How Heath Aldrich Became St. Louis' 'Synth Whisperer'

Heath Aldrich is the go-to guy for many St. Louis musicians.
Heath Aldrich is the go-to guy for many St. Louis musicians. MABEL SUEN

For a host of local musicians, the name "Dave Anderson" is synonymous with "guitar." His electric guitar and pedal steel work has livened up acts from his own Tenement Ruth to Grace Basement and May Day Orchestra, and he runs a cottage industry, Tritone Guitars, out of his south city basement. He's repaired and set up hundreds of local axes over the years, and has become a trusted name for anything with strings, wood and magnetic coils.

So how does one of St. Louis' premier guitar authorities end up down the rabbit-hole of modular synthesis, an instrument built on circuits, voltages and switchboard-like patch bays?

For Anderson, an off-the-cuff jam session with synthesist and multi-instrumentalist Kit Hamon turned him on to the instrument's tone and mutability; listening back to the session's recordings, he was drawn to the synth's unique timbre and soon bought his own. He dug around the internet and joined some modular Facebook groups, but needed guidance with the oft-baffling terms and techniques.

So who does the guitar guru call for all things modular?

"I kept hearing the name 'Heath Aldrich,'" Anderson says. And soon enough, Aldrich reached out. "He really answered a lot of basic questions and helped me get started."

Aldrich, a self-taught synthesist and experienced builder of modules and systems, has become something of a "synth whisperer" to local musicians thinking about making the plunge into the bottomless pool of modular synthesis.

After ascending the stairs of his Clifton Heights home to his third-floor studio, Aldrich walks a visitor through his multi-colored, blinking and cable-connected rig. There's a suitcase-sized rack populated by thin strips of knob-infested and input-pocked metal; above it is a wall-mounted modern recreation of the famed ARP 2600, a grey slab favored by Stevie Wonder and Joe Zawinul.

But Aldrich's pride and joy is a home-brew replica of the Buchla Music Easel, a vaunted (and damned expensive) instrument used by Suzanne Ciani and Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith. A metallic keyboard triggers the notes from a plexiglass-housed panel of sliders and switches, all of which can alter the tone of the oscillator or the shape of its wave. Aldrich built it himself, spending somewhere around 50 hours to solder and screw the machine into being.

"I always try to invite people over to see it," Aldrich says of his rig. His hospitality speaks both to his gregarious nature and the relative obscurity of the modules, most of which are bought online and require D.I.Y. assemblage. "Half of what is terrifying to people about this stuff is that you can't go to Guitar Center and check it out, and it's too much of an investment to just jump in."

Which is exactly how Anderson and Aldrich hooked up.

"Dave knew enough about synths to get himself in trouble," Aldrich says. "He easily could have ran down a very, very dark hole of buying the newest thing. Sometimes you just need somebody to say, 'Stop! Stop it! What is this going to achieve for you, aside from the fact that it's cool?' It's really easy to be seduced by that.

"So many people that I know are, like, guitar players that want to get into it, so finding something that makes music is really key to them," Aldrich continues.

Anderson concurs with Aldrich's approach in seeking something musical, rather than atonal or noise-oriented, while embracing the mathematical approach to creation.

"A lot of guitar players think in terms of pitch and velocity," says Anderson. "It's a lot about scales and harmony, and how to integrate that in a song. With synths, specifically modular, you begin to think in terms of syncopation and timbre because the sequence of notes is predetermined. You aren't spending time thinking about technique, the composition style of manipulating control voltage becomes the technique."

Aldrich describes his preferred style of music as "doom metal with synths," and his most recent project, Solid State Disaster, was a mix of electro-noise and industrial thrash. But up in his workspace, he usually introduces first-time knob-twiddlers to the world of modular synths with a softer palette of self-generating repetitions. On a Wednesday evening in early March, his Buchla rig was emitting a slow pattern of warm, round and fuzzy tones, redolent of low brass. A few movements of sliders and knobs changed the frequency to a subterranean bongo and a resonant whoosh.

"I went from doing more industrial stuff to, like, more long-format drone-y things, which may not be super interesting to everybody," he says. "But I would love to be able to score TV or movies or commercials or things, because it's so self-generative. I set up the rules, it makes the music, and together we can be a good team."

For now, Aldrich is prepping a series of songs and hopes to record them soon; because of the fragile and temperamental nature of the synth's components, live shows are out of the question for now. But he remains committed to serving as a guide to the knotty and topsy-turvy universe of modular synth.

"In my altruistic vision of the world, we all are doing things that make us the best version of ourselves — if that's playing music or learning a new hobby or being part of something, I don't want to leave someone in the dust," Aldrich says. "I want everyone to get their fair-enough shot. St. Louis is too small of a community to be an asshole to your fellow musician."

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