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

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.


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

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

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

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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Comments (68)
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  • Roan Dunstone

    Hey there, I was just wondering what the roland system 1 sync capabilities are. If I were to say incorporate it into a dj set on cdjs would I be able to find a way to sync it up like you can with the drum machine?

  • jasonmd2020

    Might want to head over to eBay and look for an old Alesis MMT-8. Was a beautiful hardware midi sequencer for selecting patterns and muting channels on the fly. Only problem was the memory limit. Many times I got the “Bummer Dude, out of memory” message. Which is why Orbital had about three of them at the heart of their live rig back in the day.

  • Cristian Carvajal

    How i Connect my pedals?

  • P A R F U M

    I’m not convinced. I started using Ableton in 2005. Used it until 2011. Went back to analog stuff to “see” (Roland and Korg stuff mainly), but couldn’t hear the difference. And now, Ableton has upped it’s game with 9, and the sound quality is superb. I’m back to Ableton and won’t be making the switch again. Midi controllers and all the synths/ drum machines I want that sound the same as all the hardware stuff. I sometimes wonder if all this scramble for “hardware” is just a kind of way of being “legit”, like dudes who think vinyl is sacred.

    PS- if your sound is thin coming out of your computer, it may just be your interface, not the source.

    With love,
    P A R F U M
    neo-dub…like foreva

  • Guest

    I’m not convinced. I started using Ableton in 2005. Used it until 2011. Went back to analog stuff to “see” (Roland and Korg stuff mainly), but couldn’t hear the difference. And now, Ableton has upped it’s game with 9, and the sound quality is superb. I’m back to Ableton and won’t be making the switch again. Midi controllers and all the synths/ drum machines I want that sound the same as all the hardware stuff. I sometimes wonder if all this scramble for “hardware” is just a kind of way of being “legit”, like dudes who think vinyl is sacred.

    PS- if your sound is thin coming out of your computer, it may just be your interface, not the source.

    With love,
    P A R F U M
    neo-bud…like foreva

  • JJ

    Hey EAN… can you tell me where exactly the Rolan TR-8 and Aria System 1 is connected to the mixer Mackie 1202 VLZ4? I’m guessing but would it be the L/R mono LINE between channels 5-6 and 11-12?

  • Fabrício Delgado

    Hey DJTT! Loved the article! But here in Brazil, these are really expensive, like a TR-8 is about $2500,00!!!! Can you tell me a cheaper way to start? Like with 2nd hand stuff, used/old gears, and stuff like kaossilator (not the pro version) and mpx8?

  • Jonathan Frassetti

    Thanks Ean, this was very helpful. I just received my TR-8 today and didn’t know what my next step was in putting together a system I can use to create this house song that’s been stuck in my head for awhile. I was actually asking 2 minutes before I watched your video, what kind of mixer should i use?

    Also the MP2015 review was very helpful since I’ve been looking for a rotary mixer that wasn’t so cramped for space with the knob placement…


    The Aira series is a great setup for live shows. The Novation Ultranova synth is also a great tool. It works great as Live synth and it can also be used as a controller for all your soft synths.

  • KAN

    could have mentioned the “elektron” machines! Synthezsizer digitag and analog Drum machine and some can even be used as realtime samplers!

  • djfreesoul

    And thy name should be Ean “Moroder” Golden…

  • billy bob

    Hey Ean. Ask your Roland/Boss rep to lend you an rc-505. I’d love to see you review it once you have discovered its potential. It’s a hidden gem of a unit that was marketed to beatboxers but Roland totally missed the best market – hardware synth lovers. I have it midi synced to my tr8 clock. The trick is to set the rc505 to quantize only loop record start/stop, then it won’t time stretch your loops (otherwise you get aliasing with pads). I have this option saved as a preset. In use, I have a writing session with my synths connected to a Mackie mixer, and Aux send parts I write one at a time into the rc505. Once I have 5 riffs all looped in sync, I then have a performing session using the tr8 and the 505, plus whatever synths I have with inbuilt sequencers (eg. Microbrute, tb3). Bonus: I have the option of copying all loops from the 505 via usb into my DAW if I think I want to make a more slick track later. The downside from your setup is no capacity to adjust levels post-recording – I like to treat my laptop as a multitrack tape machine (limiting plugin use to 1 only of eq, verb, delay, compression, mixing levels via a once only live pass). Also, consider routing your tr8 kick to an assignable output, then you can use your effects on everything else and not lose the kick impact. If anyone has read this far, my top cheap underrated synth gems: anode meeblip and shruthi.

