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.
Kebu is a composer and keyboardist, who creates melodic synthesizer music, common to the sounds that were popular in the 70’s and 80’s. He’s attracted a lot of appraisal for his captivating live performances and over one million views on his YouTube channel. Playing in numerous bands through the years, touring and recording awesome studio videos, he’s had some time to acquire a pretty nice collection of synthesizers.
I♥SYNTHS: Tell us about Kebu. What does the name mean and what got you into synthesizers and electronic music?
Kebu: It was my nickname that I got at the university. One typical nickname for someone named Sebastian here is “Sebu”, but that was already taken so I became “Kebu”. My dad had cassette’s that he had taped from the radio with all kinds of music, among that Mike Oldfield, Jean Michel Jarre, Vangelis, Abba and even Boney M and I grew up listening to those cassettes. One of the first technical things I learned as a kid was, how to operate our home cassette deck. So that’s where my interest in electronic music started. I was also very fascinated by electronic keyboards early on, but my parents were advised to get the kid a real piano to learn on.
I♥SYNTHS: Where you classically trained on piano first?
Kebu: Yes, I started playing piano when I was 6-7 years old with lessons once a week for a few years, but my piano teacher could only teach me the basics. The next step would have been to go to the closest town and study classical piano, but I was living in a small village far away and my parents couldn’t afford to drive me once a week to the town. So eventually I lost interest in playing piano, but picked it up again when I was in high school and got interested in synthesizers. Since then I have been playing keyboards in probably almost twenty different hobby bands.
I♥SYNTHS: What was your first synthesizer?
Kebu: A new Kawai K1 II, which I hated because it didn’t have a decent piano sound and the black keys were harder to press than the white keys. I probably would appreciate it now for what it is, but back then I would have needed a PCM-based workstation, like a Korg M1 that I lusted for, but couldn’t afford back then. Soon after, I found a used Roland SC-155 (Sound Canvas module), which I really liked but realized that I really need the patch storage capability for live use, which the SC-155 lacked. I then realized that synths are VERY different from each other. Not in terms of nuances, like with different types of guitars, but more like apples and oranges. I also realized that by learning and trading on the second hand market I could try many different synths without loosing too much money. So the Kaway K1 was the first and only new synth I ever bought. After that, I’ve had over one hundred different hardware synths.
I♥SYNTHS: Who is your biggest inspiration for what you do? And, are you into any current artists?
Kebu: My biggest inspiration is hard to pick. Still, Jean Michel Jarre is probably my largest influence on what I’ve done as Kebu up to know, although I listen to a lot of different music, from qawwali to bluegrass. Lately, I’ve listened a lot to current trance music, as I think that is what melodic synthesizer music of the 80′s evolved into. Especially Arty and Mat Zo are current artists are making some very good music.
I♥SYNTHS: Is KEBU full-time now or do you still work a day job?
Kebu: I always respond to that question that I have a full-time job as a researcher and in addition a half-time job as Kebu. Although I say it as a joke, it is true. So I’m kind of in the middle of a struggle right now, because I would need more time for evolving my music, but I couldn’t make a living on my music yet.
I♥SYNTHS: What is your favorite piece of gear?
Kebu: My favorite piece of gear is probably my Korg Mono/Poly. It is such a great sounding synth and surprisingly flexible!
I♥SYNTHS: Do you use any newer gear or do you like to stick with the vintage stuff?
Kebu: With my “To Jupiter and Back” album, I wanted to restrict myself to using only analog synths, which is something I still do. Most of these were from the eighties, with the oldest from 1975 (I think) and the newest just a few years old (Vermona DRM1 Mk III). You get a different character from new analog synths in comparison with old ones – both equally valuable in a mix. But for me, the most important thing comes from the fact that I work with real hardware. The fast hands-on approach get me creative, but also its limitations does so. Instead of infinite possibilities it gives me a strict palette and canvas to work with, which I find inspires me a lot. Originally I thought about taking my recording approach to the edge with a strict AAAA approach – recording analog synths to multitrack tape and mixing it with an analog mixer and analog effects to 2-track tape. Eventually I noticed that I couldn’t get the spacious sound I sought after using only the two spring reverbs and a tape delay that I had. I knew I didn’t have the space or money for getting a real plate reverb and good quality 2-track tape machine, so I went halfway, using my multitrack tape machine and analog mixer, but digital reverb/delays and a digital master. Live I use a relatively modern digital sequencer (Yamaha RS-7000) and a digital Behringer mixer (DDX-3216) for being able to switch settings fast between songs.
