I admit it
I have Gear Acquisition Syndrome (synth GAS)
So you find yourself surroundedHerman Hesse
by death and horror in the world,
and you escape it into lust.
But lust has no duration;
it leaves you again in the desert.
And so it is with GAS. Instead of thrashing around in creative forests and oceans, my energy evaporates in a dusty wasteland, given up to the YouTube cacti and Instagram dunes. I stop making music.
I lose myself in a desert of unproductive media consumption.
But in late in 2019 I partially-fixed myself (there is no cure for GAS, only treatment.)
I didn’t have to cut off my fingers or my ears. I resisted the cult of minimalism (despite always wanting to buy a van) So what did I do? Well, two things mainly:
- I confronted the amount of time I was wasting (thanks math); and more importantly
- I focused on my music-making goals.
To help us all mitigate the GAS we carry with us, I’ve compiled herein:
THE MOST COMPREHENSIVE LIST
OF SYNTH GAS REMEDIES
ON THE INTERNET!
Table of GAS Cures
- develop your brain
- acknowledge mental health
- give in
- personal budgeting
- forget the buzz words
- fuck modular
- buy used
- swap with friends
- question everything
- limit forum surfing
- limit social media
- listen to music
- define your goals
- save your $$
- only one of each
- try before you buy
- recognize diminishing returns
- go ITB
- go DIY
- make music a habit
- finish your projects
GAS is a dependency, a disease. It’s a malady made worse by my addiction to the internet and casual “research”.
In 2019 I spent around two hours per day reading reddit posts, checking music blogs, watching synthesizer videos on YouTube, etc. Random stuff: demos, reviews, performances, Q&As. In my mind I was doing research on the current state of the tech and market.
But you know who does research? Scientists. Journalists.
Me, I was just surfing and procrastinating. I was GASing out.
2 hours x 365 days = 730 hours = 30 days
30 fucking full, 24 hour days each year spent being ineffectual. Seeing that number as a reality made it hard for me to continue wasting my time.
I have synths: modular, hardware, software. Good ones and cheap ones. I know how to use them to make music, and sometimes I actually make some music (though I can’t mix worth shit.)
But I still long for other synthesizers, for more, for effects, for cabinets and desks and to house the shit. And this GAS-fueled longing results in three primary curses:
- Spending too much $$
- Space and workflow clutter
- Creative distraction and self-sabotage
So what did I do? What can we do?
If you’re hurting, employ one or several of these soothing tips to stop worrying about gear and start making more music and fun.
1. develop your brain
The most essential piece of gear you own is your brain, so expand it; build out your pea-brain.
The more you know, the more you’ll be able to squeeze from any synth: the one you have now or the one you’ll have someday.
And be honest with yourself: sometimes you just don’t feel like making music. If it’s Sunday afternoon and you’re anxious about returning to work, don’t bother with music. Devote the time to learning, even passively by watching YouTube or other instructional videos.
Whether you learn the circle of fifths,
explore the 63 parts of Sound on Sound’s Synth Secrets,
or work on your production and mixing knowledge,
there are plenty of ways to invest in your mind. Make note of that nagging question about using [obscure functionality] in [DAW of choice], and educate yourself when you’re bored.
AND NEVER FORGET “Don’t worry be happy”
it’s just a man and his brain (and his mouth, hands, probably some expensive mics, mixing desk, monitors, professional studio, engineers, fuck…)
2. acknowledge mental health
Also brain related. Some of us are depressed, anxious, reckless, suicidal; we’re artists after all.
GAS is a fine joke, but it can also be a symptom of a more complex problem. This is experience talking: I’ve bought weird and often useless things when I’ve been depressed and disconnected from reality.
Be on the lookout for destructive behaviours like:
- being unable to manage your debt or pay your rent because you keep buying gear
- hiding synth purchases from family members
- selling items that you love to cover/fund impulse synth purchases
- difficulty sleeping and impulsive, late-night social media scrolling
When the brain and body need a boost, gear lust can trigger some positive feelings. But it’s often an unsustainable covering-over of a deeper void.
