Patrick LeMieux with his modular synthesizer

Photo: Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis

Synth Sounds

by | Jun 6, 2022 | Office Hours, Spring/Summer 2022

The world of sound fascinates Patrick LeMieux, an associate professor of cinema and digital media who researches, teaches and makes games at UC Davis. Lately he’s been thinking about how people play with video game sounds. What kinds of music keep people playing for hours — not drive them bonkers despite hearing the same melody over and over again?

When the pandemic hit and social isolation became the norm, LeMieux considered even more how the audio world shapes our personal spaces, like the popular “24/7 lo-fi hip-hop” channels on YouTube designed as background music for studying or relaxing. So he wanted to take an active role in that, by building and playing modular synthesizers in his home.

“I was interested in the ways in which people were using music to manage their environments and regulate their moods during lockdown,” LeMieux said. “There’s a long history of ambient music designed to support other activities like working, studying, meditating and sleeping that now includes video game soundtracks.”

LeMieux, a musician and producer by background, gravitated toward modular synthesizers. These instruments use colorful cables to patch together electronic modules with different functions that may include generating sounds, sequencing events or adding effects — a tremendous range of sonic possibilities that can sometimes feel like a puzzle game.

With LeMieux’s music, the results often sound hypnotic with a spacey touch. Notes and melodies blip by, with long droning chords sometimes anchoring his works. In some cases, he uses video game samples from titles like Final Fantasy and The Legend of Zelda as the basis of a piece. LeMieux shares his synth music on YouTube, and he also plans to start playing more in live settings.

“I’d never thought about modular synthesis until recently,” LeMieux said. “It’s a pandemic hobby, but it fits into this longer history of background music for me. What kind of music can you make for long, lonely listening — and doesn’t make people want to pull their hair out?”