Vintage synth journey

North Dakota, 1980s. Chuck Klosterman and I were both in high school on the high plains (and a little over 110 miles apart). Mitch Gallagher had just graduated a few blocks away from me and Shadoe Stevens still dropped by his family shop in my hometown to say “hi.” I think it is fair to say that we probably all tried to listen to radio out of Fargo, “rock city,” and likely KQWB — aka “Q98.” Rock — commercial, classic, progressive and punk — could have been our common musical denominator. Three-chord power rock backed by a Roland or Oberheim was the sound of that time.

Out on the Great Plains, the sound of funk, new romantics, soul, new wave and synth-pop were not as prevalent — that was urban and something more Minneapolis than Bismarck. The notion of a synth-first song seemed a bit heretical and we only spoke of our personal interest in such music in hushed tones.

Outside of Pink Floyd and Yes, I really didn’t like synth music of the 1970s. In my mind, swoopy and blatty Moog waveforms and Arp stabs were more about getting stoned than adding anything cohesive to a composition. Only prog rock synth lines captured my attention (enter Rush) — until music videos arrived.

When I wasn’t gaming or working at KQDJ as an announcer on weekends, I watched music videos in the family basement. We didn’t subscribe to MTV, so I was left with the Friday/Saturday night run of “Night Tracks” on TBS. It was there that I learned about other genres of music outside of what we could listen to locally on the radio (no streaming, no internet).

I was not a fan of pop music (no Madonna or Michael Jackson), but everything else on the air fascinated me. I didn’t care about lyrics at all — what captured my attention was the combination of visuals with the sound, and in particular the range of expressive sounds that could be produced by a synthesizer that could offer a root or insert a mood into a song without a full orchestra.

A friend of mine was in a local rock band and he picked up a Roland Juno-106. We worked a fireworks stand together and in the evenings, he’d pull out the synth and practice. I was simply blown away by what it could generate in terms of range and breadth of sounds. That experience coupled with music videos got me hooked on synths. Fast forward to college and my roommate was a keyboard and sax player in New Orleans (the perfect 1980s musical combo). He introduced me to more of the Roland family (D-50), Yamaha (DX-7, DX-100), and Korg (Poly 800). His bandmates started using digital drum kits from Simmons and Roland, and looped in Akai samplers to make things interesting. While not in a band myself, I was a FOH engineer and had to make all of the synths sound right in the mix.

Years later, I started composing my own music in the box with Reason and Logic. Once I settled on Logic as my DAW, I did what pretty much everyone did at the time and went nuts on soft synths. While they are great, they’re clinically predictable — even the most organic ones. Then one day while trolling eBay, I stumbled across a gear listing from the estate of the late Isaac Hayes. Listed was a variant of the synth I fell in love with two decades earlier — the Roland D-550. I dropped some coin on it and a Yamaha TX-81z, and became the proud owner of a bit of musical history. While they don’t have certificates of authenticity, they did have what made them special — the custom sounds of Issac Hayes in the quirky hardware that made them magical.

My next purchase on the hardware front is a bit of an odd choice. I became interested in electronica during the late 1990s and early 2000s, and one of the signature synths of that era was the Access Virus. The Virus captured the complexity of layering and complex sequencing into a single, non-workstation and more instrument-like unit. My workspace didn’t allow for a full keyboard and I was rack-starved, so I managed to find an original Access Virus Rack, which now offers up its distinct sound to my compositions.

In my head I wanted something Roland that was pre-D series and in rack form. The ideal bit of gear would be an MKS-80, but it has become a unicorn synth with a price to match. Then, like my D-550 before, I unique touring synth hit the auction circuit. I picked up a Roland MKS-70 that was part of Thomas Dolby’s rig autographed by him. Like the D-550, the MKS-70 came with sounds associated with his Soul Inhabitant tour.

Looking forward, there’s likely an Oberheim Matrix-6r or Matrix-1000 with my name on it as I’m a sucker for the heavy analog sound that is inherent in the Oberheim architecture. After buying a Samples from Mars collection, I became enamored with a Voyetra 8, but that’s another unicorn in an alternate universe. Although it isn’t technically vintage, the technology inside is so I’m also thinking about the MOS-based SIDstation. I’m also itching for a Yamaha TX802… and the list goes on. The key element is, well, no keys! I’m intentionally limiting myself to gear that can be somehow racked in a 19” flight case.

Although I do some degree of sound design and on-device programming, my first goal is to incorporate the historical essence of these synths into my compositions. With that and the addition of Mainstage to my production workflow, I’m both recording and sampling these wonderful pieces of hardware as one day, they will die. So for me, working with vintage synths is as much about creativity as preservation.