Jered Flickinger is the designer behind Future Retro’s line of electronic music instruments, including the FR-777, Mobius sequencer, and the Revolution “concept synthesizer”. Though his company is small, his instruments are very respected and have been used by top electronica acts, including Nine Inch Nails, BT, The Chemical Brothers, The Crystal Method, Aphex Twin, Plastikman, and Skylab2000.
Flickinger, above, grew up listening to electronica, including Jean Michel Jarre, Kraftwerk, LFO, Front 242 and New Order. At 14, he started experimenting with making electronic music, and also began DJing. After he graduated, he studied music engineering and became a DJ in the club scene. At this time, he started hacking synths and building his own, which led to the development of the FR777 and the start of his company.
We asked Flickinger recently about his interest in electronic music, his company and its latest instrument, the Revolution:
Synthtopia: What got you into electronic music, Jered?
Jered Flickinger: In my teens I was into the whole freestyle bike and skateboarding scene. During this time I met some of the coolest kids from all over the US, and they were always introducing me to new underground music. Back then radio and MTV didn’t play it, and we didn’t have the convenience we do today with the Internet.
Synthtopia: What then made you want to start a synth company?
Jered Flickinger: My father was a musician, who had also created his own company, JMF Electronics, designing and manufacturing tuners, amplifiers, mixing consoles, and PA systems. As a young child they would take me to the NAMM shows where I would get my first look at what the industry was all about.
I remember companies like Sequential Circuits had these floppy demo records they were giving out that showcased their synthesizers and the sounds they could make. The sounds were like nothing I had ever heard, which is something I’ve always admired about electronic music. I was too young to work for my father’s company at that time, but once I reached my teens, I started doing assembly line work and various odd jobs which allowed me to understand more of the business and manufacturing side of things. As far as learning about electronics, my father taught me a lot of the technical stuff, the rest I learned from studying schematics, and just experimenting.
Throughout the years I also worked in record shops, musical instrument retail stores, DJing clubs, and making electronic music myself. So looking back it’s all been one natural progression, leading me to where I am now.
Synthtopia: It seems that there were a lot of things working against you when you started Future Retro: you were young, living in a small town away from major electronica and musical instrument centers, and you were designing equipment that many people thought was obsolete, hardware sequencers and analog synths. How significant were obstacles like these, and what do you think has contributed to your success?
Jered Flickinger: Not to mention that I was basically broke when I started the company. I had to quit DJing to focus more time on the getting everything going, and so I was without income for at least a year. If it wasn’t for the support of my family and friends it’s hard to believe that any of this would have happened.
But you know when you’re at the bottom and you feel like you have nothing to lose, things can only get better. In fact it’s pushed me harder, and made me more determined to make this a reality.
Synthtopia: Does being based in Salina, KS. pose challenges for you?
Jered Flickinger: Being in a small town, it’s hard to find people locally who can relate to what I do. I don’t have the luxury of seeing a lot of the artists perform. But at the same time, I think being removed from all that causes me to have a different perspective than everyone else, and forces me to use my imagination to stay creative.
Synthtopia: Just about everything has been going digital for 20 years, and now things are starting to move to software. So…why are you focusing on analog equipment?
Jered Flickinger: I think the most important aspect of any instrument should be the sound that it produces. In my opinion as well as many others, analog just sounds better. It’s pure manipulation of electricity, where digital is a numeric representation of sound which is converted into electricity. This translation leads to the loss of information. There is a symbiosis which occurs in analog circuits that digital just doesn’t capture. With analog you can play the same note over and over and it will sound slightly different each time it is played which sounds natural.
Synthtopia: When you were designing the FR-777, there were a ton of TB-303 clones being made. Why did you want to do an uber-303?
Jered Flickinger: When I started my designs there were several clones on the market, but none of them provided the sequencer, which is an important part in recreating the 303’s unique synth lines, and some of them used different filter types or some other aspect of the unit had been changed slightly.
I was really inspired by what Hardfloor and Plastikman were doing at the time with minimal acid music using just a 303 and a drum machine. I thought, I want to make a box that can make both my synth lines and drum sounds. But I wanted the drum sounds to be more electronic sounding than say the Roland TR stuff, and was inspired by what Vince Clark was doing with his modulars to create percussion sounds. I used a Sequential Pro-One to figure out which modulations gave the best percussive sounds and then figured out how to do something similar with the 303’s circuits.
Synthtopia: What did you have to go through in order to duplicate the 303’s unique sound?
Jered Flickinger: First, I must mention that I spent years lusting after a TB303, they were hard to find and expensive at that time (around $1200) and, within the first hour of getting a used one, I had the thing torn apart studying it. I studied the schematics and built up my own circuits using modern components, because a lot of the original components were no longer available.
I bought the 303 processor chip from Roland and built up their sequencer section as a way of testing my analog section. Then it was all about figuring out what other capabilities I wanted this thing to have. If I wanted the oscillators to cross modulate each other, I would study all the ways others had implemented this feature and figure out which method worked best for this design. It took months and months of trial and error to get the results I wanted. In some cases I would hook something up wrong and find the results pleasing, and incorporate that as a feature, like the Warp mode of the filter. To really understand the 303’s circuits, I would go through and vary the components values to see what effect it had on the circuit. The whole process was more about expanding the capabilities with extra features, and tweaking them until it sounded good, instead of some heavy theory of electronics.
Synthtopia: There have been tons of 303 clones, but until the 777 & Mobius, nobody had duplicated its unique sequencer. You managed to nail the 303’s sequencer’s unique qualities that are so important to techno music, and expanded them significantly, too. What made you want to do this sort of sequencer?