  • Clay Ford

    🙁 I wish I had the cash for the Aira line. It’s ridiculously fun to play with but I had to go with Ableton to save money.

  • Joe

    I hope people realise that the roland aira range is basically plastic boxes to control software/sample playback. Not analogue at all. Quite a few companies are doing this and they’re nickel and dimeing people.

  • Oddie O'Phyle

    I used to record my old SH-201 and MC-808 set-up with an old Sony MD… The good old days, but I have to admit that things have gotten a lot more intuitive than it used to be.

    No love for Eurorack?

  • floozyspeak

    The new Roland MX1 will make this even better. I still yern for a way to control remix decks via ipad with a kontrol f1 vs lugging a whole laptop etc around. I’d be nice if traktor DJ added remix decks ability, then just add controller and good to go in a smaller footprint. You still want MX1 for effects or a series of pedals. Adding a H9 to the mix could be nice as well.

  • calgarc

    my old studio had a mixture of both, i would have all my groups inside my software going to my mackie mixer and back into my software. made for some decent summing.

    as for the distraction part, i have 2 Os’s on my machine and my production OS has no internet games etc… problem solved 😀

  • noxxi

    I liked the emphasis on the cheap mixer, it reminded me of what brought me to djtt back in the day. I didnt have very much money (still dont!) and djtt showed me what was doable on a shoe string budget. love it!

  • K-DUST

    LOVE this article! Been experimenting with various analog and comp-free gear. It’s very nice to live less than a block away from one of North America’s best synth shops (and terrible for my cc bills… ahem…).

    KiNK has a beautiful set playing all kinds of stuff, truly inspirational:

    • Frasier Linde

      He’s using a laptop, but very nice nonetheless!

  • Julian

    I bought a TR-8 a month ago and updated it with the 7×7 expansion and it’s almost perfect
    I’m the type of guy who would spend too much time tweeking my sounds on something like maschine or push
    I’m using it to add percussions to my techno mix jsut like richie hawtin, dubfire and many others but it’s so simple simple
    traktor send the midi clock and that’s it
    I’m using it with my DJM-850 and people don’t realise that it’s possible to keep 4 deck in traktor
    I’m using the 1/4 inch mic input as a mono input
    (BUT YOU NEED TO MAKE a 50DB LPAD cable in order to match the line level ouputed from the TR-8 to the mic level input)
    but I’m telling you it’s perfect, and it sounds really really good
    You can even add beat effects on the TR-8
    I really love this setup!

  • hutch

    I love making music without pc. Machinedrum and ks4 plus some circuit bent keyboards. Finally an article thats not about native instruments.

  • chris

    nice vid. (needs to wear my Silhouette Sunglass)

  • Bryce Potts

    if you don’t wanna be stuck with just one set of sounds you can go with sequence based samplers like the old electribe s models and have a similar workflow but the option to change up the sounds

  • Meta at em

    If you’re using analog drum machines or step sequenced synths, I strongly recommend getting a tempo sync-able LFO filter, or three. A repeating 4 or 8 bar loop gets really tiring, really fast. But add an oscillating filter on it at, say, 3/4 time, and suddenly your crappy thin 8 bar loop turns into an interesting rhythmic 32 bar loop. The Alesis Philtre pedals are fugly as hell, but they sound really, really good for things like this. Having the filter LFO pretty-close but not quite in sync can give some really interesting, fluid results, particularly when used as a backing or fill track.

