Jared Ellison: DFA Records’ Vintage Synth Prodigy
DFA Records, the West Village-based label of LCD Soundsystem, the Juan Maclean, Hot Chip and others, has a complicated romance with vintage synthesizers and analog equipment. Denizens of the label’s bunker studio believe that the old stuff just sounds better than the digital counterparts. Tracking down the right vintage gear is worth the price point. That said, there is the issue of maintenance and repair. Parts are scarce, and aside from a few Angelfire/Geocities-type websites, schematics are often non-existent. Many people who knew how to fix these things have already passed away. With any antique repair, you are risking destruction of the thing itself.
When I needed new reeds in my Wurlitzer, a friend of mine at DFA recommended I use the label’s “guy.” (“Having a guy” is, I’ve found, something producers like to brag about.) Jared Ellison was introduced to me as the “New Gavin,” a reference to Gavin Russom, the modular synth wonk who performs as Crystal Ark and tours with LCD Soundsystem. Compared to the wizard-like Russom, with his long hair and beard and deep stare, Ellison is very normal-looking. He is trim, clean-cut, punctual. Clear-frame glasses, Adidas Samba sneakers (I forgot to ask whether these were vintage), and a pointy right ear are the only hints of possible eccentricity. He is 22 years old.
Last Friday, I spent the afternoon with Ellison in his small closet-like workspace at DFA. It had the feel of an unfinished basement: cold grey lighting, cement floor and walls, some basic wooden shelving and a small table where Ellison performs his operations. The room was cluttered with rack gear, disemboweled synthesizers, effects pedals, keyboards, and drum machines, though from the plastic drawers and well-labeled cardboard boxes, I sense there is an organizing principle. On the agenda today was not a repair but a modification: A popular electronic act had asked Ellison to retrofit their Korg MS-20 synthesizer with a MIDI controller.
Ellison grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts. His passion for electronics, I learned, was bred in the bone. “My grandfather was in the Signal Corps, in World War II,” he said. “Radar and radio. They were the communications department in the Army. He was also a ham radio hobbyist, which is what these guys did when they came back from war. War and ham radio. All the people who were building synthesizers, a lot of those people were involved in the war.”
Ellison tried to tell me about his grandfather climbing a tree, wrapping wire around an oatmeal container, wrapping more wire around the tree, wrapping even more wire around another oatmeal container — all this apparently to create a battery-less AM radio — but I didn’t quite follow. “You also need this special galena crystal that you order in a magazine,” he added.
In high school, while his classmates were buying cars, Ellison spent a summer job’s worth of money on a Tascam reel-to-reel eight-track. “I came back to school and I was like, ‘Yo! I got this sick eight-track!’ People were like, ‘Yeah, I don’t know what that is.’” A stint at guitar camp helped him realize he didn’t want to go to music school, so he moved to New York to study Architecture History at NYU.
“They have a good but bizarre music tech program,” Ellison said. (What’s bred in the bone…) He took a class with API founder Saul Walker, who designed the first 12-track recording console. He worked at WNYU radio station, where he engineered live recordings for Kurt Vile, Marnie Stern, Bruno Wizard from the Homosexuals (“he cursed on the air live, which is bad”), Zola Jesus, and Jandek. Helping out the DJ Tim Sweeney one night was how Ellison met Gavin Russom, who was a guest on Sweeney’s Beats in Space program. Russom turned Ellison on to Electronotes, a must-read electronics newsletter from the ’70s available only in mimeograph, and introduced him to Ears, the world-famous New York-based repair shop run by Jeff Blenkinsopp, who took Ellison on as an intern.
When Sweeney saw him fixing a turntable at the radio station, he put Ellison in touch with James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem. “James was like, ‘Oh, yeah? You can fix things? You can fix turntables? You can do synthesizers? You like synthesizers? Alright! Here’s your office. Here’s your computer. Coffee machine’s upstairs.’” Everything happened naturally but, Ellison insists, accidentally. He was still just a senior in college.
At DFA, he began fixing Bozaks, the heavy rackmount, rotary-style mixers preferred by the label’s DJs, and moved onto more complex repairs: keyboards, synthesizers, d/a converters, drum machines. One pressing repair was on an Eventide Harmonizer. This is the processor that helped create the wooshing snare sound all over David Bowie’s Low LP; Murphy wanted to create similar drum sounds for his latest album, This Is Happening.
I was excited to see Ellison at work. He pulled out a Korg MS-20, which is shaped not unlike a sewing machine, from an unassuming suitcase, and placed it on his workbench. The MS-20 is a portable modular synthesizer, and has appeared on Aphex Twin and Daft Punk records, among others. Ellison unscrewed the casing, then pulled apart the two sides — which made me flinch, as if he was splitting apart a person’s sternum. He explained the various parts of the circuit, the difference between current and voltage. As best he could, he told me how he planned to install the MIDI controller — which wires would interface with the keyboard, and where the input slots would peek out from the back. “A lot of what I do here is drilling holes in really expensive things,” he said.
It would be unfair to say he’s made breathless by well-designed circuit boards, so let’s say Ellison deeply admires the craftsmanship: how resistors line up perfectly, how wires coil around constituent parts in neat, maze-like ways. Thin plastics, cheap pots, surface-mount constructions, in contrast, made him grow silent with a melancholy I can’t quite describe.
Before I left him to finish up his work, I asked Ellison if circuit designers ever leave secret messages for other circuit designers, or for whoever might peek inside their machines. A few came to mind immediately. Sequential Circuits keyboards, he said, often have Sanskrit written on the boards, or mandalas, “or some kind of Bodhisattva.” New York’s Electro-Harmonix, who build popular effects pedals, “have a cryptic message about the band Pussy Galore.”
“What is it,” I asked.
“‘Listen to Pussy Galore.’”