Something wicked this way comes
Ken McBeth is a man so passionate about analogue synthesizers, he not only enjoys to play them, but builds his dream synths himself in his Edinburgh lab. These instruments are hand-built in small quantities with meticulous care for detail and feature almost brutally simplistic user interfaces and an uncompromising sound.
Ken's latest model is the M5, a semi-modular monster of a synth housed in an extra-wide solid steel casing with huge knobs and sliders. Here's a peek behind the production line:
EoIpso: Macbeth is quite an unfortunate name for a Scottish company.
Ken: What can I say? It's the name that I was born with! Apparently it's bad luck to mention the name Macbeth on a theatre stage and most references are to the "Scottish play". I hope it is bad luck on the audience and not me!
EoIpso: Who or what made your heart beat for synthesizers? Keith Emerson? Kraftwerk? Wendy Carlos? The Doctor Who theme?
Ken: I guess that there must have been a few things in my formative period. When I was growing up the synthesizer was only just becoming established as a legitimate musical instrument. I reckon that I started hearing "synth sounds" on the radio when I was about 10 or 11 years old. I took an interest in sound and electronics by way of tape recorders, I had a real fascination for recording sound, but of course there were no samplers back then. Some of the more "unusual" bands at the time began to surface (no kidding). There was a band called Chicory Tip who did a song called "Son of my Father" which was poppy, upbeat, almost psychedelic - and all synth. I saw them on the TV and they were in the pop charts with this one-hit wonder. That had an effect on me, as did the very unusual "Autobahn" by Kraftwerk, and of course there was ELP (Emerson, Lake and Palmer) and Prog Rock, lots of it at that time. And as time moved on, synth music changed, and Bowie/Eno stuff interested me more and more. The great times for me in synth terms were about 1978 to 1985, you know, the era of Killing Joke and those bands.
EoIpso: When you were little, were you the kind of kid that would disassemble his toys and mother's kitchen appliances?
Ken: Yes, absolutely! And get into lots of trouble for it too! The classic roots of becoming a hardware engineer!
EoIpso: Would you describe yourself as an anoraky kind of person?
Ken: Hey, come on! Me anoraky? Well no, I don't think so. I don't get too geeky on anything and I do not wear spectacles either! No, I consider myself to be a bright vibrant type with lots of interests that are not just electronic music and all that guff. I'm very much into photography and art too, and I do not have bad breath either, so that's cool.
EoIpso: I understand that you started customizing old synthesizers way back in the 1980ies, later to be followed by your own designs. When did you decide to make your company a regular business?
Ken: You are right, I modded Moog Prodigys and ARP stuff, like adding oscillators and filters et cetera. Macbeth Studio Systems began some ten years ago, and it became a Limited Company nearly five years ago.
EoIpso: How many people are involved in your company? There must be a whole lot of work to do, as your instruments are more or less hand-built.
Ken: How many people in total? That varies. Currently, I'm working with just one guy who builds up M5s with me. I worked with two guys in the past on the M3X. One has to be careful who one works with, there has to be a mix of dedication, hard work and humour if things are to go well. Dry humour is the best! I also have the engineering plant that I use, so there are various people involved in the manufacture process there, i.e. PCBS, sheet metal, silkscreen. I've worked with John "Kenton" Price on projects such as the M3X and we have a good working association.
The man and his machine