This interview is a preview of my upcoming documentary film and book "Tiny Synths, Mighty Sounds" ( -due out late 2018'/ early 2019' ). When I started this project, I knew that I wanted to include interviews with some of today's most innovative synth designers. Having been impressed with Future Retro's "777", I knew that an interview with Jered Flickinger ( -of Future Retro ) would be in order. You'll find that interview below. It will be included in the book ( -and referenced in the film ). Enjoy!
Jered Flickinger of Future Retro. The story of Future Retro's founding is an interesting one. Jered parlayed his interest in electronic dance music and "gear modding" into a career path that eventually lead to his founding Future Retro.
Creative Tech Nerds ( CTN ): Can you tell us a little about yourself and how Future Retro started in business?
Jered Flickinger: I started DJing and making my own music for fun at the age of 14 in 1988'. Instead of going to college like most kids, after high school I went to recording engineering school. Well, at least I spent one day of orientation there. Then I had the realization that I knew most of what they were going to teach me. Why not just take the tuition money, buy their handbook and spend the rest buying my own gear to learn on?
My parents agreed, so I dropped out of school, and that's exactly what I did. I made a living from 1992-1997' throwing raves and DJing full time 3-4 days a week. I would spend my days off making music and learning all I could about synthesizers, samplers, drum machines, effects and mixing. And pretty soon curiosity got the best of me and before long I was tearing my gear apart, figuring out how it worked, and how I could make it do what I envisioned.
I spent a year or more making the first "777" ( synthesizer ) prototype. And in 1997' I started Future Retro with $5,000.00. I built as many "777's" as I could afford, and put the profits back into the company so it could grow. And here we are today, 20 years later.
CTN: Tell us a little about the early days at Future Retro ( -I believe you started out in Salina, Kansas ). As a new company, did you face any particular difficulties in getting your business up and running? ( i.e: securing financing, finding reliable component/ pc-board suppliers, qualifying for quantity discounts, assembling your production line, hiring staff, promoting and marketing your first product ( s ) at trade shows, establishing a dealer base, etc. )?
Jered Flickinger: Yes, I started FR in Salina, Kansas and was located there until 2011', when I relocated to Austin, Texas. As a child, I grew up playing on my father's assembly line, and would see and learn how stuff was made. I've always been a builder/ designer. I guess it all came pretty easy for me since I've been around creative people my whole life.
A rack of assembled units in the Future Retro production facility. The company started out in Salina, Kansas but is now located in Austin, Texas. With Synthesizers.com, Synthesis Technology and Future Retro all located in Texas -it appears the Lone Star state is becoming the star "hot-spot" for cool synths. Who would have guessed?
Early on I tried hiring an assembly company to stuff the "777" boards, and it was a disaster. None of the boards worked. They had smashed a lot of the through-hole component leads and it was awful. So, I ended up building most of them by hand myself, and sometimes with the help of my mother or sister. Later on, as sales increased beyond my capabilities -I did find and use a hand-assembly company that was already making audiophile amplifiers and equipment and they did a wonderful job.
But they only did the "777". The "Revolution" ( synthesizer ) and "XS" ( synthesizer ). I did hire out a contract manufacturer, as those were the first FR products to use SMD ( surface-mount devices ) components. But again, it was very time-consuming looking over their work and correcting any errors. Other than that, I've built everything else by hand, and more recently built up my own assembly line with about half robot assembly, half hand-soldering.
On a few occasions, I have hired short-term employees to meet deadlines and try to lighten my work load a little. But they never last. I'm a perfectionist and guess it's hard to let go and let someone else do my work. I want a product to be exactly as I imagine, and to fully represent my vision. I've definitely had my share of setbacks too. Those are the valuable lessons learned at the "school of hard knocks".
The Future Retro "777" synthesizer. The synth that started it all. Since it's introduction, the "777" has captured the hearts of EDM purveyors worldwide. Today, the company offers the "XS" synth, which features just about every feature and I/O interface a synthesist could possibly want!
CTN: Can you tell us the story of how your "777" synth design came to be?
