Martin Newcomb opened his vast collection of rare electronic instruments to the public, but the public stayed at home. Now, therefore, he's changed his plans and built a studio — but some amazing vintage synths still feature prominently. Gordon Reid finds out more from Martin and studio designer Kevin van Green.
The last time Martin Newcomb featured in these pages (way back in SOS October 1994) it was as the proud owner of the Museum of Synthesizer Technology. The Museum is now long gone, and much of its collection has been sold off. However, Martin remains as enthusiastic as ever about vintage synthesizers, and his latest project treats the cream of his collection as the centrepiece of a working studio enviroment, rather than a collection of museum pieces. I visited the new (and confusingly named) Museum Studio to ask about the thinking behind this new venture, and talked to studio designer Kevin van Green about the peculiar challenges involved in converting a former pig shed into an acoustically treated space suitable for housing a collection of vintage electronic instruments.
The Museum of Synthesizer Technology succeeded in putting together what was, at the time, the world's largest collection of analogue synths, but Martin was dismayed to find that this did not guarantee public interest. So was it a failure? "Yes," he told me, "it failed. In retrospect, I liken it to St Paul's Cathedral. Everyone thinks it's great that St Paul's is there, but they assume that it's always going to be there and never bother to go and see it. The Museum was like that. All the people came along in the first couple of years and, after that, the only support came from America, Germany and, to a lesser degree, Japan. I tried to organise things like tours from college music departments, but the response was always, 'You're too far away,' or 'I'll make an effort at some point but not at the moment.'
"Maintaining the Museum was like painting the Forth Bridge. There was just so much equipment in there that, fanatical as I was, it became too much to handle. It's impossible to have 300 synths and have them all operating at one time. No sooner had I fixed one, than others started to go wrong. Someone would come down, switch on a Minimoog, and say, 'One of the oscillators isn't working.' I would then have to spend money getting it fixed, and it was financial madness to continue like that. I tried to get support from the lottery, but the world's largest collection of analogue synths didn't interest them. I even took a few steps to sell the collection to the Smithsonian, but they couldn't find the money either.
"Before I closed the Museum, I started running a studio within it, and I noticed that people walked straight through the Museum to get to the studio. I started thinking, 'What's all this stuff doing here if nobody bothers to use it?' so I decided to keep the best, and got rid of all the fodder. I sold all the things like Korg MS10s and MS20s, the ARPs and so on, and all the duplicates. Go to Turnkey and have a look at their collection — almost all of that came from the Museum. I also sold a lot of smaller keyboards through Peter Forrest's VEMIA auctions, and that was the end of the Museum of Synthesizer Technology."
The closure of the Museum coincided with a move of house for Martin and his wife, but it seems the two events were not connected. "My wife and I wanted to be in a more rural setting with fewer neighbours, more land for our horses and stables, and better schools for our children," he explains. "It just so happened that this house had a wonderful building that I earmarked straight away as the next studio. In its previous life, it was a seven‑foot‑high pig shed, but the previous owners had obtained permission to convert it into a three‑bedroom bungalow, so they had had the roof jacked up to about 14 feet."
To take care of the finer details of the studio conversion, Martin engaged Kevin van Green of East Anglian studio designers Electric Eel, best‑known for their work on the domed studio synth pop maestro Vince Clarke had built to house his equally gargantuan synth collection. Kevin masterminded the conversion from pigpen to a state‑of‑the‑art studio; were there any problems? "When Martin asked me whether we could turn this into a studio, I said 'yes' but, to be honest, there were more problems than I had expected. This was because of the agricultural nature of the building — it was just knocked together. The main studio was originally two rooms, so we had to get a structural engineer in to calculate the roof loading. That's a serious job, and it's good to get somebody on board who can crunch the right numbers. The engineer decided that we had to put some extra steelwork in to stop the roof from sagging, but there was already a certain amount of subsidence in the foundations. We had to dig extra foundations to take the weight of the steels that we needed to hold up the roof.
"I then had several meetings with Martin to discuss how he wanted the studio to be. I prepared some drawings, calculated the acoustics, and decided what we needed to tune the room to the standard that he wanted. I then showed these to Martin, we agreed the designs, and went from there.
