Visiting the Vintage Synthesizer Museum in Los Angeles

Interview with VSM Curator Lance Hill + Thoughts on Vintage Synths

Ryan Gaston · 08/23/22

The Patch Pals have hit the road, engaging in an epic trek to find a treasure trove of vintage synthesizers. This journey took us the full eleven miles from the industrial landscape of Burbank to the distant land of Highland Park—narrowly navigating the harrowing I5 to find ourselves at the Vintage Synthesizer Museum.

VSM Owner + Operator Lance Hill VSM Owner + Operator Lance Hill

Run by long-time synth enthusiast and musician Lance Hill, the Vintage Synthesizer Museum is a public-access studio with tons of vintage electronic musical instruments. With dozens of highly desirable instruments, it's highly likely that they have your dream synth, its weird cousins, and instruments that you've never seen in person (at least, that was true for us!). VSM recently relocated to a welcoming space in a cool, fun corner of Los Angeles called Highland Park. It's an awesome neighborhood, and a perfect place for a studio like VSM.

Most importantly, the synths at VSM aren't locked behind glass cases: they are available for anyone to use, for a reasonable hourly booking fee. Everything is always hooked up and ready to record, making it dead simple to go in and get straight to work. So if you've ever dreamed of getting your hands on a 10-panel vintage Serge modular system, or an EMS Synthi AKS, an Oberheim 4-Voice, a Fairlight, a Yamaha CS-80, or an Elka Synthex—this is a place you need to go.

And frankly, that list is only just the beginning. Be sure to check out the video above for an idea of what the space is like, and check out the Vintage Synth Museum website to check out what they have on hand and how you can book your next visit. Beyond that, read on for some more musings about why I personally think that VSM is so special, and why I think they deserve all the support we can give them.

The Problems + Promise of Vintage Synthesizers

Vintage musical instruments carry with them a lot of near-inexplicable magic. They have history—both as individual objects with decades of life behind them, and as a concept: a succinct description of the music from the time in which they were made.

It's no secret that in the world of electronic music, sonic outcomes are often directly correlated to the capabilities of the instruments used to make it. Entire genres of music hinged on the sound and functionality of the devices that created it. The filter sweep of a Moog Minimoog Model D, the crude wavetable scanning of a PPG Wave, the lo-fi, brash samples of a Fairlight CMI...these sounds are part of tons of much-loved music. Where these were all once cutting-edge technologies, their sounds can now be used as powerful tools for engaging with memory and nostalgia—all in all, a very beautiful and inspiring process.

And while the experience of hearing a vintage synthesizer can itself be quite powerful, the experience of playing one can provide even deeper insights and inspiration. It's one thing to know that Parliament used a Minimoog, or that Kate Bush used a Fairlight, or that Pere Ubu used EML synthesizers...but it's an entirely different sensation to get your hands on instruments like these. You can start to understand the decision-making processes that went into creating your own music, to wrap your head around "outdated" workflows, and to start to think in a way that breaks you out of your own habits and musical assumptions. In the best cases, encountering old, "obsolete" ways of making music can push your boundaries as an artist, offering inspiration, insight, and fresh perspective on how music can be created altogether.

Of course, vintage instruments of all sorts have their pitfalls—and vintage synthesizers especially are no exception. They can be difficult or expensive to maintain, they don't always work how you might think they do, and of course, they're not always easy to get your hands on. In the past few decades, many electronic instruments from the 1960s, '70s, and '80s have transitioned from being lucky pawn shop finds to being highly sought-after collector pieces and museum display items.

The increasing rarity of access to vintage musical instruments is a tricky topic. There is a finite number of any given vintage synthesizer, and as more and more of them find their ways into the hands of collectors, museums, and repair stockpiles, there are fewer and fewer accessible to everyone else. On one hand, when an instrument is particularly scarce, I do believe there is value to carefully preserving it—some instruments are so rare that they're perhaps better preserved as a memory outside the reach of the general public and in the hands of someone who can keep them safe.

On the other hand, musical instruments are devices meant to be used for making music, and many large-scale collectors and museums simply don't make use of their collections in this way. Sadly, in many cases, this means that over time, as more and more units are bought by collectors, scavenged for repair, or put into museums, many instruments become even less accessible to the average musician...i.e., they become less accessible to the people whose lives might be most enriched by using them.

Of course, the scale of this effect varies based on a number of factors—how many of the instrument were originally produced? What is the mean time to failure of their now-rarer internal components? What service documentation has been preserved and passed down to capable technicians? Instruments that were produced in greater numbers, whose components are not astonishingly rare or obsolete, and who have good service documentation are still relatively easy to come by out in the wild. It's not so rare to see an original Minimoog, Prophet-5, or SH-101 out in the world. But a Jupiter-8? A Synthi AKS? A Mellotron? An Elka Synthex? A Rhodes Chroma? These aren't quite so easy to find, and over time, instruments like these are fading into a cloud of legend.

What Makes the Vintage Synthesizer Museum So Cool

This is why I think Vintage Synthesizer Museum is so special. Many of the instruments available at VSM are very much in the category of synths I was just describing: instruments that are now almost entirely in the hands of private collectors, and when they are available for sale, they demand much too high a price to be accessible for the majority of musicians. But VSM makes it simple for you to get your hands on the instruments of your dreams. You don't need to submit a project proposal; you don't need to break the bank; you don't need to jump through hoops, or worry about your keyboard chops. VSM is set up to be accessible to anyone who wants to come in and make use of these historic instruments. Come in and work on your passion project, learn about the history of synths, or just have a great time making sound with your friends.

How many places on the west coast can you book an appointment to experiment with an EML Electro-Comp 200? A Gleeman Pentaphonic? A DK Synergy? A Fairlight CMI? A full complement of Korg semi-modular instruments? A Buchla Music Easel? A Moog Sonic Six? An EMS Vocoder 2000?! I can't help but look at their list of gear and be both humbled and impressed.

I personally believe in the power of historical instruments to offer insight and inspiration, and I'm thrilled that VSM exists and has found its way to Los Angeles. Go in to explore, to layer sounds on to your new album, to learn what makes an old Serge system tick, or just to marvel at some of the most interesting musical instruments from the last fifty years. You'll have a great time, you'll learn, and perhaps best—you'll walk out more artistically enriched than when you walked in.

Check out Vintage Synth Museum's website for a full gear list, booking info, and FAQs about using the space—and be sure to stop by the next time you're in Los Angeles. They have created an amazing resource, and here's hoping they stick around for many years to come.