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.
I absolutely love my Focal Alpha 80s & Alpha Evo nearfield monitors. I've had many different brands and sizes of monitors in the past, but these are just so easy to dial up a great mix on.
They have a very silky-smooth sound but a flat response, so what you mix will translate to other systems. I am hoping before the end of 2021 I will upgrade to a pair of 3-way Focals for synthesizer programming and tracking.
Took great time and patience to finally install one of these in my studio, but it has changed everything in my digital world 10-fold. Now, for the first time I can mix and track analog while implementing their brilliant and powerful DSP. Both when tracking and mixing. It's a new world where elements I've been wanting to combine are so easily done with the Apollo. Also, the digital converters sound clear & beautiful and work so well with the different mixing desks I use. I'm still new to it, but I am enjoying the LUNA software that comes with the Apollo 16.
It makes perfect sense and allows you to have a lightning-fast workflow. Which is imperative when deadlines are always getting shorter.
Everything Hologram Electronics makes is brilliant. They've bridged the gap between experimental and musical. Their devices are so intuitive and limitless with colorful and textural possibilities. The Microcosm brings something from beyond every time you implement it.
I've been incorporating them on my last four records without hesitation. they will inspire another side of your muse with each pass.
Always protect your gear. You will extend and preserve the life of your equipment with high quality power conditioning. Furman makes a wide variety of different protection units depending on your needs and budget. It's every bit worth the investment.
I feel it's important to any personal recording studio to have a quality stereo tape recorder.
Could be a Reel to reel, cassette, DAT, or Multitrack recorder. Of course, digital recording and mixing is how it's done in 2021, but I feel that it's important as an artist to always have a different perspective. Tape provides not only another image and impression of the sound, but it's also a different process of commitment. Which I feel really adds to the excitement and energy of the music or mix. Many of my records are recorded to tape: 2,4,8,16 channel multi-channel recorders as well as DAT. My recent recording "Mourning Light" was recorded and mixed live to a Tascam DA-20. The results and stereo image turned out remarkable! So, you never know. Tape could be just the right missing element in a final project. I also love recording stems and mixes to a high-quality cassette deck. Especially one with Dolby C or dbx. Instant amazing compression and expansion. Depending on how aggressive or conservative you are when printing to tape can offer many different sounds and feels. So many colors and uncharted territories are on the horizon if you implement extended tape techniques. Direction change, reverse, speed changes, tape splicing, looping, and editing. Just overall a useful tool for color and different impressions of the music you are making.
8. SSL 6 & 2+
The SSL6 & 2+ is just an amazing winning combination. Both are so portable, intuitive, and sound so damn good. If you have limited space or budget. This pair rules. The EQ & compression channels sound so silky, fat, and rich. Then there is the famous G-Series 2-bus comp/limiter & 4K bump. These two working together just open everything up and add really exceptional clarity and punch to your mixes. When I first got these, I recorded and mixed 2 albums entirely on this setup. The "December's Pentacle" & "Afterimages (3XLP)" albums were all done with this setup. No matter what comes and goes in my studio and live setups, this little pair will always do the trick and fast.
9. Coffee Maker
We have long sessions and homeschooling days around here. So a quality coffee maker is absolutely necessary. To keep my consumption under some sort of control. We have a coffee maker that has a timer for each part of the day. So, when it goes off in the morning, it's time to awaken and start the day of composing, programming, or teaching. After lunch and an afternoon walk, we arrive back to a fresh pot of coffee then were off and running until the evening. Coffee is really my only vice, so I welcome it with open arms.
I love natural light but also need diffused light depending on the time of day or year.
These are an inexpensive way to add some light & temperature control or just some nice decor to your studio. If your workspace is in plaster or concrete walls, these can attenuate the sharp tones of those textures and provide a warm look to your space. My studio is a lot of large windows, and it can get really hot in the summer. Or just really dreary on early spring days where it's grey all day.
11. Feather Dusters & Makeup Brushes
There are literally thousands of potentiometers, dials, and sliders in my studio.
I try to keep a weekly cleaning schedule in my studio to keep my equipment in good working order. Feather dusters and makeup brushes are an amazing way to get in and around spaces that love to collect dust, pollen, and pet hair. We live out in the country, so we like open windows and doors. Which is great for fresh air, but it brings in lots of dust and debris.