  • midiman

    i dont really see a reason why i should use those expensive limited midi controlers what this roland devices really are. i love my ableton, i love my soft synths, my maschine, my apc 40 . if there are to many options i still can use a drum rack with 909 sounds and one or two softsynths only. in 2015 we habe total musical freedom . we can do everything with one little laptop and that is wonderful! no need for a 80-90s workflow.


      its to show an alternative don’t hate

    • Guest

      The work flow is nothing like staring at a screen. It feels organic and natural especially when you get into some of the more interactive machines (Elektron I love you). Also, a limited palette forces you to get creative. “Laptops look cooler on stage than hardware” -said noone ever.

  • John

    Isn’t it easier just to record into a soundcard into the DAW then to a small recorder and transfer the file?


    Please can you do a video on how to sync the TR-8 with Midi to Traktor. not much about this and having timing issues via my Audio 8 DJ interface. any help?

    tried USB midi too no working. set posts on TR8 to omni and also tried on individual ports.

    surly its not this hard to transmit midi from tractor to the TR8 and have it run in time….


    • cortex

      Check your Audio and Midi Settings if you’re on mac.
      I had to Update the connected devices in Order to really send the Clock to The tr-8

  • CUSP

    Hunh… there must be something in the air regarding hardware Sequencers right now because Squarp just announced their modular sequencer as well, “the Pyramid”

    I remember sequencing inside of “music workstations” (like my old Korg 01/w or Yamaha DX7), and I really learned to hate doing it that way. Hopefully, these new hardware sequencers won’t be as… difficult… to deal with as what we had in the ’80s and ’90s.

    Sequencers will send commands according to user-defined parameters, much like a robotic task master. You won’t produce a song with a stand-alone sequencer, but it’s certainly capable of playing multiple instruments much like an electronic player-piano.

    Re: the Mackie Mixer shown above, Mixers with pots may be less expensive, but if you’re going to move more than two volume controls at a time, or want to know where the volume control is for a channel at a glance, spend the extra $20-$40 (the usual difference between the pot and linear fader versions of mixers) and get a mixer with Channel Strip linear faders. Pot faders are great for set and forget, but they’re not as interactive as linear faders.

  • Calub

    if it were more reliable ide keep using it!… the trigger finger pro looks interesting, ide like something with direct sampling in capabilities

    • jsolo

      lol yea I still have my sp808 too. it was my first piece of gear I ever bought. It still works amazingly well (only had to replace the ZIP drive once). ah the memories…

      • Calub

        the zip drive in my SP was upgraded to a 750 zip… lately my discs are giving me errors… any idea if this is a zip drive issue? i only have a mac, and i dont think the zip discs can be read?…. its def a pretty cool box, it kinda does it all…. i would love to have a more modern version that can do everything the sp can… any ideas!?

        • jsolo

          Yea the errors are more than likely being caused by the zip drive. The lifespan on those things are pretty short (maybe 3-5 years). I had to replace mine only after a year of use (bought my sp808 used). The new Roland sp404sx would probably be a more modern alternative…. and it uses sd flash storage.

  • Calub

    Hey DJTT! so the aira systems are not actually analog, so what is? i have been looking for somewhat of an all in one system, something like a drum machine, sampler, and sequencer all together, a friend of mine loaned me his roland sp 808, wich is pretty cool, but it is a pain to use, and the zip drive keeps loosing my work/unreliable…. ide like a unit that i can run solo without a computer….. is this box out there? besides mpc?

    Thanks in advance everyone!

    • Wane Manuel

      Analog Rytm by Elektron does everything you’re talking about. Analog drum sounds, minimal sampling and a solid workflow for live. I’ve got some vids on my page of live use situation.

      • Calub

        hey i checked out your stuff… pretty cool! def seems like an awesome box, but it isint in my price range

        • Nijn

          Check out the korg electribe. Has 16 parts to sequence drums, one shot samples or synths. Basically all you need. Even runs on batteries!

