Students from dBs Plymouth returned to Berlin this year for another trip to the city's leading synth festival SuperBooth; one of the most important tradeshows for synthesiser manufacturers in Europe. Find out how they got on and what they thought about the exhibitors, including Mystic Circuits, Ritual Electronics, SOMA Laboratory, Jablonski Guitars, Neuzeit Instruments, Schreibmaschine Modular, HEDD Audio & more.
Formed 20 years ago in Frankfurt, SuperBooth was founded by a small collection of passionate synth manufacturers, friends and music tech nerds as a space to share their passion for exotic hardware and electronic music instruments. Now based in Berlin, SuperBooth has become the largest trade event for electronic musical instruments in Europe, inviting thousands of trade visitors, day guests and exhibitors to FEZ-Berlin each summer.
Led by Matt Ward - Electronic Music Production programme leader at dBs Plymouth and creator at Kinesotronic - as well as Phin Head and Dr Stuart MacVeigh - lecturers at dBs Plymouth and Uni of Plymouth respectively and collaborators at Stochastic Instruments - students from dBs Plymouth are lucky enough to attend the event each year, learn more about synthesisers, other electronic music instruments and ask important questions to exhibitors about how they got into the industry. We caught up with three of the students who attended SuperBooth 2022 - Colin Seddon, Lucas Banks and Daniel Dutt - about their time at the Berlin synth festival to discover what they thought of the event, their best bits and what they learnt.
What was your favourite piece of equipment that you checked out while on the Berlin trip with dBs?
Colin Seddon: Coming at this as a modular newbie, my first visit to a stall was Mystic Circuits. The guy was very enthusiastic but I didn’t understand anything he was saying, except, “it’s got four outputs, you can have a good time”. After this, I told stall-holders that I know nothing which meant that there were now two types: those who could explain what they do in layman's terms and those who couldn’t or didn’t want to.
Vlad’s wooden piece was a good example of this. Although I really liked his instrument, he didn’t let me try it and told me “it’s a synthesizer”. The interface seemed immediately accessible.
I asked the guy at Ritual Electronics to show me how he’d got to the sound it was now making. He took it right back to the source sound and showed me the various steps he had taken to alter and add to it. As a sales technique, this was really effective, because I learnt that I could start with one thing and gradually add components and that the tangle of cables no longer seemed overwhelming.
Lucas Banks: SOMA synth, TERRA. For me, this device perfectly embodied my whole Berlin experience. I’m a dBs student who's just finished the second year of Music Production and Sound Engineering. Before I started this course I had no idea about synthesisers nor was I interested. On this trip, I set myself a task to really immerse myself in whatever Berlin had to offer. Walking around Superbooth was definitely an eye-opener and a world apart from my usual band instruments. However, the ‘Terra’ synth bridged that gap by allowing me to create generative music whilst expressively playing an instrument. I was able to create new and exciting sounds whilst using feel to guide the direction of the music which really resonated with me. Starting my Superbooth experience with this gave me the encouragement to really get stuck in and explore synthesis.
Daniel Dutt: As a musician, the inclusion of SooperGrail in this year’s edition of Superbooth was a very welcome one. The inclusion of electric and acoustic instruments in a show mainly based on synthesis is a step forward towards the unification of these two often conflicting worlds.
In it, many independent guitar manufacturers presented their most recent builds and innovations, some of them including effects and different electronics. The one which most caught my eye was an instrument designed and constructed by Christian Jablonski of Jablonski Guitars: an acoustic bass guitar. Christian explained to me that, when exploring the market for acoustic basses, he found three common problems.
The first of these was that all of the acoustic bass guitars which he could find had metallic strings on them, be it bronze or nickel, amongst others. In his search, he discovered the Spanish contrabass guitar, used in Spanish musical genres such as flamenco, which consists of six nylon strings tuned an octave below the standard Spanish classical guitar tuning. These strings allow the guitar to have a much smoother sound, separating it from the harsh metallic sound usually characteristic of acoustic basses.
Secondly, he found that most acoustic bass guitars only featured four strings which, in his opinion, was not always enough to reach the low register that he desired his instrument to be capable of performing.
