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Charmed Life

Old Wave

Christopher Myers

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 1/14/2004

Jeffrey Koepper has a time machine in the basement of his trim Northeast Baltimore home. There's barely room to walk among all the light-blinking, knob-bedecked hunks of machinery. Miles of wires connect the contraptions, looping around the perimeter and sprawling along the ceiling overhead. Daunting electronic panels that wouldn't look out of place in a nuclear power-plant control room dominate one corner. Their switches read attack delay sustain release and envelope transient generator. When the lanky 35-year-old fires up his equipment and starts tapping some of the thousands of keys, I'm suddenly transported back to the early 1980s. I'm once again a skinny college kid with a penchant for thin ties and hair mousse.

No, I'm not talking H.G. Wells here, but Gary Numan and Thomas Dolby. For Koepper is a synthesizer player, collector, repairman, and rabid enthusiast. His basement is brimming with keyboards, modulators, drum machines, and sequencers dating from the golden age of wires: the analog era, before digital technology reduced music to a series of ones and zeroes.

"Most of this stuff is from the late 1970s to early '80s," Koepper says. "I'm a purist. The sound quality you get from modern equipment is nowhere near this stuff. This equipment has an organic, flowing nature to it. To me, digital sounds hard and cold and sterile."

What you don't see down in this sonic cellar are any computers. Koepper wrinkles up his nose at there very thought of having a monitor and mouse down here. "I should put up a sign reading no computers," he says.

Koepper doesn't even know how many synths he has. Dozens, easy. They're literally stacked up everywhere, and most are hooked into a bank of sound processors and a huge mixing board. He bought his first in 1985--a Crumar Spirit, still plugged in and playable--and has been accumulating them ever since. The most common makes are Moog (which rhymes with "vogue"), ARP, Sequential Circuits, and Oberheim. Since, as Koepper explains, "anything can wrong with them at anytime," along the way he has become a self-taught synth technician. It's even turned into a sideline business. Some replacement parts are still being manufactured, but many are not. "You have to have a keyboard junkyard," Koepper says, nodding to the heap of forlorn synths stacked in a corner of his workroom--all giving up their capacitors and transistors so that others can keep playing.

Koepper, who studied film at Towson University (then Towson State), is also a self-taught musician. He walks over to one of his myriad keyboards and effortlessly taps out the bouncy little principal riff from Gary Numan's 1979 hit "Cars" (perhaps the first synth-heavy new-wave hit on these shores). He's been in bands since age 15, recording and playing out with outfits such as Social Skill, Immortal, Limited Express, System X, and Still Life. Presently he is teamed up with an old high-school friend, guitarist/bassist/vocalist Piotr Wolff, to form Machine Age. A tap of a button sends a song from the group's recent EP filling the basement.

And back I go in time, once again, to my dorm room. All the Big '80s touches are there: the shimmering, jittery guitar and snaking bass lines, the plaintive vocals, and, of course, the rich bed of swirly, whirly synth sounds. It's Flock of Seagulls meets Ultravox meets Human League meets Depeche Mode meets, well, 2004. (Listen for yourself at www. machine-age.net)

"The sound is definitely coming back," Koepper says, adding that a full-length Machine Age CD, as well as club appearances are in the offing.

But there's really more to Koepper sonic tastes than what he terms "early-'80s electro art rock." There is also the less dancey, more trancey "space music," wherein his equipment is called on to create moody ambient soundscapes. His heroes in this latter style include Tangerine Dream and Jean Michel Jarre. Notable ambient artist Steve Roach helped Koepper produce his first CD in the genre, last year's Etherea.

While Koepper clearly feels the analog synths are undergoing a sonic resurgence, he dates the equipment's initial demise to 1983, when Yamaha released its DX7 digital synthesizer. This very popular keyboard lacked the proliferation of output-altering knobs, which are the hallmark of analog equipment--and, Koepper asserts, the source of its strength. These knobs, you see, are twirled and tweaked in combination to create custom sounds.

"When they took the knobs away, everybody just played presets," Koepper says. "Everything sounded the same. You could buy a cartridge with sounds on it and just pop it in. What's really important to me [is] making my own original sounds. It's almost like audio sculpture. It's in the moment--if I change the knobs, that sound is gone forever."

As it turns out, Koepper's in-house subterranean synthesizer playpen may also soon be gone forever. In the very near future he faces the arduous task of moving all his equipment to a rented studio space. His machines make sounds both time-warping and otherworldly, but they're banging up against something grounded and practical.

"My wife," Koepper says with a slight grin, "wants to make a family room down here."

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