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Playing God with Modular Synths at Control, New York's Electro Emporium

We spoke with the owner of this modular synth shop about the expansive nature of synthesizers, the barriers of getting into it, and EDM as the new rock ‘n’roll.
June 26, 2015, 5:19pm

All Photos by Reed Dunlea.

Walking into Control, a modular synthesizer shop in Brooklyn, is a bizarre experience on many levels. It is almost beyond niche, with comparable enterprises mostly living on the West Coast and in Europe. The East Williamsburg shop sits across the street from La Cabana Houses, Section 8 housing with a regular police presence outside. The door is locked 24 hours a day, and you must buzz to enter, reminiscent of a Western Union or pawnshop. It is just a few blocks south of Grand Street, one of Williamsburg’s hip strips.

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Once inside, the small storefront is lined with walls of synthesizers: giant boxes littered with rows of knobs and brightly colored wires. To an experienced synth musician, it may be heaven; to other musicians, it may be completely overwhelming, a source of new potential in experimentation, or both; to someone who is not a musician at all, it is probably just a mess of metal and wires.

Daren Ho, famous in New York electronic party circles for being everywhere and wearing all white, is one half of the shop’s ownership. Ho used to play in experimental rock bands like Raccoo-oo-oon (who were the first release on Woodsist) and put out noise tapes as Driphouse for Night People and Root Strata. He now revels in self-imposed musical obscurity with recordings and performances under his own name, and his yet-to-be-recorded dance project Dariius. We spoke with Ho about the expansive nature of synthesizers, the barriers of getting into it, and EDM as the new rock ‘n’roll.

Noisey: What was your music trajectory when you first moved to New York? Were you playing right away?
Daren Ho: I feel like the first month is kind of adjusting. You move here, and everyone's cool, but everyone's doing their own thing. I was scrambling to figure out what to do in life. I was doing this project called Driphouse. That was my solo project for a while. It was very synthy-based type of stuff. Kind of traditional 70's, a lot of loopy kind of things. I was also jamming with kind of random people. Since I could play other instruments, I played a lot of like, collaborative jam shows. One of my first shows here was with Pete Nolan from Magik Markers. Super day of, last minute. That was really fun. And I ended up playing in this USAISAMONSTER side project band called Black Elf Speaks, or Grey Elf Speaks or something. He always changes the name. It was a weird prog opera style rock band with seven of us. We all wore costumes. We did a small tour.

So what sort of music are you making right now?
Right now I'm just playing whatever I feel like under my own name. Lately it's been playing with as few modules as possible. That's kind of just my improv set up. Where I use as little as possible and try to get the most out of it. I have this other project where I make dance music. But I haven't ever released anything on it. It's called Dariius. I’ve been doing that for like four years. The first show was pretty fun, it was with Gatekeeper. And then I ended up playing this gig with Juan Atkins. Which was insane, on Halloween. That was really fun. Recording dance music is so much harder for me. Because there is so much to consider. You have to make it sound really good. You have to make it sound good on a dance floor. Not just be good at programming, but actually having a super tight engineer mind, and exploiting how sound is reproduced through speakers and maximizing effect. I'll probably eventually record something. We'll see. It's weird, when you have a music store, you start thinking about how something sounds and how good something sounds. And then you start learning really weird tricks that aren't really traditional to keep yourself interested and push the limits.

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Like what?
There's weird features in some of these things. There's some stuff that's pretty normal that a lot of people won't do. Like hard syncing type of stuff.

Can you explain that in laymen’s terms?
Yeah totally. Syncing is a pretty common thing. Like if you go through 80's synthesizers with presents, there's usually one that says "hard sync" or "sync." It's weird because what happens, you have two sound sources, two oscillators, and they have a reset switch in them built in. So what happens in music waveforms, oscillators have a cycle. The sine wave have these curves that are super smooth. When you send a pulse to reset the curve, it'll be in the middle of the curve and all of a sudden it'll just go back to zero. So it will look smooth and then all of a sudden it's just chopped up. But basically that makes it sound like you're in a tunnel or something like that.

