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.
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.
The goal is, of course, to come up with new sounds that haven't been heard before. I run stuff through as many plug-ins and as much hardware as possible.
Francis Preve, The art of extreme noise, Keyboard Magazine 29/9, 2003.
Some musicians are experiencing this strange frustration on the origin of sounds they use in music creation process. I am talking about stock patches which are considered almost a taboo. If you go to a local electronic live jam and tell everyone you are going to use the presets only, you will get ostracized and tagged as an uncreative noob. This approach is full of bullshit.
Take into consideration a characteristic 808 or 909 bass/kick drum sound. It is so classic that it became a golden standard of every four on the floor, and not only, electronic music. Or a sawtooth wave lead synth with high resonance. Or a sine wave deep chord with delay effect. These sounds are used in so many electronic compositions, yet we do not call them stock.
We are experiencing now a very interesting process during which, in a very short time, electronic sounds, considered to be unlimited, have reached a certain moment during which they are crystallizing as a distinguished structure, which will be now polished for next couple of, not centuries, like in case of classical instrument, but dozens of years. There will be new eras and new happy mistakes which will lead to modification of certain instruments and invention of new structures, new sounds. Think about new interfaces which will be used in the future... For classical music, these were the skilled carpenters, luthiers, and skilled musicians. In case of electronic music, these are engineers and kids from your neighborhood.
The majority of my time (dozens of minutes) I spent in front of synthesizers is focused on creating sounds. My own personal sound. Which is, as a matter of fact, created from those standard stock sounds, which are so characteristic and well known, that you can distinguish them and name them specifically. A quick idea and few minutes of ad libitum. I am wondering if it is not a waste of time.
I got sick, I am legally staying at home for another week. Since my fever is low now, I returned to cooking hot patches and composing bits and pieces.
Knowing till when the sick-leave is, I made some arrangements. This is the best workflow - you count days till sick leave is over, then plan maximum a piece a day, per every 3-4 days, then a 1-2 day break to reset. After few days, you just wake up, peel a sound of a raw sawtooth wave, PCM and with fresh LFO & filter combination, with such a ready sound-palette - you just go for it. Nothing to add, nothing to take away. Without preparations, pure improvisation, to see, where the sounds you just created, will and are capable to take you.
I had some trouble seeing well the sequencer in dark clubs or even at night at home with mild light. I am talking about the situation when you want to manually add high hats on the go etc. Here is an overlay for anyone who needs a more clear visual reference or just needs a nice touch for JD-Xi. Since the drum part is inspired with the TR-808 sequencer, the stripe is in the acid legacy colors:
INSTRUCTIONS: Download the file, print it 1:1 on A4 size, adhesive matt foil (any printing service in town should be able to do it) then cut it out. The dimensions are exactly matching the height and width of JD-Xi official overlay.
I must admit, that even though I have been an active pianist for more than 10 years, I have always humbly accepted the weight and size of my transportation kits. There was always enough room on stage or the floor. When I started playing techno music in underground clubs, picnics, galleries etc. I started to realize that bringing an 88 key synthesizer with a whole set of additional instruments is impossible to fit in many DJ booths, especially when DJ's are playing there too and need the whole deck space for themselves. There is a smaller and lighter version of my Juno DS with 61 synth keys, weighing only 5,2kg (my current version of Juno DS weights 17kg). That was my target - to have the two Juno sisters under one roof.
Quite recently I started looking around those mini key synthesizers like Microkorg, Novation ...and then I bumped into Roland's JD-Xi. It is considered to be a decade late reply to ever popular Microkorg. Because it looks like a shining little "toy" and most demos were not so impressive (focused on EDM mostly) I never focused much on it. Never judge the book by it's cover. Just by accident, I found out, that this little beast has a four track sequencer - which basically means that you can play 4 sounds at one time - two digital sounds, one for drums and the fourth - an analog monophonic engine. Juno DS has 8, JD-Xi has only 4, but it weighs 2,2kg and has around 50cm length! Less carriage, less space but almost the same possibilities.
Heavy indeed. Imagine the faces of people in the public transport I often use. Apart from speakers and mixer, I can travel in a bus, however, I must get a smaller version of Juno DS, haha - the 88 key version I have, weights 20 kilograms., while the 61 key one ...5,6.
Well, unlike sculpting or painting, when working with music... For example, to compose a large-scale orchestral piece, you use an orchestra. But the instruments for an orchestra, during the 100 years between Mozart and Wagner, were improved to the point where there is no more room for further enhancement. So orchestral instruments, whether they be horns, trumpets, violins, or the woodwinds like the flute, can't be improved any further. So instruments haven't changed much from Wagner's time to today. (...) Writing a score for 4 or 5 players or one for almost 100 made little difference in terms of fee. (...) Except, the sound components of an orchestra, such as the flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and the trumpet, horn, trombone, tuba... I have to select a tone quality from these when I do the orchestration. Consider that as opposed to art, in which there are no longer such restrictions when painting or sculpting. You could use gold dust in your painting, or grind up cinder and paint with it, it doesn't matter what you do. But with music, you can't do that. Even if you were to invent a unique instrument and get a musician to play it for you... Take the violin for example. Becoming pro takes years of practice. Who'd be willing to do that? There was no way to make it possible. But I did want to create music using a different tone quality, and around the time I began to feel that way when I'd sort of hit a wall with orchestral arrangements, I heard about the existence of Moog synthesizers. If I could create my own sound, then that meant I could create music that broke free from existing ideas.
-- Isao Tomita, RBMA Tokyo 2014 lecture.
Being a musician is mostly about carrying stuff or caring about stuff. You carry, with care, practice, practice, practice, carry, with care, and finally perform, with care. Et encore un fois. This is my only sport now.
Caring about the equipment is as important as practicing with it. All the bags are my custom projects, suited for my personal needs (precisely the dimensions of my hardware), but one bag, the one with writing on it, has far more style than others. An unexpected birthday gift from my beautiful friend Natalie, perfectly matching its current function - a bag with cable spaghetti.
The Roland SH-201, one of my friend lend me that synth recently, was turned by me into a pad machine. My setup looks like a band with a sound guy: I have TR-8 on drums, TB-3 on base, Minbrute on lead and SH201 on strings. It all conveniently is mixed and processed through the KP3+ and Mackie 802vlz, then summed in Really Nice Leveling Amplifier.