In the June 6 issue of Rolling Stone, writer Jonah Weiner describes his pilgrimage to the Paris studio of Daft Punk, the notoriously secretive two-man group whose new album, Random Access Memories, has been dominating the Billboard charts. As Weiner reverently enters the space where Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter spend “untold hours hunched over synthesizers, chasing new sounds,” he stops to marvel at its centrepiece: a giant modular synthesizer, four feet tall and six feet wide, all blinking lights and silver switches and cables. This custom system was “handmade for us by a guy in Canada,” Bangalter explains, and then they move on.
That guy would be Bruce Duncan, owner of Modcan Synthesizers in Toronto. Noting Rolling Stone’s glossing-over of his name, he smiles wryly. “Those guys, they don’t want to give you anything,” he says. In fact, Duncan’s synthesizers, built out of his 800-sq.-foot studio in Toronto’s east end, are legendary. “He’s very much an artist,” says Byron Wong, a Canadian music and media producer who has “several set-ups” of modular synthesizers, but considers his Modcan indispensable. “There is something about it that is just deeper, and wider, and bigger.” That’s why some of the biggest musical acts today—like Daft Punk and Canadian superstar Deadmau5—use instruments from Duncan’s shop.
Modular synths, as the name suggests, are electronic instruments consisting of separate modules, which the user connects by patch cords. (Piano-style keyboards can be used to play them, but many musicians go without.) “The modules do different things,” says Duncan, 55. “One of them makes sound; one of them shapes the sound; one adds delay, or processing,” and so on. Duncan makes over 100 different modules; musicians pick the ones they’re after and assemble them as they like, creating an individualized palette of sounds. “They never sound the same,” Duncan says. “That’s part of the joy of it. You can patch it up, go to lunch and come back, and it will be making a different sound.” One turn of a knob can change the entire effect. Therein lies the appeal: “You can make a sound no one can replicate,” he says, “because they don’t have the same set-up as you.”
Duncan, who used to be a model-maker for architects and industrial designers, started building modular synths as a hobby in 1994; 10 years later, he was doing it full-time. A few years ago, Daft Punk’s manager contacted him to commission a synthesizer while they were working on the soundtrack for Tron: Legacy. “I didn’t know who they were,” admits Duncan, who got turned on to synthesizers by the soundtrack to the 1971 movie A Clockwork Orange. Today he prefers jazz. “I looked them up, and realized they were huge.” It took four months to assemble the order, which consisted of over 100 modules, and cost upwards of $50,000. Daft Punk has said “it’s the only electronic instrument they used” on the record,he says—although when he spoke to Maclean’s, he had yet to listen to their album.
Duncan, who is self-taught, has made a name for himself among electronic musicians. His clients range from wealthy hobbyists to “a guy in California who uses it to make cartoon music, like the boi-oi-oing effects,” to Mutt Lange, who bought a system for the band Nickelback. (Duncan is not sure if they used it.)
He may be tapping into a resurgence of modular synthesizers that’s the subject of a documentary, I Dream of Wires, due later this year. The revival, notes producer Jason Amm of Toronto, who releases music under the name Solvent, is partly a reaction to the fact that more music today is made on computers. Wong agrees. “The tools on my iPhone are more powerful than anything I owned 10 years ago,” he says. “The beauty of a modular synthesizer is, it’s vast. It takes up real estate. You have to consider it. There are no presets, there’s nothing automatic about it.”
Once you start collecting modules, it can get addictive—even competitive. “People come to me and say, ‘What size of a system does so-and-so have,’ ” Duncan says, “ ‘because I want a bigger one.’ ”