With his new compilation out now, Matt Thomas shows us around his incredible studio.
King Unique – My Studio
This is the view looking left from the chair where I like to sit and pull my hair out about hi-hat patterns: lots of colourful good vibe stuff from my travels and exploits to remind me that it’s all worthwhile. Speaker cushions and and 808 sofa throw because I’m a sucker for music-themed décor; small potato plush from the time I got to dress as the potato mascot of a bar in Indonesia and get hugged by everyone. Good things to ponder on while you’re fretting about the strength of your swing quantise.
And here’s the view looking towards all the gear. Like most people, I do a lot of work in the box with software these days, so it made less and less sense to have a room full of dozens of synths I never used. I decided to sell the lot and use the money to buy just a few of the 70s synths I’d always drooled over.
I still can’t quite believe I own this. I dreamt about this synthesiser from the moment I heard the opening notes of the Blade Runner soundtrack. Whenever I walk into the studio and see it, my inner teenager does a backflip. Then my wallet does a backflip when I remember it needs servicing to fix the latest clutch of problems.
There’s so much myth and hype about the CS-80 that actually playing one can be an odd experience – simultaneously underwhelming yet also deeply satisfying. It’s just a synthesiser, and not a particularly deep one at that – but then it’s also one of the most expressively playable electronic instruments ever made. It’s only when you set all the controls to allow the sounds to respond to your lightest touch that you suddenly get the CS-80 thrills you’ve been waiting for. It does sound beautiful and plays like a dream (people generally fall in love the first time they stroke a finger down the felt ribbon controller & hear the note plunging through the octaves), but there’s one lesson I’ve taken away from having a CS-80. It’s that I don’t really need a CS-80 – but we could all use a better controller keyboard and sounds that respond very sensitively to it.
Rhodes Chroma & Custom ‘Chromatrol’
Despite the name, this has nothing to do with Rhodes pianos and everything to do with legendary US synth-maker ARP. This was their swan-song, an ambitious analogue super-synth with MIDI, memories, a real wooden piano keyboard and amazing sounds. It was released under the Rhodes name after ARP went into receivership.
Fast forward to today and it has a fanatical following (myself included) who between us have produced a new motherboard, a pressure sensitivity kit for the keys and numerous controllers that let you program and automate every single parameter of one of the great vintage analogue synths of all time. I built the ‘Chromatrol’ myself by hacksawing the end panels off a Behringer B-Control, cutting and varnishing new wooden end cheeks to match the Chroma’s and printing a custom front panel for the parameters. I shared the process with the Chroma community and now there are Chromatrols across the world.
Sound? Amazing, as good as the CS-80 (though ‘pokier’) and wildly more flexible. If I had to sell one or the other I might actually sell the CS-80! I know – heresy.
Eminent Grand Theatre 2000
This is in my living room at home for now, waiting to come up to the studio. It’s one of the last remaining bargains of the analogue world – a 1970s masterpiece that cost more than a car when it was new; you just need a lot of room. This one cost me £50. I just missed another that had gone to the tip. Eminent are best known for their Solina Strings keyboard – which costs around £700 these days – and this thing essentially has two of them built in, plus two organs, a cheesy-as-you-like boom-bip-tsssss analogue beatbox, a variety of preset 70s synth noises, arpeggiator, spring reverb and even a rudimentary filter. A truly gorgeous instrument that even includes its own lighting system; it’s the only thing I used on the No Makeup Mix of ‘7 Hours’. It’s also the sound of Jarre’s Oxygene and Equinoxe albums (though you’d want the 310U model if you’re being pernickety, but they all share the unmistakable Eminent sound).
If you want that Jarre sound you’ll also need one of these original 1970s Electro-Harmonix guitar pedals – some of the best ‘whoosh’ and ‘pzzowwww’ money can buy; I can stick anything through one of these and it’s instant psychedelic vintage vibes. The Small Stone is that sumptuous Jarre swirling string sound, and if you check out Spacemen 3’s ‘Ecstasy Symphony’ you can hear the Electric Mistress in all its slow-motion harmonic-howling heavenly glory.
Elka X705 Space Organ
It’s even called the Space Organ. COME ON, PEOPLE! WHAT ELSE DO YOU NEED TO KNOW? Even the original shop posters for it showed it on the moon with spaceships flying past it. If you own one, or even touch one, you should go and order a tie-dye cape immediately, you fucking tripped-out hippy waster. Ye,s I own one. Yes, I own the original poster too. What?
There are plenty of wonderful software copies of tape echoes these days but if you want a really shatty strangled ‘GLOWMP – glowmp – glomp – gmp’ echo you can’t beat the real thing, the older and cheaper the better. I love my Watkins so much that I initially used the name as an alias for my solo work. And then got Charlie Watkins’ phone number and rang him up to tell him how much I loved it. Fascinating man – he was inventing and selling guitars, amps, keyboards and of course Copicats throughout the British pop explosion of the 60s and did the sound at the Isle Of Wight festival on his own home-made PA. His early valve Copicats are worth a mint these days. This is a transistor model but still plenty of filthy character. Not changing the tape loop helps.
Afro Ken stickers
Because there’s only so long you can spend staring at studio gear before you need to see a Japanese dog with a variety of unlikely hair styles. This applies equally when working in the studio or reading Attack Magazine.
