Playing without a computer can be both complicated yet strangely liberating and more self-expression, just like how traditional musicians have been doing forever. Ashwin Baburao, one-half of Audio Units, a self-confessed synth and drum machine nerd takes a deep look into the antics and philosophy of going DAW-less and if it’s the right thing for you.
Let’s start by talking about why you want to do DAW-less first? If you think your sound quality is going to improve by using hardware, or it’s just cool to have a bunch of analog synths on stage and they’ll just work better than a computer, then best go back to your drawing board. Here are a few reasons I think would make sense for you to move to hardware :
- Software Handicaps: You find it easier to understand a stand-alone synth than a computer because you feel technically challenged with software compared to hardware. In a way that you have to install plugins, troubleshoot other issues with computers sometimes.
- Performative Approach: You really like the idea of doing things by hand instead of drawing automation, but at the same time have enough experience with music, in general, to know a little deeper about oscillators, filters, types of synthesizers. Especially if you come from a background of a band or composer, you’re essentially going in the direction of starting to perform or jam your music before you produce it and you’re band members are synths and drum machines.
- No Reason: You have the extra money, so if it all does not work out in the end, someone can find your gear on a used market at a great price.
Now that you have one of the above or any other mythical reason to get started, it’s time to make that first purchase, where do I begin, what do I buy? How about, I hold you back for the last time and say try it still using software and a controller on Ableton, you can start with a simple 4 channel project that has a drum rack, a bass synth, a lead synth, and some effects. Get hold of a Push 2, APC40, Launchpad, any of these controllers, maybe some cool Max4Live devices like step sequencers, or even plain old Ableton Racks. See how far you can get with it, just programming rhythms on the fly, jamming some bass and melodies, whilst also controlling them at the same time in terms of some modulation and movement. Then being able to switch to another loop is ideally the goal or the basis of most approaches to DAW-less jamming. I mean there’s the other generative world of probability, euro-rack, and patch-bays but let’s not go there yet.
Single device setup
There are some great advantages to getting started off this way :
- Convenience: It’s always easier to focus on one device at a time and learn it very thoroughly rather than getting a few and spending time learning each, and its interconnectivity
- Compact: It’s space-saving, which means you can probably plug this in while your sitting in bed with your headphones and work with it.
- One & Only: It’s one thing to take with you when you need to perform with it.
This is obviously the easiest way to get started and just one manual to read. There are plenty of machines that have multi-timbral and channel capabilities and can function as a complete workstation. The first company that comes to mind is Elektron, both the Analog RYTM and Octratrack for the slightly less budget-conscious or the Digitakt and Digitone or the Model Cycles and Samples work as well. We can also go the Teenage Engineering Route with the OP-1 or the MPC One world of the Akai’s, plenty of other samplers (which are great btw, because you can load a bunch of sounds of them), or the nifty little Novation Circuits. So, I’m going to put down some youtube videos of some of the coolest jams I’ve found with these devices and you can do your further research into each
Elektron Analog RYTM : Drum Machine with VCO
This is a great drum machine with individual outputs and also features a dual VCO (Voltage Controlled Oscillator) which means apart from using all the various drum synthesis engines you can additionally use these oscillators to create a wide pallet of sounds and also use samples on top of that. This makes this device a great starting point and did we say it also integrates very tightly with your DAW using their Overbridge software letting you record individual channels easily (along with automation too).
Roland TR-8S: Digital Drum Machine with Synths
Along the same lines of the RYTM when it comes to functionality albeit the digital engines on this Roland TR-8S, a great choice nonetheless for stage or studio.
Elektron Octratrack : Sampler
This is one of the most amazing devices you can have in your arsenal, you basically get 8 channels where you can load samples and, really mangle them inside out or it can work as a 4 mono or 2 stereo channel mixer, an 8 track MIDI sequencer. A lot of people prefer to use this as a central point of their setup, where some drums, fx, or textures are used as samples while using its sequencer to control other synths or drum machines. The pairing process between these electron devices is very easy and absolutely foolproof via MIDI.
Akai MPC Studio One: Hybrid Soft Synth & Sampler
This is a slightly different kind of beast, it’s essentially a DAW that’s stand-alone put into a hardware box. which means it has samplers, various soft synths for sound generation, dedicated physical control for all of them. The CV/Gate out are great to control modular and other gear that supports it This could be your cup of tea if you’re not into heavy menu diving like the Elektron machines and prefer to see things laid out very graphically in exchange for the possibilities of aural sorcery. The Native Maschine Studio is also a worthy opponent in this category.
