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Building a live electronic set, the DAW-less way

Building a live set

Building a live set #1:

 

 

 

If you're like me and you enjoy synthesizers (a bit too much) and the idea of performing music appeals to you, then chances are you've probably thought about playing live in some aspect, and let me be upfront and say building a "live system" was one of the most mentally challenging, but rewarding things I've done in my electronic music making career.

In this series of articles I'm going to try and demystify and pre-warm you of some of the issues you might run into when trying to make music with non-trad instruments.

If you want to make bangers and get peeps dancin' then read on intrepid explorer.

How to be truly DAW-less.

The rise in popularity of synthesizers has had a fair few knock on effects in the music scene: not only are we blessed with an incredible array of affordable, interesting instruments and machines, but there’s a growing interest in performing live, using synths to perform complex, intricate and sometimes improvised performances.

A lot of synthesizer manufacturers are picking up on this somewhat underground movement and the range of performance friendly, intuitive boxes is growing all the time and the range of possibilities can be somewhat overwhelming.

If you’re reading this, it means you’re probably interested in creating some sort of music making system to help you express your musical ideas and let your creativity flow, but with so many options on offer it can be really hard to figure out what workflow suits you best.

So I am going to try and demystify the processes of setting up for a performance and help you get into a position of music making bliss.

I have personally been researching, developing and refining a live system of my own with the purpose of performing improvised music. In this series of articles I’m going to talk you through my thought processes for picking instruments, my ever changing and evolving setup, how everything is connected and how I approach the music making processes.

In this first article I’m going to talk about going DAWless, which is a term that only came to be over the last couple of years.

Let’s get DAWless:

Until very recently, if you wanted to play a live set formed of groups of songs, your main (reliable) option was to take a laptop, a few control surfaces and jam your Ableton sets, (something which PUSH made especially possible), but it is with the rise of interest in hardware, that people have become slightly jaded with the concept of taking a computer out for a show. I mean, it’s still a very valid means to perform music, but it’s incredibly hard to improvise in that kind of setting, thus making those kinds of sets more playback tweaking than anything else.

So what does DAWless actually mean? Well it means performing music without the need for a computer or a software environment and for some that is an incredibly daunting task and it need not be.

Freeing yourself from a computer, means freeing yourself from the constraints of a fixed architecture or ecosystem of layout and sound, it means you can freely express your ideas without being slaved to a screen. By using an electronic instrument you are removing the need for “classical” training and instead replacing it with good judgement.

Going DAWless has many benefits to the music making process, by removing the screen you’re not worrying about the “symmetry”, the perfect timing or layout, you’re just listening to your collection of sounds and making real-time decisions on how they change and evolve through your performance.

Your hardware will always sound better than a plug in, so the benefits of a dawless setup go way beyond just workflow, your music will sound better.

So if you want to make music without a computer, there’s a fair few things you need to consider to in order to make your performances coherent, interesting and engaging. Let’s get the really boring stuff out of the way before get onto the meat and potatoes.

Get connected:

First of all you need to have a think about how you’re going to get all of you machines in sync to they play in time, thankfully there’s a few options to make sure you’re setup runs on time.

MIDI: In 1983 this clever technology called MIDI was invented, you’re probably familiar with it…it’s the most widely used form of clock synchronisation and information transfer you’re likely to find on a synthesizer. It’s a perfect transfer protocol for music making applications, since it’s low latency, low bandwidth and very configurable, so perfect in fact that it’s never surpassed version 1.0. Connection is made using a 5-pin DIN cable.

DIN Sync: A form of clock sync found usually found on Roland gear, whilst it physically resembles MIDI it does not carry clock, note or any other information in the same way as MIDI does. It’s a far less common sight nowadays and has all been but abandoned, but you can still find sequencers and synths with it as a clocking option, just so you can get your TB-303 or TR-606 running smoothly. Connection is made using a 5-pin DIN cable.

Analogue clock: This is a slightly more ambiguous form of clock that requires a bit of clarification since there are a fair few versions of analogue clock depending on the gear you have in front of you, and getting them to talk to each other can sometimes be a right PITA. On the whole, analogue clock is usually described in PPQN, which translates to Pulse Per Quarter Note and, there are many different types of PPQN:

There’s 2 PPQN which is the sync format for Korg Volcas, Teenage Engineering Pocket Operators and the Twsited Electrons Minisynths.

