Expert Sleepers Founder Andrew Ostler on Eurorack Creation & Innovation

If you're into modular synthesis, chances are you've come across Expert Sleepers, the brainchild of Andrew Ostler. From humble beginnings as a VST plugin developer, Andrew took a detour into the captivating world of Eurorack in 2010. Little did he know that this serendipitous experiment would lead him on a path to creating a well-respected, thriving company.

We sat down with Andrew to discuss the world of Expert Sleepers and how it came to be. Discover Expert Sleeper modules here on Reverb.

Can you tell us about the beginnings of your company and how you became involved in Eurorack development?

Expert Sleepers goes back a long way, before I was even remotely interested in Eurorack. I started doing VST plugin development back a long while ago now. It was never a business at the time, more like a hobby. In 2008, I bought a little Eurorack for my own personal enjoyment. This was back in the day when there were like three brands selling Eurorack—I ended up getting some Analogue Systems stuff.

Then I wrote what became my plugin Silent Way, which is a kind of control plugin to control the analog stuff through an audio interface. That was relatively straightforward for me to do because I'd had the VST stuff going on already. And that was the start of it really.

Andrew Ostler
Andrew Ostler

That plugin had the requirement that the audio interface be DC coupled so you could use it directly for CV. Some comments on (what was then) the Muffwiggler forum suggested that it might be possible to extend that to working with any audio interface with a little bit of hardware. Suddenly I found myself with a need to make a little bit of hardware which eventually became my first Eurorack module in 2010.

It was super basic. I was soldering it up at home in my back bedroom, selling them directly to people on the internet. And from there I find myself where I am now, where this is my career and my living which is surprising to be honest. I certainly never intended to form my own company, let alone one making synthesizer hardware.

My background is in game development, so I made a complete switch from game coding. I’m happier working on my modules, which have a firmware element, than I am designing the hardware really. So for most of Expert Sleepers I’ve been doing relatively digital stuff and then writing firmware. My model has been to make a relatively small number of modules and to continually develop the firmware. The firmware side of it has been quite dominant until I started doing these analog modules, which of course have no firmware. So that's swung it back a bit more in the other direction.

What is your philosophy or approach to designing your modules? What sets them apart from others in the market?

Fundamentally I’m always designing something that I personally need or want. That's where it started from. And even now, because I'm a one-man show, everything is completely on my whim basically. That, of course, limits the amount of time available because there's only me doing it so I really have to only do things that I find interesting or exciting. Otherwise, why am I even doing it? So if there's one unifying factor, it’s that I make stuff that I think is useful for me and by extension probably to other people.

Initially, it was all the stuff to integrate analog gear with DAWs because that’s where I spend much of my time when I'm making music. And then more recently with the analog stuff, I’m returning to what excited me in the first place about using modular hardware: making really electronic sounds rather than making the sound any other way.

How was the transition from digital to analog module creation for you and what was the inspiration for it?

The reasons for doing it were twofold really. After the Disting EX and the ES-9, I felt I'd been deep in very digital design for a while. I just felt like a rest from this incredibly digital development. And the other thing was getting back to the reason I wanted to use Eurorack in the first place.

But it was also an opportunity to learn something—I'd never built a filter, for example—and I'm big on taking the opportunity to learn something new on every project, however small that is. So it seemed like a good time to take a breath and immerse myself in something new. And it's been a lot of fun and surprisingly different to doing the stuff that came before.

As a one-man operation, how do you manage all the different aspects of your business, from design and production to marketing and distribution?


The way I've kept it just me is by offloading more and more as the years have gone by. So getting all the assembly done, getting the testing done, getting the boxing done, and then eventually getting a distributor involved to the extent that now basically I spend most of my time doing the development and R&D. The factories just get on with it, build the stuff and send it off to the distributor.

The typical day for me is half an hour to hour at the start of every day answering support emails and forums and things. And most of my day is doing the meaty bit of the design or firmware development or PCB layout, that kind of thing. Every now and again kicking off production batches, purchasing and all that sort of stuff. But most of my time is the fun bit at the moment, which is good. I've been through phases where I would spend 25% of my time just putting things in cardboard boxes, which was not a good use of my time. So I'm glad to have offloaded all of that.

And regarding marketing, I really don't do very much. I should possibly do more but it's not something that comes naturally to me, so it tends to fall by the wayside a little bit. I would say quite a big part of the brand that I've built up is the fact that it is just me and anybody who reaches out for support gets me. So they're talking directly to the person who designed and built the thing. That obviously doesn't help get new customers, but people who are customers know that if they need to speak to somebody, they'll be speaking directly to me. And I think that counts for quite a lot.

You’ve also started a music label that showcases the artists who are using your products, which I find really interesting. What motivated you to start that label and how does it fit in with your brand?

It was just a bit of fun, really. I mean, it was one of those things that I thought might be fun to do—and might be useful marketing by stealth, putting some music out that wouldn't necessarily be out that recognizably uses my stuff. Obviously some of that music is my own, so it's great to be able to put my own music out on my own little label.

It's been a slow growth, but it's been well-received. I'm not sure how much it's really flying the flag for the modules, but it's just a bit of fun on the side really. It certainly isn't bringing in any income for anybody. But releasing music these days is a tough proposition as I'm sure you're aware, so it’s just a little extra thing that might bring people in and generate a bit of interest.

