Jakarta. Were you ever curious how the unique, ambient synth sounds from "Stranger Things" were made? Or have you ever watched a gig featuring instruments that look like retrofuturistic boxes that emanate strange, eerie sounds whenever the artist plugs rainbow-colored cords in and out of them?
Those boxes are (analogue) modular synthesizers. To find out how they work, the Jakarta Globe visited the mod synth lair of composer Indra Perkasa, and another one belonging to Firzi O and his wife Meity, the couple behind Analogcouple, an online store selling synth modules and kits, last week.
Perhaps you're already familiar with synthesizers that look like a normal keyboard. Now imagine breaking them down into different modules and taking out the wires.
"Basically the keyboard synth is a collection of several hard-wired modules joined inside. When you play a modular synth system, each module represents one function and everything is on the outside. To put it simply, with modular synths, we plug the wires ourselves in the front. With keyboards, the wires are inside, already plugged in," Indra said at his home studio in Tangerang, Banten, on Wednesday (08/08).
Some of the modules are oscillators that produce waves, or filters that process the waves and shape them into different sounds.
American music engineer Robert Moog was the pioneer of synthesizers. He founded Moog Music in 1953 and started producing modular synths back in the 1960s. Old Moog synthesizers are now what modular synth players pine for, and they go for a pretty penny.
Why do people like Indra prefer to use these ancient, complicated, fiddly synths instead of the simpler, modern ones?
Indra said the main reason is the freedom to experiment, because analogue modular synths don’t just mimic sounds, they produce new ones.
Indra started his foray into modular synths when he was working on the movie score for "Banda: The Dark Forgotten Trail," Jay Subyakto’s documentary on the Banda Islands.
"We were talking and Jay said he wanted some modular synth sounds. I began researching it and then I was hooked. I've been addicted to modular synths ever since," Indra said.
Indra said people mainly use modular synths to make electronic dance music (EDM), but they can actually fit into any genre.
Besides using them on the score for Banda, last year Indra also interpreted Mikael Johani’s poem "Cunamulla" into a 17-minute modular synth soundscapes at the monthly poetry open mic event Paviliun Puisi.
Indra is now working on a set of remixes for Andien’s songs and on Monita Tahalea’s upcoming album.
He admitted it was difficult at first to learn the instrument, given that there was no one to show him the ropes.
Indra watched video tutorials on YouTube, joined online forums and, most importantly, experimented on his own, which led him to encounter many "happy accidents" – finding exciting new sounds he didn't even know existed.
There is a now a WhatsApp group of modular synth players called "Indo Modular," of which Indra and Firzi are members.
Formed last year, the group gives the members a place to share experiences and words of advice. They also do a meet-up every few months.
Indra said the group actually has fewer than 20 members from Jakarta, Yogyakarta and Bandung, but thinks there must be more players out there because the group was only started by a small group of friends who already knew each other.
Indra said modular synth players are still rare in the Indonesian music scene. Some of them are Randy Danistha, who plays keyboard for pop-rock band Nidji, disc-jockey Jevin Julian, aural artist Dito Hardono and installation artist Bagus Pandega.
Where to Begin and How Much to Spend
Indra’s first kit was a Moog Mother 32, a semi-modular synth that has some functions already plugged in.
"It’s like five modules in one. There’s the oscillator, filter, amplifier, sequencer and so on. First-timers won’t feel too anxious if they use this," he said.
To play real modular synths, you have to purchase each module and assemble them yourself. The price of a module ranges from Rp 1 million to Rp 15 million ($70-$1,03o).
Indra said there are do-it-yourself kits that can go for cheaper, with each module costing less than Rp 1 million.
Yogyakarta-based musician Lintang Raditya sells DIY modules under his own brand Kenali Rangkai Pakai ("Get to Know It, Assemble It, Use It").
The two biggest stores to shop for modular synths at the moment are ChandraCom and Firzi’s Analogcouple.
Firzi and his wife Meity established the online shop in 2017. Sometimes they hold pop-up sales at events.
"At first it was supposed to be a platform to share my passion in analog gear and musical instruments and also my wife’s passion in analog photography," Firzi said.
Firzi used to run a music shop and cafe called Tokove in Kemang, South Jakarta, from 2013-2016.
The cafe was a popular hangout for Jakarta's indie musicians and even then Firzi saw a growing interest in modular synths but there weren't really any shops where people could buy the modules.
"So I thought, with the connections I had from Tokove, why don’t I sell modular synthesizers?" Firzi said.
Most of the modules sold at Analogcouple are imported. Among the available brands are U.S.-made Make Noise, Erica Synths from Latvia and Hexinverter from Canada.
"These modules cost from around Rp 1.5 million to Rp 4-5 million," Firzi said.
However, a full system or set-up usually has around 10 modules, so you can end up spending Rp 30-40 million.
Since the kits are costly and assembling and operating them require a high level of technical knowledge, most of Firzi's customers are professional musicians, producers and artists – people with a real interest in music, a lot of knowledge and a deep pocket.
He said Analogcouple carries more brands now than when it started last year, but the store hasn't seen too much profit yet because modular synth music so far has remained a niche market.
"We're just focusing on maintaining our turnover. We sell enough gears and make enough profit to keep the company going," Firzi said.
"And I also just love to play them myself," he said.
Spreading the Gospel
To get more people into modular synths, Firzi and Meity host workshops. There is a monthly one at Paviliun 28 in Kebayoran Baru, South Jakarta, and another one in Bandung every few months.
They also collaborate with music schools, such as SAE and Double Deer, to run classes on modular synths.
"Music schools don't have a curriculum for modular synthesizers. There are music schools that talk about electronic music in general, how they produce it, and things like that. But not specifically about modular synths. That’s where we come in," Firzi said.
The workshops are intended for beginners and those with some experience playing mod synths.
Discussions at a more advanced level usually take place in the Indo Modular group, which is growing as more people attend workshops and come to meet-ups.
"There's actually a lot of people who love to play modular synthesizers in Indonesia. They just don’t know each other. That’s the thing. There are some people in Bali that I know who do DIY workshops and gatherings and because there’s lots of foreigners there, they're more open to this kind of music," Meity said.