Synth Geeks Call Williamsburg Home; Newbies Welcome

Synth musician Robert A. A. Lowe, is a friend of, and advisor to Marihito “Mari” Ayabe, owner of MeMe Antenna, on the subject of synth technology. Check out Lowe’s latest work at lichensarealive.com. Photo by Rebecca Ann Rakstad

Clayton, a tall, skinny guy in dark jeans in his early 30s, steps up to the glass display counter at MeMe Antenna, located in the Bedford Avenue Mini Mall. He’s talking in what appears to be another language—let’s call it “Synth Geek”—with Mari, the store owner, who listens patiently to his every question:

“I mean, I know what quantizing does, but…”

“Wait, does this play scales?…Of course it does! Totally, I see, it transposes octaves…”

[epiphany coming here]: “…so if you have a non-occilating signal, it will step it up a scale.”

The object of desire in question is an A156 Dual Quantizer by Doepfer. Even after a few more queries, Clayton isn’t ready to buy. He decides he ought to do some more research online, and Mari concurs. Instead, an Analog Delay by Pittsburgh Modular is produced from the case. Like all Euro Rack Synth modules, it looks to the naked eye like little more than an exposed green circuit board attached to a metal face-plate with jacks and knobs (knobs are key!) and some ribbon connector cable, all small enough for Clayton to hold in the palm of his hand. He regards it, however, like a piece of handmade jewelry. The two lock eyes, and now they’re speaking the language of pure desire. “It’s great,” says Mari, succinctly. “I’ll take it,” says Clayton.

MeMe Antenna in the Bedford Avenue mini-mall. Photo by Benjamin Rosenzweig

Clayton is hooked on synthesis, and he’s not alone. There are probably thousands of users out there right now, and the appeal is growing fast. If you’re not one of them, but want to be, you should be happy to learn that Williamsburg is a mecca of synth. Until MeMe started carrying synth in October (it’s at the back of the store, behind the vintage bric-a-brac), there was no place on the East Coast you could go to physically hold, and road test, your new synth purchase in person. Lots of enthusiasts, wide eyed at the fact that synth-selling exists IRL (in real life, as opposed to online where it usually lives) came in long after Clayton left. An analog lover but decided synth newbie, I decided to ask a series of un-esoteric questions on the topic. (Online research, and some long chats with Mari and his advsor Robert Lowe, yielded the answers.)

What is “modular” synth and why’s it so great?

In the past synthesizers were at times monstrously large units, with all their capabilities hardwired into one mainframe (think keyboard with lots of knobs on a stand). Now, with modular synth, you customize your experience with a synthesizer, breaking it out into separate more controllable units (think of sections in a modular couch, or toy blocks in a tower) that allow you to get the sort of sound you want. You “rack” them—put them into a hollow metal frame—one at a time as you acquire them, and in the process gain an amazing sense of artistic control. The Euro Rack system of Modular Synthesis (the sort Mari specializes in) offers users all sorts of practical advantages: the systems are lightweight (you literally pack them into a “suitcase” and carry them off); they allow you to make sound right away (no omberchure required); you can master the basics by reading a book (yes, we’re leaving a lot out, but it’s true); and there’s tactile pleasure involved of the sort you don’t get with digital sampling. Levers need to be wiggled, and knobs need to be tweaked, imparting an ineffably satisfying slight-delay response as you twist their plasticene caps under thumb and forefinger. Like any old-school instrument, a modular synth system will reward any student who is well disposed to trial and error.

What kind of music—or just plain sounds—can I make?

Noise. Dance music. Ambient. Minimal techno. The tones and beats are infinitely tweakable, and the sound quality warm. Think b&w film developed in a dark room vs. a digital color image adjusted in Photoshop; think the “terrior” of a French red made from old-world vines vs. the fruit-bomb “nose” of a Pacific Coast pinot. Sure, there’s quite a bit of digital capability in the modular synth world, but basically synth is an analog-lover’s paradise.

