Sounds of sci-fi: Synthesizer musicians share their other-worldly sounds in Winnipeg

Experimental music fans gathered on the weekend at SkullSpace, a community tech hub in Winnipeg's Exchange District, to show off their modular synthesizers and learn more about creating the instrument's other-worldly sounds.
Rolf Oswald, a modular synthesizer musician, showcases a pocket noisemaker he assembled. (Colton Hutchinson)

There was plenty of knob turning, cable patching and spacy sounds at Winnipeg's SkullSpace on the weekend as experimental music enthusiasts gathered to show off their modular synthesizers and learn more about their other-worldly sounds. 

The machines work much like a classic synthesizer keyboard seen in any progressive rock video of the 1970s. The major difference is that modular synthesizers are fully customizable, assembled piece by piece by the user.

The focus of the music is less on playing a series of notes to create a melody, and more on creating a sound wave form and modulating it through a variety of filters, effects and electrical impulses. 

Rolf Oswald shows off his modular synthesizer system. (Colton Hutchinson)

Rolf Oswald, who has been creating experimental music for years, recently began building a modular system, 

"It's certainly an escape," he said. "It takes me into a different dimension so I can focus on the music — bit of calming, a bit of meditative trance states sometimes if I'm really into it. 

"It's a lot of fun to dabble and build a system, but I'm finding it incredibly difficult to get something pleasing sounding out of it. I think most people would describe the music I do as sort of space, ambient music. If you're listening to any science fiction space music … it's maybe not very melodic but it certainly creates that atmosphere." 

Chris Duval showcases his modular synthesizer, housed in a custom case

The popularity of modular synthesizers has risen over the last five years, with new modules and manufacturers regularly appearing on the market with fresh ideas and sounds. The community in Winnipeg has grown in that time as well. In the last three years of the Petting Zoo Event, attendance has increased steadily, and the size and number of synthesizers has as well.

Grant Partridge is proud of his new modular synthesizer

There is still much more room for the community to grow, according to modular enthusiast Grant Partridge.

"It's still in its infancy and there's a lot more we can do as a community to foster a sense of inclusiveness, and to welcome other people in who are interested," he said. "Currently, there's nowhere in town to get these synthesizers. If that was changed, that would be a huge boon for the community."