At the dawn of the 21st century, as the home computer became powerful enough to actually be useful, so too did music software. By the mid-2000s, enamoured by shiny new programs like Ableton Live, Cubase, Reason and Fruity Loops, it seemed many users and manufacturers had forgotten about electronic music hardware – it was left gathering dust on store shelves and the market dwindled. However, after a time, many found that staring wide-eyed at a computer screen for hours on end wasn’t actually all that fun. Additionally, perhaps in response to the clinical precision of software instruments, trends in sound-design swung back toward warm and harmonically-rich analogue sounds. Thus, in the late noughties, companies such as Korg, Dave Smith Instruments and Arturia responded with a range of products utilizing modern recreations of analogue circuits in synths and drum machines.
Fast forward to 2018, and we’re sitting in a music production gear golden age. There’s an astonishing range of synths, drum machines, grooveboxes, samplers, effects processors and more – all available, new, right now. We are free to create complex bodies of electronic music without needing a powerful computer, and without breaking the bank (or your brain). So what are the basic components of a computer-free, live electronic music rig?
Sound Generation Sources & Sequencers
The core of any non-computer based electronic music setup are the sound generation sources and how they’re played. If we strip a live set-up right back, and use a live pop band as point of reference, we need rhythm, bass and lead melody.
Rhythm can be provided by a drum-machine (ie. Roland TR-8) or sampler (ie Korg Electribe Sampler 2). These are devices that you can program drum-loop sequences into via step sequencing or playing its drum pads. A drum machine will have a range of built-in drum sounds to choose from, where as a sampler will play a short audio file (known as a sample) assigned to each track. It’s up to you what that sample is, whether you download a sample-pack of classic drum hits or grab a microphone and record a clap – you have endless options for your percussion sound design (and aren’t limited to drum sounds).
Bass can be provided by, for example, a monophonic synthesiser, an instrument known for classic bass sounds. A number of monophonic synthesisers on the market have sequencers built into them, like the Korg Volca Bass, Arturia MiniBrute 2, Novation Circuit Mono Station and the Moog Mother. This is handy in this scenario, because if we have our bass and rhythm devices happily looping sounds in sync, it frees you up to play a melody on a another instrument, sing, tweak effects, or all of the above.
For our melody, a polyphonic synth is an ideal instrument. Polyphonic means it is capable of playing more than one note at once ie. 8-voice polyphony means it can play 8 notes at once – ideal for playing complex chords. Generally polyphonic synths are keyed instruments designed for players, but polyphonic synths with inbuilt sequencers do exist. These are more popular with dance music producers where the use of repetition is paramount.
All-In-One Devices (Grooveboxes)
Introduced in 1996, the Roland MC-303 Groovebox was the first all-in-one electronic music production and performance product, combining drum and instrument sequencing within the one box. A number of manufacturers entered this market, and although technically Roland’s branding, the word “Groovebox” came to describe any box used to to create and chain together “grooves” or patterns with multiple tracks. These products were mostly killed off with the rise of computer DAWs, although Roland and Akai gave chase for a while with their enormous MC-909 and MPC5000 boxes, attempting to combine the power of a computer with a purpose built enclosure.
Today, some grooveboxes have started to appear again, like the affordable Korg Electribe 2 and Novation Circuit, as well high-end models like Elektron Analog RYTM and Akai MPC X. Grooveboxes are an excellent starting point for a computer-free rig, as they provide all the building blocks for a song without the hassle of buying mixers and cables. They’re also far easier to use these days – navigating an old Roland or Yamaha groovebox’s interface required some serious patience.
Effects can be divided into two categories; creative or corrective. Creative effects allow you to add your own flavour to your tracks, whether it be a distortion, reverb, delay, etc. or a combination. Corrective effects on the other hand are used to tame your music so that they sound their best in a live performance, e.g. compression, limiting, EQ.
A lot of modern devices will have good quality effects built-in, so you may not feel the need to invest in hardware effects. That said, devices like the Korg Kaoss Pad Quad and Elektron’s Analog Heat have proved popular.
If you’re using multiple sequencer devices, like a Korg Volca Bass and Roland TR-8 as mentioned earlier in the article, you’ll need to sync these devices so they play back in time. You could do this by setting both devices to the same tempo and pressing play on both units at the EXACT same time (pretty difficult!). Or, you can grab a MIDI cable, and slave the Volca to the TR-8’s tempo by plugging it into the MIDI output on the TR-8 and MIDI input on the Volca. This will also send the Volca transport controls (Play and Stop). You can now speed up or slow down the tempo on the TR-8 and the Volca will stay perfectly in sync. Pretty nifty hey?
If you’ve got more than one item, you’re going to need a mixer to plug all your audio outputs into so you call listen back to them all simultaneously. Some performers like to, in a sense, play the mixer like an instrument; with many sound sources plugged into their mixer they use volume faders and EQs to carefully bring elements of their track in and out.
Mixers can also allow for the connection of effects units via send and return channels, providing you with more flexibility to assign effects across different channels and sounds.
Eurorack modular equipment is another market area that’s exploded in the last decade. Modular essentially means you can DIY build a custom instrument from an astonishing array of available modules. This could be a synthesiser, drum machine, sampler, effects unit or all of the above. The building blocks are all made to fit into a ‘Eurorack’ case and work together via control voltages. This may sound great, but be warned, there is a steep learning curve involved, way beyond the scope of this article. Building a functional modular rack requires a significant investment of your time (and..ahem..cash).
That about sums up your main considerations when considering breaking free from the shackles of computer-based music making. It can be a liberating step – quite often people find software can provide too much freedom and too much choice – a phenomenon known as paralysis of choice. Hardware means there’s no day spent auditioning every single instrument in your DAW, you’ve got no choice but to work with what’s in front of you. Many find this results in a far more productive creative process, thriving within the restrictions and structured workflow of dedicated equipment.