          • Calub

            That looks great!, i will def look into that 1, i did just order a volca beats, i wanted more but thought the beats would be cool for down time at work, keeping with me on the go, etc.

            keeping my eyes peeled for a microbrute as well!

            are you referring to the electribe or electribe 2?

  • Adventureface

    Dedicated hardware really cuts through in a way that computers don’t really seem to. I am always baffled how amazing the Volca Beats sounds and those are so affordable! Lately I have had the most fun using actual hardware and have been totally surprised in really bad late 80’s and early nineties keyboards and synthesizers. I recently acquired a Casio CZ-230S that has this amazingly strange drum machine functionality, and that run through some pedals has become this otherworldly noise machine. It’s become this absolute Joy Grenade.

    • Unreallystic

      While I don’t have one, I was literally just on Craiglist an hour ago and saw 3 of them on sale for a little over $100 (The volca Beats) (random searches for name brands, MIDI, APC, etc turned them up – never know when a ridiculous deal on gear will pop up)

      I’ve always wanted to try doing it the equipment route, but I’ve been beat making since 96, and even then I used software (Making Waves & Cool Edit 96 – Freeware, I was a broke high school kid), so I’m just not ‘programmed’ towards gear, which is ironic as I have been using Reason since like 03 or 04, and its designed to emulate real equipment. Been drooling over the Roland stuff, but with a baby due any day now, I can’t even afford a used Launchpad Mini right now.

  • Sergio Alvarez

    Could you explain the sends and returns setup for these types of mixers? Is it mono Aux 1 and/or Aux 2 going into the pedals and then out stereo into the stereo returns? Would that mean that the original stereo output of the synthesizers would have to be flattened to mono by the mixer before it is sent out to either of the Aux outputs? Or were you simply using a original mono signal to begin with, which in that case, it kind of wouldn’t matter?

    Lastly if I desired a stereo output all the way from start to finish, does that also mean I would have to use Aux 1 and Aux 2 as a left/right output through two separate channels?

    • Ean Golden

      That is a totally fair question. Most sends are Mono, but offer stereo return. I also like to use a blend of mono and stereo pedals, so this is the signal chain:

      (Mono Aux Send) > (Mono Pedal) > (Stereo Pedal) > Stereo Aux Return > Master Bus

    • Freeks

      Yes, you will need two AUX outs for stereo sounds. Most FX have mono input anyway. It’s very rare to see stereo send setup. You can also route synth directly trough the FX and use dry/wet on the FX box.

      One tip: If you have spare channels in mixer then bring the FX returns to mixer channels and not to AUX returns. This gives way more control for the sound.

  • Maddox

    DJTT articles have really been on point with my personal needs lately haha! I’ve been debating getting some analog gear for about a month now, and am just now beginning to settle on the Arturia Microbrute, and this article might just make me go buy it today.

    • Ean Golden

      we have the micro brute in the office and I can honestly say it’s one of my favorite little synths and a great way to learn analogue synthesis.

      • Mike

        I bought the microbrute last month and I can tell you its amazing! It too has become one of my faborite synths. The sound quality is outstanding and I really like the limited controls. It’s easier to dial in the sound I’m looking for. It’s also a nice balance to alot of the digital gear I have.

  • David De Garie-Lamanque

    Dude! all this gear isn’t cheap for most people! 😉 You may want to mention the Korg Electribe 2 here, since it (finally) has been released and costs about 500$ for drums, basses, leads, the whole deal 😉

    • CUSP

      This article is about making music *without* your laptop so that specifically disqualifies the Maschine, iMPC or anything else like it, but honestly I think the cheaper solutions are the software/hardware controller solutions, and that means either a tablet or other computer helping out.

      You can pick up a MIDI Fighter Twister for less than that (listed around $220) and it has a step recorder. If you’re gung-ho, and you have more time than money on hand, you can try building your own drum triggers. Any good drum machine must also have good drum sounds, so that’s going to be your other part of the struggle.

