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SynthTubing with Starsky Carr: Part 1

Should You Start a Synthesizer YouTube Channel? How and Why

Starsky Carr · 07/21/23

This is the first in a 3-part series detailing the journey of a YouTube channel, its vision, delivery and the technology used to create content.

In this part I describe the how the channel evolved, how it grew and has changed and what the future holds.

How Did I Get Started SynthTubing?

If you’ve ever searched youtube for synth demo or review, or perhaps a comparison of a couple of bits of kit, you may well have stumbled across my YouTube channel on occasion.

As most people do, I’ve used YouTube to learn how to do things like replace the brake lights on my car. I started the channel to join in with the online community of like-minded people simply helping out. I had a few synths in the studio and thought about creating some related content that wasn’t already available. I had plenty of experience in the studio, having written and produced tracks for years under various guises, so I thought I could add something useful. If, for example, you weren’t sure whether a Prophet 6 or a Rev2 would suit you and your budget best, I could present them next to each other.

I hadn’t seen anyone doing it quite like I thought it should be done, and would get frustrated by some misconceptions repeated in forums. If everyone had the chance to hear them, then they could make their own informed decision. I decided to play them together on camera and tweak them like you might if you had them side-by-side in a store, which most people don’t have access to.

The Grand Vision–What is the Channel Doing?

I didn't start the channel with any grand plan; there was no long-term vision involved. I was simply uploading content that I thought was useful and had a purpose. I wasn’t concentrating at all on growing the channel, or how that might be achieved. It was just satisfying to see a few thousand people had watched the video and had found it useful. My audience started to grow, and I started to see my videos quoted or discussed online (sometimes positively!). All this happened organically, I was simply making content I thought was useful but missing.

This is really important if you want to start a channel that stands out. Think about what it is that you can offer that’s not out there already. It’s very much like making music in that sense. Don’t copy your favourite acts—they’re already doing their thing. Make something you’d like to watch yourself. If starting again, however, I would think about it more strategically. I would set out exactly what it is I want to achieve. There are so many people now making excellent reviews of new kit and demoing vintage gear that any new channel could struggle to make itself heard through the noise.

AudioPilz Bad Gear videos are a perfect example of this. He didn’t have the latest kit, but has professional experience in sound engineering, and knows how to use any kit to produce decent quality demos on the videos. He told me that he simply will not upload anything unless it’s funny—he scripts it all and knows exactly what each episode is going to do. The videos are very stylistic, with rapid fire edits and lots of synth-based memes and jokes. They’re amusing, snappy, and informative. He won’t teach you how to use the kit, but you will understand the main characteristics, functions, and its pros and cons.

AudioPilz Bad Gear: Roland System 8 Youtube video thumbnail

[Above: Prime view of the hilarious and chaotic energy of AudioPilz, as demonstrated by his own YouTube video thumbnail.]

Loopop, on the other hand, makes what are essentially video manuals. This is great for return views; if you purchase the synth you will probably come back to the video to revisit a section or two more than once. If you’re thinking of purchasing something, his videos will help you to understand some specific aspects you may be particularly interested in. Nick Batt from Soncistate is generally considered to be the gold standard in reviewers. Sonicstate may have been first off the blocks with quality online reviews, and they have a solid reputation for being honest and knowledgeable.

If you think about any channel you’re familiar with, you’ll be able to sum them up in a few words. This is definitely something you need to think about. What will your channel be known for? How will people describe it? Look at what you have around you, what you like to do, maybe focus on a particular bit of gear at first. Helping people to understand kit in detail, tutorials, patch demos, producing sounds like famous artists, remaking popular tracks or demoing different musical styles are all popular. It’s important to really think about why someone might click on your thumbnail, and what you’re offering. People like to learn and be entertained while doing it.

I became known for comparisons and holding manufacturers to account. If you say your new software or hardware synth sounds like a Minimoog or Prophet 5, does it really? I’ll take a deep look and see exactly what’s going on. Which is the most accurate software emulation? Which synth would be best for my needs, a Prophet 6 or OB6? Comparing synths, however, is fraught with issues, takes a long time, and you have to know them all inside out. I now know why there are so few detailed comparison around!

