All of my life I wanted to be a gearhead. Drum machines, synthesizers, keyboards with pitch wheels were my vice.
I was that kid that would go to Guitar Center and piss off the sales dudes because I would “try” everything in the store without having the money to buy any of it or even a pair of guitar strings. As an adult I doomscroll Instagram for all the videos showing off #gearporn and studios that look like spaceships.
As a producer I love how much you can do with a skinny MacBook Pro and software, it really is amazing. But as a musician that grew up mostly playing in bands it doesn’t feel right to think I’m making music without touching a music instrument of some kind. It doesn’t feel real.
I pride myself on being able to do a lot with a little. Nobody wants to. I’d rather do a little with a lot! But I know guys who don’t make music. They make “studios.” They don’t have sounds coming out. They have 2x4s and circular saws going in. When the basement or bedroom is nice & tight, they’re adding VSTs. They’re downloading sample packs. I don’t want to shit on them because maybe they’re chasing something, some vision in their head. But it looked like they think about making music more than they make it.
Playing with such a beautiful, classic synthesizer was fun, but playing with it was all I did.
I didn’t wait on the perfect tools for making something. My “studio” starts with two big pieces of wood for desks, a computer I bought as a gaming rig and souped up. It’s humble but it’s productive.
Or it was productive. I can’t make fun of guys who do all this carpentry in their basement or waste hours fucking with VSTs they download off the internet. I became just like them after I bought the most beautiful keyboard in the world.
Like I said, I grew up touching instruments. That’s my ideal for how to write. I don’t piss off salesmen in stores anymore but the internet has pulled me down some rabbit holes. After an injury settlement from my day job, it was like I was playing with found money. I figured out I should buy a new synthesizer. And by “new” I meant an “old” synth: I had my eye on a Juno-60 before settling on the Roland Juno-106.
I bought the Juno on Reverb for a couple grand. The guy who sold it must have had it under glass. There wasn’t a speck of dust on the body, it was like it was from a museum. As good as it looked, it sounded better. It brought me right back to the first time I hit a chord on a guitar. The sound wasn’t coming from the monitors or the computer or Ableton or a virtual instrument. When I strike a key, it’s coming from me. I’m doing that. The sound feels like an extension of me. The music you hear is me.
A new toy is fun to play around with. The Juno-106 has a great history and it’s fun to fuck around with the presets and try to get the sound of records you know by heart. But “playing” with it was all I was doing. I couldn’t figure out how to pull this beautiful synthesizer into my workflow. I started thinking (and overthinking) that this really doesn’t fit with the sound I’ve been working on the last few years.
I kept at it for a couple of months but I had nothing to show for it. I began to think that the problem wasn’t that the Juno doesn’t fit with my music. It’s that my music doesn’t fit with the Juno. It felt… Sloppy? Cheap? It sounded flat compared to the sounds that came out of this thing, and how those sounds made me feel.
At any time I could have put the Juno away and gone back to the music I was happy with before this keyboard arrived. That’d be really smart. But I’m not really smart and that’s not what I did.
Over the next year I bought more gear to go with the Juno. I bookmarked all these different sites and watched the prices go up and down. I bought drum machines (new, old, and in one case broken, though I got my money back). I bought a keyboard controller and another synthesizer to keep my Juno company. I bought a 707 — the cheapest of the Roland “founding family” — even though I had no use for it. It was just a beige box on my desk. That big piece of wood underneath it that was my desk — that was looking shitty to me too.
I should point out here that I’m not rich, and gear is expensive. It got more expensive during the pandemic which was probably because of people doing dumb shit like this.
I got pretty deep in debt from it, I’m embarrassed now to think how much money I spent. I haven’t added up the numbers, I just know it’s a lot and unless other dumbasses keep pumping the prices I won’t break even for a long time.
None of this made better music. I really barely made anything with it. None of it has been worth releasing. My old music sounded flat but I’m still able to tell that the new stuff I made with these beautiful instruments was dog shit. I listen to it now: it sounds like a guy who didn’t know what he’s doing. I was a guy who didn’t know what I was doing.
“Poverty has its freedoms; opulence has its obstacles.”
I think back on how this happened. I blamed the pandemic, everyone went crazy, and I just wound up with a bunch of analog gear. Not so bad. But I found something that describes it well. It’s called the “Diderot Effect,” named after philosopher Denis Diderot. Diderot wrote an essay about being given a new robe, which he loved but was so luxurious that everything in his life looked plain. He began buying expensive clothes, then expensive furniture, then expensive art. He spent his way into debt. “My friends, keep your old friends,” he wrote. “Fear the touch of wealth. Let my example teach you a lesson. Poverty has its freedoms; opulence has its obstacles.”
Comparing a French essay to me buying gear at the absolute highest prices is probably dumb, but it’s how I make sense of it. I think everyone in any industry touched by technology is susceptible to this.
I also get those guys nailing egg cartons to ceiling beams now. They do carpentry. I do credit card debt. Neither of us make music.
I still like the way it feels to make music on real instruments. But if you close your eyes, striking keys on a Juno-106 or a Korg Minilogue don’t feel that different.
So I pushed everything aside a few months ago. Back to simplicity, I started thinking in melodies and patterns again. It’s not sexy, and I’m not going to blow up Instagram Stories with it. But it’s familiar like an old robe.