Chris Huggett: Tributes from friends, colleagues and peers
On Thursday 22nd October 2020, we lost synth designer Chris Huggett, a long-time Novation collaborator, to cancer. Chris’ synth legacy began in the 1970s with EDP and the Oxford Synthesizer Company — long before he began working on the original Novation Bass Station in the early ’90s. From the EDP Wasp and Gnat and the OSCar — all conceived and designed by Chris — to the firmware for Akai’s seminal S1000 family of samplers, his impact on music making technology is vast. The Chris Huggett-designed products that wore the Novation badge included the Bass Station, Supernova, Bass Station II, Peak and Summit, and his legacy lives on to this day — not only in his designs, but in his mentorship and as a role model to the next generation of British synth designers.
For the past week, we have been in close contact with the Huggett family, and have spoken to many of Chris’ industry friends, colleagues and peers. Through their words, we pay tribute to Chris, a humble titan of the synth world.
Nick Bookman — Novation
I first met Chris 20 years ago at the factory making the Supernova II to help troubleshoot an issue and all I could think was "Wow, I'm working alongside the man behind the Oscar, the Wasp and the mentor behind the Bass Station." I was in awe. Chris had already achieved so much and designed some amazing iconic products. 20 years later I'm humbled and honoured to be able to say he was my friend and colleague.
What made Chris so unique was not just his exceptional engineering expertise, but the way he could envisage how people would ultimately use a particular instrument. He would design with this perspective in mind. If Chris could see a way to make an instrument better, he would speak up and offer suggestions. If Chris wasn’t happy with the sound of an instrument he would make alterations to make it better, until it was absolutely right and a joy to play.
At the early stages of discussing product ideas, when designs were in their embryonic phase, Chris would be quick to understand the concept, exactly how the instrument is likely to be used and what would be needed to be able to turn it into reality. He would often point out improvements or additional ideas that could be included. During later development stages he would often send builds of firmware with features to try out — things that came to mind while coding 'just for fun'. It was a pleasure to try these out, and bounce ideas back and forth between Chris and the team here. Chris was genuinely passionate about musical electronics and making the very best products possible.
Chris was so intelligent, quietly sociable, a loyal, loving family man and a true master at his craft. I am so sad that Chris has passed away. I cannot put into words how much I will miss Chris and how much I will miss making instruments with him.
Chris Calcutt — Novation
I only really got to know Chris in the last few years of his life but it took no time at all for us to become firm friends. His legendary status was already a given but I had understood him to be a shy, retiring and almost reclusive person. This, however, was not the man I met. I was genuinely surprised at how easy and totally comfortable Chris was around everybody.
Chris was an incredibly kind, caring and humorous man, he had a cheeky glint in his eye and a wonderful expertise in wordplay (we shared a love of esoteric puns). Engaging but also engaged with whatever was going on around him too. His intelligence and inquisitive mind was plain to see, he was the sort of person that would ask a question, listen intently to every nuance of the answer and then process the results.
A couple of years ago, Chris and I went on a little reminiscence road trip. My grandparents lived in a tiny village on the outskirts of Blenhiem Palace in Oxfordshire, the same tiny village that had the house Chris was living in and working with EDP making the Wasp. To this day it’s crazy to think that in 1978 I was running around my Gran’s garden chasing Cinnabar moths while Chris was making insects of his own variety about ½ mile away. So around 40 years later we both went back, this time as friends and colleagues, joined by our wives to reminisce.
I will miss him greatly. I will cherish every moment in his company but do feel sad thinking we won’t be able to continue getting to know each other as we grow older. However, like any master craftsman, he has left us with several masterpieces and thankfully we will continue to get to know him through that legacy. On the evening of his passing I raised a glass of whisky with the words:
I can only do what I do
through that which you have done
Thank you old chum
Phil Dudderidge, Chairman, Focusrite Novation Group (Focusrite Plc)
I first met Chris Huggett when Focusrite acquired Novation in 2004. He and his small team who joined us at Focusrite, Chris as a consultant to us, quickly assimilated into the then relatively small Focusrite development team that set to work turning round Novation’s product range and developing new products. Chris was already widely respected in the synthesizer community as a pioneer innovator with EDP and Oxford Synthesiser Company (Wasp and OSCar synths) and within our company he inspired the group of engineers and musicians that evolved over time as the Novation product group, with his unique innovative capability in the specialty of sound synthesis. The fairly recently introduced Novation Peak and Summit synthesizers are well named as representing the peak of Chris Huggett’s achievements as a designer (in concert with others in the team), with the original Bass Station representing the start of his career with the Novation brand.