Jered Flickinger: I designed the analog section of the "777" over about one year of playing with the "303" circuitry and adding to it or modifying it. I really wanted one machine to do what bands at the time ( -like "Hardfloor" or "Plastikman" ) were doing at that time. Something to generate the acid bass lines but also be capable of generating some analog drum sounds and other sound-effects. The sequencer of the "777" prototype was a TB-303 sequencer I built up by hand, after buying a replacement 303 processor from
The sequencer was the difficult part for me. I had no coding ability and really didn't care to learn it at that point. So, instead I created a circular sequencer using only discrete logic IC's. It worked great and had some really cool features that never made it to the final product. But then I still needed coding abilities to have MIDI to analog clock to sync my sequencer up to everything else. And at that time my father volunteered to write the assembly code for the "777's" sequencer. That probably took 4-6 months to write ( -the code ), and make some changes to the analog circuitry to make the unit more portable -before it was finally released to the public.
Testing, tweaking, coding and more "oh my!" The development path for the "777" required overcoming a number of challenges, notably "coding" ( - to synchronize it's sequencer with everything else ). The "777" encap- sulated everything the EDM artist needed ( i.e: a means of generating sequenced "acid" bass lines, analog drum sounds and effects plus it's MIDI to analog clock for syncing everything up ). It did it all in one box!
CTN: The "777" was a very unique synth. Can you tell us about some of it's groundbreaking features and capabilities ( -and WHY you decided to include these particular features in it's design )?
Jered Flickinger: I remember reading about Robin Whittles work on the Devilfish-modded "303's", and while I never got to play one, I would imagine in my mind what he must be doing to get this or that feature. That primarily led to things like over-driving the input of the filter. But it was also common for people to add distortion after the "303's" output, so I also included an over-drive section after the filter, and those early units could make your ears bleed. They sounded fabulous, but some customers complained that the output levels changed too much, so I tamed the over-drive down a bit and it lost it's edge. But in general, I think the "777" was the first commercial synth to provide multiple stages of distortion.
Other features that were unique to the "777" would be the oscillator and filter FM modulations. This really gave the unit a unique sound. Also, the selectable 3 or 7 pole ladder filter. I've never seen any other device with a 7 pole filter. The filter Warp modulation was a feature created by mistake. Instead of wiring key CV to the filter modulation input, I was modulating the entire base reference of the filter which does it's own strange thing.
I also expanded Roland's idea of accented envelopes and made the Normal and Accented decay times adjustable, so you could then generate open/ closed type high-hat sounds. And then the sequencer, while it did do all the unique "303" stuff with glides and accents, the way it worked was more influenced by the "606", so that you could actually edit patterns "on the fly". Up to that point, there were quite a few "303" clones but they all were just the sound section. No one was doing the sequencer, so that really made the "777" a good seller.
The colorful "blue version" of the "777". In the words of Jered: "Early versions could make your ears bleed" ( -due to the unit's post filter over-drive stage ).
One thing that most people probably don't know about the "303" was, it really wasn't the first of it's kind. That would instead be the Firstman "SQ-01". I once did some repair work on a friend's Firstman and was baffled that it had the same ladder filter, quirky sequencer and similar sound parameters,...and that it was released prior to the "303".
CTN: I personally think the best synths have "uniquely identifiable" sonic characteristics ( -that allow you to immediately identify the synth from it's sound ). For example, the original Minimoog D had that fat, warm, musical sound with it's lightening fast envelopes. The EMS VCS3 had it's unique-sounding "Putney" filter, etc.
What immediately identifiable "sonic characteristics" do your "777", "Revolution" and ( current ) "XS" have that make them sound different from competing synths? Were these sonic characteristics intentionally sought after ( -during the design process )?
Jered Flickinger: The "777" I can usually spot in any mix. People often use the FM modulations and that gives it away as to what it is to my ears. The "Revolution" sounds very "303", so it's a bit harder to tell the difference. It's usually only when people engage the distortion, adjust the Glide time, or Accent decay time that makes me think it can only be the "Revolution". The "Revolution's" over-drive circuitry was really complex, adding pre and post filter gain and distortion based on the amount of resonance dialed-up for the filter.
