Synthplex: Oct 27-30 2022

Living In Synths

Synthplex 2022: an LA expo of bleeps, bloops, wit and wisdom

Synth freaks come in many shapes and sizes. There’s your ‘muff wiggling’ modular and Euro Rack types (those who followed the forum MuffWiggler, now renamed, in more woke but less fun fashion ModWiggler), you have the brainy-as-all-get-out-but-often-from-another-planet ‘alternative controller’ folk, there’s people who just like old synths and are willing to increasingly pay ridiculous amounts for them on Reverb… There’s a sort of holy alliance between prog rock aficionados and synths, and finally there’s film and game composers, whose reliance on MIDI and synths, at least at the early stages of a composition and cues, make total musical and economic sense.

Factions and representatives from all these disparate groups came together Oct 27-30 in Burbank (LA’s film and TV production studio Mecca) for four days of furious knob-twiddlng—learning how to, learning about those who twiddled in the past, learning which modules to indulge said knob-twiddling on, in the exhibition halls, and finally listening to Those Who Can Twiddle on three live performance stages.

Some HIStory

Synthplex was dreamed up in 2019 by a man who straddles several of the above categories, Michael Boddicker. Boddicker found fame and fortune in the 1980s as the go-to synthesizer player and programmer for Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson. In these worlds Michael is a star. (Hans Zimmer, of course, is God.)

Synthplex 2019 squeaked in just before Covid hit. It got postponed in 2020 and again in 2021. But in 2022 it appeared again.

2020’s event had been due to have another synth luminary, Jean-Michel Jarre, as keynote. This year Jean-Michel was back on the schedule and was all set to cross the pond until a family illness forced him to pull the plug at the last minute. He did, however, appear on Zoom for an entertaining hour’s tour of his studio from where he dispensed Gallic wit and wisdom to a crowd who’d obviously have preferred to The Oxygenated One at their feet but these are the times we live in: increasingly virtual, increasingly frustrating, but increasingly resigned to our fate.

That said, Synthplex itself was fantastic. If you weren’t there (and frankly if you were there I’d have seen you because attendance was sparse) you missed an absolute treat. Many of the presentations were priceless and many of the live performances worthy of regular gig ticket prices.

Prog Rules

‘Synthplex Live’ kicked off with a tribute to Keith Emerson courtesy of two solo performers Kae M Black on piano and Rachel Flowers on B3. Rachel in particular wowed the crowd with her prodigious technique, mainly rattling through Emerson’s early period with The Nice. She didn’t play Rondo, my personal favorite, but no matter, it was a joy.

Then it was over to Marc Bonilla, a guitarist/vocalist who’d actually recorded and toured with Emerson over his final years. This was a full band show, keyboard duties initially undertaken with aplomb by Jonathan Sindleman, who graciously confessed to me that your author had been an influence in his early days! Filling Keith’s boots is an extraordinary undertaking but especially on material from ELP’s most bombastically crazy period.

But even that wasn’t all, Sindleman got time off on the final three numbers (i.e. 30 minutes worth), handing over to prior Bonilla compadre Ed Roth, then Rachel Flowers, and finally Jordan Rudess for a spirited rendition of Tarkus. Rudess is a star in his own right and more about that shortly.

And this was just the appetizer on Thursday night. Friday morning and the event got going in earnest with two hall’s worth of NAMM-like booths and three breakout rooms for presentations and workshops.

Kickoff Keynote with Alan Parsons

There were way too many presentations and workshops to cover here but having seen pretty much all of them, here are the standouts:

Let’s hear it for our very own Alan Parsons! Alan talked very interestingly about his use and love of synths in his early days at Abbey Road. In particular EMS synths on Dark Side Of The Moon. He also explained how he was one of the first Fairlight owners and which sounds/samples were used on which of his iconic recordings.

Rudess Rules

Hot on Alan’s heels came Jordan Rudess, who took us through one of his “Wizdom” apps, GeoShred and new app Moises for which he’s brand ambassador.

GeoShred is simply astounding; way more musical instrument than mere iPad app, allowing you to jam with and create organic guitar lines using high level physical modeling technology developed at Stamford’s CCRMA lab.

As I’ve often said, such are Jordan’s talents he could make a stick of French bread sound tuneful but clearly this is a ‘performance’ app, on which real grown- up music can be played.

Moises, is one of several current apps or technologies that can separate out individual tracks (of music) from a (master) track stored on iTunes. Not only can it remove the vocal, but also—to maybe a lesser degree but stillimpressively—drums, bass, guitar and keyboards. It also has pitch and tempo changing, chord recognition and more besides. Jordan demonstrated it with Elton John’s Your Song: the vocal left in tact but with Elt’s piano removed and in place of which Jordan played. Weeeeel, not to be overly critical but if Elton had played it quite as busily and frillily as Jordan did, Your Song may not have been such a massive hit! Just saying. Bloody clever (ch)app though.

Children of the Greater Synth Gods

Dina Pearlman, daughter of Alan R. Pearlman of ARP fame, was just one of a significant number of sons and daughters presenting talks or material on behalf of their now-deceased techie dads. In spite of an ARP Odyssey being the first synth I bought, back in 1972, I knew almost nothing about Alan R. Pearlman, evidently because that’s the way he wanted it. Dina painted a touching image of this groundbreaking designer (great engineer; not so good at business). Check out her excellent Alan R. Pearlman Foundation at

Hail The Mighty Margouleff

Heading up Friday’s afternoon slot was IMHO the best presentation of the entire event: Robert Margouleff. Back in the 1970s, Margouleff, with his partner Malcolm Cecil, created an outlandish collection of interconnected synthesizer modules and controllers they named TONTO, or The Original New Timbral Orchestra. With Margouleff and Cecil in tow as engineers, programmers and producers, Stevie Wonder recorded Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions, and Fullfillingness’ First Finale; in the space of three years changing the landscape of popular music forever.