A bit of self-awareness can expose issues related to your mental health. Reach out to a friend, a forum or a health professional when needed.
Synths are highly desirable shits and the synth companies know it. Marketing campaigns often have little or no regard for your mental well-being.
It’s not that the manufacturers and retailers are intent on crushing your brain. I think that most want you to be creative, successful and happy. But effective marketing campaigns unintentionally discriminate against the mentally unwell by exploiting our desires.
Be aware and protect that pea-brain!
3. give in
Speaking of mental health, you gotta love yourself.
Be kind to yourself. Give yourself a synth. Don’t worry, be happy.
If you’re a collector or hobbyist, GAS is the fuel that keeps you going. And by the way, being a hobbyist is a legitimate reason for loving synths: they’re beautiful, perfect objects; pretty much the best things out there.
When you’re new to synths, you should expect some GAS. You likely don’t know what you want. Worse than that, you don’t know what to do with the things you do want. And worst yet, you don’t know what you don’t want.
Buy a couple of used pieces of gear. Enjoy the happy accidents that occur when multiple synths are synced and set to control each other. Sip the nostalgia of picking up and plugging in an old synth.
If you’re in the fortunate position of having disposable income, revel in the GAS, give in to it. Buy and trade, buy and trade.
But try to spend enough time with a piece of gear to learn what it can and can’t do, what you do and don’t like. Make conscious purchases to move you from one step to the next.
Understand and document what you don’t like about a synth. This could save you from buying the same piece of gear multiple times. I’ve fallen shamefully for the OP-1 twice now. Both times I was sucked in by the promise of a fully-functioning groovebox. Both times I sold it (despite its UI and amazing tape machine) because the sound design tools drive me into a corner, based on the way I work. I should have made a note after the first time selling it, telling my future self what to expect.
4. personal budgeting
This may seem a bit far afield, but it’s a good idea to prepare yourself a personal/home budget.
Maybe you’re rich or careless, maybe you’re under thirty or childless. Regardless, without a budget I don’t know how you even buy skittles without looking over your shoulder.
I have a wife, a young daughter and a house. Consequently I track every penny I spend to a biweekly budget, in line with the biweekly pay cheques from our day jobs. As such, I’m reminded a minimum of 26 times a year that I can’t afford a fucking Moog One.
Tracking expenses is a good way to see that you’re paying Starbucks $150/month. Only then can you make a plan to
- homebrew your coffee
- save $100/month
- buy a $1,200 synthesizer at the end of the year (or buy a Moog One in 9 yrs)
Every time you feel that urge to buy, consult your budget. Chances are your GAS will shrivel a little (or you’ll start looking for a cheaper apartment.) Also check out the save your $$$ section below.
5. forget the buzz words
analog v digital
hardware v. software
poly aftertouch v. regular old keybeds
classic waveforms v. wavetable
VCO v. DCO v. digital oscillators
modern v. vintage
Shit is mainly a distraction.
These comparisons are a great way to practice your debate skills and waste a few hours of work time on reddit. But when it comes down to making tunes, you either like how a synth sounds or you don’t
Listen for sounds you like and try to emulate them on your own gear. If you get sucked into debates and research, chasing the merits of one tech over another, then you’re offering up your productive time as sacrifice.
6. fuck modular
Seriously, just stick with VCV rack. Don’t even worry about the ultimate freedom to patch as you choose, to swap modules in and out at will, to create unheard sounds from a synth of your construction. Forget you ever saw this:
7. buy used
Let other people play the pre-order game when new synths are announced. Wait for them to sell-off their older gear and snap it up.
If the Korg Modwave is giving you a lusty heart, remember that Waldorf brought the technology to affordable hardware in the 90s, and they can often be found for cheaper, have great sounding effects, dual filters, etc… (here’s to you, MicroQ):
This isn’t necessarily going to free you from your GAS. And I expect most of us can waste just as much time on Craigslist/Kijiji/[local used gear site] as we can on Reddit or YouTube.
