FEZ. Located 15kms south east of Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, the Freizeit- und Erholungzentrum translates (literally) to a ‘free time and recreation centre’ for those visiting Wülheide’s green spaces, open-air music auditorium or kids playgrounds.
But for three days last week, the FEZ played host venue to something different to its usual family-friendly speed: Superbooth ‘17 – a trade show for all things modular synthesis, organised by one of Germany’s largest hardware distributors as an alternative to more established events.
On floorspace and exhibitor numbers, Superbooth is a big as any regional US audio show, themselves many times larger than any Australian hifi show. Superbooth’s exhibitor and (anecdotal) attendee throughput appear doubly impressive when we consider that this is only their second year of operation.
Modular synthesizers aren’t like the Minimoogs, Korgs or Yamahas of yesteryear. The keyboard is often absent, replaced by what looks like a mid-20th Century telephone routing system. Patch cords connect modules which generate sounds, filter another module’s sounds or apply programmed effects. An ability to choose your own modules and connect them as desired is what gives a modular synthesizer its functional/musical horsepower.
It’s also what lends Superbooth ‘17 a retro-futuristic vibe. Exhibitors mainlining the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop rub shoulders with those whose machines generate straight up techno. In the large auditorium, manufacturers give big room demos of their creations. Outside, next to the coffee carts and food trucks, a stage hosts live performances from a broad range of lesser known modular-synthesizer-playing electronic musicians.
There’s nothing wrong with being into gear. It’s the pretence that the opposite is true that does us a disservice. Here was one event where “It’s all about the music” didn’t ring hollow.
Superbooth ‘17 attracted some big-name artists. Ricardo Villalobos joined forces with Max Loderbauer (ex-Sun Electric) for an after-hours show on Friday night (which I missed) and techno trainspotters could find Nina Kraviz bouncing between booths all weekend long.
My journey to the FEZ on Friday was delightfully unusual. Having missed the 11am Spree-cruising ferry laid on by show organisers, I took two standard S-Bahn trains and, for the last mile, a miniature train:
Think it all sounds the same? Hitting the panic button only releases laughing gas. Does the homogeneity of Krall-Jones-Eagles-Floyd not smother audiophile meets? Calling it “doof-doof” exposes the complainant’s snobbish ignorance. Real tech/no heads know that Martin Gore’s MG sounds nothing like Aphex Twin’s Syro but that both albums were made with modular synthesizers.
Moreover, when we stop to think about how many people in Berlin spend their Friday night at home with The Girl In The Other Room versus those who spend their night at one of the city’s numerous techno clubs, the marginalisation of electronic music in an audiophile scene hungry for growth becomes even more baffling.
Taking place on the same weekend as Superbooth ‘17 was Chicago’s AXPONA. From Jana Dagdagan’s report for Stereophile: “I played Aphex Twin’s “Alberto Balsalm” from the album I Care Because You Do from my phone and they played me Rickie Lee Jones “Showbiz Kids.” – says it all, does it not?
This commentator’s Superbooth attendance wasn’t only to nerd out on the mod-synth electronics but to take note of the loudspeakers and headphones in use.
Amongst the cacophony of digital synthesizers, we hear no-one ask “Which DAC chip do you use?” or “Is that an aluminium or soft dome tweeter?”. And why would we? After all, this show’s remit is to showcase hardware that generates sound, not that which reproduces it. At Superbooth, DACs, amplifiers, loudspeakers and headphones are an afterthought.
So – if you didn’t peg it from the above video, consider this photo set:
Notice how almost every exhibitor: a) uses an active loudspeaker; b) made by one of a tiny handful of manufacturers? Adam Audio, (its spin-off) Eve Audio, KRK, Dynaudio and the occasional Yamaha. It’s surprising to see so little Genelec in play. Headphones barely get a look in. Beyerdynamic’s listening station attracted only the occasional visitor.
Just as the audiophile world might look to the pro-audio space to broaden its musical horizons, the latter might also benefit from the former’s expertise in playback hardware. There has to be at least some common ground between each world’s (supposed) thirst for neutrality.
In other words, Superbooth presents a marketing opportunity for the more savvy audio manufacturer. Hallo AudioQuest. Guten Morgen KEF. Wie geht’s Schiit Audio? Alles Klar Noble.
In upcoming slices of Superbooth ‘17 coverage, we’ll dig deeper into the loudspeaker and headphone manufacturers that did put in an appearance.
Further information: Superbooth