Interview: Synth Sorceress Lisa Bella Donna

Synth ace Lisa Bella Donna opens up about gear, her creative process and what the future holds for electronic music

If you’re a true synth nerd, chances are you’ve come across Lisa Bella Donna sometime in the past few years. She’s worked on a number of incredibly informative (and inspirational) videos for the likes of Reverb.com, Moog and more. Her fluid, lyrical playing style expertly draws out the best of each instrument she touches – evoking everything from choirs and epic string sections on the Mellotron, to spaced out, Tangerine Dream-style pulsing bass lines on the Moog Grandmother and other modular synths. We recently caught up with the keyboard guru to chat about all things synth and the direction of her career.

Let’s explore your background in synthesis. Is this something that’s been with you since childhood?

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I got into music very young, I wasn’t necessarily born into a musical family, but my parents were very avid music listeners. Every Friday my father would come home from working at GM and he’d bring four or five new albums from the era – this would be the mid-70s – that’s what really inspired me to get into music.

This was in the Cleveland area…my parents moved a lot and they were kind of tumultuous back then. But during that time my mother’s sister was a country and western musician. And she had a big Wurlitzer electronic organ, and WOW. Behold this thing – she’d let me play it and go crazy on it and record me on an 8-track cartridge [laughs]. Her daughter was a teenager at the time, and she turned me on to a lot of the rock and roll of the mid-70s. In fact, she took me to an Aerosmith sound check when I was three or four years old.

It drove my dad nuts…My mother, however, was very supportive. She was very passionate about music and used music. She had a really unique rapport with music, and I studied her feelings about [it]…she had a very emotional response to music and that made an impact on me at a very young age.

Was piano your first instrument? 

No, not by practice. I’d say the first real instrument I played was drums. And then the guitar, and then eventually organ, THEN piano. It came much later.

I know we’re jumping ahead a bit, but when did you start approaching synths and modular gear, in particular?

My first real impression came from my mother. One of her favorite records was Gary Wright’s “Dream Weaver.” She used to sit me down between the speakers and tell me this was the future [laughs]. It really was breathtaking, hearing this synthesizer-dominated music. It wasn’t really until later when I was an early teen that I had an opportunity to even touch a synthesizer. I kind of spent years even gigging as a guitarist, getting into the organ and things before I ever played one.

When I was 15 or 16, I started working in a jingle studio. And I basically was their in-house musician, multi-instrumentalist, and they put me to work as a tape editor, and I had all sorts of great experiences. I used to have to cut 15, 30 and 60-second spots…it was a really awesome learning experience. And it was there I first played a Fender Rhodes – that kind of changed my life. Using that with a small phaser and Space Echo, wow. They were using some modern technology, this would have been the mid to late-80s, but they still had some of these old things, like they had an Odyssey. An ARP Omni and an ARP Odyssey. That really kind of ruined me [laughs].

What do you think of the new KORG re-issue of the Odyssey?

I think they did a nice job. That one’s probably a little closer to the original than their 2600 [re-issue]. I think it’s an awesome thing that they did a full reissue of the 2600; it was my beloved instrument for many, many years.

[Editor’s note: at this point into the conversation, we spent a good deal of time talking about pricing, waxing nostalgic and then veering into the new model Behringer is bringing to the industry, which is where we’ll pick things up…]

I think it’s a great way for new musicians to experience synthesis, and that’s equally as important as having a [high-end] instrument that’ll last a lifetime.

It might be a good way for artists to get into music and get their feet wet.

Sure. It feels like right now, a lot of people feel this comparison [of clones and originals] is valid, and it’s really not, you know? I’ve been doing this a long time, and I know the difference between the real instrument and something that’s a decent clone of it.

I don’t ever want to come off as sounding like some elitist-type person, it’s just that I’ve spent a lot of bench time over the last three decades when people weren’t into analog synthesizers and at this point, I have played just about everything damn-near original. If you want cheap, buy cheap. If you want something that’s gonna last, you make the investment.

There has been a resurgence of analog gear in just the past few years. What do you think happened to spark that renewed interest? 

