02.04.2012, Words by Ruth Saxelby

The store at the heart of Austin's thrilling synth scene

For anyone remotely interested in making electronic music, Switched On provides the ultimate kid in a candy store moment. From the floor to the ceiling, the walls of the synthesiser store and repair station in Austin, Texas, are stacked with racks of synths, of all ages and sizes. Up front is an especially whoah video synthesiser, modified in-store by the Switched On crew and hooked up to three old TV sets. Sine waves materialise on screen as acid-dipped visuals, undulating into different colours and forms under the twist of a knob on the controls. Switched On has only been going for a little over two years but it’s already become the jewel in the city’s ever-growing synth scene that includes Sleep ∞ Over, Troller, SURVIVE, Bodytronix, Lumens and Thousand Foot Whale Claw, many of whom have or are due to be released on new tape label Holodeck Records. What’s more, everyone from Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant to local heroes Pure X have passed through to pick up kit or just hang out.

The Switched On video synthesiser in action

Everyone that works there is in a band or two. Eli Welbourne from electronic pop duo Silent Diane and Michael Stein from synth overlord quartet SURVIVE were both there when I dropped in for an afternoon out from SXSW craziness two weeks ago. Eli was helping demo keyboards with customers and Michael had his head down in the repair area, no doubt teasing some old circuitry back to life. I sat down with co-owner Chad Allen to ask about about the store’s genesis, the vibrant local scene and how new technology is providing new opportunities for innovation in electronic music. I also filmed him talking through his ideal starter synth, with Eli on demo duties, which you can watch below.

How did Switched On start?

Chad: I started the store with two business partners – John French and Guy Taylor – just over two years ago. This is our third SXSW, we started at South By. A passion for all of us was electronic music of different kinds. Something that I’d been doing before we started the store was buying and selling synthesisers for a living so it was great to get with two like-minded people and create a space for people to come and play with these synthesisers that are really fairly elusive and old. Some of them are forty years old. We have a Farfisa Compact sitting in front of us right now that was made in 1966.

Is that the oldest one in the shop?

Chad: I think it is actually.

I love the negative keys on the end.

Chad: Yeah, yeah. It’s 60s Italian style, y’know.

How do you collect them all? Are they all for sale in here?

Chad: We do a lot of repairs in the back here too. In terms of finding the ones for sale, people bring them in, we find them online, in the classifieds. Wherever we can find them we try to pull out the gear that’s in the way and bring them back to life, which is the hardest part and really time consuming. We have a few really good technicians who are really talented, and experienced at bringing these things back. This Farfisa synth that we have sitting in front of us that I mentioned earlier, we kind of considered it a parts piece until we pulled it out and said, you know what, we can take a few of these Farfisa’s and create one really good working one. So that’s what we did.

“We’re able to encourage a community of musicians by giving them access to a huge variety of electronic music tools here at the store.” Chad, Switched On

What started your synth passion originally?

Chad: Gosh, in high school, in the early mid-90s, bands were starting to use synthesisers again and I’d go see live bands – I lived in Portland, Oregan – and there were a few using synthesisers and I got curious; I didn’t know what they were. They made strange, wonderful sounds and it just so happened that my high school had an old synthesiser sitting in a back room collecting dust and I convinced them to let me take it home and get it working.

How exciting was that?

Chad: It was amazing. All of sudden I could make outer space noises and R2D2 sounds and stuff. That was it. I was hooked. I had to give it back though.

How did you meet John?

Chad: John is actually an old friend’s uncle. I was selling one of my synthesisers and my friend told his uncle, and John bought the synthesiser. He had a recording studio so I recorded with him in various bands and musical projects. We just became really good friends. He’s a synthesiser collector too.

It feels like Switched On and the local music scene in Austin feed into each other.

Chad: Precisely, because we’re able to encourage a community of musicians by giving them access to a huge variety of electronic music tools here at the store. And also repairing their equipment because before us there really wasn’t any tried and true places to get your equipment fixed. It was really difficult. Gosh, we’ve fixed thousands of things now, in two years. And sold hundreds of keyboards and drum machines and this and that, effects pedals etc. In a town where more and more musicians are moving every day, a good variety of music stores are necessary. We have great guitar shops, great drum shops, but there was no real niche for keyboards, synthesisers, electronic musical instruments. Places around town have a little bit here or there but there was nothing like this. I think it was necessary. Electronic sounds are finding their way in every style of music right now, even alt-country. You’ll hear a synthesiser line in a Wilco album.