The Content–Developing an Individual Style

Once you have an idea for the channel, it’s time to think about the content and the pace of your videos. I’ve already mentioned the breakneck speed of Bad Gear episodes, but compare that to Ricky Tinez. It’s nice to hang out and watch someone figuring out a piece of gear, or trying to build a track. Fast paced isn’t necessarily better, just different. Cuckoo has such a charming personality it’s hard not to enjoy his own brand of quirkiness. His videos have a lo-fi vibe [although in the final article of this series you’ll see he’s very aware of the technical aspects of creating high quality content]. In his early videos, he had a single overhead camera with a mirror next to the gear on the table so you could see his face. It was instantly recognisable as a Cuckoo video—and it was an elegant and eye-catching way of giving the same effect as a two-camera setup, without the additional hassle and cost.

Synthesizer YouTuber Cuckoo demonstrating drum techniques on the Teenage Engineeering OP-1

[Above: a still frame from Cuckoo's stellar OP-1 Drum Tutorial from 2016]

I originally started without thinking about any of this. Pace or editing were of no concern whatsoever and I was simply uploading almost a live take of me playing the synths. I soon realised that this meant an awful lot of time was taken up in the videos with things that weren’t adding any value. For example, watching me set up an initial patch to start a test might be useful the first time, but not over and over again. I was putting such a lot of effort into the videos I didn’t want to turn people off due to bad delivery, or not getting the information across effectively and efficiently. I realised that an hour-long video could be cut down to 30 or even 20 focussed minutes. This does, however, increase the editing time considerably, but is worth the effort.

After a few of years of ambling along aimlessly, I was approached by Clubbing TV in Paris to create a weekly gear show. To fit the broadcasting schedule the episodes could only be between 12 and 13 minutes long which really helped to hone my editing skills further. Plus, the audience is not necessarily focussed on the gear, more the result of it—i.e. banging tracks through huge PA systems in exotic locations with famous DJs and glamorous punters.

For the first time I therefore had to really think about my presentation style. I started planning the shows much more and created extra footage and tracks to suit the ethos of the TV channel. One big take-away from this experience is that planning your videos in detail is much more time efficient than trying to pull it together in the edit. If you’ve planned what you’re going to say and given it a rough run-through beforehand, you’ll save yourself hours and hours of editing. I’ve found that editing takes probably the same time you spend setting-up the equipment, planning the content, creating patches and recording the footage combined.

Standing Out From The Crowd

At this point I had an established channel and was starting to receive items for review from viewers, manufacturers, distributors, friends, and fellow enthusiasts. I was making a very modest income from the YouTube channel. It took me years to decide to monetize the channel, I was very reluctant at first, but as I now needed to have a constant supply of interesting items to demo I caved in. It’s around £3 per 1000 views, so not a fortune. If you’ve spent 3 to 4 days creating a video that gets 10k views...well, hurray, you’re £30 in the black!!! But this adds up, and enabled me to buy interesting stuff on Ebay, demo it, and sell it. Normally this is at a small loss after fees, but I have been known to break even on occasion. Most importantly, it was paying for itself, and the Clubbing TV show also helped.

I was now reviewing and demoing some of the gear that others were reviewing, but it always had my own twist. No matter how successful, you still have to have your own individual style or perspective. It’s something a lot of the YouTubers I’ve spoken with agree on. You need a particular angle, something that you’ve either seen discussed on forums or something you’ve been wondering about yourself. You have to create something no-one else has, such as a professional sounding piece of music, or showing a particular aspect that’s not been demo’d in detail yet, if at all.

For example, I made a Polyend Play video after owning it for about six months. Having spent a few months playing with it, I thought it could be useful to show how it could be used as the centrepiece for a MIDI set-up. It’s something I’d discovered as a "secret" weapon. Even though it’s mentioned in all the literature I’d not seen anything like that before.

All other videos had understandably concentrated on the sample engine and very visual performance effects section. I made my demo using the Waldorf Blofeld as the MIDI synth being controlled by the Play. It has 22 voices and is multitimbral, so demos all the capabilities of the Play while all fitting in the shot on the table. A nice and neat, Instagram friendly image, especially with the addition of a house plant. The following week Polyend were demoing it using the same set-up, which was a really nice thing to see. I’ve just seen them at Superbooth and they were using it there as well.

