Tokyo's Five G has kept vintage synth culture alive for decades. Kentaro Takaoka visited the shop's founder to find out how.
One of those shops is Tokyo's Five G, a domestically and internationally renowned store that's been in the business for several decades, specializing in vintage and modular synths.
Upon entering the shop, located on the fourth floor of a building at the corner of the crowded Takeshita shopping street in Harajuku, you'll be greeted by racks upon racks of modular synths. Moving deeper into the store you'll find vintage synths, rare samplers and effect machines sitting on shelves. Sought after gear like the Korg Mono/Poly and SH-101 synth (complete with Mod grip) can be found here in good condition, plugged in and ready to be played. Besides the synths, the shop also has a nice selection of drum machines, new synthesizers and recording equipment, like mic preamps. Being able to play with these pieces in the shop is one reason that people keep coming back.
On the Five G website you can see the current list of products on sale, as well as pictures of synths that once graced the racks of the store on the Five G Museum page. All the gear they sell is repaired and restored, and even after the pieces find a new owner the store staff will continue to offer support and repairs. Five G does everything they can to keep these machines playable as long as possible. On their Instagram you'll find short videos of staff playing the gear, among shots of famous artists who visited the store, such as Mathew Jonson, Jeff Mills, Dusty Kid and Damian Kulash of the rock band OK Go. Hardfloor and Daft Punk have also visited Five G.
Mr. Suzuki, a gentle-mannered man of 58, is the shop's owner. His love of music began in high school with rock music, and his instrument of choice at the time was guitar. He had a fascination with electronics, which led him to build his own effects pedals. "I started making my own because I wanted to figure out how these effects units were actually transforming sounds," he said. "Plus, it was cheaper to make my own. I would make different kinds of things like distortion, BBD chorus, tape echo and amps. Also, Korg had put out a cheaper model of guitar synthesizer called X-911 back then. Looking back on it now, you can't do too much with that thing, but it definitely got me more interested in electronic instruments.
"Back then, there was a non-profit organization called Electronic Art Center in Takadanobaba, which I used to go to," he continued. "People would bring in synths like Buchla and EMS, and it really gave me a chance to learn about these synths. The organizer was Professor Kazuo Uehara from Osaka University Of Arts." Studying English and German in college, Suzuki always loved traveling. He started Five G at the age of 30, after he returned to Japan after spending time abroad. "It was harder for me to find work at that age, so I decided to start something by myself," he said. "Music, instruments, foreign languages, travel, and electronics. I combined all these things that I loved, and came up with the job that I have now. I pretty much turned my hobby into a job."
As it got going around 1988 and '89, Five G was just Suzuki importing electric guitars and amps from the States and selling them at music stores on consignment, without an actual store. He would repair, customize and sell Ampeg, Marshall and Fender guitar amps. But Suzuki quickly realized that there were many guitar shops already, which meant he had a lot of competition. "I've always liked synthesizers, and there weren't many shops dedicated to synthesizers back then," he said. "That's why I decided to open a synth specialty store. I spent about six months visiting music shops across Europe and America and brought home a lot of synthesizers."
At that time, the Yamaha DX-7 had just hit the shelves, and digital synthesizers were the talk of the town. This meant prices on analog synths were dropping. "That, and the fact that you can do a lot more with analog than digital in terms of repairing and customizing made me gravitate towards analog synths," Suzuki said. "I started repairing a lot of analog synths and customized them to be MIDI compatible. Also, the fact that the first synths I got to play around with were Buchla and EMS definitely had something to do with it. I guess I really wanted to have the synths I used to dream about having in my shop." 26 years later, 95% of the gear he sells in his shop is analog.
