Making Music Live with Synths, Drum Machines and more

Before the introduction of DAWs (Digital Audio Workstation) and laptops, most electronic music was created using a variety of analog gear. However as the cost of software and laptops dropped, more people started learning how to make music primarily with their laptop.  Today Ean Golden is going to show one way to make fun music using simple tools without any software present.

Benefits Of Making Music With Hardware

While making music with a DAW or laptop is great it comes with a unique set of challenges. First, the computer makes it really easy to get distracted. For most people the laptop is not a dedicated music machine. It’s used for school work, Netflix, general music listening, and whole bunch of other things. By leaving the laptop out of the creative process entirely, it’s easier to avoid distractions (If you’re still getting distracted, check out these 5 Productivity Boosting Apps For DJs + Producers).

Another challenge with DAWs or VSTs is the vast amount options. With so many presets and samples to work with it can be hard to pick one and stick with it. Analog hardware is limited to the sounds and sound design capabilities of the unit. This can force people to get really good at a few things, which tends to free up creativity.

Focus On The Essentials

There is an endless amount of analog hardware that producers can use and all of them are probably pretty awesome. The first mistake people make is buying too much gear and mastering none. (this is one of five mistakes that every beginner producer makes). It’s better to start with a few essential pieces that do a lot, so you have room to explore. Here are a few examples:

Drum Machine

Roland AIRA TR-8

The first thing producers will want is a sequenced based drum machine, such as the Roland AIRA TR-8. The TR-8 design and sound is inspired by 2 classic drum machines, the TR-808 and TR-909, which have been used in productions of countless electronic and dance music records. Drum machines like this one will have the full drum set and provide enough juice to support the full rhythm section. There are a wide range of excellent products out there, like the Korg Electribe ($500), and Dj TechTools will do an extensive comparison in a later article.

Along with all of the basic drum sounds, any unit you choose must have a good sequencer that is intuitive and fun to use. We want to get away from mouse programming and instead use a interface that is dedicated to music creation.

Finally, when picking your drum machine – look for stable midi in and midi out ports that can be chained with other analog hardware, such as a synth so the entire song is tight and clean. Some older drum machines, like the popular TR-808, have been updated with MIDI but often the sync is unstable or un-reliable depending on the unit. The Elektron series of drum machines are very deep and offer tight timing as well.


Roland AIRA System 1

Now that the rhythm is covered, the next step is to add some melody or harmony (Need help with harmony? Check out Harmony for Dummies) with an analog synthesizer. Ideally the synth will have an arpeggiator, pattern creator or hold feature. Even if you’re not a great piano player, the arpeggiator will help keep a tight rythym, which is very important to the repetitive nature of electronic music. The Roland AIRA System-1 is also inspired by classic Roland synths such as the System 100, System 100M, and System 700.

The main advantage of using dedicated hardware synths is the large amount of function specific controls they have. This makes it really easy to start tweaking parameters to come up with interesting sounds, and to remember the location of those knobs through muscle memory. Make sure your synth has MIDI IN. When synced to a drum machine, things like the arpeggiator or LFO’s can be tempo synced to the midi clock so everything will play in time together.

Putting It All Together: Analog mixer

Mackie 1202 VLZ4

The best way to connect all the analog hardware is with an analog mixer that sums all the audio together. Ideally the mixer should have things like EQs, send/returns, and balance. Send/return connections will let people connect external hardware FX units or FX pedals, then they can selectively apply FX to each track. The mixer pictured above is the Mackie 1202 VLZ4 which costs around $269, but older models can be found on eBay for around $100, making it a really affordable option to get started.

Add Character With Guitar Pedals

Guitar Pedals

Some analog/digital synths will have onboard effects such as reverb or delay. For producers that want to expand and add some new FX, things like hardware FX processors or guitar pedals can be added to give more character to the sounds. For example if the drums are lacking or sound flat, a compressor pedal such as the Boss CS-3 Compression pedal can tie the drum sounds together and also create the sought after “pumping” effect. There are tons of pedals available and they can range from $20 – $200. Again it’s best to start with a few pedals, and if possible demo them in store to get a feel for it before purchasing.

How To Record Everything

Zoom H4N

So you’ve created a sequence on your drum machine and you’ve got a great melody playing on your synth that you really want to keep. How do you capture these sounds? Ean likes to capture everything with an external recorder. Most mixers will have a “Record” output that can be connected to the recorder. If it doesn’t, producers can always use the master output from the mixer and run that into the recorder. Once everything’s been captured, producers can move the recorded file to their computer and arrange everything in their DAW. A really popular recorder is the Zoom H4N, which has XLR inputs and it’s really easy to use.

No Computer, No Problem

With more companies releasing new analog hardware inspired by vintage gear that rocks, while being light on the pocket –  there’s never been a better time to explore making music purely without a laptop. Producers no longer have to pay for rare vintage gear to get analog sound. By moving to a analog hardware setup,  you might enjoy avoiding the distractions that come from a laptop and really focus on the music.

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