Surgeon Meets Modular Synths
In May 2017, Anthony Child – aka Surgeon – came down to Bristol’s own music hardware store, Elevator Sound, to chat modular synths with an intimate crowd.
With around 30 people crammed into the snug shop, rubbing up against wires and shiny kit, Surgeon explained his reasoning as to why a techno DJ of huge international renown would swap his records for modular synths.
Surgeon began using modular synths around three years ago, he says, mostly because he became tired of producing solely with software. He was particularly inspired by Berlin-based producer and DJ Blawan (Jamie Roberts), who he was playing a lot of gigs with at the time and who had already started including modules into his set.
“It just looked so much fun and sounded really great,” he says, “and it was particularly great to watch live. I initially had ideas to just use it in the studio, but it was so much fun I took a rig to a gig and it sounded incredible. I now use it at all my gigs.”
Some may remember Surgeon’s Boiler Room session back in 2014, where, bearded and sporting a ‘fake Burzum t-shirt’, he blasted out an hour of modular improv.
“That was about a month and a half after I bought my first UR Rack model, which I was initially using with Ableton,” he recalls. “I gradually phased out the computers, and now it’s just purely live.”
IS MORE MORE?
The Pringles mythos surrounding modular synths is uttered by every aficionado – once you pop, you can’t stop. Acquiring modules is highly addictive to the budding performer, and, despite the often hefty price tag, there’s no obvious reason to stop adding to the collection.
However, Surgeon’s musical philosophy is all about discipline and he therefore tends to keep his kit down to what he can fit on one rack – not only for the added benefit that he can take it all on a plane as hand luggage.
“When I started playing music, I was very restricted,” he says. “I only had one drum machine and one keyboard and had to work really hard with what I had. Then when I got into computer production, and had so many synths and presets, I got lost in all of the possibilities.
“I ended up not making music because I didn’t have a focus. Restrictions are actually really good and help me to focus on the music that I’m making. Hardware and modular helps me to focus.”
Restrictions are actually really good and help me to focus on the music that I’m making
Now, though he does swap modules out, his core kit consists of:
“I have four channels into a mixing desk. I don’t use any compression or limiting and that makes a very different sound to when DJs are playing – they lay very processed, mastered and limited music. [Modules are] far more dynamic than that. It takes people some time to get used to that – but I like how dynamic and transient the music is.”
A key part Surgeon’s kit is the looper. Arguing that it’s too stressful to patch live in the dark, he explains that the looper lets him set up rhythms and riffs while improvising over the top.
“There’s a lot of focus on the technical aspects of the machines and modules but a lot of the time people don’t think about the ideas, and what it is they want to create, what kind of music and what they want to transmit with the music.
“To me that’s far more important and then you decide how you’re going to do that most effectively instead of being stuck in the circuitry of the machines.”
When asked whether he performs with a backup in case the kit goes wonky, Surgeon is adamant that a having a computer is like having a safety net and that the magic of live performance lies in the risk.
“I have this theory about safety nets that they don’t help you.
“When you’re performing live and improvising, the more you open up and let yourself go into the sound the better it is. The more cautious you are – it doesn’t sound good. You have to be brave. I believe the audience feels that and hears that. It creates excitement and a sense of risk.
“I really believe that there’s something that people can feel – there’s something that’s transmitted. People don’t have to understand it on a technical level.”
When you’re performing live and improvising, the more you open up and let yourself go into the sound the better it is
GO YOUR OWN WAY
Despite us hanging on his every word, Surgeon finished the talk with a reminder that everyone’s choice of kit is their own.
“You can look at how other people are working and be inspired by it. But you should never see someone’s set up and be like ‘that’s what I should be doing’. Every producer I know uses a totally different set up and totally different machines. They’ve spent years coming to that point. It’s another trap to think ‘I should have X, Y, Z machine’.
“Modules a lot of fun but I wouldn’t necessarily say that everyone has to use modular stuff, it’s just whatever suits you.”
The important thing is to experiment and try out what suits you best. Luckily we have places like Elevator Sound (Bristol) and London Modular to give you a push in the right direction when you’re starting out, and to fuel your addiction once you’ve caught the bug.
- Modules are awesome – they look awesome, they sound awesome, but they’re not the be-all and end-all
- Computers are safety nets – going laptop-free allows you to play live and get into the music
- The machinery shouldn’t take over from the ideas behind your music – practice discipline for great music production
- Stores like Elevator Sound are a great place to start out – you get to play with different equipment and get suggestions from people
- What equipment you use is your choice – find what suits you, not what your favourite artist does