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Five Questions: Dan Parks

August 3, 2017

If you’re a guitarist or drummer—or a motorcyclist—you might have some CruzTOOLs on you right now. For more than two decades, this northern California company has produced multi-tools, tech kits, and accessories for music and motorcycling, two lifelong passions of founder Dan Parks. But before Parks got into hardware tools, he spent 20 years in the audio semiconductor business, mostly at SSM, which pioneered chipsets for early programmable synths such as the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5.

Today, with analog synthesis experiencing a renaissance, driven largely by the Eurorack movement, Parks is bringing long-discontinued SSM chips back to the market through his new company, Sound Semiconductor (soundsemiconductor.com), which focuses on high-performance ICs for music and pro audio.

Why are you getting back into the semi-conductor business now?

I guess I felt like there was some unfinished business. Around the mid-to late-’80s, when Yamaha came out with the DX7 FM synthesizer, there was also a trend toward professional keyboards going to sampling and sampled sounds, and it really took the bottom out from under the analog synthesis market. Analog synthesis didn’t die, but it kind of went back to being an enthusiast thing. And the semiconductor industry is all about volume.

So, we started doing pro audio stuff: ICs that went into mixing consoles and signal-processing gear. We were acquired by Analog Devices, which wanted to go toward the consumer route. But it got way too corporate for me and just wasn’t very fun anymore. I liked the smaller markets of electronic musical instruments and pro audio gear. It was kind of wild and woolly; it was rough around the edges; everybody knew everybody, and it was enthusiasts doing products for enthusiasts.

So, I left. My other lifelong passion was riding motorcycles. I had a Harley and it didn’t come with tools, and I figured other people would need them. That’s how CruzTOOLS got started.

I’m a bass player, and a little over a year ago at Winter NAMM, as I was shopping around, it really became clear to me how there was a renaissance of analog synthesis; that was confirmed by NAMM data.

So, I just started to imagine a re-entry into that business and talking to some of the former designers I worked with. And to my delight and surprise, everybody was really interested in it—especially to make synthesizer chips again. Our first product was the re-introduction of one of the more iconic SSM chips; it’s a voltage-controlled filter.

How are you carrying your original vision for-ward in the context of the Eurorack movement and this technology renaissance?

Well, the Eurorack market is all of the energy: That is the reason for the renaissance. It’s just amazing how that has created a cottage industry of synthesizer manufacturers, and it’s also pulled along the mainstream people, which is certainly good for us because in order to justify the kind of investments we’re making for these new semiconductor chips, we need to have enough volume to get a return on our investment.

How is semiconductor manufacturing different in today’s environment?

SSM developed its first chip in 1975. That was probably less than ten years into volume manufacturing, and certainly there was no computer modeling, computer-aided design; things were done by hand.

Fast-forward to now: It’s been another 40 years’ worth of innovation, and high-volume, high-reliability semiconductor manufacturing has been in place for a long time. And those tools like computer modeling and computer-aided design, computer-aided layout, are fairly inexpensive. You can simulate a circuit on your computer that’s matched to the parameters of a particular process, and have very good correlation between what you model and what you actually produce in silicon.

Now we have available to us low-cost processes that have much more dense geometries, and it’s much easier to do full custom chips with dual-layer metal. Things like that that just weren’t available to us back in the ’70s and ’80s.

What kind of implications does that have for your own product development?

Well, I’ve had to learn how to do all sorts of things—every process, every element of this business. Before, I was the business guy, I was the marketing director. We had product engineers and test engineers and reliability people and process engineers; this large group of people that were specialists in all of their areas.

Now packages are all surface-mount instead of being a chip that has legs that go in the holes on a PC board; they are surface-mount soldered and they have about one-tenth the footprint on a PC board than they did back in my earlier days. So just learning about all the details about packaging or tests or reliability testing, all of these things that I never had to worry about before. It’s part of the excitement, and it’s because I’m learning.

How does it feel to go from manufacturing mechanical tools to semiconductor manufacturing?

In a way, we’re kind of crazy doing a startup for electronic musical instruments and professional audio gear, because no major semiconductor company in their right mind would be developing products for those markets because they’re way too small. The big companies want millions of pieces in sales and there’s no way we’re going to get that through this endeavor. You could justify it in the sense that it is a niche; niches are always a good thing to do in any kind of business. But the main reason we’re doing this is, it’s just fun.

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