh Modular, which quickly outgrew Nicol’s basement, is headquartered in the former Mine Safety Appliance factory building, located at 201 North Braddock Ave. in Pittsburgh’s East End. 

Though Pittsburgh Modular is relatively young, there are some big names using its gear. Because the synths are sold through dealers, it’s not always possible to know who’s using them. But some of the big names they know of include Trent Reznor, Deadmau5 and Depeche Mode. 

In January, Pittsburgh Modular announced a full line of synthesizers and modular gear, which the company just began to ship. 

“Pittsburgh is a big music town — but it’s a rock ’n roll town,” says Nicol. “We weren’t sure how well [our synths] would sell in Pittsburgh.”

But to Nicol’s delight, Pittsburgh Modular gear is selling very well at its local dealer, Pianos N Stuff on Freeport Road.

“Pittsburgh is a great city to start a company,” says Nicol. “I don't think we could have built this company from ground zero to where we are now in most cities.”

The company also recently started Pittsburgh Modular Records and its first release was "Encryption Cypher,” a project with Herman Pearl (a.k.a. Soy Sos) of Tuff Sound Recording, who paired its synth sounds with remixed beats by Pittsburgh’s top hip-hop artists.  

Writer: Amanda Leff Ritchie
Sources: Richard Nicol & Michael Johnsen

Pittsburgh-based AltarTV, the alternative music network for bands and artists on the way up

When their days in a band began winding down, longtime friends Alex Mohler and Alex Drizos considered starting a business.  
 
Their first thought was to open a production company to produce original concert footage from local events. The idea grew into AltarTV, an online repository of the music of bands and artists from around the world who were flying just under the radar.   
 
Since 2011, the studio in the Rose building in the Strip has produced seven original series, all high definition videos that share the music and stories of the artists through live concert footage, documentaries, intimate artist interviews and exclusive in-Pittsburgh-studio performances.

Altar TV’s specialty is finding those acts that are on the verge of crossing over to the mainstream, explains Mohler, vice president of AltarTV. 
 
“We are bound by our mutual passion for music, content and a mission to re-connect artists with their fans in new and interesting ways,” Mohler says. “Our mission is to capture that moment when an artist is breaking out. That’s our specialty, finding artists that are at that point.”
 
AltarTV has a "nimble" team of seven who wear many hats, he adds. Everyone was either a former touring musician or has experience in film production.  
 
More than 200 segments have been recorded to date. There's “Unplugged and Unrehearsed, ” “Noise from the Underground,” “Studio Diaries” and “Here and Now. ” The network, hosted on Ultra Genie, reaches 60 countries including China, one of our biggest audiences, he says. 
 
The artists cross several genres and are local and international. There's the up-and-coming band from Las Vegas, Imagine Dragons, who wander The Point before their concert; they performed on Jay Leno last month. Scottish folk rock band The Dunwells. Rapper Snoop Lion (who recently changed his name from Snoop Dogg). 
 
There’s also a few unexplained segments such as “Lucky the Painproof Man Eating a Lightbulb,” which you may or may not want to force yourself to watch.
 
“We want to be the destination where people know they can consistently get good quality video and media about artists they care about. We want to rise above all that noise.”
 
Writer: Deb Smit
Source: Alex Mohler, AltarTV

Ticketseller ShowClix moving downtown, HIRING 20

If you wanna catch up with ShowClix, better take off running.

The online ticket seller is expanding into its fourth space in just four years, 12,000 square-foot digs downtown on the 13th floor of Centre City Tower on Smithfield Street.

Yes, they will be leaving their cool, 3,500 square-foot space in Shadyside behind, but the cereal wall goes with them, says Lynsie Campbell of ShowClix. The downtown space also features a full-service café and smoothie bar, coffee, espresso, fruit, and big screen TV.

In addition, there's a large screening room equipped with a projector and large screen, theatre seating, movie theatre-quality popcorn and candy bar, says Campbell.

ShowClix is in hiring mode, looking to add 20 people to their current team of 32 in the areas of engineering, creative sales, and marketing. The company has an immediate need for software engineers.

The past year has been an interesting one, Campbell relates. The company moved into Shadyside with nine people, focusing on product development. This past year, we hired two key positions, a new director of sales and a new director of marketing.

"At that point, we put the pedal to the metal. We've finally built out our sales and marketing departments to the point where we could move a lot faster," she says.

The new space has expansion potential, Campbell adds. "We really wanted to select a space where expansion would be possible within three years. This is a really open space, with windows on all sides, concrete and cork floors. Things are moving so fast, it had to be move-in ready."

Writer: Deb Smit
Source: Lynsie Campbell, ShowClix


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