What it might do is let you buy one or two pieces of used gear to satisfy your needs, where you may otherwise only be able to afford zero pieces of new gear.
8. swap with friends
If you can get past the powerful desire of material ownership, you may realize there’s no need to own a synth at all.
Swap instruments with your friends for 2-4-1 GAS relief.
Numerous times I’ve brought a synth home from some run-down apartment in Parkdale, only to find it didn’t sound anything like the videos that sold it to me. If I’d gone to the trouble of making a synthy friend or two, I could potentially have saved myself some trouble by trying out their synths first.
I see a number of construction tool (hammer/wrench) collectives and maker workshop spaces in Toronto, so I know that the sentiment exists. I consider libraries to be ‘friends’ as well, and more of them are starting to carry synths. So there may be organized sharing options in your community.
Look for meetups in your city and ask around on forums to see who’s got what. If you’ve got the extroversion gene, you can also poll around your town/city and start a collective/meetup group yourself.
9. question everything
| why | what | how | questions are especially good at getting to the bottom of GAS. Be a kid: ask “why” enough times to be left with first-principle truths.
- What is it about this new synth you’re drawn to?
- What gap in your existing setup would it fill?
- Can you approximate that missing feature or sound using your existing gear? (wouldn’t it be interesting to try?)
- Will you feel guilt/buyer’s remorse if you buy it?
- How much other gear does this piece of gear require to be fully functional (e.g., cables, interfaces, special clothing…)
Why do you really want it. Why?
If an uncomfortable answer comes back, chances are you don’t really want the synth.
10. limit forum surfing
I understand this may be asking too much, but try to limit your Kijiji/Craigslist/ebay/modulargrid/obscure-used-synth-forum surfing
Unless you have a defined need, stop crawling, just for a night or two.
Set some saved searches for those things you’re looking for and forget about the rest. It’s not really a deal if you don’t need it in the first place.
Staying off the sale sites will free up more money and more productive/creative time.
11. say no to social media
If the last one didn’t turn you off, this one might.
Limit your r/synthesiers, youtube, instagram, facemace surfing.
Community is important, and many of us come by our introversion naturally (see above). Forums are a great place to share knowledge and give back. You can also often find answers on a forum that you won’t find anywhere else.
But everything in moderation (including modulation). Use forums sparingly and for what you need. Then go back to playing synthesizers.
Synth reviews are great fun too, but reading/watching them takes up a shit ton of your time and can reduce you to a drooling mess of a human (see math time).
Recognize that reviews are designed to make a synth sound good. If a reviewer used shitty patches as examples, no one would watch it. They make the synth sound as good as they can because that’s what we all try to do, and they’re especially good at it. They also excel at showing the most unique features, and we drool over the rare, fresh treats they dangle.
If you’re going to watch demos, acknowledge that you’ll not get the synth to sound the way the reviewer has – and likewise, they won’t be able to recreate your sound.
Look for reviews that show the synth in context. It can be tough to find someone who uses it in a similar genre as you would, but that’s what the subscribe button is for – find them and follow them.
Be careful not to fall back into a surfing mentality once you’ve broken the habit. Monitor your screen time closely.
12. listen to music
Actively listen to your favourite music.
If you’re finding yourself in an increasingly GASious state, go out for a walk or sit in a comfortable chair with some good headphones and a notebook, and turn on your best playlist.
Consider the number and type of instruments used. Make notes on the structure of songs, where the dynamics rise and fall. Pay attention to the sounds and try to replicate them on whatever you’ve got.
It doesn’t hurt to remind yourself that the guitar is used in hundreds of classic songs, and the difference between a Les Paul and a Fender strat is much smaller than the variations between a Minimoog and an Access Virus. People spend a lifetime mastering a single guitar. Maybe one synth is enough?
