First it was food, now musical instruments are going artisanal too.
“It’s become a cottage industry in Brooklyn,” Main Drag Music founder Karl Myers told the Gazette. “It goes hand in hand with the food craze.”
In recent years, a small but devoted group of music-obsessed synth and guitar pedal makers has emerged in North Brooklyn. These “boutique” enterprises, which include small operations like Death by Audio effect pedals and Skychord electronics, sell oftentimes handmade products that are shipped to music stores and musicians across the country, and even abroad.
Myers said the DIY musical instrument scene barely existed when he first opened shop in 1997, but thanks to a greater interest in music electronics and a renewed focus on locally-made products, the cottage industry has grown.
“It’s growing from the grassroots up,” he said. “It’s just a smaller market than for food: Everyone eats but not everyone wants to mess with sound signals.”
When college roommates Chris Kucinski and Owen Osborn started making portable synths after graduation in 2002, they thought it would only be a side project, a hobby relegated to those hours they didn’t spend at their day jobs. That changed in 2010, when they started selling more synths than they could make in their spare time.
“We were caught by surprise,” Kucinski said, standing in his lofted studio in East Williamsburg. “It was like, ‘we have to quit some jobs, this is real.’”
Since then, they’ve sold thousands of portable synthesizers — from a “pocket piano” that plays tweakable tones to a “videoscope” that visualizes sound signals on a screen — under their company name Critter and Guitari. It remains a largely two-man operation, with Kucinski working out of the Williamsburg space and Osborn from Pennsylvania. All of their parts are sourced from the U.S., mainly the Northeast.
“The things our instruments do are fun, and the knobs can create crazier sounds,” he said. “People really like the design and serious engineering. There’s a lightness – we’re not trying to hit you over the head with it.”
Of course, not everyone can make musical instruments full-time. Karl LaRocca gave up his computer programing job in 2000 to start Kayrock Screenprinting, which makes fine art prints and t-shirts. With his background in coding and playing guitar, he became interested in synthesizers, especially since they’ve become “so small and user friendly,” and started tinkering with them as a hobby. Three years ago he submitted one of his creations to a summer art show at Crest Hardware after learning to create his own circuit boards.
LaRocca called his creation the “Emergencynth,” and he’s since sold about 50 of the 100 synths he created. Now he’s working on some new instruments and a kit that clients can assemble at home.
His buyers are an eclectic bunch: They range from a minimalist techno DJ in Berlin to a Florida art collector.
“It’s cool that there’s a market for this,” he said. “A lot more people are open to electronic musical instruments, which has been fun.”
Carissa Spatch, founder of Snatchtronics, has found success with her homemade guitar peddles, which are used by the likes of Passion Pitt and Austin Brown from the Parquet Courts. Though Snatchtronics is still a one-woman operation, she’d love to find a way to pursue her passion full-time.
“It’s a lot of word of mouth,” she said. “It’s still a small scale operation – I make them in my living room.”
Selling her products at Main Drag has helped, since she doesn’t have a lot of time to advertise herself. Her next step is to grow distribution.
“Everyone wants their own unique sounds and to play something that not a lot of other people play,” she said. “And the attention to detail is a lot greater – I test each one.”
She says there’s a sizable community of electronic-instrument makers in Brooklyn, though few of them are women, and they’re not very aware of each other as a community.
“I know there are a lot of us,” she said. “I do want to meet these people – maybe we can come up with some cool ideas.”