A wise man once said "It's the ear, not the gear", but I can take it to the next level - "It's the ear and how you use your gear".
My setup can be considered to be a modest one if we narrow it down to budget. I only spent €4000. I am a pianist, and since synthesizers with key-beds are usually larger and heavier than "Albeton setups" or modular rigs, since I plan to easily travel with my gear I did not buy the top shelf products, but I focused on comfort, simplicity and something I can rebuy, if someone would pour beer on it. I also noticed that a lot of products which cost more are far more complicated and often require menu diving or focusing (like Elektrons or Dave Smith synths), yet they have much more to offer sonically. Anyway, the fact of using a piece of hardware already makes the sound superior to computer ones. I recently jammed in a professional studio with some excellent PAs installed in every corner, you could hear every little thing, hiss, bump coming from your gear, and I could not believe how cheap and shallow any bass drum or bass would sound, coming from my friend's Ableton setup. At the same time, every synthesizer uses the same techniques of sound shaping and routing (well, it is very similar at least), so I believe that if you spent time learning every little part of your synth, experimenting with different techniques, will lead to better results, than buying more expensive gear where you can achieve the same results by diving in more complicated menus. Also the compressors, mixer's EQ, this is what you should focus on, while the source should remain simple - like in jazz ensembles. The sound comes from instruments which have everything at hand, no hidden aspects, you not only play but also experiment, using it in a different way, than intended (eg. playing drums on a double bass case). Then, here is this guy sitting at the stereo sum, who can add spice, like reverbs, different EQ settings, add a compressor etc. In my case everything is done by a single person - me.
When I started playing techno and live electronic music in general, back in 2017, my knowledge of how things work club and dance wise, was very basic. I think I had a lot of self-confidence, frankly speaking. Every month when I play or not play, but simply hang around a turned on gear with a sustained chord, I learn that many things I did previously, were wrong partially or totally. I started minimizing my setup, focusing on using very little synths, to achieve a comfortable flow. I started using my mixer as a sound-shaping tool (the magic of equalization) by using the audio levels more properly. Then I noticed, that even a TB-3, which is a digital, very basic (limited controls) bass synthesizer, can sound unique, fat and juicy and be better, than a possibly overrated, Moog synthesizers. Yes, I wrote that :) Some synth freaks might consider it as heresy, however, every sound can be shaped and amplified in such a way, that without visual reference, just by hearing the sound, you might think - Damn, that must be a fine piece of bass synth. Now, I understand how the Ableton productions sound often so well - it's the engineering, the mastering process.
Keeping in mind, that complicated equipment leads to frustration and slows down the flow, and that learning and experimenting with your sound-shaping tools, like mixer's equalization, appropriate effects application, leads to a point, where not the number of gear matters, but the skill.
I stopped using the Arturia's Minibrute as additional lead synth leaving only one bass, one drum and one lead/pad synthesizer + ES2 as drum sampler and KP3+ for effects processing. I might limit it, even more, leaving ES2 out or the TB-3.
When in early June 2017 I started working on my "demo tape", I knew it is not going to be ...as easy as playing live.
Why? When you play live, when you improvise, what you play is established by eg. air humidity, what you been doing thought past few days, the dress of that girl dancing in front, the crazy hairstyle of that guy watching my every move on the filter knob etc. Everything makes everything.
A very important aspect of playing live is the fact that people see you in front of the instrument, they can often relate the changing sound to the hand movement. This takes the listening to a different level. While, when you put on your headphones and sit down in an underground train with your eyes shut, you start to listen to the music in a very different way. There is no relation between artist and music, as there is only music, you also focus on things which might not be that obvious or visible while performing live. A listener who does not know that my music is played on live electronic instruments might think that it is an Ableton sequence or everything is made from long samples etc.
In this case, I have a problem because my demo should be with a video presentation, and since it is not possible in all cases, the recording should be made in a different way, then just recording and mastering a live session.
Or maybe I am mistaken. We shall see. From May to June I should have a bit more time to finally make some decent progress in my techno project. My personal deadline is the end of June.
I am very happy with all the elements of my setup. the roles that my synthesizers and gear play, as it covers a lot of different sounds. I have two separate lead synth voices, separate decent pad/string source, two separate bass voices and two separate drum synths + a bunch of effects. All controllable, synced and ready for live performance.
I am always trying to avoid falling into the GAS scheme (from Wikipedia), the Gear Acquisition Syndrome, which has been defined as the all-consuming desire to expand your collection of gear. I try to follow the rule which once Adrian Utley mentioned (by the way - standing in a room full of synthesizers) - If I do not use this piece of gear, it got to go.
For me, having a limited setup is an inspiring, a more creative approach, so I am not looking at new gear and what kind of new sounds it could bring, but rather - how to achieve a similar effect using what I have and if I am unhappy with the results, I exchange the gear. In this regard, I am much keener on eg. sticking to TR-8 rather than buying a new TR-8S (the first model is basic as shit, while the TR-8S is a TR-8 + sampler with almost full automatization).
However, I broke the Utley's rule this year. Luckily I cannot afford to break it more than once a year, as tax income doesn't happen more frequently ;)
In my opinion, the most important sound in club music is drums. You can make a whole set using only one drum machine and a reverb or delay (this) or even taking it to the extreme. Just two weeks ago during one rave (Forest People), the crowd went mad when for few minutes the artist played a very heavy 4x4 bass drum only...
