Interview With Frap Tools – Talking Design, Glocal and New Modules
Frap Tools is an Italian company specialized in Eurorack modules, cases and accessories, featured in our 2017 Sonic Joy awards. They recently released FUMANA, a stellar Dual 16 Bands Spectral Editor and teased a new module, FALISTRI, at Superbooth 2018 (see our video below to learn more about Falistri).
Fascinated by the company’s philosophy – unique products born out of specific needs, offering high-quality materials, attractive design – and by their ‘local meets boutique’ ethos, we sat down with Frap Tools founder, Simone Fabbri, to find out more…
– Can you briefly tell us about your background and how you started making Eurorack modules?
My personal “work background” in the beginning was more related to mechanic design than audio. I worked as a mechanical designer for 6 years, and in parallel, I was studying computer music, synthesis and programming in Max.
In 2011/2012 I joined Alessio at K-Devices making M4L devices, while at the same time, I started assembling my eurorack system: I’ve always been fascinated by modular synths and I was also a bit tired of making things in front of a computer screen.
Frap Tools started because I needed a more functional case than the options available at that time, and I wanted it to be gorgeous too. Luckily that design worked out, and the year after I met Federico Foglia, our PCB designer and the assembler of all the electronics we made. Before Frap Tools he was fixing synthesizers, but he also has good experience in live performances. He introduced me to Antonio Masiero, our analog designer: Antonio comes from the high-end audio stuff doing mods and repairs to studio and live equipment.
The three of us have different approaches to things, and I think that helps with the creative process of our products.
– Frap Tools is becoming a synonym for quality design and well thought-out features. What’s your approach when it comes to making a new module?
The “design process” is something quite long, and is generally divided into 3 stages: NEED / ANALYSIS / SKETCH IDEAS
This usually is the longest part: At the moment, we are two people playing modulars, and sometimes one of us may have a specific need while patching. For example, I may need more randomness without correlation so we start to discuss it. We analyze what’s available on the market to see if we can achieve something like that with another module. If we can, the discussion ends: we get the module for ourselves and that’s it.
If we can’t find any proper solution we start to define the features, and we put all the possible ones on paper. We discuss all the features with Antonio, and we try to sketch front panels with features signal flows and things like that. This process usually takes anywhere from 2 months to years (the next product we’ll hopefully announce at SuperBooth comes from approximately 2 years of discussion and 4/5 different versions of front panel and features). At the end of this process, we have a couple of candidates.
FRONT PANEL & FEATURE DESIGN
We develop candidates with a software prototype made in Max MSP. This way, with the Mira app and some ExpertSleepers stuff we can patch the module behavior, without doing any soldering.
Features are tested, evaluated, modified, and we can finalize the front panel as a mockup. We prepare some documentation for the analog design and start with that.
ANALOG DESIGN & POSSIBLE ADAPTIONS OF PANEL/FEATURES
This part, like the last one, usually takes some prototypes to reach the level needed, but due to the amount of work we do in advance, there are no big changes in the design, and we can focus on making things work well. For the Fumana, this step took us around 10 months of work excluding holidays, for other projects less than a month, so it always changes.
– Speaking of design, your approach is quite peculiar. Very clean and color-focused, with little-to-no text labels. Can you tell us more about it and what are your sources of inspiration?
Personally, I prefer cryptic minimal designs, but this is a personal choice: sometimes I achieve it, sometimes I don’t. I don’t have a huge rule in that term.
About our front panels, the first two (SEI and SILTA) were designed by Hannes Pasqualini from Papernoise. I asked him for an extremely elegant design, with fewer elements. Let’s say neat, pure.
At that point, there were no plans to make other modules, but Antonio and Federico started the design of the CGM Creative Mixer.
That was the first real front panel design with dense features and many elements. I was constrained to do it on my own because the panel design and the features were coming together: every couple of days we had small differences – new features, old features – coming out and such.
At that point, we finished the panels on the three modules and asked Hannes to apply his magic touch on them. Starting from the products after 333 and SAPÈL, we came to the conclusion, with Hannes, that the next designs would be made internally by us.
As for texts, I personally don’t like them in our products. Of course, sometimes they are necessary, so we tend to use them only when needed. For the rest, I prefer symbols and the color/graphical separation since it’s the fastest way to remind yourself that you already know how it works.
You know, usually, we don’t present things like a low pass filter with IN, OUT, FREQ and RES controls. I also don’t aim to have a self-explanatory user interface: it should be easy to use when you know the product and how it works, not when you have to learn how things are related. Also, this way you are forced to read the manual and understand the characteristics of each part of. For example in the SAPÈL, you don’t need the interface to tell you how the quantized random generation works. This is something you have to read in the manual, understand it, and manage it. The interface is there to help you remember the in, out and what that area does.
