The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Wreath Lectures

Wreath Lectures 2010: We All Play Synth - 2010 In Analogue From Hipsters To System Engineers
Frances Morgan , December 31st, 2010 05:27

Frances Morgan looks back at the numerous ways in which old synthesizers and attendant technology have played an essential role in creating new music

In 2010, not laughing at hipsters was hipper than laughing at hipsters, because too many people were laughing at hipsters, but I have to admit one bit of that ‘Being A Dickhead’s Cool’ video that did the rounds over the summer tickled me. In the first verse, the hiccupy-voiced protagonist offers us a plus one for his gig at the Macbeth. ‘I play synth!’ he announces. ‘We all play synth!’ And two little microKORGS – vocoder attachment bobbing merrily – flash up on the screen and jiggle in time to the music.

As with all semi-decent spoofs, it’s the attention to detail that makes the clip funny: the microKORG is exactly the kind of synthesizer that the titular dickhead might invest in, being cheap-ish and small enough to fit in a cloth tote bag. But spoofs also date quickly, almost as soon as they’re created. Korg’s compact ‘starter’ synth came on the market in the early 2000s, and spent the decade growing in popularity, to the point where it’s part of studio and stage arsenals across the board, genre-wise. There was a point, around 2006-7, Crystal Castles-era, where it might have been worth lampooning – a shoe ad that appeared in every issue of Vice around that time showed a giant-sunglasses-sporting guy in possession of one; a perfect, and I imagine completely non-ironic, summation of the microKORG’s reputation as fashionista toy. Yet now, laughing at a microKORG (although they are a bit ugly and dinky-looking) seems as relevant as laughing at a drum-kit or a microphone. It’s part of the music workforce now, and 2010 belonged to a different kind of synthesis: unwieldy rather than compact; real analogue over analogue modelling; prized vintage instead of vintage-styled; and at its most extreme, home or custom-built.

This isn’t about how many records in 2010 used synthesisers. In one form or another, we all listen to synthesised music, all the time; and distinctions between analogue/digital or organic/artificial are increasingly meaningless – what’s more interesting is the way in which those qualities are perceived and explored as aesthetics. One enduring image of the synthesiser in 2010 was not a zippy machine from the future or the latest soft-synth but a solid 5-octave beast from the early 1980s, the Roland Juno-60. Like most old synths, it’s had a lifespan from must-have all-purpose instrument to cumbersome old piece of studio gear to resurrection by artists looking for a cheap but good, large synth with nice arpeggiators to, somehow, something that changes hands for almost a grand on ebay. It would be nice to blame Mark Ronson for this: the video to ‘Bang Bang Bang’, from his clunkily-named Record Collection album, fetishises the Juno to the point of almost appearing to take place inside one: its colours, shapes and patterns mirroring the synth’s distinctive red, yellow, white and blue on-body printing.

I’m aware that Ronson’s one of those pop figures you’re not supposed to like, but the synth porn of ‘Bang Bang Bang’s video is kind of stunning, and the song is pathologically neat. A bank of synthesisers, speakers and drum pads, some of which are inconveniently facing away from him, springs up around Ronson like a neon pulpit as the song begins; he beams in Q-Tip and MNDR from the Juno’s memory bank; close-ups show him nonchalantly pushing up the envelope filters as if steering a spaceship. The two vocalists appear in cutaway shapes suggestive of wave forms and at the end, some kind of white Korg – I think – with reverse colour keys zooms through the air to land on Ronson’s Wakeman-like set-up. While consisting almost entirely of 1980s visual tropes, the video itself would have never actually been made in the 1980s – the loving, lavish, archival attention to instrumental detail is entirely contemporary; celebrating the quaintly ‘hands on’ feel of the gear as much as its space-age aesthetic.

Around the time of the album’s release, Ronson gave interviews about his impressive vintage synth collection, bringing into the mainstream the kind of curatorial, analogue-savvy attitude mooted years before by James Murphy’s LCD Soundsystem (which now features synth-builder and curator Gavin Russom as a permanent member) and DFA label. Meanwhile, Oneohtrix Point Never’s most prominent release so far, Returnals (Editions Mego), might, in its own way, have contributed to the rocketing price of used Junos, its dreamy, psychedelic sound a million miles from Ronson’s and Murphy’s perky electro but perhaps answering a similar need from a different set of listeners for warmth, space, presence and physicality – or the impression of such – in electronic music. Daniel Lopatin’s use of the Juno-60 is apparently almost accidental: he commandeered his father’s old one as kid and has eschewed surrounding himself with loads more gear in favour of exploring and extending the possibilities of one particular instrument. Other synths, a sampler and voices are used, but the epicentre of Oneohtrix’s music is the same, rather monolithic old synth. Looping and jamming with its hypnotic arpeggios, Lopatin makes use of the Juno’s uniquely grainy, glassy sound to trace the ghostly imprints of its history in acid house and trance, as well as its presence on New Age recordings of the 1980s. Sometimes stickered so the first two letters of the brand name are obscured, his synthesiser occasionally proclaims ‘NO’ at his audience, yet OPN’s album is one of the year’s most welcoming ‘noise’ releases: Returnals sounds, as does its predecessor Rifts, like it’s been beamed in from a utopian analogue past, but does not grate with too many pitch-perfect nostalgic reference points.

