Ryan McGill: Vongon
Interview with Ryan McGill of Vongon.
(This interview originally appeared in the wonderful website VAR guitar, which you can find here.)
Tell me about yourself and your musical journey.
I’m an engineer and musician based in Oakland, California and I enjoy building tools that are fun and useful for making music. Currently the devices I design sit somewhere between the world of modular synthesizers and guitar stomp boxes.
I started playing music in middle school with cringe worthy pop punk electric guitar, but when my 7th grade band wanted to record our first EP I got wrapped up in the production of sound recording. I loved learning about equalization, compression, delay, reverb, distortion, and everything else that goes into creating a mix. The process of recording and focusing on the texture of sound has remained my favorite part of the music making experience.
Last year, I built a recording studio with ten other amazing musicians in Oakland, and we have bands practicing and recording in there all the time, it’s great! Our studio doesn’t have a website at the moment, but we call it “The Creek”. Most of us use it privately for our own projects, but my friend Adam Hirsch who is a staff engineer at Tiny Telephone does the most client work there.
How did you get into making gear?
Once I discovered the world of audio recording for music, I became fairly obsessed with all the equipment and techniques for producing different sounds. I was very curious how all those knobs and faders worked. My friends made fun of me because I really enjoyed reading user manuals (and I still do lol!). I went to school for electrical engineering and started to build some of my own pedals and devices, but I didn’t want that to get in the way of actually making music so I didn’t dive too deep into gear making at that time. Then I got a surprising email one day from Trey Anastasio of Phish, he saw a YouTube video of a MIDI controller I made for the Moog MF-104m and asked if I would build him one to use with his band. That was a catalyst for me, to give more attention to making gear. I’m very opinionated on the user interface of gear, I want it to be clear but also flexible and inspiring – so getting the chance to design my own gear through Vongon has become very gratifying.
That must have been so exciting, to have your work recognized by such a big name as Trey Anastasio. Any other high-profile Vongon customers?
I definitely geeked out a little when I read the email and confirmed it wasn’t fake haha. I am working on a new device for another touring musician but unfortunately I’m not allowed to say who it is yet, sorry! These one-off projects are fun because you don’t have to think about the same sort of constraints that go into a full-production product. For example, you can get the super rare and expensive switches rather than worrying if that supplier will disappear in a year.
What brought you to Oakland?
I moved to the Bay Area from Texas in 2016. I was lucky to be in a vibrant music community in Austin but I decided to leave because I wanted to join a Silicon Valley startup. Once I got here I realized startups aren’t as fun as bands, and I discovered lots of compelling artists and musicians in Oakland and realized that’s where I am most comfortable. Plus I love Grand Lake Theater!
I like your music a lot – Corpse Flower has been stuck in my head ever since I found it. What strikes me about your music is how, despite the electronic elements, it feels and sounds extremely organic and natural: the songs have lots of room to breathe, they’re extremely well-balanced sonically. What’s your philosophy on marrying the synthetic and organic elements?
Thank you for such a generous compliment! You have hit on a topic that I think about a lot when working on music. It can be easy for the synthetic and organic instruments to clash. When I’m searching for a synthesizer sound that fits a guitar, I always have my hand on a filter – a continuous control to match the brightness of the mix always helps me a lot. I think that’s one of the main motivations for making the latest Vongon pedal. I use lowpass filters so often I wanted one that sounded good and was easy to carry around.
I also have a new album coming out this year. It will be a full length vinyl LP, released on a new San Francisco label called Mint Mall Records. We just got the test pressings and they sound great, we are very excited about it! This will be the label’s first release, they don’t have any internet presence up yet, but that should be coming soon.
Besides your Vongon pedals, what other gear do you rely upon?
Some of the devices I’ve been using lately: a Moog Rogue for monophonic bass sounds; an Elektron Digitakt for drum machines and samples; a Moog MF-104m for all delay sounds; a Walrus Audio Julia pedal for nice smooth vibrato. I want to get one of the Klon KTRs for my guitar.
I’m a big fan of Klon clones for low-gain overdrive – what attracts you about the Klon KTR?
I’m a fan of the Klon for the same reason! I use very low-gain overdrive on my guitar, where it’s almost compressing more than distorting so it’s ideal for me. I’m also just a circuit nerd and respect the design philosophy, it doesn’t really rely on super rare “new-old-stock” parts – it’s just a smart design with fairly common components.
What’s on the horizon for new Vongon devices?
There are a couple new products I’m really excited about. The first is a stereo reverb pedal, I’ve been experimenting with lots of open sourced DSP algorithms lately and I found one reverb sound that was designed for Eurorack that I think would fit well in a guitar pedal. I plan to modify the parameters so that they will be most useful for a guitarist.
The second product I’m working on is a MIDI controlled audio sample player. It’s kind of like a mellotron, but instead of storing samples on individual strips of analog tape, the audio samples will live on a panel mounted SD card. The SD card can be removed and you will be able to use a computer to load your own custom sounds. These features are available on high end keyboards like the Nord, but I’d like to put it into a more affordable stompbox format.
What advice would you give to other aspiring musicians and gearmakers?
I think I benefit most from listening to what is happening around me. It’s easy to get wrapped up in your own work (music or gear), but don’t forget to look to your peers and colleagues for inspiration. If you are interested in learning more about the electronics related to audio, I enjoy the book “Handmade Electronic Music” by Nicolas Collins. That book is a great resource because it encourages experimentation without always understanding what is happening – just follow your ears!