Jered Flickinger: The original 303’s sequencer was very unusual in the way you had to enter pattern information. I thought it was tedious to have to stop the unit, switch it to write mode, and then enter where notes were one at a time linearly, and then go back and enter pitches, accents, and glides. It took forever, and if you messed up you had to enter all the correct information again. As these units get older it’s not uncommon for their switches to double click or maybe not make contact at all, so you were never really sure what the pattern would sound like until you played it. Most people would just let the thing randomize its patterns by taking the batteries out. But for people wanting to create a specific synth line it was a lot of work.
Our sequencer was inspired more by the TR-606 and other similar drum machines that would allow you to select one of the sixteen steps of a measure to edit, and to be able to do so while the unit plays so you can hear the changes you make. The nickname for the 777 was the Bassix, a combination of the words Bassline and Drumatix. Very few machines at that time allowed the user to edit patterns and play them at the same time without stopping and switching modes or saving the changes that were made. People were playing the same pattern over and over while they tweaked the sound controls on the 303, I wanted our sequences to be just as tweakable as the sounds so that you change things up a bit, improvise and be spontaneous.
Synthtopia: The 777 has been called the greatest bass line synth ever, even a 303-killer. So why did you stop making it?
Jered Flickinger: A lot of it had to do with the economic crash that was a result of 9/11. The whole industry suffered to some extent, and this caused sales to drop. Meanwhile the price of materials went up, so it was getting harder to justify building these units. At the same time I had been developing what I call the Abstrak sequencer, and wanted to incorperate some of these new ideas into what the 777 already was. So I started putting it all together as the Revolution.
Synthtopia: You’ve got a new synth coming out, the Revolution, that looks insane. Can you tell us a little about it?
Jered Flickinger: The Revolution is a mixture of ideas I been working on for years now, along with ideas submitted by previous owners of our equipment. It incorperates all the sequencing features of the Mobius and 777, with the addition of pattern swing (or shuffle), being able to play patterns forward or backwards, remixing patterns, selecting patterns remotely via MIDI program change messages, and a few other changes for editing patterns.
The sound section is true analog, with our most accurate recreation of the TB303’s capabilities and includes additional features such as being able to modulate the filter’s cutoff frequency with internal or external control voltages, filter external audio, vary the accent decay time, and overdrive the signal with our dynamic analog distortion stage. Also provided is a simple yet useful preset 24 bit stereo DSP effects section for adding effects such as reverb, chorus, flange, delay, etc.
The unit does provide CV/Gate outputs for sequencing other analog equiment, or allowing the Revolution to act as a MIDI to CV/Gate converter. MIDI In/Out/Thru are provided for syncing and sequencing other MIDI equipment. Din Sync is also provided for syncing up the older Roland TR and TB devices.
The unit has a new look with it’s circular design, UV finish, bright blue LEDs and aluminum end pieces.
Synthtopia: What are you trying to do with a synth like the Revolution?
Jered Flickinger: Hopefully, it will open the minds of others to the realization that music and its cycles may best be represented within the circular form.
Its name not only represents a change in the way we are illustrating music but also the circular motion a revolution creates. As the basis of patterns is time, and time is best represented as the circle, it just made sense to represent the cyclic repetition of patterns as a circle. Not to mention how one would illustrate being able to play patterns forward or backwards in time, as well as shifting patterns through time. When you see it in action it’s very intuitive, and pleasing none the less. One benefit of this method is it allows the user to easily divide the circle into equal parts for placing notes. For instance the quarter notes form a “+” sign, eighth notes an “X”, providing geometric form and balance to patterns and the placement of notes.
I had been studying the natural patterns which occur in numbers, and the ways in which patterns can affect patterns to generate more patterns. I adapted this process to create the Remix feature found in the Revolution which will provide 256 variations for each pattern a user creates. Interestingly enough, the selection of steps generated by each remix creates symmetrical geometric patterns when the circular layout is used.
Another benefit of this circular layout is its efficient use of space, which allows all multiple keypress operations to be carried out with a single hand.
Synthtopia: How do you go about deciding on and creating new designs?
Jered Flickinger: I just try an open myself up and let the creative spirit flow. Write ideas down as they come to me, and keep describing them until everything has been defined. It’s like there’s this universal knowledge that a person can tune in to and have access to all sorts of fabulous new ideas. As I worked on this circular design, I discovered other people around the world have had similar ideas, yet none of us were aware of the other’s work.
Synthtopia: I understand that your gear has been used by a lot of well-known electronica artists. Have there been any cool perks to being the guy behind Future-Retro?
Jered Flickinger: Just hearing what people do with the products makes it all worth it. And that has led to alot of great friendships with some amazing people. Sure, we get to enjoy free music, shirts, and concerts too. But most of all, I get to do what I love.
Synthtopia: What sort of music are you into? Are you making music yourself?
Jered Flickinger: I love anything electronic, and those artists pushing the envelopes of what can be done with sound. I really dig what Squarepusher and Amon Tobin are doing. I have a nice assortment of synthesizers, samplers, and drum machines in the studio and play whenever I can. I don’t record that much though, most of what I do is just playing with the sounds and figuring out new ways of doing things. I’ve done a few side projects creating sounds for sample CD’s, and still DJ music festivals every now and then.
Synthtopia: What are some of your interests outside of electronic music?
Jered Flickinger: Any of the arts, sacred geometry, astrology, numbers, nature, philosophy, and spirituality. Searching for the truth and living in harmony with everything.
Synthtopia: Can you tell us what’s in the future for Future Retro?
Jered Flickinger: We’ve had a lot of requests for a drum machine, and have some ideas of our own for a new form of modular synth, and this new keyboard controller I’ve been developing. It’s hard to say what will be next, but you can probably count on it being different.
Synthtopia: We’ll look forward to seeing what you come up with. Thanks for taking the time to let us know more about you and your company!