Mark Barton, Modular Synthesis Pioneer, Founder of MRB Labs

"We sat down with Mark Barton". Well, we didn't actually physically sit down with Mark, but virtually communicated with him in this ever-evolving world we live in. Funny, how such a commonly-used expression might, for the moment at least, need to be used as a metaphor rather than an actual sit down interview. In spite of what's going on around us, on behalf of everyone at Cherry Audio, we can assure you that the interview with Mark was a super-cool, genuinely real experience.

The catalog and portfolio of work, influential ground-breaking modular synthesis technology, and genre-busting modular synthesizers that Mark has created and amassed in his career is absolutely astounding. We sat down with Mark to catch up, look back, and see what's ahead for him in the future:

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I'm a Los Angeles native currently living with my wife and son in a town in the foothills of the Angeles National Forest. I guess you could say I'm semi-retired and just doing what I want to do. Fortunately, what I want to do now is create modules for Voltage Modular and have a blast in the process.

I enjoy innovating in whatever I'm doing, and I like to be the first to bring something to the world. In 1977, I designed the Syndrum, the first commercial electronic drum, which can be heard on hundreds of hit records. In 1980, I wrote S.A.M. (Software Automatic Mouth) which was the first text-to-speech system to run stand-alone on a microcomputer (an 8-bit, 1MHz 6502 no less!).

Because of S.A.M., Steve Jobs contacted me in 1983 to write a speech synthesizer which became known as Macintalk for the first Macintosh. Watch the "Lost 1984 Video: young Steve Jobs introduces the Macintosh":

Speech synthesis is just another dance of the modules. For those that have my Lab Bundle, take a look at the "Talky" preset. And of course Voltage Modular users are enjoying the software version of the Zeroscillator, the first commercial through-zero FM VCO which I designed in 2005.

I've also had a serious addiction to ultra-high-voltage and large Tesla Coils. You can see my lightning in Terminator 2.

What got you into Modular? 

That's easy -- Switched-On Bach. I played that record till you could see through it, and I still love it to this day (I don't play my Bob Moog autographed copy anymore though). I stared at the album cover forever, wondering how that black box with all the knobs worked. While at UCLA in the early 70s, where I was working on the beginnings of the Internet (the Arpanet back then), I would frequently bother Jim Cooper (yes, that Jim Cooper), who was the caretaker of the electronic music lab where they had a Moog IIIp and a small Buchla system. I wasn't taking music classes there so I couldn't touch the equipment, but I could sure bother Jim for the schematics! He finally relented, and between what I learned from them and the amazing Electronotes newsletter, I built my first hardware modular in 1973. It had 4-VCOs, noise source, multi-mode filter, ladder filter, several envelopes and VCAs, sample & hold, ring modulator, preamp, envelope follower, and 2 LFOs, all for $600. With that and a Hammond organ, my brother and I could finally have our Emerson Lake and Palmer tribute band!

What drew you to Voltage Modular?

I attended the first (and still only) Synthplex convention in L.A in March of 2019, where Cherry Audio was exhibiting. I usually do tradeshows really fast, walking briskly down the aisles, turning my head left and right to take everything in.  I can do NAMM in an hour (jk). I walked quickly past the Cherry Audio booth, and what I saw out of the corner of my eye made me stop short and back up to get a better look at the large monitor. I don't know why, but I immediately thought, "Here is virtual modular done right", and it sounded great too! I met Anthony, Dan, and Mitchell, and made a commitment to start developing modules right then and there. The crazy coincidence is that I had just learned Java (the language of VM modules) because my son was taking it in college and I had to learn enough to be able to help him. I've written about 20 Java programs in my life now and they're all on sale in the Cherry Audio store.

You're known for some exotic modules and unique designs - what do you think makes a good module?  

A good module either fulfills a need, or better still, creates a need for itself. I learned this very early back in the Syndrum days when drummers didn't know they needed synthesizers until we told them they did. It's like that with modules too. A module that does something completely new or one that leverages new purpose into existing modules is very exciting. Most of all, designers should flatten the curve -- the learning curve. A module should be simple and readily understood. I'll pass a module by that requires me to think too much or if it slows me down because I'm ankle deep in menus. Oh yeah, it should do something musically useful too.

The new Syrup filter sounds amazing, what inspired the module?

VM user "rfj" started a thread on the forum requesting that someone do a clone of MI's Ripples filter. After several other users expressed a similar want, I secretly dove in to try to do it. I then enlisted" rfj" and "SLiC" to be beta testers because they both own the original hardware version, and after their input and approval, it hit the store with great success.I did it for the same reason I did the original Zeroscillator -- a design challenge. Read the thread here: https://forums.cherryaudio.com/viewtopic.php?f=8&t=946

Any new modules you can tease or tell us about?

I'm teasing this filter bundle I've been working on by releasing Syrup and the companion VCA3080 modules. Syrup is just one of six inspiring new filters for VM. The rest are nearly complete. As people who own my Laboratory Bundle know, from time to time I drop a new module into it, and two more are on the way soon. I don't bring the Lab Bundle price down -- I prefer to make the value go up. There's a lot more too. My VM to-do list is pretty long.

Any words of wisdom for new or aspiring module designers?  

Learn your craft. Build (or write) lots of stuff and experiment. It would help to get a good grounding in electronics (pun intended), both analog and digital, as well as enough digital signal processing to get you going on a practical level.  Thank goodness that does not require getting into the particularly gnarly math of it all, although the more the better.  And most of all, read, read, read. There are tons of articles and scholarly papers on every subject in electronic music, and nowadays it resides at your fingertips. Study schematics and existing code and try to be a reverse engineer. Before I begin a project, I read everything I can get my hands on to get me up to speed on the state of the art. That's actually my favorite part of the process -- the part where I learn something new. 

Tell us about your setup (DAW/gear/synths). 

My setup is pretty modest. For jamming and ELP band stuff, I use a Nord C2D organ and a Korg Kronos which is amazing. For recording, I'm currently downsizing everything and working pretty exclusively "in the box".  I'm a recent Mixcraft 9 convert (coming from Sonar), and I'm enjoying the workflow very much. I've got an ARP2600, Nord Modular G2X, some Roland, Korg, Alesis, and Emu rack gear and miscellaneous effects. Most of that hardware is on its way out. However, I do have a couple of vintage pieces that I will probably never give up. I used to have a vintage Aries Modular system though, but your Dan Goldstein (Cherry Audio CTO) absorbed it.

Where can we find your music?

I had a recording band called Blue Shift which released 2 albums, here is a sample "Wide Awake and Dreaming":

Where can people connect with you?

Even though I've been on the internet for almost 50 years,I don't have a website or do any social media. However, I have vowed to make some video manuals and post them on the YouTube. I can be reached at: mark@mrbmodules.com

To learn more about Mark, here is a fascinating recent interview on ANTIC, The Atari 8-bit Podcast:

ANTIC Interview 385 - Software Automatic Mouth: Mark Barton

[Editor's note: Mark's music is just as creative and unique as his craftsmanship. Thank you Mark for taking the time to do the interview, and for your enthusiasm surrounding the Voltage Modular platform. Your single "Wide Awake and Dreaming" says it all. It was an esteemed pleasure.]

Jul 23, 2020