[sdiy] Korg shows us how to sell more synths for less and make more money

roglok roglok at hyperground.de
Tue Nov 5 12:55:07 CET 2013

just adding to this the trend of affordable, laser-cut acrylic enclosures/panels:


the beauty of DIY is that it's all up to the builder to decide how much work and money they want to put into their gear. Music Thing's Random Looping Sequencer is a great example. the initial design featured acrylic panels, but soon after release DIYers have come up with custom aluminium versions... even commercial designs can work like that to a certain extent, provided they address the right group/niche. KORG decided to make the schematics for their range of mini-synths publicly available, which secured them not only sympathies, but also more sales.

it really depends on which crowd you are catering to...

On 05.11.2013, at 12:15, cheater00 . wrote:

> If you still haven't seen it, Korg have released their first true modular:
> http://www.synthtopia.com/content/2013/11/04/korg-littlebits-synth-kit-lets-you-snap-together-a-modular-synthesizer/
> So far, Korg have been insanely successful in every type of synth gear
> they made. It's likely a good idea to sit down and think about what
> makes them so popular and so successful. Just saying "economy of
> scale" is a cop-out; there's much more to learn than "make more of a
> thing".
> What's interesting is the fact that they've got a littlebits-style
> modular, likely in the $150 price range - the most expensive thing on
> http://littlebits.cc is $199, so it wouldn't make sense for Korg to
> position themselves higher than that. I'm assuming Korg will aim for
> the same value/price ratio as littlebits. And that littlebits stuff is
> so insanely overpriced - I mean they have a module that's literally
> just a LED and it costs $14. Even including the custom connector they
> use, they're still pocketing 90% of the price of that thing. So if
> Korg can go that low and still make mad markup like that - and I
> wouldn't expect them to do any less - it just shows where the synth
> market might be going if Korg keep this up. I think they've really got
> a tight hold on the niche that everyone else overlooked: the niche of
> "don't include the unnecessary bits that eat most of your product's
> price".
> So the question is where that leaves musicians who want "a bit more
> quality". The circuit's obviously not the issue when it comes down to
> price, so what are we dealing with here? You pay for better plugs and
> wood sides and metal panels. Those are likely better supplied locally,
> in a standard format. Which shows that maybe we shouldn't only have a
> standard format for modular synth module dimensions, but for the
> panels as well. A few pre-made panels that can be produced in mass,
> and modules that fit them. Silk screened white labels under each hole
> to add your own descriptions and off you go. Are there really infinite
> possibilities of synth modules that can't be reconciled by just adding
> a second panel with more holes? People have been saying for years that
> the most expensive part of a synth is the mechanical bits. Korg have
> listened to that, made it into a business, and created instant
> classics JUST by doing this.
> Some time ago I've spoken with EveAnna Manley about what her biggest
> complaint was when trying to price her products and she said "the cost
> of raw iron going up". True enough, there's a lot of that in every
> enclosure, mechanical part, potentiometer, and jack. We weren't even
> talking about the transformer. Parts suppliers follow the price of raw
> materials very closely, floating the price of parts off of that. I've
> gotten fairly scared myself when I was looking at prototyping some
> front panels.
> If one agrees on holes large enough to fit a little more than a 1/4"
> jack, then that'll also fit a 1/8" socket, banana socket, a
> potentiometer shaft, a switch, a button, and an LED, and any connector
> that people will start using for polyphonic modulars (hint: SFF-8644).
> You'll need angle brackets for mounting - no more mounting by the
> pots, but that's a good thing rather than bad. If manufactured in a
> smart way, this could be just one piece of sheet metal, bent to form
> an angle.
> There are very few modules that won't fit this format - and most often
> that's because they have an LCD, and this kind of thing can be
> provided for as well by having a second module panel with a
> rectangular cutout. That stencil could also fit VU meters, joysticks,
> keypads, capacitive pads, larger, uncommon connectors such as midi,
> etc.
> By doing this we could decouple the business of making electronics (at
> which synth makers excel) and buying iron (which most synth makers
