Chad VanGaalen. Credit: Sebastian Buzzalino.

Instrumental: The Sonic Lives of Chad VanGaalen’s Behemoth Yamaha D-85 Electone

Chad VanGaalen’s Yamaha D-85 Electone is a real monster. It would take far too long to get into every single thing it does—not to mention the fact it can be tweaked and modified to make seemingly infinite sounds—but the main details are that it’s an old school analog synthesizer with three keyboards and a smattering of dials and pedals and rhythm settings that can be combined to, essentially, mimic an entire orchestra. 

“I just feel like there’s no way we could ever make something like this again,” VanGaalen says over the phone, hanging out with the D-85 at his home in Calgary. “This thing would cost like $60,000 or something. It’s more well-made than my vehicle. So ridiculous. And so every time I dive into it, I just really have a lot of respect for these companies that were truly trailblazing the electronic wave.”

The first synthesizer VanGaalen learned to use was the Korg Mono/Poly. “It took me a while to fall in love with it,” he says, “but it’s probably my desert island, all-time favourite synth.” About 15 years ago, he started getting into modular synthesizers on the suggestion of a pal who showed him they were less performance-based and more so a piece of technology you could organize to play itself. “I’m not really a keyboard guy,” VanGaalen explains.

Modular synthesizers—as a multitude of helpful National Music Centre employees could tell you, probably more articulately—are made up of multiple modules that all do different things. Users create patches between modules that change the type of sound the synth outputs. And like any old type of technology that is challenging to work with and gives the user a sense of accomplishment by simply getting it to work at all, they are extremely popular with a subculture of enthusiasts. And for good reason—they provide endless opportunity for creation.

“At this point, modular synthesizers have exploded into this sort of monster web of infinite realms,” VanGaalen says. “So it’s hard to even keep track of what’s coming out and what’s happening. And who’s even playing them. Is there anyone even playing them anymore? Or do they just sit there and like, live sonic lives of their own?”

From the sounds of it, the Yamaha that VanGaalen has been modifying over the years could certainly be living a sonic life of its own when he’s not around to watch over it. Sometimes, when his kids are around it, they’ll tinker with it and he’ll have no clue until he goes to start it up again and it functions differently than the last time. It’s always surprising him.

“This organ, this D-85, is a great example, actually, of that kind of modular mentality where you have all this stuff at your fingertips,” VanGaalen says. 

So that’s how you got into this one?

Yeah, that’s what sold me on it. Although I didn’t really buy it. I saw it on the local Kijiji. Very few organs have the triple tier going on, so I went and took a look at it. And then this old lady sat down and started ripping on it. And I was like, « That thing is crazy! » Then the more research I did into it, I realized it’s the same era as the Yamaha CS-80 and CS-60, which are sort of famously the Blade Runner, Vangelis era of stuff. Really, really fat sound, really golden tones—super warm, a little bit noisy. There are so many speakers—I think five speakers in total—inside of this thing. It’s nuts. There are two main speakers for the two main keyboards and they’re all pointed in different directions inside the cabinet. So you get this 360, panoramic sound coming out of it as well. 

What have you been doing with it lately?

I’ve slowly been tapping it out, bit by bit. Opening it up and kind of locating these different sections of the synth and then busting it out into a breakout box that sits on top of it so that I can separate the sounds. It’s really hard to mic and sort of translate how three dimensional this thing sounds. They really don’t make stuff like this anymore. Like, literally, when I went and picked it up, she’s like, « You know, I paid $15,000 for this. » Which was like a down payment on a house. I don’t know what housing prices were in the early ’70s in Calgary, but you know, people were probably paying like $25,000 for a house. Who the hell are these organ salesmen that are going door to door selling these poor people organs for that much? And they’re everywhere. Go to Calgary Kijiji at any moment, and I’m gonna say there’s at least five free organs. 

How has yours been modified?

So, right now I have a breakout box on the top. Just a cabinet that I built on the top, and it has line outs for the mono keyboard, for the lower keyboard, and for the upper custom keyboard. And then it has breakouts for individual drum sounds. So the kick and snare come out on the same output. Then the high hats come out of an output. And the reason that I put the high hat coming out is because I can get the rhythm gate out of it, I can kind of turn that into a gate signal by sending it into an envelope follower in my modular system, and then just tapping that hi-hat, and then I send the volume of that hi-hat into an envelope follower. Then I can turn that into a gate signal, which then can trigger other drum machines. It’s my way to sort of synchronize the organ and use the organ as the rhythm brain to then set off other synthesizers, other synthesizers specifically that can sequence and then I can also beef it up with other drum machines and stuff like that. So that’s pretty nifty.

You have so many tools in your creative arsenal—what makes you reach for the Yamaha?

It’s just that weird curveball, you know? It’s this living, breathing instrument. I feel like there’s always a lot of synthesizers coming out right now. And we’re seeing the sort of golden age of reissues as well. Korg got on that pretty quick. And there are beautiful new synthesizers coming out from Sequential. But there are these old living instruments that are just a little bit more humble. They’re not always on time, but when they get there, they’re adding a new language. And it’s a little bit less intimidating. Something like this, I would never be able to work on, I would never, never be able to afford to work on that. I don’t know if I would want to necessarily crack open a CS-80 that’s worth, like, 30 grand or something. Or any of my old synthesizers. I don’t want to crack them open and fuck around too much with them because they’re these precious items, but there’s something to getting a free organ where I just didn’t really expect that much. And then to have so much control over it is just insane. You get three synthesizers, two of which are polyphonic, and then you get a mono synth on top of that with a fully-fledged drum machine, arpeggiator, and then you get like, badass bass pedals going on at the same time. It’s crazy. These things are fucking spaceships.

You build so many worlds across artistic practices. What role does the synth play in that? 

I don’t know. There’s definitely a video game crossover there. For sure. If anything, if I get any synth arpeggiating, I’m in like, Zelda, or I’m in Mario. You get into that really technical, almost like hexadecimal programming where those nerds were composing, like, beat compositions with synthesizers. Or it can go classical, I guess, with the D-85. Maybe it leans more towards classical stuff, because it sounds really stringy. And sci-fi. So many films were scored, like John Carpenter just sort of being economically mindful and scoring his own movies with synthesizers like those. Those deep, sometimes single chord hits, where it’s atmospheric, lends itself really well to sci-fi stuff. But only because of pop culture references, I would say. Maybe if somebody scored Halloween on a fucking lute or something, we’d be like, « Man—a lute, man. What a dark instrument, man! Myers, man! That’s such a Myers vibe. » But it just so happens that it was scored on a Sequential of some sort. 

Your music has a real handcrafted vibe that shows up in places like synth textures, and it sounds like this particular organ might be particularly well-suited to you, specifically, than a more precise machine.

It is, and I love that sort of unpretentious vibe. It seems a lot more inviting to me when I hear shit fucking up or struggling, you know? It’s real to me. Not to say that I don’t love like, super pristine electronics. I’ll listen to a Quark record, and that shit is super tight. It still occupies like, possibly even more space for me. But yeah, back to the krautrock again, a lot of those instrumental synthesizer records—say, Harmonia, Deluxe is a good example of that—you can hear shit breaking down. There’s a certain rough quality to it that I love, for sure.

It makes it easy to straddle that line where things are futuristic but obviously still rooted in something human.

That human element in electronic music is fascinating. Because I feel like it’s trying to pull itself away from that. It’s trying to remove itself from that. So it’s hilarious when you have this thing contained within 100 pounds of oak. Like a fucking tree. It’s this computer brain buried inside of a fucking tree. Hilarious.