The Synthfluencer Essay

Words and Memes by Max Alper.

“Hey kid, yeah youse. You like what you see, wiseguy? All this gear is bound to turn some heads friend, my followers count is throughs the roof. How’s ‘bout I tell you that you too could be a successful electronic musician? Alls you need is a couple grand upfront, and we’ll getchu setup with one of these blinky blonky bad boys real quick. You like eurorack? We gots us a deal?”

Music tech people are fucking weird. We have the world at our literal fingertips when it comes to hardware and software devices capable of creating whatever sound we could possibly imagine, and at a fraction of the cost of what it did two decades ago. And yet, we’re more divided than ever on the “right” way to get things done. Analog vs. digital, keyboards vs. custom touch control surfaces, hardware vs. software – these are the conversations that can quickly turn ugly on a seemingly innocent comment section of a gearporn photo album on social media.

These aren’t new divides either, and in many ways, the social culture surrounding synth and pro-audio communities has just replaced that of the guitarists, amp, and pedal enthusiasts. This constant need to one-up each other’s rig with new upgrades, to expand our sonic arsenal without necessarily plans to use these new devices after a couple of weeks (bank account be damned), has been defined as Gear Acquisition Syndrome, or GAS for short.

Most musicians go through a GAS period at least once in their careers, more often when we’re just starting on a particularly new musical venture and we walk into Guitar Center like lambs to the slaughter. I swear the sales staff can smell it on us. We earn to spend, we spend to acquire, we acquire to collect and hoard. Whether it’s that new piece of hardware, or that plug-in library that’s only on sale this weekend, we convince ourselves that we need these hot commodities in order to truly complete our signal flow, even as our bedrooms shrink as the gear pile grows larger.

We are plagued by consumerism, even when it’s become clear that it’s entirely possible to compose and record a professional and forward-thinking album on something as commonplace as a smartphone or tablet. The issue now seems not to be whether it’s possible to make cutting edge sounds with the tools we have available to us already or at little to no cost, but rather if the tools in question are flashy and new enough to garner some sort of social clout – whether it be online, at gigs, in the synth section at Guitar Center trying to explain to the manager why you know more than them once they’ve got you cornered, etc.

We’ve entered the red Corvette era of music technology, where five-digit transactions are made based on the sex appeal of a sound-making device just as much if not more than they are on the sound itself. And without a doubt, sex sells! An iPad or a Toshiba laptop just don’t provide the hands-on flashiness necessary for a 60-second Instagram ad for your new record, one that a massive Eurorack system, a collection of houseplants, and purple string lights can certainly provide if you’ve got the capital.

So, how can we unlearn what the market of sexy, planned obsolescence taught us? Our brains have been hardwired since childhood to buy buy buy, the only difference as adult artists is that we’ve replaced our flashy RC cars, action figures, and colorful, weirdly fragrant silly putty with analog voltage-controlled filter modules and step sequencers. The problem lies in differentiating between a musical need and a musical want.

For example, you need a warm, sine wave heavy 808 kick as your primary bass instrument for your latest hip-hop production. You want to purchase the Roland TR-8S Rhythm Performer drum machine and sample sequencer. This is certainly a versatile, tactile, and of course, a sexier option that still costs over $700 at market price. However, there are endless software clones of the original 808 kick at a fraction of the cost, if not free. There are entire emulators of the original TR-808 for iOS and Android devices made by professional synthesists that put every knob and gestural function of the original TR-808 into its own on-screen swipe function, allowing you to simply plug your phone into the PA and become the Egyptian Lover of the party in an instant.

If hardware tactility and performability are priorities for your workflow, you know software engineers have considered this, right? That's exactly what a knob and button-based MIDI controller is built for, but I would argue that a custom mapped controller and collection of VST instruments far exceeds the performability of an individual piece of hardware. By assigning individual functionality to each pad, fader, or knob, you are taking part in your own user interface design – a performance surface built by you, and for you.

Ultimately, the argument of hardware vs. software, analog vs. digital, boutique vs. commercial, vinyl vs. CDJ, CDJ vs. Laptop, etc. comes down to purism. We as musicians have learned how to do things our way for millennia, with each generation rebelling against the previous by forging its own unique path and musical aesthetic. Yet we become more conservative in our adulthood, as our aesthetic becomes set in stone we may find some success through it – commercial, academic, or otherwise. Certainly we as adult artists can get defensive when confronted with a newly invented concept or device that streamlines and democratizes for the youth the musical objects that took us decades to master, and thousands of dollars out of pocket to acquire. Change can be scary!

“Back in my day we didn’t just play those pianofortes all willy-nilly, we stuck to dynamic stagnancy on the harpsichord for a real challenge.”

“Back in my day, we didn’t allow for these reed organs in homes and pubs like a bunch of dirty peasants. We played pianoforte in the Duke’s salon and had organ recitals in the chapel of course, obviously, we had a much higher standard back then.”

“Back in my day, we didn’t just play those electronic toy keyboards that can make whatever organ sound you want like a jackass. We stuck with our chord reed organs to get that real air sound, that’s what makes the tone so special, after all.”