I asked what motivates him after so many years. "For better or worse, this is all I know [laughs]," he replied. "That's really it. I've been selling vintage analog synths for 26 years. Over time those things will need maintenance and care. So when I think about my customers, I can't just quit. Also, we love the fact that each vintage synth has its own character, and we don't want to see them dying out. Plus, on the business side of things, we don't have too much competition. It's not an industry that's thriving, so I doubt big companies are going to want to get involved any time soon. What we do takes a lot of effort and time. But I believe it's important to specialize in something. As a small shop we cannot just start selling many different kinds of goods like a department store and expect success. It's better to stay in one lane and be the best in the world at it."
The store is operated by a small team of experts. Suzuki can still repair but for the most part his job is to negotiate with overseas manufacturers for the equipment his sister store, Fukusan Kigyo, imports.
Yoshida, a repair and maintenance expert, has been working at Five G for 23 years, making him the second-longest-serving member of the team. He is skilled with both analog and digital, and before he got too busy he used to do customizations, like installing additional memory on old gear. He's also the person who sets the buying and selling prices. Yoshida has a sharp eye for determining the value of a piece of gear, taking things like playability and damage into consideration.
Koda, AKA the Hyperdub producer Quarta330, used to be an English major in university, and he translates all the instruction manuals that come with imported devices. "He's an artist and he loves gear," said Suzuki. "He started coming to the store as a customer when he was in junior high school. He'd stay in the shop for about two to three hours. He started working for us as a part-timer, and I was taken aback by how much he loves this stuff. He is now a full-time employee. He knows all about the usual gear that's sold in most stores, but he's extremely knowledgeable about all the vintage stuff that we import. He also plays shows abroad, so he brings home interesting stories to tell and he makes connections overseas. He is a vital member of our team."
There's also Miyosawa, who Koda met at a club, who takes care of the customers in the shop and updates the website, and Hirai, who started working there recently. There's also Tajima, who used to work at the store part-time 20 years ago and now occasionally helps with things around the store and online.
Collectively, they strongly believe in only selling equipment that can be played for years to come. They purchase gear from studios and collectors and service the pieces to get them fully functioning. There is a repair room in the back with a huge collection of spare parts—enough to bring even a 40-year old synth back to life. "If people buy vintage synths from us they expect us to fix it if it breaks down. We have to make sure we have our customers covered," said Suzuki. Their dedication to customer service earned them a strong reputation among artists, and names like Takkyu Ishino of Denki Groove and anime composer Taku Iwasaki remain long-term clients.
Throughout Five G's long history, the store has been home to countless synths, some of which were incredibly rare. One example is the EMS Synthi 100, of which only 40 units ever existed. Five G imported it from a broadcasting facility about 20 years ago. "EMS keeps a record of every single Synthi 100 that they built, where the units were shipped to, and what sort of repair job has been done to it," Suzuki said. "Fukusan Kigyo is an authorized dealer of EMS, and when I got a hold of the synth I gave them the serial number and they told me all about its history. It was a really rare find. I'd say that was the biggest one for us, both in terms of size and rarity."
At one point or another, Five G has had synths from East Germany and the Soviet Union, a small ARP module, and a Swedish synth that lets you add on components like Lego blocks. They also had an ARP Odyssey whose serial number was 1, and an MS-20 that, upon speaking with Korg, turned out to be the first unit the company ever built. When Five G got a Prophet 5 whose serial number was 5, they couldn't help but point out the interesting coincidence.
Prices on vintage synths have been showing a steep climb in recent years. A TB-303 is sold at 240,000 yen (approximately $2,350) in the store. The TR-808 used to be 80,000 yen ($780) ten years ago but is now around 300,000 ($2900). On the other hand, technological advances have made some gear lower in value, such as samplers. At the time of this interview, the most expensive product in the store was a big 1975 Roland modular synth, System700; the second most expensive was a EMS Polysynthi, which had a price tag of over a million yen (around $9,750).