No matter what kind of music you create or enjoy. I feel it's important to have a copy of AC/DC's classic album "Back in Black" handy. When I've been mixing the same session all day, doing nothing but countless emails, lessons, booking, accounting, homeschooling, fixing gear, pretty much everything that comes with owning and operating a recording studio. Playing a copy of this record in whichever format you choose at a reasonably elevated volume can really just change your perception of everything in a positive way. As a stereo mix, It's perfect. It's a band playing and keeping time together in a room. No bullshit. It's clean, fat, punchy, and timeless. The entire album has such a special pocket and groove from track to track. It's infectious and linear. It never loses its edge or relevance. Many of the songs have a great groove and can smack you right out of a bad mood or a slump. If you have unmusical duties, you can get more done in 40 minutes with this record than you realized. It's good medicine in almost every application. As the lyric says, "Rock and Roll ain't no riddle man, it just makes good good sense".
13. VCV Rack
This thing is incredible and an amazing way to learn synthesis or to continue to develop your chops as a sound designer or programmer. It can also help you immensely in what to choose for your needs when building your own modular synthesizer system. In post-production or all electronic based sessions, it's an invaluable tool that can help you save lots of time with astounding sonic results. It's a great way to compose and program while you are touring or on the road. It can open many horizons as you develop and create your art.
A fixed filter bank is such an invaluable studio tool. It allows you to make dramatic changes to a signal or mix very quickly. Also, if you are having trouble making a specific instrument or track fit into the mix, you can notch out just what you need to keep the mix growing and breathing without dismantling the other tracks or elements of a mix. In eurorack, it's great to have one where you can send CV control to each individual frequency band. This can create so many new ideas and textures and open doorways to other musical and sonic passageways. I love Fixed Filer Banks by Moog, GRP, AJH, WMD, and others.
Looking for an inexpensive way to add crushingly sub low end or laboratory space sounds to your tracks? There's nothing like these little beats it for the price. It sounds SO GOOD and has this really raw, powerful, vintage vibe to it. However, there is something HEAVY about it too. It just has this wild, monolithic low end. From a little tabletop module. Even though you can patch a keyboard or sequencer into it, the little keybed that comes on it has a unique way of gating the pitches. I love this little module and use it on most of my recordings.
16. Patch & Tweak
Kim Bjorn's amazing book "Patch & Tweak" is a must have for any studio or synth lover's home. Kim has beautifully included & highlighted such a wide variety of electronic musicians and synthesists. It offers such an amazing wide view of insights in the world of electronic music and sound design. Not to mention there are a ton of patches included in it that you can try with your synths. Really, all of Kim's books are must haves for the modern musician. He's a brilliant, passionate author. Embracing and celebrating the future of music and music technology.
There's nothing like a Fender Rhodes piano. To me, aside from a Steinway acoustic piano, there's no other better instrument to compose on. Its immediate tone, touch, and taste evoke immediate musical inspiration. In almost every home I've lived in, I've always had one in a living room or immediate living space. You have an idea, you sit down, turn it on and play. Then in a few broad strokes you have a piece of music happening. No matter what you intend for the finished piece to be played on. It's forever my favorite writing tool.
18. Time with Nature
No matter where you live, you have to get some daily time with nature. Time to turn off the phone and just tune into the powerful and restorative resonance of nature. It's the sympathetic resonance of nature that we are all connected to. To connect with it each day is to connect to a greater good. I feel that being an artist or composer, writer or creator we are at the threshold of always having possibilities with the great stream. The heart of the art. The promise to connect people and cultures with the timeless transport of our art. I always feel my best work as an artist or parent is after I have had some time with nature. In whatever capacity. Maybe even a 30 min walk or some time sitting in the grass or by a rushing river or lake. There is some sort of channel that opens, a higher frequency. Where fear or worry doesn't come first. We open ourselves to the possibilities of our own potential. Nature reminds us of this. When you take a look around at all the nature that surrounds us and think about how long they
have been connected and in circulation with earth and all of the life that passes through on it. It's equally humbling & liberating. It is for one, what gives us life. What not take a small piece of time each day to connect to that source and find gratitude in it.
19. Organic Indian Spices
What's amazing about indian spices is that they will make any food more flavorful and aromatic. They fill your home with the promise of good food and warmth. They have a magical way of keeping you nourished and full. This helps when you are working long days of sessions or if you are hosting a group of friends and musicians. There's something sacred and special with the flavors of india. They promote good frequency and keep healthy eating easy.
20. Hi Quality, Weighted Blanket
Life is short, and sessions are long. So, when you do get to sleep. Be in it to win it.
Investing in a high-quality Weighted Blanket can make all the difference in your sleep patterns.
If you have quality sleep then the world around, you makes much better sense. A healthy body and mind is a productive musician.
References: Synth History Exclusive, Lisa Bella Donna.