Who is the Leo Fender of Today?

The history of music gear is a parade of names.

The story of the electric guitar marches past with Les Paul, Leo Fender, Ted McCarty and Seth Lover. The development of the synthesizer gives us Bob Moog and Don Buchla.

These luminaries redefined how musicians create. Music ventured into new territory as a result.

The message board chatter might have you believe that no one is innovating in music anymore. But the parade hasn’t stopped.

Who, then, are the modern gear visionaries?

When it comes to the early 21st century, we’d argue three more names belong: Takahashi, Behles and Chase.

Like Fender and Moog before them, it’s the commitment to music and music-makers - not just their technical achievements - that we believe will put these three in the history books of the future.


Tatsuya Takahashi of Korg

Tatsuya Takahashi leads analog synth design at Korg. Since joining the firm, his synth-ography of work reads like the back of a greatest hits record. As a project lead, Tatsuya's output started with the simple Monotron and its spin-offs, followed by the Monotribe, the whole Volca family and the full-fledge Minilogue synth to name just a handful.

Tatsuya's design ethos centers a commitment to what he referred to as the "democratization of synthesis" during a presentation at this year's Moogfest. As he explained this concept in a cheerful English accent, Tatsuya revealed himself as much a philosopher of music as he is a masterful engineer.

Tatsuya Takahashi on the KORG volca sample OK GO edition

Tatsuya believes that analog synths - once synonymous with rock gods and research labs - should be available to everyone.

The song of the oscillator and filter need not be monopolized by a few well-heeled technocrats, but should be affordable and approachable for anyone who has an interest in electronic music. Like Leo Fender, Tatsuya's work shows a vision not just of new musical instruments, but a world where they land in the hands of as wide a population as possible.

This belief manifests in a synth design methodology that uses digital components to control analog circuits. This hybrid approach, while not uncommon nowadays, allows Korg to produce synths cheaply and quickly, distributing them through the entire world.

Seeing Korg products crop up at an Urban Outfitters might be a little cringe-inducing to some, but it's a testament to Tatsuya and Korg's mission of widening the availability of quality synths outside the confines of gearheads in the know.


Gerhard Behles of Ableton

If creating music technology that unlocks the creativity of the masses is a measure of success in this industry, then Gerhard Behles - CEO and co-founder of Ableton - may be the most successful innovator in a generation.

Along with Robert Henke and Bernd Roggendorf, Behles founded Ableton in 1999. He built the first version of Live to alleviate his own frustrations as an electronic music maker playing out in Berlin.

The story of Live follows an arc that's shared by successful businesses from every industry: recognize a pain point, build a way to address it, and find an enormous audience of people seeking relief for the same frustrations.

PressPausePlay interview of Gerhard Behles

Ableton Live achieved this by recognizing that the line between production and performance in electronic music is fluid. That music software should serve every angle of a producer's work, from inspiration and recording through playback and performance.

Until that point, most DAW (digital audio workstation) packages were essentially digital emulations of recording studios. Live was the first DAW to take a step back and frame computer-based music production as a unique and worthy process in and of itself.

You may not always have access to a recording studio, but with Live on your laptop, the distance between you and your workspace evaporates, placing producers in a constant state of creation.

In the years since its launch, Live has become the dominant means of production and performance for a comprehensive cross-section of electronic musical styles. Music-makers of every stripe are finding that they too can break free of the confines of a conventional DAW and bridge their composition and performance methods.


Cliff Chase of Fractal Audio

After years spent in the underwater acoustic and sonar technology industry, Cliff Chase founded Fractal Audio as a way to bring his robust engineering skillset to the guitar tone playground.

He felt the market had yet to fully realize what digital processing could do for guitar tone. He set out to fill the void with the Axe FX and the followup Axe FX II, now benchmarks for what digital amp and effects modeling can accomplish.

While often associated with metal, the Axe FX and other Fractal products offer a way to combine and emulate just about any guitar amp, effect or tone you could imagine within one box. While not the first product to offer open-ended modeling to guitarists, Fractal brings a depth and quality unlike anything else on the market (with due deference to the Kemper Profiling Amp series).

Mark Holcomb on Gain Settings with Fractal Audio Axe FXII | Reverb Interview

Like any innovation, amp modeling still has its detractors who take umbrage with any instance where a digital process claims similitude to an original analog piece of gear.

For Cliff and Fractal though, their products aren't about dismantling or reinventing the guitar tone legacy. They’re about honoring it by giving guitarists the chance to sample everything at the historical tone banquet.

In his occasional interviews or forum comments, Cliff comes off as someone singularly focused on bringing his customers the best possible musical experience. In one interview, he outlined how his algorithms take into account how real tubes have electronic "memory" that affects the tone. This is something he replicates in a DSP paradigm.

With this attention to detail, it's small wonder that reviews of the Axe FX II frequently laud the genuine tube amp feel these digital processors deliver.

These units are so well-regarded that a who's who of high-profile touring acts have dropped their massive rigs altogether opting for nothing more than an Axe FX II rack. Most notably, Kirk, James and Rob of Metallica bought an entire production run of Axe FX II units direct from Fractal in 2013 to play a show in Antarctica. The band has since adopted the Axe FX II for all its touring needs.


There are other companies and visionaries out there doing sensational work that could just as easily made this list. There are brilliant pedal firms like Strymon and Chase Bliss.

There are studio companies like Crane Song and Little Labs reinvigorating the processes and technologies that formed the backbone of recorded music generations ago.

There's a growing hive of Eurorack and other indie synth makers going back to Doepfner himself most of whom probably haven't even soldered their most innovative circuits yet.

They've all given us new toys to play with and new sound to explore, and there's no sign of slowing down.

What current gear visionaries inspire your playing? Let us know in the comments.

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