Teenage Engineering OP-1: How do you even categorize this device?
Looks like lego but this machine is so insanely capable, it has a 4 track tape recorder and a gamut of synths that are very easily controlled using just 4 knobs, which means you don’t get deeper control into its parameters but good enough for you to shape and sculpt the sound. There are a bunch of different sequencers suited for different purposes and effects that can really turn things upside down. It’s quite expensive for what a lot of haters like to call an oversimplified looping machine that samples and has some synth engines, but it’s very creative in how it will make you approach the process of using a single device to really create top-class sounds like this guy here does. Oh, and it can also work as a radio and you can sample off that, and it has built-in speakers.
Elektron Digtone : FM Synth
FM synths can do a huge palette of sound and give it the powers of Elektron style parameter locks, you can program a full drum kit on a single channel just using this feature and save the other 3 tracks for bass, leads and FX. As you can see a complete musical piece being rendered in this video.
This could be the beginning of a wormhole that could get you all across the multi-verses of MIDI, CV, Clock, Latency, and other menacing creatures if you don’t approach this right. Like I mentioned earlier, it’s always very easy to work with devices from the same manufacturer. But, regardless of that, when you step into using multiples devices you will need to first tackle these things :
- Connectivity: Most modern synths connect off MIDI, they can basically send out Tempo, Note, and Velocity information, so let’s say you have a Drum Machine and a Monophonic synthesizer hooked up via MIDI, and your if drum machine can send out MIDI on each of its 8 drum tracks, you use the Cowbell channel (of course!) to send MIDI information via the cable to your mono synth. Essentially using the Drum Machine on one of its channels as a sequence, which brings us to our next battle. Some of the terms you encountered are explained rather nicely in this video
- Audio Mixing: Obviously you have more than one output source, so you will need a mixer, or lest your drum machine supports some kind of audio input and you can bring the sound of the synth into that desolate cowbell’s channel. Or you’d have to look at getting yourself a simple mixer with at least 4 channels.
- Clocking: Two’s a pair, three’s a crowd, now the question is not if, but when you add that third machine into the mix, you will have to fix on one of the devices to serve as a master clock to the other two, some devices have very stable clocks and some beat like a rabbit’s heart.
- Recording: When you’ve finally got something good going on, you need to grab that, as we saw earlier it’s not an issue with the Elektron devices that support Overbridge, or at best you just need a stereo audio interface to record. But here, if you want to record each stem you might want to invest in a mixer like the MTK series from Soundcraft that supports each channel of the mixer over its USB interface.
So let’s go ahead and take a look at a few examples and break them down
Korg Volca & Modular: 2 Synth Setup
In this rather simple setup, we see the Volca keys being used for the atmos and melodies while the Modular seems to lay out the low-end drone, all processed by a Strymon big sky reverb pedal and a Korg Kaos pad mini for some additional effects. A rather simple but effective setup for melodic, ambient territories, but a bit sparse for creating any drums or rhythm
Moog, Walform, Roland, Pittsburg Modular: Multi Machine Jam
A great watch because he explains the entire setup towards the end of the 8-minute jam on how they’re all interconnected and also his process of recording. An important thing to note here is not the fact that he has so many things that he’s able to make great music, it’s the experience, taste, ideas in conjunction with understanding each device in the setup very well.
Kink: How I Play
A very well explained video by the master KINK, although this video is from 2015, a lot of his performance and musical philosophy remains the same, although he is very modest about it, he has a very good sense of musicality and rhythm, so he often relies on playing the parts live and looping them via Ableton. Yes, we’ve just crossed the DAW less line and destroyed every iota of this post’s title and purpose, but for a second let’s not talk about Ableton’s role as a looper or a soft-synths, because if you truly prefer to be DAW less there are hardware solutions for that. What I’m also trying to illustrate here is that if you have a good sense of playing an instrument in terms of tone and time, you won’t have to depend so much on clocks and sequencers, you just need a solution to loop what you played and overdub that as you go.
The final frontier, where you’ll soon find yourself studying weird mathematical terminologies on Wikipedia in a pursuit to understand your devices better while you’re wallet is bleeding to fill that 105hp space. If that previous statement already scared you out of your wits, read no further. So if you’re a total beginner to this, let me put it in the most simple way, you’re basically buying lego blocks, each block can perform single functions (mostly), like an oscillator will give you audible waveforms, a filter, to process that through, some kind of envelope to control your amplifier (VCA) to shape the body of the sound and finally a step sequencer to send the right notes to your oscillator. Then you’d spend hundreds of hours comparing modules, deciding which are the right ones for you while also contemplating on buying a company’s full system, then realizing you don’t have the money for it but maybe consider if the Octatrack is a better spend. If you’ve got to this stage, may god save you or just go back to your DAW and apologize.
