Interview With Abe Ingle - AI Synthesis
Abraham Ingle is the brains and the brawn behind AI Synthesis. AI Synthesis makes badass Eurorack Modules, and you’d never know it was a one-man show unless you asked. I met Abe (virtually, at least) when I bought his A1006 Eurorack Stomp Box Adapter. It was and remains my only piece of modular equipment. He was so kind, humble and approachable about his work. Obviously, this being my first module, I was confused as hell! Abe walked me through with the patience of a saint and I really respected his desire to ensure his modules worked correctly for his customer. He was even willing to answer non-AI-Synthesis products to further my knowledge.
We re-engaged when my Cat broke the PCB on the module and I waited all of five minutes before ordering another one. As a repeat customer, I found it prudent to drop Abe a line. We chatted a bit and the idea of this interview was brought to the table. I hope you enjoy our chat below!
How did you get into building your own modules?
I got interested in doing some light DIY in the early 00s when I was in my early 20s in Portland. I messed with perf board and very simple circuits, but kind of gave up. At the time I had a really bad radioshack iron and used cheap perfboard, which would inevitably fail sooner or later.
Around 10 years ago, I came across a Craigslist post. A guy was quitting DIY modular, and selling a non-format MFOS system that was ½ working. In addition to selling me his system, he also sold me some PCBs and parts. I realized that there was a blank MFOS Wave Freaker PCB and most of the parts, so I bought a good iron and built that. To my wonderful surprise, it worked! After that I was hooked. I thought I could build anything. Over the next few years I built many, many, many more modules, pedals, and repaired a few vintage synthesizers. I started using a “build three sell two” system to finance more modules and buy other items, like my Rhodes, which I bought in very bad condition, and fixed up. Most of my studio was financed by the “build three sell two” model.
At the time, most of the sites were pretty ancient, and since my day job was in the modern web and app market, I realized I could make the resource that I wish existed, so I created AI Synthesis to teach DIY. It’s been amazing! I love seeing videos of people making music with my modules.
Do you have a background in electrical engineering at all?
Not an iota. I do have a mentor that advises me when I get stuck, but I am otherwise self taught.
It's one thing to be a hobbyist, but to make a company out of it is a bold move. How do you manage work/life balance?
Yeah…. Still figuring that out. I get emails at all hours, and it’s hard to not to answer those immediately. I’m trying to set up some boundaries, like not working on AI Stuff on the weekends or after 6pm, but I’m typing in between repairing a build for my not-so-secret warranty program. I’m kind of a workaholic, and it’s hard to stay away.
Did you always intend on the Company being solely you, or how did it end up being that you're the main man behind the brand?
It was actually initially going to be a partnership, with my partner actually being an EE and doing the designing, and me doing the other stuff, but he decided not to. I decided to move ahead as just me. AI are my initials. It’s a one person operation at this point, and that is good for the moment.
Early on, I thought that the circuit design would be a bigger part of it. I was totally wrong. 95% of my time is spent on fulfillment, doing inventory, customer support, accounting, (poor attempts at) marketing, and other tasks that have nothing to do with synthesizers. It’s a lot of hats to wear, but it’s rewarding.
You clearly have a well put together aesthetic across your modules. What were some inspirations or influences visually that led to the ultimate decision to go with this look?
Thanks! I came to module from 5U, so I originally planned on using moog-style knobs and going with a different style. I’ve always loved “red” and thought that the silver/black/red motif could work really well next to other modules, which was a big thing for me. A lot of makers use PCB panels, and some of those, like Recovery, make excellent PCB panels. I wanted them to be aluminum, so that when someone built their first DIY module, it would look and feel as good as anything else they already had in a rack.
Much of my experience is being a manager for web design and application stuff, so I know the value of a designer, and I know that I am NOT a designer. I had fonts and colors in mind, and then went to Grayscale for my module layout. We have the same thoughts around ergonomics, and he’s been great to work with. If I did it myself, I don’t think the pieces would have the same symmetry.
Have you always lived in Portland? If so, how has that influenced the type of gear you chose to create?
Interesting question. No, I moved to the NW in my teens, and to Portland in 2001. I think it probably supported the desire to have a DIY company. I think there must be some influence from being in proximity to so many other makers. At my old house, I lived just a few blocks away from two other makers. I went to a friend’s birthday party last year, and it was kind of a de-facto mini convention, I think seven companies were represented. Most of the gear I chose to (or chose not to) make is based upon my own needs, for better or worse, and also driven by a kind of straight-forward brand ethos. Some of the design decisions are about making DIY more efficient. Having no wiring in any module means there are fewer mistakes, and thus fewer support emails. It is an interesting question!
How did you decide you wanted to take on this behemoth task?
To start AI? In the year 2000, I was in college and obsessed with modular synths, but could barely afford to eat. I knew it was possible to build your own synth, but there wasn’t anyone, or anywhere to turn to for advice. In the past decade, much more information has been published online, and in 2013 I started down my path to DIY modular. Even with all of the information online, there still lacked a single, simple comprehensive guide for those looking to build their own synthesizer. I want AI Synthesis to be that guide. Prior to building my own synth, I was a dreamer, after building my modular, I felt I had awoken. I want to help others do the same.
What did you actually go to College for and what field did you see yourself working in at that point in time?
I went to a liberal arts college that doesn’t require a major. I thought I wanted to teach in school, but realized I hate waking up early. I left having no idea what I wanted to do. My first job after moving to Portland was at a musical instrument store, which actually helped in my thinking around AI a lot.
What was the first successful module you built and what did it do?
The first module was an MFOS wave freaker, which adds harmonics to sine and triangle waves, and also has some sub-square waves. It was a bare PCB in the collection of parts that I got when I bought my first modular, so it was in many ways a no-risk way to start, and got me familiar with MFOS, which formed a lot of my ideas about how to run a super-small DIY company. Ray was a great person and massive influence on me.
How long have you been assembling modules?
I think I built the Wave-freaker about 10 years ago? Somewhere in there. AI as of now has been a company for about 3 years.
Well… I’m out of questions but this was really fun. Do you have anything you’d like to add before we sign off?
Not really, these have been really great questions. For your readers: Don’t be afraid of DIY, it’s an amazing hobby that (for me) is really relaxing, and a wonderful and productive way to engage with gear!
I want to thank Abe for this interview. It was enlightening, open and honest. The man can write too! You can check out his Modules at AISynthesis.com. Would you care If I listed your email? I’d prefer you don’t list the email , just because that will invite robot spam, but please feel free to link to the form at aisynthesis.com/contact