novationhardware

A funny thing happened on the way to the future. Thing is, at the same time the computer has improved as a music-making instrument, so, too, has standalone hardware.

The reality is, hardware rigs for music making are more affordable and more accessible than they ever were before. They do more, better. They’re easier to use. And when it comes time to record and arrange, the computer doesn’t require the investment of cost and time it once did, either.

So the upshot is, even the computer is making it easier to spend some time working with hardware. And that means more time to focus on improvising with your hands – experimenting with gear and actually making music – and less time setting things up. (Trust me on this. It’s funny to go back and look at old artist interviews, because we’re remembering things through rose-colored glasses – a lot of gear was harder to use and broke more often and cost more than you might remember. The best of times is now.)

The hardware still pays dividends as it always did. It forces you to focus on a knob, a fader, a key, on making some gesture in the moment – something the open-ended computer screen can’t always do. And, whatever the reason, it’s just a lot of fun.

So, deep in this zeitgeist, not one but two videos have popped into my inbox in the past 24 hours extolling the virtues of live improvisation on gear. And each should spark some ideas of your own, whether you copy elements of these rigs directly, or substitute your own. (I’m always looking for dirt-cheap substitutes, as a kind of continuous optimization problem, but I do appreciate these instruments here!)

From Novation’s Chris Calcutt comes “Project Calc” – an obvious labor of love that involves chaining a bunch of synths together. And, in a Miracle on 34th Street-style nod to a competitor, Chris makes the center of this whole rig Elektron’s amazing Octatrack. The Octatrack is the box of choice for hardware lovers, because of its robust sequencing features – actually, much to our dismay, just the feature Elektron left out of the Analog Rytm and Analog Four, meaning the Octatrack bests those when it comes to replacing the laptop.

Chris cheats a bit. Because the Novation LaunchControl XL doesn’t support standalone operation, it’s plugged into a laptop. On the other hand, it’s a very different thing when the laptop is just sitting off to the side quietly recording your set; I’ve done just that. Still, I hope that makers like Novation will again consider making devices with MIDI on them and not only USB, hardware that can run on its own. (MIDI DIN is huge and doesn’t fit on more compact hardware, but – as Arturia, KORG, and Faderfox have all shown recently – you can substitute stereo minijack.)

The laptop or absence thereof is not so important as the audio routing:

The audio signal flow is simpler: the Bass Station II and the UltraNova are both plugged into the Octatrack’s four audio inputs, so they can also run through the Octatrack’s effects, like the filter and delays.

Finally, I route one of the secondary (cue) outputs from the Octatrack back into the Bass Station II’s external input. This makes it easy to select individual channels to come out of the cue output on the Octatrack, and means I can play my audio samples through the fantastic analogue filter and effects on the Bass Station II. I can also essentially use the Bass Station II as a filter bank.

One advantage of a laptop: it’s pretty easy to get an audio interface that doubles as a mixer and easily record; it actually appears they’re using a Focusrite box here but are just focusing on the hardware. (Yes, I know, you could also use a mixer and a mobile recorder. To me, probably the essential question here is whatever you happen to be traveling with!)

Also featured are two beautiful synths from Novation, the UltraNova and BassStation II.

The site features loads of tips, which you could apply to lots of other gear:
http://novationmusic.de/project-calc

Watch and listen:

Ditching the laptop is reasonably easy. And there’s reason to do it, too: less to worry about, less distraction onstage.

Our friend Chris Stack does get rid of the laptop. (And, hey, your MacBook I’m sure won’t feel jealous – it’s not like it isn’t getting loads of mileage when you arrange and mix and master and produce and share.)

But more notably, Chris uses a very different hub from the Elektron: the Dave Smith Pro 2.

A compact, computer-less performance setup that can create a wide variety of new (and old) sounds. The Dave Smith Instruments Pro 2 is the heart of the setup. In addition to its great sound engine, it provides the master MIDI clock to the H9 and sends tempo-synced LFOs, step sequences and more to the MicroBrute via one or more of its four assignable CV outputs.

The MicroBrute is in the cat bird seat here, but also shown is how that position can also be nicely filled by other analog, CV controllable synths. We also take a Moog Voyager for a spin.

