Here are some in depth studio essentials from the talented Jean-Philip Grobler, who makes music under the moniker of St. Lucia, complete with coinciding studio photos and a little interview to top it off.
In the Recommends Series, I ask music-makers what their studio essentials are. This can be anything, from cables to software to things that generally inspire them to create.
Without further ado…
1. Minimoog Model D
A few years ago I snagged one of the reissues right when Moog released them. I’d been wanting to own one since pretty soon after I starting my synth journey, but of course I couldn’t afford a proper vintage one. Just the look of the Minimoog feels like owning a beautiful, classic piece of furniture. It’s in so many photos of the makings of classic records that I love, and I always felt like if I just had one I’d be able to get to those sounds. Well, let me tell you, it does not disappoint. It rumbles, squelches and does all sorts of beautiful, indescribable things to my body and eardrums. Over the years I’ve become a huge believer that simpler but higher quality is better, and in many ways the Minimoog is the embodiment of that. Only the essentials are present, and yet you can make almost any sound imaginable. I just know that with the turn of a couple knobs and the push of a couple switches I’ll be able to get the sound i hear in my head, and it will be what all those dudes from back in the day were using and so all will be good in the world.
2. Space Echo
I’ve been asked a few times what my absolute studio essential would be, and while of course I would be hard pressed to part with most, if any, of my instruments, the effect that I would pretty much never part with for any price would be my Space Echo. It’s the piece of gear that’s been with me the longest. It was the first thing I bought after moving to NYC in 2006, at Ludlow Guitars, and I remember walking back to the studio I was working at at the the time feeling like I was about to make OK Computer. I’m surprised it hasn’t blown up yet because it’s been on almost every single instrument I’ve recorded since then. In fact, my use of it has only increased over time. Almost every single instrument I record has a track of Space Echo that I also record back into Logic Pro. Whether it’s a slap delay on a snare drum, a longer, hand-modulated delay on a piano, or the spring on a woodblock, I can’t get these sounds anywhere else. Nothing comes even close.
3. Juno 106
What can be written about this lil’ guy that hasn’t already been written? It’s like the everyman vintage poly-synth. It immediately feels relatable, and almost toy-like. But it can of course also sound completely un-toylike, and rather grown up. I love synthesizers, and in general, pieces of gear that have minimal amounts of knobs, sliders and or buttons, and where it’s super easy to make the sound you want, and the Juno is that. It was the first ‘analog’ poly-synth I ever played with, and so it’s feel is totally natural to me. I found mine at a synth shop we stumbled upon in Oakland, CA, and the guy who sold it to me offered to put wood sides on it, which is something I’d always dreamed of, and so we did it. She’s a little dream machine. If you wanna learn about synthesis, get one of these and a Korg MS-20 and you’re off to the races.
4. Prophet 10
The first polyphonic synth I ever owned was a Dave Smith Prophet ’08, which I bought in (drumrolll) ’08. Pretty much within the first few days of getting it, I wrote our song ‘Closer Than This’, and it’s been on the road with us since St. Lucia started, and has been the poly-synth sound on the first two St. Lucia records. But my nagging gripe with the ’08 was that it always felt overly complicated. Like I couldn’t just make the sound that was in my head in two seconds. But in 30 minutes, yes! It might be what started my quest for simplicity. Then, after getting my Minimoog Model D and falling in love with it and realizing what an easy and beautiful journey sound creation can be, I started to long for the kind of complex, thick analog poly tones that my Juno couldn’t give me, because the oscillators don’t rub together. I’d also messed with a Prophet 6 a few times and I had a similar experience of finding it a little less than intuitive to make sounds because of the built-in FX (great for live but not for studio IMO). Cue last year when I found out that Dave Smith did a remake of his classic Prophet 5 (and 10), and I was sold. For a while I was toying with getting a vintage one, but pretty quickly after watching some Youtube vids I was convinced. Man, what a revelation this beast has been. The closest thing I compare it to is my Minimoog. I feel like they share a similar architecture, and there’s this feeling that great hands have been on this thing. The knobs are big and heavy, and maybe that’s the thing that makes you think that everything sounds so good coz when you turn the filter knob it’s heavy and the sound it also heeeeeeavy. It’s just so good. I wrote 5 new songs the week after I got it.
5. Dimension D
You just cannot beat this chorus. There are of course different choruses, or width effects, but this immediately sounds classic and just works in a track. This is on almost as many tracks as my Space Echo but not everything needs width.
