Photo: Eric England
Editor’s note: In our occasional series we call Gearing Up, we profile some of the people around town who make, repair or sell the instruments and other equipment that musicians use. Check out the first and second installments.
Jen Gavin’s face lights up as she recalls the time she got to disassemble and reassemble an entire 737 jet engine by herself. She spent a week at General Electric in Boston, covered head to toe in grease from pulling the mechanical guts from the 6,500-pound beast that hung over her head.
“It was so cool,” she tells the Scene while standing outside her East Nashville workshop. “I really thought I was gonna make jet engines forever.”
Being an engineer was Gavin’s dream since childhood — she even mentioned it, she says, in her elementary school yearbook. She earned a master’s in mechanical engineering (specializing in fluid dynamics and aero-propulsion) from Florida State University and completed a three-month internship at MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. After three years in GE’s Edison Engineering Development Program, she accepted a position at the company as a probabilistic design engineer. Which means, as she explains, “I created mathematical models of things like jet engines or wind turbines to predict when parts would fail or need to be replaced.”
But her lifelong passion for problem-solving didn’t fully click until a serendipitous collaboration with her friend Neil Fridd of the Nashville electro-pop band Terror Pigeon. Fridd, who works in lighting design, wanted to bring an exciting visual element to Terror Pigeon’s live show. After some brainstorming, Gavin used her talents to build a bright-orange acrylic box fitted with a control board that converts digital multiplex (aka “DMX”) lighting signals into a direction, a speed or a rate of increase. That signal is sent to an internal gear train and stepper motor, which are connected to the platform the projector is mounted upon.
In layman’s terms?
“Basically, when [Fridd] is playing his live show, you can send signals that sync with the music,” says Gavin. “So the projector is spinning around and doing a wild laser light show perfectly in time with the music.”
“I ended up going on tour with [Terror Pigeon] because I was like, ‘Well, I want to do troubleshooting as we go,’ ” she continues. “Then one thing led to another. I ended up doing several tours, actually singing in the band. It was so much fun. Since leaving school and going to work at this job that I thought I was gonna love, it never felt right. When I started doing this I was like, ‘Oh, this is it! This is what I want to do.’ ”
Fridd’s next request was a MIDI controller — that’s musical instrument digital interface, a protocol for sending electronic control signals for music gear. He needed a device to control the lights on tour with the Harry Potter-themed “wizard-rock” band Harry and the Potters.
“It was the most complicated project I’d ever programmed, but I loved it,” Gavin says with a laugh. “It’s like 80-something components and the buttons are RGB, so they can do rainbow displays while you’re playing.”
The wooden controller is huge — the size of a small coffee table — and it’s covered in dozens of sliders and buttons (some candy-colored, some with programmable RGB colors via the LEDs inside). It’s eye-catching, and Fridd was asked about it constantly while on the road with the Massachusetts-based Potters. “He’d send me texts, like, ‘Another person asked about this controller,’ ” Gavin says. “ ‘Everyone loves this thing!’ ”
Sure, if you want a basic MIDI controller, you could hit up Amazon or Guitar Center and grab some mass-produced something or other for around $100. But a controller from Paradise MIDI, the company Gavin launched, is a functional piece of art.
Photo: Eric England
Gavin builds each one by hand using an industrial laser cutter, a computer-controlled machining tool called a CNC machine (which she also built herself) and a fully customizable rainbow of materials. The cases are built either of wood finished with your choice of stain, or of translucent, matte or fluorescent sheets of colored acrylic that can be etched with your own logo or artwork. You’ve got your choice of buttons — specifically Sanwa brand buttons, which Gavin describes as “top-of-the-line Japanese arcade buttons.” Her most popular model is the Paradise 08K, which features eight buttons and four knobs and starts at $175.
They may look like some kind of Playskool toy — appropriately, Gavin has also turned a Playskool microwave into a MIDI controller — but like any basic MIDI controller you’d buy elsewhere, they’re all compatible with popular programs like Ableton or Logic. Gavin says she engineers Paradise MIDI’s controllers to be intuitive and easy to use for beginners and seasoned pros alike. Performers from all around the U.S. and Canada, and even from as far away as Germany, have bought her controllers to be used to play electronic instruments, run lighting rigs, and even to set off a bubble maker. Fans of Nashville’s pop-psych band Tayls might recognize that last one, a special commission for frontman Taylor Cole.
“MIDI is so universal — you can apply it to so many things,” she says. “A while ago, right before COVID-19, [Cole] gave me his guitar. And I drilled a bunch of holes in it and installed a bunch of buttons in the face of the guitar, and had them wired up to control his bubble machines.”
“I love solving problems,” she adds. “I love it when someone has an exciting, out-of-the-box idea. I love being, like, ‘Yes! I can do that! I can make it happen for you!’ ”