5 Women In The Synthesizer Industry: Kris Kaiser, Noise Engineering

For International Women’s Day, we talked to five women engineers working in the synthesizer industry. In part one, we speak with Kris Kaiser, the co-founder of Noise Engineering.

No matter which way you cut it, engineering is a male-dominated field. This also includes the musical instrument industry. On average, the percentage of women working in engineering fields is below 20%. While this amount has promisingly increased over time, it still remains low in comparison to men. 

However, numbers don’t really tell stories, people do. What is it really like for women working in the hardware synthesizer industry, a traditionally male-dominated field?

For this year’s International Women’s Day, we talked to five women who design and engineer synthesizers – both traditional and modular – to hear their stories.

For this, first interview, we spoke to Kris Kaiser. She’s the co-founder of Noise Engineering, one of the best-known modular synthesizer companies. They’ve also contributed oscillators to Arturia’s MiniFreak and MicroFreak and make software plugins as well. They’re busy folks.

The interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

Kris Kaiser Interview
Kris Kaiser (Image provide by Kris Kaiser)

Attack Magazine: What is it that you like about synthesizers?

Kris Kaiser: I love the versatility. The way we can shape sounds on a synth is unlike anything else – and no two synths are really the same. There is so much design in the choices that the developers make in what to surface for users.

I love a traditional synth with a fixed architecture for the constraints it gives me, and I love modular synths where nothing is fixed and every time I patch it, it becomes a different instrument.

I can swap out any of the bits if I get bored and get something even more different! Don’t get me wrong, I love acoustic instruments, too. I just wouldn’t know where to begin how to build a company based on making them!

Is there anything you don’t like?

The main thing is probably the cost!

Synths in general are pretty pricey; getting into modular synthesis offers incredible flexibility but the expense is not trivial. The parts shortages of the past few years have only made it worse. It prevents a lot of users from diving in. On the other hand, it also keeps me from hoarding a lot more synths than I do.

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How did you get started working with synthesizers?

A while back, my husband Stephen and I were in completely different careers and doing the rat race. I was a biology professor working stupidly long hours. At some point, we realized that we actually liked each other and thought it would be nice if we could spend some time together.

Stephen had been making modules under the Noise Engineering name as a hobby for a little while … so we thought, what if we could just do that?

[quote align=right text=”I have had mixed experiences, so I actively work to surround myself with people who believe that gender is irrelevant with respect to ability.”]

What do you do at your job?

Officially my title is ‘Doer of Many Things’, which says it all.

I design our hardware, from schematic to PCB layout, and routing, and do the ordering. I interface with our manufacturer/distributor daily. I am also part of a team of two who answer customer emails.

I do the financial stuff, a lot of wrangling of things like beta testing for our software, a tiny bit of project management, some product testing, and really a little bit of almost everything else.

What is it you like about your job?

I love my team. When things have gotten wonky here, this team has stood up and gotten it done. I love how varied my days are. I love the flexibility. But most of all, we get to make the tools that musicians use. I will never, ever get tired of hearing pieces that use our products.

Is there anything you don’t like?

I have come to extremely dislike parts shortages.

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Would you say that the synthesizer industry is a generally accepting place for women?

I have had mixed experiences, so I actively work to surround myself with people who believe that gender is irrelevant with respect to ability.

Within the larger Noise Engineering community, people have been incredibly accepting. We do our best to associate with and showcase other women-owned brands too. Be the change you want to see, right?

[quote align=right text=”Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, ask questions, and learn. Seek out a support network of people who you trust, respect, and can learn from, lean on, and ask for help when you need it.”]

Have you ever encountered chauvinism in your industry?

Yes.

A lot of the women we’re talking to work in the modular synthesizer industry rather than the traditional synth one. Why do you think this is?

Such a fascinating question!

I suspect a lot of this is history: the traditional synth world is ruled by long-standing companies and historically, that’s a pretty male-dominated world.

It’s probably possible to do, but I have a hard time wrapping my brain around how a single person of any gender would easily break into (it) due to the massive expense and all of the work involved from prototyping to manufacture to distribution to marketing and so much more.

Let’s contrast that with a modular synthesizer. A single person can breadboard a circuit and test it at home. Once she’s comfortable with the way it works, she can order a prototype and hand-solder it, test it, and tweak it.

Modules can be sold as kits, built by hand, or can be outsourced to a contract manufacturer. In any case, the barrier to entry on all of these is much lower.

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What advice would you give to young women who want to do what you do?

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, ask questions, and learn.

Seek out a support network of people who you trust, respect, and can learn from, lean on, and ask for help when you need it. Develop a very thick skin, because customers are not shy about voicing their opinions no matter who makes the product. Most of all, have fun

Find Noise engineering online.

Subscibe to Attack to read Part 2 with Sandra Sims of SDS Digital Modular.

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