Austin's Switched On, photo by David Hillowitz/Flickr. All other photos courtesy of the stores themselves.

The 9 Best Synthesizer Shops in the US

A few brick-and-mortar stores that'll help you get in touch with the physicality of electronic music production.

|
Jan 24 2017, 5:55pm

Austin's Switched On, photo by David Hillowitz/Flickr. All other photos courtesy of the stores themselves.

Bedroom electronic production flourished throughout the past decade thanks, partly to the ease of pirating an arsenal of digital tools, but despite the ubiquity of Ableton and other DAWs, there's been also been resurgence in the importance of analog synthesizers and classic drum machines. A lust for rare hardware isn't anything new, but from the raw techno released by the likes of L.I.E.S. and FIT Sound to the cinematic synth work of live acts like S U R V I V E, the physical tools of the trade are leaving as big a thumbprint as ever on the world of electronic music.

It's easy for aspiring musicians to buy gear online and even find video demos, but there's no substitute for the hands-on experience of actually twiddling the knobs on a vintage keyboard. Demand for niche gear ranging from obscure analog synthesizers to DIY Eurorack modules has resulted in a wealth of boutique electronic-minded music shops around the country, so we've compiled a list of nine of the brick-and-mortar storefronts (in the United States) that'll let you lay hands on some of the world's coolest oscillators and effect modules.

1. Control, Brooklyn, NY; Est. 2012

Control's art gallery aesthetic can come across as intimidating to newcomers, but once you ring the buzzer to enter the small South Williamsburg storefront you're likely to find New York musicians from almost every walk of life, from film composers to crust punks to dance music producers. They're big champions of everything Eurorack, offering a wide selection of modules as well as cases and DIY kits.

Owner: Daren Ho

What led to the shop's creation?
"We opened over four and a half years ago back around May 2012," Ho says. "Eurorack format of modular synthesis was something we were interested in and had been using for a few years prior. At the time there were about three or four places in the entire world that offered these through mail-order. Out of the four, only one of those places was open for the public to try out the modules. They're located in Berlin, so it was impractical for most people in New York City-area to try modules out, unless you went to general synthesizer meetups. This prompted us to discuss the possibility of opening up a store."

Specialization: Although the selection isn't as diverse as some shops, Control is heaven for modular geeks.

"Our focus is simple," Ho says. "We promote Eurorack modules and other equipment that complement that format of electronic synthesis. We're also huge fans of experimental music, so if we can find a way to integrate it with the shop in tasteful way that seems interesting and new, we'll try to make that happen."

2. Control Voltage, Portland, OR; Est. 2012

Self-described as a "please touch museum," Control Voltage has an airy vibe from a full wall of windows looking out onto a courtyard, while the other walls are stacked with new and used analog synthesizers. The location on Mississippi Ave. draws casual walk-in visitors, but for the heads they offer over 100 different brands, making their selection one of the most diverse in the marketplace, from mint vintage finds like semi-modular Roland System-100s to a huge selection of Eurorack modules from local companies like 4ms.

Owners: Jason Kramer and Shelly Bambina. Shelly's not a musician, but Jason attended the School of Audio Engineering in NYC and self-releases synth-heavy projects under his own name.

What led to the shop's creation?
"The basic idea came from not having any physical store for me or my friends to go look at the gear we wanted to buy in one place," Kramer explains. "But also having been inspired at both excellent retail service jobs and difficult ones, I'd always dreamed that I'd be able to combine the examples and experiences I'd picked up along my way with what I'm passionate about."

Specialization: Portland's a hub for modular manufacturers, making it a prime outlet for Eurorack modules, but the shop doesn't shy away from offering more accessible MIDI controllers either.

"Some synths shops focus more on vintage gear and restoration, some sell only Eurorack gear, we're into it all," Kramer says. "We carry both a ton of Eurorack gear and almost all the new modern synth and controller brands too. Plus our commitment to quality means that we only sell used and vintage gear in superb shape, all of it is on display to demo. Also, our staff is paramount in what we do, they're super knowledgable, each are active local musicians in their own rights, and cool with customers who need anywhere from little-to-no help to support well-after-purchase."

3. Detroit Modular, Detroit, MI; Est. 2013

Although their storefront is only open by appointment, given their city's electronic music pedigree we'd be remiss not to mention Detroit Modular. The shop runs the gamut from Eurorack modules to production software, and in the spirit of Detroit hustles harder, their low price guarantee includes the option to make an offer on anything in stock.

