Growing up in Wenatchee, Washington, in the 1970s, Doug Theriault played trumpet and piano, and heard a lot of disco on AM radio. Something in his gut told him there was a whole wide world of sound out there yet to be discovered, so he followed his instincts and began to futz with the innards of his tape players to alter their speed, and to cut and splice together his cassette collection. Holding onto his exploratory teenage impulses, Theriault continued his technical experiments on an increasingly sophisticated basis, and is now a noted Portland-based improv-noise musician and a prolific designer and engineer of wild, one-off synthesizers, effects pedals, electronic instruments, and what he calls "microsounds," which are devices that pick up sounds usually inaudible to the human ear (e.g., underwater noises, bat sounds) and make them hearable. Theriault spoke with me about his techno-wizardry in advance of the rare live (all ages) set he'll be playing on Saturday, July 19 at Exit Only, armed with a guitar, computer, and "implements."
MERCURY: When and why did you become interested in the electrical engineering side of being a musician?
DOUG THERIAULT: Out of high school I went to electronic technical school in Phoenix. I dropped out after eight months as I was more interested in experimentation than theory. I didn't pick up a soldering iron again until eight years ago. It had to do with a fostering of ideas that slowly had been developing in my head over the last 10 years, but were not really possible until certain other technological aspects were improved—computer power being the main one. Then I was able to construct my ideas and build them within a closed system that would be somewhat stable for live music.
What inspired you to build your first sound-making device?
Not being able to get the sound I wanted any other way. You just hit a wall. To get around the wall you can either hack your way, or build your way around it.
When you go about designing a new music-making tool, how do you begin?
I sit down with a certain sound idea and figure out technically and intuitively how it will be achieved. Or I build a system and add on different ingredients to see if it spices up the sound more.
What is your favorite sound-making device of your own design?
The Quarcus synthesizer. It is a touch-sensitive synth. The pressure sensors are homemade. As you touch them it adjusts the pitch of the oscillators much differently then a keyboard. Which gives the synth a very different sound from a regular keyboard interface.
Tell me about your business, Buzz-R Electronics.
The business originally was set up so that local musicians and producers could rent out these customized sound devices that others and myself had made. But what ended up happening was that people just wanted to buy them.
What advice do you have for a musician interested in building their own instruments or equipment?
Browse internet forums like emusic.com, the Make Blog, Deviant Synth, Matrixsynth, Music Thing, and these will generally point you in a direction that you might want to go. We should be having another instrument-building class soon at Buzz-R Electronics.