Jason Amm, otherwise known as Solvent, is the pied piper of old analog gear. In an era when many aging synths are gathering dust and sitting unhappily in storage — while the analog-modeled software clones are getting all of the attention — Solvent is championing the honored elders. With his third album — Apples & Synthesizers (Ghostly International, 2004), a 1980-meets-2004 mix of techno-pop — Amm aims to strike the balance of time-worn and modern technology.
“[The title is] a play on the saying ‘It's like comparing apples and oranges,’” he says. “I'm attempting to show the difference between electronic music created primarily with computers — apples — and electronic music made primarily with old-school analog gear — synthesizers. In the last few years, I've gotten really deep into studying and implementing old-school analog synthesis and sequencing techniques. Since most people are using software and virtual analog synthesizers these days, I think that music made with real analog gear really stands out.”
The Roland TR-808 and CR-78 are the staple beat makers for Solvent's beats — Amm even calls them “the best-sounding drum machines of all time.” But modern soft samplers often assist with the rhythms. “The thing that I do a lot for percussion is program percussion sounds on my analog synths, then record the sounds into my computer and slot them into a software sampler like Native Instruments Battery or Emagic EXS24,” he says.
Old synths doing their share of work are the Roland Jupiter-6, System 100 and Alpha Juno-2; the Moog Prodigy; and the Korg MS-20. Amm tends to start out his tracks with melodic synth-bass lines. “That's the anchor of about 75 percent of my compositions,” he says. “One thing that's new with Apples & Synthesizers is that a lot of these bass lines are being sequenced with a Frostwave Fat Controller analog sequencer.”
Amm also uses the Jupiter-6 to serve up beats, as long as he can keep its sound true to form. “I avoid processing the sounds in the computer with digital filters because that really takes away from the purity of the sound,” he says. “I like it to sound exactly as it did when it came out of the synth. Later, I'll sometimes add delay or reverb with an outboard effects unit or maybe run them through an analog pedal like my Moogerfooger Lowpass Filter.”
On occasion, Apples & Synthesizers showcases Amm's robotlike effected vocals. “‘Remote Control’ is the only song I've released with my actual voice,” he admits. Even then, it's hard to tell that it's Amm. “That's just me singing through a cheap SM58 knockoff mic into a Boss BF-1, which is a flanger pedal from the '70s,” he says. “On the other vocal tracks I've done, I'm using a Roland SVC-350 analog vocoder. I would be happy to use my voice unprocessed if it sounded good, but so far, I haven't found the confidence to do that!”
Heavily processed or not, the scales still tilt in favor of analog, especially when it comes to mixdown. “I'm still working on a project-studio level,” Amm says, “but I always dream of achieving a perfect big-studio mix like I hear on my favorite synth-pop records: Upstairs at Eric's by Yaz and Dare! by the Human League. One lesson I've learned is to not skimp on your mixing board! I don't have a super-high-end mixer, but there is a staggering difference between a quality Allen & Heath mixer in the $1,000 to $1,500 range and a more common sub-$1,000 mixer.”
Although Amm uses a Korg Legacy MS-20 VST synth for live shows (along with “real” synths, effects and a laptop for backing tracks), the original hardware synth is still his studio companion. “I'll run percussion patterns through the Korg MS-20's pitch-to-CV converter and use an analog sequencer to provide varying CV values to filter-cutoff per step,” he says. “Both of these techniques are things that I never would have discovered through software — not that the same results cannot be achieved with software, but discovering these techniques through hardware is so much more intuitive and inspiring.” And all of those old synths can now heave a sigh of relief.