I’m really honored to be a part of the LA-based Feminist Synth Lab’s second compendium album FSL-002 – out today on Bandcamp! Feminist Synth Lab/feM Synth Lab (FSL) is a synthesizer lending library and workshop series for all marginalized genders, which I was introduced to by one of my professors at USC Thornton, Camae Ayewa (stage name Moor Mother). My contributed track I/X/III features me on viola, Rhodes piano + snare resonance, the library’s Teenage Engineering Pocket Operator, and speaking text. FSL-002 features seventeen tracks by members of the extended feM Synth Lab community, whose musical company I'm thrilled to be in. I invite you to take a listen and support the artists by purchasing the album if you feel so inclined! For more on FSL and the second compendium release, please find a Q&A with the folks who run the organization below.
Anna Heflin: What do you hope to tell listeners about the community of feM Synth Lab music makers with this second compendium release? Are there any values, aesthetic or otherwise, that you wish to communicate?
Neyva Sandoval: FSL encourages experimentation in music creation, being unafraid of exploring new sonic territories, and most importantly, having fun embracing the creative process! Sometimes we can forget that when we get so deep into perfectionism, technicalities, and any other personal/musical hindrances that it can really impede that. Experimentation, collaboration, believing in yourself, & playfulness are key to nurturing your artistry. Anything outside of that doesn’t serve you. We hope to show listeners how eclectic and diverse the artists who engage in the community of FSL truly are. We are not limited to one inherent genre/sound. We hope to show that in our compilations, annual showcases, and the overall work that we do. Although artists within the community/based in LA were prioritized, we did start including people outside of that. It’s amazing to see that people in other parts of the world have discovered us. We look forward to continuing to include as many people as we can from our immediate community and all parts of the world.
AH: How has your role in the community naturally grown and developed since FSL was founded?
Naomi Mitchell: FeM Synth Lab’s role in the community has grown over the years, but not on its own. While we do operate a lending library, the most organic way to build community is through our workshops.
As we all know, it has been hard to put on in-person events over the past few years, but we strive to provide a forum for learning and community in a welcoming manner through the lens of synthesis. Building community starts with interpersonal relationships, talking and getting to know the people who live locally, as well as those who live in other parts of the world. People are excited about the opportunity to learn more about synthesis, and word of mouth also plays a role in getting more people interested in learning more about us.
FeM Synth Lab established the lending library in 2020, which has been a wonderful way to be involved with the community. While workshops are helpful to learn about synthesizers in the abstract, actually getting to use one is the best way to learn concretely. Last October, Coaxial Arts Foundation hosted an open house event, where people could come and try out the synthesizers in person and could check them out of the library.
We’re so grateful for the people who come to the workshops and participate in the lending library, we wouldn’t be able to do it without them.
AH: One remarkably unique aspect about feM Synth Lab is the range of musical practices expressed by your members. I feel that genre-fluidity often naturally happens in queer spaces, what are your thoughts? Did you have the intention of making FSL genre-fluid from the beginning?
Naomi Mitchell: The intention of FeM Synth Lab has always been to foster support for artists regardless of genre or background. There isn’t one genre that synthesizers fit into, as they’ve made their way into virtually every kind of music. Regardless, many different types of electronic music do have their roots in queer communities, particularly queer communities of color, so the fluidity often goes back to the earliest pioneers. Self-expression is a pivotal part of queer communities and an important part of making music that feels true to yourself.
AH: In my experience with this community over just the past few months, I’ve been struck by the wonderfully overwhelming feeling of contagious generosity and openness. For example, when attending the Artist Press Shot Party in November I noticed that members freely offered to lend me, and each other, their personal gear while we were getting ready. Not to mention how celebrated portrait photographer Dillon Howl donated her time, Terraform LA donated the space, and DJ’s donated their time to make the experience really special! Do you feel that there are ways in which you cultivate and support this culture or is it a natural byproduct of the good work that you’re doing and individuals involved?
Sabrina Ketel: I love that expression—contagious generosity! I think it’s a natural extension of the organization and also just a reflection of what an amazing community we have. The whole praxis of Feminist Synth Lab is founded on sharing resources—whether that’s knowledge at a workshop or gear in the library. There’s a vulnerability to sharing, as well as an openness in receiving and I think that does echo… But also it really is our community! Everyone is genuinely so lovely and supportive of one another, and whenever we have in person events you can really feel that energy in the room. Y’all make Feminist Synth Lab possible, and inspire us to keep going :)
AH: On the note above, there are some LA-based individuals who read this. If someone wants to get involved I would assume that financial contributions are always appreciated (and tax deductible!). But for people looking to donate goods or services, is there anything in particular that you’re looking for? Who should they contact?
Sabrina Ketel: We’re always open to receiving donations, either gear (see form here) or funds (see form here). If you’d like to offer services, or you have a workshop idea, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s chat :)
AH: The feM Synth Lab lending library is not a resource for cis-men. Have many cis-men donated their gear to the library regardless?
Sabrina Ketel: Yes absolutely! We receive a ton of donations from cis men, and it’s really lovely to see them be supportive and understand the intention behind our space.
AH: Is there any piece of gear that you recommend to beginners, regardless of genre?
Valery Verdin: Dive into whichever instrument catches your attention! When going through the library catalog, we encourage watching tutorials/unboxing videos about specific gear you may be interested in. Reach out with any questions you may have and If we don’t have the answers, let’s figure it out together. At FSL it’s all about exploration, learning as you go, and having fun through this shared creative process. If you’re still unsure of where to start, the Korg Volca synthesizers are powerful, portable, and compact.
AH: What are the three most underestimated pieces of gear in your library?
Naomi Mitchell: 1. The Make Noise 0-Coast, it’s a great way to get acquainted with modular synthesis. It’s a semi-modular synthesizer, meaning it has a set signal path that can be overridden with patch cables, but you don’t need any cables to make sound. It also has a MIDI input, so you can play it with any MIDI controller. It comes in a small package, but it's capable of a wide range of sounds.
2. The Korg Volca line of synthesizers. We have five of them: Bass, Beats, FM, Keys, and Kick. They’re compact and can run off battery power, but don’t let their size fool you; they’re capable of much more than meets the eye. They’re also fairly affordable, so if you try them out and you like them, they’re a good way to start your synthesizer collection.
3. The Cycling ‘74 Max License. Cycling ‘74 donated these licenses, which grant access to an entire year of Max/MSP/Jitter. Max is a visual programming language with an incredibly diverse range of applications, from synthesis to audio effects to video art to multimedia installations. While it takes a little bit of time to get used to the workflow, there are plenty of tutorials to get you up and running. While not strictly a piece of gear, Max can interface with external hardware and has one of the deepest wells of creative possibilities that we offer.
AH: What advice would you offer to a femme musician who is intimidated by gear?
Valery Verdin: Try it out! Borrow gear from the library and/or come to a workshop to play with us. The rewards of embarking on this experimental sonic journey far surpasses any fears or doubts one might have about gear. FSL supports, nourishes, and cultivates learning at all stages and abilities.