Multi-instrumentalist, composer and modular synthesist Lisa Bella Donna recommends some of her studio go-tos below. We'll start by asking her three questions!
Synth History: What originally got you into synthesizers?
Lisa: Originally, my mother used to sit me between the speakers when I was little and turn up Gary Wright's Dream Weaver album good and loud. She would loudly claim: "This is what the future is going to sound like!!". She loved all the synthesizer work and the crushing Moog bass. It immediately set me on a path of synthesized music. Then, when I was 9 years old, my stepfather played Wendy Carlos Switched On Bach & Sonic Seasonings on his amazing stereo system in the same afternoon. It was a definitive musical moment.
I already began dreaming of what I would want to do if I could play a synthesizer. Unfortunately, growing up in West Virginia finding an ARP or Moog Synthesizer was next to impossible. When I was 13 a neighbor gave me a Wurlitzer Omni Organ. Which had a simple synthesizer, rhythm computer in it and a cassette recorder. I was off and running making recordings with 2 cassette decks and that organ.
When I was 16, I was offered a job at a local jingle studio. This was where I experienced a synthesizer first hand, tape recording, editing techniques and just using the recording studio in general. At this time, the studio had Yamaha DX7, TX816, LINN DRUM, Mirage, and Roland D50 etc... which were great to work with and offered lots of modern sounds - but in the back they had a dusty old ARP Odyssey and Fender Rhodes electric piano. I'll never forget plugging them in and playing them for the first time. It was exactly what I was looking for. Instant touch response & an immediate inspiring sound.
I started dragging them into the jingle studio to do sessions which made the studio owners frustrated and unhappy. They would say "Why are you so obsessed with this old junk? We have all the latest equipment!" Being the amazing people they were, they cleared out a small, rustic storage room and converted it into my own little project studio. They installed their old Tascam 388 8 channel reel, A Teac 2-track, A pair of JBL monitors, an old couch and a coffee maker. I seriously thought I had died and gone to heaven. I soon bought my own first ARP, an ARP Omni. Then I went to the music store I taught at and bought a Jen SX-1000, A Roland RE-301 & small stone phaser - I needed some fx, and a Roland CR-78. I installed them in my little studio and would be in there around the clock after long sessions in the jingle studio. I would sleep on the couch for a bit and then work around the clock until I had to teach then go do work in the jingle studio. I basically lived there for 2 amazing years, slowly but surely buying more synthesizers, reel to reel tape, with every penny I could scrape together.
The studio owners stopped by my little spot one day and gave me a small but important stack of LPs and technical manuals and books - "You need to learn these materials front to back and listen to these records that use all this gear you love". I went right after it. I threw on the headphones and then listened to Weather Report Heavy Weather for the very first time. My mind was once again blown into a wider, new dimension. It amazed me how much utility Joe Zawinul could evoke out of this "ARP 2600" listed on every track. All the beautiful, sensitive solos. The amazing stereo images of the tracks. I went on a long and winding search for an ARP 2600. Which was virtually impossible in 1989. I eventually found a guy named Dave Thompson aka SYNTHLOCATER listed in the back of Keyboard Magazine. I called him and went to meet with him 4 hours away. In his studio then he had 2 ARP 2600, Moog IIIC, 2 Mellotrons, Korg PS3100, and literally stacks of ARPs, Micro-moogs, Prophets etc. It was unreal.
I begged him to find and sell me an ARP 2600 and agreed. A few months later the phone rang and there it was. I didn't have the money so I asked if I could make a down payment and pay it off over a couple months. He agreed and sent me back the amazing ARP owners manual. It was through those pages I began to really understand the possibilities of the signal path. How I could combine both musical dreams and some of the otherworldly sounds I would hear in some of the truly intense astral projections I was having during that time. When it came time to finish payment, I had to sell off my Volkswagen and a few other instruments. Hitched a ride there and back with a friend and then brought the ARP 2600 home to my new tiny four room house studio. Soon after that I installed another 2600/ARP Sequencer/Solina/Moog Prodigy/Hammond Organ/Prophet 5/Korg Poly Ensemble S.
I spent the next couple years learning and grinding out many recordings with these instruments. Most of which I still have in the tape archive. It was in this little shack I made my first all ARP record Snowy Dreamscapes in late 1993. I recently transferred these original tapes for an exclusive release for the ARP/Alan R. Pearlman foundation.
Synth History: Do you have a go-to approach for making music, or is it always changing?
Lisa: I would say I have a handful of approaches that I take when composing, programming and recording. When I am composing larger scale compositions and arrangements it's usually away from the studio. I live in a very rural countryside with my family and we take full advantage of the many rivers, caves, waterfalls, and woods surrounding where we live. I love to rise before the sun and build a bonfire, make some coffee, and just sit taking in all the scents, sounds, and sights of the landscape.