The recent renewed interest in vintage synths is behind the surging prices. "I'd say it really became popular in the last three, four years," said Suzuki. "Electric guitars have a longer history in the music world compared to synths. They only started mass-producing analog synthesizers in the early '70s. So I feel like the vintage category had existed in the guitar world for a while now, but 'vintage synth' is finally becoming a thing. This is why we're seeing more renewed interest in old synth manufacturers. There are probably many factors in play: some want to play the same sounds that their favorite artists did; some are buying the gear that they've always dreamed of having but couldn't when they were younger; some just prefer the analog sounds; and others think it's more fun to play around on a synth than clicking the mouse on a computer. At one point I was afraid that people didn't want the real sound anymore and were happy messing with virtual sound generated by software, but it looks like technology hasn't gotten to that point yet."
As someone who has worked in the store for a decade, checking over 2000 synths to make sure they're functional, Koda has simple criteria for what makes a synth great. "If you don't really have to do any tricks to bring out the best sound it's a great synth," he said. Studio Electronics' Boomstar is his favorite synth. "Out of all the synths that came out in recent years, I have the most fun with that one," he said. "It's not so much what it can do but more how it feels. I also love the [Dave Smith] Prophet-6 and OB-6."
I asked him how working at an instrument store affects his creative process as a producer. "It's part of my job to know everything about a particular synth, inside and out," he said. "The downside is that it's gotten harder for me to accidentally come up with interesting sounds. Of course it's an instrument, so there are times when I just play a note and go, 'Wow, that's nice.' But yeah there is a bit of a dilemma."
Five G's other key products are modular synths. Their popularity keeps growing. Five G is an authorized dealer of foreign brand modules and they even sell English instruction manuals translated into Japanese. Suzuki told me that Mutable Instruments and Make Noise are currently the most popular, and Five G even sells wholesale to retailers. "New modules keep coming out," said Suzuki. "Many of the companies that we have had a longstanding relationship with are putting out modular synths, and there's even companies now that only make modules. I'm sure the trend is not going away any time soon."
What kind of people are involved in this movement? Koda thinks the culture of sharing codes online that was popular a while back had an impact on this recent development. "There is a tight-knit community around the modular scene, which reminds me of the [software] Max MSP scene where people used to share codes," he said. "People share videos and build relationships online, which may be a little different than sharing codes, but there is definitely a culture of sharing knowledge and technique that's evident in the modular scene."
"Modular synths are my favorite kind of synth," Suzuki says. "You have so much freedom. You can patch it any way you like. You can build something from scratch. But when you work with modulars for a certain period of time you start to develop a certain way you like to patch, which ultimately ends up being pretty much the same things as a normal polyphonic synthesizer."
As more people launch independent companies to release modules the market is becoming more diverse than ever. With the internet providing all the tools and information one may need, it has become much easier for somebody to make their own modules. The bar is much lower for an aspiring module craftsman.
But this isn't entirely good news. Suzuki told me that not all independent manufacturers are reliable, and since many of them haven't been in the industry for too long they often don't know how to properly do business. "For example, let's say we are the authorized dealer in Japan for a manufacturer," he said. "In that case, it's against common sense for that manufacturer to directly sell their products to end users here. And also, many of them don't think about the maintenance aspect. All too often the module is made in a way that makes it hard to repair. But, they're beginners, so I understand. They will learn eventually. There are something like 200 synth companies in operation right now, but I reckon some of those companies will start disappearing in a few years."
Five G doesn't just do business with any synth brands, and there's a reason for that. "If we're going to build a relationship with a company, we're in it for the long haul," Suzuki said. "So we prefer to do business with manufactures that we think will have longevity. We only approach companies above a certain standard, and that method hasn't failed us yet."
I asked Suzuki, who has dedicated almost 25 years of his life to analog synthesizers, what he likes about their sound. "It's hard to explain but [digital sound] just feels flat to me. The sound just doesn't feel like it's really there." Suzuki's love of analog sound remains at the heart of Five G. His meticulous attention to detail, his passion for synths and his dedication to his customers makes his shop a haven for synth aficionados, a place where you're sure to find that one perfect synth you've been looking for.