Roland JP-8000
© Arjun Vagale
Music

7 Indian electronic artists describe their love for synthesizers

For International Synth Day 2020, we speak with some Indian producers and music creators about their favourite electronic instruments.
Written by Himanshu Pandey
16 min readPublished on
May 23rd is celebrated as International Synthesizer Day. It commemorates the birth anniversary of Bob Moog (rhymes with vogue), who is credited as being one of the early pioneers of synthesizer design and technology.
It was his work – among others – that enabled access to these electronic music instruments and popularized synthesizers among musicians all around the globe. It led to the evolution of an entirely new class of equipment – sequencers, synthesizers, signal processors, effects units, drum machines, and their myriad components – that differed from the traditional musical instruments in not just sound, but also approach.
Popular music in India relies heavily on the role of synthesizers in studios and stage performances. Starting with the early experimentation of pioneers like RD Burman, Kersi Lord, Ilaiyaraaja and Bappi Lahiri from the early ‘70s, film composers led the way in the use of synthesized sounds on numerous film scores and background music.
Today, we are witness to a resurgent interest in music driven by technology. Studios are starting to move away from the do-it-all-on-a-computer approach and reinvesting in synthesizers, samplers and drum machines, which managed to stand their ground in the all-important tests of time and taste. AR Rehman uses a modular synthesizer in his new stage shows, and he’s not the only composer doing so. Electronic music artists in India were early adapters to the synthesis renaissance and today an increasingly large number use these instruments in studios, and despite the bulky size, perform live with them on stage.
On the occasion of International Synthesizer Day, we speak with some of the leading synthesists from India and attempt to understand their synth obsessions.

Arjun Vagale

Arjun Vagale poses for a photo in his home studio.
Arjun Vagale
Can you tell us about the beginnings of your love for synthesizers?
I think my love for synths started around the same time that I fell in love with electronic music. Maybe I didn’t know those sounds were coming from synthesizers, but my curiosity led me down that path. Being a metal-head, I was obsessed with guitars and distortion, and after listening to acts like The Prodigy and Chemical Brothers, I was immediately drawn to their sound. My curiosity grew about how these sounds were created.
Tell us about your first hardware purchase and the choices that influenced this decision?
Back in 1998-99, India was still a pretty closed economy. We didn’t have access to much gear, apart from very basic synthesizer workstations. I used to buy second-hand copies of DJMAG and Mixmag (often six-month-old editions) – that’s where I saw the MC-303 by Roland. I remember they described it as ‘a dance music workstation capable of doing everything in one box’. So I started speaking to some DJ friends about it. I got really lucky – I found a guy in Delhi who had a used one for sale. I immediately bought it (at a ridiculous price) with my earnings as a DJ.
It was in pretty good condition, but it didn’t have a manual. For the next months, I just played around with the presets and tried to understand what simple things like cutoff and resonance meant. The sequencer on it was a tough nut to crack – looking back, I don’t think I ever fully understood it. But this was way before I even touched software, so it was a great learning experience and I treasured that little box.
Do you have a funny story/anecdote to share related to your hardware journey?
Calcutta, circa 2000. I had just been hired as the resident DJ at a brand-new club that was still under construction. The owner wanted me to be involved in setting up the sound and lights system. This led me to meet the guys from Reynolds (one of the oldest music stores in India) who were commissioned for the job.
The owner of the store, Peter Remedios, and I became good friends during this process. One day he told me about this synthesizer he had lying in storage for years, and if I wanted to play around with it. I’ve always been a gear head – Peter recognized this when I told him I had to have 3 turntables in the DJ console at the club. (LOL).
To my surprise, Peter’s synthesizer turned out to be a Roland JP-8000. Now, I knew this name very well. All my favorite artists used it and spoke about it extensively in interviews. BT, Orbital, Prodigy, Depeche Mode, Paul Van Dyk – you name it. So I had to take it home and mess with it. The problem was I knew nothing about synths. The JP-8000 is a pretty intimidating piece of gear, with tons of faders and knobs. And unless you’re willing to get in-depth, you'll be happy just flicking through the presets, which in itself sounded unreal at the time. I sat on that synth for months trying to figure how to use it, I got maybe somewhere (recording some audio into Cool Edit Pro) but I was only scratching the surface. But again, without a manual I didn’t get very far. A few months after that I decided to quit my job and move to Singapore to study sound engineering.
The minute I got back to India after my course, I called Peter and bought it from him, and used it extensively for years. Sadly, it’s in pretty bad shape now, but it still sounds insanely good.

