Richie Hawtin’s next musical frontier? High school science class

How a DIY noise machine became a portal for learning & creativity - courtesy of a legendary electronic music artist.

For international touring DJs, 10am on Sunday usually means one of three things: an after party; shuttling to an airport; or the final hours of precious sleep.

Today, though, Richie Hawtin is going with a fourth option.

On a quiet street at the worn edges of North Brooklyn is the annual Synth & Pedal Expo. Doors don’t open for another couple of hours, so there are just a smattering of people inside. Most are busily rigging up keyboards, patches, and pads. Others fuel up on black coffee and blueberry muffins.

It’s a long way from Miami festivals and Ibiza sunrises, but this is indeed option four.

A few hours earlier Hawtin was playing a headline DJ set at the cavernous Knockdown Center in Queens. Now, quietly studying an assortment of modules and oscillators, he simultaneously stands out from the crowd, yet also blends in seamlessly.

It’s fair to say that one of the world’s most revered electronic music artists (as well as label owner, sake connoisseur, and tech company founder, among numerous other pursuits) is something of a shapeshifter.

Richie Hawtin

As we’re introduced, I sheepishly mention I was absent from last night’s show - I was looking after my son. He instantly throws me a look. It’s the one any parent knows - a wry combination of delight, empathy, and shared mileage. Turns out his daughter is almost exactly the same age.

Because this US visit is a short one, Hawtin’s keeping on European time. He slept 3pm til midnight before playing last night’s gig, then headed over here. But this schedule isn’t just to ensure freshness for DJ performances. He has another important gig in just over 24 hours: picking up his daughter from daycare back in Europe.

It transpires she’s also the catalyst for the project we’re here to talk about.

“When she was born, I read a couple of parenting books, and one had a whole chapter on white noise and pink noise machines”, he explains. “I searched online, and I couldn’t find anything good - everything was plasticky, and so I looked into all my modules and found a pink noise generator, an envelope. I posted on my Instagram “does anyone know a Eurorack speaker?” and suddenly I’d built this little noise machine for my daughter. Then I thought, “could we do something more for kids?”. And that’s when I reached out to Girts.”

‘Girts’ is Girts Ozolins, the founder of Erica Synths, an independent electronics company based in Riga, Latvia. While under the radar to most casual music fans, their instruments are used by the likes of Depeche Mode, Hans Zimmer - and Richie Hawtin.

Almost all the gear on show at the expo is targeted at seasoned practitioners. Except one item: ‘bullfrog’. It’s built by Erica, in partnership with Hawtin.

On the face of it, bullfrog is just another synthesizer.

But dig a little deeper and this project goes much, much further.

From toddler to teenager

“I used to be a science teacher”, Ozolins begins, folding his languid frame into one of the low-slung chairs we’ve secured in a quiet space out back. “Nowadays when I meet people and I tell them that, the first reaction in 99% of cases is “Oh my god, science was the most terrible subject. I do not know a thing about it anymore”.

Hawtin had no idea about Ozolins’ interest in education - let alone the science teacher part - when they first met.

“I love their devices, and thought - okay, let’s just chat about an idea. By the end of the first conversation, I think we knew we were going to do something together. We felt it on that day.” he says, looking over at Ozolins with a smile.

I think life is about that - you know when you meet somebody, whether physically or virtually, by the tone of the voice or the look in the eyes, if you can do something together.”

Richie Hawtin

In a world of technology-driven buzzwords like ‘channel partners’ and ‘product-led growth’ this feels refreshingly… human.

The project itself also started with a very organic goal, albeit one that was highly ambitious. The initial idea was to have a synthesizer that evolves and grows up with a person - starting from a toddler, all the way to taking it onto the performance stage.

But the pair quickly realized this would be near-impossible. Toddler products need to meet stringent design and safety regulations, but even more challenging were the user interface and didactics: how you interact with a 3 year old is completely different to a high school student.

They decided to focus their energies on teenagers, in part because of their own shared experiences - on both sides of the school desk.

Ozolins elaborates on why so many people shudder when they talk about science: “Most of what you study in science, it stays in a class in the form of formulas or something. I realized that music technology is a way to connect what you learn in science classes and how it transforms in something beautiful: music. This path is amazing - you can calculate the pitch of notes and then see how it actually works in musical instruments.”

Hawtin laughs. “I actually like science class, just so you know. Maybe that’s why I got into electronic music. And why I remember my science class? It’s that I remember my teacher was amazing.”

This shared recognition of great teachers being inspired by what they do paved the path to what became bullfrog.

But how do you go from a DIY white noise machine for a baby, to something that hits the spot for a science class full of teenagers?

Releasing control

The breakthrough came when still working on the toddler concept.

Ozolins was making a voice card - a module with all the necessary components to generate a single tone or sound - that could produce evolving white noise. He had a brainwave to make voice cards central to the product.

This unlocked two things:

1) people could create and hack their own voice cards (i.e. creating their own mini modules that could generate specific sounds), and

2) it enabled rapid expandability of the product and its possibilities.

A sampler/looper voice card

The voice card insight was huge because it took control away from the creators of the product and into the hands of users. Hawtin and Ozolins couldn’t possibly know where the use cases and outputs would end up.

