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Make India synth again

Meet the people spearheading India's synth revival. They call themselves geardos

Himanshu Pandey performing live as United Machines. Photo: Shadaab Kadri
Himanshu Pandey performing live as United Machines. Photo: Shadaab Kadri

Entering the living room of Aditya Nandwana’s ninth-floor apartment in the Campa Cola compound in Mumbai’s Worli is like walking into an electronics workshop right after a tornado has passed through it. Guitar pedals and analog synthesizers in various states of disembodiment occupy the couch, while the dining table in the corner has been taken over by a set-up that brings to mind a stripped-down pilot’s cockpit, overflowing with switches and knobs and flashing lights. Nandwana and music producer Tamzid Rahman are huddled over a flight case that looks disconcertingly like the suitcase nukes you see in Cold-War-era spy films, a jumble of cables plugged into a patchwork array of retro-futuristic gadgetry.

It takes 5 minutes of plugging and unplugging cables and tinkering with knobs before they’re satisfied enough to start jamming, though the word “jam" is wholly inadequate to describe the process unfolding in front of me. Nandwana and Rahman aren’t playing music as much as crafting and then deconstructing sound, taking it apart to see how everything fits. They’re mad scientists trying to teach a computer how to play jazz. In the midst of the chaos, Nandwana catches a glimpse of the expression on my face and smiles. “Watch out," he says, (mis)quoting the classic line from Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. “You’ve entered geek country."

If you look hard enough into the darker corners of the Indian independent music scene, you’ll find similar scenes taking place in bedrooms, garages and left-field performance spaces all over the country. India has always had its synth collectors, oddballs whose bedrooms and living spaces are given over to a hoard of vintage analog synthesizers, who spend hours every week scouring Facebook groups and classifieds sites for deals on decades-old samplers, and whose eyes light up at the mention of a Kawai SX-240.

Aditya Nandwana at his home in Worli. Photo: Nayan Shah/Mint

Today, with a synth revival in full flow in the US and Europe, the collectors have been joined by a new generation of synth-heads, less interested in nostalgia than in the sonic possibilities opened up by synthesis. Together, they’re forming new communities, tiny subcultural islands of tinkerers and gear-fetishists coalescing around a handful of old diehards. In Mumbai, the nucleus of this growing synth community is the Geardo Meetup.

“A geardo is the person at a gig who’s less interested in the music than in staring at the console and seeing what the artist is doing," declares Nandwana, a biochemical engineer by training who now works in his family’s textile business, and spends his spare time building guitar pedals and synths under the Animal Factory Amplification brand. Away from his synths, the bespectacled 36-year-old looks like a college professor. And he talks like one too, with frequent segues into abstract musings on the nature of sound.

One of the organizers of the Geardo Meetup, he rattles off the signature characteristics of a geardo, a term coined by veteran DJ and concert promoter Reji Ravindran, as if reading bullet points off a list. “He can communicate excellently and with great verbosity when it comes to talking about instruments, but not necessarily about other things. He may not produce that much music but is almost criminally engrossed in the details of how the equipment works. Never engage with a discussion about gear with a geardo if you have something to do that day."

“I asked my dad for a loan to buy a car, and I spent it on my first synthesizer, sampler and drum machine," says 40-year-old geardo-in-chief Himanshu Pandey aka United Machines, who has one of the biggest synth collections in the country. We’re in the living room of his Goregaon East flat in Mumbai, which doubles up as his studio. His current “stripped down" set-up occupies a table that runs along the wall, with the rest of his gear packed in dozens of cardboard boxes stacked under the table. Like most synth enthusiasts, Pandey started his musical career playing guitar. But a chance encounter with a drum machine at the Furtados store in Mumbai’s Fort area got him hooked. “I loved the idea of synths because they allowed me to explore all the sounds I wanted to experiment with."

While Aditya Nandwana is cautiously optimistic about the growth of the synth revival movement, he worries that the market for synths is already close to saturation-

This was the early 2000s and synths were hard to come by. So Pandey found himself constantly checking eBay and reading reviews and user manuals, trying to zero in on the next bit of hardware that would complete his set-up. He began hunting for deals, going to crazy lengths to track down old Bollywood studio technicians or taking trains all over the country to pick up vintage gear on the cheap (“finding the best deal became part of the thrill"). He’s not entirely sure when he crossed the line from someone who used synthesizers to someone who obsessively collected them. But pretty soon, he was spending all his spare cash on synths, even going to the extent of buying defunct equipment because he couldn’t bear to see it end up on the trash heap. “You have to make space for it in your life," he says with a sheepish grin. “You stop going out, you stop buying new clothes, you give up on expensive habits. All my friends have houses and cars. I have synths."

