In 1989, Shawn Rudiman started production work with Ed Vargo as part of the seminal Industrial group T.H.D. (Total Harmonic Distortion). This EBM/Elektro unit became quite popular in the EBM/Industrial music scene of the early to mid 90′s. They released 4 full-length albums, countless remixes and compilation releases on both European and domestic labels. During these formative years, Shawn developed a fascination with vintage music machines. In 1997, he decided to stray from his Industrial-EBM roots to explore the depths of pure rhythm and sounds in Techno music.
Rudiman’s all live sets of non-stop, improvised techno became his trademark. His innate understanding of hardware drum machines, sequencers, samplers and synthesizers gave his performances the fluidity and smoothness of any DJ set, but entirely flexible in direction and tempo (well before the introduction of software live applications). These performances gained international attention throughout the Techno community and became the stuff of legend.
Today he resides in the Midwest, still releasing records and remixes. Always a consummate studio enthusiast, Shawn maintains, repairs and builds analog and vintage synthesizers while keeping a busy international touring schedule.
Photos by: Christa Majoras
I♥SYNTHS: What was your first synth and what made you want to get into electronic music?
Shawn Rudiman: My first synth was a Yamaha b200 M. That was what started me on this wild ride. It was a Prosumer FM 8 voice / 4 op poly. I got it for Christmas in 1990. I believe I was 18 and It was my first real love. That poor synth has had a lot of flight time hours on it. They keys have started to degrade and melt and the buttons are all in need of serious replacing as well. I still love it and pull it out sometimes. The next day after that Christmas, I went out and picked up an HR16b, with whatever money I had saved. I still have that as well and it’s been modified now with the patch bay-hack that scrambles the 16-bit data lines which makes the sounds totally into something new.
I♥SYNTHS: What got you into electronic music?
Shawn Rudiman: I was always into space and sci-fi TV shows and read sci-fi as a kid. Synthesizers to me, were almost like a tiny bit of that, in the here and now. Along with that, I was totally obsessed with synthpop and electro/freestyle or anything that had synths and drum machines in it. I was too young to go out to clubs and was totally in the wrong place as well (the backwoods of Pennsylvania).
I♥SYNTHS: Are there any songs that stick out for you?
Shawn Rudiman: The two distinct memories were hearing “19” and “Rockit” for the first times. My mind was totally blown, I had never heard anything like those two songs ever before. Wow, they floored me. Also, hearing Gary Numan’s “Cars” at a really early age. I was supposed to be in bed sleeping (I think I was in first or second grade), and I was listening to a radio station on a little transistor radio under the covers. The station must have been a college station that I somehow picked up or maybe had a new wave or synth dance show on. Needless to say, I was doomed after that. “Cars” is still haunting and a flawless song.
I♥SYNTHS: When did your obsession start with collecting synths?
Shawn Rudiman: The day after that Christmas in 1990! It was really fueled by diving headfirst into making music. My friend Ed Vargo and I decided we were going do this shit and try it out. We were so arrogant and had zero idea what we were doing. Totally green on every front. Long story short, we somehow managed to get a demo of industrial stuff to a label in Denmark. They liked what they heard and signed us for a full cd.
I♥SYNTHS: When you were signed, did you go out and pick up more gear?
Shawn Rudiman: Yes! The label gave us $3,700 as an advance. We used that money, which at the time would be comparable to $15,000 today, to purchase more gear. We bought everything we could find that was electronic. And then, we began learning what actually was made, the specs, etc.
The early 90’s were the time to buy analog synths and drum machines. It was really great. You really had to dig for that shit though. We scoured pawnshops and mom and pop music stores all the time. Also, we used newspapers. There was no eBay or Craigslist. You had to want that junk, and it was junk at the time.
I♥SYNTHS: Do you consider yourself as a collector or musician?
Shawn Rudiman: I still don’t consider myself a collector. Collectors don’t use them. I try and use everything I come into. Sometimes I buy them and sometimes I make them. They all get used and appreciated by being used in songs and tracks. Without them making sound, they’re kind of useless. They have to be used, to be the gems they are!
I♥SYNTHS: What was the best deal you’ve scored on a synthesizer?
Shawn Rudiman: Oh man. I’d say there were a couple of good scores in my time but, the prices were skewed to the early 90’s so, it sounds totally insane by today’s standard. My Roland 909 was only $325, minty in the packaging.
I♥SYNTHS: Any regrets? What synthesizers did you let go and wish you could get back?
