My Fascination With Synths

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One radio I didn’t break

When I was a toddler I got into big trouble for taking my dad’s radio apart. I remember wanting desperately to find out where the music came from.  I was also fascinated with my primary school teacher’s big beige cassette player. I sang lyrics over my clockwork jewellery box for hours while the ballerina span around. I pleaded for a Stylophone when I was 12, and later I had a Yamaha ‘toy’ synth that I could strap-on like a guitar. That synth taught me everything I know about modelling sound. I painted the keys with luminous nail varnish. When I was 15, I joined a very early SynthRock band called Domino Effect in Ipswich. 

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Numan 2016

 If I’d have been a boy I probably would have left school and worked for the local BT Engineering Centre, which was the biggest employer (behind farming) in the area. But my relationship with technology has been a precarious one. Growing up on a smallholding in the countryside, the radio I had under my pillow  became my connection to another world. John Peel’s local radio shows introduced to me to Gary Numan’s records which I played relentlessly on my dad’s turntable looking out at the barren fields. What Numan was doing with synths was revolutionary, it was magical and has enchanted me from childhood to the present day.

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Hackney Studios 2016

In the digital age, we are using more “soft synths” than ever, you don’t need all those racks of knobs anymore when you can synthesize sounds using a computer program. Well, that’s the theory. Personally I hate gear like digital Amp Modellers  that claim to replicate the sound of a physical guitar amp with exactitude. Blindfold me and I can tell the difference. When I recorded the EP “Breakables” I picked a studio that had a very rare 80’s Synclavier Synth  – it was like a dream come true for me to use it, the sounds were rich beyond belief. Like velvet to my ears. I previewed several string sounds on it, and plumped for one which turned out to be a sample from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Last week I was lucky to see an artist called “Look Mum No Computer” perform in the back of a warehouse gallery in South London. This guy builds his own synths.

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Look Mum No Computer

The towering machine he wheeled into the freezing cold backroom was incredible. His songs sounded amazing too. Live drum pads, distorted vocals, and god knows what else, combined with projections. I think the Futurists would have loved this. I was really pleased to see it, so many bands are going down the LAPTOP route these days which is no fun to watch, and I’m not sure I would even call it “music”. 

2yrs ago, as an experiment, I made a song called “Awkward Time” entirely on my computer, it was aired on the radio but I was never 100% happy with it. It’s an indulgent song that came straight out of my subconscious after playing with an electronic drumbeat. The drumbeat came to me in my

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“Awkward Time” Optical Radio. by Alan

sleep (probably after practising paradiddles repeatedly for a drum exam). The song has that ‘detachment’ that you get in a lot of electronic music. It made me realise just how much passion you tap into when you put a physical instrument like a guitar into your actual hands. I think I’ll sharpen the song up, and release it on Soundcloud this year.

Steve, Paul and Tiffany have stepped up to the mark recently to play synths at our live gigs. There will more of that this year. It’s a bit of a conundrum being a grungy guitar band with synths, sometimes promoters don’t like it…  but we do what we do.

Addendum: 

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Lorenzo Senni at the Tate

I went to see an Electronic Music night at the Tate Modern this week, part of the  “Ten Days, Six Nights” event. I had high expectations, but the performances were dull and pretentious. Lorenzo Senni sat at a laptop with his hands in his lap, playing unremarkable pre-recorded dance music, in a huge room lit with static light. There are Night Clubs with more interesting music and lighting within a few minutes walk of here.  I couldn’t help but feel this was an attempt to make the Tate into some late-opening nightspot with extortionate bar prices for hipster Rhubarb Soda and broccoli stems. In another space, Isabel Lewis had plants

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“Occasions”, Tate

suspended from the ceiling, and performers walking amongst the audience doing some low-key wailing, and slo-mo dance. It was a bit like B&Q on a Tuesday morning. But seriously, looking at the Tate’s  program of events, there were no British Musicians there, it is a shame that this huge institution (part-funded by our taxes) is so out of touch with the really amazing stuff happening at grass roots level in this country. The underground scene cannot be beaten for creativity, and long may it exist.

 

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