In Jacksonville, Synthesizers are Connecting Artists Across Mediums in a Flourishing Underground Community

A photograph of Synth Nite at The Walrus in Murray Hill
Attendees experience the varied audio and visual installations at a recent Synth Nite put on by local Synthesizer retailer and promotion company Modular Noise | Credit: Keoni Seal, courtesy of Modular Noise

A couple months back, I went to Synth Nite at Murray Hill bar/restaurant/venue The Walrus. To be honest, it was the first time I attended a concert that catered to experimental and atmospheric music. 

For Synth Nite, Jax’s Noah Schleifer, founder of new-and-used-synth online retailer and event promotion company Modular Noise, works with visual designers David Enicks, Mike Kennedy and Neato Design to transform The Walrus into a wonderland of whirling sounds and swirling colors. Recently Schleifer teamed up with Hush Hush Jax, a silent disco group that programs headphones with live DJs so attendees have the option to listen to different sets in the same room. 

At the event I attended, there was a DJ giving a live demonstration on how modulators work. There was a live projection on the wall of the modulator he was using, distorted with fun colors and filters, creating a visually engaging experience. If modulators aren’t your thing, there was a second DJ on a different station, and about six different synths set up in a corner for people to experiment with. 

The emerging Jacksonville synth scene is fostering a community of musicians, visual artists and everyday people around immersive sonic and visual experiences. The aforementioned group, Modular Noise, is bringing people together through Synth Nite, an event filled with live music, DJs, demonstrations and projections that all work in conjunction to tie the audio/visual experience together. 

Schleifer started Modular Noise back in 2020 after realizing there wasn’t any sort of synth shop in or close to Jacksonville. The meet-ups came about a year later in April of 2021. Schleifer invited other gearheads and the synth-curious to places like Bold Bean Coffee Roasters in Riverside to try out an array of instruments they otherwise wouldn’t have access to. Synths are a pricey investment, so having a community where people can share their resources makes it easier to try out new sounds. 

“Primarily my interest was to cultivate that community,” Schleifer told me. “I saw this niche, and a void because we don’t have a synth shop here in Jax. Now my focus is to shift it to meet-ups, education, community cultivation and empowering performers and artists.”

Synth is short for synthesizer, an electronic musical instrument that emerged in the mid-20th century. Enhanced by tinkerers such as Robert Moog and Dave Smith, and popularized by musicians like Wendy Carlos (Switched on Bach and The Shining score), synthesizers have been adopted by artists working in a range of genres. To track across the decades, there’s the ’60s psychedelia of The Doors to the otherworldly experimentations of Mort Garson (Mother Earth’s Plantasia) and Stevie Wonder in the ‘70s. By the ‘80s, synths had proliferated, showing up in the pop-leaning output of Billy Idol and Duran Duran, while also spearheading the new wave scene. Synths get an edgy makeover in the ‘90s as Trent Reznor used them in industrial music. And the 21st century has introduced the fast-paced electronic wonders of hyperpop. 

I asked a couple of Synth-Nite attendees why they enjoy coming out to the events. “It’s a scene that has the ability to completely change the venue holding it, really a spectacle,” local music appreciator Jon de la Hoz told me. “They put together a great display of local talent and it brings out the curiosity in a lot of people.”

“The synthesizers provide a sequencer to stay on beat, and the rest is just programming and tweaking knobs, “The synthesizers provide a sequencer to stay on beat, and the rest is just programming and tweaking knobs. It provides a modern welcoming approach to music theory without all the complicated syntax,” said local audio engineer, Esteban Medero of the more technical side of synth music. “It provides a modern welcoming approach to music theory without all the complicated syntax.”

Severed + Said performing
Jacksonville musician John Touchton of Severed+Said performing | Credit: Drew Garraway

Daniel Hubert Jr., a bassist who plays in various local bands like Primary School, Teal Peel and Bobby Kid, said, “They showcase so many genres and subgenres of music all at once. It’s different because you’re not just going to hear one style the whole time.”

Even outside of Synth Nite, there are artists in Jacksonville using synths for all kinds of music. One of the first to put out experimental atmospheric music was John Touchton who performs under the name Severed+Said. Touchton’s explorations began with the ambient synth-pop project Ascetic, back in 2014. Since then, he’s released three albums, and toured up the East Coast. When I asked him what he liked most about playing synths rather than acoustic instruments, he elaborated on how meditative they feel. “I could really just enjoy holding down one note with headphones on and listening to it change – turning knobs and listening to how that changes it. It’s a very meditative thing, and I think that’s why a lot of people are gravitated towards it. Going so deep into it is like a very therapeutic and meditative approach to making music.”

Everything To Me is a local trio made up by Andrew Cardin, Jake Phillips and Thomas Bishop that takes on that classic ‘80s new-wave sound with glowing dream-pop undertones. They’re inspired by artists like Cold Cave, Drab Majesty, and New Order. The first time I saw them perform live was about a year ago, and the whirring hum of the music was so entrancing that I forgot where I was for a minute. I think what really makes these concerts are the visuals that go along with them. It makes you feel like you’re completely consumed by the music. 

Jake Phillips of Everything To Me
Jacksonville’s Jake Phillips uses synthesizers in several musical projects, including the trio Everything To Me | Credit: Raymond Ramdass

I asked Everything To Me’s Phillips what he liked most about the growing Jacksonville synth scene. “I love the community Noah [Schleifer] has built and all the friendships I have made through synths. It’s also pretty wonderful getting to play expensive/rare instruments you normally wouldn’t have access to.”

The next Synth Nite is held on Saturday, November 26 at The Walrus in Murray Hill. Modular Noise is currently accepting track submissions for a compilation album. House, techno and experimental artists are encouraged to submit their music. The deadline for submissions is December 31, 2022. Contact Modular Noise for more information. 

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