Shawn Rudiman: First and foremost, it would be my Jupiter 6. I traded it (as a career move of sorts) in 2000 or so for my FR-777. They were new and I had zero money and really, I was playing a lot of rave gigs and I knew I was going to have to maybe fly one day to a gig. I needed something sound-wise that was equivalent to a Pro-One with an onboard sequencer. The 777 was exactly what I need at the time. I still miss that machine.
Also, when I moved to Pittsburgh, I split the old studio I had with my studio partner Ed Vargo. We had bought a Yamaha CS-70M together over the years and luckily when I moved we had things that were sort of comparable to split. It was an “amicable divorce” I guess, you could say. We each got the things we liked. He got the CS-70M and I got the JP-6. That CS-70m is one of the most beautiful sounding machines I’ve ever touched. It’s amazingly huge in size and sound. We put the Kenton midi kit into as well so its really super duper sweet.
I also miss my Octave Cat a lot. I traded that synth years ago for a 727 with trigger outs on all voices. Once again, another trade for gig machine, rather than cool studio stuff. I also miss my Avatar. I sold it to help pay for my Virus A in 1997. Oh, add my re-555 to that list as well. So, there’s always things I miss and probably won’t find again. Those days are long over for getting machines at humane prices.
I♥SYNTHS: What’s your most prized possession in the studio?
Shawn Rudiman: Hmm, that’s a tough call. All of the kids are loved equally but if I’d say the MPC 3000. He’s on every single time I’m in the studio. To me, it’s as good as its ever going to get. Also, add the Prophet VS, The 440, Sequential Circuits Pro-One and Oberheim Xpander to that list as well.
I♥SYNTHS: When did you get into working on creating your own synths?
Shawn Rudiman: Well, I don’t really create my own synthesizers. I’ll find DIY things and make them into my own look or I’ll modify the circuits to do more/other than intended things. I started doing this about 5-6 years ago. I never understood schematics or electrical engineering before that. I just wasn’t ready. It stemmed from things going bad and malfunctioning or finding broken things for sale and monkeying around inside with them to learn more. The first thing I’ve ever fixed from the dead was a Crumar Bit One. After that, I fixed my TR-909, which was dead for 3 years. Then, it was a cascade of things that just kept getting more and more intense.
I♥SYNTHS: Any shout outs to people or companies that helped you along the way?
Shawn Rudiman: I looked into DIY stuff and found the MFOS site. Wow. I dove head first into their hardest project and spent a year making a bank of sequencers and modding them to do new things! I seemed to really have a knack for figuring things out from a user standpoint. Then, I spent time learning how to electrically make that happen. Ray Wilson from MFOS is the man. He was very patient with my constant questions and learning. He’s truly an awesome guy.
Then it was synths. The Doepfer DIY synth was my first. Then another and another and the mutable instruments stuff as well. All of the Meeblip stuff which is all modded and built into crazy custom cases and faceplates. I see them as synthesizers I cant afford to buy so, I just make them. I guess I’m also a fan of the underdog and unknown or raw sounding things.
I♥SYNTHS: What’s next for you? Any current builds or something you have your eye on?
Shawn Rudiman: I’m currently working on another extra-modded Doepfer DIY synth (2 subs, 2 extra envs and tons of extra cv patch outs, a mutable Anushri with several mods (that shares the cabinet with the DIY #3), My Arp odyssey 2800 (MKI) which is totally patched and modded with a new rotary potentiometer faceplate. Also, I’m adding switchable res/pan mod to my studio 440. I’m also replacing the power supplies too. Things are reaching that time when the capacitors and regulators are just getting to the end of their designed lifespan. I need to finish the projects on my bench before I go looking for anything new in the DIY area. They are easy to find and hard to finish.
I♥SYNTHS: We love that you’re a hardware guy. Can you share a live set link and tell us why is it your favorite?
Shawn Rudiman: Sure this is a video of a live set from the legendary TRESOR club in Berlin, Germany.
It’s one of the best sets I’ve played in a very long time. My performances are always off the cuff and sequenced, programmed, mixed on the fly. It’s 20 minutes of a 2.5 hour set. Some Detroit techno business, as for why it’s my favorite. I didn’t over do things and rush things along or ruin it with too much. I let things groove and be what they could be.
I also did an “industrial “ album a couple years back that was a lot of fun to do. It was a great break from the techno aesthetic and allowed me to return to songs again. It’s called THD (Total Harmonic Distortion) – “ The Evolution of Our Decay”
It’s a fave because I really enjoyed making it. From the song writing to lyrics to production, it was a breath of fresh air for me. It was just really what I was trying to get out.