It’s really the hub that matters, as that’s the “computer.” And you’ll notice in each case you have some powerful hardware doing the heavy lifting.

The lowly, inexpensive Arturia MicroBrute, meanwhile, makes some really heavy bass sounds, so as Chris advises, get those headphones ready.

http://experimentalsynth.com

As Chris tells us, “this was a nice example of how slightly limiting your gear choices frees up a lot of other creativity. I debated about putting the Voyager in at the end, but gave in because it sounded too cool.”

By the way, if you want a budget alternative to the DSI or Elektron, I’m intrigued by what embedded systems can do – especially with options more powerful than the Raspberry Pi available for the same price. Yes, we know what’s on our to-do list for 2015.

In the meantime, enjoy the inspiration.

  • enparticular

    Hardware sequencers are all the rage lately. Some very sought after models include the very popular electribe esx and emx sequencers, yamaha rm1x, and the emu command station series.

    personally, i’m happy using the elektron machinedrum as a midi sequencer for my ipad.

    • Jon Monteverde

      I had the Octatrack but ended up selling it. Combination of it being both too open-ended and also a little bit unfinished in the firmware. Currently building a live set on a Machinedrum driving an SH-32.

  • enparticular

    Hardware sequencers are all the rage lately. Some very sought after models include the very popular electribe esx and emx sequencers, yamaha rm1x, and the emu command station series.

    personally, i’m happy using the elektron machinedrum as a midi sequencer for my ipad.

    • xyzr_kx

      I had the Octatrack but ended up selling it. Combination of it being both too open-ended and also a little bit unfinished in the firmware. Currently building a live set on a Machinedrum driving an SH-32.

  • Bill Cosby

    When are people going stop making this 90s acid sound stuff? Yeah i liked it back in the day but jeesh it would be like every guitar player trying to sound like Eddie Van Halen. So unoriginal man.. Good grief.

    • cooptrol

      It’s the ageing of the genre, same thing happened to rock.

  • Bill Cosby

    When are people going stop making this 90s acid sound stuff? Yeah i liked it back in the day but jeesh it would be like every guitar player trying to sound like Eddie Van Halen. So unoriginal man.. Good grief.

    • cooptrol

      It’s the ageing of the genre, same thing happened to rock.

  • LD

    Nice videos. I’m kind of amused by the way these things are presented as novel or new. It’s just a mainstream return to form.

    • Chris Stack

      To me it is somewhat a return to form. Way back when, I would do something like this with my Ensoniq ESQ-1 and Mirage with whatever ancient echo machine I had at the time. For me the modern magic comes in part from combining clock-synced effects of the quality produced by the H9 with the vast clock-synced control voltage possibilities of the Pro 2.

      • Chris Stack

        That Novation gear is sounding pretty good here too. May have to look closer. I’ve been hearing good things lately, especially about the Bass Station II.

    • Who say they were novel? I thought it was just the enthusiasm of the people for the rigs they’d put together.

      Also – I think the Pro 2 and the Elektron each learn from past generations of hardware. They’re evolutionary, not revolutionary, sure – but they’re still able to improve upon what came before.

  • LD

    Nice videos. I’m kind of amused by the way these things are presented as novel or new. It’s just a mainstream return to form.

    • Chris Stack

      To me it is somewhat a return to form. Way back when, I would do something like this with my Ensoniq ESQ-1 and Mirage with whatever ancient echo machine I had at the time. For me the modern magic comes in part from combining clock-synced effects of the quality produced by the H9 with the vast clock-synced control voltage possibilities of the Pro 2.

      • Chris Stack

        That Novation gear is sounding pretty good here too. May have to look closer. I’ve been hearing good things lately, especially about the Bass Station II.

    • Who say they were novel? I thought it was just the enthusiasm of the people for the rigs they’d put together.

      Also – I think the Pro 2 and the Elektron each learn from past generations of hardware. They’re evolutionary, not revolutionary, sure – but they’re still able to improve upon what came before.

  • cooptrol

    I also ask why no controller brand is making midi out models. Moreso, DIN cables should be replaced by minijack as industry standard (the 5v pin is seldomly used). Talking about the Octa, the playability of that machine expands enormously with a proper midi controller with faders, but sadly there are too few options for this: BCF2000, Novation SL, Bitstream, and the german made boutique style Octa controller. None of these offer the slickness and features of many of the USB controllers in the market. As for the Beatstep, there’s no way I will make it the clock source of my rig, and it has no midi in, nor thru. The market share of each type of electronic music device is ridiculous, there’s no evenness in offer.

