Doepfer Keys-interview 1997

“Doepfer-Story - The Modular-mogul”

(Company-portrait from the German Keys Magazine, edition 12/97, starting at page 152, translated by Patchpierre.Net)
Original version, written by Florian Anwander in German,
can be found at


What happens when community service, a clinical lab and a physics diploma meet? Nothing.
And what if you mix a young Dieter Döpfer in there?
The result is a modular synthesizer... and an impressive entrepreneurial career.

Dieter Döpfers first contact with the music world also promised to be his last: His father obliged young Dieter to take accordion lessons. and his son learned to play and hate the instrument.
As in 1972, Döpfer began to study physics in Munich, he had long set aside the accordion and switched to guitar. It wouldn’t take long before the student ordered the first phaser and wah-wah for his guitar.

Dieter Doepfer at MusikMesse 2002
Almost by chance, he came across an area that would not let go of him now: Through the Tünker books (three now out of print book titles on electronic music and synthesizers, editor's note), I came across synthesizers. Those were still largely unknown devices. You did know about Moog and later Roland and ARP, but the technology was not well known.
The real breakthrough - at least in my circles - came with the Formant.

The Formant, a self-assembly kit from Elektor magazine in 1977, was an analog modular synthesizer. For many the device was the first contact with the world of synthetic sound generation. For Döpfer the Formant was the stepping stone to success.
He constructed a voltage controlled phaser module for this chunky sound dinosaur that he offered through a simple two-line classified ad.
I gave up the Formant quickly and went over to building my own modules. But as an introduction to the basics of the synthesizer technology, the Formant was awesome. Once you've built the VCO circuit or envelope and it all matched, you just knew how it all worked.

Civil service doesn't bother
With his physics degree in his pocket, Döpfer landed on civil service in a large hospital in Munich. A stroke of luck of which the entrepreneur is still benefiting today: After a few weeks of bed pushing, they invited me to the eye department. Because of laser eye surgery they needed a physicist.
This eye department had its own development laboratory that was constructed with special electronics. Döpfer: 'If there was nothing to do - and i had little to do - I just developed synthesizer circuits. For the head doctor a schematic looked like any other.'

What came out of this was Döpfers first complete synthesizer system, the PMS (Polyphonic Module System). This four-voiced modules however, were only available in kit form or in the form of loaded electronic boards. The PMS was really just something for hobbyists. You had to build your own front panels, .
But I have used many circuits of this system now again in the A-100. The amount of PMS sold in the period of about three or four years overall, was only 30 to 50 systems.
Döpfer would have dared to dream back then that he would sell 800 self-developed module systems in just two years: the PMS spin-off of the Gräfelinger company called A-100, has so far produced more than 16,000 modules (as of end of 1997: 20,000 modules).

The Curtis case 
In late 1982 Döpfers Voice Modular System (VMS) came on the market. From that point on, the young physicist could start living from his business. The VMS consisted of a card with two VCO, VCF, VCA and two ADSR envelope generators. The expansion card for it was equipped with VC-LFO, and there was even an interface for Commodore PET4000 and later for the home computer classic C-64.

The sound generation was based on special chips from Curtis Electronic Music Specialties (CEM) that were designed to each integrate almost a complete synthesizer module. After some negotiations with CEM Chief Doug Curtis, Döpfer took over the European representation for the exotic chips, which were previously only sporadically imported as spare parts.
Döpfer boosted the sale and offered the ICs to companies like Wersi, Waldorf, Böhm or Dynacord. Waldorf for example, used as the Curtis filters for the first Microwave, Dynacord for the ADS and also the Böhm Soundlab by Bernd Enders was developed around the Curtis ICs, says Döpfer.
With these chips it was possible to construct a high-quality synthesizer without any technical chins for the first time. Especially polyphonic devices would have been unthinkable without the chips or at least infinitely expensive.

However, since then Döpfer also shares the fate of many companies that rely on special parts and small series: With the Curtis ICs it is always uncertain how long the current batch is still available. Then suddenly you need to search through private ads for chips to continue a series of machines. Curtis will not start the production of small series, and for me a minimum order quantity of over one thousand VCOs can be something risky. Especially since most A-100-customers prefer their VCO A-110 module built with standard components
With the filters that is different, they are still very popular and also still available from Curtis.

Time changes
The year 1983/84 welcomed the digital age into the electronic music: Yamaha had an absolute bestseller with the through and through digital DX7. Furthermore, it was producer Trevor Horn with the smash hits of Frankie goes to Hollywood, who showed that the sampler would be the top-tool the future.

The Doepfer company reacted like lightning and in 1984 they came with the VMS, an 8-bit sampler card. This was followed by a loop and a computer interface card.
The expanded C64 software by programmer Christian Assall offered for those days excellent features, but still the sampler did not get his big breakthrough, although about 300 units had been sold. Finally, even Ensoniq’s Mirage MIDI sampler came to the market, undercutting even the price of the kit version of Döpfers card.

A bit later the young entrepreneurs started building a line mixer, based on the Curtis ICs. The special thing about them: equipped with VCAs and VCFs, the mixer could be automated by the computer. Obviously this idea was too far ahead of its time, and the device remained unnoticed. Döpfer about the causes: We have noticed that people who work with the mixer want to touch their sliders, their buttons and switches. Even today this is probably still the reason that mixer-automation is not accepted well. I can understand that too, because the mouse just can not move multiple faders.

