Before post-punk group Nation of Language was cutting records and touring the world, performing everywhere from KEXP to The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, primary members Ian Devaney and Aidan Noell weren’t really synth people. In Devaney’s case, he’d already found success in rock band The Static Jacks, but was looking for a better way to channel his creativity after realizing that acoustic instruments had become—or had always been—inadequate. “I had been writing a lot on guitar before Nation of Language, and I just wasn’t very good,” Devaney explains, bravely admitting what many guitarists simply refuse to. “Whenever I would pick up a guitar to start a song, it felt like I was kind of doing the same thing all the time.”
While literally anybody who isn’t Johnny Marr has been there, Devaney’s crisis of faith came to a head in a very specific moment: when he was listening to “Electricity,” the poppy, synth-laden song by ‘80s New Wave group Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. (Devaney also cites New Order and The Human League as major influences, but it was “Electricity” that caused him to go electronic.) “There’s no guitar in it—it’s all bass guitar and synth and electronic drums,” Devaney explains. “There was a sparseness to it that made me feel like I could manage that. At the time, I was mostly listening to punk music that was very stripped back, and it was kind of a revelation to me to hear synth music that had that spirit.” Soon after, he started Nation of Language, releasing debut album Introduction, Presence in 2020.
Noell, Devaney’s partner, entered the band not only having no experience on guitar, but no musical background whatsoever. “I didn’t play any instruments at all. I never really wanted to be a musician,” she says, explaining that she decided to learn to play the synthesizer after seeing that Devaney needed musicians for his new band. “I thought he could teach me. Luckily, it wasn’t too difficult,” she says. Before long, she became a full band member, taking on most of the synth duties in live performances.
Now on their third album, Strange Disciple, which drops today, Devaney and Noell are in a unique position to pontificate about their fave synthesizers, having amassed a large amount of knowledge in a fairly short time. These days, people regularly ask them how to get into synths; Devaney says he tells beginners to look for instruments with presets, and to consider how they want to play the instrument, like whether they want something monophonic, meaning it plays one note at a time, or polyphonic, meaning that it can play chords. For example, he recalls a friend who came into the synthesizer having a piano background. “Her urge was to play chords, and the monophonic synths didn’t really do it for her. If you’re someone who can’t really play the piano, I think monophonic is fine, because you can come up with a little melody and you don’t have to know theory and all of these things.” To that effect, he finds that having a synth with the capacity to record and save music is very important.
While Devaney and Noell started off playing synths like the Moog Subsequent 25 and the microKORG, their journey has taken them a long way; now, Devaney craves the sounds of the Yamaha CS-80, an instrument he says is “probably made most famous by being the foundation of the Blade Runner soundtrack.” Below, Devaney and Noell tell VICE about some of their favorite synths, explaining where they started out, what they recommend to friends, and which “white whale” they recently picked up.
Best synths for beginners: microKORG and Moog Subsequent 25
Two instruments stand out to Noell as central to her learning to play synth, a process she feels very proud of. “I do feel pretty accomplished as time goes by—the fact that I’ve been able to get to where I am in terms of comfortability. The [Moog] Subsequent 25 was probably the first, and the microKORG, which had a few keys missing.” Noell tends to pick the microKORG as her favorite synth for beginners. “I think that’s definitely a really good starter synth,” she says. “People often ask me, like friends who are trying to start writing music, what I would recommend. It’s definitely a pretty straightforward place to start.”
“The first synth I got was a Moog Sub Phatty—these days, it’s called the Subsequent 25, which is a much better name,” Devaney says, laughing. “That was a monophonic synthesizer—you can only play one note at a time. Writing on that sort of synth, I think it changed how I approached writing music.”
Best analog synths: Moog Subsequent 37 and Model D
Analog synthesizers—aka old-school ones that use real circuits, signals, and oscillators as opposed to producing sounds digitally—are a huge part of Nation of Language’s music, and are pretty much always on stage when the band performs. Devaney and Noell love the sound, of course, but it’s also an homage to their influences.
“Specifically with the Moog [analog] synths, there’s kind of a romance to them—a lot of the foundational influences of this band go back to Kraftwerk, and you always see a Moog somewhere up there. Even when I was just using the digital recreation of it, it’s nice to place yourself within a context of people you look up to. There was always this sort of ‘I want to use what they use’ aspect to it.”
According to Devaney, if the band were to only use one instrument, it would probably be the Moog Model D, which he recently bought himself. “It feels like we’re so close to that anyway,” he explains. “It dominates so much of our sound… For a long time, that [synth] has been my white whale.”
Best synth for people who already play piano: Korg Minilogue
“The Korg Minilogue is definitely a synth that I recommend to people when they ask me,” Devaney says. “It can seem intimidating when all the knobs are there, but once you actually say, ‘Oh, I want to alter this a little bit,’ it’s right there for you to experiment and play around [with] and get a sense of what each knob does to the sound.”
For musicians coming from a more classical background, or ones especially interested in music theory, Devaney says this is a perfect starting point. “It has presets, it’s polyphonic, it has a lot of knobs, and it lets you check all those boxes of sound manipulation and performance, and save what you’ve made.”
Best synth for learning the basics: Moog Werkstatt
“There’s one little Moog that I have—if you can tell I have brand loyalty [laughs]—it’s called the Werkstatt,” Devaney says. “It’s a good learner synth, not so much in terms of playing, but in terms of understanding the fundamentals of how you can manipulate a sound. It’s very basic, primitive like the most caveman version of the synthesizer. I use it a lot for any sort of freakout sounds, because you just twist a knob, and, all of the sudden, it’s doing something insane. That’s a good, very cheap little single note synth that I really love.”
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