In our Synthfluencers series, we go behind the camera to meet some of the biggest YouTubers and content creators in the world of music technology. After kicking off with BoBeats last year, this month, we spoke to the winner of our 2022 Music Tech Personality Award: The Midlife Synthesist.
The YouTube synth community is a crowded space. With scores of talented creators doing their thing online and new voices joining the fray every month, it’s becoming increasingly tough to stand out from the crowd and provide a unique perspective - but that’s something that The Midlife Synthesist has by the bucketload.
Whether he’s running an $80 Casio keyboard into $2000 worth of effects pedals, recreating Radiohead on an MPC, sharing reflective thoughts on the nature of creativity or ranking the learning curves of popular grooveboxes, The Midlife Synthesist presents creative angles on music technology in a warm and approachable style that's won us, and our audience, over.
Like all of the best creators, The Midlife Synthesist's videos transport you into his studio and bring you into his world. More than anything, he seems like the kind of guy you’d like to sit down and have a jam with. So we did the next best thing, and had a conversation, asking the YouTuber about his journey into music production, his favourites pieces of gear, and the videos that he's most proud of.
Congratulations on winning the MusicRadar Music Tech Personality Award. How did you feel about winning?
“Thanks so much for that! It was honestly very unexpected. I know it's a cliche, but just being nominated among so many amazing creators that I admire and respect so much was already huge for me, so when I found out that I had won, I was overjoyed and just really grateful to all the people who voted.”
Looking back, how did you get involved with music tech and music production in the first place?
“Music-making has always been a big part of my life. My father was a diplomat, so growing up we were constantly moving from one country to another. Always being the “new kid” could get very lonely, so I found a safe space in creating music. My older brother had an acoustic guitar and I’d spend hours writing lyrics and melodies that could help me express my feelings. It became my way of processing what I was going through. As I got older I started writing songs and it just became part of who I am.
“At one point, much later in life, I decided I wanted to learn how to properly play the piano, so I went to a music store in search of a keyboard, when I saw the strangest thing. A small, flashy, two octave piano-ish device, black and green and full of bright buttons and knobs. I asked the salesperson what it was and he told me: “it's a Roland System-1 synthesizer”. “What the heck is a synthesizer?” I asked naively.
“He laughed and passed me a pair of headphones. “Go ahead, just hold down a few keys”, he said as he clicked on a small button labelled ARPEGGIO. As instructed, I held down the only chord I knew on the piano, a C major, and suddenly, I was in a new world. My ears were flooded by sounds I had never heard before, but that I had been searching for all my life - and just like that, I was hooked on synths and gear. The rest is history.”
Could you tell us about how you got started as a creator?
“I’d been toying around with the idea of making a YouTube channel for a while, way before I actually posted anything, but I was intimidated by the fact that I knew absolutely nothing about filming or editing. Also, since I'm not an audio engineer and I don't consider myself any kind of musical prodigy, I was unsure if I really had anything of value to offer in this space. I just knew that I loved making music and I loved music gear, so if I was making a channel, that's what I wanted it to be about.
“When the pandemic came around in 2020 and we went into quarantine, I went full-on GAS mode. I was buying gear at a rate that was becoming a problem, a real addiction. I needed a way to get it under control, or at least turn it into something positive. That's when I decided to turn my Gear Acquisition Syndrome into a Youtube channel. Instead of just having this collection of gear, I thought I might also do a video about it and tell people what my experience was along the way.
“After all, most gear reviews you see are usually made after the reviewer has only had a few weeks to spend with the device, so what if I could offer the view of someone who had been using the device extensively for more than a few months, after the “honeymoon” phase? So that's what I did, and it's been a hell of a ride since.”
Do you have a ‘day job’ alongside running your channel? If so, is it difficult to balance the two?
“Yes, a full-time day job, a marriage and two toddlers. Difficult to balance is one way to describe it. Damn near impossible is another. [laughs] The truth is that each video requires an enormous amount of time to make if you are aiming to create something remotely worth watching. Without even considering the amount of time that goes into learning a device thoroughly until I feel comfortable enough to have an opinion on it, just the amount of hours spent making scripts, shooting film and editing that into a cohesive video are enough to fill up several days in a week.
“Since I work full-time during the day, my “music and video creator time” takes place during the very late nights after my kids and wife go to sleep. It's not unusual that I finish a track or a video around 3am and then have to get up to dress the kids and go to work at 7. It's a team effort really, and I wouldn't be able to do any of it without the support of my amazing wife.