    • I ran into this problem too. I have the Octatrack and multiple usb-only controllers.

      I got a raspberry pi and a usb midi DIN interface. In the default OS there is a program called qjackctl that allows you to route midi devices.
      http://qjackctl.sourceforge.net/image/qjackctlPatchbayForm1.png

      So I plug in my usb controllers and midi interface into the pi and then setup all the usb controllers to send midi to the midi interface. It works brilliantly.

      The pi b+ has 4 usb ports so you can use 3 usb controllers without a usb hub 🙂

      • Waldemar

        Dear Mark,

        please can you share your configuration how connect the Hardware raspberry Pi .

        Thank you.

        All the best,

        Waldemar

        • eke

          (I use Raspberry as midi hub too)
          @Waldemar Great step-by-step learning source is here http://tedfelix.com/linux/linux-midi.html . For myself I found ‘-aconnect’ as best way for detecting RasPi connected midi devices and set up connections…

        • There is not much to it. You just plug in all the usb cables from your midi controllers and midi interface. Then you see them in the qjackctl gui and decide where to route what.

  • cooptrol

    I also ask why no controller brand is making midi out models. Moreso, DIN cables should be replaced by minijack as industry standard (the 5v pin is seldomly used). Talking about the Octa, the playability of that machine expands enormously with a proper midi controller with faders, but sadly there are too few options for this: BCF2000, Novation SL, Bitstream, and the german made boutique style Octa controller. None of these offer the slickness and features of many of the USB controllers in the market. As for the Beatstep, there’s no way I will make it the clock source of my rig, and it has no midi in, nor thru. The market share of each type of electronic music device is ridiculous, there’s no evenness in offer.

    • I ran into this problem too. I have the Octatrack and multiple usb-only controllers.

      I got a raspberry pi and a usb midi DIN interface. In the default OS there is a program called qjackctl that allows you to route midi devices.
      http://qjackctl.sourceforge.net/image/qjackctlPatchbayForm1.png

      So I plug in my usb controllers and midi interface into the pi and then setup all the usb controllers to send midi to the midi interface. It works brilliantly.

      The pi b+ has 4 usb ports so you can use 3 usb controllers without a usb hub 🙂

      • Waldemar

        Dear Mark,

        please can you share your configuration how connect the Hardware raspberry Pi .

        Thank you.

        All the best,

        Waldemar

        • eke

          (I use Raspberry as midi hub too)
          @Waldemar Great step-by-step learning source is here http://tedfelix.com/linux/linux-midi.html . For myself I found ‘-aconnect’ as best way for detecting RasPi connected midi devices and set up connections…

        • There is not much to it. You just plug in all the usb cables from your midi controllers and midi interface. Then you see them in the qjackctl gui and decide where to route what.

  • Simon

    I’m so ready to buy an Octatrack but I would like to hear/see more demonstrations that aren’t tied to the tired 4 to the floor electro/house sound (I’m not against this, I just don’t want to make this kind of music). I have a suspicion that the Octatrack is a pretty cool machine for making all sorts of experimental textures and I have seen people syncing modulars to it and getting interesting results (still usually 4/4 bangers). If any Octatrack users are doing non 4/4 stuff and would care to share examples, I’d really appreciate it.
    Thanks.

    • Michael Dunkley

      My buddy Todd is a Jazz pianist, and we occasionally do sessions with him on the piano and me capturing and looping back his playing through the Octatrack. Personally I think its definitely great for things other than 4/4, and using it in this more immediate way has definitely pushed todd and i in ways we wouldn’t have gone otherwise. Here is a piece from one of those sessions:

      https://soundcloud.com/buckets-radio/todd-brozman-mike-dunkley-3-2

      FWIW I *really* wish is that it had per-track volume indicators, so you could see what was playing where, on sight. As is, things can get a little confusing in a jazz context. Also, I’d certainly be willing to pay extra for it to act as a usb midi host – as far as i’m concerned the korg nanokontol was MADE for working with the OT. Great for controlling recording, playback, and volume of all 8 channels at once.