Well, I think that’s not entirely true. I mean Moog has been doing it [since the 2000s] with the Voyager. Dave Smith is still at it, Tom Oberheim is still making true instruments. So, I don’t think it’s totally been dead, it just hadn’t been as easily affordable. It’s just that more people have jumped on the bus and want to be a part of that. And that’s great.

My only concern is, do the manufacturers really want to be a part of it? Or is it just a cash grab? It’s one thing to pay tribute to something from the past, but everything doesn’t have to be a necrophiliac experience, you know? [laughs]

I’ve got to get back to the modular stuff. What drew you to this tangle of cables and made you say, “Yes, this is something I want to figure out?”

This is kind of an off the wall answer, but it is honest. This goes back to the days working in the jingle studio. I had bought an ARP Omni and Odyssey, basically bought their old stuff, and they had gifted me this stack of magazines from the 1970s. They were pretty awesome and in-depth.  And I remember reading about Heavy Weather by Weather Report, so I found the album and listened to it on headphones and it blew me away. The taste and color Joe Zawinul was getting out of the ARP 2600. By that time, I already had a Polymoog and a few other things…so I met this guy in the back of Keyboard Magazine called “Synth Locater.”

This is where it gets off the wall. Right before I met him, I had this really crazy astral projection. I’m not talking about anything drug-related, I’m talking about a very personal experience. And in this experience, I heard these sounds that were so unique and intense and stereophonic…it was just such a crazy experience…When I came back from this thing, it put me on a mission, to start thinking about what sound is and how it affects humans and how it makes you feel.

I wanted to understand that deeper, so I started reading books on physics from the library. But it was very hard to find books on synthesis – this was West Virginia, mind you. So, it was through this experience I decided I was going to find an ARP 2600, and something just clicked. In my mind’s eye I even visualized how I would make patches on it before I even got it, having a little bit of relevant experience having had the Odyssey.  And so, I met this guy, the Synth Locater at this Expo, and he was so nice to me.

I was really passionate about it, and I think it caught him off guard because no one was really asking about these things at the time, but I had to find an ARP 2600. This was 1990, maybe? And he had so much crazy stuff, Mellotrons, KORGs, Moogs. This was the time that everyone was getting rid of this stuff, so he capitalized on that. He let me experience the 2600 and let me play one before I considered really buying it.

So, I played one and maybe a month, two months later, he called me and told me he had a 2600 for me [for sale]. He told me the price, I made a down payment and he was kind enough to give me the manual with it. The manual for the 2600 was an amazing resource for synthesis, as good as anything out there. It really had style to it that was a great education, even before I got it in my hands. So, I got it home and basically locked myself in my little tiny house, really went to town on it and really learned it. I created a piece on it called “Correlative Moods” that I actually just re-released for the Alan R. Pearlman Foundation. I was able to really achieve that astral experience in sound, at least a touch of it.

Eventually I got a pair of them [2600’s] and that’s how I learned modular synthesis. Getting to learn how to use it musically, as an expressive instrument…

I think that’s important, because there are a lot of synth videos out there on YouTube where they demonstrate instruments but don’t play any music on them. They just go through what each oscillator sounds like, and then maybe some filter sweeps. But that’s not music. I think that’s why people gravitate towards your videos because you show what these instruments can do in the context of real musical playing and expression.

Well, I’m not really a critic. I know that I have my own personal approach to it, and I like a combination of very technical sound design and development, but the goal is to make an impression, musically, sonically. I love to play melodically…to play with heart. That’s really it. I love soulful music; I like music that makes me feel like I’m listening to the person, not the instrument. That’s what it’s really about.

I want people to listen to my albums and get lost in it. And get more self-aware of where they’re at, at the time, listening. I’m creating a forest for them to explore in. That’s how I feel about it.

What does your current recording setup look like?

It’s very much a marriage of both analog and digital. There’s usually a mixture, very rarely do I something all-digital. But I look at a tape machine as a canvas. The computer is awesome…but there are so many options. When I’m sitting at a tape machine, I look at it like my piano. Even if it doesn’t wind up being the finished product, it will definitely pull out so many different things out of me like a muse…

I’m an analog-at-heart person. I’ll start there and perhaps finish it on the computer, and I feel that’s a good marriage. 

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