Is There a Future in SynthTubing?

If you ask anyone they’ll probably say that YouTube is their first port of call for a review or a demo. This is a significant swing in the way products are introduced to the market. Only a few years ago print media was by far the most popular. Sound On Sound was like the music tech bible to me for years. It still is in many ways, the expertise is undeniable and you can trust the reviews to give an honest opinion. It is, however, less important to the manufacturers than it used to be. The most important marketing and information channel is fast becoming or already is YouTube.

This comes with a number of interesting components and moving parts. If you build a relationship with a manufacturer or distributor, can you really be considered to be independent or neutral? This is nothing new, of course. The same holds for magazines, but they could be said to have more financial independence from a single advertiser than a YouTuber. Or could they? Magazines have overheads that we don’t have, so maybe we can pick and choose what we demo more freely.

Synthesizer YouTuber Starsky Carr

My take on this is that I never review anything I don’t like. I don’t get sent an awful lot, but if I can’t get on with it and don’t fall for its charms, I’m not going to put a lot of effort into demoing it. I want my videos to be fun and positive, which when you’re editing something is extremely important or you can lose the will to live! I can pour nothing but goodwill over something but make the most insignificant of comments only to be bombarded with vitriolic nonsense from someone who’s bought it, loves it and disagrees my tiny aside. It happens to us all and is a bit of a running joke. We all talk about the "nutters." If that happens with products I like, I can only imagine the grief I’d get for saying I didn’t like something. I feel I’m best just to steer clear and focus on things I enjoy playing. Most of the fun I get from this is from playing cool stuff. Why waste my time on kit I don’t like and risk a torrent of abuse? If you don’t see my demo, maybe I just don’t like it.

But if we’re now becoming the main marketing channel, what’s happening to all those marketing budgets, and are we being taken for a ride? Free or cheap gear doesn’t pay the mortgage, put food on the table, or pay the bills [and most of the time you send it back anyway]. If a product is now selling hundreds of units based on some nice demos a few of us have put together, is someone making money on the back of our efforts? If they are, is that okay? They did make the "cool stuff" in the first place.

Sure we have affiliate links, and maybe Patreon, but they buy coffees not houses! I guess it’s the law of supply and demand, but there’s a definite vibe at the moment where people are starting to latch onto this. I’ve seen a little tilt of the head here and there. There’s been a few videos already talking about the complex relationship by some popular YouTubers. This is inevitable given the effort required to make high quality content. Virtually no-one makes a living from this, but the time required is pretty much the same as a full-time job. I do it because it’s fun and it gives me a creative outlet. Having said that, however, nobody wants to be taken advantage of. Nobody wants to be playing the gig for exposure only to watch the promoter flying home in his private jet! I’m obviously being facetious here, but there’s a very blurry line between promoting, marketing, influencing and enjoying yourself. It’s up to us to decide where that line lies. If we take the cash are we selling out and untrustworthy? If we don’t, are we being taken for a ride?

Is the answer to be totally independent? Maybe! Alex Ball is doing a fine job of promoting his musicality with his channel. But people will always want to see the newest gear, and high viewing figures come from early videos of new releases. The quicker the video is released, the higher the views, and you’ll only get the gear pre-release if the manufacturer sends it to you. The manufacturer has to trust the YouTubers, the viewer has to trust the channel, and as a community we have to trust the viewers to see through any insincerity, as that helps no-one in the long run. And to be clear, I don’t see it. I see gear lovers playing with all that cool stuff.

For me, I love the creativity involved in creating a few tracks for each of the demos, while improving my videos, developing my style and visual storytelling. It’s great to feel part of a community as well doing something useful. And although it sounds a bit cheesy, I really do love that we can help people. It’s a buzz.

In the second part of this three-part series I look at the tech I’ve used over the years and how its developed as I’ve gradually updated to improve quality and meet the demands of an ever more sophisticated audience. Stay tuned!