An Interview with Synthwave Creator Synthie dB Shock
Synthie dB Shock (pronounced Synthie Decibel Shock) is a synthwave producer who has a self-described "unhealthy obsession with analogue synths" who has her own unique take on the synthwave sound. In an email, she told me about how she creates new music, the artists who have inspired her and her views on the global synthwave scene.
Karl Magi: How did you first become interested in making music?
Synthie dB Shock: It was a lifelong ambition of mine to just be able to make music all day long, but as life gets in the way sometimes, it wasn’t always possible; The idea of being a musician by profession was sold to us kids as being the impossible dream. We were told, "“You’ll be a starving musician unless you study at the Conservatorium and become a classical musician!”
I didn’t want that, but I was told at a very young age that I had an “incredible musical ear” and a talent for playing music, so that dream ended up staying alive for years and years. I was eight years old, heavily inspired by The Beatles when I wrote my first poem, which I’d then very naïvely had called my first song! I loved to sing, so I’d recorded myself singing onto a tape then recorded myself over and over singing three sets of backing vocals - sounding very much like a chipmunk! - but I knew I wanted to be a musician one day. I only, however, managed to fully devote myself to music-making in 2011, after I’d been made redundant by the company I’d worked for, and I haven’t looked back since.
KM: What drew you towards making synth-based music?
SdS: My love for vintage analogue synthesizers and drum machines. I one day realised that my favourite songs all had synth sounds in them. I grew up in Australia in the '80s and the charts over there were full of rock and synthpop goodness, so that stayed with me, I guess. Those were happy times for me and I always looked up to those pop stars in the charts and remember wishing I could be just like them one day. So many bands had at least one synthesizer in their clips, and coupled with those Linn drums or Simmons drums, the sounds were just like heaven to my ears! I also adore modular synths and all the weird sounds you can get from those. I’m glad I don’t actually own one, though, as I’d probably never leave the house!
KM: Who are the most influential musical artists for you and why did they make such an impact on you?
SdS: Well, if we go by the theory of recent researchers who’ve claimed that all the music a person’s listened to since they’ve been inside their mother’s belly has influenced them in some way, then the complete list is probably too long to mention! It’s crazy to think that it’s probably true that some elevator music that I once heard has been an inspiration to me somehow!
It’s so wide and it crosses numerous genres from ‘60s rock 'n roll to ‘70s prog rock to ‘80s synthpop to indie to gothic-industrial! The gothic-industrial is because I was a goth in the late’ 80s and ‘90s; The Beatles I’d grown up listening to when I was a kid and growing up in the ‘80s, I was exposed to synthpop. This is why I tend to list The Beatles, Kraftwerk, Gary Numan, The Human League, The Sisters of Mercy and Pink Floyd as my biggest influences, although even Giorgio Moroder and the classical composer J.S. Bach have all had a strong influence on me! I’ve always enjoyed swimming against the stream, which is why prog rock continues to fascinate me. I think bands like Yes and The Alan Parsons Project or even IQ are really cool!
Those musicians I just mentioned were all revolutionary artists in their own right and their music moves mountains in people! Some were controversial, some were warped, some were completely normal but all have one thing in common: people love to get lost in their music, just like I do when I listen to a song by Pink Floyd or The Beatles. And when I actually sit down and put a song together from start to finish, if I find myself getting lost in one of my own compositions in the process, then I know I have a good chance of touching somebody with it. And that’s what it’s all about for me; not merely being a product of the music industry to generate sales and fame, but I make music as a means of self-expression, and hopefully being able to touch someone with my songs. That’s why I do what I do.
KM: Tell me more about how you go about creating new music.
SdS: It varies, really. Sometimes a melody or lyrics will come to me in the middle of the night and I’ll have to get up, tiptoe into the studio and play or write it down. If I don’t, I’ve lost it forever and that’s happened a lot! Other times I’ll be mucking around on my Juno 60 and I’ll come up with a cool chord progression then I’ll save the idea in my DAW and work on it from there, or it’ll end up in a folder called “Ideas“ and get pulled out in the year 2025 or something! There’s no set pattern, really. The crazy thing is that I tend to go for ages with absolutely no new ideas for songs whatsoever, and then suddenly I’ll get, like, three different melodies hit me on the same day, so I’ll go and create three folders with three new song ideas! I have a mind of extremes!
KM: What are some of the current projects on which you're working?
