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:
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.
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.