The Red Hot Chile Peppers’ latest CD, Stadium Arcadium, features interesting use of modular synthesizer by John Frusciante, who relied heavily on his 40-year-old modular synthesizer to tweak his guitar parts.
“When you listen to Dani California, the guitars are always changing, and there’s all these effects going on, created with the modular synthesizer after he played them,” said engineer Ryan Hewitt. “So you have this endless palette to choose from to make those sounds, and John would never use the same sound twice. That was real exciting. At times, we would record the guitars at a different speed, so we’d change the speed of the tape so when he was listening to it, it was going really slow or really fast — at least compared to its normal speed. Then, when you play it back, it’s like this totally different sound. At the end of Wet Sand, it sounds like there’s a harpsichord when really it’s three guitars playing the harmony to each other at twice the tape speed.”
And Frusciante insisted that those slight imperfections be left in to give the LP more character. “He has an instinct to leave imperfections in a record,” Hewitt said. “He’s a huge fan of 1960s, 1970s music, where there’s just stuff that’s blatantly wrong on certain records. It’s not perfect. John recognizes when to let go of things. There are other times when we’ll sit there trying to fix one note forever until it is perfect. But there are some things that are, to me, really obvious — Chad dropped a stick in one song, and that was left in. You can tell because he’s playing kind of weird. He’s trying to find his other stick, but it keeps going, and he’s playing with one arm. It’s things you don’t notice when listening to the song because it was so good and the groove is so tight. If you listen to the guitar by itself, it might sound a little funny in one spot. But because the band is so tight, that kind of thing is not going to stick out, and it will add to the cool factor.”
Electronic Musician featured Frusciante recently and looked at his use of modular synths:
Although he is known as a guitar player, Frusciante is also an enthusiastic synthesizer user. Not surprisingly, his synths mainly date from the late ’60s to early ’70s. His collection includes a Doepfer A100 modular synthesizer, a Mellotron, a Minimoog, and a 1970 ARP 2500. “For a long time I was using mainly the Doepfer. I was more interested in using the LFO and gates and treating other instruments with it. I wasn’t interested in using a synthesizer’s oscillators. But the ARP 2500 has renewed my interest in oscillators completely, because they sound incredible. It’s the same thing with guitars and recording equipment — the old stuff sounds better, louder, warmer, and more soothing.
“On The Will to Death I used mainly the Doepfer. I didn’t use the oscillators at all. I used a Minimoog for a couple of things. It was important for me not to use synthesizers too much on that album, because I was thinking more in terms of how miraculous the sound of a drum set or a guitar can be. It was more important for me to capture those sonic things that in a lot of ways are simple — for instance, the way you hear the drums dancing around the room and the way that a vocal sounds really late at night in a dark room. Those are the things that keep me interested in wanting to listen to music repeatedly.”
Frusciante’s interest in electronic sounds is most striking on Shadows Collide with People, which has a number of instrumental synthesizer tracks that have obscure names such as “- 00 Ghost 27” and “Failure 33 Object.”
There’s also a great article at Guitar Player that looks at his modular synth use with guitar in detail:
Dani California – I used a straight Strat tone on the first section of the first verse, and on the second section the guitar signal is split and panned in stereo, with the original part on the left, and a part processed using my Doepfer modular synth on the right. Basically, the signal from the tape is used to trigger an envelope generator (or ADSR), which responds to playing dynamics, and uses that information to dynamically control a low-pass filter. Unlike a typical envelope filter pedal, this setup allows me to create many more sounds than mere wah effects. Then, those two sections are repeated, and as I’m hanging on the sustained chord which transitions into the chorus, a Mellotron string part slowly rises behind the guitar. You can hardly hear the Mellotron, but it’s what makes it feel like something really big is about to happen. On the chorus, I doubled the guitar parts, which were played using a Boss DS-2 Turbo Distortion pedal.
The second verse begins with a couple of guitars playing in harmony. After they were recorded, I ran them through a Moog MF-105 MuRF (Multiple Resonance Filter Array) pedal six times, and recorded the results on individual tracks. The MuRF is very unpredictable, and sounded different on each pass. I kept going until I got a take that I really liked, though we actually wound up using all six takes in combination. Otherwise, the processing is the same as on the first verse.
For the bridge, the rhythm guitar is processed with the Doepfer’s LFO (Low-Frequency Oscillator) controlling its high-pass filter, so that the filter opens and closes rhythmically. The drums are also filtered, so that they are small and panned to one side at the beginning, then gradually get bigger and pan out across the full stereo spectrum, which lets you hear the guitar treatment more clearly.
Frusciante’s doing some crazy stuff with modulars, showing that modular synthesis is alive and well and offers creative options for guitarists, not just keyboardists.
Frusciante pedal board image via Moog