S1 PORTLAND: Synth Library + Women's Beat League: Alissa Derubeis and Felisha Ledesma • PORTLAND, OREGON
“I am learning something new every day. I feel like my training wheels are still on, but I don’t care. I am wobbly and content.”
ALISSA DERUBEIS (4ms Company + co-founder, S1 Synth Library)
WinS: Tell me about S1. It’s an artist-run contemporary art center?
AD: Yes. S1 is a non-profit with many different programs. The synth library is one big project within S1. We also have a visual gallery. We have lots of shows, workshops and films. We also have Women's Beat League which hosts workshops and Open Deck Nights which was the first thing I attended at S1. It's home to local, national, and international artists and many collaborations across genre and practice.
How did you get started working with modular synths?
I got into modular synthesizers and working for 4ms through my love of curation and watching other people create things which is something I’m still very moved by. It’s a main interest of mine. I was volunteering at Church of the Friendly Ghost in Austin, Texas and curating a series called Lady Friends which was focused on women in improvisational free jazz and experimental and electronic music. Church of the Friendly Ghost put on tons of stuff year round. Another one of the workshops they put on was called Handmade Music Austin. Volunteering to help curate that was how I met Dan Green who started 4MS company. He invented a little kit called the ABG - the Autonomous Bassline Generator. It had two knobs and three buttons. People came to this workshop and learned to solder and built these various instruments that could all be played together. It was an exciting time. There were some synthy vibes going on in the creative music community.
What took you to Portland?
Well...it got really hot in Texas.
I’m serious! It was over 100℉ for over 100 days during the summer I left. Everything was kind of dying. The wind would blow and a tree would just fall over because there wasn’t enough water. I told Dan one day that I wanted to move to the Pacific Northwest and he said “Oh my god! Me too!” So we moved out here and brought the whole 4ms crew. Five of us lived in Austin before we came to Portland. Jeannot was one of my first neighbors in Austin.
How many are involved with the company now?
Hmmm...let’s see. We have ten consistent employees and sometimes when we’re in the middle of a big run we have some more people come in and help us through the push.
What is your role within the company?
I wear many hats. I help figure out what needs to be made and when and in what quantities. I arrange travel, handle health care, expense reports. I do shipping. General organizing though I’m not great at fine details. I also used to make all the kits but there’s really not time anymore so I had to pass that off. It’s pretty exciting to have too much work to do in this industry.
That is a good problem to have. Tell me about the synth library. How does it function?
I kind of feel like I made it up. I’m not exactly sure what the best way to do it is. I’m always asking for feedback from people who are using the library and artists and artists-in-residence to try and figure out what structures will benefit people the most. We host two Intro to Patching classes each month, one for everyone and one for female and non-binary identified individuals. We also host a variety of other workshops like Intro to Buchla, Soldering and Kit Building, and artist-led workshops. In addition to our workshops, we keep the library open five days a week for further exploration. People can come in and play, record, and learn as often as they'd like.
Is it membership based? How do people get access to the synths?
Yup. If you don’t already have the pre-existing knowledge of modular synthesis necessary to come in and tackle the collection on your own you can attend our intro workshops first. Membership is sliding scale starting at $15 per month. People are able to sign up online and they can see who will be facilitating shifts so if they have specific needs they can find the facilitator that would be best for them. There is always a facilitator in the room to help people work through whatever issues they might have or to learn together if they don’t know the answer automatically.
And people are able to record the sounds they make?
Yes, we have multiple computer stations and we’ve received donations from Ableton. People can record using our gear or they can bring their own if that’s easier for them.
Do you have a specific approach to introducing modular synthesizers to someone who has no prior experience with them?