Switched On owners John French and Chad Allen in front of the store

In the hazy music timeline I have in my head there’s the time when synthesisers were invited in the 60s with Moog and Buchla. And then computers came along and it was all about efficiency. And now, with everything being so easy, more people are waking up to the increased satisfaction that comes with more effort. That’s the way in my head that I’ve rationalised the re-interest in live electronics in my head.

Chad: Music is expressive, right? Most music. Older analogue instruments are expressive instruments. There’s a life to them. There’s a feeling of realness. It’s just more tactile and you can interact with it in a way that you can’t with a plain keyboard that just has keys, maybe a little screen and a couple of buttons. That doesn’t feel as personable somehow. That is definitely one of the reasons people are getting into it because if you’re a musician, you’re expressing something through music and you want the most expressive tools possible. The most flexible instruments that can express what you’re trying to get across in your music. Then I just think, in the 21st century, one of the great things about music is that it incorporates everything. Every type of sound. In one song you could have all these influences crammed in, end to end.

“I think our technology now, and the way we think about things with the internet, is everything exists at once. All these niches, all these styles, it’s all simultaneous.” Chad, Switched On

You can’t not have all these influences in a way, because they’re all around us.

Chad: Yeah, exactly. I think our technology now, and the way we think about things with the internet, is everything exists at once. All these niches, all these styles, it’s all simultaneous. There’s not one thing that’s popular, or one style that’s dominant. It’s all the styles simultaneously. I think people have been reflecting that really well in music. Whether it’s incorporating a wide variety of instruments – a string section and a synthesiser and guitars, or drums and a drum machine – I think that’s one reason that people have gotten back into electronics in music. It speaks to a specific time and a specific sort of feeling. If you’re trying to incorporate a variety of feelings into one song to express this simultaneous feeling that we’re experiencing constantly, then I think having electronics is essential to that.

“If you’re trying to incorporate a variety of feelings into one song to express this simultaneous feeling that we’re experiencing constantly, then I think having electronics is essential to that.” Chad, Switched On

That makes total sense. So is everything fixed at the back?

Chad: We have some off-site technicians as well, plus a second store. It opened on our second birthday in late February.

How good did that feel?

Chad: It felt great [laughs]. It’s just a really fun, unique space. It’s very small compared to the store you’re sitting in now.

SURVIVE’s Michael Stein and Switched On co-owner Chad Allen

Where do you go from here?

Chad: Gosh, where do we go from here? I don’t know. I think we’re on a good stride. If we stayed at this level I’d be happy. We have the second store now. I don’t necessarily want to grow and have chains. I like keeping it small and friendly.

Although we are living in this time of everything, we still have this very retro idea of the future – and synthesisers are tied up it that. They are from a time when we imagined the future to be really weird and spacey, and now we’re living in that future and it’s not like that. How do you get past that today to do something different with the synthesiser?

Chad: Because in the past you could do anything and it was all new.

Yes. How do you innovate within that now?

Chad: The answer is that people are still making synthesisers that are innovative. That’s the next step. And more and more people are producing really interesting instruments that are based on analogue synthesis. Maybe they’re not completely analogue, maybe they’re incorporating some digital now, so some low-tech sampling or circuit bending. People are creating new sounds with the old technology by creating new instruments with the old technology. We have the whole modular synthesiser explosion right now where we have dozens of companies producing these little analogue, sometimes digital, modules that people can buy and collect in an infinite variety of ways. There are so many modules now, and so many different ways to interconnect them, that you have literally an infinite variety of sounds you can create with that palette. And everyone’s going to have a different set-up. That wasn’t possible ages ago. You had modular synthesisers obviously but not what we have now by any means.

“People are creating new sounds with the old technology by creating new instruments with the old technology.” Chad, Switched On

Do you get the newer instruments in here?

Chad: Oh yes. That was always part of our mission. To incorporate new and old instruments, or new technology to help use the old instruments – modify them.

What’s the most exciting find you’ve had, or success story?

Chad: Oh gosh. Right when we opened we had this synthesiser called a Steiner Parker Synthacon.

That’s a great name.

Chad: They were built by Nyle Steiner in California, in the very fly-by-night business that he had. Very homemade looking synthesiser. The one we found was in really rough shape but we had a woodworking friend re-do all the wood. We cleaned up the front panel, changed up all the knobs and controls. And then we went through and restored the electronics. It turned out to be really beautiful – and rare and valuable – so we were really happy to bring that back. That’s something I’m really proud of.

With thanks to Chad Allen, John French and all at Switched On, and a special thanks to Eli Welbourne for making it all happen.

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