I♥SYNTHS: Are you still actively buying synths? Any piece out there you’re still in search for?
Kebu: I am actually very satisfied with the setup I have right now. I just found myself a mint Alesis Andromeda, which has so much potential that I think I could spend the next few years just programming that. But I really need a new live mixer, because I use all channels available in the DDX and still I need more, and the built-in effects are quite bad.
I♥SYNTHS: How do you go about recording your YouTube videos?
Kebu: When I started out I made mostly videos of me performing a tune with one synth only, so it was basically a camcorder on a stand and then performing the tune over and over from different angles and then edit it into a video. Later on I started filming my live shows, so then it turned into using as many cameras as possible from different angles and then it is mostly a matter of choosing the best angles. In order to get some movement I digitally pan and zoom the takes, but you loose a lot of quality when you do that, so I try to get someone to shoot the concerts with a handheld camera as well.
I♥SYNTHS: For your live shows, do you have a lot of rehearsal time or do you tend to wing it?
Kebu: There is quite a lot of preparation work, but most of that work goes into the technical side, like sequencer arrangements and mixer settings/automation. Once that is done the songs take some practicing, but there are usually more technical challenges than I expect, which eats time away from the practicing. Also, the tunes are very tricky to perform live. They sound so simple – simple melody lines and technically not that difficult. But because they are so simple, anyone can hear when I make a mistake. Also, most of the old analog synths have quite bad keyboards. Each key triggers the sound at slightly different height and sometimes they mistrigger. In the beginning, I used the Arp Odyssey live, but it has such a lousy keyboard that it made me sound like a much worse keyboard player than I am, so nowadays I play those parts with other synths.
photo by: Tapani Rintala
I♥SYNTHS: Do you remember your first show? How have you evolved since then?
Kebu: The first time I played keyboards in front of a large audience was when I was 7 or 8. Then I froze up on the second last note, because I was so nervous that I tried to read the score exactly, while I normally played by heart. Nowadays I’m more afraid that my synths will freeze up. My first show as Kebu was in 2012, but I’ve played over a hundred gigs before that with other bands, so I’m very comfortable on stage nowadays. But it is a very different thing to play a solo gig than as a band member. Still, I was very happily surprised when I started doing my solo gigs that the audience responded so well to them. I was afraid they would find them boring – I’m still only one guy onstage in a cage of keyboards. But since I put quite a lot of effort into preparing the gigs – thinking about what type of audience can be expected and the type of place where I perform and making the tune selection and the order of the tunes based on that and trying to minimize idle time (that I still need for switching sounds and adjusting parameters) – it seems to pay off and make an enjoyable concert.
I♥SYNTHS: What’s next for Kebu in 2014?
Kebu: We were planning to organize a Northern Europe-wide club tour, but I’m seriously considering postponing it, because I realized that I need use all available spare time composing and recording, if I want to release an album by the end of 2014 – which I really would like to!
I♥SYNTHS: Are there any favorite concerts or live shows that have inspired you?
Kebu: A hidden gem is the Jean Michel Jarre DVD-concert called “live in your living room”. It was originally only available on the 30th anniversary Oxygen album as a bonus DVD, but I think the concert was much more interesting than the album, because on the DVD they perform the whole album live and have composed some extra music that binds the Oxygen parts together in a new way. Dominique Perrier is playing keyboards in this video, whose own band Space Art I arranged two concerts for here in Finland a year ago and had the honor to perform as warm up act for them! It was fun, but they arrived in the middle of a snow storm. I almost crashed the van we we’re travelling with and it’s engine died after the second show, but eventually we managed to perform both shows successfully and get home safe and sound.
Another concert worth mentioning, probably kind of unexpected, is the Madonna Confessions Tour DVD. It contains a very synth-heavy arrangement, with quite a lot of influences from early 70′s disco. Many of her tunes are re-arranged to suit the style and the whole concert follows both musically and visually a very coherent vision. Stuart Price was the musical producer for the DVD (check out his all-white customized synths), who was also producer for her Confessions on a dance floor album and Kylie Minogue’s Aphrodite album (also worth checking out), both albums using quite a lot of vintage synth flavours!
It get’s crazy at 1:40