But there is light at the end of the tunnel I suppose. Let’s again being with the cardinal question, why would someone want to use Eurorack, for which I state the following reasons :
- Flexibility: The possibilities are endless, starting from the modules contained in your rack to the 100th power of the patching possibilities. However, it’s a slippery slope, your rack can be quite static if you don’t have the right modules. Like say you have 5 oscillators and one filter, that’s a disaster, you can listen to drones all day. But with the right tools, you can build generative machines that do all the work for you as soon as you start that clock.
- Compact: A 140hp rack is usually compact, where most hardware setups require lots of luggage and table space, especially with brands that make incredibly powerful modules in smaller sizes, you can pack a lot of punch in very little space.
- Fun: Needless to say, it can be a lot of fun, you can go in so many different directions starting from how you set up your rack and patch it. A lot of happy mistakes accompany you along the way, teaching you so much about the science of sound. There are plenty of well-thought-of generative sources for sequencing and modulation, it’s kind of like having all those obscure Max4live devices in Ableton Live that can get you started with an initial idea very easily.
To be able to fully perform off your Eurorack you’d need those 4 essential sources (depending on the kind of music you want to play) drums, bass, lead, and FX. There is so much of a choice for each of these things to possibly fill up 500 more posts. So, I suggest you get yourself on this wonderful website called Modulargrid where you can explore all of these and even build your virtual rack. So, just like before let’s look at a few videos and break them down
Erica Synths Fusion System: Pre-built Modular System
A lot of manufacturers sell pre-built systems along with the case, this is a great starting point for beginners to not break their head over which modules to really buy. This being a very basic system what you’re about to see is fairly simple in contrast to what we’re about to see next, Here’s a drone-Esque jam by Headless Horseman on the Erica Synths Fusion System II that is being externally sequenced by an Elektron Analog Four MK II (It’s a synthesizer that can also sequence CV & Gate). From the sounds of it and a peek at the patch cables, the Oscillators are being modulated along with the filter, all going into the waveshaper for some overtones.
Endorphins Shuttle System, Korg MS-20, Make Noise 0 Coast, Ableton Live: Hybrid Jam
Here we have a bunch of machines working together along with Ableton Live recording the jam and also providing some extra drums. It’s also clocking the Endorphins Shuttle System via their module that can connect via USB to your computer and exchange a bunch of CV/Gate signals. The bass leads and overtones are all coming from the Korg MS-20 Mini, Endorphins Shuttle System, and Make Noise 0-coast, all inter-patched.
Richard Devine: Eurorack God-Level Jam
If you’ve even been remotely curious about modular synths, you would have crossed paths with this legend who always get the soul of anything he makes while there’s no plausible room for deniability that it’s coming out of machines. It’s quite impossible to discern how this patch between a few different racks is working, but from one of his videos explaining his approach at Schneider’s Laden, he seems to be a fan of generating a lot of gates that he filters down before sending them to various destinations, they could possibly be triggering modulations, other probabilistic stuff deeply nested to do more probabilistic, so it’s like the inception of things that will never repeat the same way again, but the beautify of all that lies in absolute control.
So, after all, this to go DAW-less or not is the question, maybe learning about some of these things has further raised more questions. I think most producers will agree that having a DAW at some point serves to be very handy whether it’s for arrangement, mixing, editing, or even archiving and being able to come back to it. It’s quite tricky to work on multiple projects at the same time when you have a multi-device setup that is DAW-less.
So, I’m going to leave you with this final video of an MS-Dos tracker playing New Orders – Blue Monday (now you probably know how keygen background music is made). These were the software of the late ’80s and early ’90s where you had a bank of sounds in a ROM that can be sequenced by entering each parameter for the note into the “tracker” saving each as a pattern and then further sequence these patterns into a song.
But, even better is this truly DAW-less jam, does not even require electrictiy
Let us know your thoughts about going DAW-less, we’d love to know what kind of setup you’re using or been contemplating. I hope this was a useful read, having written this article from some of my own experiences and the perspective of you being an absolute beginner to this.
I’ve been a DJ since 2001, having played at prestigious clubs, festivals and other dance music events, I head the DJ department at Beatworx. I’m a technology enthusiast, and love sharing my knowledge and experiences here.
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