Name some artists I might know who employ analog synth?

Gary Numan is a committed synth artist—and a great one. YES. Depeche Mode, Human League, OMD, Japan…electronic music like it was meant to be, back in the day (crafted before an item called the DX7 pushed analog to the margins around 1983). There’s a sweeping overall “lift’ to analog that you just don’t get with the more choppy digital. It carries you through all of music’s individual idiosyncrasies; you feel it in your solar plexus like a wave of cosmic love at a Rave that’s taking place only in your brain. You just know the vibe. The Normal, FAD, Yellow, the list goes on…

Where can I go to hear synth now?

There’s a big festival coming up this summer called the Control Voltage Faire (on June 28th) at the South Street Seaport, but New Yorkers can find synth everywhere if they just look. See it live in Williamsburg at a venue like Zebulon, for instance, once you learn some of the artist’s names. To give you one example, Robert A.A. Lowe (local synth enthusiast who’s advised MeMe on stock), plays there as “Lichen.” His sound is an ambient/trippy/alert mix of vocals and harmonic overtones. Paying attention to the way his compositions cycle through patterns is sort of like noticing the way one thought moves through your brain and gets replaced by another. You’ll have to get comfortable first to appreciate his transportive compositions. The fact that there will probably be brightly-colored psychedelic shapes projected on the wall behind him that move like billowing clouds, and prayer rugs stacked on the stage floor, won’t hurt. It helps set the mood.

A synth band to look out for: In the tradition of the DIY Minimal Wave and Synthpop bands of the 1980's, Xeno & Oaklander (Sean MacBride and Liz Wendelbo) make music with the use of analogue synthesizers, instruments and equipment to write and record. Their Bushwick studio is a well-equipped, synth-filled heaven of cables and knobs. They play locally, check out their website: xenoandoaklander.com. Photo by Benjamin Rosenzweig

Where can I go to do more research?

One word: online. Unless you’re buying in person at MeMe (or at the new store that’s about to open on Lorimer Street called Control), or with other people at a show, you’re going to be tapping keys, and in this subculture, the users are very open and it’s all there.

Muffwiggler.com is the main (and indispensable) chat room resource. Analogheaven.com and Schneidersbuero.de (in Berlin) are good merchandise sources, and of course, YouTube, where you’ll find video with titles like “fun with the rS110 filter” that actually kind of open your mind to new sounds.

Comments

  1. PT says

    Main Drag Music has also started selling modular, along with CONTROL (just opened), funny that all three shops are within walking distance of one another and represent ALL of the US retail locations this side of Minneapolis – great time to be into modular synths and live in NYC!

  2. says

    Good article.

    Actually the first modern synthesizers like the Moog in the mid 1960s had very much the same modular concept as the Eurorack format modules being sold today in Brooklyn. The major difference is the 1960s modules were about 60% larger and there was virtually no opportunity to combine digital control and analog technology as some modules today capitalize on.

    In the early 70s, commercial synthesizer builders realized they could “mainstream” the synthesizer by dropping the modular concept and hardwiring the connections into instruments many found easier to perform with and more affordable due to mass production.

    By the late 70s memory recall of sounds and polyphonic synths (ability to play chords) were mainstream. Neither ability was standard on modular synths not that builders aren’t still trying from time to time. By the mid 80s digital technology was commonplace and the last few modular synths for about a decade were built in small numbers. Lots of legends about big sell-offs in the 1980s, Modular synth systems taken out with the trash at universities, traded for a single cheap modern synth, Roland, clearing old stock at a few pennies on the dollar.

    Cut to the mid 90s. Electronic music attracted interest to analog synthesizer technology again and Doepfer, a tiny German company began building small format modules using existing Eurorack cases originally meant to house custom electronic circuitry. By the mid 2000s a couple more companies were making Eurorack compatible modules. By the late 2000s that had rapidly multiplied to several dozen small but active companies.