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Innovation & Startups

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
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