So the drums.
I had two drum machines - the rhythm performer TR-8 and the drum synth in JD-Xi. Actually, you can look at it as one and a half, as the JD-Xi, despite having excellent quality sounds, is a menu-diving synthesizer, so you usually just set additive loops of drums, rather than controlling separately parts of it like hi-hats, toms etc.
I had an intensive few weeks of looking for a piece of gear which would fill the gaps - various (not only Roland legacy sounds) drum sounds, one-shot samples, field recordings, a gear which can allow me to separately control as much as possible (number of steps, tempo, effects etc). and which is small (did I mention it always needs to be used or as cheap as possible? Music is not my only addiction). There is only one thing that comes to my mind when I think of all these qualities - a sampler/rompler (ROM player - a synthesizer which uses one-shot samples to create sounds).
One got most of my attention - KORG Electribe. They are usually used as jacks of all trades, the groove boxes (you have all types of one-shot samples and sample loops of different kind of sounds, bass, leads, drums etc. and you can compose or perform using only one piece of gear). Jack of all trades, master of none. I finally decided on getting an Electribe 2 Sampler. Here is why.
Having all other gear in my setup doing their role quite good, I decided to give Electribe sampler a specific role. To devote it to become a drum sampler/rompler only. I wiped all stock samples and patterns and recorded a set of my own sounds and variations. All of the sounds are only one-shot samples, not ready-made breaks or loops because I need a drum machine not a sampler per se. Therefore, the sampler changed to a drum machine or a rompler drum synthesizer. It is amazingly doing well in that role.
Why not TR-8S? It costs more, plus concentrating all drum sounds in one instrument, will make it much more limited to operate/adjust them individually. Why not a regular sampler like SP-404? Because it does not have the flexibility of groove box nor synthesizer, which I am looking for. Not to mention that both cost at least €250+ more. I also had to get a larger mixer so money was (luckily) a game changer.
Electribe 2S is limited, but as a drum synthesizer, it works amazingly well. A very common problem is that, despite having 16 pads, some sounds "consume" other and if you use many pads + effects at once the gear becomes unreliable. I have prepared mono (smaller) samples which did not last longer than 1 second? maybe 1,8? Problem is gone.
I love the fact that each pad is like a separate line - separate sound filter mods, effects, and length (the whole pattern might have eg. 16 steps, but each part can have its own length eg. 8, 14, which is excellent!). Electribe 2S also has a very limited memory - 240 seconds? However, you can load different sets of sounds live renaming the /KORG/e2SSample.all file on the sd-card. So you can have 240 sec x whatever you prepared. It takes around 30 seconds to open a new kit, while other gear is playing. My Electribe 2S shines.
When Improvizards kicked off in 2016, as a synth-turntable duo, the act was quite focused on the melody - we were leaning more towards house and funk or the infamous tech-house. I was "tuning" to the track which was played on a turntable. Since November I only focus on making techno music and the Improwizard acts are changing with me. I started focusing on the rhythm - the soul hidden in the charismatic arpeggiated pluck synths, sophisticated drum patterns, bass pumps etc. A so-called one-shot minimalism.
This approach turns the tides of the live act. The lass melody you put the more "technois" it becomes. But this is probably inevitable when you play improvisation and you have a bad day eg. you broke up with your girlfriend, got sacked from your job or any other miserable bullshit, then the crowd might have to "listen all about it" during your live act.
I do not know where am I and who am I. But I know what I am doing at least... and one thing is sure for me now - dark and deep are becoming my colors :)
Ever since I started playing with more than two synthesizers I started lacking the second pair of hands. Modern synthesizers are all interconnected with MIDI, self-triggered and easily programmable even in live situations, to run complicated sequences and arpeggios, so playing few instruments at once is not a problem. The real problem is that letting all the machines go in an auto mode as they are, only modulating eg. the filter or resonance of a specific part, from time to time.... shortly speaking having only two hands is a big limitation when you have to control a dozen of knobs and another dozen of buttons. If you do not keep your hands over one instrument, it is very hard to get the full potential out of it, hence the music might be not as full as you know it could be. Contrary to belief, even playing dark techno, which bases on short, automated industrial sounds and glitches, needs a lot of modulation and additions eg. of sudden filter movements or reverbs.
I have been often joining some live, electronic jams in Warsaw or watched local forums to look for partners to collaborate - yes, the mocked wanna collab, bro? - yet I never found a right person even to try to ask for it. To my surprise, a lot of participants of jams or forums were people not really knowing what they are doing, or people more interested in sound synthesis as a process, as a technique of creating sounds and sound sculptures, rather than creating a band to play live. If anybody was interested, they were either having a new baby or they were right in their life-changing business career turning point, whatever. Guys who had time and talent did not know jack about music, some even not able to name keys on the keyboard. What is an octave? A car model?
Dreams come true sometimes when you really want it, I suppose. I have met a lovely girl who is also a very good cook, so I showed her yesterday how to cook techno. I should mention that she is a professional musician, a cellist, and as everyone who has been educated in music, she has gone through hundreds of hours of piano and composition lessons. I could not believe how accurate and great companion she is, how easily she could add new sounds, somehow knowing exactly how to bite it.
I guess I found a co-pilot for my techno shuttle.