As you mentioned, you're also a musician. How has your mindset as a musician shaped your approach to development and vice versa?

Well, it’s certainly meant I've made a lot less music, oddly. I'm happy when I'm creating, so if I'm in a job where I'm not creating much, then I want to go home and create music. But if I spend all day enjoying what I'm doing and making modules and stuff, then I'm honestly quite glad to sit back and chill in the evening.

Expert Sleepers Beatrix

And also, you don't want to do for recreation what you do for a living. So spending all day with modules and then firing up the modules in the evening to make some music is less appealing. I guess that's pushed my music-making more towards the other stuff I do with “real” instruments. I play all kinds of wind instruments and have tended to lean into those a bit more than previously.

As I mentioned, I develop what I would like to use, which can be a problem when I sit down to make music with modular stuff. It can be very hard to stay in the mindset of making music when you’re halfway through recording something and thinking, "I wish I'd had this feature that would make this easier to create." Before you know it, you're back in programming mode rather than creative mode. But yeah, there’s definitely an interrelation there.

Are there any moments, achievements, or highlights that really stand out where you thought "Oh, wow, I'm getting somewhere?"

It's just been a steady journey, really. I can't pick out any moments of ultimate triumph. It doesn't really work that way. You put something out and people like it or don't. And sometimes these things take a while to build.

I saw that you have a Brian Eno testimonial on your website. That seems pretty big.

It’s nice when somebody well-known gets in touch and says, "Hey, I use your stuff." That's happened a few times. I'm not terribly starstruck by these people, but it's always interesting to know that it's not only people in their bedrooms but that my products are being used as serious professional tools. The release of the first disting module kind of felt like I'd hit on something cool and unusual.

Was it the response you got or was it just personal satisfaction?

It was the response and to some extent, it was the sales. I think up until that point, I'd very much been on the kind of computer interfacing side. And then to do something that wasn't anything to do with that was interesting to me. I think that brought home how many people don't want or don't need to use a computer anywhere near their Eurorack because to me, electronic music-making has always involved a computer. That really brought home to me how many people just want to turn on the Eurorack and jam without having a computer anywhere near it. Which I can kind of understand.

How do you see the future of Eurorack and modular synthesis evolving and how do you plan to stay at the forefront of the industry?

I'm permanently surprised that Eurorack is as big a thing as it is. I mean, if you'd said to me 15 years ago that Eurorack will still be this enormous and still growing thing in 15 years time… It just felt like it was very small and very niche. And it didn't feel like it was going to become this enormous industry, and I don't think I could have predicted some of the things that are happening.


I mean, just the different ways people are using it, the different things, the way it's gone from very analog origins to now where you've got some modulars that are basically lots of little computers in a box. And you see some people's rigs and they've got MIDI or i2C connecting everything up and there's hardly any patch cables in these cases because everything's digital. Which is kind of weird in a way because you know, you're in this patching environment with these little things that are all digital, but they're talking to each other through voltages for some reason. Which doesn't really make a lot of sense.

But it's just about what people enjoy using, right? If everything's in software, you could just do it on a computer, but would you enjoy it as much if you did on a computer? I guess not. Which is why people still like the hardware.

I still like the actual analog hardware for being analog. I still think you get things from that you just would never get in software. I mean, you might be able to recreate a certain thing in software if you sat down and really thought about doing it, but you wouldn't just stumble into these weird niches of interaction between modules.

It’s all about discoverability and experimental ability to patch stuff together, but as to where it's going… I've never predicted anything that's going to be a trend so I'm not about to start now. I'm just happy to see it continue to exist and just ride the wave as it goes along. I like to stay abreast of developments, talk to people and find out what they need. It's not like there are any real problems to be solved at this point. I think it's about inspiring more creativity. I mean computers are powerful enough to do pretty much anything you like these days. It's about making it as convenient and fun as possible.

How do you balance the technical and the creative aspects in general?

I'm sure whatever view I have on that is incredibly biased by the fact that I'm fundamentally quite a technical person, so my comfort zone for technicalness is probably different to a lot of people's. So I don't know, I guess I'm approaching all the things I do like I’m delivering people a tool.

Expert Sleepers Amelia

I'm delivering people a thing that will be part of something else, I'm not presenting a thing and saying "this is all you need to make music." I'm always trying to give them a part and that kind of puts the onus on them to do the ultimately creative bit.

My job then is to make the tool as functional as possible, which doesn't necessarily mean cramming it with every feature under the sun. It just means that the thing can do what it's designed to do, maybe with some kind of surprising new elements to it.

What excites you the most at this moment about the future of your company and the possibilities that lie ahead? Are there any products in development that you can tell us about?

I'm still developing more analog modules and have some more ideas in that direction too. I think there's an expectation that I will continually bring out evermore powerful digital firmware based things but at some point I will reach a threshold in terms of what I personally can usefully do in that environment, so I'm not sure that that's necessarily the way to go.

I don't have some kind of grand vision for the future of Expert Sleepers at this point, other than to keep making everything incrementally better and keep things alive. And that’s not without its challenges at the moment. Just being able to actually build things, which you’d think would be a relatively straightforward part of running an electronics business, recently hasn't been at all. So I’m focusing on keeping things going, listening to customer feedback, and just doing good stuff and eventually something will hit the sweet spot.

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