The Key-Boom
Thus, the inventor moved forward to build keyboards. Result: LMK1, a simple master keyboard. Specifically for this purpose, he developed the E-510 chip together with the Böhm company.
For nearly a decade, Doepfer Keys stayed ahead of its competitors: There were master keyboards that had only six or twelve dynamic levels so Döpfer offered keyboards with the full velocity resolution of 127 steps.
That the component was sold under Döpfers name was a reflection of Böhm’s market policy : Böhm was the much larger company. We would never have had the financial resources to develop a special chip and then have it produced by manufacturers like Elmo.

However if Böhm hadn’t market the E-510 chip under their names, other companies would have never used this chip. Using something from a small company like Doepfer did not so much to the honor, Döpfer told amused. However, we are now one step further, and now Doepfer builds the function of the E-510 on a industry standard programmable chip . Only now we can use non-linear dynamic characteristics, so the feeling is more towards the piano.

Financially the entry into Keyboard-building was the breakthrough for the company who’s production and distribution was bursting at the seams, the former one-man business had grown up: Partner Sibille Heller went into sales, Matthias Marrass the keyboard production, Christian Assall took over the programming.

The analog hammer
Doepfer MS-404

And so, the Master Keyboards became the main product, while the earned good money in the electronics left Dieter Döpfer under-challenged. In summer 1994, from an inner voice, an analog synthesizer was developed: The MS-404 was really my own personal enjoyment. I went for a first series of maybe 50 or 100 pieces.
That, only through the announcements after the first two months, already 500 orders were made, made us feel pressed to the wall. So far (1997 ,PP)  Döpfers pleasure has already been sold 3.000 times, what even stunned this industry veteran.

The idea of the modular system matured, after more and more customers asked for a second VCO or other ADSR generator for the MS-404. Also on the second hand market there was a massive demand for the old models.
Two good reasons for Döpfer, although they started very carefully: We built some basic modules and let them try out by the people in our circle. The response was so positive that we decided to design a comprehensive system. Nowadays the system is so successful that we can also introduce unusual and really off modules.

This fun, he openly admits, he could not have realized with the keyboards alone - even if today's working week is often 70 hours. It is the feeling of the first hour, which counts more today than ever for Döpfer: When I stand at the booth, and people screw around with my devices and find that cool, then i’m not interested in sales figures nor overtime. When I can inspire someone that much, then it was worth all the effort. I would not want to miss that.

Back to the Future 
Analog technology - for the company Doepfer that currently means successful.
But Döpfer stays realistic and expects market saturation. Digital, as there is for him no doubt, will be his corporate future. And on that train the company from Gräfelfing already jumped: Already the next modules (sampler, quantizer, wavetable module, Subharmonic and harmonic generator) of the A-100 are realized mainly with digital signal processing.
"I am fully aware that we will also build products with digital technology.
Although developing a lot of CPU-based DSPs is now still interesting.
And for us, the development of the MAQ 16/3, the Schaltwerk and now the Regelwerk has shown that the analog access to the digital processing is an important criterion. "
Whether digital or analog, computer-controlled church organs or MIDI gloves - nothing seems to be unimaginable in the house Doepfer. In any case almost nothing, dear accordion player.

Translated texts from the boxed items around the article: 

Döpfer or Doepfer? 
Dieter Döpfer asked himself this question the first time as he first needed adhesive letters for the company logo to its products. For special characters, such as the ö in his name, Döpfer searched in vain.
Enough E’s and O’s were still available, so he rewrote the ö: Since then the products and company is named Doepfer.

The lord of the bits 
In 1985 Christian Assall Reprogrammed the Döpfer sampler software a bit. When he offered his version Döpfer over the phone, Assall had already realized no less than five different forms of digital synthesis in only 64KB of memory.
Döpfer was thrilled and Assall joined the team: Until today all Doepfer software bears his handwriting. Also the synthesis programming in Steinberg's Sample Editor Avalon comes from him.

The medicine man
Roland Mayer is responsible for the final assembly of keyboards since the mid-eighties. He is also the last resort when it comes to supposedly hopeless cases: Whether old or new system, Roland can fix it.

Here Schneider, Dusseldorf.
The synonym for electronic music is Kraftwerk. As the only in its industry Dieter Döpfer may use this name for advertising purposes. Döpfer: One day i got a call from a Mr. Schneider who wanted to know if we could rebuild a special keyboard into a MIDI keyboard. The caller was Florian Schneider of Kraftwerk. Schneider experimented much with speech synthesis, and had found a keyboard that was triggering speech sounds (phonemes) in place of letters.

After the modification by Doepfer, Schneider was able to send signals to a sampler in which the sounds were stored. In the end, the Kraftwerk operator could connect the phonemes with a sequencer into sentences. Until it worked, Schneider had come several times to Munich, where they got to know eachother better.
Also in the construction of the MAQ 16/3 analog sequencer with MIDI output, the company worked with the musicians.
Since then, we may use the name Kraftwerk to the device. But we do not want to overdo things.

The Doepfer company has previously sold directly to consumers.
Whenever someone wanted to test something, they got an address list of customers who presented their own Doepfer devices.
Finally Döpfer moved to distribution by selected base dealers, what he thinks is not always optimal: For the A-100 or the Sequencer-systems more specialized knowledge is necessary than we require from distributors. In these extreme cases, we can fall back on the old system. A fitting solution is always possible, according to the company president, one way or another