Thirdly, he found that they largely did not reach a high enough volume, which is essential because it is designed to be played unamplified.
With these three problems in mind, he went out to create a five-stringed acoustic bass, which used the nylon contrabasso strings and designed a body in a way that created the most amplification possible, creating a smooth sounding and loud acoustic bass, which was very easy to play, and presented an incredible tone and sustain, which could even be heard in the loud Soopergrail hall.
We asked you to ask manufacturers what their path to employment was. What did you find out from some of the people you spoke to?
CS: The person I spoke to from Neuzeit Instruments focussed on binaural sound. After studying music at level 3, he did a masters in Berlin, exploring acoustics, distance and reverb - lots of maths! He started developing synths at the same time as his research into acoustics.
The owner of Schreibmaschine Modular used to play banjo and ukulele in folk bands then went on to drum in a heavy metal band. She now performs ambient dance music with the modular kit which she now builds. She didn’t perform at all during the lockdowns which allowed her to focus on the development of her sequencers.
LB: We were lucky enough to have a tour around HEDD headquarters where we met the head software engineer who told us how he got to where he was today. Interestingly, he started out studying maths and science but wasn't enjoying it. He then decided he wanted to follow his passion which is music. I admire how he took the experience he had already gained and merged it with his love for music to carve out a career for himself.
DD: Out of all the people I talked to at Superbooth, two of them had the most interesting stories about how they came to be employed in the music industry. One was a young pianist, and one was a former civil engineer.
The first worked for Rhodes, a world-renowned company, based in Leeds, known for its industry-standard electric pianos, which have been used on records by artists such as Stevie Wonder and Fleetwood Mac.
When I asked him how he got a job at Rhodes, he simply stated that he was from Leeds, and often spent time around the place where Rhodes is based. After becoming friends with the people there, he was simply offered a job at the company, where he has remained. While simply being around the place you want to work might not always be socially acceptable, this story demonstrates how important networking and industry connections are in the music business.
The second person was an independent guitar builder presenting some of his builds in the Soopergrail section of the event. When I asked him about how he got into the building and started selling guitars, he explained that he was a civil engineer, but also had an interest in guitars, and that, one day, he realised that he could combine both of his passions. He stated that he wanted to transfer his engineering knowledge to his guitars, designing them “with a ruler and maths”. The result of this is a collection of geometric, angular and lightweight guitars which encapsulate the essence of German engineering.
What was your favourite SuperBooth or SooperGrail performance and why?
CS: Definitely the modular ensemble. I loved its inclusiveness which was similar to the way drumming workshops are run, i.e. ideas are workshopped and then conducted in performance - on the spot arranging. This is also the approach I’ve used in my version of Butch Morris’s Conduction sessions, using only voices.
What was your favourite non-SuperBooth klubnacht and why? What stylistic features did you notice about Berlin Techno that differentiated it from other forms of music you know?
CS: Floating Points at Funkhaus. I don’t know if it was particularly a Berlin thing or whether Sam had adapted his DJ set to suit the venue and city, but his music had a breakbeat swing combined with a forceful four to the floor bass end. Unlike other techno-style dance music, it was danceable in the way that Latin jazz is. Also, he seemed to be missing, to the extent that I didn’t even know if the act had started yet as he was working at the same level as the audience and unlit.
What were your top take-homes from An On Bast’s masterclass?
DD: Our meet and greet with An On Bast was an eye-opening and inspiring experience, demonstrating that one person alone can make a living out of music anywhere in the world through effort and dedication.
Anna told us that she drove all the way to Germany alone, carrying her live performance modular setup with her. This made me realise that there are always opportunities to share your art somewhere, it just requires the drive (both metaphorically and literally) to do so. Sometimes, it feels like the lack of opportunities in one’s immediate surroundings means it is impossible to successfully distribute your music, but Anna’s story has inspired me to reach out and look for opportunities elsewhere.
The immediacy and improvised nature of her live performances were also an interesting take on modular performance. Anna explained that she never went into a performance with a set plan. Instead, she reacted and changed the music according to what she felt was necessary in the moment and according to the crowd’s reactions.
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