“Thankfully, I love my day job so I'm not looking to quit, but I do hope the channel continues growing until I reach a point where I can work my day job half of the week and dedicate the other half to making music and videos, without having to do the night shift all the time. Time will tell.”
What’s the most challenging thing about being a synthfluencer?
“I’d say that maintaining good mental health has been my biggest challenge in the YouTube space. There is the constant pressure to one-up yourself in every new video, a very difficult thing to do especially when the youtube studio app is constantly reminding you that your latest video is not doing as well as the last three. It can get physically and mentally exhausting.
“This coupled with the fact that you never really know how well a video will be received makes it easy to start doubting yourself and feel that you've lost your touch. I do feel I've grown a lot since I started and am now aiming at making content that I can be proud of, rather than obsessing over the numbers. It makes for a far more liberating and enjoyable experience as a content creator and hopefully results in better videos for my viewers as well.”
What’s your favourite video that you’ve ever made?
“I have two favorites. The first is the video documenting the birth of my son, for obvious reasons. As far as music tech videos, I’m really proud of my Arturia Polybrute 4 Month Review. To this day, I still feel I haven't been able to quite match it in my other videos. The cinematography and music really worked well together, aided by the beautiful sounds coming out of the Polybrute, and the pacing of both the editing and voice-over flows nicely as well. It was also a blast to make, which is probably why I remember it so fondly.”
What’s your favourite video that another creator has made?
“A video that had me absolutely flabbergasted every minute that I watched it was Deeper Bloops - A Guide to Getting More Out of Your Blooper by Fireghosting. Not only is the amount of information given out truly staggering, the way it’s delivered - in such an artistic and musical way - is nothing short of incredible.
“This could have been a very dry tutorial, as the Chase Bliss Audio Blooper is an intimidatingly deep pedal, yet Fireghosting managed to do something all educators should strive to accomplish. He processed all that information and turned it into something genuinely delightful and engaging to watch, almost like a short movie. I can't even imagine how much work that was to plan out and film, but it is truly a hidden YouTube gem.
What is it that attracted you to the DAWless approach to music-making?
“I think it's mostly that the fun factor with hardware is way higher for me than when I use software. I have an easier time getting 'in the zone' on a dedicated synth or groovebox with an entire UI designed specifically for its purpose. I find that having physical controls, that I can build muscle memory on to navigate quickly, is way more satisfying to me than clicking on a keyboard and mouse. Besides, I love tech, I love gadgets and I love cool music making gizmos.
“In the DAW I usually get too distracted with things that ultimately don't contribute to my creativity, but I do use it a lot later, on the more technical side of the process. My workflow is usually DAWless for creativity and live performance, but I use a DAW for productivity, recording and fine tuning. The DAW is a very powerful tool, and with the abundance of amazing VSTs available, it should not be overlooked just because DAWless is 'trending'. A good craftsman uses all the tools in the shed.”
What’s the last bit of gear you bought that absolutely blew your mind?
“The latest thing that I felt was absolutely next generation was the Embodme Erae Touch. It's an MPE controller that looks and feels like it comes from the future. I'm fairly new to it, but it has quickly become my go to MIDI controller, especially for finger drumming. I only have a couple of videos on it so far but I think it will become a staple on the channel moving forward, especially for my live jam videos.”
If you had to get rid of everything in your studio forever except three pieces of gear, what would you choose and why?
“I’ve asked myself this question multiple times, always with different answers. [laughs] First on the list is the Roland Fantom 6. It's everything I’ve ever wanted in a workstation, with an incredibly fluid UI and a front panel that’s thoughtfully laid out with an impressive assortment of controls and great visual feedback coupled with some truly remarkable synth engines and organic tones (I’m looking at you V-Piano). It also works as an audio interface so it takes care of pretty much all the basics.
“Second is the Elektron Octatrack MK2. Probably one of the most complex devices in my setup, I’ve had it for years and still I find new things to do with it each time I turn it on. Whenever I work with it, it surprises me with music that I never thought I was capable of making, and it just keeps getting better. Utility-wise, it can act as a sampler, mixer, audio looper, MIDI sequencer and live audio effects processor, so just from a practical standpoint it's a very powerful tool to have, but if I'm being honest, I just can't live without the scene crossfader.
