Since the early days of house music, Satoshi Tomiie has been a pivotal figure within the global electronic music scene, leaving an indelible mark with his groundbreaking contributions. Decades after his iconic collaboration on ‘Tears’ alongside Frankie Knuckles, this Japanese-born, New York-based artist remains a driving force as a DJ, producer, remixer, and label owner, earning a well-deserved place among today’s underground elite. With a jazz and classical piano background, Satoshi showcases remarkable musical skills, constantly evolving his creative approach. Embracing innovation, he recently embarked on experimenting with a new, all-hardware live setup, allowing him to smoothly integrate his beloved machines into live performances at clubs and festivals, delivering captivating improvisations. As vibrant and influential as ever, Satoshi Tomiie remains at the forefront of the electronic music movement, continually pushing boundaries and enchanting audiences worldwide with his incomparable talent and boundless creativity.

Can you share your journey into modular synthesis? What initially drew you to this form of music production?

When I started making beats, the only way to do so was by using hardware synths, samplers, sequencers, etc. This was way before the convenience of powerful computers became available. I learned jazz before starting electronic music. It’s great to know musical theory (I am also a half-decent keyboard player myself lol), but it could also be a limitation when I want to step out of my comfort zone. Modular synth filled the gap and fit in the right place; it helped me to come up with “different kinds” of sequences and patterns. 

I had always been hesitant to start it actually; I knew myself and was “scared” of falling into the rabbit hole of modular synth. I was damn right!

Are there any specific modular synth modules or pieces of gear that are essential to your sound? Can you talk about your favorite tools in your modular setup?

As my aim with modular synthesis is to create electronic music, especially dance music, putting together my Eurorack rig is akin to building a flexible groove box tailored to my needs. For example, my live rig includes a drum machine, a sampler, five synths, a sequencer, a mixer, and effects. I could design how I want it to be, and I can improvise, composing music on the fly. Creating music on the spot while people are dancing in front of me. A lot of time and work behind the scenes indeed but extremely rewarding. For this, all the modules are essential, and everything is connected organically.

How does your workflow with modular synthesis differ from traditional software-based production? What are the advantages or challenges you find with these systems?

To me, software came after hardware, so software is non-traditional! The biggest disadvantage of software synths, etc., is the user interfaces. It was so difficult to make patches from scratch and fiddle with those knobs using a mouse or trackpad, another reason I went back to the hardware instruments. Many software (not all) are mimicking hardware or real studios, so why not use physical instruments? The advantage of hardware is I can tweak the knobs and try different patching on Eurorack to come up with a unique sound and sequences quickly. Often, you encounter “happy accidents.” There are many advantages to software indeed; it’s just not so much of an advantage for my music-making method.

Can you describe your approach to patch creation? How do you decide on a particular piece’s signal flow and modulation sources?

I normally go with the flow, and happy accidents happen often. Other people’s patching ideas also become inspiration, especially when it comes to modulation. Modular synthesis has a huge trap for musicians though; it sometimes demands so much time to learn or experiment that people stop making music. Although nothing is wrong with digging deep into sound design, I’d rather spend more time making music than making “the most incredible patch ever.”

How do you integrate modular synthesis into the overall music production process? Do you typically start with a modular patch, or is it introduced later?

It depends on the mood and what I want to achieve. I have relatively many machines in the studio, and there is no point in using them all at once. For example, if I want a deep dubby bass, I would go straight to SH-2 and play it with my fingers. Modular is a great tool for generative sequencing. If I wanted a bassline I would never be able to come up with by playing by hand, I would go for modular.

How do you adapt your modular setup for live shows, and what role does it play in your performance?

Like I said above, my modular live rig is something like a “groove box” designed by myself. When I do a live set with modular, I don’t need any other instruments. It’s an amazing tool that makes it possible for me to perform live improvisation, making music on the spot. I aim to be able to jam like a jazz musician. It requires practice, just like traditional instruments (in different ways), but the feeling of “composing” music in front of people grooving to it is something I can’t describe in words, an extraordinary feeling.

Do you approach modular synthesis with a specific sonic goal, or is it more about experimentation?

A bit of both. Happy accidents are always welcome 🙂

Are there resources or techniques you found particularly helpful when starting?

I was lucky to be around the stores with super kind and knowledgeable staff working there. It’s a bit complicated to know what you need to start; people at Control in New York and Rintaro at Clockface Modular in Tokyo helped me out a lot.

How do you see the role of modular synthesis in the evolution of electronic music? Do you think it’s becoming more prevalent, and how might it shape the future of the genre?

Modular synthesis has been around from the beginning. Eurorack makes modular synthesis more ‘affordable’ in many ways, and I think it’s here to stay. It requires dedication because of the nature of the instrument, but it opens up the possibility of synthesis. Once you understand it, you can build your ‘dream machine’ the way you want it to be — or at least something closer to it. The evolution of technology and electronic music has been moving hand in hand. Modular synths were once all analog; now, many modular synths are taking advantage of digital technology, and I am sure they will reshape the world of electronic music and beyond.


Music editor/director: Joiah Luminosa