Taiho Yamada is a veteran of the synthesizer and effects industry, working with Keith Barr, Marcus Ryle and other key figures in the community. During his career, he has had a hand in creating the well-regarded Alesis Andromeda and M-Audio Venom synths.
As Taiho moves forward with his latest ventures, I caught up with him to reflect on where it all began.
In the early 2000s, Taiho was put in charge of the Alesis ModFX line of “desktop” effects – now renowned amongst users as innovative and versatile effects units that were ahead of their time in many ways. Although years down the track people are still paying good money for these hard-to-find effects, the ModFX line was cancelled after releasing only 7 effects units out of the planned line-up of 14.
I spoke with Taiho about the “other” 7 effects that Alesis never released: Vertigo, Nastify, Formantz, Korus, Spectron, Lymitre and Fidelity X. I took this rare opportunity to gain some insights into the ModFX project and its fate, and to seek answers to the lingering questions surrounding ModFX.
Taiho, tell us about your time at Alesis. How did you come to be involved in Alesis’ FX production and what was your role within Alesis?
I started as a sound designer at Alesis in 1993 and eventually worked my way up to Director of Sound Development. I was mostly involved with synthesizers, sound expansion cards and drum machines, but occasionally contributed to effects units like the Midiverb 4 and AirFX. However, after Alesis went bankrupt in 2001, and was subsequently purchased by inMusic (Numark at the time), the staff was greatly reduced and they expanded my duties to include Project Management. My first new assignment was taking over the ModFX line, which was already in progress.
What were your thoughts upon encountering the ModFX line for the first time?
Honestly, it was pretty overwhelming, but it was good training. Although effects units are relatively simple compared to synthesizers, and all the ModFX models leveraged the same hardware, they were still 7 different products done simultaneously. I learned a lot about how engineering projects flow and the pitfalls to avoid. It also began familiarizing me with overseas contract manufacturing, which is a huge management task in and of itself.
From a guitarist’s perspective, the ModFX line is a bit unconventional - from the choice of a “desktop” layout over a standard “stompbox” format, to the sounds produced. What exactly was the design brief for the ModFX line?
Alesis still had a relationship with Line 6 because Marcus Ryle and the folks at Fast Forward Design worked on ADAT and the QS synthesizer line, among other things. So we stayed away from making any overtly guitar-oriented products. In fact, I think Keith Barr and Marcus had an agreement to that effect. I wasn’t involved in the initial ModFX design discussions, but I believe that’s why they were conceived as desktop units. If there weren’t any constraints, I’m fairly certain they would have been better off as stompboxes.
The sound of ModFX was heavily influenced by the synthesizer design team, and while the units do provide you with the traditional settings of their respective effects, they also expand the variety of sounds you can produce by offering new modulations and configurations. The Synth Group always tried to push the boundaries of what was possible.
The ModFX units are still very popular amongst aficionados & collectors with some units fetching in the hundreds of dollars - but it took some time for users to “come to grips” with what ModFX was all about. What measure of success would you attribute to the ModFX line overall?
At the time, ModFX was not a commercial success. If it had been, we would have followed up with the second half of the series. However, I am pleased that people have discovered units that they like. To me, each one had interesting properties. For instance, the Ampliton tremolo and auto-pan unit really surprised me. I’ll admit that I thought I’d be fairly bored with this unit, but when we finally got it working, the combination of synchronized volume and pan modulation created this really wonderful field of motion. Add to that the ability to generate random patterns (one of the options in the LFO section), and the Ampliton became truly gratifying. I think each ModFX model wound up with something remarkable about it like this.
The Bitrman unit in particular seems to have gained somewhat of a “cult status” – not just amongst guitarists in the experimental/noisescape zone but also amongst DJs and producers. Did you foresee that 15 years on, the Bitrman would enjoy such a reputation?
Not at all, but it actually doesn’t surprise me. It’s a really fun effect box. Bitrman owes a lot of its personality to Mike Peake, an incredible sound designer who also helped create the Andromeda A6 analog synth. He was instrumental in getting the overall sound and feature balance right in Bitrman. We also had a stellar DSP engineer named Aureliano “Orly” Pisa, who took our brand new (at the time) Alesis 1K chip and made it sing.
Did you have a favourite amongst the ModFX line, and if so, what made it stand out in your mind?
It’s probably Bitrman because of the wide range of timbres it can produce. Being able to switch the order of the effect chain was the key to that. I’m also quite fond of the Metavox, which provides 38 bands of vocoding to achieve outstanding speech intelligibility. And I don’t know if this counts, but it’s possible to hook the Faze (phaser) and Smashup (compressor) units together to make what sounds like a vintage analog drum machine. If you get a random pattern running in Faze with no input, Smashup can transform the faint modulation transients and noise floor into a beat! Jim Miller wrote about this in more detail on the Sweetwater website (see http://www.sweetwater.com/feature/technotes/issue3-modfx/ ). Faze and Smashup are great units in their own right, but this interaction discovery blew my mind.
There is plenty of chatter around on the internet about the “other” ModFX pedals that seemed to be on the cusp of release in about 2002 - but never saw the light of day. Was the plan to release these pedals as a “second wave” offering after the first 7 had hit the stores?
Yes. Shipping fourteen products simultaneously would have been a serious undertaking for our small development team, so we mitigated the risk by splitting the product line in half. Even with the workload reduced, it was still quite a challenging project.
What was the story with this “ill-fated” batch of ModFX units? Why cancel them?
