When Richard Nicol started building modular synthesizers in his basement about two years ago, his plan was to sell two or three a month, to offset the cost of equipment he wanted to build for himself. From there, he says with a chuckle, "it started spinning out of control." In the first month, he sold 50 systems. Before long, his basement was so crowded with parts and works-in-progress that he couldn't reach the washer and dryer to do laundry. It was time to move to a new space.
Last July, Pittsburgh Modular moved to a maze-like warehouse in Point Breeze. In a boxy, pleasant room with big windows and lots of natural light, Nicol — a former software designer — and his three employees build analog modular systems. Analog modular synths are built with separate modules (self-contained assemblies of circuitry), connected through patch cords.
Pittsburgh Modular's models range from the simple (its website describes the Cell  System 1 as "a great entry point into modular synthesis") to the tremendously complex (the Cell  Foundation Desktop Complete is, they say, "a true beast"). The former is especially popular with artists who have experience with virtual synthesizers, like iPad apps, and want to graduate to something more tangible. "You can't form a relationship with an iPad app," Nicol says.
What sets Pittsburgh Modular apart from many other manufacturers is the care Nicol takes in making his designs visually appealing. He emphasizes that these systems are, above all, instruments. "If you're in a room full of guitars, you're going to gravitate towards the one that catches your eye," Nicol says. "It's important to get people interested in playing it."
Trent Reznor and Deadmaus are among the artists from all over the world using equipment from Pittsburgh Modular. "The people that use this stuff have very specific ideas of what they want," Nicol says. Many artists send sample videos — sometimes it's 25 minutes of "mind-grating noise." ("I don't really get the noise scene," Nicol admits — he's more into industrial music). Sometimes it's a song by a traditional singer-songwriter which just happens to include an unexpectedly "blistering" synth solo. Regardless of the music they're making, most artists are just excited to use Nicol's products. "You can just tell through the email," he says, "they have a big smile on their face."