Photos by Nick Fancher.
Last week, the Columbus, Ohio-based RJD2 dropped his sixth studio album, Dame Fortune. Recorded at the tail-end of a 13-year stint in Philadelphia, it's being billed as a spiritual sequel of sorts to the producer's 2013 album, More Is Than Isn't. By many accounts, Dame Fortune is RJD2's tribute to soul music, in the way More Is Than Isn't felt partly like a tribute to the Los Angeles Beat scene—though you don't need to listen to either them that closely to hear elements of both.
Ever since 2002's era-defining breakout Deadringer, RJD2 has become synonymous with his ear for unexpected juxtapositions and larger-than-life climaxes; it's a technique at the heart of the genre he's skewed closest to since the beginning—hip-hop—and a hallmark of any obsessive record collector with an ear for the half-forgotten diamond in the rough. But the artist né Ramble Jon Krohn isn't just a collector of dusty pop culture moments—he's also a collector of synths. A passionate one: he's been building out his own home studio since 1997, as well as restoring and building his own instruments since 2004. When he packed up his bags and relocated to Columbus last year, he took his entire arsenal of vintage instruments with him. Below, to celebrate the release of Dame Fortune, he gave us a guided tour of his home studio, spotlighting his eight greatest secret weapons and the stories behind them.
1. Moog Polymoog
RJD2: I struggled with this machine in a "two steps forward, one step back" manner—more than with any other synth I've ever owned. It's notoriously dodgy—the construction has not stood the test of time. I rebuilt the keybed: new bushing, full disassembly, leveled the key posts, rebuilt several sections, and had to replace several voice cards. It's a gorgeous-sounding machine; fully polyphonic, with all the functions of a standard analog synth, and the string sounds are amazing. Gary Numan's "Cars" in the flesh.
2. Sequential Circuits Prophet T8
I did the least amount of work on this than anything in my studio. A few CEM chips needed to be replaced, and the section that supports the keys needed to be adjusted. Otherwise, it's been rock solid. The most comfortable keyboard manual that has ever been installed on a synth, in my opinion—like driving a Caddy in an empty parking lot.
3. Yamaha CS-80
The best polyphonic synthesizer ever imagined, in my opinion. Has graced countless classic recordings. I'm into this one for upwards of 30-50 man-hours, if I'm guessing. All five of the lower PCBs were rebuilt with modern components; hundreds of chips and capacitors were desoldered, and newly manufactured ones were put in place. It's now one of the most stable synths I own—just a dream to play. The first track on Dame Fortune, "A Portal Inward," is almost entirely this synth. I can't say enough good things about this machine.
4. Elka Synthex
I'm probably into this machine for about 15-25 man hours. The whole panel was pretty dogged-out; the pots barely moved, and a number of the buttons didn't work, or worked intermittently. Pretty extensive rebuild, and some rare parts were sourced from a tech in the UK. The power supply cooling fan was LOUD, so I put an aftermarket one in that is dead quiet. Fun machine! The step sequencer that is built in is a blast.
5. Sequential Circuits Prophet 5
The first analog synth I bought; this was on the Since We Last Spoke tour in 2004. A pretty easy instrument to maintain. I rebuilt the power supply (like I do with basically anything I end up restoring), put new bushings on the keys, and installed a new lithium battery, and it's been rock-solid ever since. Only five voices, but sounds beautiful.
Still working on this one a bit; it's about 95% there. After the standard rehab stuff (power supply upgrade, making sure all functions/switches/buttons work), I had to rebuild one of the voice cards. The filter on that card isn't working properly, but it actually adds a bit of charm to the machine. Part of what makes analog synths sound distinct is their imprecision; not all eight voices sound identical on this, which gives it a nice character in the context of a recording.
7. Rhodes Chroma
BIG job here: PSU upgrade, CC+ kit, polyphonic aftertouch kit, rebuilds on the motherboard, and a few voice cards. And then I built a standalone programmer out of two BCR 2000s, so I don't have to menu-dive with one slider to program it (hell). I'm into this for over 20-man hours, for sure. Very rich-sounding instrument with polyphonic aftertouch, velocity sensitivity, and immense programming capabilities. Almost like a modular synth in a programmable box.
8. Four-voice custom modular synth
This represents the pinnacle of my building abilities. Save for the bottom row, every module was built by hand. 100-150 man hours on this, if I'm guessing. It is arranged as four voices, which can be played polyphonically or monophonically, depending on the routing that happens on the front end. My panel designs leave something to be desired, but every module works, and is in tune (a challenge in itself). The satisfaction I've gotten from the process of building this machine—and my connection to it—has paid dividends. These days I am using it all the time on recordings, or just for fun.