A man plays Andy Reichel and Cindy Desmaraiss Synthesizers.com unit. It sounded like a massive choir of electronic frogs.
A man plays Andy Reichel and Cindy Desmarais's Synthesizers.com unit. It sounded like a massive choir of electronic frogs. Dave Segal

Sunday afternoon at Substantial's loft-like office on Capitol Hill there comes a disorienting cacophony from several synthesizers being tested by various geeks and geekettes. It's a towering babble of alien burbles and spluttering bleepage, a psychedelic swirl of analog and digital emissions that combine with animated human chatter to overwhelm the senses. This is the first Synth Meetup and Petting Zoo, organized by Hollow Earth Radio DJ Cindy Desmarais and veteran techno/electro producer Tom Butcher, the entrepreneurs behind the fledgling Patchwerks. Their goal with this gathering—which drew well over 100 people—is to gauge interest in synthesizers among the city's musicians, mess around with a bunch of electronic-music gear, and alert their target demo to Patchwerks, a company that they hope will serve as both a place to buy synths and as a community-building hub for Seattle's electronic scene. "There are three such stores in Portland," Desmarais says. "Seattle has zero. This needs to happen." When I tell them that they're going to be rich, Desmarais and Butcher laugh. That's not their objective, they claim, but their idea seems ripe for this moment in Seattle cultural history—overdue, even.

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As Desmarais notes, "It's not that there are fewer people; in fact, I would argue that there may be more people in Seattle who are in their basements already doing this and buying this type of equipment and are interested in it, but they don't have any place to meet. There's no central place for the community to grow out of."

The impetus to start Patchwerks was sparked at last year's NAMM [National Association of Music Merchants] convention. "Cindy and I both had the idea independently," Butcher says. "We're both deep lovers of synthesizers, the technology, of the history. Seattle has no place really for people to come together to play these instruments, to touch them, to take them home. We happened to find each other on the floor of this convention, among tens of thousands of people. I said to Cindy, 'What are you doing here?' She said to me, 'What are you doing here?' We've been good friends for 20 years. We thought the time is right, both for Seattle to have this opportunity and storefront."

Desmarais and Butcher foresee Patchwerks as being superior to any YouTube tutorials or internet discussion groups with regard to connecting with people and instructing them about equipment."Growing up, I wanted so badly to go someplace and talk about synthesizers," Butcher says. "I had no opportunity for that in Texas. At the time, late '80s/early '90s, you had to spend $800 or $900 to get anything. Now it's a totally different concoction. You've got the internet, of course, where you can discuss everything. But it's still not the same; you're not playing the instruments yourself. And there's no two-way discussion about the music, the instruments, no connecting with the community. And that's what we want to build here in Seattle. When we saw each other on the NAMM show floor, we realized we could do this together."

Currently, many Seattle electronic musicians shop at Portland establishments like Control Voltage, MuffWiggler, or Synthrotek or LA's Analogue Haven. This is absurd, because Seattle has so many electronic producers and DJs. Butcher sees Patchwerks as a business that will "bring modular synthesizers and boutique electronics for music to Seattle, outside of the big-box corporations like Guitar Center, even American Music. They don't really cater to this audience. We want to cater to musicians, people who care about this community, people who love electronics and are geeks about the machines that make this music. It's not just about moving product; it's also about teaching people how to build kits, hosting events, hosting performances by people who use electronics to express themselves." Desmarais adds, "And workshops, convincing people who didn't think they could get into this music to do it."

"There are multiple facets," Butcher says. "You've got the musicians who use this equipment to express themselves. Maybe they're in bands, or performing at home. There is the aspect of electronics, electrical engineers or tinkerers or makers and they just wanna do something with their ingenuity. That's another aspect, as well: You don't have to be a musician. You just need to be interested in electronics and sound. We want to cater to that, as well."

Patchwerks' bosses are not analog purists; they plan to sell digital synthesizers, too. "If it sounds good, it's in the plan," Butcher says. He goes on to rhapsodize about the huge '80s Fairlight digital synth (which legendary British producer Martin Hannett wanted Factory Records to buy instead of the Haçienda), which a Portland enthusiast brought to the Meetup. "The Fairlight was the first system to implement shared memory in a computing sense. This is a computing concept that is common in the cloud today. There's innovation in both analog and digital realms. It's exciting to play with the boundaries. As a musician and composer, whatever sounds good is what I want—whatever provides that sense of newness or facility to expression."

Desmarais says, "We're also interested in new interfaces to play, instruments where someone's created. There are a number of companies creating some novel interfaces that let you control a sound source in interesting ways, so we're interested in supporting those companies, as well."

"Absolutely," Butcher says. "With all the parameters that are available to you as an electronic composer, the traditional interfaces such as a fretboard with a guitar or a keyboard with a piano or synthesizer... with all this new possibility with controlling sound, the old interfaces don't give you the degrees of control that are available. For example, Randy Jones here in Seattle with Madrona Labs has created new musical interfaces for this world, both digital and analog. The Haaken Continuum is another example of an interface that allows you to actually shape the sound more to your expression than is available with a keyboard or fretboard. There are people in Seattle making these new instruments, beautifully crafted pieces of wood... that just happen to have a USB port at the end."

"Seattle has a huge number of people using the technology but we also have a lot of people who are making new technology, instruments, and interfaces," Desmarais says. "There's no central place for those people to come together and share what they've developed. So they're exporting that to other cities.

Patchwerks will begin as a mail-order company in the first half of 2016 while hosting temporary pop-up stores as they scout for a location; both are leaning toward Georgetown and hope to open in their physical space by the end of the year.

Patchwerks' heads have impressive business experience to go along with their zeal for electronic gear. Desmarais started as the fifth employee of Adaptive Biotechnologies and helped to bring it to a 200-person company in the last five years. She has been responsible for developing the customer relations component of this company. Butcher has worked for Microsoft and various startup companies, doing R&D for audio technology, specifically speech- and music-recognition technologies. "But at the same time, I really love connecting with people—especially people who love the same things I do. [The Synth Meetup] is the perfect springboard for that. I'm really excited about the new products and technologies that come out and how to apply them. It's all about expression. New tools that help me express what I want to get across in my music is my bread and butter. This is the best place to help me realize that and connect with other people who feel the same way."

Back in the Synth Meetup hurly-burly, amid the Roland TR-808s, Roland SH-101s, Korg KMS 30s, Euroracks, Dave Smith Tempests, Fairlight CMIs, and MORT, the refrigerator-sized synth owned by Desmarais and her fiancé, Andy Reichel (aka ambient producer Gel-Sol and Patchwerks' graphic designer), we spot local scene luminaries Coldbrew Collective, Madrona Labs' Randy Jones, Aykut Özen, Monika Khot, Zach Zimmerman of Weird Room—and two white guys with Aphex Twin T-shirts. Predictably, the ratio of men to women runs about 95/5 and there are few people of color in the crowd. Also predictably, I overheard a guy say, “I've been lusting after that sequencer for a while.” No doubt, the sexual tension in here is thick.

The next Synth Meetup & Petting Zoo will be at Melrose Market Studios in the spring. It's a much bigger space than Substantial, which speaks volumes about the excitement surrounding Patchwerks' endeavor.

A woman tests out Rolands vaunted TR-808 Rhythm Composer.
A woman tests out Roland's vaunted TR-808 Rhythm Composer. Dave Segal