Oneohtrix Point Never "Ouroboros" from Megazord on Vimeo.

Lopatin also appears on Trilogy Select, a collection of recordings by Stellar Om Source, aka Dutch synth player Christelle Gualdi, released this year on Olde English Spelling Bee. Gualdi’s set up is similarly basic and her sound is also lush and dreamlike, yet with a kind of tension and fallibility too: it’s excitingly smooth and not-smooth. Watching her live earlier this year, I was struck by the way she seemed to try and to do everything in real time, juggling sounds and beats to form rough cosmic structures that changed or collapsed as soon as they were built, where others would have pre-recorded at least some of the tracks. The aesthetic of this ‘scene’ draws from classic New Age and late-period Kosmische music, all sheeny, imaginary vistas and breathy chords – and Gualdi has performed with JD Emmanuel, creator of legendary 1982 ‘deep trance’ album, Wizards, re-released in 2010 – yet there’s a DIY dynamism to her and Lopatin’s work that is a nice counterbalance to its blissful sonics, and that demonstrates very literally why analogue synthesisers continue periodically to fascinate musicians. It is not just because they’re old, cool and collectable, but also that they open up new worlds of process and praxis, helping you understand – at least intuitively – what sound does and how it works. It’s for this reason that early advocates of the instrument expected that, once they were easier to come by and didn’t fill whole rooms, they’d be used in schools as a teaching aid.

As analogue musical technology fades into obsolescence, while the internet makes it easier and easier to catalogue, it was unsurprising that we’d see a renewed interest in synthesiser music’s more esoteric corners – with blogs now devoted to unearthing old ‘meditation music’ vinyl – and in constructing or sourcing the gear oneself. Kranky artist Keith Fullerton Whitman has dipped into the epic world of early modular synthesis since around 2005, when he released Multiples, recorded using Harvard University’s collection of Buchla and Serge synthesizers, but for those without access to such a treasure trove, there is a proliferation of new synth makers in the UK and US, building small noise devices, modules, and whole systems, and advising home-builders on how to do it themselves. Like the crafting community, its growth would have been impossible without the web, yet the emphasis is again on physicality, tactility, and the magic of the analogue. Rob Lowe’s Lichens project, in which he had previously blended his voice with guitar and effects, now is as likely to centre around a modular synth: his was one of a number of performances I saw last year in which a blinking, wire-spidered, custom-made box replete with antique-looking dials wasn’t just a processor or accoutrement but the main focus. It added an uncanny quality to Lowe’s mesmerising set that a guitar would not have done: perhaps most of us were drawn in by the sheer unfamiliarity of what we were seeing, somewhere between the visual clarity of an instrument like a guitar and the impenetrability of a laptop set, as well as by the warm, vibrant quality of the sounds. Whether the custom analogue will end up lampooned on a hipster-mocking video three years hence – I doubt it; building your own is too much of a proper, time-consuming hassle ever to go truly viral – the resurgence in this particular cottage industry has been fascinating and, to me, hugely inspiring. On a more pragmatic note, if longstanding and brilliant makers and sellers like Analogue Solutions have had a good year out of this trend, then so much the better.

But there’s one element of this latest wave of synthesiser archaeology that bothers me; one part of the story that seems to have been written down, if not out: Christelle Gualdi aside, women have been conspicuous by their absence. This is not only annoying, it is baffling, and it is historically skewed. When I started messing with a synthesiser in the late 1990s, not only was there little rockist baggage or even a ‘proper’ way to play the thing, but there was also a clear historical lineage of lady tinkerers to be inspired by, from Eliane Radigue, Wendy Carlos and Delia Derbyshire to Cosey Fanny Tutti, Stereolab and Ann Shenton of the then-prominent Add N to X. I had not even heard of the recently re-evaluated Catherine Christer Hennix, or, I don’t think, of Pauline Oliveros or Laurie Spiegel; or any women of the New Age field like Pauline Anna Strom. Perhaps one unwelcome by-product of the current nostalgia for ‘real’ skills and hands-on experiences is a kind of retro essentialism, in the same way that the crafting boom of the last decade, while in itself wholly commendable, has somewhat pigeonholed women as ‘radical’ bakers and knitters, while our men get back to the garden shed/bedroom and bend those circuits.

Electronic music surely, more than any other kind, offers freedom from such essentialism; offers escapism, transcendence, polymorphism and questioning of earthly and physical roles: if we really want to re-capture the utopian promise of early synthesiser music, factoring in a bit of gender parity seems like a no-brainer. One of the best music books of 2010, Tara Rodgers’s Pink Noises, gave an accessible window into what looks to be many years of research into gender, identity and electronic music, via interviews with women including Jessica Rylan, Mutamassik, Christina Kubisch and veterans like Oliveros and Radigue. If this year’s synthesiser music does suggest, as I think it does, a renewed interest in the basics of sound, how we can make it and how we can shape it, and the people who’ve done so in the past, then this anthology of voices grappling with and arguing the physics, acoustics, politics and aesthetics of electronic music is essential reading alongside any synth-collector blog or knob-twiddler forum.

Check out more circuit bending and synth building info at PunkSynth