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Non Sequitur Fridays

Future Sounds: An Interview With Olivier Gillet, Founder of Mutable Instruments

This post is part of our Non Sequitur Fridays series, which will feature a different Wistian's take on a non-Wistia-related topic each week. It's like our "employee of the month" but less "of the month"-y. Olivier Creurer is a customer champion at Wistia. His last Non Sequitur was about translation in literature.

Last year, I became completely (and hopelessly) addicted to modular synthesizers. Yep, those fascinatingly cryptic pieces of musical technology that look like the cockpit controls of a spaceship and generate the sounds of deep dreams.

A Buchla synthesizer.

My interest in these complex machines was born not only from musical aspirations, but from technological ones as well. The fundamentals of electrical engineering were fascinating to me, and the analog synthesizer provided me with a path to explore them in a more aesthetic way.

Naturally, I became drawn to the history of these instruments, to the men and women who designed them and ushered them into the realm of music. There have been many synthesizer designers and pioneers through the decades, but for those in the contemporary realm of electronic music instrument design, the name Olivier Gillet is a terribly important one.

Olivier is one of the true luminaries of the synthesizer world these days. After completing studies in artificial intelligence and signal processing, he spent years creating electronic music platforms, like the first digital audio workstation for the PalmOS. After stints working on projects for Google AdWords and Last.fm, he founded his own company, Mutable Instruments, in 2011.

Amazingly, Olivier serves as Mutable Instruments' sole employee. He handles virtually everything, from research and product design to marketing, and manages to provide world-class customer service in the few hours he has left every day. He generously offered what little time he had a few weeks ago to discuss his instruments, his design philosophy, and customer support.

Wistia Olivier:

For the uninitiated, what is Mutable Instruments, and how did it come to be?

Mutable Instruments Olivier:

Let's start by the basics: modular synthesizers! Modular synthesizers are electronic music construction sets. They are made of a collection of modules, which are small building blocks embodying one step in the process of creating sound and music—generating a tone, making it change, repeating notes, creating a rhythm, etc.

Musicians can alter the way modules are connected to each other, and can hand-pick modules from hundreds of boutique manufacturers to create an instrument completely tailored to the sounds they want to make and to their composition process. These instruments were born in the 1960s, have been out of fashion for decades, and have suddenly made a comeback over the past 5 years. They can now be heard everywhere—not just in electronic music, but also in sound design for movies, video games, etc.

Mutable Instruments is a well-respected manufacturer of such instruments. I'm the founder, owner, and actually sole employee of the company. I research product ideas, design the hardware, write the code for the digital modules—everything except the graphic design. I also partner with a contract manufacturer in the west of France who handles the manufacturing of the instruments in small volume.

A small selection of Mutable Instruments' modules.

A couple of things set Mutable Instruments apart from other manufacturers: the headcount/market share ratio is extremely low, all the products are open-source and open-hardware, and, sonically, the instruments are not rooted in the sound of classic synthesizers from 1965 to 1975, generally considered the golden era of modular synthesis.

I got into electronics in 2009, building synthesizers on my kitchen table and posting about them on forums. Since other people were interested in building them, I started selling my designs as Do-It-Yourself kits, circuit boards and bags of components you had to solder and put together yourself. Mutable Instruments became a company in 2011, and I gradually transitioned from selling DIY kits (a support nightmare!) to selling manufactured products around 2013.

Wistia Olivier:

You're known as the designer of exceptional musical devices, but you've also gotten attention as someone who engages with his audience in really creative ways. Let's start with the Mutable Instruments community. How did that come about, and what is its current purpose?

Mutable Instruments Olivier:

The forum opened at the time I started selling the DIY kits, with the original goal of providing support to people building the kits themselves. Then, all kinds of peripheral discussions started to take place, ranging from general electronics and DIY instruments to products from other brands and news from trade shows. Now that I no longer sell DIY kits, the forum has lost its original purpose and is more of a hang-out for a bunch of like-minded people who like electronic music, and who are only coincidentally customers of Mutable Instruments.

Wistia Olivier:

What role do you play in the Community?

Mutable Instruments Olivier:

When the focus of the forum was primarily supporting DIY builders, I was answering almost every question. It took quite some time before the members became familiar enough with the product for them to start helping each other out. At the time I stopped selling DIY kits, I still had to answer about half of the questions on the forum.

Now, I'm much less involved. I moderate and answer support-related questions, of course, but stay away from the general discussions. Still, I don't miss any occasion to jump on any topic for which my technical expertise would help. For example, two forum members are in the process of designing their own synthesizers; they're documenting the process step-by-step on the forum, so I often post to share my experience with them.