And you see those waves? Or just hear it?
You just hear it. When you think of classic rock radio stations, they'll play 80's hits, and when they have a synth sound in it and it's kind of harsh and kind of tough, usually it's the hard sync sound. With some delay. So it sounds like you're in the rock zone. Getting ready to rock out.

Do you pull stuff out of the store to play live?
No I don't really do that so much. It's hard to deal with because there's too many factors sometimes. It has to be really controlled for me. When I first played it was a pretty simple setup modular-wise. Just one row of stuff. It had a very specific task that was used a lot. I started with modular stuff because I wanted a processed sound. I didn't actually want to create a huge board of stuff, you know? That's the idea of a lot of people they think about, "oh you're gonna get into modulars, you're gonna have a huge wall." I'd just rather put sounds that record from other sources and just mangle them.

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Can you tell me what you guys sell? What's in here?
We sell synthesizers, specifically tailored towards modular synthesizers, and we also sell really unique electronic instruments that we find very unique and very special in how they operate.

Continue below.

What is a synthesizer?
With a synthesizer you're trying to reproduce music electronically. They created this stuff to try to recreate sounds from the real world by analyzing waveforms, and how they could reproduce that with electronics instead. That's the traditional view of things, but now it's gotten to the point where when you're talking about synthesizers you're thinking of sounds that are very foreign that aren't natural in the real world at this point.

Do you build anything in here?
We don't build anything in the shop. We've experimented with that idea. We have a guy, but it's by request.

Do you build anything for fun?
I used to. But it's hard to find time to do that at this point, because this stuff it getting at its tipping point because now there are bigger guys getting into this. Besides Korg, we had Dave Smith start making stuff. He used to build the Sequential Circuits Inc. He was involved in that. And Roland just revealed some new stuff that's specifically for Eurorack. For a lot of people that's a very important tide turning. Roland is this gigantic company that's not just a music company, they make printers, and other industrial things. They're getting into it. So we'll see what happens from there.

Why do this as a shop and not just online?
The biggest thing about starting this store was, at the time, you couldn't really try modular synthesizers out in person. It was all through mail order. I mean there was a place in California you could try stuff out, but you pretty much had to make an appointment or find the warehouse and bang on the gate. There was another store there too, but they were more general music and guitars and there wasn't a huge collection. This was all on the west coast. When we opened up we made it really clear that it was a place where you could try things out. When you order this stuff online, you might be throwing a few hundred dollars at it and you don't even know what it sounds like until you got it. And even then you might not know how to use it correctly. Once you get over the hump it's pretty easy to get into, but when you try to get into it at first there are a lot of questions that aren't answered a lot of times. So people will get into this and will immediately sell their shit because they don't know how to use it correctly.

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So when you started, it was specifically as a resource in addition to a store?
Yeah. Because it's so difficult to get into, we just become this resource where people can ask questions. There’s a lot of expectations of what things should do from watching videos or reading descriptions. But sometimes they don't realize that it can do certain things but it might require other things to interact in order for that to happen. Our purpose is also to channel information. We're basically giving people lessons for free. We really enjoy helping people, because once they get over the hump it's crazy to see how much they get into it. They realize how kind of infinite it can be. Like, sonically.

Do you learn a lot from people coming in too?
Yeah definitely. The range of people that come in is pretty astounding. At first we had an assumption about the kind of people that would come in. But it's actually a lot broader. You have studio engineers coming in, you have DJs, and you also just have regular musicians that are looking to expand their sound. They play in a band or whatever. Then there are a lot of people that are just hobbyists. Instead of buying a guitar or a pedal or something they got into this instead. There are a lot of guitarists that end up getting into this. There are a lot of companies here that make guitar pedals and the next step for them to grow was to get into modulars. Pedals can only go so far. And to just personally grow, knowledge-wise, you just get sick of guitar music. And then you get into this stuff. Because then it's like being an engineer, you're exploiting electronics all the time, and how that works.