Margouleff’s talk could quite justifiably have been a ‘we did this and then we did that’ type of reminiscence. But it wasn’t. It was a vibrant, modern discussion of how to produce music in 2022, complete with incisive guidance on usage of Immersive Audio. In the space of an hour Robert talked more sense than has appeared on Twitter in the platform’s entire history.

Founding Furthers

Back to back, late afternoon, came a pair of founding fathers: Dave Rossum, of E-Mu Systems and Steve Porcaro of the band Toto. Brilliant talks both, though highly contrasting in style. Rossum breezed through E-Mu’s astonishingly key contribution to electronic musical products and technology and through which, music, from samplers to sample-based drum machines to multi-timbral modules, with the gusto of a kid who’d somehow been handed several winning lottery tickets. Steve Porcaro, meanwhile, offered us a hilarious and fascinating peek into the world of Hollywood super session players in the 1970s and 80s, including the extraordinary story of how his composition Human Nature came to be recorded by Michael Jackson, and how he created the iconic synth solo on Rosanna. Modest men both, they could have held court for hours.

Pioneering Spirits

Thoroughly enjoyed fellow Brit Paul Wiffen’s tell-some romp though his own illustrious career on Saturday morning. In his salad days, Wiffen had been programmer-to-the-stars; for Stevie Wonder, Keith Emerson, Jean-Michel Jarre, Vangelis and pretty much anyone who’s ever been anyone in the synth and keyboard world. J-M Jarre has been an important and influential figure in synth history and it was fascinating to be given a private tour through Jean-Michael’s warren of inner sancti at his French studio complex. Jarre, like Margouleff, seems not content to rest on his many laurels and it was great to hear his thoughts on modern synth technology and recording immersively.

Vintage synthesist Patrick Gleeson, with super smart sidekick KamranV (Quark, an app that lets you work in Quad via two channel distribution) showed and talked about composing in Quad (for Gleeson’s FOUREVER, quadraphonic vinyl release), which was intriguing in our new all-embracing ‘immersive’ (i.e. adding a height channel) world.

Composers and Movies On (and In) Demand

Also really enjoyed star British Hollywood composer John Powell’s inside scoop on writing movie cues for Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling. The level and depth of thought that goes into every beat and sample of a modern movie score goes some way to explaining the modern movie budget I guess. Mind-expanding stuff from a high-class composer.

Mind blowing, in a somewhat different sense, on the live sound stage was fabled horror and action thriller movie composer Alan Howarth played some of his landmark compositions (co-written with John Carpenter—Halloween sequels, The Thing) live to synchronized movie clips.

A similar(ish) live rendition of movie music came on Sunday night with the self- declared absurdist composer Ego Plum and two accomplices playing ambient- style selections of music from cartoon music king Raymond Scott (Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies). Hypnotic and strangely moving. Raymond Scott’s son, Jeff Winner, had a booth in the Synthplex exhibit space showcasing his father’s work…alongside Michelle Moog-Koussa’s for her dad’s (Bob Moog) Foundation. Sunday offered many delights but especially Devo’s Gerald V. Casale who showed several disturbing new Devo-eque videos and expounded eloquently on the relationship between music, video, politics and philosophy. Prior to Casale’s presentation virtual choir creator Eric Whitacre treated us to some inside tracks on how he created his epic Spitfire Audio ‘Choir’ sample collection. Effervescent world renown Venezuelan-born, multi-instrumentalist and composer Pedro Eustache also dispensed some of his secrets and skills, at wind synthesis.

Erroneous Zones

The only panels and presentations that I felt somewhat missed the mark were some of the music biz or production ones, mainly because they seemed confused or just plain out of touch. A panel of music tech journalists banged on about the value of print media! A rights panel rolled out a litany of splendid protections composers and artists can now enjoy… so long as we’re not talking about our music’s distribution or dissemination on Spotify or YouTube (errm, are there any others nowadays?). Meanwhile a panel of young and seemingly hip producers began by earnestly propounding the merits of mixing in the box but closed by talking up their SSL consoles and saying how analog sounded better!

Laissez Le Bon Temps Rouler!

If life is, actually, better outside the box and in the real world then there was no better way to bring Synthplex to a close than by boogie-ing on down with the inestimable Ellis Hall and his dexterous crew. Ellis Hall is a one-man good-time machine, a blind vocalist / keyboardist in the school (and league) of Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles. After four days of bleeping and blooping (sometimes interesting bleeps and bloops of course) it was still a welcome release to hear good old old-fashioned funk and groove and—whoa there, Triigger—chord changes!

Actually the final, final act of the event was cool young Frenchman Hugo Paris, who, in spite of being an accomplished bleeper and blooper himself on his Eurorack, also threw down infectious beats you could dance to plus had the nerve to impose actual, distinguishable chords on top of his sliken-textured soundscapes.

I predict a big future for this LA-French import. Hoping the same for Synthplex too. If it comes around again in 2023 you’ve got to come, OK?