1 step gate, which is the standard timing format for Eurorack, which can be produced by an LFO or a get source. For example, this is the type of clock the Bastl Kastle 1.5, Moog DFAM and the Mother-32 can sync to.

24PPQN and 48PPQN, these are less commonly seen on newer synthesizers and drum machines, you’re more likely to see this on a vintage Roland or Korg synth, but newer machines like the Elektron Analog Four support the format to allow them to sync up with vintage gear.

Indentifying your type connection means you can start to think about how to connector your clock signals to bring everything together. One important thing to remember about connecting clocks is that most machines will have a clock thru, which will either be in form of a MIDI thru or analogue clock out.

MIDI thru as its name suggests, passes the data received at its inputs thru to the following machine connected to the MIDI thru, this is great for setting up chains of instruments that you want to follow a global clock signal.

For modular, clocking is everything. It is the cornerstone from which most of your patches will develop, so getting it right is incredibly important. There’s a whole host of clock generators out there, so find one that gives you the stability and connectivity you’re after, and by adding clock dividers, multiples and other logic based modules will let you form complex rhythms and derivatives of your global BPM, to let you form the parts of complex, generative patches.

In your setup, you’ll need to define which instrument or module is your master clock and going on experience, you should select a machine with a BPM readout or display, so you know which tempo your composing at, if you went with a machine, (for example Volca Keys or ADE-32 Octocontroller) that does not have a BPM readout, it’s all up to your sense of timing, which can cause problems for sync’ing things up to other gear later down the line.

Make sure that your machines stay in sync by putting in a note or a trigger on every other step to ensure tight synchronisation between everything and they all fire at the same time. If you do experience any lag between your machines, it might because the preceding machine isn’t quite transferring the MIDI Thru out at the right speed, you can always forgo the MIDI Thru method as described earlier and use a MIDI multiple, or a Thru box to multiply the single global MIDI signal to multiple machines, for super tight sync.

Maintaining sync on a modular is fraught with far less issues, you’re very unlikely to run into any timing problems, just make sure you have enough clock sources, splitters and such to give you the base for forming sequences, patterns and events.

So now you understand how to clock everything, let’s think about audio signal flow. This is another seriously important thing to consider and for me, it was a stumbling block that took quite some time to be resolved. If you want to perform with multiple audio sources, then you’re going to need a mixer.

Mix it up:

In modular land, sourcing a mixer is a pretty simple thing to conquer since there’s literally hundreds mixer options to suit your scale, I/O and workflow. There are even modular-modular mixers that can grow with your systems requirements… pick one that carries your channel count on go with it. Simple.

When it comes to desks for your non-modular efforts then the waters get a little murky and for me, this is where the Elektron Octatrack saved the day, but the Octa isn’t for everyone, so a “traditional” mixer or something to combine your audio streams is going to be a must.

The things to consider are pretty simple:

  • Make sure you have enough inputs to handle all of your gear.
  • Make sure you have the requisite send and returns to integrate any external effects you might want to use.
  • And make sure you learn it in depth like the rest of your gear.

The mixer is the thing you’ll interact with the most in y our setup, balancing all of your audio sources and matching your rig to the system you’re playing on is imperative to making finished sounding material. Use your EQ’s to bring out the click of a kick, the resonance of a snare or simply remove a frequency from a track.

Mixers can allow you dial in the right amount of separation for each element of your rig, making everything sound cohesive and full. There are also a few tricks you can utilise using a desk that can create some unique effects, aside from just using sends for your favourite external effects you can create complex feedback loops to make that lowly Volca Beats sound like a distorted industrial monster.

Me, personally I adopted the aforementioned Elektron Octatrack, which with its four balanced mono inputs, master effects and cross fader scenes, does everything for me. It handles three channels of modular (DFAM, MFB Nanozwerg Pro and Dreadbox voice) one channel of Analog Four whilst handing the bulk of the drums and percussion duties, it also serves as my master MIDI clock, transport, effects processor and looping / sampling.

It’s way more than just a sampler and it’s small form factor means my entire rig fits into two cases and remains patched at all times, meaning travelling to shows is a breeze.

Stay tuned:

So we’ve covered basic clocks and audio mixing, in the next issue we’ll have a talk about picking your gear and how to connect this mishmash of machines up before we talk about how to approach writing and performing....

If you can't wait that long and you have any questions about anything I've covered above, give the shop a call or email us.

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