Chris was a very quiet, private man who preferred working at home, in the bosom of his family. I enjoyed meeting him at Focusrite from time-to-time but I can’t claim to have known him well. I am, however, very grateful for his contribution to the Novation business over the past sixteen years. He will be sorely missed by all of us.
Fred Gardner — Former Sales Manager, EDP Ltd and EDP (Oxford) Ltd
I first met Chris when I joined the wonderfully named ‘Electronic Dream Plant’ back in October 1979. For the 2 ½ years that I worked with Chris and co-founder Adrian Wagner it was a wonderful time and everything seemed possible to us. After I left EDP I lost touch with Chris for several years but through a chance conversation with mutual friend Dave Spiers I made contact with Chris again.
This led to a series of brilliant lunchtime meetings where we would reminisce about EDP, the launch of the Wasp, Gnat, Caterpillar and the cutting edge sounds that helped myself and co writer Jeff Boult, achieve a top ten hit in Italy (another story!).
In one of these meetings Chris, who had not spoken to Adrian for years, expressed a desire to speak to him again. I told Chris that Adrian had said the very same thing to me. And so it was that Chris called Adrian and after over 30 years the two of them spoke again on the phone for over an hour.
I am so happy that that I had some small part to play in Chris’s Electronic Music success and even happier that I helped reunite these two great innovators and old friends.
Chris made a huge impact in part of my life and I will miss those lunches at the ‘Vicky Arms’ in Oxford. Here’s to you Chris.
Adrian Gin — ex-Novation Hardware & Software engineer
I'm really lucky to have worked with Chris while at Novation. When I first heard of Chris, I thought he was some Gen-Xer or DJ synth guru (about the demographic of the average Novationeer) until I met him in person. I was really surprised! Here was a guy I thought would be retired innovating at the bleeding edge of technology.
He was so humble and kind. Even after I mentioned how awesome his synths were, he would be quick to point out the things he would do better or some limitation that no-one would really find.
I was also surprised at how inquisitive Chris was. "Can't teach an old dog...", you know what they say... but not quite with Chris. He would often question the new ways. "Is it better doing it that way? Is there much benefit?". I really enjoyed those discussions, but what was clear was that Chris was always eager to learn, even from those with less experience.
I appreciated his insights on working life, he was quite the straight talker and always really honest, saying things how they were. I met with him in Jersey and I once asked him "Have you thought about retiring?"... he thought about that for a split second only for Mrs Huggett to interrupt "Oh! Chris wouldn't know what to do with himself!". Chris didn't argue on that.
I spoke to him in April after Covid spread across the UK, he was quite hopeful, and I was happy to hear he was taking good care of himself. Whether it was talking about fish tanks, family life, walks or synthesizers, I do cherish those moments. An inspiration to us all.
Paul Hartnoll — Orbital
I didn’t know Chris personally, but he was a bit of a British synth hero to us in the know. I've been using his synths for 30 years, starting with the OSCar and going through the Bass Station, the Supernova 1 and 2, and now currently using three Bass Station IIs, a Peak and a Summit. I may not have known him personally but our creative DNA has been combined on many of my records and live performances, and will continue to do so. Chris Huggett’s work will live on.
Jon Hodgson — GForce Software engineer, worked on impOSCar
If the world had gone all ‘Mad Max’ during his lifetime, Chris Huggett would probably have faired quite well. He would have been the character everybody called ‘Doc’ or ‘The Mechanic’ that was respected for his ability to retask broken bits of technology to perform useful functions in the post-apocalyptic world. In my in-depth analysis of the workings of the OSCar synthesizer his knack for extracting the most out of components by using them in ways the designers probably didn't conceive of became obvious.
The prime example was probably the oscillators. Now I'll try not to get too techie about this, but it's impossible to avoid it completely. Back when the OSCar was developed, we basically talked about two kinds of RAM, there was Static RAM (SRAM) and Dynamic RAM (DRAM). SRAM was fast, simple to implement, could keep its data with just a battery, and expensive. DRAM was cheap(er), slower, but every individual bit had to be regularly refreshed to keep its data.
To help keep system costs down, the designers of the Zilog Z80 (the processor used in the OSCar) included a built-in DRAM refresh counter and circuitry to handle the refresh, so no extra circuitry was needed.
Now the OSCar didn't use any DRAM, it was all SRAM, so what Chris did was he retasked the DRAM refresh functionality to use in the oscillators. The refresh line was used to determine when the oscillators could access the memory (the oscillators in the OSCar were all 256 sample 8 bit waveforms) because the CPU wouldn't be reading memory at that point, and the counter was used to toggle between the two oscillators.
