How Soulwax used the esoteric EMS Synthi 100 to make their latest record
Stephen and David Dewaele of electronic rockers Soulwax have dedicated their lives to unearthing, mixing and spreading the sounds of the future. We catch up with the brothers to learn more about their music and methods, and their latest project: a celebration of the rare EMS Synthi 100 synthesiser.
The EMS Synthi 100 was designed by David Cockerell in 1971 and only 31 units were built
“It’s better to have a great idea and a shitty synth than a bad idea and an amazing piece of equipment,” says David Dewaele of electronic icons, remixers, record collectors and innovators Soulwax. If it indeed exists, then David and his brother Stephen should know the equation for musical success. The pair enjoy an unrivalled reputation as creators and curators, having spent more than 20 years unleashing wild genre-splicing sounds on the world under a number of identities, projects and guises. So many, in fact, that they can be hard to keep up with.
“We get bored very easily,” says Stephen. “We started DJ’ing because we were bored with playing gigs. In the clubs we went to, no-one was playing the records we wanted to hear.” Beginning their musical lives as self-confessed indie kids, the Belgian duo’s guitar-toting tendencies evolved into the formidable DJ’ing and remixing force that is 2manydjs in the early 2000s. As their reputation for eclectic selections grew, the duo’s sound expanded, with the addition of extra musical limbs in the form of beefy electronics and more complex rhythms.
Outside of music, their aesthetic became a physical reality with the creation of their own modernist musical factory, Studio Deewee. Unveiled in Ghent in the mid-2010s, the complex serves as a label, publishing house and studio. The latest project to come from the house of Deewee is an album that harnesses and celebrates the EMS Synthi 100, an analogue-digital hybrid synth constructed in 1971, of which only 31 were ever made.
The unit is so large that it took seven pairs of hands just to get it into Soulwax’s gear-stuffed studio. Despite their deep-rooted passion for vintage equipment, the Dewaele brothers’ creative focus goes beyond what they use to channel their music. “We’re not blasé about our gear,” says David. “Every instrument brings us great joy. But, ultimately, you have to remember that they’re just tools. Some music is released just to show certain things off. That isn’t what we’re about. For us, brilliant ideas move us even more.”
The recovered relic
More than two decades into their adventures, Soulwax’s font of ideas shows no sign of abating. Deewee Sessions Vol 01 foregrounds the EMS Synthi 100 with a beautiful book and accompanying album split into six movements. Every sound on the record has been built with this invaluable machine. Borrowed from the University of Ghent’s Research Institute for Systematic Musicology and maintained in their Deewee studio for 12 months, this Synthi 100 plot has been fermenting for years.
“We first heard of it when we worked with Flood back in 2003,” says David. “He opened up this whole new world of EMS for us by introducing us to the Putney, VCS3 and AKS versions. We learnt about them, then discovered the story of the behemoth behind them all, the Synthi 100. It was something we never thought we’d get our hands on.”
While Stephen and David cast their net far and wide to track one down, they went years without luck. Then, after several near misses, Unit 3030 appeared right under their noses at the university in their hometown of Ghent. An agreement was struck for the brothers to take care of the machine, work on restoring it and champion its powers via a full-length record. What kept them searching for this elusive invention all that time?
“There’s currently a real trend around modular synthesis, to deconstruct the way sounds are made and create certain synth sounds by making your own patches,” says David. “But if ever there was a machine for this, it’s the Synthi 100. It’s not only really rare and insane to see but it offers you a gigantic realm of possibilities due to the amount of VCOs, VCAs, VCFs, ring mods and reverbs. A normal modular system could never match it.”
Because of its obscurity, only a handful of creators have had the chance to grapple with this machine. Some of the most high-profile figures to fiddle with it include BBC Radiophonic Workshop pioneer Delia Derbyshire, avant-garde Swiss producer Bruno Spoerri, and jazz pianist Wolfgang Dammerbeth. “Since Delia Derbyshire, very few people have used the Synthi as a futuristic substitute for an instrument,” says Stephen. “Most use it as an effect or as a futuristic-sounding machine. We wanted it to be the focal point.”
With the Synthi safely back at the university, the recent release of Deewee Sessions Vol 01 has already done much to raise awareness of the machine’s design and capabilities. Alongside the pulsing electronic movements therein, the attention to detail and beauty of the project’s packaging, produced in collaboration with the Vinyl Factory, has proved particularly popular.