Owners: The Keaton brothers, who've been making electronic music since about 1993.

What led to the shop's creation?
"The fact that Detroit was one of the epicenters of electronic music, and the fact that Detroit didn't have a proper electronic music or synth shop really bothered me," Dan Keaton says. "The analog revival, and the Eurorack explosion just solidified the need. I felt it was a total shame that Detroit wasn't properly represented among the synth shop community."

Specialization: As the name suggests, modular is the main focus, but the shop also specializes in boutique brands like Abstrakt Instruments and Waldorf.

"We cater to anyone interested in taking their sounds and productions to the next level," Keaton says. "DAW or DAWless, analog or digital, beginner to pro, there is always something to learn no matter what level. "

4. Foxtone, Minneapolis, MN; Est. 2005

As one of the few dealers in the world carrying products from recently deceased synth pioneer Don Buchla, Foxtone's selection is as deep as it gets. Even so, they still aim to appeal to industry outsiders with a focus on maintaining a friendly vibe and maintaining a safe haven for people who might feel uncomfortable in a typical music shop.

Owner: Eric Fox, who had some commercial success in a pop-punk band, but nowadays lives vicariously through his customers

What led to the shop's creation?
"I actually opened Foxtone back in 2005 after spending a few years working for a couple of different music store chains," Fox explains. "Originally we were more of a typical music store selling guitars and drums and offering lessons. In 2010, we starting bringing in brands like Moog and Dave Smith, and shortly after that some modular gear. I was having so much fun dealing with that stuff and not having to worry about big box stores competing with me that by 2012 I phased out all of the guitars and drums and switched completely over to only selling synths!"

Specialization: The synthesizer community is tight-knit, and Foxtone prides themselves on being a supportive force in the scene.

"We really focus on modular synthesis and analog gear," Fox says. "I think what also sets me apart in the industry is my involvement behind the scenes. I've got my fingers into manufacturing, distribution, and marketing for several brands. It's been great working with some fantastic companies to help take them to the next level."

5. Nerd Audio, Chicago, IL; Est. 2007

Operating out of Midwest Pro Sound and Lighting, Nerd Audio proudly lets their synth dork flag fly with a selection of all the latest and greatest audio gadgetry. They carry the newest gear from bigger brands like Elektron and Roland, as well as from smaller upstart companies like Hyve, plus they've cemented themselves in the local scene through producing events that feature modular synth rigs run through quadrophonic sound systems.

Owner: Matt Levy, who performs electronic music under his own name or as Charliedontsurf.

What led to the shop's creation?
"NerdAudio.com went online about three and a half years ago, however we started carrying synths at our "mothership" Midwest Pro Sound and Lighting in 2007," Levy explains. "We created the Nerd Audio shop so synth heads wouldn't have to sort through DJ and pro Sound equipment to find what they were looking for."

Specialization:

Nerd prides themselves on a selection of video equipment that creates a visual complement to their audio offerings.

"We are one of the few places you can go and experience a video synthesizer in person, so that's pretty cool," Levy says. "We carry LZX Industries, as well as video modules from local artist Nick Ciontea (aka brownshoesonly)."

6. Perfect Circuit Audio, Burbank, CA; Est. 2007

There's a few other places in the Los Angeles to score vintage synths, but the most accessible is Perfect Circuit, a small shop north of LA in Burbank that's open 7 days a week stocking everything from the newest production software to rarest vintage synths. Visit at the right time and you just might find a Technos Acxel Resynthesizer, only one of 35 created in 1987. And for those interested in what's under the hood of their favorite instruments, they'll soon be offering bi-monthly workshops focused on DIY synth tinkering.

Owners: Brad and Tanya Berry

What led to the shop's creation?
"I became enamored with the rave scene in the late 90's and fell in love with electronic music, Brad says. "DJing and production ignited an addiction to synthesizers, most of which I couldn't afford. I realized that scouring classified ads lead to great deals and started to refurbish vintage synthesizers to resell and pay for my habit. Things grew from there. We got everything officially established in 2007 and Perfect Circuit Audio was born. We primarily sold vintage/used gear until 2012 and were exclusively online until 2015 when we opened up our brick and mortar storefront in Burbank CA."

Specialization: Based on their offerings some shops steer towards musicians of certain styles, but Perfect Circuit aims to serve the diverse landscape of LA musicians.

