The Synth Library: Room to Make Noise

April 6, 2017

Portland’s Synth Library is on a mission to make modular synthesis accessible to everyone. The studio, housed in the S1 nonprofit arts center, offers a community space where anyone can explore synthesis through educational workshops and hands-on studio time.

The Library strives for inclusiveness: Class fees and library membership are offered on a sliding scale, and nobody is turned away for lack of funds. The organization makes a special effort to engage women and non-binary people through dedicated courses.

Alissa DeRubeis running a workshop at the Portland Synth Library.

The space exists thanks to efforts of the dedicated team at S1 and cofounder Alissa DeRubeis. The Philadelphia native grew up making music, but didn’t get into synths until she moved to Austin, where she learned to circuit-bend, solder, and run sound through workshops she helped develop at the Church of the Friendly Ghost, a volunteer-run arts organization.

While helping curate the Handmade Music Austin improvisational series, DeRubeis became friends with 4MS founder Dan Green. When 4ms relocated to Portland in 2012, she moved with them and began officially working for the company.

In Portland, DeRubeis began thinking of ways to combine her synth obsession with her dedication to community outreach. “I’ve always been interested in making synths more accessible to more people, and making a synth library was an idea I’d had for a while,” she says. At the 2015 NAMM show, she floated the idea to synth manufacturers, sharing her vision for a community learning space and feeling out the potential for product donations. “Everyone was really supportive of it, and that made me feel like, okay, people think this is a good, workable idea.”

DeRubeis with Felisha Ledesma, co-founder of the Synth Library.

Meanwhile, the perfect space revealed itself one evening at Portland’s S1 center. “The first time I went to that space, I knew right away,” she says. “The Womens’ Beat League, a group in S1 that teaches females and non-binary people how to DJ, was having an open deck meeting at the time, and all the ladies come and have their gear set up and show each other how to use it, and it’s just this great room, filled with women and non-binary people sharing their information on electronic gear, and I thought, I’ve finally arrived.” She pitched her idea to S1 executive director Felisha Ledesma, and once she secured the space and nonprofit status, approached manufacturers in earnest. Five months later, the library was up and running.

More than 31 manufacturers, from around the world, are represented including Moog Music, 4ms, Erica Synths, Make Noise, Mutable Instruments, Moffenzeef Modular, and Noise Engineering. “Some people use the library as their primary studio and don’t have any gear at home, because they can’t afford it,” says DeRubeis. “Ableton donated Pushes and recording software so people are able to record here, even if they don’t have a computer, and take those files and make music with them.

“Something notable, which I think people don’t immediately realize, is that all of the gear is donated,” DeRubeis continues. “People all over the world have been really supportive. That has made all of the difference because now people have all of these instruments to learn on.”

The library is open five days a week and staffed by volunteers. Courses range from introductions to synthesis and soldering to advanced workshops such as a three-week Buchla intensive. Performances and workshops have been hosted by artists such as Moor Mother and Russell Butler.

This spring, DeRubeis will take the Synth Library on the road, hosting free workshops at Portland’s Sync02 synth meet-up, Moogfest, and Superbooth17 in Berlin. “There will be workshops for women at all of them,” she notes.

DeRubeis, who also holds workshops for incarcerated youth, says the most gratifying part of her work is seeing the students figure out technology and connect with new sounds, as well as “watching people make music, especially for the first time—the look of pure joy on peoples’ faces when they are composing music that’s exciting for them.” For more information, visit s1portland.com/synthlibrary.

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