“We thought it would just be for a bunch of nerds like us,” says Stephen, with a laugh. “But it seems people are listening to it and appreciating it on different levels. We wanted to make a tribute to the machine, to celebrate its existence. By doing this, we were hoping to ensure it would be well looked after and maintained at the university. We also called it Volume 01 to leave open the possibility of us using it again…”
The story untold
Soulwax’s musical evolution has meant that, today, the band’s vision is far less conventional than it was during their early days. Their successes began with their first two indie guitar records, Leave the Story Untold and Much Against Everyone’s Advice, which helped them find an audience and tour Europe in the late 1990s. “It was beyond our wildest dreams to play outside Belgium,” says Stephen. “At the start, we were just kids, like contemporaries such as Erol Alkan and James Murphy, growing up surrounded by guitar amps, playing for 20 people in small venues.”
“There’s always been a subconscious electronic element,” says David, “which later came out through 2manydjs and the remixes, but it was far removed from dance music.” Working with Flood and other producers in the early 2000s inspired the duo to dig deeper into the studio, let this aspect of their sound flourish and get their fingers grubby with the nuts and bolts of recording processes. “Flood gave us the confidence to experiment and try new things. From this point on, we decided to do everything ourselves, so we took on production, mixing, remixing, all these different things. It was a turning point.”
It was Soulwax’s transformation from rock band to dance-tent headliners as 2manydjs that led to their euphoric rise in profile. Their now legendary As Heard on Radio Soulwax Pt 2 mix album featured everything from acid techno and electroclash to Dolly Parton, The Cramps, The Stooges and 10cc, with fast, often audacious cuts between genres that had never before been blended together.
As more and more guitar bands traded their instruments for turntables and the prevalence of DJ’ing software exploded, the brothers’ magpie-like cut-and-paste approach to song selection suddenly beat in time with the world’s coolest clubs. The mix became a ubiquitous soundtrack to every house party across the land, making Stephen and David international stars, even if it wasn’t the overnight success story it seemed to be. “For us, it didn’t just suddenly happen,” says David. “We’d been working on our DJ sets for years, showcasing our tunes on a weekly radio station.”
The tracks are cut with such a ferocious pace that the mix is almost tailored for short attention spans, moving frantically between artists, sounds and styles. The pair cite time restrictions as the driving force behind its breathtaking speed. “We’d have 40 records we’d want to play in an hour, so we were forced to mix quickly,” says David. “Or we’d realise we’d only liked a vocal line or bassline from a record, and just play that. That’s what led to 2manydjs’ As Heard on Radio Soulwax Pt 2. Everywhere we went, people were shocked. But we never really understood why they found it so special. We didn’t feel like we were reinventing the wheel. It already existed.”
The record came out in 2003, and shifted the goalposts for what DJs could become at a time before streaming. This was back when DJs and music lovers had to dig deep to discover left-field magic rather than letting algorithms do the work for them. Although it’s some years since, its release proved to be a pivotal moment. “Without it, we wouldn’t be sitting here in this studio made in a modernist architectural style, with a bespoke setup and all our records and gear,” says Stephen. “It’s a big part of why we are where we are.”
The Deewee building in Ghent is Soulwax’s hub, a purpose-built space for musical invention and experimentation. It houses all the gear, equipment and records the brothers have collected over the years, while also operating as a HQ for their record label and publishing house. “We built this place to make sure we avoid adopting any typical processes when it comes to creating music,” says David. “Even if songs or tracks end up sounding similar, it’s important to challenge ourselves, to find different ways to keep things exciting.”
Aside from a technical assistant who helps keep their vintage gear alive and solders it back together if ever something breaks, the brothers take responsibility for everything themselves. “We are fortunate to have amassed a vast collection of instruments,” says David. “This amazing Calrec desk sits at the heart of the studio. We run Pro Tools and have a bunch of crazy analogue machines. It’s almost like a museum of synths – plus there’s drums, guitars and percussion. It’s like a toy store. Sometimes just one squeal from a synth can spark a whole song.”
