Step Inside an Electronic Composer’s Studio to See a City of Synths

Step Inside an Electronic Composer’s Studio to See a City of Synths

Thursday, 24 August 2017
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The complex work of composer Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith defies expectations. Her technique of blending synthesizers, acoustic instruments, and electronic-­sounding human voices has made the 30-year-old musician a star among the next generation of post–New Age synthesists. This aural alchemy—including the recordings for her upcoming release, The Kid—is composed and created in a tiny 10- by 20-foot garage located outside of LA. Smith calls it her “sound sculpture studio,” but it’s really a construction site: a place where waveforms are layered like bricks to build towering walls of sound.

Nathanael Turner

1. From Russia With Filters

You’ve never heard of Gorbachev-era Russian synths? The Polivoks (top) is one particularly crude example that some find tricky to play. On the plus side, its “dual voice” construction lets you play two notes at once, generating richer sounds than one-note monophonic analog synths. It can get aggressive, too: Crank up the output levels and marvel at the abrasive and distorted notes this Soviet beast churns out. “The Polivoks is great for sound design,” Smith says. “It’s gritty and has lots of texture.”

2. Poly Blend

Second only to the wildly popular Minimoog, the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 (bottom) is one of the synth world’s biggest icons. Artists from Duran Duran to Pink Floyd have used it to record hit albums. This is a true polyphonic analog machine, meaning multiple notes can be played simultaneously. The sound can range from horror-­show spooky to art-school experimental. This is a workhorse in Smith’s studio. “It’s the only analog, nonmodular polysynth I own,” she says. “It’s very sought-­after.” No kidding. Used ­Prophet-­5s sell for as much as $9,000.

Nathanael Turner

3. Mix and Patch

One of Smith’s specialties as a composer is the modular synthesizer. It’s called “modular” because each component of an audio signal is a separate module that must be manually connected by patching wires into different parts of the machine. The resulting matrix of cables can involve just a handful or a hundred wires.

Nathanael Turner

4. Speakers of the House

That wall-mounted flatscreen isn’t for Netflix binges. This is where Smith scores video and film projects. The black speakers at ear level are by Genelec, a Finnish brand that’s beloved by finicky sound engineers and musicians. Smith has a pair of M040 monitors and a 7360A subwoofer. “These are my favorite speakers at the moment,” she says. “The sound is full, the EQ is pretty flat, and the frequency response is fantastic.”

Nathanael Turner

5. Constant Companion

Smith owns at least 13 synths, but the Buchla Music Easel is the one she takes everywhere. (Built into a suitcase ideal for touring, it fits under an airline seat.) Designed by NorCal synthesizer guru Don Buchla in 1972, it pumps out rich harmonics that Smith describes as addictive: “Buchlas are like violins—each one is different. Mine has the old transistors, whose sound I prefer to the newer ones. I’m very protective of it.”

Nathanael Turner

6. Sound Garden

Smith grew up on an island in Puget Sound that looks like Middle-earth, and her creative process has always been intimately entwined with nature. For inspiration, Smith retreats to a lily pond next to her studio. Nature and synthesizers. Irony? Not for Smith: “Electricity is in the sky and in my instruments. I feel a connection with a pulse playing synthesizers the same way I do when I’m walking in nature.”

Here’s a video from Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s new album, The Kid, out October 6 on Western Vinyl.

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