This is another of my dream-team keyboards, the Farfisa Syntorchestra. Not a Rolls Royce of an instrument like the CS-80 and Chroma but a cheap polyphonic ‘synth’ (more of an organ/string machine really) with a crude monosynth attached. It took two years to find this one and another three months to convince the New York seller to ship it overseas. My obsession springs from Ashra’s seminal 1976 New Age Of Earth LP, where it provides the majority of the achingly beautiful and unmistakably 70s sounds (alongside an EKO Computerhythm and an EMS VCS3). I never did get my hands on an EKO (good thing, too, as you wouldn’t get much change out of a gold-plated kidney if you did), but the VCS3 however…
This is it – the Vicar Of Wibbley, the spirit molecule in synthesiser form – the VCS3. Just look at it! It sounds even better. The oscillators on this thing are flawless, pure waveshapes from subsonic to ultrasonic, but everything else about it is bat-shit crazy. If you want to play a tune, don’t bother; if you want to bend minds, grab a pin and start playing Battleships.
I got a bit obsessed with EMS at one point, to be honest, collecting the rare rack units – the random noise generator and 8-octave filter bank. Then MOTU’s Volta software, which lets you fire any voltage signal you can think of out your soundcard, made me question the sanity of owning a couple of £800 boxes that could do a hundredth as much. So I stuck them on eBay, where they were bought by Tom from the Chemical Brothers – and before you ask, yes, of course I stalked his recent purchase feedback to see what else he was buying.
Korg Mono/Poly & ‘Soft’ Synths
The Korg Mono/Poly is a tank, both sonically and physically, and my ‘go-to’ monosynth for years. It can do simple sequencing tricks by stepping through each of its four oscillators in turn, squealing acidic ring modulation, naïve-sounding one-finger rave chords and all the fun things you’d expect from a four oscillator synth. It’s currently competing for workspace with my synth cushions, including a custom-built VCS3 from the synth-seamstress herself, Lucy Sparrow (Sew Your Soul). My girlfriend doesn’t fuck about when it comes to presents.
At one point the studio was drowning in keyboards so I sold lots of them off and used the money to buy the VCS3 and CS-80. These are the last of the old collection that I can’t bring myself to part with, stood against the wall and gathering dust. There’s an Ensoniq EPS-16+ sampler, Korg DSS-1 sampler and my Kawai K4. The EPS was my first sampler – I still have draws of disks full of samples for it. It’s also one of the most creative samplers ever made, even in this era of software instruments. There are all kinds of looping options, modulation of the start and end points by envelopes and LFOs, and Ensoniq’s Transwaves technology which means that it can do the sort of tricks that gave the PPG Wave its unusual character, but using samples rather than wavetables as the sound source.
The DSS-1 is another lovely oddball, a sampler with a proper analogue VCF and a silly ‘draw your own waveform’ function where you wiggle a slider wildly as a progress bar inches across the tiny display. Anything outside the ordinary subtractive-synth architecture is just catnip for me. It also makes the best ‘laser harp’ osc-sync sound outside of the Elka Synthex – absolutely monumental.
I’ve pulled this one out of the ‘graveyard’ as it’s pretty special to me. Aged 18 years old, I was wasting my time at university with no idea what to do with my life and a big fat rent cheque burning a hole in my pocket. I spent the year’s rent on this instead; went back to my room, put my headphones on and about 24 hours later went to bed. Never attended another lecture, just sat and taught myself synthesis and songwriting until they threw me out. Some of the strangest filters on a synth ever: glassy, shrieking things that I’ve never heard on anything else.
Arturia Spark LE
Anyway, who gives a shit about synths and melodies and music? It’s 2015, mate – it’s all about the sick beats, bro. This is my latest purchase, great for tapping out rhythms or writing them in on the old faithful 808-style sequencer. I played with the software demo for a while and found it disrupted my usual work methods very pleasingly, so went ahead and bought it. It makes me forget about chords for a while and fits in my travel bag – this one’s coming on tour.
Raagini & Riyaz Master
Back in the 90s I used to attend lunchtime recitals given by classical Indian soloists in Liverpool. Typically they would be playing sitar, violin or Carnatic flute for about an hour, accompanied only by a tanpura player providing a steady lulling drone of plucked sitar-like tones. My world changed the day one of the performers brought in an electric-tanpura. It resembled a Bakelite radio that simply droned out four oscillators in a steady rising and fading pattern that would’ve made Boards of Canada dribble; it certainly got me moist. Consequently a few years later I spent a day rattling round tiny remote villages in Goa by taxi, trying to find myself one; I’ll leave you to imagine my euphoric state when I also found electronic tablas.
I like taking studio toys into DJ booths and this straddles both worlds. Most of Pioneer’s DJ effects are basically idiot proof; it’s very hard to actually do something so awful and ugly that people are going to stop dancing. That’s not the case here; the RMX-1000 can do really complicated stuff – grabbing loops, then routing the loops through the effects while leaving the tracks dry or vice versa, pitching sections of audio up and down, layering drum patterns – with the end result that you can make the most incredible creative moments or the most appalling mess. I love that about it; it actually requires some learning & practice to get the best out of it. I used it on my recent Beyond Borders: London mix album to provide most of the effects and some re-edits and variations.
Just shy of half a billion years old and collected from the limestone cliffs down the road from the studio. My kids bring all the best stuff home but I’m allowed to keep the cast-offs at the studio. Sometimes we find a rock with coloured fragments of the actual shell inside; not fossilised but simply encapsulated inside the stone and still as fragile as the day they sat at the bottom of the ocean, 480 million years ago. Makes you think.