“Back in my day, we didn’t just play buttons on a machine or a computer like a filthy millennial. We actually had to learn how to play the keyboard if we wanted to get our hands on an analog synth and use it properly, we were real musicians back then.”

“Back in my day, we didn’t just make beats off our phones and tablets like these high school Zoomers are doing on Tik Tok, we actually learned the DAW to the fullest extent and mapped it out onto our MIDI controllers properly. There’s no way that a kids' iPad can do what my maxed out PC and Ableton can do.”

“Back in my day, we didn’t just pop music out of our brains via the Neural Net…”

You get the point.

Our divisions on gear are a tale as old as music technology itself, both acoustic and electric, and it requires consciously viewing our arsenal of both skill sets and signal flow with a critical lens. This can take years if not decades to come to terms with, and it’s not a process that can be rushed. I spoke at length about this topic with someone who’s had enough time to reflect on their studio acquisitions throughout the decades and has come out on the other side militantly anti-consumerist when it comes to gear; he’s a real Cornelius Cardew, I tell ya.

His name is Joshua Eustis, more commonly known for his experimental electronic music project Telefon Tel Aviv. He’s been around a bit longer than me and has quite the rap sheet of collaborators under his belt, including Trent Reznor, Maynard James Keenan, Dillinger Escape Plan, and several others. One would think that a full-time electronic musician of his stature would have an entire house dedicated to their gear arsenal, right?

“Online they look at people who own a wall of shit in their studio and they’re like ‘Aaaah I need that to make music… I need all that!’ Like bro, obviously, you don’t need any of it, you may want it. There’s a big difference between want and need and I’ve gotten really good in the later stages of my career determining that in my studio acquisitions.”

Joshua has downsized his studio over the past year, going from a massive mixing console and walls of hardware synths to a simple and portable rack mount channel strip with a few choice preamps and an interface. Everything else is “in the box” so to speak, and it was incredibly liberating to hear just how productive his workflow had become while consciously trying to deflect the urge to pick up that new shiny piece of equipment and drop a good chunk of cash on it, only to let it collect dust a month later.

We’ve all been there, and it’s not by accident –there are entire industries online now dedicated to finding new ways to sell gear. The sponsored content influencer lifestyle has collided with the synthesizer communities of the world, and the mutant result is what can only be described as a “synthfluencer.” Next time you watch a boutique gear demonstration, or unboxing on Youtube, or even Instagram, check the video description box below – is this video sponsored by the gear manufacturer themselves? Are you watching an ad and don’t even realize it? Now check the price for this piece of boutique gear on Reverb –  has the used price recently shot up astronomically coinciding with a recent Youtube review? Just curious, because Joshua has been around long enough to call bullshit when he sees it.

“These Instagram profile synthfluencers have become a pretty toxic thing for a lot of people because it sets a bar that’s simply too high for just about anybody to realize. That one guy’s profile, you know who, have you seen his studio and how much shit he owns, it’s insane! Does he make records? Like have you ever actually heard of a record he’s made? No, what he’s known for is his social media profile…it’s [VH1 British narrator voice]  ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, come and see my modular synths!’”

If synth culture online only pulls for the lowest common denominator of the sleekest, sexiest flashing lights and the rarest of commodities as a means of marketing brands to those afflicted with GAS, then it’s time to consciously unplug and cut up the credit card (metaphorically, please). We need to force technical limitations upon studio practice in order to find a way forward through the sonic means we already have available. Less is more, and often we are more creative when we set our own limitations on a particular project. Telefon Tel Aviv agrees:

“Don’t buy a piece of gear unless you know for a fact that it executes an exact thing that you know for sure that you can’t execute any other way, which is rarely going to be the case. There’s almost always another way in electronic music to execute your idea.”

We have entire recording studios that fit in the palm of our hands. The least we can do is explore all our options before making a financial decision that only puts us further into debt without solving any of the workflow issues that prompted the search for a new device in the first place. Why participate in this broken system if we don’t have to when ultimately all it does is stifle creativity by telling us we can’t execute the task at hand without consuming something first? Doesn’t that inhibit critical thinking and creative ingenuity, to encourage folks not to problem-solve with the very capable tools at hand but to continue to purchase first and foremost? Joshua continues:

“People get caught up in purism like [mockingly] ‘Oh well you can execute it with the software but it’s not as good as the real thing’, well that’s a prison, you’re sending yourself to jail with that thinking…Purism is a trap, purism is prison.”

Why not adapt, rethink, and reorganize the tools we already have? The technical solution to a sonic hurdle isn’t always right under our noses, but just remember that it’s the painter who makes the painting, and not the canvas or paints itself. Your gear is a toolbox and a construction site, but you’re still the architect. You still need to make this building within your financial means and it needs to be up to code, sonically speaking. If one technical route doesn’t pan out, forge another one with the tools that are already in your shed. At the end of the day, the mind makes the artist, not the tools.

Max Alper aka La Meme Young is a music teacher, writer, and is the co-founder of Klang Magazine. He makes music under the moniker Peretsky.