Had the pleasure of interviewing musician and synth enthusiast Mike Deni aka Geographer.
Synth History: What are a few of your favorite synths?
Mike: I would say my prized possession is my Prophet 5. There’s a chance it was actually owned by Peter Gabriel before it found its way to its previous owner, who claimed to have bought a bunch of his old synths. When I got it, it had been in its case for so long that the foam of the case had melted into the synth and onto the keys. It was very intense to clean up, but after a few trips to my favorite crazy synth repairman in San Mateo, it was good as new.
I love it for its angry and badass bass tone, there’s really nothing quite like it, it has so much swagger when you hit the unison button and turn on all the wave forms. And then the expression in the cutoff and envelope filter is immediately recognizable, and I think what has made it a mainstay even in modern music.
My favorite thing to do is to combine acoustic and synthetic sounds, and the Prophet is a perfect companion to a cello or a piano. I have a few songs that are just piano and the Prophet. I often write with an Arturia VST of the Prophet and then send the midi to the real thing when it’s time to finish the song. I find that I often leave them both instead of replacing the soft synth version of the same part. The way they interact results in an extremely unique chorusing effect, because they are essentially the same sound but of course, the VST can never quite generate the same sound as the real machine, so they end up sounding as good together as siblings harmonizing. Same essential DNA, but just different enough. Like the Beegees.
My all-time favorite synth, however, is the DX 100. I know that might sound a little strange, since why not just like the DX 7 the most? But for me, the joy of having an outboard, real life synthesizer is the way it feels to manipulate the sound using the interface of the synth itself. Obviously, it is so much easier to program a DX7 software synth, but for me, the part I write starts with the sound I make. The sound is what inspires me, the fiddling with the clunky menus not just unique to digital Roland products brings me a kind of demented joy that puts me one step closer to a flow state. It truly is like playing with toys. The options with the DX 100 truly are endless. Another part of the joy of outboard gear is that I generally don’t fully understand it, and that is where the magic is. When I’m stumbling blindly, as if I’m the first to ever use the instrument, more magic happens, because my mind is open.
If I’m overly familiar with a tool I tend to just revisit the same old tricks. That’s why I never make myself templates in Ableton and I never ever save presents on my synths. I start from scratch every time, hoping to discover something new. I’ve had my DX 100 for about 20 years, and for the first 10 I didn’t even attempt to change the parameters, but once I did I felt awash in terror and excitement. I think of it as my secret weapon, when I need a unique sound, something to take a song to the realm of mystery.
The synth I’m toying with the most now is my OB X. I picked it up on eBay about 5 years ago because I found one with a ridiculous price. It wasn’t even a synth that was on my radar, and I kind of felt like an idiot for buying it, it felt extravagant. So I lent it to Tiny Telephone Studios up in Oakland for almost 2 years before one of my friends who engineered there told me how weird it was that I didn’t have it at my house. So when I moved down to LA, I took that behemoth with me and learned how to use it. Just having 2 different big-sounding synths next to each other keeps me on my toes, and I use it whenever I feel I’m relying on the prophet too heavily.
My other sleeper hit is my Korg Mono/Poly. I use that one almost chiefly for its arpeggiator. There’s a song on my new record called ‘Slave to the Rhythm’ that has an arpeggiated line going through the entire song, and I’m just changing the speed and cutoff as the song ebbs and flows, and then there’s this delicious crystalline reverb that the same friend got at Tiny Telephone when I recorded it a few years ago. It’s one of my favorite sounds on any record I’ve made, it brings me so much joy to listen to the stem. It was one of those moves where the gear was broken, but the engineer knew how to use the defect to make something extraordinary. Every time he hit the octave up button, there would be this rush of crystalline magic coming from the box.
Synth History: What gives you inspiration when you have writers block?
Mike: Generally the most inspiring this for me is listening to modern music. Which I almost never do unless I’m looking to be inspired. And I think what inspires me about it is when I hear a little lick or a line or a cool move that someone just let die and moved on, and I’ll think, “whoa, that could be a whole song,” and that generally makes me go running to my studio to try to expand on that. My general inspiration comes from music from the 60s, 70s, and 80s, and I don’t often listen to modern music for fun, but for some reason hearing something truly exciting from a modern artist is what makes me want to contribute and make my own voice heard. It could be because there’s no point adding to the conversation of Paul Simon or Depeche Mode, or Brian Eno, but some kid who just discovered bar chords is actually a conversation I can add to.
Synth History: Do you prefer playing music live or making music in the studio?
Mike: That’s a very tough question because there is a tension to making music in the studio that is at once heightened and stimulating, but also exhausting. I am never more fulfilled than when I’m in a studio making music, but it does take a lot out of me because it’s such a concentrated burst of creative energy. And of course, my happy place is my own studio with Ableton open, just making sounds to entertain myself and then finding a song. But there’s still a tension there of “is this song good?” On stage, it is truly a celebration. All the work has been done, and you get to just run around inside the playground you built. The only downside of a show is the sound and the distraction. Because everybody’s staring at you and you can generally barely hear what it is you’re doing, for one reason or another. There is no comparison to the energy and joy I feel when I am truly connecting with a crowd. When all the myriad pieces fall into just the correct place, I’m not self-conscious and I’m not worried about hitting the notes or looking cool, I’m just in a moment with a crowd of strangers. That is a truly rare and powerful experience.
References: Synth History Exclusive.