Re-listen to your own music/stems/loops as often as you can bear. Recall how awesome your music is no matter what gear you used. Try to hear areas to improve and work on that.
Some of my favourite MELODIES (not productions) I’ve made were five years ago using three volcas – immediate and present.
13. define your goals
This one’s huge, and I don’t know why I haven’t moved it closer to the top….
Put some thought into what you want to achieve with synthesizers, what kind of music you want to make or what you want your synth collection to contain. Then decide what steps you need to take to help you get there.
It’s like a strategic plan for your synths. OKRs for OB4s.
A quick plan will help you consider your weaknesses and the gaps in your setup/skillset that are holding you back.
Recognize also that Black Friday / NAMM / Musikmesse / Superbooth are coming, every year, they follow a regular schedule so there should be no surprises. Make your plan in advance and hold the line. If you don’t have a plan, then you’re likely to get caught in the GAS cloud.
14. save your $$
Now that you’ve got your goals set (see above) you may just be able to save up for the gear you really want.
When you work a day job to fuel your passion, It ‘s tempting to spend a hard-earned $200 or $500 on a $200 or $500 synth. We’re living in a golden age of synths in which the manufacturers, retailers and used markets support expenditures at all levels.
But before you buy, consider if the acquisition will meet your goals or if it’s better to save for the thing you really want.
Combine the adultish (budgeting and goal setting) with the childish (print a pic of the gear you’re saving for). Post that Moog One pic to the wall behind your workstation stay focused.
A side-effect of GAS is the accumulation of synths I rarely use and even sometimes dislike. So I follow my plan and have bi-annual sell-offs.
Thanks to the booming synth industry, I’m now more likely than ever to acquire a bunch of budget synths that are little more than an aggravation when it comes to producing music. They make cool sounds on their own, but they can be difficult and time consuming to get to play together, to sound nice together. I often keep these synths around thinking they’ll increase in value or that I’ll use them in the future. But they don’t. And I don’t.
It sounds corny as fuck, but try picking up each piece of unused gear and asking “does this pile of electronics spark my joy?”. Plug it in and see if it’s worth keeping. Chances are you’ve got another synth with the same feature set that’s more useful.
If that’s the case, sell that poop and start fresh.
One final tip is to sample audio for use in other projects before trading or selling gear away. There’s always something redeeming about a synth – a low bass, a warbly pad – so capture it and use it elsewhere. Also try to save your patch banks, as you never know when you or a friend will find yourself owning the gear again and want those old sounds back.
16. only one of each
As you’re planning or refining your setup, consider buying or keeping only one example of each type of synth or piece of gear.
One monosynth, one polysynth, one drum machine, one mixer, one set of monitors, one pair of headphones one Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), etc.
Instead of quantity, really try to focus on buying the best quality gear you can afford. Good quality synths will typically find a more stable home in your setup, offer a rich feature set and provide more opportunity for the gear to grow as you do.
Avoid unnecessary multiples and constant upgrades in order to (you guessed it) keep your focus.
17. try before you buy
If you’ve got the ability to try out a synth at a local music store, do it. Sometimes you realize that it doesn’t sound that much different from the gear you already own.
If you don’t have a local music store, wait until you’re on vacation or visiting friends in a local city to find a music store. Also consider swapping with friends or checking out a local synth library (see above).
I’ll often go to a store, prepped with a synth manual on my phone, sure that I’m going to buy, only to find that under my hands the synth sounds just like all the others. And it’s the hands and the player that are the real keys – my fingers tend to make the same sounds no matter which knobs or faders they touch.
It’s a good time to remind again that demos are made by demo artists – each with their own signature sound. If you find yourself lusting after a synth, acknowledge that it may be the artist you like, not the synth.
18. recognize diminishing returns
Remind yourself that from certain perspectives, a free vst can produce the same sounds as a moog one – saw, square, triangle.
You create the hook, the synthesizer just sounds it.
