An interview with John Richards


A while back I posted about the POLYTIK synths when they were crowdfunding on Kickstarter. I was personally very drawn to these synths and as soon as I’d found out that they were made by the Dirty Electronics ensemble I knew that they’d be good. The POLYTIK synths are not on Kickstarter any more, they’ve moved to Bleep, which is a probably a good place for them.

What was the initial inspiration for the POLYTIK synths?

A friend of mine, Joana Seguro, who was at Artists & Engineers at the time, introduced me to Jack Featherstone. Joana had helped organize a number of Dirty Electronics events in the past and said “Fancy doing a collaboration with graphic designer and artist Jack Featherstone?” I met with Jack, and our relationship began to develop. I’d done a lot of artwork printed circuit boards (PCBs) in the past, and it was a case of Jack and I developing a specific visual language for the project. In fact, the initial idea came together very quickly. From a sound and operational perspective, I wanted to do something with a sequencer that also felt organic and analogue; so I looked at programmable ICs (integrated circuits) that could be used to control analogue sound modules. I really like what this combination of approaches and technology brings. I had no idea of how to program this stuff to start with. To me it was all esoteric technology and code and, looking back on it, it was painful getting it all working. But it was done, and I’m extremely proud that artists and not engineers have designed this!

The name Polytik also relates to the overall inspiration for the synths. Jack’s four limited edition record covers for Border Community, Another land, where all four designs fit together to form a larger picture, was an idea we wanted to explore. Hence ‘polytik’ which is a play on the word polyptych (multi-panelled artwork). We also discussed the visual qualities of technical drawings and how this aesthetic could be incorporated into the design. We wanted to break the rules with electronic component layout and think of these components in a more visual way rather than just for their function.

Originally the project was launched with Artists and Engineers (as part of an exhibition I think), how did it spin out of that?

The plan was to always work with Artists & Engineers to develop a hand-held synth/artwork. And bleep as a distributor was considered right from the outset. The public may have got little windows into the development of Polytik. Prototypes would occasional appear alongside me on stage, with showed the synths at the opening of Limewarf, Machine Rooms in London, and Jack and I did a AV performance with them at the roBOt Festival in Bologna. It’s taken a few years to get them to this stage!

Is your plan to develop new modules following the kickstarter, if so can you give any clues as to future plans?

We considered a Kickstarter campaign and crowdfunding, but this did not sit too well with retailers. Polytik is being retailed through It’s a great home for it. There will be a stripped-down ‘workshop’ core for participatory and building events but for the time being there is plenty there to get stuck into! Jack and I have been developing an AV performance with Polytik that will get a run out at festivals this year, such as Sonar Hong Kong. I’m always working on new designs and commissions as Dirty Electronics. There’ll be a new very limited artwork PCB for an event at Café Oto, London in May.

What is it that appeals to you in designing modular synth systems, and why do you think they have grown so popular in recent years?

A few words that come to mind: play, experimentation, ephemerality, community, sound, nostalgia, collectable, independent, post-digital

Would you consider creating eurorack versions of the POLYTIK system?

No. I’ve always been interested in standalone hand-held objects and synths. There are benefits of a standard system and format, but everything should not conform to this. With a Eurorack system you can collect an amazing array of modules, and there is already enough people designing and making this stuff; but ultimately, I’m interested in restricting choices and limiting the possibilities available. How many oscillators do we really need? For example, with Polytik, can I work with and enjoy what I have in front of me? It’s about being creative within boundaries. And of course, Polytik is not necessarily designed to be used in the studio. It encourages a more mobile practice. It can be used on your desk, kitchen table, or even rug in front of the fire.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.