Had the chance to stop by the Vintage Synthesizer Museum, which recently relocated from the Bay Area to Los Angeles... and wow, what an amazing space!
The space can be booked by private, hourly appointments. Everything is set-up to play and/or record. Asked the owner and curator of VSM, Lance Hill, some synth-related questions. He goes in depth about getting into synthesizers, what some of his favorites are, and stories behind some of the ones featured in the museum.
Synth History: Do you remember your first synth? What was it?
Lance: Well, I came of age in the 90s and was really into DIY/Lo-Fi home recording, by any means necessary. Through that, my first synths were just the bottom of the barrel Yamaha Portasound PSS-whatever and Casio MT-whatever, mostly run through that old Zoom effects processor that looks like a radar detector. Pretty much every song I recorded back then would have one of those two keyboards on it. Honestly, there's some good beats on those old keyboards, and you can make any of those stock sounds cool with enough distortion or effects.
The first real synth I bought was a Korg Electribe EA-1. I distinctly remember asking the salesperson at the store if it would play polyphonically if I controlled it with an external MIDI keyboard, and they told me it would, which is untrue. That was a cool synth, but it's really aimed more at Techno, and I was doing more of an Art-Rock/Post-Rock thing at the time, so I still craved something weirder and more fluid/analog sounding. What I really wanted was the pretty chords, distorted wall-of-sound chords, and bleeps and bloops I was hearing on Stereolab albums. That was late the 90s.
First vintage/analog was a Yamaha CS-20m. It wasn't working when I got it, and the person was selling it for like $100. Found an excellent synth tech who repaired it, and that started a relationship that was really the cornerstone of VSM coming together. That was probably 2003. The CS-20m was great, and I loved it, but in reality, it was a little too complicated for me at the time. Also, I was annoyed that the filter didn't self-oscillate, which definitely inhibits some bleeping and blooping. It's funny playing one now, because the architecture of it seems so simple and I appreciate the multi-mode filter much more now, even though the resonance doesn't feedback.
Synth History: What inspired you to start collecting synths?
Lance: The idea of starting the Vintage Synthesizer Museum inspired me to start collecting synths.
Initially I wasn't collecting synths. I was just synth-curious, so I would buy any synth that I hadn't tried before, if I could get it at a price lower than I could resell it for. That way, even though I couldn't afford to keep the synths, I could still get exposed to them without really losing any money. At the time, broken synths sold for pretty cheap, and I developed good relationships with a couple really talented techs. That did end up being financially lucrative, and I basically transitioned into being a synth dealer for a few years. After a while, I decided that I would start setting synths aside, to try to build a collection significant enough to open a studio that would just be vintage synths. It didn't seem like a particularly smart idea, but it did seem like my best shot at contributing something special to the wacky, misfit world of the Bay Area at that time. Shout out to the Pacific Pinball Museum and the Jejune Institute/Elsewhere Public Works Agency for really inspiring and showing dedication to weird and fun in the Bay.
Synth History: What is the weirdest / quirkiest synth you’ve ever found?
Lance: Not sure, but here's three that hold mysteries for me:
-the Knas Ekdahl Polygamist: not a total freak of nature, but the design choices go waaay farther than quirky.
-Metasonix Wretch Machine: a total freak of nature. All tube everything. Almost nothing reacts the way you’d expect.
-Ensoiq Fizmo: it’s digital, so it’s beyond my meager understanding, but it’s constantly weird and often exciting, though it loves to default to 90's Techno/Trance cheese
Synth History: Any interesting stories behind some of the synthesizers at the museum?
The 2600 belonged to Joe Zawinul and was purchased from an ex-ARP employee.
The Jupiter 6 belonged to Steve Porcaro.
The Simmons SDS3 and the Pearl Syncussion belonged to Frank Tovey aka Fad Gadget.
The Synthi and Korg MS-50/SQ-10 belonged to Xtian Lunch.
The CS-80 belonged to Melvin Seals.
