by Ken Hughes
Here's an extended conversation with Marcus Ryle, which gave rise to his entry in the Keyboard Hall of Fame in the September 2012 issue. -Ed.
“I’m honored to be in the company of these other guys,” says Line 6’s Marcus Ryle, whose inclusion in this list is surprising to no one in the know. The products whose design he contributed to or masterminded: the Oberheim DSX digital sequencer (upon joining Oberheim when he was 19) and the OB-8, Xpander, and Matrix-12 synths; the Dynacord Add-One electronic drum brain and ADS sampler; Leprecon lighting consoles; the Alesis MMT-8 sequencer and HR-16 drum machine, Quadraverb, QS-series synths; and the product that arguably most deserves the overused-into-meaninglessness adjective “game-changer,” the Alesis ADAT; Line 6 modeling effects and guitar amps, and the latest revelation, Line 6’s StageScape, a where-has-this-been-all-our-lives line of “smart,” networkable, multipurpose P.A. gear.
About his early days in the synth business, Ryle says, “It was a very friendly industry, largely because it was smaller industry; you knew Phil Dodd and Dave Smith and Tom Oberheim and Bob Moog and Roger Linn. We were all friends. You could say to Roger, ‘We’re going to make a drum machine. Would you like to collaborate?’ and Roger could say, ‘No thanks, but best of luck with yours,’ and it was all very friendly. But there’s no point lamenting the fact that it isn’t so much that way anymore, because the change and growth that has come to the industry since then has been phenomenal.”
“The HR-16 and MMT-8 were the products that really opened our eyes [at Fast Forward Designs, the design consultancy Ryle founded after leaving Oberheim] to how amazing it could be to bring technology to a price point where you really could democratize musicmaking. In 1983 dollars, the Oberheim System [consisting of the DSX sequencer, DMX drum machine and OB-8 synth] cost over $10,000. In ’87 or ’88, the HR-16 was something like $399, the MMT-8 $299, and they were vastly more powerful.
The Fast Forward team went on to democratize the studio with the introduction of the ADAT. “I’d been through working on home-studio gear, with a 1/4” 8-track analog tape machine, and I’d done session work in real studios, and working at home, you always wished you could sound like you were really making a record. You always sounded like you were just making a demo.” Certainly, the ADAT changed that for a lot of folks. Buttering both sides of the bread, as it were, the FFD team also designed the NNN for Digidesign.
Ryle’s streak of hits wasn’t completely without bumps, though. “When we introduced the first Line 6 Axis guitar amp in 1996, we found out we had a lot to learn about industrial design. One description we heard was, ‘It’s a guitar amp designed by a keyboard player’ and that wasn’t intended as a compliment,” he laughs. “Thankfully, guitar players embraced it in spite of the way it looked, and we sold many thousands of those, but we continued to learn how to design for the way a guitar player thinks.”
When asked about interesting products that never quite made it off the drawing board, his reply is a tantalizingly vague, “Oh, god. . . .” But almost without pause, he launches into an equally tantalizing discussion about some expansion provisions designed into the Matrix-12. “Maybe I’ll tackle that in my retirement,” he jokes.
Having played a huge part in the democratization of music-making and recording, Ryle is now doing the same for the P.A. system; this is the goal of Line 6’s StageScape line, building on what’s been learned by all the products to date. “Our digital modeling products have made it possible for any guitarist to get a great sound quickly, so they can focus on playing,” he explains. “It has enabled some to discover sounds that they may never have achieved before, whether due to the difficulty and cost of acquiring lots of classic gear, or the lack of experience with how to get just the right sound from a wide range of guitar amps and effects. And for those that do already own lots of different gear and know how to use it, there’s the great benefit of being able to quickly switch between sounds without all the complexity and time required to set up and reconfigure the ‘real stuff.’ For live sound, our new approach provides similar benefits—the ability to quickly get a great sound, whether you’re experienced with gear or not—for everyone in the band instead of just the guitarist.”