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Homemade Sounds

Meet Logan Mitchell Sr. and the SDIY Group--the outliers of Baltimore's fecund do-it-yourself musical landscape

Photo: Rarah, License: N/A, Created: 2010:10:24 15:02:16


Logan Mitchell Sr. and his fellow SDIY members are obssessed with synthesizers in a way that has nothing to do with chillwave.

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Several years ago, Logan Mitchell Sr. found himself in the odd position of playing Latin percussion in a local R&B band. The founder and chief proprietor of Baltimore’s SDIY Group (synth-plus-DIY) says it was like trying to work blast beats into indie-rock, or bongos into chamber music. “It just wasn’t working out,” he says over lunch in a downtown sandwich shop. “Percussion in [R&B] music is secondary. If I’m doing Latin music [percussion is] front and center. So nobody’s breaking down my door saying we need you to play.”

Mitchell is not what you’d expect from a synth obsessive in Baltimore. He’s a middle-aged man who lives with his family in Northwest Baltimore and works at the Social Security Administration. His musical influences are the classic-rock of synth music: Keith Emerson, Kraftwerk, Zappa collaborators Don Preston and George Duke, Gary Wright, Bernie Worrell, and Tangerine Dream. And roughly half of the above’s autographs adorn the homemade synthesizer Mitchell has been working on for more than five years.

In 2005, Mitchell saw bassist Marcus Miller perform. “And I talked to his keyboardist, [who was] playing a Moog Mini D,” Mitchell says. “We talked and I told him my background, and that I wanted to get a Mini-Moog, like he had. That inspired me to make my own.

“I had an interest in electricity, so I had an interest in electronics,” he continues. “I used to build little circuits when I was younger. Some worked, some didn’t.”

This desire to make his own synthesizer was followed by the need to connect with people who knew how to build synthesizers. That led Mitchell to an online group called Analog Haven, a high-volume listserv that is a kind of massive catacomb of worldwide analog nerditry. In 2007, he sent out an e-mail to the group looking for synth heads from the Mid-Atlantic region interested in starting their own thing.

No one responded the first time. Disheartened, Mitchell tried again and got a few replies: Art Harrison, a Theremin manufacturer and performer from Silver Spring; Dave Vosh, an electronic-music synthesist from Upper Marlboro; and Greg Kist, one of the first members, worked for the cornerstone synth manufacturer Moog. “So many people doing so many different kinds of things,” Mitchell says of the responses. “It’s amazing the different kinds of people we have in the group.”

Talking to Mitchell, it doesn’t sound like it was ever in the initial plan to get other people to care about what the group was doing; he merely wanted to have an ongoing discussion. Mitchell, like many of the members, had never previously performed synth music in public, save for occasional barbecues at his house. Mitchell and Vosh played one early show at a now-defunct place called the Gallery in the Rotunda mall, and put a video of it up on YouTube.

“When we did our first performance at the Gallery, that changed it right there,” Mitchell says. “The group changed from what was going to be an every-now-and-then get-together and show and tell” to something performance-based.

What Mitchell considers the members of the listserv’s first “real” show happened not long after the Rotunda performance as a kind of happy accident. A video from that first performance made its way into the hands of the American Visionary Art Museum’s maintenance manager. Not long after, in 2008, an ensemble of SDIYers opened for an AVAM summer outdoor showing of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This performance was less a breakout than a transition: the synth players had performed for a large number of people and wanted to do it again.

In October 2008, the group held its first SDIY/Circuit Bending/8-Bit Festival at the Hexagon Space; another festival followed in 2009. This year, the group has swelled to more than 30 members and they’ve started putting on quarterly festivals, each several hours worth of packed lineups featuring group members playing solo or in ensembles. Many of the performers have taken some time to get comfortable playing for people and now they’re playing with other electronic music makers in Baltimore and beyond.

Mitchell wanted “to get some of us Baltimore guys some notoriety,” he says of the festivals. “It’s hard to get into some places. It’s hard to get a booking. Most of us are middle-aged, and even though we are unknown to the general public, we have to the ability to play music people will like.”

Mitchell, however, doesn’t appear all that concerned that the SDIY Group isn’t performing around Baltimore every weekend. At its core, the group is more about a shared intense enthusiasm for synths. In other words, the SDIY Group will be the SDIY Group with or without an audience, so long as there’s gear-tweaking to be done and new sounds to be made.

During the interview, Mitchell takes out a tiny hand-held Korg synthesizer—a “Monotron”—from his backpack and somewhat nervously pulls it from its box. “Only 60 bucks,” he says. It’s played via a strip of analog ribbon made up to look like a keyboard, and he goes through the dials one by one: oscillator controls, VCF filters, pitch control.

“The appeal to me is just the sound, the sounds you can get from this one device,” Mitchell says. “The boundary is what you want to make of it. You can never stop building. A modular synthesizer is what you make it.”

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