Detail of the circuit board for Mutable's Anshuri, one of its instruments offered as DIY kit.

Wistia Olivier:

The code sources for all of your instruments and modules are publicly available in your GitHub repositories. What kind of relationships do you have with developers who re-write the functionalities of your instruments? Do they, in some cases, lead you to iterate in new ways?

Mutable Instruments Olivier:

It took some time before people got into modifying the code of my products, and I wanted to make it as easy as possible for them. Thus, I try to help them implement their ideas, walk them through the code—basically, I like suggesting to them the best angle of attack to organize their implementations.

For example, I explain to them how to make their changes efficient in terms of code size and CPU usage, since these resources are very scarce in embedded systems. I also warn them when they're trying to do something which I have also tried and found to be impossible.

A few minor exceptions aside, I have never ported any of their changes back into my instruments. This is a situation that's actually very specific to hardware! If you want to add an option in a mobile app or website, it's easy to implement a change. With a product in which the user interface is physical, on the other hand, it's impossible to add knobs! So, when other developers add functionality to my products, it tends to be at the cost of ease of use, and most of the time, it crosses the threshold above which I deem a product too complex.

Most of the customers in the synthesizer market are extremely conservative in terms of UI. For example, you'll often hear in a conversation about synthesizer UI phrases like "one button per function" or "no menu-diving." Thus, the "mutability" in Mutable Instruments should remain an option, a possibility for the adventurous users, but the mainstream shouldn't suffer from it. I'm trying to keep everybody happy here!

Keeping things simple for the majority of users who want to be reassured that the printed manual or tutorial video will not be made obsolete by a firmware update, and keeping things exciting for the "power users" who don't mind wrapping their heads around more advanced concepts and remembering button combinations. In some cases, these third-party modifications give some of my products the ability to emulate the functionality of other products on the market, so it feels like getting a free $400 synthesizer just by installing an update—it's totally worth it!

Ultimately, what this process is really good at is helping me schedule the development of new products. Reading on my forum that such or such feature in a modified firmware is generating a lot of excitement is a sign that I should ask myself questions: what are people trying to achieve with this feature? How could they do it better? It often leads to ideas for new products; in a way, the open-source approach is not crowdfunded R&D or engineering, but crowdsourced market research and focus groups!

Wistia Olivier:

On top of prototyping, designing and marketing your instruments, you single-handedly support all of your customers one-to-one. Are there workflows or tools you use to manage everything?

Mutable Instruments Olivier:

I don't use any support ticket system. It feels very impersonal and I'm not sure it'll help me save time. When I have to repair a module, it can take me 30 minutes of work to disassemble the unit, troubleshoot and reassemble, so saving 30 seconds here and there in terms of dealing with support tickets isn't such a big deal. The stack of modules to repair has a very physical presence on my bench. I don't need a software equivalent of it to be reminded of them!

Besides that, I don't use any extra tools. I have a bookmark group in my browser searching for "mutable" on various music forums to see if people talk about issues I'm not aware of, and then I just have a few Python scripts to book shipments with DHL.

Wistia Olivier:

What would you say is the biggest support challenge you face?

Mutable Instruments Olivier:

My products are not islands. They are combined with other modules from other manufacturers, and the resulting modular synthesizer interacts with other instruments and software. Many "standards" in our field are not standards, just informal norms, so there is a lot of room for incompatibilities between products, which can make it hard to replicate issues and therefore to troubleshoot.

Another difficulty is understanding some of the issues reported to me. It's interesting to see that many musicians don't have the technical vocabulary to accurately describe music or sounds. At the end of the day, the music market is a very diverse crowd. You talk with all kinds of people, from the head of a university music department to a raving EDM artist, and you have to adapt your communication accordingly. It's an amazing cross-section of personality types.

Wistia Olivier:

Is there a Mutable Instruments way of delighting customers?

Mutable Instruments Olivier:

Intelligent priority management is key. There's not much difference between receiving a reply in 1 day and in 1 day and 20 minutes, but it means a lot for the customer to get a reply in 10 minutes instead of 30. I try to be very responsive and get all of the "easy" questions out of the way as fast I can. Whenever I'm dealing with a repair, I rely on DHL express delivery for all returns so that people get their repaired product or replacement as fast as possible.

Beyond that, I give away lots of freebies. I don't fight too much. When a problem looks too hairy or when a customer is in a really bad situation, I just ship a brand new unit and ask the customer to responsibly recycle or return the damaged unit. In cases when customers have really bad experiences (like a repaired unit failing a second time), I don't mind giving them another product they might like and covering it. You have to keep a budget for that.

And, of course, people are always amazed to discover that they interacted with the guy who designed the stuff in the first place!

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