"We offer a variety of products and services for all types of electronic musicians. We not only carry niche and modular synthesizers but also workstations, controllers, pedals, software, DJ and pro audio gear," Brad explains. "We have a trade in program for used equipment and offer repair and consignment services as well. Our goal is to be a complete solution for electronic musicians. Whether you are hardware based or completely "in the box", we have you covered. Experimental to EDM. Synth-pop to Hip-Hop. We support electronic music regardless of it's shape or form and want to make sure that people can count on us to have the best sound design and recording tools on hand."

7. Robot Speak, San Francisco, CA; Est. Oct 2002

Like the mess of wires protruding from a Eurorack system, Robot Speak looks spectacularly haphazard. The storefront is half underground and packed to the brim with gear aimed at the modular-minded, with notable brands including Mutable Instruments and Metasonix, who made the shop a custom vacuum tube distortion pedal called the Stereo Robotspeak TM-7 Scrotum Smasher.

Owners: Steve Taormina and Alan Stewart, who make improvised electronic music under the moniker Monster-Zero.

What led to the shop's creation?
Taormina says that they started Robot Speak due to "the need for a world class analog synth and computer music store," but it was also "a way to justify acquiring more gear than we could afford."

Specialization: Following a demand for more hands-on gear, Robot Speak pivoted from a digital focus into more physical wares.

"We started as a computer music store in 2002, carrying all of the more interesting music software and digital audio interfaces, boutique controllers, Apple computers, analog & digital synths, FX, circuit-bent gadgets and the like," Taormina says. "That business model became an incredible pain in the ass and as the industry got overly saturated we were simultaneously pummeled by the 2008 economic train wreck and the writing was on the wall. Something needed to be changed. We now specialize in modular and analog synthesizers and have been for years. It was the perfect time. I was and am so sick of looking at my computer screen."

8. Switched On, Austin, TX; Est. 2010

Austin's electronic music scene traditional took a backseat to the city's more guitar-heavy rock music, but Switched On serves as a beacon for the synth nerds in Texas' weirdest city. The inventory, ranging from vintage rarities like a massive Sequential Circuits Prophet 10 to the handheld Korg Volcas, are all plugged in and ready to test drive. The hands-on philosophy means you might be twiddling the knobs of a modular synth next to famous customers like Thom Yorke, which actually happened to one lucky customer.

Owners: Two Austin music scene stalwarts, John French and Chad Allen, who ran the label Answering Machine Recordings and played in bands ranging from '90s experimental outfits featured in the film Slacker to early aughts zolo revivalists Zom Zoms.

What led to the shop's creation?
"Switched On opened in late February 2010," Allen says. "I wanted Austin to have the kind of fantasy vintage gear store I had experienced in my younger days. The various locations of Black Market Music, Briz Loan & Guitar in Vancouver Washington, the original location of Future Music in LA. We initially had vintage guitars and drums, but were always synthesizer focused. Offering repair was essential to our existence. We had to make sure we could guarantee the functionality of the old gear we had for sale and it helped a lot of people who had an obsession with 70's and 80's equipment find us."

Specialization: Austin's large music community means there's a large demand for qualified repairmen, as well as staff who can eloquently guide customers through Roland's entire catalog of synths.

"Switched On is good at hands-on, community oriented service. We are here for Austin first, but are excited to share what we've built with the rest of the world. Whether we are making emergency repairs to a TSA-mangled Korg MS-20 for a band on tour, an hour before show time, or delivering an MCI 2-inch machine we just serviced to a studio down the street, or undertaking a lengthy restoration of a Fairlight CMI for a client in LA, we are dedicated to making available the best tools possible to facilitate the creation of new music. It is not the easiest path to take, but it is important to everyone working at Switched On to foster the growth of our culture." - Chad Allen

9. Three Wave Music, Hawthorne, NJ; Est. 2006

Seemingly packed with more synthesizers per square foot than perhaps anywhere else in the world, Three Wave's showroom has just about anything you could be looking for. The stock is heavier on organs and traditional keyboards than most other shops on this list, but there's still plenty of wave-generating rarities like a Korg PS-3200 or custom 6 voice Oberheim.

Owner: Sam Masuko, formerly a jazz musician.

What led to the shop's creation?
"Sam looked around many music stores in northeastern US and didn't find any keyboard stores. At that time, he already had many keyboards from the previous store that was located in New York City, and decided to open Three Wave Music, a keyboard specialist store."

Specialization: You'll find plenty of reissued gear like Korg's Arp Odyssey, the Volca series, and a full line of Arturia products, but where Three Wave really shines is in the keyboard department.

More VICE
Vice Channels