Well, this one is exciting - especially after having just finished the latest season of Stranger Things (I can attest this interview is spoiler-free). Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein are the masters behind the original score which took the world by storm.
The duo are members of the band Survive, a quartet that have been producing synth-heavy, horror-score-influenced compositions since 2009, using drum machines and analog synths across various single, EP and LP releases.
Kyle and Michael each have their own studio - laden with a plethora of vintage synthesizers. Exclusive photos of Michael Stein were shot by Ambar Navarro and photos of Kyle Dixon were shot by Jackie Lee Young.
Without further ado...
Synth History: What are some of your favorite synthesizers?
Kyle: My answer typically changes depending on what the goal is. Certain things are good for certain things, and not for others. Every synthesizer is good at something, but if I have to choose one it has to the Oberheim Matrix 12. All the models are great, the Matrix 1000 was one of the first synths I bought and has been on most of the music I have recorded. There is an inherent sadness to those sounds that I can't explain, but it's unique. I think that some of the most beautiful music in the world is at least a little sad, and I have always been drawn to sad songs, so it makes sense that I would be drawn to a sad sounding synthesizer.
Michael: This question is difficult. Synthesizers are like pizza? I pretty much love them all! You can’t go wrong with early Roland, ARP and Oberheim. I find the 2600 is still one of the most rewarding synthesizers for me and so immediate to program a wide array of wonderful sounds. The Prophet 5 rev3 has a way to sit really well in a mix with acoustic instruments that is so pleasing. I also really like digital analog/hybrids like the prophet VS and PPG Wave or lesser bit rate chunky sounding samplers with analog filters like the emulator or even the mirage. My favorite thing is sitting down at a new synth that makes me feel like I don’t know what I am doing. As long as it has a great UI, and no menus, I love when a synth takes me back to that feeling of excitement and confusion you had the very first time you ever sat down with a synthesizer. Before you knew how they worked. For me right now, that is a Yamaha TX816 with the Jellinghaus programmer clone by D-tronics.
Synth History: Is there a synth - or any instrument - you consider a hidden gem?
Kyle: Phonem by Wolfgang Palm from PPG. It's a vocal synth that is like nothing else I've ever used. Unfortunately, he retired recently and I don't think there is any way to buy it now. Hopefully that changes somehow!
Michael: There are lots of digital and cheaper synths that people disregard but they tend to do one thing really really well and I love having an assortment of them around so I can find a certain texture to bring something else to a piece of music. They all have a different sonic quality that makes them good for something. For example the Kawai K5000s.
Synth History: Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies is a deck of cards promoting creativity in the studio - if you could make your own Oblique Strategies card, what would it say?
Kyle: No one will notice but you.
Michael: I do own a set of Oblique Strategies and still use them every so often. I would encourage things like committing to a minimum amount of tools for a project, don’t get lost in all the possibilities and spending time out of the studio so you can bring external inspirations with you when you are creating music.
Synth History: The music for Stranger Things took the world by storm. The nostalgia and vintage sound aesthetic were perfect for the show. What were some of the biggest inspirations behind the tracks?
Kyle: Honestly the biggest influence on the music is the scenes themselves and the direction that the Duffer Brothers want to take them. There are so many different types of music in the show and a ton of score that most people probably don't notice which is quite different from what I assume the general public associates with the show.
Michael: I’ve always been a fan of music and movies. A lot of which were made in the 70s, 80s, 90s etc. When you work on something that is reminiscent of your influences you channel those feelings into what you are doing whether you are consciously aware or not. There is not a lot of time to premeditate your ideas when writing for TV because of tight deadlines so you focus on enhancing the picture and the music is the product of your instincts.
Synth History: What were some of the synths used for the show?
Kyle: Between Michael and I we have quite a substantial collection, and I can list some fun stuff later - but I would say the core of the sound set of Stranger Things is probably the Prophet 6, Arps (2600, Odyssey, Solus) & the Oberheim Matrix, tape echo and spring reverb. Some fun stuff that has made it in the show: Mellotron, PPG Wave, Prophet 5, Synton Fenix ii, Modcan Modular, Moog System 35, Oberheim Two & Four Voice, Groove Synthesis 3rd Wave, Roland System 100m, Polymoog, Korg PS-3100, Jupiter 4, 6 & 8, Korg Mono/Poly, Cwejman S1, Elka Synthex, Nonlinear Labs C15, GRP A4, CRB Uranus 2.
Michael: I’m not gonna lie and just say that it would almost be easier list what classic synths have not been used. I know that is a terrible problem to have. I will say that between the two of us we do not own any Junos so no this is not the Arp you’re looking for. “That” arpeggio line is an SEM Two Voice.
Synth History: Can you give aspiring producers or musicians a tip on approaching a new synthesizer?
Kyle: Hopefully whatever it is doesn't require reading a manual - so just turn the knobs until you hear something that you like. Most importantly record everything you do the first few times you play with it - you will do things unintentionally that you may never do again. I have found that some of the most interesting stuff happens on the first try, and you only get one - so you might as well record it.
Michael: Get a synth with a good sound and a great interface, preferably with a knob per function and just play with it. Think of it as an expressive and endless sound source rather than “I need a synth sound for this song”. If you don’t own at least one good analog synth you are missing out on a lot of the fun.
Synth History: What is your favorite era of music?
Kyle: The late 70's without a doubt. Everything was there - great musicians, great sounding equipment, and the money to pay for it all. Unfortunately I don't think we will ever see that kind of support for music again, but at least pretty much anyone can record music now if they want to.
Michael: Late 70’s - till about 1984.
Synth History Exclusive. Photos Ambar Navarro, Jackie Lee Young.