Make some noise: Creating instruments for a living with Leo Uljanov

We join recent dBs graduate Leo Uljanov to talk about his new role as a product technician for Bristol-based synth company UDO Audio and his blossoming love for building instruments. 

Encountering an unfamiliar synthesiser is an exciting and daunting task that promises hours of discovery and surprises; and many of us are content to leave it at that. For recent Electronic Music Production graduate Leo Uljanov, his third year awakened a passion for creating instruments, and it's only continued to grow after joining the team at UDO Audio as a product technician. Now, suitably settled into his new role we caught up with Leo to learn more about his day-to-day, being inspired by those around him and why instrument creation is accessible to anyone. 

Congratulations on getting the role at UDO Audio! How did it feel when you were offered the job? 

"I was super excited! I didn't even know that they were going to look at my CV. It's crazy because it was during the pandemic, we'd just come back from Christmas and it was the New Year, so I really didn't think my chances were high, but I got it."

How did you come to find the position? 

"I was checking Tugkan's job board every week. Every single time he posted on there I was checking it. The UDO role was actually the first time I actually applied for a position through the job board."

You mentioned you didn't think they'd look at your CV. Was this an area in the industry you'd only recently become interested in?

"Yeah, that's partially true. I developed an interest in electronics and physical modelling in the last half of my final year of the degree. Before that I was mostly into software and producing music using computers; I'd never been that interested in audio equipment up to that point, so this was all new to me.

"I have to give a big shoutout to Emmanuel Spinelli, because he was the driving force behind me venturing into that side of things. He leads the innovation in production module in the third year, and it was during that module that I created a self-playing guitar, which introduced me to Arduino and electronics. 

How did the self-playing guitar work?

Leos self-playing servo-guitar"The initial idea behind this was to create a generative composition using Max MSP and electric guitar. However, in the process of research and prototyping, the project quickly escalated and evolved into a live performed piece exploring the creative potential of machine-made polyrhythms.

"In order for the guitar to work completely, one Arduino would put pressure on the pads, which was a solenoid mechanism that would form the chords. The other mechanism was made up of six servo motors which plucked the strings.

"I didn't have as much time as I would have liked, so I just made the string plucking mechanism, which is powered by Arduino and linked to Ableton Live. I made a custom MIDI controller for that, which is through Max MSP. Whenever I hit the note on the MIDI controller it started the servo motor and I was able to control the speed and angle at which the servo motors plucked the strings, so they were all in time with each other and were capable of different polyrhythms."

See the self-playing guitar in action below:

You're still actively creating custom instruments in your own time, mostly from toys you pick up in charity shops. What's the best way for a complete beginner to start getting into electronics and instrument creation?

Just give it a try. Don't worry about screwing it up, that's the point. It's about experimenting and seeing what happens. I went around charity shops and bought toys, and then soldered jack outputs and potentiometers to alter the pitch. One of the things I made was a sampler out of the toy, which is capable of changing the pitch and I can actually process it with a guitar pedal or even loop it. 

"With these low cost things, it costs me a pound or two to go into a charity shop and get some electronics. If you mess it up, you mess it up; you just buy another one and try again, but it's very straightforward.

"I'd recommend starting with MIDI controllers, because they have simple circuitries and also Arduino. It's a microprocessor, it does everything for you - just put the Arduino in, upload the code and it works. Unless you have complicated ideas for the Arduino you're working with, most general use code can be found online. The only thing which you have to solder to the board is your buttons or potentiometers, that's it."

Leo Uljanov's custom instruments built from toys

Some of Leo's circuit-bent toys. A sound machine bought from Waterstones fitted with a potentiometer, output and speaker switch (left) and a toy guitar fitted with volume, output and pitch controls (right). 

Building your own instruments must transfer nicely into your role at UDO 

"Yeah, precisely. My role as production technician is essentially building synths every day, so we receive them in parts that we have to assemble and then test them. Plus, if something goes wrong we have to figure out what the problem is and fix it. I've always been a big nerd and my interest in computer technology is what led me to music production, so building physical instruments and working at UDO is an extension of that."

UDO's debut synth, the Super 6, is now out in the world and receiving widespread critical acclaim. What's in been like to experience that alongside the rest of the team? 

"It's just something unreal and I'm so very grateful to have gotten this job. Being surrounded by people who are passionate about the same thing is something unique. It's why universities are so good because you can share knowledge with each other; you can be inspired by someone else's work and do something very unique because of that and it's the same in the lab because our team is so small. And our leader George, is incredibly smart and he's willing to share knowledge."

Leo & Callum at work in the UDO Audio lab

Leo and Callum at work in the UDO lab

That's interesting that you refer to George as your 'leader', why is that? 

"Both myself and my colleagues Levi and Callum see him as a leader, not the boss because he is so open about all aspects within the job. He allows us to get some real insights on how the business works, on how he thinks, how things work within the synthesiser etc.

"Every technical question we have is met with a very technical answer explaining how it works and where it can be applied. He shares books with us, too so we can expand our knowledge independently. It's an environment where you grow with the team and George has made that team what it is. I know I've said it already, but I'm very happy to be a part of it."

How has your role evolved since joining the team? 

"There are lots of new projects here, which I'm not allowed to talk about, but the company is growing really rapidly. I was lucky enough to do the surface mount soldering on the PCBs (Printed Circuit Board) for some of the prototypes we're developing, which was such a great opportunity."

What's really interesting is some of the experience that seemed so irrelevant actually helped in getting this job. 

"Yeah, from what I understood when applying for the job, it was actually my manufacturing experience that singled me out for the role. I used to work in a woodworking factory back in Latvia, where I operated heavy machinery - it was a dangerous stuff to work with, but I quickly learned the importance of attention to detail, which George was looking for. When I first moved to the UK, I worked in the Indesit tumble dryer factory as well as manufacturing for Bailey Caravans, too. Back then, I thought that was a waste of time, but it turned out to be a real positive." 

Though we're in a much better position, there are still many people graduating while the pandemic is still going on. What advice would you give to the people looking for work? 

"You have to understand your own experience and what you're good or bad at. You can't just sell yourself as a brilliant producer if you're not, or claim you're super experienced if you're just coming out of uni. Whenever I looked at the opportunities which appeared in Tugkan's weekly email, I went through the job descriptions and analysed exactly what the job required and asking myself what I could offer to the employer."

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