Swarming Synths

With knobs, oscillators and ribbons, the Swarmatron may be music's strangest and biggest award-winning synthesizer secret
  • Photo: Joshua Sarner
    The Swarmatron
  • Photo: Mikehodder.com
    Leon Dewan and Brian Dewan
  • Photo: Mikehodder.com
    Leon Dewan playing the Swarmatron
  • Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images
    Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor
April 21, 2011 -- 7:00 am PDT
By Tammy La Gorce / GRAMMY.com

(To listen to a sample of the sounds generated by the Swarmatron, click here, or see it in action in a video excerpt from How To Destroy Angels, Trent Reznor's project with wife Mariqueen Maandig and Atticus Ross.)

While Leon Dewan does not know Trent Reznor personally, he knows a pretty good story about him.

The former Nine Inch Nails frontman, who won an Oscar this year for best original score for the eerie, buzzing music featured in The Social Network, couldn't have composed the score without doing his own share of social networking on Facebook beforehand.

"[Reznor] saw a YouTube video about the Swarmatron on Facebook," says Dewan, co-inventor of the Swarmatron, the bulky instrument that dominates the soundtrack. The Swarmatron's exclusive dealer, Los Angeles-based Big City Music, posted the video on the store's Facebook page following the 2011 NAMM Show. After watching the video, Reznor and his collaborator, Atticus Ross, "were interested enough to try one," says Dewan.

"He started messing around with it, and it was right up his alley," adds Dewan.

Months later, Reznor and Ross were accepting their Academy Awards.

Dewan's own story is less glamorous and irony-streaked, but just as ripe for the telling. Since 2002, when the New Rochelle, N.Y.-based inventor's cousin, Brian Dewan, first described to him "a strange homemade folk synthesizer" that belonged to a friend of a friend, the duo has been building odd-looking instruments together under the brand name Dewanatron.

The Swarmatron, developed by the cousins in 2003, is a handmade analog synthesizer. It produces eight tones tuned to one note, with each tone slightly different in pitch, generating a unique choral effect, or sounds that are, as Leon describes, "seriously anxiety-inducing."

With a boxy configuration, the instrument is the size of a table-top record player. Given its array of knobs and switches, it could be mistaken for something a security guard would use to trip alarms, shine spotlights or otherwise manipulate a carefully controlled environment. Leon has one in his living room perched, along with a variety of other musical creations, on the kind of aluminum walkers frequently seen in nursing homes.

The Dewans have fielded a "pretty dealable" wave of Swarmatron orders since Reznor and Ross' Oscar win. The wave swelled slightly after the March release of the film Red Riding Hood, which contains a score also relying heavily on the use of the Swarmatron. It's quite the streak for Dewanatron, considering that as of April, fewer than 15 of the machines, which retail for $3,250 at Big City Music, had traveled beyond Leon's living room.

"[The Swarmatron is] great for creepy, disturbing effects," says Alex Heffes, who composed the Red Riding Hood score with Brian Reitzell.

"One of the interesting things about it is the way it looks. Because it has no keyboard — it's operated by running your fingers across a ribbon controller — you're forced to play it in a different way than a regular synth. That leads you to think about how you use it slightly differently than other instruments," says Heffes.

The Dewans first tinkered with electronic sounds together in 1980, when Brian's family visited Leon's family for Christmas in Old Greenwich, Conn., and the two then-teenagers held a Texas Instruments calculator up to an AM radio.

"We happened to notice it was generating funny noises," says Leon. Leon's father, Leon Dewan Sr., who is also an inventor, encouraged them. His grandfather was also a tinkerer. "The interest in weird electronic sounds goes way back," Leon says.

The first official Dewanatron instrument was called the Alphatron. "Its sound is serrated and jagged," says Leon, noting it was built from a Texas Instruments chip designed for video game sounds.

Before they began inventing instruments, Leon worked in the Web development field and Brian was a freelance visual artist. Both are also part-time musicians. Leon plays guitar, and Brian is a singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. They started performing in a band — also named Dewanatron — in 2003, and when the Dewans travel west, they sometimes work with a loose collective known as the West Coast Dewanatron Ensemble.

For now, Leon says "it's making the most sense to make instruments," instead of performing.

Since they have no employees, the turnaround time for a Swarmatron is roughly two weeks. Brian builds the vintage-looking consoles that house all Dewanatron instruments, while Leon makes the instruments' innards — rat's nests of colorful wires that are assembled in his basement.

"We toss around ideas for basic layouts. It's a fairly even collaboration — we have a subset of skills that overlap, but not much," says Brian.

In addition to Swarmatrons, the Dewanatron product line includes analog synthesizers such as the Melody Gin and Hymnotron. There is also the Dual Primate Console, a synthesizer with two sets of identical controls, including old rotary telephone dial pads, allowing two people to play simultaneously, face to face.

Neither Dewan expects Rolling Stone to start compiling its list of 100 Greatest Swarmatron players anytime soon. However, they are pleased with the attention the Oscar win has steered their way.

"The Social Network DVD contains a featurette called 'Swarmatron' — an excellent demonstration of the instrument by Trent and Atticus," says Leon. "I figured it couldn't be bad for business. They said really nice things about it, too."

(Tammy La Gorce is a freelance writer whose work appears regularly in The New York Times, and on All Music Guide and Amazon.com.)

 

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