Throw in a Z80 CTC (Counter Timer Chip) which was also used unconventionally (the data lines were connected to the address bus, not the data bus, so that it would step through the waveform) and the pitch circuitry involving an Intel CTC and an analogue frequency multiplier and the end result is a showcase of quirky brilliance that had me scratching my head for a while until I worked it out.
The rest of the OSCar is a lesson in extracting the most from your chips. In a time when every function on a chip was a significant part of your cost (and pcb space), you didn't want to waste any. If you've ever wondered why the OSCar only has one switchable control for both volume and drive for example, the answer is simple, not only would it have needed another pot, and another knob, but also a significant amount of extra circuitry, because he'd already used up the full capacity of what was there. Any more functionality on the OSCar would have made a notable difference to the price, any less would have been wasting something that had been paid for.
What I am fairly convinced is another example of his inventiveness when trying to deal with the constraints of hardware was the "Random" preset waveform, which was introduced in version 6 of the firmware, replacing the previous "Triple Pulse". Now you might assume the change was made because it was a better sound, but knowing how it was implemented makes me think there was another explanation. All the waveforms in the OSCar were generated algorithmically. There is a bit of code that "draws" the waveform into memory, from whence it is read (by the mad genius circuitry I described above). All except for "random", that's just a copy of a bit of the OSCar firmware (the actual code that the OSCar runs). I think what happened was that after improving the harmonic wave editing in version 6, Chris found there just wasn't enough code space for all his original waveform algorithms, so he ditched the least used one and just found a bit of the code that made an interesting sounding waveform.
I included that waveform in the impOSCar (I renamed it "Gritty" because the fact that it is actually not random at all generated a number of comments from early beta testers). So the impOSCar actually contains 256 bytes of original OSCar program code (It's just never used as code).
It's a sad day for me hearing of Chris Hugget's passing. Unfortunately, I never met him (and how I now regret not pushing to make that happen at least once, what an interesting conversation that could have been), but when I started impOSCar development he not only gave the project his blessing, but generously supplied his original firmware source code, which certainly saved me weeks, and quite probably months, of reverse engineering what he had done.
Sam Inglis — Editor in Chief, Sound On Sound
I never had the good fortune to meet Chris Huggett, but I've known his name for what seems like forever. He had the unique ability to make a success of almost every project he worked on, from the Wasp and the OSCar to Novation's latest super-synths. Chris's work at Akai made sampling accessible to everyone and brought about a sea change in the sound of popular music. At Novation he was way ahead of the more established manufacturers in understanding what musicians actually wanted from their instruments. Younger engineers who worked alongside him have had the best training it's possible to get, and I hope that his spirit of excellence and innovation will live on.
Paul Nagle — Synth enthusiast
Many years ago I had three Wasps and a Caterpillar — never did get that magical fourth — and since then I've enjoyed most of the gear he worked on. Sadly I never owned an OSCar but did get to play one (Tim Dorney's) and it made me realise I'd missed out.
The Bass Station family is pretty awesome and Novation's 'VA' synths still, in my opinion, set the standard few others can match, let along exceed. Every time I look at something new, I compare it to my KS4 and invariably decide to stick with that. I only sold my Bass Station 2 because the keyboard was too short and it really needed an extra set of envelope controls — I assume those decisions weren't Chris'.
Chris had that rare gift in a designer: golden ears. Ultimately this is what matters most of all, the understanding that something just sounds right in a musical context. Without the right sonic credentials, no instrument is going to be loved. It's a testament to Chris that he was integral to such a long (and varied) list of classics.
Perhaps it’s because we had similar tastes but I found his synths invariably ticked the boxes for me — solid bass ends, envelopes with just the right snappy decay — all the features you need and always intelligently implemented. Recently, I was hugely impressed by the Peak oscillators which were capable of lush analogue tonality *and* clear, digital precision. No mean feat. Another great innovation I was struck by was the Ultranova and Mininova's system of manual envelope triggering in performance — almost unheard of since MIDI tied note pitch and gate into a single event. Was that sourced in Chris?
My band once played a festival in Spain using gear we could fit in a suitcase. All I had was a drum machine, sequencer and Novation Nova, which proved to be more than enough. I can't think of any other synth so small, perfect and tweakable and that also offered great effects for every part AND for two external sources. Remarkable. Actually I'm not sure how much of the Huggett DNA was in the Nova but presumably quite a lot given its Supernova ancestry. Ditto the KS4 which I use to this day. And yes, I really should own a Peak!
