A Herculean Task: Producing 3 Albums DAWlessly — Part 3

In last week’s blog post, we talked about the details of my blended studio/live setup. This week, we’ll go into the ideas that underpin my DAWless philosophy and how it influences the decisions that are made.

Overall Philosophy

It’s All About Live Performance

A lot of the decisions I make may seem strange to outsiders, but there are some reasons why I do things the way I do. First of all, my main first goal is always live performance. It’s one of the only sources of income for modern musicians and it’s still somewhat rare to see in the electronic music genre because of the technical knowledge required to pull it off. And being a live electronic music performer also means that there’s a focus on gear, and as such I’m always trying to make my live setups as lightweight as possible and to minimize complex setups in favor of simpler solutions.

Small and Lightweight Footprint

my setup as of 2024

When I first started out, I would take my full-size synthesizer keyboard, a big rack with a mixer, and on and on, and it was so heavy I needed another person to help me move it. But as I’ve played more and more gigs, I’ve realized the importance of a small setup, and now I strive for as much power and flexibility as possible but in the lightest, most compact package I can achieve. So I’ve retired a lot of gear to studio-only use and have a setup that allows me to carry everything I need in one trip, or as I originally put it, “small enough to take on the bus by myself“. You can see the current setup on the left, essentially unchanged since April 2020 when I replaced my Jomox drum module with an Elektron RYTM MKII. Since that time, I’ve composed only with this setup and without changing the I/O. That way, I can perform any song from any era without having to ever change any physical connections. When I play a techno show, I don’t take the Virus, but everything else is the same and is plugged in like normal. If I need the Virus for the other genres, it plugs right back into its slot.

Efficiency is King

I also strive for the simplest setups, so that I have to do the minimum of preparation once I reach a venue. Rather than take a power strip to plug everything in, I bought a rackmount power unit which has surge protection, uses a simpler power cabling approach, and has a light to help illuminate dark stages. It’s in a 2U rackmount with the audio interface, but along with the light and power benefits, I can leave all the audio cables for the drum machine plugged in as well as some of the power cables, eliminating another hassle that happens during a setup. I also used to do extra audio cabling for shows. For example, I could route audio from any other instrument or mixdown channel into the Virus or RYTM and then route that audio back out as treated audio. Essentially this would allow me two more FX units that could be routed to various sounds, but I don’t do it because it makes the setup more complex with only I believe a small benefit; the marginal benefit of having some more audio options is outweighed by the complexity it introduces. I could also run compressors or EQs on the master outputs, but I don’t like to rely on software tools for my sound, so I don’t use them. It’s really easy to throw on a compressor somewhere, forget about it, then realize later how much it’s affecting your sound. So even though I always strive to be as cutting edge as possible, I’m not sacrificing a simple setup/teardown and simple audio routing for that. But I will sacrifice some weight in the case of the PSU to help simplify and insure the safety of a lot of important gear. In a sense, I’m trying to do as much as possible technically but with the absolute minimum of gear and with a minimum of setup and teardown fuss. A “maximalist-minimalist” approach if you will.

Making “Songs”

Second, my style of music creation is mostly to make songs. In essence, I want my music to sound like a person wrote it, even though a machine may be playing it. In pattern-based music, the difference between good and great songs generally comes down to the details. And details take time. Time for parts to be written that fit as well as the other parts of the song. Time to get the composition and arrangement just right. But this time isn’t wasted, because these songs don’t exist only inside a laptop somewhere, a snapshot in time forever resigned to slow degradation. They exist in the real world and can be recreated nearly identically by me or even someone else in the future, no matter what version of a software you’re currently on or what type of Mac you’re using. And to me, there’s a value in that. These songs are not tied to a computer, they are tied to hardware that can exist more or less indefinitely, a great idea if you want to make a living out of playing your music live like I do. Great ideas aren’t lost forever or chained to a certain set of software, slowly losing quality as digital recreations of a moment in time. But writing songs this way doesn’t consign your creations to the past, but allows them to be living creatures that can live on and grow and change just like their creator.

No One NEEDS a VST, Although They’re Super Nice to Have

My final thought is that there are no problems that can’t be worked around using my system. I don’t think about my setup as limiting, I just think that it forces me to find solutions that are different than what would be done in a DAW. Don’t get me wrong, DAWs and VSTs are magical and wonderful, but aren’t necessary to make great, contemporary music.  Are there great sounds I don’t have access to because of my setup? To some degree yes, although I could always sample. But a great sound is just a great sound, regardless of the tools used to make it. And yes, my palette isn’t as bountiful as those who use a computer-based production setup. But not only do those limitations help sometimes, they also force better decision-making during the mixing process. Maybe instead of trying to compress two bass sounds together to get them to fit, maybe give them their own space instead. You know?

OK that’s a lot of information. Let’s close today’s post and continue on in a part 4.