"The first thing was to aim for a frequency response of 20Hz to 20kHz, but it's very difficult to tune a room down to 20 cycles. Usually this means that the room must get smaller and smaller to accommodate the traps, but Martin owns so many synthesizers that I don't think he would have thanked me if I had taken away an extra couple of metres."
The bass traps are not evident in the completed studio, but they are nevertheless present, as Kevin explains. "There are four diaphragmatic traps in the corners, and eight wide‑band absorbers behind the internal walls. These are partly obscured by the big synths, but that's unavoidable at times — you can't have a studio without equipment in it. Sound does bounce off the large panels of the big modular synths, but you have that to a lesser extent in any studio. Sound bounces off the mixing desk and there's nothing you can do about it. You just have to get as much tuning in the empty room as you can, and hope that it's going to be OK after you populate it. How could any designer tune a room to this volume of equipment? It's not possible!
"The triangular absorbers in the ceiling are my design. They're made from 200mm Mellotec blocks supplied by the Noise Control Centre, and they improve the mid‑range absorbency. This is important, because otherwise there would only be high‑frequency diffusers up there.
"Martin chose a wood block floor that looks nice. Each block has a different resonant frequency from the others, and this helps, because you don't want too much of the same‑sounding material in the studio. That's one of my theories: if you have enough different things absorbing and resonating at different frequencies, you'll get closer to the response you want. The floor floats on two layers of chipboard with 3mm or 4mm layers of rubber underlay, which is itself floated on Sellotex. This is very similar to Mellotec — it's a compact construction foam designed for isolating floors in tower blocks. You can lay concrete on it and totally isolate the floor from the sub‑floor. The under‑floor wiring is all in channels with draw‑wires to pull extra cables through if we want, but now that it's finished we can't get to the conduits themselves. If something gets lost down there, it'll stay down there.
"I decoupled the inner walls from the outer ones using neoprene rubber. In theory, a 40‑ton truck could roll by outside and we wouldn't know much about it. The walls themselves have MDF carriers for the power points and the wall boxes that Martin will use to plug his synthesizers in to the tie‑lines.
"We also concentrated on noise control. For example, we isolated the air conditioner by putting it on its own platform with neoprene rubber all the way round. This means that it's not directly in contact with the framework, and that reduces the mechanical noise. Of course, we can't do anything about the actual air conditioning, just run it at slow speed."
Once the studio shell was complete, it must have been a huge job to populate it. Kevin explained: "We could only start populating the studio after we got the big racks in place. The design criterion here was to get as many rack units into as small a space as we could, and without encroaching into the centre of the room. I'd never seen anything quite like Martin's specification, so we designed it ourselves. We took lots of care, even to the extent of downlighting the lower section. This is because the central shelf casts a shadow, and if you have LCD screens and lots of little knobs in the lower section you have to be able to see what you're doing.
"The power to the racks is three‑phase with both 110V and 240V lines. That's very important because Martin has lots of American gear, and adaptors would get hot and be too noisy. Originally there was only a domestic supply in here, but knowing the amount of equipment that would be in the room, we got a dedicated supply from the street."
Martin added, "We made the racks the core of the studio by placing wall boxes with MIDI, CV and Gate around the room, and tying these back to two huge 425‑socket patchbays in the racks themselves. I can use these to patch all the modulars together into one enormous synth [see picture, right]."
Despite the large number of instruments that would be housed in Museum Studios, Martin chose not to specify a gigantic desk, settling instead for a modest Mackie 32•8 eight‑buss affair: "I must admit that I've never understood the large desks on the market, but this Mackie is much simpler. I know that some people will disagree with my choice, but to make a significant improvement, I would have had to go really upmarket. If the studio is a commercial success, I'll invest some money in a better desk."
Likewise, the actual recording equipment would not look out of place in any project studio: "For recording, I have a pair of the older 16‑bit ADATs, a Soundscape SSHDR1, and a Mac running Studio Vision. The Soundscape was recommended to me by a number of musicians who told me that it is much easier, better to use, and more reliable than Pro Tools."
The monitoring arrangement, however, is quite unusual. "The speakers look like four‑channel monitoring, but they're not," explains Martin. "The reason for this is that, in my old studio, I often found myself playing a keyboard with one speaker about six inches from my head, and the other on the other side of the room. Here, I can select any two of the four pairs — not including diagonals — to suit where I'm standing in the studio. That way, I never have to be playing right next to a speaker."
