Note: This is all so woefully out of date. It’s c. 2011-12. Things change, and I should write about it. Stay tuned.
Well it’s not like Abbey Road or anything. But now and then someone asks what I use when I play like Kraftwerk in my house. So because I’m a big geek for process and because I really like this kind of thing on other people’s sites, I thought I’d post a little info about my meager set-up.
I like synthesizers. I like real ones and the better sounds they make, and I like software ones and the versatility and ease of use. For years I read about how software can’t touch the sound of a real analog synth but I didn’t get it until I bought a real analog synth. It’s different. I also sample “real” sounds like my daughter singing, me making noises, tapping on the table, or things such as that. I have an imense collection of samples and sounds but for various reasons I don’t use these sources much. Rather, I just open up one of my synthesizers or drum machines and just start turning knobs until I hear something I like. I’ll either save that as a preset or just start sequencing the thing, recording the results as an audio file which then gets edited and worked over. Then I save that sound as a preset and start playing with it on my keyboard. I usually feel that “making music” is secondary to just playing with the tools.
Here are some pictures of my current music set-up, most out of date. What you see here are as follows:
- Modular Synthesizer. Learning by doing. Turn a knob, everything changes. Everything can be plugged into anything. I’m enjoying this no-presets, semi-random workflow, and I haven’t used the aforementioned MIDI keyboard since I got this thing. Instead, sequencers and random CV gate and trigger sources make more sense to me both technically and musically than MIDI. Right now what I have nearly fills a three-row (9U if you know this stuff) case.
- Delay pedals. I have a modified EHX Stereo Memory Man and the Boss DD-3 into which I run my synth. A friend gave me the DD-3, which was my first non-software delay, and I got hooked. The Memory Man has a nice loop function, more delay modes, and does a nice ping-pong stereo delay. The Boss is easier to use. I also have a Malekko Lofi Ekko, which I mainly use with guitar. It’s an analog delay and has a modulation LFO, which can really step into space.
- M-Audio Axiom 25 USB/MIDI keyboard. I like the drum pads on this thing. Not so much the knobs. I had an Akai MPD32 for a week or so before I decided I didn’t like the pads as much, which was suprising, and it was just more than I wanted to deal with. I’m considering the 49-key version of this Axiom so I can have the sliders and more octaves.
- Elektron Machinedrum. I sold the Machinedrum. This was painful. I’m leaving the pictures up because I like them. I just didn’t use it enough to justify keeping it, especially when I’m finding that I use the computer for percussion sequences and the modular for creating the sounds. And, by unloading the MD, I can afford more guitar stuff…
- Guitar. A friend of mine gave me his Squier Stratocaster about seven years ago. I put it in a closet and forgot about it. Then this last December 2010, my kids showed sudden interest in guitars — my son is learning to play the bass at school, and my daughter just wanted a pink guitar. So I got my white one back out. It needed new strings, and I replaced the electronics with a pre-wired set up from StewMac. It’s still not a good guitar, but it stays in tune and gets me where I need to go for now. I’m taking lessons (along with my daughter who got her pink Strat for Christmas), and I’m obsessing over guitar pedals and tube amps, just like a real guitarist. I also have a G&L ASAT Classic, which is like a Telecaster, but better. More on this soon.
Here’s my first recording. Louie Louie with a fuzz pedal (Way Huge Swollen Pickle — what a great device!)
- Motu Ultralite. Audio interface. Gets sound into my computer. Doubles as a mixer, though I might end up with a regular mixer as I’m not excited about the menu-diving that the Ultralite requires when not attached to the Mac.
- Old-timey Casio PT-1 keyboard. Bought this at a flea market. Kind of dumb but sometimes provides a goofy drum beat.
- Stanton T.80 turntable. I like to run this through the Kaoss pad and into the Saffire to the Mac. I like to listen to Duran Duran records on it too, but we don’t talk about that.
- Radio Shack microphone. I can sing and clap and make noises into this. It’s not great but it does the job.
- Audio-Technica AT2035 microphone. Sounds way better than the Radio Shack. Good for playing the ukulele and accordion.
- M-Audio BX5a monitor speakers. These make even NPR sound great. I guess there are better speakers, but these work for me for now.
As far as software goes, I started in 2003 with a demo of Propellorhead’s Reason and just added on from there. One of the big problems with electronic music is that the choices are endless. Many musicians complain amongst themselves that they might spend nights and nights fiddling with presets and knobs and options and never get around to just making a song. I find this to be absolutely true. As much as I love downloading some new device and messing with it, I find that I am better off just learning to use that which I have.
- Reason. My first, and still a piece of software that I really love. My friend Tom introduced this to me in his office at UArts in 2003 and when I first saw the animated cables swing, I was hooked. It’s limited by its lack of an audio input but I have other tools for that. It’s also rather limited by its reliance on its interface resembling physical instruments. At first this is the thing that’s great, but in reality there are better ways to deal with routing than with virtual realistic cables hanging all over the place. Version 4 includes Thor which is right now my favorite synth. I also really like the Arpeggiator, so I can sound like Nick Rhodes.
- Ableton Live. Live is an audio toy store. It bends and twists and rearranges and slows down and speeds up. I like recording audio from old LPs into Live and mixing them all up. It’s got some okay synthesizers as well, and a terrific drum rack. I read that the sequencer isn’t up to par, especially compared to something like Apple’s Logic, but it works for what I need so far.
- Native Instruments Reaktor. Wait, did I say Live was a toy store? No no, silly me. Reaktor is the toy store. Reaktor is less a synth and more a system in which one can get into big trouble make synths and drum machines and samplers and all kinds of crazy weirdness. I can work on Reaktor for a year and not begin to get into what it does. So mainly I just open one of its preset instruments in Live and press play, then tweak the settings. I spent a day teaching my kid about synthesis and how the thing works with Reaktor and his head nearly exploded. It’s like that. Maybe I’ll get a bit deeper into this at some point and talk about specific instruments and modules I like in Reaktor. Best for now just to Google it and wrap your head around it.
- Numerology. I discovered Numerology about the same time I started thinking about modular synthesizers. The ideas go well together. Numerology is an ever-expandable, über-flexible step sequencer. It works within the paradigm of MIDI, being able to run softsynths and traditional hardware synths, and the paradigm of CV (control voltage) which is what modulars use for modulation and connectivity. I can’t say enough about this piece of software.
- Audiofile Wave Editor. I use Wave Editor for editing sound files and such. I might record a song from the turntable or a blippy sequencing session from the modular, and then I’ll use Soundbooth to clean up the pops and clicks and whatnot to either make a loop or add fades and such to post. There are a lot of apps that do this stuff. Audacity is free.
- Sonic Charge Synplant. Apart from that which comes with Reason, Live and Reaktor, my first purchased software synth. This thing is nutty. Funky but versatile interface based on a plant. Does off-kilter things. Someone on a blog wrote about it that it doesn’t necessarily do anything you couldn’t do with a traditional synth, it does do things that you likely wouldn’t do. Check it out.
- Uhbik. Uhbik is a package of effects, and it’s really changed the way I use effects. Delay, piutch shifter, phaser, reverb, flanger, a filter, frequency shifter, and an equalizer. I like the effects that come with Live, but I’ve been using Wave Editor a lot without ever putting audio into Live, and it’s nice to have a good delay in Numerology as well. Most of the controls on these things I’d never have understood had I not learned how things work on my modular synth.
If you want to know any more about any of this or anything, feel free to send an email and ask. If you like looking at pictures of this stuff like I do, here is a great resource on Flickr. In addition, Create Digital Music is a good blog, and the editor of CDM has a terrific book.