The "XS" has such a broad range of sounds it can be hard to tell what it is at times. But again, the "XS" had another really unique OD circuit based more on PWM ( pulse width modulation ) circuitry, punchy envelopes ( -that are great for percussion ), and the accented envelopes in that unit are really unique and can add some mojo that you don't hear from most synths.
CTN: If the "777", "Revolution" and "XS's" sound was planned, can you cite a few examples of specific component choices that you made during their design that helped you attain that desired "sound"?
Jered Flickinger: I can say that the CA3080 op-amp used in the "777" gave it just the right amount of dirt and punch. The newer LM13600 type op-amps don't even come close. What made the "XS" standout was very wide range oscillators that have excellent tracking. A lot of thought went into removing all the drifting factors, yet retaining the analog sound. The "XS" also used higher voltage swings internally for signals which add better dynamics, lower noise and just a better overall sound.
Future Retro's "XS" synthesizer is a versatile semi-modular synthesizer with ( 46 ) controls and lots of overrideable pre-wired signal routings. This analog monophonic beast features two ultra-wide frequency VCO's ( -VCO 2 has it's own sub-oscillator and is pulse-width modulatable by a number of internal and external sources ). The "XS" has a two-pole multimode filter ( LP/ BP/ HP/ Notch ) cap- able of self-oscillation. A unique velocity-sensitive ADSR envelope generator and plethora of MIDI and CV/Gate/ Mod. Wheel and other control I/O's are also available.
CTN: I'm guessing the "777" resonated particularly well with the Techno/ EDM Community. Do you design your synths to appeal to particular music genres or user communities ( -by gearing their "sound" and features to those groups ) or do you simply come up with designs that please your own musical sensibilities and tastes?
Jered Flickinger: I am influenced by certain bands and their sound. Overall, I just try to get the best sounds I've ever heard coming out of my products. And I would say a lot of circuit choices are based on what I hear, and not what the oscilloscope or other test equipment is telling me is going on. I learned long ago that you can't please everyone, so I try to please myself first. Then, if others like what I did, they can enjoy it too.
CTN: Are there any artists or bands you know of who are using your "777" or "XS" in their music or live performances?
Jered Flickinger: More than I can remember. It was easy to keep track twenty years ago when everything was direct sales, now it's hard to know who is using what. But here's a short list of artists most people will recognize: NIN, Depeche Mode, KMFDM, BT, Uberzone, The Chemical Brothers, The Crystal Method, Aphex Twin ( "Analord" has "777" all over it! ), Deadmou5e, Ritchie Hawtin, and quite a few pop producers who managed to put the "777" on everything from Brittney Spears to Run DMC, films and sitcom soundtracks.
CTN: Another really unique synth Future Retro introduced a few years ago was the "Revolution". Can you describe the basic design concept and control panel layout and what inspired it?
Jered Flickinger: The circular sequencer was really my original design when I started creating a sequencer for the "777". I liked the circular layout because it represented time more as an analog clock rather than the linear Pac-Man effect where the sequence runs off the right-hand of the screen and magically appears on the left hand side. But it was the Remix feature that really justified the circular layout, as I wanted people to see the underlying geometry and symmetry that occurs when patterns are re-mixed. It also proved to have other benefits such as being able to reach all steps of a pattern with a single hand, freeing your other hand to do other stuff.
CTN: Aside from being a sound source, the "Revolution" featured a number of I/O and control features that allowed it to interface with and control external devices. Can you mention a few of these control features/ capabilities?
Jered Flickinger: The "Revolution" had MIDI, CV/Gate and DIN Sync, so you could sync or play it with nearly everything. It also had the filter input for processing external audio through the filter, distortion, amplifier and DSP effects.
Future Retro's unique "Revolution" was a monophonic TB-style analog synth ( -with integrated step pattern/ song sequencer ). It featured an all-analog signal path ( -except for it's DSP based effects ) and a three-pole ( 18 dB ) filter with accents and glides reminiscent of the venerated "303". It's stunning "circular" design was both eye-catching and functional.
CTN: The "XS" is Future Retro's current synth. Was it intended to be an updated/ expanded version of the "777" or an entirely new design in it's own right ( -with no shared "777 DNA" )?
