Miles Macquarrie runs the most prestigious bar program in Atlanta. But long before he was earning James Beard nominations for Kimball House’s beverages, he was a ‘90s rave kid with dreams of becoming a music producer.
Ironically, it was booze (or at least the threat of it) that indirectly set a teenaged Miles on that path: in exchange for sitting out a debaucherous senior trip to Cancun, his parents offered to help him buy a Roland Groovebox, an all-in-one drum machine, synthesizer, sequencer, and sampler that he’d been diligently saving his pizza delivery money to buy.
“I didn’t even hesitate,” he says.
Over the years, mixing audio gave way to mixing drinks, and tinkering with synths was eventually replaced by punk records, then vintage motorcycles. (“I’ve always had some sort of obsessive hobby,” he says.) But when he and his wife were expecting their first kid, Miles’s mint ‘76 Honda CB-750 had to go.
He sold it and used the money to buy a new modular synth system, of course.
These systems, Miles explains, have no screens or keyboards. You “play” by creating a patch with cords. “I like a lot of tech and equipment, and using my hands in a tactile experience,” says Miles. “And this is kind of the ultimate tactile experience: cables and knobs and lights and buttons.”
We asked Miles to share some insight for anyone curious about making some sci-fi soundscapes or robot bloops of their own.
Tip #1: Think outside the Bachs
“A lot of what I do, I wouldn't even necessarily classify as music. The cool thing with this being a modular synth, and not one with keyboards, is that it's all voltage. It goes by one volt per octave. It's completely atonal, so you're getting all the stuff between the notes. That's what I prefer, because otherwise I'd just play with a keyboard.”
Tip #2: Practice non-attachment
“The beauty is that you can't really create the same thing twice: once you unplug the cables, everything's gone. It's all how you patch it with different cables and different configurations. I really like having no pressure of trying to be an artist or anything. It's just fun.”
Tip #3: Don’t be afraid to get weird
“There are all these things you couldn't do with your standard synthesizer. That's what appeals to me. If you think about a normal synthesizer, it has keys on it. You press a key, it makes a note. There's a whole path that makes that happen. But in a modular synth, none of that is connected. So you can turn a filter into an oscillator, or bypass all that—nothing happens until you take a cable of an output and plug that into an input. Essentially, you break all the rules.”
Tip #4: Start small, then build your “Frankensynth”
“It can be really inexpensive. But it can also get really expensive. So I would say, if people are curious, they should just get a small case and fill it up and see if they like it. You basically just have to buy a case that has power, and you can mix and match different modules and build your ultimate custom Frankensynth, which is awesome but also terrible, because you can constantly just swap and sell and buy. It becomes addictive because it's a living, growing thing.”
Miles Macquarrie is a James Beard finalist and co-founder of Kimball House in Decatur, Georgia. He also happens to be Tip Top’s recipe developer. Next time you’re in Georgia, be sure to try some of his delicious drinks.