Ose (Arushi Jain)

Arushi Jain aka Ose performs on a synthesizer during a show.
Ose
Can you tell us about the beginnings of your love for synthesizers?
I was first introduced to synthesizers at Stanford University’s Centre for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA). I was enrolled as an undergrad in the Computer Science program and initially I didn’t take any classes at CCRMA myself. However, over time I found myself more and more glued to the community that CCRMA created – it was the place where art, science and sound all co-existed so unapologetically, so vibrantly. The building itself was beautiful, sitting atop a hill overlooking all of campus. There were all kinds of old rare synths lying in the hallways, and a 24-channel room called the Listening Room that I would sneak into at night with friends to listen to Radiohead and Ravi Shankar (my contribution to the crew, of course). It was fun, and so much more intoxicating than the dry class on databases I was taking that quarter. My friends would describe their projects to me, and I slowly started picking up on some of the phrasing like FM, AM, RM, etc.
It was only senior year when I finally opened up some space in my schedule and decided to take a class with Ge Wang called Laptop Orchestra. Yes, you read that right. It was an orchestra of laptops, where each of us would be playing instruments we wrote in an audio programming language called ChucK (which Ge wrote as a PhD student at Princeton). This was the first time I actually messed around with waves in their most primitive form. I felt such a thrill, working with a simple sine wave and building my first ever signal flow via code – envelope, filters, delays, reverbs, and all. It was more from the perspective of an instrument designer, but I learnt a lot about sound that quarter.
Tell us about your first hardware purchase and the choices that influenced this decision?
So post-graduation, the sweetest crew of music nerds from Stanford somehow ended up in San Francisco around the same time. A lot of my friends wrote music, and like music nerds do, owned gear. I borrowed my friend David’s Korg MS-20 for a few weeks. I remember when I first started playing with that synth, I hated it. I hated that I could only play one note at a time. And I hated how I just couldn’t make it sound good, no matter what I patched where. You see, at this point I had never patched a physical synthesizer before, only written code that functionally did the same exact thing that this synth was doing. But my brain just wasn’t having it.
So with great enthusiasm I returned the synth to David and bought myself the cheapest polyphonic synth I could buy – the Korg Minilogue. The Minilogue was a great first synth because of three main reasons: it was analog, it sounded good right away (it had presets), and it had an oscilloscope, so I could study my actions visually. Now that the sounds I was making didn’t make me miserable, I spent a lot more time writing music, re-learning synthesis via my hands, and wrote my first EP ‘Just a Feeling’. But just a few months later though, I was very bored by it because I hated how little control it gave me. Like most other synths, it had a bunch of routing it did under the hood which I didn’t like or want to be limited by. I guess I should have kept that MS-20. So I sold the Minilogue and bought a modular synth instead.
Do you have a funny story/anecdote to share related to your hardware journey?
There was this initial research period where I was just watching videos of gear all day. Seriously, it was a bit much. You know when you learn a new concept but it’s late and your brain is tired, so you fall asleep and wake up the next morning with everything figured out? Well my mind was in overdrive in between my full-time job and sound, so I started having dreams about gear. Some of them were so strange that I swore to myself to never mention them to anyone, and I still plan on taking them with me to the grave.

Aqua Dominatrix (Akshay Rajpurohit)

Aqua Dominatrix
Aqua Dominatrix
Can you tell us about the beginnings of your love for synthesizers?
Lots of music my mother used to listen to plus my neighbour at the time was a huge synth rock fan and I used to hear the likes of Kenny Loggins, Jan Hammer, Def Leppard and Earth, Wind & Fire being blasted all day. I'm also a gamer since I can remember, having owned and played every console imaginable (except Xbox, yeck!), and as most of the music work at that time was done on c64 and 6581 or SID chips, I naturally fell in love with the emulated and sometimes reimagined sounds of the era.
Adding to that many TV shows and movies I loved like Miami Vice, Blade Runner and Beverly Hills Cop have all become pillars of synthesis in cinema. But acts like Orbital, Depeche Mode, Stephan Bodzin, Todd Terje, Chromeo, Node, Imagination, Brian Bennett and Klaus Schultz really pushed the performer in me to start playing my music live and raw.
Tell us about your first hardware purchase and the choices that influenced this decision?
I think it was my M-Audio Venom, which I still own and love. I had previously used a lot of plugins for work on Scribe albums, and even the first Pangea album. Around 2011, I didn’t really have #cashmoney to buy expensive gear. I went with something I could wrangle and start making music with right away. I've never really been a fart-noise maker kind of synthesist. My ideas have to translate into song or it's just the equivalent of guitar wankery, which I also incidentally despise. I used that synth for a year using my laptop as a sequencer before leaving that workflow for good and switching to analogue sequencing for all three Aqua Dominatrix albums.
Do you have a funny story/anecdote to share related to your hardware journey?
I had once sent two of my synths to Europe for a service job and when they returned a few weeks later, the Indian customs informed me that these are most-def explosive devices of some kind (basically an extortion scam). Thirty-five days of showing them pictures and emails from the damn manufacturer and they still would not release it. Finally, I spoke to the ex-customs head who seemed reasonable and released my synths using one damn phone call. It was a nightmare then and is a funny nightmare now.