I typically envision my arrangements as landscapes, hidden valleys, or following down a waterway or river. Meditation of those things and it's not long before an idea or impression comes. It could be a personal feeling or reflection or a concept or calculation of the sounds surrounding me. I just know that I just want to live in the wilderness of the music. When I compose in this way, albums like Cheynne Crossing, Tintinnabulation, and Tramontane, this is how those records are composed. It's always so rewarding to return to the studio and see how closely I can realize my original intention or impression.
Another way I love to compose is right in the studio from scratch. Where the reel to reel is my canvas and point of focus. I come in and start with a patch and just build it and see where it can go. Oftentimes it becomes many patches throughout the modular system to realize the piece. I love to make complex sounds and passages, yet I like to project a clear and present vision of what the music is becoming. The music and its stereo image is my bottom line.
Records like Sonata for Loudspeakers, Odyssey, and Destinations are conceived this way.
The other approach is live in performance. Oftentimes my favorite way. There's a special heat and light that comes from patching and playing live with the circulation of an audience. Their energy and impressions become such a special part of the music. All of the official Moog Music videos I do are live in the studio. Yet, it still feels like a live performance because I'm surrounded by 8 to 10 amazingly talented and passionate people. All the people that work at Moog bring their own special artistry that is really very inspiring and has everything to do with how I create with them. Many of my records are live records: Live, Take my Hand, Come with Me, Night Shift, Mourning Light and my recent record Turning Point.
There's something special about hitting that mark in the moment and controlling the watercolors of your mistakes.
*Below, images from Lisa*
There's not time or luxury to fine tooth comb down your tracks or even your initial ideas. Yet, you don't have time to get in the way of the miraculousness of the music. The room and environment I'm in have so much to do with my process and flow too. There's no greater high than connecting with an audience. To me, it's worth the sacrifice of total perfection that the studio provides. I love things that are raw and evoke a feeling of risk and exploration. The magic sparks in the balance.
Synth History: Who - or what - are your biggest inspirations currently?
Lisa: My current, biggest inspiration right now is where my life is in this chapter. My beautiful and smart nine year old daughter. Becoming a parent changed everything in my life for the better. It evoked a revelation of healing and clarity. It inspired me to let go of the old ghosts and open my heart to new ways of living. It gave me access to channels of my spirit and muse I had never previously had the chance to discover. It centralized my patience for my own continued development as a human and musician. It revealed so much awareness. How truly short our time here is and how we have the power to manifest so much frequency in our lives. The efflorescence of my own gratitude in all things.
Moving out of the city and back to the countryside is another. It had been a deep desire of mine for many years but I couldn't seem to make the stars align until now. As soon as I moved out here and began making a humble home, my clarity and creativity went soaring through the roof. I've finally learned the art of getting out of my own way. There's still much work to be done for me to be a better human but great strides have been made in the last 6 years.
I'm inspired by everyone I get the opportunity to work with. Especially those at Moog Music Inc. It's a perfect fit on a multitude of levels. It's so refreshing to work with passionate and talented people who are very clear on what they're after, I love all aspects of music composition and production. Including sound design, instrument design and application to the boundless possibilities of the arts it gets implemented in.
I'm just grateful and inspired in general. Being in the music business either as a composer or educator is not a life for the timid or lazy. You learn fast to go to bed later and get up earlier. The world is starting to truly consider the inclusion of all walks of life and the blessings and awareness that they can bring to art and community. I'm grateful to be alive to witness a glimpse of where it's going and hope to contribute some level of positive frequency through the spirit and intentions of my own work.
Synth History: Bonus question: If you were on a desert island (complete with a studio set-up) and could only bring one synthesizer, what would it be?
Lisa: I get this question lots! I would say my custom Moog modular cabinet (The Mothership). It's my personal Orchestra in a box. It's the instrument I've dreamed of for decades. Fully modular yet with digital sequencing control and memory. Assignable outputs. Amazingly fat sounding oscillators and filters. Sitting down before this instrument and starting from zero is such an amazing thing to experience and witness sounds come to life. It's my favorite composition instrument. Without a doubt. This instrument will last me a lifetime. In some respects that may not count in this situation, but it is an integrated system at this point .
It's a 16 voice custom Moog system with pure 8 voice polyphony, two drum machines, 22 sequencers, an array of filters, attenuators, quantizers, phase shifters, and utilities. It's complemented with a very special summing mixer called a Holland Synthesizer. It's an entire electronic music studio in itself, all you need is something to record to. If I couldn't take this system, then the other choice would be very clear: A Moog One 16 voice system.
That thing is amazing. It's unreal how many possibilities and richness of sound. There is always something new to learn and discover.
LISA BELA DONNA RECOMMENDS
A synthesizer that you can seriously do no wrong with. It sounds so damn good and brings out such a vibe it will make any track sound better. Even just using the filters and spring reverb in a mix. I have a pair of these that are always patched up and ready to play. Working with two of them often inspires immediate grooves and pieces of music.