Meet our good friend Shuhei. By day, he’s vice president of software engineering at GoodRx, and by night, he’s one of the coolest music nerds we know.
Shuhei and his wife Sachi live near us in Los Angeles, and we often go to their house on the weekends for long, rambling meals and hikes on nearby trails. On most occasions, we end the evening with the dads and kids in the garage, making music. Shinya plays drums, the kids join in on keyboard and tambourine, and Shuhei jumps around between guitars, synthesizers, bass, and whatever else he has on hand.
From the start of our friendship, it became quickly obvious that Shuhei’s understanding of music is on a different level than the average person. It’s not only that he plays so many instruments and has such an extensive knowledge (and collection) of music, but it’s also his ease talking about the technical components of sound. We have long been curious about where his talent/obsession came from, and we asked if he’d be willing to let us interview him in his studio to learn more about his relationship with music. (We promised him that you guys, as his fellow Battenwear-ers, can nerd-out with the best).
SHUHEI: Welcome to my home studio/office/converted garage. I built this space during pandemic to have a kind of one-man band set up next to my work desk. I have recording equipment, synthesizers, samplers, sequencers, drum machines, amps, guitars, bass, and a drum set.
BATTENWEAR: How did you get into music in the first place? At school?
SHUHEI: No, I don’t have any formal musical training. It all began when I was in high school in Illinois in the early 90s, and my uncle introduced me to the Japanese band Yellow Magic Orchestra. YMO had been around a couple of decades by then, but it was totally new to me. At the time, Guns & Roses, Nirvana, and the general hard rock/grunge trend was popular. So, when I was introduced to YMO, it felt underground, like no one else was listening to it. Once I got into YMO, I knew I wanted to learn how to play keyboards and synthesizers.
I lucked out, and my first synthesizer was a Yamaha flagship SY99 synthesizer, actually the same kind that Ryuichi Sakamoto was using after he left YMO. From then on, I had a sort of one-way relationship with Ryuichi Sakamoto where I learned about technique and production from him as well as the different ways to work with analog and digital synthesizers. He was my idol.
BATTENWEAR: Just in case, ahem, anyone else doesn’t know . . . what’s the difference between analog and digital synthesizers?
SHUHEI: It all started with analog of course. And that’s what YMO used mainly, although Ryuichi Sakamoto switched to digital eventually after he left YMO. Basically, analog synthesizers are a combination of voltage-controlled circuits that are used to generate and modulate sound. You use manual controls like knobs and sliders to adjust the parameters of the synthesizer to change various aspects of the sound like frequency, timbre, tone, etc.
Digital synthesizers use digital signal processing (DSP) techniques to make sounds. So, instead of an interface with knobs and sliders, at least at first, it was all about menu digging on LCD screens to tweak your sound. As for the sounds themselves, they’re all either digital FM (Frequency Modulation) or sample playback based (as opposed to analog synthesizers which rely on voltage to generate sound). This meant that the number and variety of notes you could work with was greatly expanded. The Yamaha DX7 was of course the turning point synthesizer in the analog to digital shift.
By the time I was getting into making music in the 90s, digital synthesizers were already king, and they had also started to onboard sequencers and drum machines. So, with a digital synthesizer workstation, you already had enough to at least sketch out songs.
Soon enough, though, people started getting nostalgic for aspects of analog synthesizers, including the warmer sounds they made. The trend began to change again and by the mid 1990’s, a bunch of companies started making digital synthesizers with analog style interfaces.
But all the synthesizers that I have been collecting are analog, voltage-controlled oscillator synthesizers.
BATTENWEAR: Do you have a favorite company or brand that you buy?
SHUHEI: Recently I have gone down the rabbit hole of eurorack modular synthesizers and buy from a lot of different companies like Cwejman, Mutable Instruments, Make Noise and Intellijel. With eurorack modular synthesizers you can build your own synthesizer by selecting components that you want to patch together. The more modules you add to your unit, the more levels of sound you can manipulate. And the beauty of it is that most of the companies that produce the modules are small companies. Because these modules are made by craftsmen, the way the components synthesize sound has a lot of character. It means that you have a never-ending palate of sounds you can create.
I personally like to spend a lot of time with each synthesizer until moving onto another. All synthesizers are different, and I like making discoveries on them.
BATTENWEAR: Tell us about your guitar collection too.
SHUHEI: I realized I couldn’t get all the sounds that I wanted from the synthesizers. For example, the sound and feel of a guitar can never be replicated. All of the guitars I collect have distinct sounds and functions. For example, my p-bass has flat wound strings, so it gives you that old school Motown sound. The other bass I have is a standard Jazz bass for a more modern rock, slap bass sound. My Epiphone Casino gets me a Beatles-era sound. The Jazzmaster and Telecaster have their own unique sounds. The Stratocaster is my go-to guitar.
I think it's most fun when I can mix digital and analog recordings. With purely digital recordings, you can capture and create a “perfect” take. The fact that it's perfect means it’s repeatable. To me, that means it has less character. With analog recordings, you naturally have limitations and each take is different every time, which is more interesting.
BATTENWEAR: Who are some other artists who have been a big influence on you?
SHUHEI: Tetsuya Komuro, definitely. He’s famous for playing surrounded by synthesizers and I always found him sensational and kind of mind blowing. He was a pioneer in the field and ended up producing a ton of the music coming out of Japan in the 90s.
BATTENWEAR: How about contemporary artists? What are you into?
SHUHEI: Actually, I’m really into scouring YouTube for music channels, even some that don’t have many followers, so I can see people experimenting. I like to explore contemporary music that way. Of course, I still like going to record stores and purchasing new music. But I like the digital digging—stuff on YouTube or Soundcloud or Bandcamp. Not even label-backed, just amazingly good, and amazingly bad random music. That really piques my curiosity.
BATTENWEAR: For anyone who is just now learning about YMO , can you recommend a couple of favorite songs to get them started?
SHUHEI: “Rydeen” has a mind-blowing main melody. And the use of the vocoder in “Technopolis” was fascinating to me. Growing up, I got super into Gundam, and I was always fascinated by the future and robotics. So, the vocoder and synthesizer sounds felt a lot like my childhood dreams coming to life in a music setting.
Thanks for the nerd-out, Shuhei! See you next time in the garage!