I♥SYNTHS: Can you tell us a little about Custom Synth? When did you get started and what made you get into the business?
Custom Synth: A while back, I got involved in music because one of my brothers, Toby Toman, played drums in various British bands (The Nosebleeds, Ludus, The Durutti Column, Blue Orchids, and Primal Scream) so I grew up around rehearsal rooms and studios. I started Custom Synth several years ago, mainly restoring vintage equipment, rack gear, rusty keyboards and more. I thought, wouldn’t it be great to customize hi-tech equipment? Fender and other guitar companies have custom shops so, that kind of started me off. I now notice Roland, Korg and other companies have started to do it. Then, I was commissioned to customize a Nord in black, so it could be used in an orchestra pit and not stand out. Red Nords are cool but having a black option would be handy for something like this.
I♥SYNTHS: If someone wanted a custom synth, what’s the best way to get started?
I♥SYNTHS: Can you explain a little about your process on customizing?
Custom Synth: Once the project is started and the colors/graphics are worked out, the equipment is stripped down. Then, the parts are prepared, sanded, resprayed and screen printed. I work with friend who has a screen printing company (they used to do all of the Joe Meek gear).
I♥SYNTHS: Do you get any other instrument requests besides synthesizers?
Custom Synth: I do mostly hi-tech instruments and rack gear. I did work with Native Instruments for a while, customizing the Maschine for the artist series and a few one-offs. I also worked with Novation with the dicers and launchpads in chrome/gold and more. Really, anything that can be sprayed and printed can be customized or restored.
I♥SYNTHS: You’ve done some custom synths for celebrities and famous musicians. What was your most unique or original project?
Custom Synth: One of the most unique projects was for Tom Rowlands (The Chemical Brothers studio). I built a midi controller keyboard to sit in the bumper rail of a large SSL mixing desk. It has a detachable cover to match the rest of the desk and two modular cabinets. One was for the Serge modular system in a two piece metal arch and the other was a MOTM system to match the Roland 700 system.
I♥SYNTHS: Any other unique stories or projects?
Custom Synth: The restoration work I do for RL Music is rewarding and the finished instruments always look and function beautifully. You can see more at http://www.rlmusic.co.uk/
Custom Synth: Also, the Kaiser Chiefs have a white keyboard set up for their world tours including Peanut’s custom Nova-modded 808-style SH101.
Custom Synth: Howard Jones has a great looking sci-fi Deco chrome keyboard setup.
Custom Synth: Pete Watson, a session musician (Hurts, Lily Allen, Live), uses mainly Nords in black with reverse keys.
Custom Synth: Keane uses a custom Roland SH-201 in yellow.
Custom Synth: Rachel Furner uses a Roland RD-700 GX piano with blue and white stripes.
Custom Synth: Chromeo has a few all-chrome pieces like the MS20, Nord Modular, Nord Stage, a Roland SH-101, Akai MPC, Moog Voyager and Simmons Drum pads.
Custom Synth: Mike Skinner (The Streets) urban camoflage tr 909, a custom white Logan string machine, a white ARP Axxe and pink Fender amp.
Custom Synth: Gary Go has a custom black Nord stage and microKORG.
Custom Synth: Major Tweaks Studio (Roger Lyons) is the north’s leading analogue synth recording studio, custom SH-101s, MS20s, a CS and modular racks. Other customers include: Goldfish , Robbie Bronnimann , Tom (Editors), Shadow Child, Spoony, Funkagenda to name a couple.
I♥SYNTHS: Do you have a favorite synthesizer to work on?
Custom Synth: Anything is great to work on. Seeing something in a sorry state or rusty and beat up and then refreshing them and making them usable again is worth it.
I♥SYNTHS: What’s been your most challenging project?
Custom Synth: I recently had a Jupiter-8 that had been in its case in damp storage. The lining of the case had turned to sludge, eaten the paint off and bubbled the paintwork. That took a lot of refinishing and it came out rather well.
Custom Synth: Similar with a TR-909, that had sat in a puddle for a year. Someone had a go at painting it which kind of reacted and the finish became bubbly. I gave that an 808-color makeover.
I♥SYNTHS: Do you have a large personal collection of custom synths?
Custom Synth: I used to but not now. I just use a Roland Fantom G6, a Eurorack modular (which is growing) and a laptop with Reason on it, for my music
I♥SYNTHS: Have you ever fallen in love with a project and wanted to keep it for yourself?