That was probably the most intimidating thing for me to figure out when starting the library. I had a lot of conversations with people who’ve taught workshops and are experts in the field. I was sort of hoping to find some general consensus on what would be the best way but I never quite found that. There is so much information involved with patching a modular synth that you can’t instill it all in one three-hour workshop. Your brain would overflow. I try and focus on the most essential terms and ones that people might already be familiar with if they’ve used other synths. I go over a full-voice patch and terms like oscillator, filter, VCA, envelope generator. I talk about signal versus sound. We spend a lot of time with our hands on the synth remaking basic patches. Hands-on practice is what I’ve found to be the most effective. I’m a very multisensory learner. I try to create those types of environments for people. I write things down on white boards. I talk about them. I show them physically on the synth. We have an oscilloscope module so people can actually see the waveforms while we listen to them. My hope for people when they leave the intro workshop is that they feel encouraged and confident enough to try and play synths in the library. I want them to know that we aren’t defying physics or performing some total witchcraft.
And you have multiple intro level workshops per month?
Yes. We have one for everyone and one specifically for female-identifying and non-binary people.
Awesome. What synths do you actually have in the library? And do you have any favorites?
Oh, wow. It’s so hard to pick a favorite. We have over 30 brands at this point. I’m trying to focus a lot on modular synths. Our modular system is growing. We have modules from lots of different people and lots of different countries. It’s fun for me to be able to show everyone that there are all kinds of options and all sorts of sounds. All the subtle differences between everyone’s designs and implementations. We have a row of Fusion modules from Erica Synths they put together for us. It was the only donation I had a hard time bringing into the library from my house. We have a lot of Make Noise modules. Mutable Instruments and Hexinverter are two of my favorite companies now that I've had time to play them in the library. We have all the 4ms modules. The QCD [Quad Clock Distributor] gets universal love. I just counted and we’re up to 13 rows of modules in the synth library now! We also have a large collection of Moog stuff that’s non-modular and semi-modular. It's been awesome to see what people do with eight Mother 32s.
Yeah. I know that’s smaller than a lot of synth enthusiast’s home collections but it makes me really proud.
FELISHA LEDESMA (Executive Director, S1 + co-founder, S1 Synth Library + co-founder, Women’s Beat League)
WinS: How was Women's Beat League started?
FL: Daniela Karina Serna, Alyssa Beers and I had been talking about access to equipment and skill-sharing. My main focus was S1, so when we started the conversation about Women’s Beat League and what it would look like, it was a natural progression with the programming we were presenting in the space already. Since its inception we have hosted workshops, lectures, shows, gear shares and beyond for female-identified and non-binary folks at S1 and other art spaces in and out of Portland. There are so many folks coming together to create non-traditional learning spaces where co-learning is key. We are all thrilled to be involved in a such a supportive, engaged global community. Without Women’s Beat League, Alissa and I would have never met and co-founded the Synth Library. I am very thankful.
Tell me about your journey into learning modular
I have always admired my friends who played modular synths, but it seemed so far out of reach. Alex, S1’s co-director, has been playing modular for years and I was always afraid to start learning because I rarely have more than $20 in my bank account. I regret not jumping in sooner because patching is extremely empowering. Now everyone in the community can have access and that actually brings me more joy than playing. I am learning something new every day. I feel like my training wheels are still on, but I don’t care. I am wobbly and content.
What advice would you give to someone who is new to modular but wants to learn more?
Find your people. If you can’t afford gear, you have to crew up and share it. Watch YouTube tutorials. Find your local synth shop and try everything. Come to Portland and hang with us.
What role does modular, and sound in general, play in your personal practice?
For as long as I can remember I have been obsessed with sound. It is such a powerful force. I feel that energy when I am playing, supporting artists, listening. I even dream about it. Running S1 has been such an inspiration, but all of my energy was going into supporting other artists. When I met Alissa and we started the Synth Library I realized I had truly missed working on my own music. I am becoming a better facilitator, musician, and curator because of the Synth Library. I am excited to continue learning and growing in all ways.
What are your biggest goals for S1?
I could write a novel about what I want S1 to be, but we have to move, we have very little money, and we run with an extremely dedicated volunteer staff - everything has to be fluid and we are always adjusting to whatever is thrown our way. I want to keep our doors open and continuing improving the way we support artists and audiences.
Since this interview, S1 moved into their new space.
www.s1portland.com • IG: @synthlibrary