Sandunes (Sanaya Ardeshir)

Sanaya Ardeshir aka Sandunes performs during a show.
Sandunes
Can you tell us about the beginnings of your love for synthesizers?
The reason I got into synths is because I played keyboards for many years and was often frustrated at not being able to tweak or modify patches on my keyboards to sound like the bands we were covering in college like Zero 7, Air etc. I had little to no idea about sound design, and it was only when I was a student of music production that I was actually exposed to the scope and infinite lust made possible from polyphonic analogue synthesizers. It was a Nord Lead, with the stone effect mod-wheel and the wooden pitch bend that allowed me to expand my thinking with my hands on a keyboard in real time. Later, a Prophet 6, the OB-X and Yamaha DX7. That’s where I had my first experiences of personal exploration with filters and envelopes – it blew my mind and I felt that this is what was missing in my knowledge/palette of sounds to play with.
Tell us about your first hardware purchase and the choices that influenced this decision?
My first purchase was a Nord Rack and according to the guy at Rogue Music in New York where I purchased it, this synth belonged to Annie Lennox's keyboard player. It was a second-hand synth, in good shape, sounded incredible, and would fit in my hand luggage to bring home. It’s been a solid part of my production and performance set up ever since. It's currently not with me; I think these two months are the longest time we’ve spent apart since 2013.
Do you have a funny story/anecdote to share related to your hardware journey?
I once fought the Spud in the Box guys for an old Sequential Prophet 6 at a studio in South Bombay that was shutting down and having a clearance sale. They won, but I managed to grab the Roland TB-303 bassline instead. It's been in repairs with a friend in London for the last year and I'm hoping to be reunited with it someday.

Monophonik (Shatrunjai Rai Dewan)

Shatrunjai Rai Dewan aka Monophonik performs during a show.
Monophonik
Can you tell us about the beginnings of your love for synthesizers?
This can be accurately relatable to falling in love for the first time. All the initial emotions, excitement, child-like enthusiasm, high levels of risk, vulnerability and uncertainty of the eventual outcome pretty much sum up the beginnings of what now feels like an everlasting emotional engagement. Like opening a new window to explore the outer reaches of sonic expression.
Tell us about your first hardware purchase and the choices that influenced this decision.
I jumped right into the deep end and started digging this rabbit hole when I first purchased a second-hand desktop Access Virus, which at that time was quite literally the most powerful device in its spectrum. The thought of endless routing possibilities and an open-ended architecture of the Virus was most exciting, other than the fact that I got bang for my buck with a mint condition second-hand unit.
Do you have a funny story/anecdote to share related to your hardware journey?
I was on my way to Bombay for a show. While transiting through Delhi airport with my modular rig in hand, I was stopped at security by an officer who suspiciously asked me to open my Zomato-delivery-looking bag. On first glance, he looked at me and said, “Ye DJ hai kya?” I was like, “Haan DJ hai, abhi so raha hai”. He took me seriously and let me through.

Animal Factory Amplification (Aditya Nandwana)

Can you tell us about the beginnings of your love for synthesizers?
A lot of the music I listened to was pretty heavy on electronic sounds, particularly when I got into industrial music: Nine Inch Nails and the EBM bands that predated them – Skinny Puppy, Nitzer Ebb, KMFDM, etc. I have a soft spot for ‘80s and ‘90s synth-pop as well, since it was all over the place when I was growing up. And of course, Depeche Mode’s sounds just blew my mind.
I didn't have any access to synths, so I just worked with software synthesis a lot. Then at some point I got my hands on the first version of Native Instruments’ Absynth, which gave me an introduction to the basics. But the main one for me was playing with Propellerhead Reason – hitting tab and patching the backs of the instruments to deviate from the standard patches and sounds. At this point, I didn't know what I was doing was my first foray into modular synthesis.
Tell us about your first hardware purchase and the choices that influenced this decision?
My first hardware synth was Korg Volca Keys, which I bought used in 2015. The reason was simple – it was cheap, locally available and could do a whole bunch of things.
Do you have a funny story/anecdote to share related to your hardware journey?
I was playing the closing set at a Reproduce Artists Listening Room gig at the Mumbai Assembly. I was still pretty new to performing any music at all and showed up with an arsenal of equipment. It was, in fact, the most needlessly complex setup I've ever had to date.
Something went wrong, and the electrical mains tripped just as I was about to begin, taking out the power to my entire setup, effectively resetting everything including my MIDI sync. I almost walked off stage but took a deep breath and played a very forgettable 25-minute set without the beat synced. Kinder folk described it as "different" and "interesting"; more honest friends put it plainly: "You sucked."
I felt terrible after that for a while, but it was a great gig to learn from. The two takeaways were: a) Carry a lot less gear, and b) Really know how to use it! Since then, my setups are a lot more stripped down and better thought out.

No Latency (Krishnamurthy Ramesh)

Can you tell us about the beginnings of your love for synthesizers?
My curiosity for synthesizers began around the time I applied to audio engineering school back in 2008. I was lucky to have friends with whom I could geek out on music and gear before I started school.
Tell us about your first hardware purchase and the choices that influenced this decision?
My first hardware synth was a Novation X-Station which was a digital synth/interface/controller. I thought I needed something light on the pocket, feature packed and attainable as I had started my audio engineering course. It was able to record vocals, add effects to its stereo inputs, be a Midi Controller and a polysynth! I wish they continued to make instruments like that today.
Do you have a funny story/anecdote to share related to your hardware journey?
Less is more. Well I’m saying this having collected quite a range of instruments and realizing that to make music, the most important gear is ‘head gear’. Working on yourself and training the ear is more important to an artist than staying updated with the latest hardware or software.