Many of the synths in Pandey’s collection come with stories attached. One belonged to a gospel musician from Chennai, apparently a living legend on the Tamil gospel scene. A couple date back to when he tricked his now ex-wife into going to Japan for their honeymoon, dragging her along as he spent two days shopping in the “birthplace of synths". Another—a 15-year-old MPC2000XL—was found in a chawl in Andheri East, still sealed in its original wrapping. “A lot of the stories are pretty sad," he says. “Most people are selling because it’s gotten to the point where they have to sell off a business investment or a valued family possession."

In 2015, Pandey started noticing a lot of newer names in the online synth collector communities. After a decade of laptops dominating live shows, artists like Aqua Dominatrix in Mumbai and Jamblu in Delhi were making synths cool again. At the same time, left-field music venues and events like REProduce Listening Room and Synthfarm were giving a much needed platform to people experimenting with sound synthesis. The numbers remained small, but there was a real sense that a community was emerging. So last year, Pandey and Nandwana started the Geardo Meetup. “It’s not just a jam session," says Pandey. “In every city, there’s maybe five or 10 of us, working in our own caves. The idea was to get everyone to come out and talk to each other."

One of the most exciting things about this new wave of synth addicts is the emergence of the DIY synth culture. People like Nandwana and Varun Desai—a Kolkata-based synth maker and the man behind the Synthfarm summit—aren’t just collecting synths, they’re also modifying them and building their own. Everyone I spoke to told me that the charm of hardware synths, at a time when you can do pretty much everything they do on a laptop, comes from the immediacy, and the tactile thrill of working with knobs and wires to create sound. Nandwana just takes that one step further. For him, it’s all about what goes into creating sound. “I’m more interested in seeing what happens when a machine goes crazy musically," he says. “With modular synthesis, it’s like you’re taking a car engine and rewiring it on the fly."

Nandwana has always been a tinkerer. As a child, he played with tape decks. As a teenager, he spent years building guitar effects pedals, teaching himself the basics of electronic circuitry by “failing over and over again". So when he fell in love with synths—and started producing his own take on dark, industrial techno as Sawhorse—it was only natural that he start building his own synths as well. He already has a few modules up for sale on his site.

But while Nandwana is cautiously optimistic about the growth of the synth revival movement, he worries that the market for synths is already close to saturation. “I think we’ve already reached most of the people who are into synthesis. Even abroad, the scene is pretty small. So the question is, how do we make it grow beyond this captive audience?"

Which is where Modular Analog comes in. The brainchild of 42-year-old Richard Brooks and 27-year-old Dhvanit Poduval, Modular Analog is one of the first companies in India producing modular synthesizers. I meet them at their studio in Dahisar, a white-walled space whose plush interiors, bean-bag furniture and massive LCD screens scream “tech start-up". For the past five years, Brooks and Poduval have run eFurtherance, a successful software and web development company.

A year and a half ago, frustrated by the lack of affordable modular synths in the marketplace, they decided to make their own. Starting from scratch, the team had their synth module prototype (a modular synthesizer consists of separate, specialized modules in various configurations) ready in four months. Today, they’ve developed a full range of modules, racks and accessories. “Our mission is to make India synth country," says the ebullient Brooks, who talks a mile a minute as the more laid-back Poduval looks on.

The duo believes that the way for the emerging synth scene to grow is to break out of the confines of experimental electronica and appeal to a bigger audience. With synthesis, they argue, you can do anything, give form to any sound that’s in your head. So, along with developing products, Modular Analog has been busy with outreach, conducting workshops in schools and colleges and inviting schoolchildren to tour its studios. “It didn’t matter if they listened to rock or classical or garba music," says Brooks. “They all tuned into synthesis."

So how big do they think the Indian synth scene can get? Brooks is bullish. He envisions a future in which India is home to a thriving synth industry, with big companies complemented by a cottage industry of home-grown DIYers and boutique synth-makers. Having operated mostly through word of mouth till now, Modular Analog is preparing to go on a full marketing offensive this June, with social media advertising, a modular tour bus, and even a “massive synth event" in the works. Synths, he believes, are the future. But he still ends on a note of caution.

“In the end, it’s not up to us, it’s up to the musicians of India," he says. “It’s about A.R. Rahman using a modular synth on stage or United Machines playing big shows. When people see that and ask how they make these sounds, we can say they’re doing it on those boxes that they built. And people will want to do it themselves too! So it’s not about whether modular synth works as a product. It’s about building a culture that will use and ask for these products."

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