I asked Kevin whether this novel approach had caused him any additional problems in the design. "Yes," he admitted, "Since Martin already had a pair of Dynaudio Acoustics M2s, it seemed obvious to get another pair. Unfortunately, we had to 'soffit' them, simply because of the number of keyboards that Martin wanted to stuff in here. This means flush‑mounting the speakers in the walls, as opposed to mounting them on speaker stands, which is how M2s are designed to be used. Soffiting can give you an undesirable bass lift — as much as 5dB — which would have made the whole studio sound lopsided and muddy, but I think that I've overcome this by making sure that the M2s are not enclosed; the sound can pass around them, between the inner and outer walls. If a sweep test shows up any nasty problems, I'll try blocking some of the ports, or opening up the soffiting a bit to let more sound out. Since the enclosures above the speakers are MDF I could even drill holes in them, effectively creating ports which I could tune to a lower frequency."
Looking around the studio, I saw three or four 'pride of place' instruments, surrounded by lesser synthesizers that would be dream machines almost anywhere else. Clearly, although Martin had sold more than 200 instruments, he still owned a keyboard player's paradise. He kindly offered to give me the guided tour...
"The Analogue Systems Phoenix is the centrepiece of the studio. This is a unique synthesizer with a unique history. It all started when Bob Williams told me that he was going to start manufacturing modular synthesizers. At that time, I wanted a modern system in the Museum to complement my Moogs and Polyfusions and so on. Modern synths give you different sounds, as well as modules that they simply didn't manufacture in the '60s and '70s. I was considering a Doepfer initially, but I have a lot of respect for Analogue Systems' designer Steve Gay, so I bought a few small RS10 and RS15 racks. I liked these a lot, so I went the whole hog and the Phoenix was born. There are over 200 modules in there, mounted in 32 racks. I designed the cabinetry myself, and it was built by a cabinetmaker in Essex. The quality is excellent — it's solid wood, not veneer — and it really does look like a piece of high‑quality furniture.
"Phoenix isn't really the centrepiece of my performances but, because of its size, we positioned the other synthesizers around it. Two RS8500s, an RS8000, and an RS15 flank the main cabinet, and I think that these complement my Moog, Emu, and Polyfusion modulars very well. There's only one large Moog in here, an expanded System 55. This began life in 1974 as a basic 55, but it now has four cabinets including some rare modules. At one stage, I had about six of these, but one is quite enough. I also have a Moog IIIp built in 1969.
"The Polyfusion was the first modular system that I could operate easily, and it remains one of my favourites. It doesn't sound as rich as the Moog, but it has a sound of its own. The Emu modular also has a lovely texture. Some of the controls aren't very good, and I don't think much of its filters, but the oscillators are very good.
"I've disposed of many systems that people would consider highly desirable, such as the EMS Synthi 100 and the ARP 2500. The Synthi was very large, very expensive, and nigh‑on impossible to use. In all the years that the Museum was open, only one person got any interesting sounds out of it. Likewise, the ARP 2500 was very demanding, and it wasn't very reliable. Of the five cabinets of 2500 that I had, I gradually whittled them down to one wing, and even that went wrong. I think it ended up at Turnkey. At one time, it was my quest to own every ARP ever built, and I think that it was only the Centaur that I was pursuing at the end. But I was never going to be the owner of the Centaur, and I didn't find the ARPs particularly reliable, or that brilliant‑sounding, so — with the exception of one ARP 2600 — I disposed of my entire collection of them.
"Similarly, I've disposed of my Roland System 100s and 700s. As far as I am concerned, the 100M is completely replaced by the RS Integrator, and I know that some people revere the System 700, but I think that it's highly overrated. There's nothing on the 700 that you can't do on an Integrator.
"I've kept an Oberheim 2‑Voice, a Synton Syrinx, an RSF Kobol, an Elka Synthex, a Prophet 5, a Jupiter 8, a Steiner Parker Synthacon, and lots of others. Then there's the Birotron... This one has a tape missing, so not all the notes work on all four sounds, but there's just something about it. The choirs have a very grainy feel, which you can't get from a Mellotron. I have two tape racks for my Mellotron 400 — one with three choir sounds, and the other with the standard cellos, violins, and flutes.
