The London Synthesiser Center was the center for all things synthesiser back in the 70s and after uncovering some long-forgotten archive material, an interview with the company’s director Amrk Singh, from the 70s has come to light. It is amazing to think how far the synthesiser has come since then, and to see how often this incredible instrument is still in use. It was only two months ago when the world acclaimed composer and performer Sara Lowes premiered her long-awaited Graphine Suite which made full use of a synthesiser and a digital piano. The unusual orchestration of the composition created a wonderful sound that somehow managed to marry something like Pink Floyd with Queen’s Flash soundtrack. The piece was enhanced massively by the use of a synthesiser, which just goes to show – synthesisers are not dead!
You’ve been called Mr Synthesiser, but are you actually a player?
Yes I like to play as often as I can. I’ve been playing for about ten years although I actually stumbled onto the synth by accident. I’ve been playing music since I was a child – playing both Indian and Western music. I was searching for a new instrument on which to
Through the London Synthesiser Centres do you get the chance to form an opinion about the quality of the new generation of electronic keyboard players?
I’ve been extremely impressed with the standard of new players from all types of musical background. The synthesiser is no longer the secret weapon of the keyboard players’ arsenal – it is one of the first items that is considered. We get hundreds of young players in our stores who are considering buying a synthesiser as their very first instrument.
Isn’t the synthesiser a very expensive first instrument?
On the contrary, it has become one of the cheapest in the same way that calculators have become accessible to every schoolchild. Computer type technology and the infamous computer
chip have provided full specification synthesisers which we can sell at £199!
Surely these are limited instruments, and would get tiresome quickly?
Well that’s an important point; you must distinguish between cheap synthesisers. Musicians will probably know, the London Synthesiser Centre imports many instruments direct from the factory, and this allows us to charge far less for a proper synth than most other retailers.
Take ARP synthesisers for example. Just two years ago ARP synthesisers were available in Britain for twice their current retail price. This was because they were marketed under the old-fashioned manufacturer-wholesaler/importer-retailer network where each part of the process made their own individual profit. Today, my synthesisers come directly from the factory to the shop. The saving is so immense that two years later these instruments can be half price. A really good example of this can be seen in the Cat and Kitten range of synthesisers that I have just “re-discovered” in the USA. A few years ago they were available in Britain via the conventional chain of supply, but our current prices for these superb products are just a fraction of their previous retail price.
What advice would you give to a young musician looking for his first synthesiser?
Perhaps the most important consideration of all is that they should get themselves a “complete” instrument – one they won’t tire of quickly and one that has got a wide variety of sounds. This consideration is the most important of all, and in fact I would say this is far more important than the old criteria about whether a budget synth has one oscillator or two.
Some of the features that a first time synth must have, are at least a three octave key keyboard, a patching and interfacing system, a sample and hold, a voice generator, an ADSR envelope generator, and a good quality oscillator and filter circuit. Additionally, low frequency oscillators are extremely useful.
On the Axxe, for example, there’s also “Proportional Pitch Control”. This little device allows the player to bend pitch and add vibrato at the same time. That really adds expression to playing. It’s extras like this that make a synthesiser an instrument with lasting possibilities.
How do you select which instruments to offer in your London synthesiser shops?
Firstly I look at value for money. I think that is the most important thing that should come before everything else. I pride myself on always being able to offer the consumer the best value for money, and the only way I can do that is to ensure that the original price for the product is correct. I then approach the decision by imagining that I’m a professional or semi-professional musician (depending on the product). I try to work out the facilities, effects, and sound he will need on stage or in the studio. I start by logically checking out each function. I was pleased to be able to re-import the CAT SRM synthesiser to Britain and it was by approaching it in this way that I realised its potential.
The CAT SRM is a fine instrument – like all the Octave-Plateau products – but it has been underexposed in Britain – and also over priced I might add. I was pleased to see the Boomtown Rats using one the other day and I am confident that it will now get the popularity it deserves – it makes some great sounds.
Do you plan to scour the world seeking this slightly unusual musical instrument?
No, not really. Things may seem unusual to British musicians if they haven’t been exposed to them before, but I’m only interested in instruments that are of direct benefit to working musicians – if they’re not, then I won’t be able to sell them. One interesting product that I have just started to fly is the Helpinstill Stage Piano. This is an extremely fine product by the company that’s been making piano pick-ups, and a superb stage grand piano for quite a few years. They showed their new stage piano at a music show in Los Angeles recently and I just couldn’t believe it; I think it’s the best stage piano in the world – it really is first class. It’s an instrument for professionals but by importing it direct from Helpinstill we’ve made it available at under £1300.
You said earlier that you were a musician. Do you still play regularly?
Only every day! I don’t get the time I used to, but I’m always playing something. On the ARP UK tour that we did last year I got a little chance to play and I’m certainly planning on doing appearances later this year on other promotion tours.
I’ve been considering doing some more recording later this year. I’m very busy building up the London Synthesiser Centres, of course, but I enjoy music very much. I miss the time I used to spend at it.
It’s been said that synthesisers are just a nine minute wonder. What’s your comment on this attitude?
Oh… [laughs]… Well that’s what they said about the horseless carriage. They also said that Income Tax was just going to be a temporary measure, and that was in the 18th Century. Synthesisers are the future of music. We’re only just in the infancy stage and it won’t be long before people forget to worry about whether the musical source is electronic or mechanical. Soon only the sound and its response to human sensitivity will be important as well as its ease of playing.
These factors are considerably underestimated in some circles. It is possible to build a complex synthesiser which has every feature imaginable, but which is a very insensitive instrument. Some of the big polyphonies are a good example of this. If you talked about that in the jargon of synthesiser, you would say that “the interface compatibility is low” but jargon is another subject. I think there’s far too much jargon attached to synthesisers. Some people are really frightened to use a synthesisers. Some people are really frightened to use a synthesiser because the jargon makes it all seem terribly complicated. In fact, it is very simple. To understand almost any synth on the British market the musician need only spend an hour or so following instructions. After that he will go on discovering subtleties and endless permutations of sound.
Today Amrik Singh is still in the music business but has shifted his speciality from synthesisers to electric pianos. He has recently unveiled a new electronic piano showroom in his Manchester shop, and has his own line of digital pianos, the most notable of which is the Chase P-40. Some of the electric pianos stocked in Mr Singh’s Manchester shop do actually have synth-like qualities – for example the Casio CTK 7200 and the Yamaha PSR E443.