> have no idea how to do). This way, the company doing the electronics
> can stock their inventory at the right times, dedicate their skill to
> electronics (mechanical stuff takes a LOT of focus for someone who
> isn't doing it as their day job), and gear their business towards -
> exactly - electronics. And the company in panel making business can do
> this in their tempo as well - stock metal sheet when it's cheap, order
> it in bulk (much higher volume than any single synth manufacturer),
> and optimize their manufacturing process. Or put another way: would
> you ask Schaeffer AG to sell you VCAs? Even if they subcontracted to
> one of us, you can see the issues very clearly.
> By using only one or a few simple formats we're removing the most
> important cost factor when doing metal work - the setup cost. A
> company that does front panels could set up once and build a thousand
> panels.
> I conjecture that in the long run it'll be a better idea to just have
> a few sets of front-panel stencils to use, and have to use two panels
> for a single module every now and then - rather than have
> purpose-made, artisan metal-work supplied by companies who aren't in
> the business.
> Say you had modules in sizes of: 16 holes (4x4), 8 holes (2 columns of
> 4), and 4 holes (stacked vertically). What's the worst thing that
> could happen? On the one hand, you'll have left-over holes. No big
> deal at all, just plug em with something. On the other hand, you might
> find your module has used up that 16-hole front panel and needs just
> one more hole to be perfect. Tough luck. Change your module to use
> another 4 holes (the minimum increment), or eliminate that one extra
> feature, or use a concentric pot, or do something else.
> And hey, if you want to stylize the module to "mark your territory":
> just send them a vinyl sticker to put on the front panel. There might
> even be a spot left on the generic front panel to put the name of the
> module down, that's where a small sticker could go.
> Going further, maybe most people won't use any front panels at all,
> lowering the entry point to modular synthesis for them. Or just use
> cardboard cutouts. Because seriously, how many people take their
> modular to a gig? And if you do, you can rationalize the cost of
> actually getting those bits of metal, because you're likely being paid
> to gig, and even the meager $500 gig can buy a lot of sheet metal with
> holes in it. Maybe a nice and cheap alternative would be a plastic
> front panel for those who don't want or need metal. If we come up with
> a mechanical standard that lets people put bare unpanelized modules in
> a simple modular case, then we've won a lot of customers who would
> otherwise turn away for the gear being too expensive. And we're
> scaring them off because we're pushing iron, forcing them to buy it.
> On the other hand this could really help out the small synth
> manufacturers as well. The initial cost to build a run of modules is
> an excruciating load to bear, and having the cost of panels removed
> could help many more people enter the business, making this more
> popular and more lucrative for the bigger companies, who are
> established, and who gain new customers that the small companies
> reached. If a small mom & pop shop only offers two modules, the next
> place one of their customers will go is one of the bigger
> manufacturers.
> The sales part is not lost on me either. It seems like nowadays the
> "in" thing is to show people bare PCBs, overwhelm the customer with
> the visual complexity of what they're seeing, and let their
> imagination go to town. There's so much of that happening on the
> "maker" crowd. Even with consumer electronics, people are mesmerized
> with teardowns. And this is becoming commonplace with synths as well -
> specifically because of Korg's unwritten permission to mod the hell
> out of their synths. You go to the Korg website and a bare PCB sits
> right at home.
> If this lifts off, then plastic fittings that reduce the generic hole
> to the specific requirement (LED, button, switch, 1/8" jack, usb jack,
> ...) could be produced in amazing mass and used to make the things
> more pretty. Perhaps one of those could cost under 50 cents in bulk.
> But I wouldn't expect most people to cry if they don't have it at all.
> Going further, perhaps the PCBs shouldn't include the most common
> mechanical bits such as jacks either, just headers to connect them.
> This follows the same kind of logic as with front panels.
> I think all of this really applies to desktop and rack synths as well.
> How many different options do we have - honestly? There's very few
> things you couldn't do with a generalized stencil that has cutout for
> a single LCD and simply covers the rest in "generic" holes.  A similar
