I want to talk about what I’ve been doing the last couple of years from a production standpoint, because I’ve published perhaps 2 tracks since 2021. Most people know I’m a hardware-only performer, but don’t know that I’m also a hardware-only producer. What that means is that I only use hardware and no DAW (Digital Audio Workstation like Ableton or FL Studio) to make full productions. At the end of the recording and mixing process, I record the fully mixed tracks as a stereo recording into Ableton. But going from something that is “good enough for live” to something that is a full representation of my art is quite a task. All my former releases have been EPs and didn’t take that long to finish, so this time I set an ambitious new goal for myself: 3 full albums of 3 different genres released all at the same time, and all produced “DAWlessly”. But when the scale of what that meant was actually laid out and attempted, we arrive at the title of this blog post. So what happened?
Ever since the very beginning, I’ve always sequenced with some form of MPC, and since 2018 or so I’ve been using an MPC2500 as my main sequencer, and it handles everything I need from a MIDI output standpoint, including handling system exclusive (sysex). It has four separate outputs which I use to send separate midi streams to all of my sound devices. This is very useful as it prevents any midi streams from getting “crossed-up” due to being on the same channel. The timing on the MPC is solid and it has a good song function which allows me to create full tracks for playing live, and using those songs, create long sets of songs for live performance.
The drum machine, sampler, and two synths pictured at left handle all the sound generation, most of which is done through subtractive or FM synthesis. I have my drum machine, the Elektron RYTM MKII, set up to send a main stereo output and 5 more individual outputs to my audio interface, where each get their own channel and track strip. This machine is used for every Dope Robot performance and recording and is the backbone of my hardware system. The other workhorse in the system is the Access Virus TI2 synthesizer, which has dozens of virtual analog voices, can play up to 16 parts simultaneously, and has individual reverb, delay, and 3-band EQ per part. That machine’s audio output is summed into a single stereo digital channel and sent to the audio interface and is used when complex sound design or multiple parts are needed for a track. Next, we have the Roland TB-3 which is a very versatile monosynth and appears throughout my productions in various forms. During recent techno performances, I’ve been using just the TB-3 and the drum machine without the Virus and it has been great. Finally, whenever I need a vocal sample, I use the 1010Music Blackbox to handle all of those on its own stereo channel. It has its own effects and dynamics processing as well. And that’s it, I don’t introduce new sound sources or change the setup in any way so that from project to project and year to year, the setup doesn’t change…only the ideas do.
Mixing: The audio interface I use, an RME UFX, is both the audio interface and digital mixing console in my setup. Its mixing software is called TotalMix and comes with a channel strip containing an EQ and compressor/gate for every hardware input. In TotalMix I take all the sound sources and assign their pan and level settings and any EQ or compression per channel and then record the stereo mixdown and/or individual tracks into Ableton Live. TotalMix also comes with a basic reverb and echo per snapshot which are shared amongst all channels. TotalMix’s EQ/Dynamics and effects are the only post-processing tools I have, so I try to do everything possible on the machines themselves.
DAW & VST: I’ll admit, I’m not completely “DAWless”, nor do I have any opposition to creating within the DAW. For example, sometimes I need a robotic vocal, especially for electro, and for that I use a vocoder VST called Lector inside Ableton. Once I’ve made a vocal, I bounce it down to audio and transfer them into the Blackbox to play back, which has to be done using a microSD card. Once the samples are loaded up, I play them normally from a dedicated sequencer channel. And of course I also use Ableton to record audio, but mostly just stereo mixdown tracks played live. And this is how I record songs for release and performance:
- Up to 30 channels of simultaneous audio.
- 1 basic delay and/or reverb shared among all channels.
- 1 compressor per channel.
- No VSTs. Completely outside the box. “DAWless”.
So these were the basic details about my composing and recording process, but that is only the beginning of the journey. Come back for Part 2 where we’ll discuss the pros and cons of this production workflow.