6. Yamaha CP70
I got this guy during the making of our 3rd LP, Hyperion. During that record I started really getting into classic keyboard sounds, but not of the synthesizer kind. I bought a Wurly 200-A and this CP-70 during the making of that record. I also love having a real upright piano, and I’ve learned over time where the sounds of all the classic electric pianos fit in. Of course, the CP-70 (or 80) is famous for being all of Peter Gabriel’s ‘So’, and for being almost all the ‘piano' sounds U2 ever used, but I’ve found it especially useful when I have a busy and/or funky piano part in mind. It takes up less space than a real piano in a mix and it fits right in. The frequency curve perfectly pokes out of a mix. So now, I almost always use my CP-70 for busy piano parts, or melodic lines, and my upright piano for long-held chords. BTW. you can still pick these guys up for a very reasonable amount of money when comparing it to a real piano, and they’re built like a tank, so once tuned they almost never need to be tuned.
7. Roland SH-101
Such a great tool for adding randomness and little bleeps and bloops to a track. I mainly use it for its’ arpeggiator function. You’ll hear the sound all over our tracks, the arp that goes fast faster faster slower slower slower with the filter opening and closing. But it has so many wonderful uses, making synth wind with noise and a bit of noise mod, strange sounding synth leads, and also really zingy acid-bass sounds. Another great and relatively inexpensive vintage synth that’s extremely versatile and easy to learn.
8. Eventide H-3000
Who am I to argue with Brian Eno when he says that this thing is the greatest multi-FX box ever made? It truly is. I’m a sucker for early digital FX. There’s just something cool and somewhat imperfect (yet so perfect) about it. And so many utterly usable FX on this thing. From the crystal echoes, to the stereo delays, to all of the dynamic presets above 800. I use 844 Fuzz/ EQ/Compress on pretty much every bass synth or bass guitar, that I record (thanks to Rob Kirwan for the tip). You just cannot go wrong with this thing, and it immediately sounds and feels classic.
9. Solina String Ensemble
I’m an absolute sucker for those classic disco synth string sounds from the 70’s, or from the Air records, and this is the thing that mainly did it. Of course, Crumar also made the orchestrator which I would say I love equally on a sound level, but the Solina just looks and feels classic and is so simple. It also just has like 3 sounds (obvs more but only 3 really) and I use one of those sounds 90% of the time. Just turn the violin and viola on, activate the ensemble and you’re off to Xanadu. Oh, and definitely add some Space Echo and Dimension D.
10. Roland D550
I’m not generally a fan of modern digital synths, for a variety of reasons. When I’ve tried a few out they always feel cold and distant to me, like there’s a disconnect between what my hands are doing and the sound that’s coming out. But there’s something about these early digital synths that feel right, and maybe it has to do with sound memory and having heard so many of these sounds on records that I love, and so they evoke nostalgia. I also have a DX7 that I love, but something about the D550 (the rack mount D50) really takes me somewhere, so much so that I’ve given her a name, Enya. I immediately feel like I’m a character in Twin Peaks or Legend. Sure, you could say the sounds are cheesy and dated, but clearly that’s a big part of what I’m going for so I’m all in. BTW, the harp arpeggio arp in Elevate is from this thing.
11. Wurlitzer 200 A
Aside from just being beautiful to look at and immediately creating a vibe in any room it inhabits, my Wurly just takes me somewhere, and there’s nothing else that can do what it does. The way it breaks up and distorts slightly when you hit the notes hard, the way the vibrato is just at the perfect rate and changes the sound enough with one knob to make it feel almost like a totally different instrument. I feel very fortunate to have a few different non-synthesizer keyboard instruments, because they all fulfill such a specific role in my sound world, and to me the Wurly is like The Dude.
12. Mellotron M4000D Mini
When we’re talking about sound memory, what evokes it more than the Mellotron? The moment you play any sound you’re whisked away to mystical time long ago. To be totally honest, I use this thing mainly for two sounds, the strings and choir sounds. I just recognize those sounds from so many old records and I love how including them in my music has a transportive quality. But there are so many cool and inspiring sounds on this thing that can immediately inspire a song.
13. Upright Piano
If I could only pick one real keyboard instrument to have, it would probably be a real upright piano. There’s just no analog experience quite like sitting down at a piano and playing a few chords that brings you immediately into the moment. It’s not even for the act of recording the instrument, but the pure experience of playing a piano and perhaps singing without any intent of recording it that feels like the ultimate zen therapy hug moment. But then having the ability to record one in a good sounding room adds so much life and personality to a track, because every single one sounds different.
13. Great and diverse selection of percussion with a great room to record it with a Coles 4038
I’m a total and complete percussion slut. What better way to add detail and movement to a rhythm track than by layering percussion? I really believe in this idea of backstory in music. Similar to how a great movie or a novel should feel like the events that are happening in the now have a past and a future, the music I’m listening to should also feel like there’s some kind of sound back story. When I’m making a track, at some point I’ll go and record almost every possible percussion instrument to see what takes me somewhere and what doesn’t, and mute what doesn’t, in an act of trying to find the different angles that the ‘backstory’ could take. Also, percussion, especially bright percussion, can tend to get harsh, and ribbon or dynamic mics are really good at taming that harshness. I love my Coles 4038 for this purpose. I also love a lot of room sound on my percussion, and the fact that the Coles is figure 8 and picks up from behind it it perfect for my purposes.