Jered Flickinger: The "777" crowd had mixed responses. There were those who criticized it because the square wave was truly "square" instead of the rounded-square the "303" produces. But that was done because the true-square made for better FM modulations of the oscillator and filter than the "303's" square wave. At the same time, other customers were like "all these new features are great but we want more".
I created the "Revolution" to be a more accurate "303" clone, while the "XS" expands on the features "777" owners always wanted. However, it was not my intent to make the "XS" sound like the "777" or "303". I just wanted it to have a wide range of capabilities so that no matter what sound I wanted, I could create it with the "XS". It really captured more of what my original intentions were for the "777" ( -being able to create bass, lead, sound-effects, and really good percussion ).
CTN: Can you highlight the "XS" features and capabilities you're most proud of ( -and what prompted their inclusion? ).
Jered Flickinger: I'm very pleased with how the "XS" turned out. That was designed ( 10 ) years ago, and I wouldn't hesitate putting it up against any other monosynth out there. It is really hard to improve something like the "XS" and that is why I haven't had the desire to create a new synth for quite some time.
Like the "Revolution" ( -pictured ) before it, Future Retro's "XS" synth provides plenty of I/O points ( -to accomodate any syncing or processing applications you might need ).
Playing nicely with external equipment has long been a hallmark of Future Retro's gear. An added benefit that many competing manufacturers don't always provide.
I like that the "XS" can do it all: FM, AM, ring-modulation, oscillator sync, snappy envelopes, and overdrive. Process external sounds or expand it's capabilities with all the inputs/ outputs. It's small and portable, and an excellent way to start building up a modular system at a fraction of the price of a modular. And I like that all the internal modulations provided will allow you to make most sounds without ever needing to patch anything else. This eliminates the mess of patch cables, and makes the "XS" a joy to perform on.
CTN: The "XS" ( -like the "777" before it ), seems to have been designed to "play nicely" with external out-board gear. Can you describe some of it's extensive I/O, control and processing capabilities ( -and how users can make use of these features to expand their musical horizons )?
Jered Flickinger: The "XS" provides inputs and outputs for most sections of the signal. So, you can control the oscillators with MIDI, CV or both. Take signals out from one section and plug them into another section. I would say what is more unique about the "XS" is some of the jacks are stereo-providing two different signals, such as the oscillator waveforms....you get the raw waveform on the "Tip", and the same signal passing through a VCA controlled by the ADSR envelope on the "Ring". There's probably ( 10 ) VCA's in the "XS", allowing these sort of behind-the-scenes signal modulations to happen. Even the envelope out has a positive polarity on the "Tip" and negative polarity on the "Ring".
CTN: It's been a few years since the "XS" was introduced. I certainly hope it's not Future Retro's last synth! Are you planning to offer new synth designs in the future ( -and if so, can you give us a "preview" of what you have in mind? i.e: basic concept description ( s ), price-points, estimated availability date ( s ), etc.? ).
Jered Flickinger: I just can't get excited about all the latest micro-sized, low-price entry level synths out there right now. I'm sure there will be more synths to come, but there are just so many choices out there now that I would rather fill the voids that others are not focusing on. Some companies feel the need to release a new synth or product every year. I only do so when I have something unique to offer the public.
Future Retro's "Zillion" is a single-track algorithmic MIDI sequencer ( -based on the Triadex Muse's counters and shift-registers ). It adds expanded functionality with ( 16 ) operating modes and er, umm, "zillions" of sequencing possibilities. Now you know where the name came from.
CTN: More recently, Future Retro has concentrated on peripherals like your "Orb" and "Zillion" sequencers, "Swynx" Sync Box and new "512" Touch Keyboard. Can you tell us a little about each of these peripheral items and how they can make the electronic-musician's life a little easier?
Jered Flickinger: Once I learned programming, I was able to materialize a lot of the old ideas I had. I've always been fascinated with sequencers, and the "Zillion's" algorithmic sequencing is a lot of fun. Instead of programming in your sequences, simply manipulate different aspects of the sequence.
The "Swynx" I had wanted to do for a long time -to get those DIN clock devices swinging in time. I used to call it the "Din Swank". But once that feature was implemented, I thought: why not support MIDI and analog clocks as well? Now you can add and adjust the swing in realtime to nearly any device.