“Finally, in slot number three I have to say I’d keep the Moog Subsequent 37. It's one of the very best monosynths in recent memory, full of that rich Moog analogue sound but with a modern taste, a butter-smooth filter, insanely beautiful form factor and well-laid-out front panel. It might not be as feature-packed as some of the competition in that price bracket, but if you’ve ever had the pleasure of playing it, you know that the spec sheet is only half the story.
“It's one of the most inspiring synths I’ve ever played because it just nails the combination of earth-shaking sound and user experience (except for its sequencer…) The paraphonic mode is to die for and the aftertouch is one of my favourites as it integrates seamlessly into my playing. Considering slots number one and two, a smidge of analog goodness makes sense if I’m just keeping these three.”
What do you think is the most overrated bit of gear on the market?
“I wouldn't really call it overrated, but I do think that the Moog Subharmonicon has been misrespresented. At least on YouTube. Don’t get me wrong, I think it's very unique, and when you can get it to sing, it absolutely rips. But I think that the YouTube videos in general depicted it as this easy to program, happy go lucky, casual inspiration machine for the everyday synth enthusiast, when my experience with it was very different. Basically, it’s an amazing synth with wonderful capabilities, but don’t be fooled: it takes a lot of time, patience and dedication to be able to program it into something musically useful.”
Do you have a “secret weapon” in your gear collection - as in something that you feel not many know about but is actually an unexpectedly powerful instrument or tool?
“Absolutely, without question, my secret weapon is the Zoom H6. It's the unsung hero behind many YouTube synth channels. If you look closely, it's everywhere. The thing is small, it's rugged and can even work on batteries. The audio quality is great and it's extremely versatile as you can mod it with different Zoom microphones or add two more audio inputs. I use it all the time on the go and in the studio, and it's the backbone of the audio on my channel. To put it simply, it's probably the only piece in my studio that if it broke or got stolen, I would immediately go online and buy again without a second thought.”
You’ve said before that in your reviews, you take the viewpoint of an everyday user as opposed to a “pro” musician or expert. Could you tell us about what led you towards this approach?
“The simplest explanation is that I can't offer an expert opinion because I don't consider myself an expert. I study a lot, I practice a lot and I have been fortunate enough to get all these music-making machines under my roof to try out and play with, but I’m not an audio engineer, nor a properly trained composer and I don’t live off my music. I love music and I absolutely love gear, but in the end I'm more of a devoted hobbyist than a professional musician. So I decided to just accept that and lean into it. And it was just as well, because I later realized that I wasn't alone.
“Much to the contrary, I think I’m not wrong in saying that most of the people out there who are into these amazing machines, the passionate synthesists and musicians at heart, are in my same situation. At least the ones watching me. A great many of us are not full-time musicians, just people who love this stuff and want to geek out and talk about our favourite gear with our friends on the interwebs, and make some music before going to bed at night.”
What developments, inventions or new products in music technology are you excited for in 2023 and beyond?
“After being recently blown away by the likes of the Embodme Erae Touch and Expressive E OSMOSE, I´m pretty excited to see where the new wave of MPE and player-focused instruments and controllers go from this point on. Having started my musical journey on the guitar, I always sort of missed that artistic nuance you could give notes by, for example, choosing to pluck, strum or pick a string. I find it fascinating that technology is finally allowing for the player to reach that level of live performance control and expression that makes hearing and watching someone play so engaging. The future is looking very bright indeed.”
What advice would you give to anybody looking to get into becoming a creator or influencer within the music tech space?
“Don’t be in such a rush to complete your goals that you don’t stop and appreciate the moment that you’re currently living in. Some of the greatest moments in this journey happen at the beginning, when you're still figuring stuff out and everything is new and exciting and at times even a bit scary. 'Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans'.“
What are your plans for the channel in 2023?
“I’m always looking to try new things, different formats or ideas, both visually and musically, just so that the content is always creatively stimulating for me as well as enjoyable for my viewers. I'd really like to try my hand at a few vlog-style videos, maybe try to do a full-blown musical video clip and also do some musical experimentation in a more relaxed, hand-held camera vibe.
“I think this year is less about growth and more about feeling comfortable in my skin both in front of and behind the camera. Mainly, I just want to keep making music and videos, trying out gear that excites and moves me, and have loads of fun along with my viewers.”