Danny Nugent — Engineer, Novation
I feel honoured to have worked with and get to know Chris. I will always remember him for being kind, gentle and humble but most of all being full of intrigue. Meetings with Chris were never short and often could go off-topic to discuss whatever had piqued his interest of late, which was always a pleasure.
It was a dream come true to design Summit with him, being able to work with a true legend of synth engineering but also build upon his heritage through the Wasp, OSCar and the Bass Station. When I proposed the dual filters to Summit, he politely reminded me “that was my idea" and kindly let me build upon his OSCar design.
I also remember him being very humble, often asking if Peak and Summit were "doing well". If only he knew how much pleasure he has given to musicians all around the world. He will be missed but his legacy will live on through all the music created.
Gordon Reid — Musician, Composer, Writer
Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, I first encountered Chris’s work in 1978 when my mind was boggled by an EDP Wasp in a music store in Leicester. Perhaps he didn’t receive the worldwide recognition that he deserved in those early days because his instruments sold in small quantities and were viewed as quintessentially British, while it was only we aficionados who recognised his hand on the tiller when his later work at Akai and Novation reached a far wider audience. But the industry needs the Chris Huggetts of the world – innovators who are prepared to create weird and wonderful products with novel engineering, strange paintjobs or huge rubber cheeks, and then carry that capability for originality into the mainstream. Thank you, Chris. I still own a Wasp, a Spider and a Caterpillar, an OSCar, and a Supernova II Pro X, the last of which I view as one of the milestones of the synth industry. Our musical playground will be a poorer place without you. Gordon Reid, 27 October 2020
Dave Rossum — Founder, E-Mu, Rossum Electro-Music
Chris was a brilliant engineer and a great guy. I know he was also a big fan of my work, which I felt was high praise. I remember when I first heard about the Wasp, thinking how clever it was, with some real out-of-the-box thinking. I can't recall when it was we first met face to face, but I was always delighted to see Chris and swap stories. When I think back on our time together, it was always filled with enthusiasm, creativity, and laughs. Chris was one of those few engineers that are equally at home in the analog, digital, and software worlds. We will miss him, but I'm grateful for his many contributions to our field.
I never knew Chris well; we met at trade shows and events, where our common interests and outlooks brought us together. I always thought of him as one of those few engineers that really "got it", he was innovative and also a lot of fun to be around.
Dave Smith — Founder, Sequential, Dave Smith Instruments
I was very sad to learn of the passing of Chris Huggett. There are not many synthesizer designers in the world who have a true legacy of products and designs; Chris is certainly one of them. I have vague memories of looking at a Wasp, maybe around 1978 or 1979; I believe we were in talks about Sequential possibly licensing the design, or distributing? But, I do specifically remember looking at the circuitry and being amazed — it was a very novel and clever design. Of course Chris went on to develop so many other cool musical instruments, including ‘newer’ products at Novation. His ability to consistently create products over so many years was very a special talent. His instrument designs and contributions to the synth world will be remembered for many, many years.
Dave Spiers — Co-founder, GForce
I can’t possibly sum up our relationship in one sentence because there were so many occasions where he and his work touched my life and so many tangential things that occurred as a result. The Wasp allowed the teenage me to get into synths. The OSCar was genius and when he later gave me the final revision source code (and his blessing) for impOSCar, we could see in the code that the word genius was truly apt.
I had BassStation 001 which I used on the first Underworld album and left with them. When they returned it to me I was doing my first ever trade show, where FM editor Dave Robinson saw me talking to them and asked me to do an interview which lead to me writing for FM and CM for years while I tried to build my little company.
When Novation floundered, I tried my absolute hardest to employ Chris (we didn’t have the resources at that time) before the Focusrite acquisition happened. Even though I’d have loved Chris working with us, I always felt that Novation gave him the outlet for his prolific creativity.
Years later when I got the chance to help voice Summit and Peak, I saw that he was surrounded and supported by really smart people (Nick, Danny, Jerome etc). I almost felt worthy of his attention too, because by then I understood him better, both as an engineer and as a friend.
His work spoke for itself but I really admired his quiet modesty and especially his resilience. To have two companies go belly-up, not be bitter and still be driven to contribute to the same industry shows real fortitude and strength. That same strength that prevailed during his treatment and at the very end.
I guess if I was to try and distill it all down to something really simple, he was an inspiration and hero of mine who also became a friend… and who definitely didn’t disappoint as either a hero or as a friend.