Future Retro's "Swynx" is a sync box. It converts MIDI-to- MIDI clock, DIN sync, CR-78 clock and analog clock. It allows swing timing and realtime selection of twelve different time signatures. It allows syncing analog sequencers and arpegg- iators with your MIDI gear, so that you can swing the timing of these devices too. Cool!
The "Mondovox" was really cool. It allowed you to play up to ( 16 ) monophonic synths polyphonically. And there were a lot of other neat effects it could do -like sequencing through different voices, or detuning up to ( 16 ) voices. It was overlooked by most of the public and is no more.
The "512" is the be-all controller that I've always wanted. It's capacitive touch, so there are no keys to get dirty or wear out. It senses velocity, aftertouch, pitch bend and mod wheel -with adjustments for curves and sensitivity. It has a built in arpeggiator and sequencer with lots of cool features. The whole idea here is you latch an arpeggiation or play a sequence and then just start manipulating that information to your heart's content.
It also acts as a MIDI-to-CV and MIDI-to-MIDI converter, so that you can convert and manipulate pre-existing MIDI data to play nearly anything. And since we had to say goodbye to the "Mondovox", the "512" does allow you to play up to ( 16 ) mono synths polyphonically via MIDI. It just doesn't go quite as deep as the "Mondo-vox" provided.
There are a lot of unique capabilities in the "512" that make it stand out. I had to study a lot of music theory while creating those features. It even allows you to "play" the MIDI channel.
Future Retro's "512" is a gold-plated capacitive touch keyboard. It eliminates mechanical moving parts and provides faster note play as well as multiple forms of expression for the keyboard-ist. It can be used as a keyboard, arpeggiator, sequencer, MIDI-to-CV and MIDI-to-MIDI converter. It can control both MIDI and CV/Gate synths simultaneously ( -as well as control of most vintage and current synthesizers ).
The ( new ) "512" capacitive touch keyboard incorporates the "Mondovox's" ability to play ( 16 ) mono synths polyphonically via MIDI.
I've leaked a peak at the ( new ) "Transient" drum module that will be released soon for the Eurorack format. It's a different approach to how a drum voice can be constructed and therefore provides a unique sound. I really like it. It's a digital drum voice that sounds analog. This capable little drum synth provides two sample voices. And you can modulate the sample selection -crossfading between the voices with modulation, then AM and phase-modulate the samples, multimode filtering, effects like digital distortion, bit-crushing and companding, and then the dynamics section.
It's 12-bit, so it sounds big like the classics. It has ( 40 ) user writable instrument locations and a couple hundred preset instruments. It has more than ( 400 ) samples. About half of those are classic drum machine sounds, while the rest are more modern analog percussion sounds created on the "XS". It can act as a very dynamic single voice instrument, or can also sound like an entire drum loop is happening. Audio rate triggering is also interesting.
There is a trigger input, 2 x CV inputs, and an audio output, 2 x CV attenuators, 2 x user definable knobs ( -that can be assigned to multiple modulations at the same time ), and a navigation encoder. I think people are going to dig this, it offers so many new possibilities, is easy to use, and is much faster than working in the traditional drum machine way.
The "512" Capacitive Touch Keyboard ( -with silver key and knob ) color scheme. With no moving parts to wear out -it could be the last keyboard you'll ever need to buy!
CTN: A while back, I became frustrated with the lack of imagination I was seeing in today's synth designs ( -especially with regard to their front-panel design/ ergonomics and control surface options, etc. ). As a result, I came up with a control-panel design I thought might appeal to performing synthesists and sound-designers ( -who were looking for greater creative expression and tactile feedback from their instrument ). I call it the "Ultimate Analog Performance Synth" ( i.e: "UAPS" ) design.
I'd be curious to get your "feedback" on the "UAPS" design ( -and whether you think it would be technically and economically feasible using today's "off-the-shelf" technology ( or ) if it would require entirely new control surface technology to be developed ( -with regard to it's "MHC", "SFTB" and "FGCS" controllers ) in order to be manufactured. It just seems to me that in 2017' we should ALREADY BE where the "UAPS" design is "on paper"!