"Of the digital equipment, the Roland A90 and the Kurzweil K2500 are the essential pieces. Then there are the Roland JD800, the Nord Lead 2, and the Yamaha VL7. There's even a Waldorf Q, but if it doesn't get used, or if I decide that it doesn't deserve its place, it will be cast aside or sold. As for the Digital Keyboards Synergy... well, that was one of the real rarities in the museum. It's serial number 1, it still works, and it has some interesting sounds in it. So I've kept that, too. I think that the digital equipment complements the analogue, working well alongside it, not instead of it."
Museum Studio, unsurprisingly, also boasts an interesting selection of vintage outboard and recording equipment. "Vintage and valve outboard dominate the racks," explains Martin. "There are Telefunken compressors, limiters, and preamps, all from the '60s and '70s. There's a selection of EAR equalisers — a pair of 822Q shelving equalisers and a pair of 823MQ parametric EQs — and these are very good, as good as the Klein & Hummel that's in there. There's also an EMT245. This was one of the first digital effects ever made.
"I also have some of the earliest Eventides. I love the H910 Harmoniser because of its quirky pitch‑shifting; you get some really interesting effects using it. Then there's a Moog 12‑stage phaser, the only Moog rackmount that survived the clearout of the Museum. These are complemented by a pair of Roland RE501 Space Echoes, a Roland Stereo Flanger and a Dimension D. Outside, I have a pair of EMT stereo plate reverbs. One is a transistor model, the other is a valve version. I can't put these in the studio because each is about seven feet long, four feet high, and a foot wide, so they'll be connected to the patchbays using tie‑lines."
Despite the huge amount of equipment available, Museum Studios is far from what most people would consider ideal as a general‑purpose studio. The speaker placement and desk choice suggests that Martin is aiming at the mid or lower end of the market, a view with which he firmly agrees: "I'm not going to be the next AIR Studios — they don't have to worry just yet. Having said that, there's a lot of equipment in here that you're not going to find anywhere else. But, for the moment, the studio is purely a keyboard player's paradise. If a band wants to come in, I have good mics and preamps, and various bits and pieces such as DI boxes, but there are no booths. We could construct something in the next room, but whether I do this or not will be in response to what people want. If I don't need a vocal booth, I'm not going to build one. Similarly, I'm not going to build facilities for drummers unless drummers want to use the studio a lot. It's as simple as that."
Kevin has a different view. "In every studio it's what you don't see that's important. I haven't done a frequency‑response sweep yet — we only powered up last week — but I don't perceive any huge problems. We have Mellotec, lots of soft absorbers, and adequate bass trapping, so I think that we're there or thereabouts. I suspect that there's a hump at around 120Hz, but it seems pretty flat below that. The top end is sweet and the imaging from the monitors is excellent, so I know that there are no nasty reflections. The reverb is nice and short but there is still some life in the room.
"Overall, I think that I've met Martin's specifications. There are good practices and bad practices, so you just try to stick to as many good practices as you can. It certainly sounds better than the old studio at the Museum of Synthesizer Technology."
So where does the Museum Studio go from here? I'll leave the last words to Martin... "It would be nice to make money out of the studio, but it really it doesn't matter if I don't. That's because it's primarily here for my pleasure. Of course, if you come back in two years' time I would like to tell you about a group that came in, made a recording, and had a big hit. Not necessarily just on keyboards, because I hope that the studio will become more versatile in the future. But only time will tell."
"You can isolate a floor reasonably cheaply using Jablite — little balls of polystyrene that you can buy in two‑inch or four‑inch packs. You lay two inches of this, and cover it with a layer of chipboard. If you have really heavy equipment, you can run two layers of chipboard in different directions, and then put whatever floor you like on top of that. OK, it won't isolate you from the kids jumping up and down in the next room, but it really helps cut the sound transmission through the floor, and every bit helps. You can take things a step further by treating the walls, or by isolating problem walls. If you do lots of little things, you can get great results at home, both in terms of noise reduction and tuning."
"I like to think of things from an aesthetic point of view as well as from a practical one. I'm happy to sacrifice a little bit in the way of acoustics if it makes the musicians feel happy. If they feel comfortable, they'll perform well. That's much better than having them feel cramped because I took extra space for acoustic treatment.