If you start with that free VST, you might find a big leap in the quality of your experience and sound when you move to a Korg Volca Keys at $150 and to a Novation Peak at $1,400. But then what? Will a Waldorf Quantum at $4,500 really sound three times better than the Peak?
It’s a non-linear relationship, where each extra $1000 you spend on an instrument provides a smaller benefit in terms of sound quality, playability, etc. Recognize the pattern and match your spending with your needs.
Also, you know you’re just going to drown it in reverb anyway. Everything sounds good at that point.
19. go in the box (ITB)
Most of the best hardware out there can and has been replicated or approximated by software at a fraction of the cost.
Many people want to go DAWless, tired of the loss of tactility in software and yearning for the feel of the synth and a greater sense of interaction. If you’re concerned about the playability and connection with plugins, consider a decent MIDI controller to make things more physical.
If a hardware synth has a feature you love, take a look in software to see if there’s something similar.
CAUTION: beware the GAS you’ll find ITB. Soft synths and effects are just as likely to inflame your condition. Plugins seem cheap, but the costs can accumulate quickly. There are a ton of them out there too, so try not to get lost in the reviews, demos and free trials.
And recognize also that the cost of plugins isn’t always measured in dollars. Their numbers can grow quickly and result in option paralysis.
(read the fucking manual)
Learn the gear you’ve got. Read the fucking manual.
If you’re thinking of upgrading or adding something – monosynth, mixer, sampler, etc – spend some time with the kit and thoroughly review the manual.
When I read or reread a synthesizer manual, I’m on the lookout for features that I’ve forgotten. Every synth is unique and has some wicked trick that will suck you back into using it.
When reading a manual under these circumstances, I also try to assess whether the perceived weaknesses of the synth are real or just symptoms of my bloated, GAS-filled brain. Often I’ll suddenly notice that the gear I have and the gear I want are functionally identical on paper. Both may have two oscillators, a filter, a modulation matrix, and onboard effects. It’s at that point I usually realize I’ve been consumed by lust.
If you have cashflow problems (most of us) and can follow instructions (some of us), DIY electronics are a good avenue for gear acquisition.
You’ll have to invest in a soldering iron and maybe some online education or messy experimentation, but then you get access to a large number of incredible products (including modular synths) at a significantly reduced price.
Developing DIY electronics skills can also lead to creating and building your own modules/synths/effects or programming arduino/axoloti synths. If you manage to pry open these doors, you may never need to buy another synth again – you’ll be able to make them yourself.
22. make music a habit
When you feel the urge to buy something, play something instead.
Set aside even 15 minutes a day to work on music. If you can make it a habit to play instead of “researching” and GASing, you’re likely to find that you’ve already got enough gear to keep you occupied.
Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.Stephen King
Just turn on whatever you’ve got and start using it. Don’t wait for inspiration. Make sure you spend time and money to optimize the playability of your setup. Address barriers to starting a session, like having to unplug and replug cabling. These are the tiny things that the brain latches onto and makes larger than they actually are, driving you to the couch and the YouTube over the studio.
I started waking up at 4am to steal two hours for music before my work day began. During this time, I try not to touch my phone or computer except to read gear manuals. I’m not a saint, I still crack for synth release dates and subsequent reviews, but the habit is there and I feel a weird sense of pain when I misstep.
This habit resulted in the recording and release of my first EP.
23. finish your projects
close the loops – complete your songs
Finishing songs is the easiest way to feel rewarded in your music making. The more music you can tie off and label as ‘complete’, the less likely you are to go searching for fulfillment elsewhere.
I’m still learning to replace the hormone hit I get from buying a new piece of gear with completing a musical project. But I think it’s a tough task worth pursuing.
I don’t want to be captive to a desire to purchase gear. I want to feel compelled to produce and complete musical projects.
My next article will deal with this topic in detail: a comprehensive set of tips for writing and finishing songs using synths.
Thanks so much for reading, and please leave a comment with suggestions for additional GAS relievers. I’ll try to update the post regularly.
Please subscribe to the email list below to be notified of new articles and resources.