The 3 oldest Serge Panels here, belonged to Knox Bronson, who in turn got them from Roy Sablosky, who built them in the 70's, while at CalArts, studying under Morton Subotnick.
The Yamaha SK-50D belonged to the Brian Jonestown Massacre.
The Gleeman Petaphonic Clear here was originally a black one, but the original owner had the Gleeman brothers retro-fit it to the Clear version
I randomly, through Craig'sList, bought the blue SH-101 from Edith Frost. She used it on her 'Calling Over Time' album, which is one of my all-time favorites.
The Pro-One here is serial #11.
The Korg VC-10 belonged to Stephen Ruppenthal, who played with Don Buchla, Allen Strange, and others in the Electric Weasel Ensemble in the 70s.
Synth History: Top three synthesizers of all time? And why?
Lance: 1. BEMI Buchla Music Easel: portable, modular, sounds incredible and unique.
Where do I start? First off, the Easel is built into its own case, and I totally have a fetish for synths built into their own case. It sounds amazing, like really big and present. Being modular, the architecture is totally flexible, but being that it's a fixed set of modules, you can't get hung up on adding to it/changing it. The arpeggiator syncs to MIDI clock. The external input includes an envelope follower, and you can ring-mod it with the ModOsc. There's also the optional iProgram Card, which is the most criminally underrated synth accessory in my opinion, as it saves modular presets. Like full patches, not just slider and switch positions. So yeah, an incredible sounding modular synth that can hold presets(w/iProgram card) and is portable. Dream come true for me.
2. Yamaha CS-70m: polyphonic, presets, sounds incredible and unique.
The Yamaha CS-70m is similar to the CS-80, but slightly scaled back and updated. The big difference for me is the long envelope times, so you can make intesting, evolving sounds that aren't possible with the 80. The timbre is a little softer than the 80, and dare I say it's maybe prettier? Well, definitely more mellow. If the CS-80 is LSD, the CS-70m is mushrooms.
3. Korg MS-20: it’s so punk rock, semi-modular, sounds incredible and unique.
Not much to say here that hasn't been said. One of the best synth designs ever. Probably my favorite filter. The whole thing is so aggressive, even the styling is brutal. The ESP is awesome for integration with external sounds, or self-processing the headphone out. It took me forever to decipher the patch panel, but once understood, it is very useful. I've performed more shows with an MS-20 than any other single/specific instrument.
Synth History: What synthesizer do you think is the most underrated? The most overrated?
Lance: Most overrated: Minimoog Model D. It’s not the best at everything, and there’s like a million imitations of it. Most underrated: Minimoog Model D. It is the best at a few things, and there’s a reason that so many synths imitate it.
Honestly, I feel like I could kind of say something similar about every other synth. It seems like there's so many opinions and hype/hate about different synths. I guess discussing anything with an air of authority is kind of the sport of the internet. I've certainly been guilty of it. Anyway, that can lead to many things being underrated and overrated, but not really in a way that has any substance. Well illustrated by my non substantive answer above (laughs).
Synth History: Any tips for folks working with a new synthesizer they’re unfamiliar with?
Lance: Slow down.
Read the panel.
Think about it.
Act with purpose.
95% of all the synths in VSM basically have the same voice architecture. If you’re familiar with the basic elements of a synth voice, then you should really only have to learn the idiosyncrasies and peculiarities of any given subtractive/analog synth. If you’ve not become intimately familiar with the basic elements of a synth voice and how and why they interact, I would suggest doing so. It will increase your love and understanding of synths and sound in general.
Synth History: Any tips for finding vintage synths?
Lance: Finding them? Not really anything past the obvious haunts online. Though, here's my tips for finding and securing good deals:
-Persistence: always be on the lookout.
-If you find a good deal, go get it. Immediately.
-High ball, don't low ball. People seem to be obsessed with trying to get someone to sell something for less than their asking price, even if it's a good deal. I've always offered people more than their asking price, and it's worked out well for me and the sellers.
References: Synth History Exclusive, Vintage Synth Museum, Rosie Geozalian (photos).