My name is Karl Stamm, I like to say I ‘am’ a Ph.D. of Computational Science because graduate school becomes such a big part of a person’s identity. I wanted to have an impact, do more good. I chose to study math as a force multiplier in lieu of any concrete ideas to ‘do more good’ in the world, and I ended up a data scientist supporting medical advancement. Now importantly, I’m also a dad and ultimately a Maker.
Basically, I spend a lot of time fighting computers to get data transformed from one shape to another. I needed to find a hobby that was not on keyboards and screens, yet still scratching that signals-processing itch. So about five years ago I got into modular synthesizers.
Musical synthesizers use analog or digital electronics to create sound and can have as much complexity as you want. “Modular” synthesizers are inside-out: those dozen major components of a musical synth are broken out into separate bits you can rearrange, replace and rewire to create unique sound-making machines every time you play. Musical instruments are expensive, and boutique electronics are expensive, so when the COVID pandemic closed my day job, I looked towards Do-It-Yourself electronics.
The basic components of a musical synthesizer were patented before I was born and designs are now available freely on the internet. The workings of an electronic filter are complicated and you might want an engineering degree to work out exactly how to make one perform, but in the case of noise-making, we don’t need precision and trial and error can get us close enough.
I was inspired by the YouTuber Sam Battle, AKA Look Mum No Computer, a reference to what crazy things you can build with really basic components. His motto said after every video, “don’t be scared to try it!” shows us that for the cost of burning up a few pennies worth of resistors and capacitors you can get an intuitive education on electronics design. All it takes is perseverance.
Initial circuits are soldered messes of wire. When they get too complicated, the transition to printed circuit boards is straightforward with free computer-aided drafting software and very cheap overseas fabrication services. They have a minimum order count of 5 or 10 boards, and I found myself duty-bound to set up a website to detail build instructions for anyone who gets a hold of a copy of one of my PCBs. Thus Karltron synthesizer company was born. Karltron.com sells circuit boards and parts kits to the DIY synthesizer community and assembled modules to musicians who appreciate unique hardware.
As a person who makes things in the Milwaukee community, I want to show the public both how electricity can be fun, and how sound synthesis works. I hope it inspires you that it’s not impossible to really make something you may have thought was intensely complicated just a few years ago. Don’t be scared to try it!