Custom Synth: Yes, I love everything I do, but you have to let the kids leave home. They can always come back.
I♥SYNTHS: What’s next for Custom Synth? Do you have any future projects or new ideas you’re looking to do this year?
Custom Synth: I have been making a few t-shirt designs, which I sell on eBay. I try and keep the designs unique. They change all the time and helps pay for the projects.You can check them out here on http://www.ebay.com/usr/customsynth
Custom Synth: I’m still finishing a duo SH-09 which is a work-in-progress but, it’s getting there. I am also going to make a few Custom Synth one-offs this year and continue to experiment with different colors and finishes. I did have a plan to make some speakers for modular systems but, I’ve noticed people have started to do that. Perhaps customizing Eurorack modulars would be great! Maybe a rainbow modular? Different colors used for functions might be nice. I’m also working out a way to mount effects pedals into Eurorack formats too.
I♥SYNTHS: Thanks again for the interview! I hope to one day own one of your amazing pieces of equipment.
I♥SYNTHS: What is Soft Lighting? Tell us about the name, the mood and what got you into electronic music.
Soft Lighting: This is my solo music project. I picked the name at a time when I was really getting into photography and learning about lighting. I thought it fit the kind of chill sultry vibe of the music. I first started making electronic music when I was in high school and Radiohead’s “Kid” A came out. That was around the same time music editing software was becoming easily available.
I♥SYNTHS: How do you go about recording?
Soft Lighting: All different processes. Sometimes I come up with the whole song on guitar before I start recording anything. Sometimes I just start by recording one little piece and then slowly adding onto it. Switching up the process keeps it interesting. The songs go through tons of iterations though. I usually have 20 different versions of a song recorded – some in different keys or totally different arrangements or with alternate lyrics etc.
I♥SYNTHS: “Once everything is recorded in, what type of processing do you do on the computer for the “Soft Light” sound?”
Soft Lighting: I use Waves SSL plugins on everything, Melodyne for vocals, Logic’s reverb and tape delay, Ultrabeat and Battery for drum sampling. I don’t really ever use soft synths.
I♥SYNTHS: Did you play guitar before getting into synthesizers?
Soft Lighting: Yup, I started playing guitar when I was 9 or 10. I wanted to be Nirvana and I had an imaginary band that I called “Rex And The Big Gun” – pretty sarcastic for an elementary kid, haha.
I♥SYNTHS: What’s your go-to piece of gear that defines the Soft Lighting sound?
Soft Lighting: I usually choose a different set of tools for each album because I think it helps give that body of work a uniqueness. The first album, “Slow Motion Silhouettes” was all done on the Juno 60 and the drums where a lot of old Casios so it has a real washed out lo fi vibe. “Portraits” was made with the DX7, Juno 106 and Roland drum machines so it has a cleaner more digital sound. Now I’m working a lot with my Virus TI which is taking the sound out of the realm of vintage 80s and taking it to a more contemporary place.
I♥SYNTHS: You love your cats. Are they a big inspiration to your music? What are their names and what synths do they like the most?
Soft Lighting: I actually only have one cat and his name is Ziggy. My wife and I foster litters of kittens for our local shelter so we always have a bunch of new kittens around. They like ALL the synths and ALL the gear – especially hiding in the back of amplifiers.
I♥SYNTHS: As you’re building your synth collection, are you looking for anything specific to add to your arsenal?
Soft Lighting: I’d really like to pick up a DSI Tempest. I’m mainly on the look out for new really innovative pieces of gear – things that can produce sounds we haven’t hear before.
I♥SYNTHS: You’ve recently released some vinyl. Do you think people are starting to gravitate towards using older gear, recording processes and listening experiences?
Soft Lighting: I think a lot of people are reexamining the relationship between convenience and fun. There is this whole new paradigm surrounding music – the way we make it, find it, listen to it etc. Everything is faster and easier. For a lot of people something is getting lost so they are looking for ways to force themselves to slow down and appreciate the experience. Vinyl makes you sit down and listen to a whole album. Vintage synths makes you physically route pieces of hardware and twist knobs in real time. Its just more fun.
I♥SYNTHS: What’s new for Soft Lighting? Are you doing any collaborations or working on a new solo album? Care to share something new with us?
Soft Lighting: I just finished a couple new singles and collaborating on a new Soft Lighting EP with A$AP Mob producer, P on the Boards. He’s a genius and it’s been amazing to work with him and learn from him. I’m so excited for everyone to hear it. No release date yet to announce but you will be hearing from us very soon.