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Have you been able to follow people's relationships with your store and their musical output?
Yeah. This customer who came in when we first opened, Tyondai Braxton, used to play in this experimental rock band that is pretty big, Battles. He was doing a lot of stuff on laptop after he split up with them. He lives around here and just stopped by randomly because he was walking by. And we showed him how the stuff worked, and it took him a little bit to get into, and then he got really into the idea of using this. It eventually became the centerpiece of what he does these days. Now he does a lot of performances that are very specific multichannel setups, and it usually happens in like, a museum. He played at the Guggenheim. He also had friends that were into this stuff as well, but it was interesting seeing his career take a different path. If this stuff didn't exist, he'd still probably be on a really good trajectory, but sonically it would probably be a lot different. This stuff makes you think in a very different way. You kind of just think about weird paths. And it's really easy because you just plug one thing into another and see what happens.

Tell me more about thinking in weird paths.
I'm just going to go from the rock angle because that's how I started. When you're playing with a guitar and using effects pedals, you're obviously modifying your sound because you're playing through distortion, and then you're putting it through a delay pedal, and then you're putting it through a Wah, for example. But then you can change how that sounds if you put your Wah pedal before your guitar. And you're kind of playing with endless ideas. But then the interesting thing about this is with traditional effects, you're effecting your sound. With this stuff, you're not only effecting your sound, but you're also automating the process of how the sound's being shaped. For example, when I was playing with just pedals, I was just like, oh I liked turning this knob. It made this really weird sound. But I can't just do that. I turned the delay pedal so it made this weird sound. But then with this stuff, it's like, oh I can assign one module to control the knob for me. And basically you're having these weird controls that are controlling not just certain parameters on your effects, but you can also control your controls. So it gets super huge and meta. Because everything will effect each other in some crazy sort of way. And it's like, sometimes the littlest move will completely change the entire system.

That's some god-like shit going on.
I mean, it can be. Sometimes you get into the deep zone, where you're jamming for like two hours, and you change this one thing and you're like holy shit, I totally lost the moment, now it's complete chaos. And I have to go back and try to remember how I did this. And then you go back and you try to re-do everything, and you're not there anymore, you're in a completely different space. Which isn't bad. Sometimes it's better. But sometimes you're like, holy shit I wish I had this other moment as well.

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What kind of shows do you see?
As a guy who comes from a rock background, I hate going to watch people play guitars, drum and a bass. I just think about how boring it is. I'd rather just be playing guitar myself in my room. But then I'm like, why would I want to play rock music again? That shit is too easy. It just sounds like, the same. I feel like rock has already gone past its prime in terms of sounding interesting.

You think music has evolved beyond rock?
Definitely. This is brought up a lot, but the idea of EDM has been big in the last few years. I think that comes from people, I guess basically the youth, being really bored of rock music. Because all their dads listen to it. So what's new and cool and focused on the youth? So EDM is the answer. You've got the guy who used to be in a rock band, Skrillex, making his own stuff. A lot of those guys in EDM used to be doing rock stuff too. Steve Aoki does that label that put out that weird post-punk revival band, Bloc Party. They all came from rock. It's weird. It’s still rock to them. Rock is supposed to mean rebellion and be loud and obnoxious. This is the next step.

Who is the god of synths?
Buchla and Moog are considered the forefathers. Buchla is still alive, Moog isn't. But they were tight back then. They would always exchange ideas. Buchla no longer owns the company.

Who's the person now?
Now it's kind of just open. A lot of people would consider Intellijel or Make Noise as the two biggest companies that a lot of people have one or two things in their system that they use. And then there's this French guy that a lot of people have been really interested in, because he's just taking his digital ideas and making them in a modular form. His thing is Mutable Instruments. It's hard to say who is god. It just changes so much. There's just so much changing technology. People get into one thing and then they get into another.

What are some of the challenges of this store for you?
The challenges are just like, managing a business. That's the biggest thing for me. I'm always just thinking about how can we make this better? How can we make this a more pleasant experience for our customers to come in and have a good time? A lot of musicians I talk to that I know, they want to come into the store, but a lot of it seems pretty intimidating. Because the image of this stuff traditionally is that it's super technical, and you have to be a music expert to get into it. But it's not so much like that. These days, there are so many resources out there that you can just read about it all day. But also conceptually how these are used is a lot wider open now than it was in the past. In the past you had these very academic rules about how things should go. But you really don't have to follow those.

Reed Dunlea is patching in tweets.