Hawtin explains that the product on show today is rooted in a prototype that came about very quickly after that breakthrough: “The wonderful thing about Girts and Erica Synths, they already have a lot of modules and schematics and circuits for all the pieces you need for a synthesizer. So Girts very quickly was able to put together this monosynth idea. Within two months we had an early prototype and that is basically what you see, except for a couple of internal changes.”

I get the sense the development process was more gentle sparring than a laborious grind: a rhythmic back and forth between two people in close alignment. Hawtin agrees. “Honestly, I think my phone call inspired Girts to just action what was already in his head. And it was just a beautiful storm.”

A new - and old - form of collaboration

This isn’t Richie Hawtin’s first foray into creating technology products, but this beautiful storm feels like a different kind of endeavour to those that have come before. What’s changed?

“When we did some of the other technology and companies that I’ve started, we took all the controls. We got ourselves into areas which we fully didn’t understand or appreciate: manufacturing, industrial design, inventory, shipping. I think we always had good ideas, but to take that and get it to a customer in the right way, takes a lot of dedicated people and brain power.

And so, I really didn’t want to go there [this time]. It was very important for me because I’ve worked with bigger corporations, but that didn’t feel right for this project. I wanted to find a partner that liked the idea, that I saw eye to eye with, and could take that heavy lifting.

One of the things I love about electronic music is its DIY ethos, and the scene may be different now, but that’s what I still carry from the 90s. Erica Synths from the outside looked like it had that, and as I started to know the team more, that is their feeling, too.”

Speaking of manufacturing (and toddlers), about a year ago I’d bought my son a toddler kitchen tower on Etsy. I noticed almost all the top sellers were based in Latvia. As I mention this, Hawtin lights up - he has one too. Of course, these aren’t the only high-quality products coming from this country of less than 2m people. I’m curious why, so our resident physics teacher helps us out with a brief detour into history:

“Latvia was one of the leading manufacturing countries before World War II broke out. It produced one of the best radio receivers in Europe. It had record-setting airplanes. Then, when the Soviets came in, everything degraded because there was no market economy.

Vintage radios from Latvia. Photo: Publicitātes attēls

But somehow… I don’t know, we had this quest for doing high-tech things, and now I can name six large factories that do outsourced electronics - manufacturing, assembly, and so on. And in our industry, many European synthesizer manufacturers moved their manufacturing to Latvia. I’m on the board of directors of the Latvian Electronics Manufacturing Association. We exported 1.3 billion euros of electronics last year - quite impressive for such a small economy. And the sector grows 20% each year.”

He goes onto explain the importance - and challenges - of quality enclosures, sustainable packaging, short logistics connections. Everything at Erica is done in Latvia - manufacturing, marketing, sales, logistics.

We’re talking about going local, sustainable, creating things that last. Being commercially viable yet independent. I sense Hawtin’s cogs turning.

“We’re sitting here talking these kind of big numbers, and then we’re talking about DIY, but I think that the reality of electronic music culture, from parties to manufacturing to synthesizers, is massive now.

And there’s so many big corps and outside people coming in. I think it’s so important for all of us, on every level, to stay connected to people who really come from inside the culture who’ve grown up over the last 10, 20 or 30 years and somehow give some of that experience or control and keep it as special as it is.

So that’s another reason that I think this - our partnership, friendship - makes sense. And also to do a synth thing. A project like this with so many unknowns, I think having the ability to have a great network of distributors and shops, but also have direct pipelines to customers, to families, to kids. It’s culture and community at the end of the day.”

The sustainability element goes beyond the community and experience, though. It’s in the product - how long it lasts, the ease of upgrading and repair. The pair are aiming to use circuits and components that can be easily replaced or fixed, so the product not only has a long lifetime, but also stays with its users for the long haul - from a first high school science class perhaps all the way through to a professional music career.

The full bullfrog kit

Beyond a passion project

But even with their undoubted expertise and energy, this is still a complex setup with all kinds of challenges to deal with. Why would a globally successful artist like Hawtin bother with building and scaling an educational synthesizer product from scratch? I feel an urge to press him further.

When I suggest he surely doesn’t need to do this, I get what I hoped for: a terse “I don’t agree with that.”

Ok, I reply, challenge me on it.

“I’ve always felt that the electronic music community is something very, very special. And although for me it was about the power of one person, myself, creating music with these machines, it was always about collaborating with other people to send those ideas and dreams further. With distributors, with record pressing plants, other like-minded people.

But just continuing on with my journey over 30 years, being part of not only making music or a label, but also being part of synth or mixer designs, things that can unlock my own new ideas and then hopefully unlock other people’s ideas is really important to me. It’s inspiring.

One of the best parts about having a record label is listening to demos and talking to the artists and hearing people’s completely different perspective or viewpoints or approaches to making music that still in the end, you love. And Girts has his own ideas of circuit design or synthesizer design.

When we had that first conversation, when we talk here, there’s so many parallels. And together we can continue to help sustain or nurture the thing that we love."

"The best thing you can do in life is find something that inspires you and turns you on and then share that to others.”