Despite the scarcity of many of the legendary instruments in the Dewaele brothers’ collection, the pair have tried to avoid investing enormous amounts of money in them, instead picking up items before gear-buying trends caught up with them. “It’s a false economy in some ways,” says Stephen, with a laugh. “We look at a piece of gear we purchased years ago for next to nothing and now it’s worth a lot of money.”
Neither Stephen nor David can put an exact figure on the amount of items housed at Deewee – or their collective value. What they are painfully aware of, however, is that they’ve amassed so much that they had to seek out an extra building next door to their studio to store it all. That includes, by the way, their more than 60,000 records. But are there any favourite items they love to use? “How long do you have?” says Stephen.
“We have some we love,” adds David. “We always go back to the ARP 2600. There’s an Oberheim Two-Voice, which is particularly nice. We have an Eight-Voice but we always return to the Two-Voice because it’s simpler to navigate. The Korg MS-20s are very reliable too. We have an expanded Roland System 700 too, which has been at the heart of many of our productions.”
While Stephen and David obviously love the world of rare musical instrumentation, wires and machines, they’re at pains to point out that its the imposition of limitations on their creative palettes that has led to their most dazzling moments.
“Imposing rules on ourselves makes us more creative,” says Stephen. “For our last studio album, From Deewee, we recorded in one take only using gear we’d play live with. With the Synthi 100 record, it was obviously just one machine. Limitations like these help us focus. One of the biggest problems we encounter when we work with other people is that they have 75 ideas but none of them ever get finished.”
With an almost bottomless musical arsenal at their disposal, do they ever completely steer away from hardware and work solely in-the-box? “It doesn’t matter how we or anyone else makes it,” says David. “It’s important to just make music with what you have. Sometimes we like to stay in-the-box for as long as possible before changing things. We spent years buying up EQs, reverbs and analogue compressors but now some of the plug-ins imitate these sounds just as well.”
Their collection may be made up of vintage instruments but David and Stephen have always looked to avoid sounding like they’re stuck in the past. Bringing technology of all ages and types together propels them towards their goal of forging an exciting aural future. “The Sythni 100’s internal sequencer never worked,” says David. “So we needed to use external sequencers to have better control over the VCAs and LFOs. That’s why the record is the perfect encapsulation of what we’re about. We try to work with old machines and make them sound relevant today. We have all this vintage gear but it’s important that none of our tracks or productions sound retro.”
At the same time, the pair are excited by the democratisation of the music production industry. Now, sounds of all kinds are easily accessible through computers for little investment. “We live in a time when some of the audio characters of these old machines are available digitally for next to no money,” says Stephen. “So it’s more democratic for everyone, especially younger kids just beginning to make music. Some of the snobbery around instruments is gone.”
Any minute now
Deewee doesn’t just serve as Soulwax’s music-making headquarters but also their developmental home for young music-makers, through which they support emerging artists. “We always ask new artists not to fear making mistakes,” says David. “There’s a whole generation who see a perfect world around them, from every press image to every video from every gig. But, creatively, this image of perfection can be stifling.”
Stephen agrees. “It’s in the mistakes where new and exciting things happen,” he says. “Think about your favourite artists. They probably did a project or album you didn’t love. But it was important because it helped them take the next steps towards something you thought was amazing. These days, the pressure on artists to arrive fully formed is increasing in line with intense social media scrutiny. Perhaps, it makes for a perfect world. But once people get scared to try new things, you end up with a monoculture.”
With the lockdown ongoing, Soulwax’s future will see them recording, writing and working with Deewee-coached up-and-comers such as experimental artist Laima and psychedelia enthusiast James Righton. They’re also constantly striving to unearth new musical gold. “We devour music of all kinds,” says David. “But we live in a different world to the one we came up in. Before weird music was part of popular culture but now it’s divided between small underground releases and Arianna Grande-style pop.”
“We love the likes of Laurie Anderson’s O Superman reaching the top 10 but the idea of music like this finding its way into the mainstream seems more limited than ever,” says Stephen.
With the future of clubs and live music uncertain, a much-anticipated live tour has been postponed. Planned events for the Despacio, the 50,000-watt high-end sound system Soulwax play alongside LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, have also been put on hold for the time being. “We don’t know how it will evolve,” says David. “But hopefully science will lead us back to gigs – and when it does, hopefully people will want to come out and party.”