> thing has been achieved by the x0xb0x guys, who use the same PCB over
> and over, but offer it in different enclosures, based on what you want
> to spend. Or just look at the automotive industry - many inexpensive
> cars have control panels with blind holes where buttons for extra
> functions would go. Again, sure, a generalized layout might be a bit
> bigger than if you made it exactly to fit your layout... it might have
> holes you don't need or some knobs might have to be rearranged... but
> who's complaining when the price is much lower? Are we in it for the
> synths and the music, or are we in it for the metal front panels?
> The way to start isn't too difficult. Once we've agreed on a specific
> kind of standard, start making panels in this format, for your own
> use. It likely won't cost much more, but you'll put yourself in the
> position to sharply minimize the cost of manufacture. This may mean
> that the format has to be somehow backwards-compatible to eurorack,
> but it might turn out to be unimportant as well if we think about it.
> If you're offering modules lower in height than the format agreed upon
> here, you can still make your modules fit the raster. This way, in the
> future, your customers can retrofit your modules to the standard, and
> use the left-over holes for mults, mixers, or just leave them be.
> Never enough mults though.
> If you're offering modules higher in height than the format agreed
> upon here, you could make sure the PCB will fit, and make sure the few
> front panel elements at the very top or bottom are not PCB-mounted.
> This way, in the new format they could be moved to a neighbouring
> panel, and you're still compatible.
> An industry-agreed logo could be agreed upon, and manufacturers could
> use it to inform their customers of the compatibility. It could easily
> become an important selling point.
> The panel work could be shared by manufacturers, allowing for
> purchases in even higher bulk. The cost is reduced again. Customized
> stencil work could be done, either just with a manufacturer's logo, or
> actually with the right labels for the connectors and controls.
> Next up, once that's established, you could start offering some of
> your modules without the front panel. Maybe the customer doesn't need
> a front panel because he only ever uses his synth a thome. Or maybe he
> has an older module he doesn't want anymore, would sell the PCB, and
> buy a new PCB for the left-over panel. He's sending the PCB only to
> the next owner, reducing shipping cost.
> If you go with jacks and other elements that aren't PCB mounted, the
> DIY crowd (which the modules without front panels are geared at) can
> easily attach those to a particle board sheet front-panel, or come up
> with one of a multitude of other options.
> In the next step, once a lot of format-compatible offerings exist, the
> companies we've been ordering bulk panels from could start selling the
> panels directly. They'll be able to create a good pricing scheme,
> lower than any synth manufacturer could. This should happen in sync
> with the manufacturer's backlog, so that no one's stuck with front
> panels nobody wants to buy because they're more expensive. That's a
> trick that needs to be learnt, but also an investment to be made to
> reach the ultimate goal. Perhaps at some point they could supply
> stencils made with an industrial jet, which wouldn't have setup cost.
> One of those things that's like an ink printer, but it sprays lacquer.
> Extremely expensive, but, and here's the point: one of the things a
> front-panel manufacturer can rationalize buying.
> Finally, you stop offering front-panels, populate your website with
> "example photos" rather than photos of the actual unit. Now, you don't
> need to worry about fasteners, sheet metal, iron prices, stencil
> quality, mechanical layout, knob quality, etc etc. You achieve Nirvana
> and can fully concentrate on pushing the envelope with novel designs.
> As a bonus everyone can finally order the kind of knob they prefer
> most.
> I'm interested what you guys think. Do you see the front panel,
> fasteners, and mechanical bits as taking up an unnecessary amount of
> your product's price? Would you like to forget about that and get on
> with your synth designs? Do you think your business could work better
> if a standard like this existed? What panel formats do you think are
> necessary in order to satisfy 80% of all needs? E.g. 16 round holes, 6
> round holes plus rectangular cutout, 6 round holes plus three large
> round holes, you name it? Do you think this can be reconciled with one
> of the popular modular formats - or do you think it'll work with all
> of them?
> Cheers,
> D.
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