"If Martin is going to sell studio time, potential clients' first impressions must be of a good, airy space. We know that they'll love the equipment, but they must also love the room and want to work in here. I think we've achieved that. I could work here."
- Analogue Systems Phoenix (32 rack), RS8000 (4 rack), RS8500 (8 rack), RS8500XS (8 rack), RS15 (2 rack), RS10 (1 rack), RS upper tier with Analogue Solutions Concussor modules.
- Doepfer 6U rack.
- Emu main cabinet.
- Moog System 55, upper tiers (x2), System 3P.
- Polyfusion main cabinet, upper tier, assorted module cabinets.
- PPG W Palm sequencer.
- Wavemakers triple band‑pass filter and dual quad VCA.
- Akai MX1000 master keyboard with piano card.
- Clavia Nord Lead 2 modelling synth.
- Digital Keyboards Synergy.
- Emu Proteus Procussion drum module, Vintage Keys, Proteus 2XR and Proteus 2000 sound modules.
- Korg Prophecy modelling synth, 01W/FD S&S synth.
- Novation Supernova modelling synth.
- PPG Wave v2.2 v6 digital synth.
- Roland R70 drum machine, MC303 sequencer, JP8080 virtual analogue synth, JD800 synth (x2), JD990 and JV1080 sound modules, A90EX master keyboard.
- Simmons SDS5, MTX9, SDS1000, SDS2000.
- Yamaha TX816, TG50 and TG500 sound modules, VL7 modelling synths.
- Waldorf Q virtual analogue synth, Microwave XT wavetable synth.
ANALOGUE & HYBRID SYNTHS
- Analogue Systems TH48 sequencer.
- ARP 2600 and 1600 semi‑modulars.
- EMS Synthi AKS and VCS3 synths.
- Korg PS3200 semi‑modular, 700 and 700S keyboards, CX3 organ.
- Oberheim 2‑Voice.
- Octave Plateau Voyetra 8 rackmount synth.
- Mellotron 400M.
- Moog Minimoog.
- Synton Syrinx keyboard.
- Roland Juno 60, Jupiter 6, Jupiter 8 synths, TR808 drum machine.
- RSF Kobol monophonic keyboard.
- Sequential Prophet 5 rev 3.3.
- Steiner Parker Synthacon keyboard.
- Studio Electronics SE1.
- ADL 300G valve DI box.
- Analogue Solutions FB3 filter bank.
- Bode frequency shifter.
- Doepfer phasers (x4) and frequency shifters (x2).
- EAR Esoteric Audio valve EQs (x4).
- EMT 245 reverb/delay, EMT 140 stereo plate reverb (valve), EMT 140 stereo plate reverb (transistor).
- Eventide Instant Flanger, H910 Harmoniser.
- Kenton Pro 4 (x2), Pro 2000, Pro 2 (x2) and Pro Solo (x4) interfaces.
- Klein & Hummell UE1000 EQ.
- Moog 12‑stage phaser, 1125 Sample & Hold.
- Mutronix Bi‑phaser.
- Neumann and Gefell MV692 mics (x2).
- Polyfusion QP1 quad panner.
- Roland RE501 echo (x2), Dimension D.
- Sony D7 delay, R7 reverb.
- TC 1210 chorus/flanger.
- Telefunken V76/80 and V76 mic preamps.
- Telefunken V72, V72a, V77 and V78 line amps (all x2).
- Telefunken U373a compressor/limiter (x4).
- Telefunken U676a line amp.
Although technology may have moved on, Martin Newcomb is unconvinced both about its effects on playing ability and the uses to which it's being put: "I had a Hammond C3 at the Museum, but it had to go. If I had kept it, there wouldn't have been space for other things. Also, the C3 was one of the keyboards that people weren't particularly interested in using. You have to play it, and that was a big problem. I think this shows that there is less talent around than there was 20 years ago. So much recording is now computer‑assisted that you don't need as much talent to be an artist today.
"I find it incredible that keyboard players still refer back to Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson, players whose heydays were 25 years ago. It's the same with instruments. Companies invest thousands or millions of pounds to design a keyboard that — they claim — sounds like a Moog that was defunct 20 years ago. Is that the way forward? It seems that we're always looking to the past, and there's nothing new that players are particularly happy with. If there was, we wouldn't be looking backwards so much."