The "Ultimate Analog Performance Synth" ( or ) "UAPS", was my attempt to design a synth with greater user expression and tactile response. It's "MHC", "SFTB" and "FGCS" surface control-lers afford performing synth-esists and sound-designer's immediate control of up to ( 27 ) different synth para-meters as well as a 360-degree sound-field. Well, at least on paper....
Jered Flickinger: I would say your idea is possible with today's capacitive touch to handle things like the hand expression. But this is where it may look good on paper but not be quite what you expect when it's in hard-ware. For instance, the multiple hand points you may find are too sensitive because the areas are small and your hand can only move limited distances.
I would say for controllers of this sort, you want to consider how you normally would want to interact with an object with your hands. Then design the interface around that idea. Should it even be a flat surface? This is where designing gets interesting.
Often, you set off in one direction with an idea, you'll run into some setback of things that don't work like you expected, but you will stumble onto other things you wouldn't normally think of. My advice is to do what you can with what you know, and learn what you need as you go. Just working on it will give you new ideas. .............................................................................................................................................................................*PROGRAM NOTE: I'd like to thank Jered for his constructive critique of my "UAPS" design. He makes some excellent points ( -especially regarding whether the "UAP's" control-surfaces should be flat ). His comments are duly noted. I think in future designs, I may want to make the "UAP's" "Multi-Hand Controller" more raised and sculpted ( -to better fit the performer's hand contact points ) and perhaps reduce the number of contact points to only those capable of greater movement. In any case, thanks for the valuable "feedback" Jered! ............................................................................................................................................................................
Future Retro's "XS" Synthesizer. A true classic! Shown lying flat and in upright position. If you're looking for a compact synth that can do it all -and one that's "modular-friendly", the "XS" deserves your consideration.
Once these things go out of production, I'm sure the price paid by collectors for them will skyrocket. Grab one of these before that happens!
CTN: On the Future Retro website's "Company" page, you dedicate your work to your "father and mentor, Jon Flickinger, for his absolute genius, patience, and teachings". Can you tell us a little about your dad and the lessons he taught you that have become part and parcel of Future Retro's "design philosophy", business model and way of doing business?
Jered Flickinger: I have a lot of respect for my father. He can do anything he puts his mind to. He was a high school drop out, yet managed to self-learn everything. He had his own music company ( JMF ) in the 70's -80's building tuners, guitar and bass amps/ cabinets, mixers, loud speakers. That later was bought out by Dean Markley. Then, he designed hard drives and interfaces for the Amiga way back when. He holds several patents on fluorescent lighting ballasts, has hand-built numerous old hot rod cars from the ground up, doing every-thing from cutting, grinding, welding, english wheel, powder coating, painting and even interior leather work. Now he is retired and dabbles in R&D for zero point energy devices.
My dad is always there when I need advice, whether it is figuring out some electronic equation, or making smart business choices,...he's been there and done that, so I listen. He's just an endless source of knowledge, and seeing how he learns has rubbed-off on me. All you need to be successful in life is some good ideas and a lot of focus and hard work to get it done. Sometimes not having a formal education provides me with a different perspective on things, questioning why do it this way, why not that way? Why is everyone doing the same thing? What if I do this instead?
Jered Flickinger comes at things from a different perspective. His "out of the box" thinking may, in part, be influenced by his father Jon ( -a man of incredible accomp-lishment ). Jered's questioning of the status quo has led to the design of some truly unique products ( -such as the "777", "Revolution", "XS", "Zillion", and soon, the "Transient" drum module ). Stay tuned to Future Retro for future ground-breaking products!
CTN: Lastly, if you could distill your/ Future Retro's approach to synth design down to a concise "logo phrase" ( or ) all encompassing sentence -what would it be?
Jered Flickinger: Each product needs to bring something new to the industry. A better sound, interface, features, and faster ways of working. If I'm not pushing the envelope in at least one of those areas, it's just not worth doing.
I'd like to thank Jered for taking time from his busy schedule to participate in this interview. I'm sure CTN readers will appreciate Jered's detailed, fascinating answers and insights into Future Retro's unconventional approach to synth and peripheral design. Few other companies today can boast a roster of more innovative products than Future Retro. And the world of electronic-music is definitely better because of it!