    • saywhat

      It’s a sampler and a spectacular one at that. You can make any kind of music you want with it. The only real limitation is the person using it.

      • simon

        Thanks, yeah you make a good point. I suppose what I’m trying to get at is, are the neat things it does (that place it above say a Akai s950, MPC etc etc) going to be in harmony with the kind of music I make?

        • simon

          and I know thats a tricky one to answer! I’m not expecting that answer to come from you!

    • This is the dumbest excuse to not do something I’ve ever heard.

  • Simon

    I’m so ready to buy an Octatrack but I would like to hear/see more demonstrations that aren’t tied to the tired 4 to the floor electro/house sound (I’m not against this, I just don’t want to make this kind of music). I have a suspicion that the Octatrack is a pretty cool machine for making all sorts of experimental textures and I have seen people syncing modulars to it and getting interesting results (still usually 4/4 bangers). If any Octatrack users are doing non 4/4 stuff and would care to share examples, I’d really appreciate it.
    Thanks.

    • Michael Dunkley

      My buddy Todd is a Jazz pianist, and we occasionally do sessions with him on the piano and me capturing and looping back his playing through the Octatrack. Personally I think its definitely great for things other than 4/4, and using it in this more immediate way has definitely pushed todd and i in ways we wouldn’t have gone otherwise. Here is a piece from one of those sessions:

      https://soundcloud.com/buckets-radio/todd-brozman-mike-dunkley-3-2

      FWIW I *really* wish is that it had per-track volume indicators, so you could see what was playing where, on sight. As is, things can get a little confusing in a jazz context. Also, I’d certainly be willing to pay extra for it to act as a usb midi host – as far as i’m concerned the korg nanokontol was MADE for working with the OT. Great for controlling recording, playback, and volume of all 8 channels at once.

    • saywhat

      It’s a sampler and a spectacular one at that. You can make any kind of music you want with it. The only real limitation is the person using it.

      • simon

        Thanks, yeah you make a good point. I suppose what I’m trying to get at is, are the neat things it does (that place it above say a Akai s950, MPC etc etc) going to be in harmony with the kind of music I make?

        • simon

          and I know thats a tricky one to answer! I’m not expecting that answer to come from you!

    • This is the dumbest excuse to not do something I’ve ever heard.

  • papernoise

    With my project kvsu we have abandoned the laptop since from time, for more or less the same reasons.

    I’m still trying to figure out the best solution, but for now everything revolves around a RC-505 looper from Boss and a LXR DIY drum machine with trigger expansion board (talking about affordable gear) used for both beats and MIDI-CV conversion. My bandmate uses a 9U modular, which is used both as a sound source and fx processor and we keep everything in sync (when we need it) using the LXR. The cool thing about the LXR is that it has 2 clock outputs and analog trigger outs for each part (7 in total) so it works great as a hub for triggers and clock signals so that is our master clock source as well.

    Since most of our pieces are created for a specific setup, the rest of the rig changes quite often, ranging from a bass clarinet to a gameboy running some homebrew software. If a certain piece needs a laptop to be on stage (that happens from time to time) we don’t have any problem with it, I think the best (but also most difficult) thing of making electronic music now is really having all the choices. In the end we always try to remember that we make music using instruments, and not the other way around.

  • papernoise

    With my project kvsu we have abandoned the laptop since from time, for more or less the same reasons.

    I’m still trying to figure out the best solution, but for now everything revolves around a RC-505 looper from Boss and a LXR DIY drum machine with trigger expansion board (talking about affordable gear) used for both beats and MIDI-CV conversion. My bandmate uses a 9U modular, which is used both as a sound source and fx processor and we keep everything in sync (when we need it) using the LXR. The cool thing about the LXR is that it has 2 clock outputs and analog trigger outs for each part (7 in total) so it works great as a hub for triggers and clock signals so that is our master clock source as well.

    Since most of our pieces are created for a specific setup, the rest of the rig changes quite often, ranging from a bass clarinet to a gameboy running some homebrew software. If a certain piece needs a laptop to be on stage (that happens from time to time) we don’t have any problem with it, I think the best (but also most difficult) thing of making electronic music now is really having all the choices. In the end we always try to remember that we make music using instruments, and not the other way around.