Richie Hawtin

This Local & Global tension; of the electronic music world going from something tiny to something vast; of keeping in touch and connected with it all - it seems to get to the heart of what this synth product is really about.

I struggle to define it, but as we talk more about the product, it becomes clear. bullfrog is about something that feels so important in modern education - providing a sense of immediacy.

“It’s a combination of something easy, fun, but deep and complex”, Hawtin explains, ”because you get your hands on the Bullfrog as a beginner or an expert, and it’s immediate. By the colors, the size of the knobs, it makes sense. It’s just fun to play with. And then if you start going into it further in the classroom, talking about frequencies and the science of sound, then suddenly you’re in another world. By the end of the lesson, so to speak, you’re making music, you’re making sounds, but you actually understand how it’s actually forming in thin air - and that’s a wonderful thing.”

And as we’re talking about immediacy, it feels like a good time to reflect on their last few days on tour. Unsurprisingly, they’ve both experienced memorable moments in the past 48 hours.

Two days ago they went to Willie May Rock School - and Ozolins noticed that while the students were highly energetic and active for the most of the day, something changed when the synthesizer came out. Students quickly began to calm and refocus their energies in a very different way.

That same day Hawtin attended a fundraiser for the nonprofit Bridges for Music. The organization builds music schools in South Africa, and the event took his mind back to his first trip with them ten years earlier. Playing a set of Detroit house and techno records, Hawtin was amazed to see kids from both inside and outside the township start not only mixing together - a rare occurrence - but also dancing to music they’d never been exposed to before.

“They all formed a pattern and just came into sync. It was the power of music in front of it. And the power of music starts with pure frequencies and how they vibrate our lives.”

How to teach it

The team don’t just need to get on the same wavelength as young people. The teachers are critical too. A large part of Ozolin’s road trip has been to learn what they need.

Frequency mapping

“We are visiting universities, after school lessons, identifying education policy makers. The ultimate goal is to have bullfrog in regular music curriculums and science classes as well, to integrate those two disciplines and change the way they are taught.”

His eyes sparkle as he recalls a special edition of the product. “And we have a teacher’s version. I actually had to build it custom. It has a oscilloscope so you can show the waveforms and it’s looks so great that you can hang it on the wall.”

Hawtin’s energy amps up: “Bullfrog is a device that inspires a teacher to talk to their students in a different way, because now they have a physical, playful way to discuss equations and formula and sine waves.”.

He whips out his phone and gleefully shows me a photo of them with the school board in his hometown of Windsor, Ontario. The gigantic teacher version of bullfrog is center stage. He puts his phone away and I see both him and Ozolins are still grinning like a pair of mischievous teenagers. I’m starting to see why their first phone call sparked so much.

But they’ve also realized the hard work - and a concrete plan - starts here.

“I actually do not particularly like making plans, because most of the time those plans change and go wrong”, Ozolins says, “[but] what we realized is that we need to actually write specific lesson plans, instead of just giving general guidelines how to use it. No physics or music teachers are ready to actually work with that kind of primitive technology.”

“Or build their own curriculum”, adds Hawtin. “We need to deliver something. They’re time strapped, and there’s budgets. The teachers out there are usually overworked. We already feel that there’s a lot of interest from teachers and school boards, but now we understand that we need to help them by delivering a little bit more than just a great synthesizer.”

Live demo of bullfrog at Sonar Festival in Barcelona

Teens’ tactile relationships with tech

Beyond the lesson plans, the promo tours, and synth expos, there’s something else about this. Something vital, even.

As our conversation has oscillated from micro to macro - from a white noise machine to global supply chains - we again move out into the bigger picture: why this matters and its greater goal. And just as we started our conversation, the focus goes to the new generations entering the world.

“Having a way to allow kids to find a sensitive connection to technology and unlock their emotions is a great asset for the world we’re leading into”, says Hawtin. “Creativity and human ingenuity are things that we have to tap into as tech comes that can automate a lot of the typical, simple, repetitive things that we need to do in our lives.”

I hadn’t thought about it like this: the tactile, hands-on nature of a product you can physically use in an every more digitized world.

Ozolins take the opposite angle - looking at identity and legacy. “On my side, it’s this existential question about meaning of life. People spend thousands of dollars visiting shrinks and trying to identify."

"For me, I genuinely believe that the meaning of the life is to leave your knowhow to the next generations. So, in a way, teaching is most valuable job you can do. This project is how we both leave what we know to next generations and inspire them.”

Girts Ozolins

I can hear the expo starting to whir into gear. Ozolins has product demos to prep, and I have to rush home to collect my toddler for his nap (with a white noise machine, of course), so Hawtin closes our conversation with the project’s essence - and what drives this duo’s partnership:

“The project really took momentum so quickly. And I think that’s why it’s also what you can see in the device and feel in what we’re doing. This is another exploration and journey into electronic music for us. And it’s us giving back to all the areas of electronic music that we love. We’re very lucky and privileged to have found something in our lives that really deeply makes us happy. And we’re sharing that.”

Learn more about Bullfrog >

Learn more about Richie Hawtin >

this conversation has been lighted edited for clarity and brevity.

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