SdS: This year I’m working on finishing any demos I’ve had sitting around for a long time, so that’ll keep me busy for possibly much longer than I expected! At the moment, I’m just putting the finishing touches to an instrumental I’d originally composed for a fan. For five years this demo’s been unfinished and lonely, sitting in a really buggy file, so I got out a old little synth from the ‘80s that you can strap onto you, much like a keytar, and re-recorded the entire song – track-by-track - on just this one synth! I honestly didn’t think I’d be able to, as the synth is pretty limited in what it can do (and it’s been having some circuit issues lately) but I was astounded by the result, the song sounds amazing! Then it’s off for mixing and mastering and I get onto finishing the next demo.
There’s a new single on its way, soon, and we’re also working on a videoclip to go with that. It’s really cute, I think people will love it! Nothing like Window To Life, though (my current single), it’s totally different!
I’m also planning on doing a cover song in the near future, so in my spare time I’m testing out several songs and will then narrow it down to about five or six. I might even ask people on social media to vote for the one they’d like to hear most and then I’ll get onto trying to do that song justice!
KM: Where do you want to take your music in the future?
SdS: Ideally, to a gorgeous tropical island, where there’s no need for labels, genres, rigged charts, endless self-promotion on social media, writing to please the market etc; ! I could just make music for people on the island and in return, they’d pay me in pineapples, mangoes and coconuts!
In all seriousness though, when I first started making music, I was hoping to eventually write film scores or music for soundtracks, TV and all of that. I very quickly abandoned that idea. Sure, I’d do it if my life and income depended on it and I’d probably do it with pleasure too, but nowadays I’m just happy to continue writing and making music for the pop world. I just definitely want to use more hardware and less virtual stuff in future. I’m not saying that there aren’t some wild and awesome VSTs and plugins out there, but I just can’t transfer the emotion into a plugin like I can when I actually feel the instrument I’m playing, so it's more hands-on for Synthie in future.
Although I’ve previously said that I prefer working alone, eventually I think I may look for a musical partner, as I’ve noticed several times now that it’s just too much for one person to continue carrying on like this. You’re always living on the edge of a nervous breakdown, as it can all become so overwhelming, all the stuff we have to do as an artist nowadays especially those of us that are unsigned. In the end, there’s very little time left to actually make music, let alone have a life outside of the music! I hear it over and over from other artists, and I feel exactly the same. I’d like to do less computer work and more composition and playing in future, so Synthie Decibelshock will very likely become either a duo or an entire band someday. By then, I’ll have enough repertoire to also think about playing live, which is something I really miss not being able to do right now.
KM: What is your assessment of the current state of the synthwave scene?
SdS: Earlier this year I’d heard someone on the radio say that there is no better time for synthesizer music than right now, and I think they’re right; synthwave is definitely very much alive right now. I remember going through SoundCloud back in 2013 when I was releasing my first E.P., and thinking, “Oh cool, there’s a fair few people creating '80s-inspired music!“ I hadn’t even thought of the term “synthwave“, I didn’t even know what category to put my music into!
Honestly, though, when I go onto SoundCloud today, there is so much synthwave material out there, it’s crazy!! There are many well-established and emerging synthwave artists worldwide, making some incredible-sounding music! Canada and France have a very large and influential scene with tonnes of great synth music coming from those places right now. I wish that was the mainstream, rather than some of the stuff that’s riding the charts these days! No offence to any artists, but it pains me to think how many incredible songs are out there that have no chance of reaching the mainstream charts. I find that a real pity.
What does concern me, though, is that a lot of synthwave music does sound the same, and this is something that we all need to be careful about. While we might fall into a certain category of music, which is very much influenced by the ‘80s – we’ve really got to be careful to try and maintain our signature sound. It’s really important in a day and age where there is an average of 20-30,000 new songs being released each day. We need to stand out, otherwise we’ll be lost in the crowd!
KM: How do you recharge your creative batteries?
SdS: One way I do that is by taking time away from the social media from time to time. While they can be informative and a lot of fun, they do drain me when I have to be on about eight different platforms every single day. Sometimes they can be good for getting inspiration for new songs, but if I don’t take those breaks from them, I end up not being able to sleep properly cause I’ve got all these images running through my head the whole night and I can’t sleep afterwards.
The other way I recharge is by changing scenery. Last year I took an extended break and left Switzerland for almost three months, just me and an acoustic guitar and I went to Greece, tanked up lots of sun, did a lot of swimming and tried to clear my head to make room for new ideas. When I came back home, I threw myself into the music and haven’t stopped since.
A third way I recharge is by playing my guitar. As Synthie Decibelshock, I am pretty much married to my synthesizers, so I call those my work instruments. I bought a black Fender Strat (a la David Gilmour!), so when I want to relax and wind down, I go off and play it. I call it my “hobby instrument“. If I ever become good enough, I’ll put a little video up on the social media, maybe of me playing “Comfortably Numb“ or something or maybe something a bit less challenging so I don’t embarrass myself too much! We’ll see!