Generally, our design follows simple rules across modules:
– Square symbols connected to inputs/outputs are digital related stuff (gates or clocks)
– Round symbols connected to in/out are related to analog stuff (modulations or audio)
– Stereo signals use double lines, mono use single lines, modulations use dotted lines
– When there’s no symbol of in/out, we tend to group areas like in the SAPEL with inputs on the left and outputs on the right
Also, while we are working on product mockups we are in contact with some people – users & friends – and we provide them sketches asking for feedback: it is extremely important to us how the product will appear to the artist, and their opinion is always very helpful.
– Let’s talk FUMANA: it’s a very unique, all-analog beast, that expands the palette of any modular system. Tell us more about the concept and development behind it. You’re also a software developer (as K-Devices), so I’m curious about the analog vs digital choice in this case…
We followed the usual design path we do for all the modules. The prototyping was done entirely in Max MSP, but we decided to go for an all analog design since we can do that. There was a time in the process of the scanning circuit design and some macro function when we evaluated the hybrid/digital approach, but in the end, we preferred to stick with the traditional analog design and not to involve anything digital.
We’ll probably start making digital modules in the future, but only when it’s needed in terms of having multifunction controls, or some kind of synthesis techniques involved which would make sense only in a digital domain: I wouldn’t imagine any analog “granulizer” for example or a “modern” sequencer made entirely analog.
As for the sound, they are different of course, we greatly preferred the first FUMANA prototype to the Max one, and we followed that path improving the sonic character and technical aspects in the last prototypes before production.
– At Superbooth you teased a new module, FALISTRI, a ‘movement manager’ in your own words. We talked about it in our Superbooth video (see below), but what was the inspiration for this module?
We tried to combine various core functions of any systems, making them quickly accessible and yet highly versatile, keeping a purely analog design. Looking at it now, everything seems very natural but I can tell you it was really hard to get to this point in terms of design. We started working on the panel back in August 2016, and only recently we have been able to finalize it. I really look forward to having it ready and being able to use it!
– In this ever more globalized market, I love the hyper-local references you use in your product names, Would you like to tell us more about this, and how does a hi-tech firm like Frap Tools fit in such an area like Modena (in the Emilia Romagna region), rich with tradition and history?
I do have a huge respect for what people in Modena did in the past and for its traditions. This area is famous worldwide for the balsamic vinegar, various kinds of food and restaurants, but also for companies such as Ferrari and Maserati. It is also giving birth to some very interesting companies such as Energica Motor which has created the first high-performing electric motorcycle that will be used in the MotoE Championship in 2019.
Of course we are far from that, but as for the business aspects, this area provides us with very high profile suppliers: the mechanical companies around here are really great, there are lots of them, and it was easy for me when I started the company to find suppliers based from 5 to 20 minutes from where I live.
When Antonio and Federico joined the team, it became less “Modena-centric” (Antonio is from Ferrara, 1 hour from here, and Federico from Treviso, 2.5 hours from here), but I still like the dialect we use in the module names. I’m a huge fan of that and it’s a pity that we are destined to lose that language.
It may be seen as an attempt to save it and to praise it – of course, those who live away from here don’t understand the correlation, but it’s always fun to explain it to others 🙂
Lastly, I admit that choosing the right name is very challenging and takes a lot of time, and there are tons of hours spent on the phone discussing them with friends.
– With modules like SAPÈL and FUMANA, Frap Tools is clearly targeting the high(est)-end segment of the market with a “no-corners cut” philosophy. Other modular brands (with their own names or with dedicated spin-offs) have been able to differentiate their offers with more affordable product lines. Can you see something like this in the future of Frap Tools?
In terms of the price tag, we are already doing that with the 321 and 333 modules, and more will come for sure. But I want to emphasize that even in this price range, we just have to stick with high-end design and specs.
I personally don’t see in Frap’s future a different offer of products with lower-grade characteristics and low-end prices. That would mean focus on the price rather than on the product, and that’s not the company target.
– Last but not least, let’s talk music. Are you also a musician? Do you have a modular system at home?
I am a bass player – well, I used to be a bass player. Now I only play with my modular and my semi-acoustic guitar a few times per week. I hope in the future to be able to make some proper things out of it, but now I don’t feel that comfortable, I prefer to listen to others.
Federico is a real ‘modularist’. He probably plays his modular daily, while Antonio doesn’t play at all. He loves to listen to all kinds of music and he is into high-end audio systems. This is also a big advantage for us because when he’s making his analog designs, his point of view is not one of a synth designer, but one of an audio electronic designer.