      • jasonmd2020

        Arturia’s Beatstep is only $99. Great little pad controller and analog style sequencer for midi & control voltage.

  • mic A$H

    This is pretty cool, Ean. I was wondering what you’ve been working on recently, and it’s cool to see you expanding your repertoire. Keep it up!

  • plinders

    Just wanted to note that neither the TR-8 nor the System 1 are in fact analog in any way. This isn’t necessarily a problem but misinformation in an article is.

    • Justin Herriford

      I complained about the same thing on the recent pocket operators article. Not trying to say anything purist or diss digital, it’s just no good to put misinformation out there that can confuse people who are trying to learn about this stuff. I hope they take notice and correct these.

    • DJ Hombre

      I think the intention of the word ‘analog’ is to describe a means of working without a laptop/computer – non DAW beat making, rather than the equipment used is analog…as you’ve highlighted the TR8 is certainly digital. However, not all analog gear is great, two words : Rhythm Wolf. Heck, even my old Oberheim DX is digital, with sounds burnt to EPROM chips…doesn’t stop a decent beat making experience or producing something with a punchy feel to it.

    • Ean Golden

      Good point, “dedicated hardware” is a more appropriate term for the concept we are talking about here. True analogue synths and drum machines do have their own advantages, so it’s good for people to understand which is which. There was one in-correct mention of analogue in the article and it’s been removed.

  • darrin bisson

    I’ve been wanting to get some analogue gear but it’s not as cheap as suggested really – I think Ean said 2-300/unit? It’s 600 for the system 1, 500 for the tr-8. Maybe referencing some pocket operators or korg volca series makes it seem more like a showcase of options than a Roland commercial. I’m not trying to be too hard on this video but you could have shown the audio routing for your effects pedals to explain how you chained them. Maybe include a vocoder like the vt-3 (more Roland) or the micro korg? Lastly, would’ve been cool to see Ean go out and find some of these units on the cheap (flea markets) and show the total he spent. Just my two cents.

    • BiggChev

      Ean has already done a vid about routing Guitar pedals.

      However I do agree that using other than JUST Roland gear would be cool. But, the overlying principles still apply to most drum machines and synths

    • Ean Golden

      good idea – I like the flea market finds idea. I do go to flea markets all the time looking for new gear – why not bring a camera!

      • darrin bisson

        That’s cool – would be great to see what you can find. And after re-reading the article, I see other machines mentioned with the intention to make a comparison video. My bad. Like many others have said – good timing on this vid

      • CUSP

        Oh yeah, garage sales, and Goodwill stores are also a great place to find inexpensive hardware too… although, they might need a little love to bring them back to their former glory. Think “diamond in the rough”, that you can polish and be proud of.

      • FXWLL

        I love going to second hand stores and findin Casio keyboards to circuit bend and do interesting stuff with!

    • Meta at em

      $2-300 bucks per device is a good price. Buy everything on ebay. The really expensive stuff usually isn’t worth the $ when you look at price vs. quality. The Korg Monotribe is a sick little instrument that sounds really good, but only after you add a tube amp to it. You will find yourself buying more or less one amp per box, because everything sounds WAY better when properly amped. I’ve got some really great homemade DS-x clones made by a guy in Romania, that he sells on ebay.

      Also if you’re playing with synths, you very likely need a sampler, so you can repeat phrases without tying up a hand. The KP3 is my favorite for live looping.

      • Oddie O'Phyle

        I have one of those Monotribes, they are freaking awesome (considering bang for the buck). Although they are so much cooler with a bit of solder love and a MIDI mod.

      • Gaseous Clay

        What do you mean by adding a tube amp to it? Like a mod directly in the circuitry? I just got one and would love to get as much out of it as I can. Thanks

  • redc1oud

    I’ve been rolling on a system like this for a little more than a year and it didnt only make making music easier but also made me focus more on the way things sound and the way I want the elements in my mix sit together, great tutorial Ian.