14. Guild 12 String Acoustic Guitar
I just love the sound of a 12 string acoustic guitar in a track. It’s like a normal acoustic guitar but somehow more magical and jangly and sumptuous. When I’m talking about musical backstory, this is a big part of it. It brings the feeling of being connected to my music roots.
15. Fender Stratocaster
The strat gets a lot of slack, and to be honest I truly despised this guitar for a long time, but I came to realize that there’s nothing quite like it. And especially when you’re making music that has a strong 80’s undercurrent like I am, you absolutely need that strat out of phase pickup sound. I have a bunch of other electric guitars, but this is the one I would pick if I could only pick one.
16. Fender P Bass
Pretty much all the bass guitar sounds on St. Lucia trucks are this guy. I’ve had it since 2007 when I bought it at Matt Umanov Guitars around the corner from the studio I was working at at the time. Last year I had the pickups upgraded to Lindy Fralin pickups, but there was honestly nothing wrong with the other pickups. I just plug it in and tune it up and turn the tone knobs down to half and it’s exactly the sound I want.
17. Apollo X16 and Burl B2 Bomber
One of my missions in making our new body of music was to really up my recording quality game. I did a lot of research, and decided to splash out on really great converters. I got the Apollo X16, which I love. It has a really great workflow, I love the Console app which is super useful to monitor in low latency and for routing etc, and it sounds really crisp and clean. I also bought this 2 channel Burl B2 Bomber converter from my friend Rob Kirwan (who I co- produced our last album Hyperion with and who has also worked with PJ Harvey, U2, Depeche Mode etc). He’d mixed Hozier’s ‘Take Me To Church’ through the unit, and wanted a change. I’m mainly recording one thing at a time in my studio, often with a send to my Space Echo and maybe a chorus, or a piano with a few mics, and so it’s been great to have these two different flavors of converters in my studio. What I love about the Burl is that I can run my preamps hotter so that they saturate, and then the Burl also has a really nice transformer on the input that you can saturate, and it has a bit of a tape-y vibe without losing top or bottom end information. The effect isn’t that noticeable on individual tracks, but I definitely have felt like I don’t have to work nearly as hard as I used to to make things sound good in the mix, so it’s more of a cumulative thing. If you can, good converters definitely make a difference.
And now for the interview section!
Synth History: What is inspiring you most right now?
Jean-Philip: Honestly, it's being outside in the sun and trying to take care and time for myself and not looking at my phone or a screen the whole time. I feel like there's this constant pressure for us in this day and age to always be doing something that either makes us money or builds our presence on social media or whatever, and I think it's super important for your soul to just tune out of that as much as possible. Life is a balance, I'm not sure that any of us will ever be totally capable of living a life where we don't need to on some level pay the man, but it's very easy to let that take over your life. Especially with social media which in many ways is the commodification of our private lives, I often catch myself thinking oh my god I should post such and such private thought. But honestly, fuck it. I feel at my best and most inspired when I start the day with my family and a good cup of coffee, go for a run in the sunshine, go for a swim in the lake where we live, write in my journal, take my kids to the playground etc etc. I know these are not cool things to be inspired by, but to me it's my own personal joyful rebellion against this digital encroachment rat race.
Synth History: Is there a specific song-writing process you have or is it always changing?
Jean-Philip: Mostly it happens like this: I'll be doing something totally unrelated to music, cleaning, out on a run, swimming, hiking, sitting drinking wine with some friends, grilling outside, looking at my phone and something will just pop in my head. I might just catch myself singing a melody and then it goes from there, or sometimes a whole song with the lyrics and arrangement is just deposited in my head and it's there. The rest of the process is kind-of like having glimpsed a beautiful landscape once and then trying to paint that image from memory, but also knowing it will never be exactly like you saw it or heard it. I try to be as inspired and intuitive as possible without thinking about rules. I just try and put myself in a state of being where I don't feel like ok I'm going to work now, I just wait for the winds to blow past me and to take my sailboat wherever it's meant to go.
Synth History: One album that you think everyone needs to hear at least once and why?
Jean-Philip: Wow, this is a tough one. There are so many records that are really influential to me but maybe didn't break boundaries, so I'm trying to think of something that really broke boundaries and isn't just a group of songs but a journey, but also with good songs. Maybe I'd say Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon. One of my favourite albums to listen to when driving at night, it just takes you on the most epic journey and I feel like if you've never heard it before you never really expect what's coming next. The sound quality is also incredible. I discovered this album after I became a huge fan of Radiohead's OK Computer, and one of my school teachers said to me oh you should listen to Dark Side Of The Moon. It took me becoming an adult to really appreciate it though, coz it's quite dad-rock-y at times, but so transportative and evocative.
References: Synth History Exclusive.