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.
Michel van Osenbruggen also known as Synth.nl is a producer, composer and synthesizer collector from the Netherlands. Developing software, installing computer networks and repairing electronics led to his obsession with synthesizers. With influences from Jean-Michel Jarre and Vangelis, Synth.nl creates beautifully melodic synthesizer electronica.
I♥SYNTHS: What was your first synthesizer and how old were you when you started collecting?
Synth.nl: I still remember exactly what my first synthesizer was, the Yamaha TX81Z. It is a rack module so I had to buy an extra midi keyboard, that at that time wasn’t even velocity sensitive. It must have been around 1987 when it was just released. So, I was 17 I guess. That adds up, since I bought it from the money I got to buy a moped from my parents, when I didn’t smoke until my 16th birthday. I guess their trick worked since I still don’t smoke. I also still have the TX81Z with my original sounds I made back then. I can also remember well, that FM programming was not easy and still isn’t easy.
I♥SYNTHS: What is your process for recording synthesizers onto the computer?
Synth.nl: Well, first of all, I always record midi to start with. Usually my tracks start on some of my newer equipment and often later in the process of producing tracks I replace the sounds or layer them with one or more of my older analog machines. I don’t like to have them switched on all the time. I’m trying to save them as much as I can. For AD converting I mainly use two Lynx Aurora 16′s that go with ADAT to a RME 648 and that outputs MADI to an RME HDSP MADI interface in my studio PC. I use Cakewalk Sonar X2 Producer Edition (soon to be replaced by X3) on my PC to record and produce my music.
I♥SYNTHS: How many synthesizers do you currently own, do you have them catalogued?
Synth.nl: I used to catalogue them, but I actually just stopped with that. I had a complete list on my website, but it was too much work to keep it updated and recently I removed the whole studio part from my website. Unfortunately it brought me more negative reactions than positive so I was fed up with it at one point. It is a shame for the people who liked it, but it wasn’t really motivating. There is still a lot to be found on my blog though. I will try to keep updating that from time to time. The last time I counted There were a bit over 100 synthesizers in the studio including the module versions.
I♥SYNTHS: Is there a synthesizer out there you’ve yet to find?
Synth.nl: Well, not that much. The ones I’m still looking for are quite rare and expensive. I recently added an EMS ‘Putney’ VCS3 to the collection. That was a machine I looked for a long time and is truly a very unique synthesizer. I would love a Yamaha CS-80 but they are becoming so rare and expensive. Besides that, they are very heavy and they take up a lot of space. What is missing a bit in my collection, is a classic Oberheim. So maybe an OB-Xa or OB-8. I also love the looks of the Yamaha DX-1, but again the price. And, what I’d really like is a Walfdorf Wave but they are hard to find. People that own these machines know what they are worth and the real collectors don’t part with them easily. Like myself, I hardly ever sell a synthesizer. That is why I have so many. Now I’m at the point when something goes in, something has to go out. The studio is full.
I♥SYNTHS: What is your favorite synthesizer company?
Synth.nl: I guess as whole company, Roland. I like most of the synthesizers they’ve made and they take up a large portion of my studio. My first synthesizer with a keyboard was a Roland D-10. So I learned to play with their joystick modulation and also, the light keys that they have. I still prefer those keys and that joystick over any other keyboard and I still don’t like playing with a mod wheel. My master keyboard in my studio is also a very cheap Roland midi keyboard with that same joystick on it.
I♥SYNTHS: If you were stuck on an island with one synth, what would you bring?
Synth.nl: I better bring an acoustic guitar since there probably will be no power. But, let’s say there is, my favorite synth is the Moog Minimoog but I wouldn’t bring that, since it is very limited on it’s own. So, I guess I’d bring the most versatile machine at the moment and that is the Korg Kronos, in my humble opinion. You can jam very nicely on it and all the different sound engines give a lot of freedom in sound choice.
I♥SYNTHS: You’ve rebuilt your studio a couple times. Do you think redesigning your space is another passion?
Synth.nl: Not really my passion, no. I think you have to do it at least three times to get a decent feel for the ergonomics of your setup your workflow. And, the cabling takes time to get it right. I always try to be as efficient as possible and use the shortest possible analog cables to avoid hum and noise. The latest studio, I even designed it upfront in 3D to get a feel for the ergonomics of it. I think I’ve gotten the maximum potential out of the room now. People who know the fish-eye pictures think the room is huge, but actually it is only 4 x 7 meters. So, it is packed very efficiently. I wouldn’t like to to it again, actually. I’m happy as it is now and I’m only re-cabling and rearranging some stuff now because I think I can get even more MADI inputs into my studio PC. That will save me some patching. I really like to have everything running as much as possible, hooked up and ready with both midi and audio.
I♥SYNTHS: How long did it take to build your latest studio?
Synth.nl: Well as you might know, we dug a large hole in the garden and put the studio in a basement. That project took about 6 months to complete. After that, I spent another month with the guy that did the furniture and 2 or 3 months after that, to get everything in and wire it up. Of course, I had to do that next to a very busy day job, so it wasn’t full time work. I’m still not completely done actually, but the end is in sight. I guess, all in all, I’m not exaggerating when I say it was almost a year.
I♥SYNTHS: Who is your biggest influence on your music?
Synth.nl: Two names pop into my head right away. What influenced me equally: Jean Michel Jarre and Vangelis. In the beginning, it was more Jarre and later on I got to appreciate Vangelis more. I think he really is one of the greatest composers, not even only for synthesizer music. But the music I heard first was by Jarre. Oxygene and Equinoxe got me turned over from hard rock into synthesizer music. I guess, also with age, you start to appreciate more melodic and relaxed music more than when you are young.
I♥SYNTHS: Space and the ocean seem to be a common theme with your music. Would you say that nature is your biggest influence?
Synth.nl: I’m a very restless and stressed person by nature, unfortunately. I’m always busy and hardly ever rest. I even hate sleeping. I think it is a waste of time. But in 2005, it got me into a burn-out. I was a year off from work completely and only started to produce music at that time. Until then, I collected synthesizer and made a lot of preset sounds on them, but never music. I don’t have a musical background and still can’t even read notes, actually. If you like the whole story, there is quite a nice documentary that a student of the film academy in Rotterdam made on this topic on my YouTube channel. But bottom line is that, I started to create music to relax myself a bit and get my mind empty again. I’m very visually oriented so I had a story and the pictures in my mind that I made music to. It was like taking a journey of myself. I think nature and space are very good sources for inspiration and relaxation in that way. I think the ocean and space makes you realize how tiny and insignificant we humans, actually are and how tiny our daily problems are. That actually helps me to see things in perspective again.
I♥SYNTHS: What’s next for Synth.NL?
Synth.nl: Well, last year I did another vacation with my friend and record label owner Ron Boots. We brought our synthesizers along again, so we made some new music. That still has to be edited, mixed and produced into a new album. So, I guess that will be a project for 2014, hopefully. Besides that, I really need to work on some solo material again. Well, not completely alone. My friend Hansjan Landman usually helps me with that. I also did a collaboration last year with another friend Remy Stroomer. We are planning a follow up on that as well, based on retro computers and game consoles. And then, I still have my classical project and planetarium music laying around to finish up and release some day. So, I guess I have no reason to be bored the coming years. Unfortunately, my work takes up a lot of my time so, I have no idea how to get it all to fit in between. I guess it will mean even less sleep next year.
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