Unfortunately, the first round of ModFX didn’t sell well enough, so Alesis decided to move on. As I said, I think the confused form-factor was mostly to blame. Alesis had enough brand recognition in effects that I think ModFX could have been successful if they were conceived as stompboxes. We had a number of innovative features for the time, including ModLink, which could pass pristine digital audio between multiple units, and internal tempo recognition algorithms that could automatically synchronize modulations to rhythmic audio input.
I’ve looked through some of the face-plates that Alesis produced for the “second wave” units. Interesting stuff! Could you give us a rundown on each:
Vertigo – a rotary speaker simulator
Rotary Speaker simulations are notoriously hard to get right. You have all the issues of amp simulation, plus crossover, separate horn and drum mechanical motions, and Doppler. Once we decided to minimize risk during the initial product line development, Vertigo was a natural choice to relegate to the second round. That’s the kind of reasoning that pushed most of these units back.
Nastify – a distortion
Distortions can also be difficult to get right. There would have been an intense sound design component necessary in order to accurately reproduce classic timbres and behaviour in our DSP, so this was another one for the second wave.
Formantz – a vocoder simulator/filter…?
This was not a vocoder, but rather a vocal formant filter box using several filters in series to recreate vocal tract resonances. By moving the cutoff frequencies in relation to each other, you can synthesize certain phonemes. Formantz would have been a bit of a research project for us, so we put it off.
Koruz – a chorus
I actually don’t recall exactly what happened here. It may have been a memory limitation of the 1K DSP that kept us from producing a viable prototype chorus algorithm. If that were the case, it would have required additional research to resolve. I’m not sure if I’m recalling correctly though.
Spectron – a bass/treble harmoniser/synth
This was another one where we didn’t have an algorithm ready to go. Later, we explored this territory with the Grip, rackmount effect unit.
Lymitre – a limiter
Lymitre was fairly interchangeable with the Smashup compressor unit in terms of development scheduling, but we wanted an even split to the division of the product line, and since these units were somewhat similar, we decided to choose one over the other. Smashup seemed the more immediately desirable of the two.
Fidelity X - a format/media simulator
Fidelity X would have been a really interesting unit. The idea was to have it impose various types and levels of quality on your audio, such as tube warmth, tape saturation, or vinyl artefacts. We wanted to model things like wax cylinders and radio signal loss. That would have been an extremely difficult, but fascinating, research project.
Were there any more projects in the pipeline beyond these “second wave” units?
There were no further ModFX units planned, but Alesis produced several more hardware effects devices after that. There was the aforementioned Grip, plus the GuitarFX, BassFX and AcoustiFX trio of pedals. Also, the Wildfire amps had on-board effects leveraging the same technology. However, as more and more customers transitioned to computer based studios in the mid 2000s, the Alesis effect business gradually shifted focus toward the most popular legacy products used for live performance and installations.
There are pictures of a couple of complete-looking "second wave" ModFX units that were taken (I think) at NAMM 2002. Were any of the units fully functional or were they mock-ups?
No, they were just mock-ups, unfortunately. I wound up with a couple of those units. They have different knob shapes, taller bypass buttons, and plastic ModLink connectors instead of metal. The plastic connectors didn’t feel sturdy enough so we changed them for mass production, and the bypass button and knobs were modified in order to refine their usability and mechanical fit.
Did Alesis make a small number of working units? Did these ever find their way out into the world?
No, sorry. The code for those secondary units either never existed, or existed only in a non-viable test state.
Which of the “second wave” pedals did you most want to see come to fruition and why?
I really wanted Fidelity X. I’m not sure Alesis was capable of realizing the unit as it was conceived, but if we had, that would have been pretty ground-breaking. Nowadays we have all kinds of plug-ins dedicated to modelling tubes, tape, vinyl and more, but back then, there really weren’t many options available to do this sort of thing.
I think a lot of people (like you) really wanted to get hold of the Fidelity X. What happened to all of this technology once the ModFX line was cancelled? Will it ever come back?
There are significant hurdles to overcome if anyone were to try and bring ModFX back. For one thing, the Alesis 1K DSP is no longer being produced and likely can’t be fabricated again. That’s enough to kill it right there. But someone (possibly me) could still create similar products in the future if enough people are interested.
What are you up to these days (and do you have a secret stash of ModFX prototypes hidden somewhere)?!
Yes, I do have a few, but of course they don’t do anything other than light up. I believe I also have a development board somewhere that does work, but it’s just a fragile, naked PCB and it’s stuck with whichever ModFX was last programmed on it. Metavox, I think.
These days, I’m still designing synths and effects. After Alesis, I went to M-Audio where I was the Product Manager for the Venom virtual analog synthesizer, and after Avid sold that company to inMusic, I left to collaborate with Tracktion Software on their BioTek virtual instrument. I’ve also co-founded my own company, MOK, with a couple of amazing engineers whom I met during my time at Alesis. We are planning on releasing both software and hardware products later this year, focusing on synthesizers and related effects. Should be fun!
A key theme in your career appears to be the discovery of new sounds from (sometimes unexpected) interactions between sonic elements, and a desire to provide users with the freedom to manipulate, modulate and discover their own unique sounds. Will we see more of this in your forthcoming work?
Absolutely. I’m a synth guy at heart, and old enough that I can remember a time when synthesizers were relatively new. There was this feeling that you could create any sound imaginable. I want to re-capture that sense of possibility and exploration in all my future designs.
My thanks to Taiho for his time and effort in putting this interview together, and the insights that he has freely shared.
For more information on Taiho and his other projects see: