DIY SYNTH-MAKING: A CONVERSATION WITH VARUN DESAI
The first time I saw Varun Desai perform, it was at a REProduce Listening Room gig that I’d helped my friend Rana Ghose put together at the Jude Bakery in Bandra in 2016. This was the early days of REProduce, and I was still getting used to the absurd diversity of music-making devices that experimental electronica acts can use these days—multiple acts that day used contact microphones, industrial machinery and other esoteric noise-makers as part of their sets. But even by those standards, I was slightly bemused as I watched Desai and collaborator Fuzzy Logic (Afraaz Kagalwala) take over a massive bakery table and cover every inch with an assortment of synths, controllers and miles and miles of cables.
It seemed like an awful lot of gear for two people playing to a small crowd in an old, disused bakery, especially to someone who had grown up on a steady diet of sonically austere punk and alternative. But, a few minutes into watching their set, it all started to make a little sense. Rather than the overly complicated and technical music the equipment suggested, Desai and Kagalwala’s compositions were simple, almost organic, soundscapes that built to slow-burn crescendos of keening sound.
As I stood on a balcony overlooking their table, I could almost imagine the electrons racing down the signal path, the sound shifting and mutating as they bounced their invisible, energetic dance down labyrinthic resistors and through endless capacitors. It was an early glimpse into the magical allure of synthesizers—not just for the sounds they make, but also for the fascinating machines that they are, simple assemblages of metal, plastic and electricity that can create the most wondrous and surreal of sounds.
Desai caught that particular bug early. Growing up in Kolkata in the mid-1980s, he was one of a small group of Indian kids who had a computer, a Commodore Amiga bought by his electrical engineer father. “That was my companion for a lot of my childhood,” remembers Desai, speaking over the phone from Kolkata. “It was filled with all these games and these music-making software that were easy to use, I could just move the mouse around and make music.”
The Desai family kept up with the times, moving on to a DOS machine and getting early dialup access, so he was also around for the heyday of BBS chatrooms. So it was unsurprising that Varun developed a fascination for technology, going on to study computer engineering and work for years as an engineer. “Computers and everything around it—the graphics, the sound, the coding—were my first inspiration,” he says. “I still practice all three things in separate ways. I do creative coding, I do my own design and graphics, and my music, and I’m slowly merging all of them with each other too.”
Desai’s father was a jazz aficionado—he was part of the group that revived the Kolkata Jazzfest in 2002—with a big record collection, and Varun was also introduced to electronic music early, finding himself drawn to records by Tangerine Dream and Shadowfax. In high school, he and a classmate found an early version of FruityLoops and produced their own Big-Beat influenced tracks.
“There was nobody to tell us that this exists,” he remembers. “It was such an alien thing to be doing in India at the time. The conviction to keep doing it came from that. Nobody has mentored me into this, it’s something that I found as a child. Almost like it found me.”
After getting a degree in computer engineering from Purdue University (he made a MIDI drum generator as his junior thesis), Desai returned to Kolkata and worked in telecom and heavy engineering, getting valuable engineering experience working in the field. But he continued to make electronic music on the side, as ambient project Yidam, and later, live-jamming act 5volts. He also jumped into event management, even running a label (Liquid Frequency) for a few years.
“I came back from the States after experiencing all these amazing festivals, but in Kolkata it was still the same bands covering the same songs from the 1970s,” he says. “I realised that the city won’t move forward until someone comes in and starts doing things. So I started a series of events to push independent music first, and later to push jazz.”
Like any self-respecting gearhead, he bought himself a digital synth as soon as he could afford one. But it was a DIY synth called the Shruti-1 that really got him hooked onto synthesizers. “It came as a kit you could order online. It would come to you with very detailed instructions. It was amazing, it was almost like being Dr. Frankenstein.”
His next purchase Korg’s MS-20, a semi-modular synth that (along with a productive 45 minutes spent playing around with Da Saz’s immense collections of modular synthesizers) got him hooked onto the idea of patching to create and manipulate sound. “I don’t think I would be so obsessed if I purely came at it from a musical standpoint,” he says.
“I also came at it from the point of signal processing, which is a very dry and difficult subject in engineering. I struggled with it. So to have something I struggled with in academia suddenly open up and be enjoyable because it’s been presented in another way—modular synthesis and processing wave-forms—was so much fun.”
Modular synthesis in particular was fascinating because it allowed Desai to build from the very fundamentals of sound—a simple sine wave. He’d gotten into West Coast synthesis at the time, as a result of research into the history of ambient and electronic music. So he set about to build his own modular setup.
“Once you get bitten by the bug of creating sound from rudimentary waveforms, you’re done,” he laughs. “And I love it. I’m constantly making amazing music in the studio that I don’t record. I no longer stress about it not being recorded or about other people not hearing it. I’ve discovered the joy of just playing for my own creative fulfilment.”
Desai’s obsession with synths also extends to getting other people hooked onto them (“[I] get a kick out of it”), which is partly why he—along with Da Saz (Lionel Dentan) and AudioPervert (Samrat Bee) started Synthfarm in 2015 as a biannual residency hosted on the working farm where Desai and his wife practice agriculture. It started off as a way to fuse learning—workshops and tutorials—with live-jam sessions that encouraged attendees to experiment and play around. But it soon added another dimension: DIY synth-making.
“In year 2 I started bringing breadboards to the farm,” says Desai. “The first pocasynth [DIY synth made at the farm] was actually built on a breadboard, where everyone put in the components and we installed it in an Indigo cashew box. It was very rudimentary.”
In the the years since, with the help of Animal Factory Amplification’s Aditya Nandwana (who was also playing at that 2016 REProduce gig), DIY has become an increasingly important and fun aspect of the Synthfarm, and something Desai wants to build on, now that the interrupted years of the pandemic are hopefully behind us.
“We’ll continue Synthfarm and get more people involved,” he says. “I want to push very heavily towards the development of technology at synthfarm. We’re also looking at doing a workshop on experimental turntablism this time, because we’re looking at expanding into other esoteric forms of music creation.”
As if that wasn’t enough, Desai keeps himself busy producing music as 5volts, coding and creating digital art as Varundo, and running the pandemic-inspired ambient electronica label Social Isolation. But the project he’s most excited about is a new event series he’s launched in Kolkata. Each event in the Returning Sound series is a sit-down audio-visual experience that focuses on creative and innovative electronica, divorced from the commercial pressures and mainstream trends of the club scene.
“The idea was to hit the reset button in the way electronic music is generally presented—more serious, more focused, more intentional,” he says, adding that the response has been phenomenal. “Isolation made me realise that this crazy landscape for electronic music in India exists and has potential. I’d been trying to push ambient music in 2006 when I came back, but it just wasn’t the time. People were too amped up to dance, they didn’t want to come down and chill. Now people are more ready to listen to it.”
Words by: Bhanuj Khappal