I love synthesizers.
For the past 5 years, they’ve been my primary instrument when performing as Dinnersss
. As is common with many of my synthesizer-people, my search for the most ethereal, mind-bending, space-voyage-enabling, knob-and-slider-covered-Dalek-
looking instrument never ends. Nor is that search dictated by the calendar year, so in that spirit this is not a “Best Of 2015 List” in the sense that these synthesizers came out last year (none of them did) – this is a list of my favorite synths I used
in 2015. Enjoy!
originally released the Music Easel in 1972, and though production was limited to just ~30 units, its design was influential as a first-of-its-kind electronic musical instrument. Almost all keyboard synthesizers since the beginning of time are subtractive voices made of 1-2 oscillators mixed into a low-pass filter, but the Easel was the first and one of the only to make use of a complex FM-based oscillator into a low-pass gate. I had been trying to put together the functionality of the Easel in my Eurorack modular synthesizer to minimal success, and was pumped to find out that the Easel would be going back into production in 2013. I got mine at the beginning of 2015 and its everything I dreamed it would be. I’m using it primarily for playing with other musicians in an improv setting and for solo drones. (The Easel’s user manual
is a classic read worth it for anyone interested in performance synthesis.)
I got one of these because I needed a cheap thrill, and because this is my version of a cheap thrill. This line of meant-to-be-wearable synths is the result of a collaboration with a fashion company
and Teenage Engineering, a company already known for their ability to combine compact synthesizers with unique interfaces for the OP-1
. I got the PO-16 Factory synth (there are bass and drum machine versions, too) and really liked the sounds, effects, and bonus monophonic drum machine voice. Whenever I (or my girlfriend) pick it up, I get sucked in for a minimum of an hour. It’s toy-ish, and therefore fun, but I’ve been able to pull more than a few tracks worth of samples from it for use in “actual” tracks.
Talk about a buzzword, right?! I don’t know how I made it 28 years without referring to anything as granular, but I’m making up for it in my 29th! Where in a traditional synthesizer the root of the sound is a triangle/sine/square/saw wave, the root of a granular synthesizer sound is a very small slice of a recorded sample. The Microgranny 2 is a lo-fi monophonic granular synth with a built-in microphone for sampling that can run off of batteries. It’s handmade by Bastl, a small outfit based in the Czech Republic whose designs feel natural for music making. I like the immediacy of this thing: I can be in my room and find that I like the sound of dropping my sneakers on a certain area of the floor, record it directly into the MG2’s built-in mic, and turn that into a self-modulating granular soundscape in a few seconds – dope. It’s also got some wicked nasty distortion.
The Plumbutter 2 is designed and built by Peter Blasser whose output as an instrument builder is so rapid, he was forced to conglomerate it with the website “Synth Mall
.” Peter is known for his eccentric designs and documentation, but if you spend the time to understand his instruments, you’ll find great creative rewards. I used the Plumbutter in 2015 to make a bunch of samples for my dance music. This bit from the Plumbutter’s manual says it all: “My name is Plumbutter. My face is a psycho-geographical map of the cities of Baltimore and Cleveland. I am a drum-machine, but let me tell you I am more than that, for I also am a “drama machine”. Thus there exists in me, a dialectic between drum and drama, like cops and gangsters, male versus female, or rural versus urban. You can see my wild spaces are represented by a deer-horn, and my downtown by a factory, and in between, a vast swath of suburban developments. It is a gradient of these three areas- urban, suburban, and rural- that informs my electronic synthesis.”
This is one of the few software synthesizers I use, but I love it, and I use it for a LOT when creating samples for my live sets. It also happens to be one of the most unique synthesizers I own, as it uses modern algorithms to emulate the acoustic properties of physical bodies. It’s another granular synth at its core, and it allows you to load samples, modulate the grain you’re using, then run it through a “resonator” and “body”. It’s super intuitive, modular, and fun, and relatively affordable considering how powerful it is.
I have no affiliation with any of these companies, I just love synthesizers, instrument design, and sharing cool things with people. I hope you enjoyed – here’s to more weird sounds in 2016!