Building a live set #2

Building a live set #2

Well what was supposed to be a quarterly instalment of “how to make music with synths and not use a computer” has turned into somewhat of a bi-annual endeavour, whilst those who were waiting for the next instalment could feel a bit let down…personally, I think it’s good we left things this long, because a LOT has changed with my live setup and as I mentioned in the previous instalment, I adopted my own rule-set of keeping it easy(ish), and in doing so, I’ve de-cluttered, simplified and relearned my setup and invented new ways to achieve my musical goals (he boasted). So what’s new? Well I’ve (unsurprisingly) grown my modular system to allow for more complex and intricate sequencing with improved CV & Gate routing whilst keeping mechanical complexity to a minimum. I’ve also adapted the Analog Four as my full time poly-pads machine and added a DrumBrute Impact to the setup, meaning the Octatrack can now has to handle less-run of the mill percussion / 808 duties and provides an extra track for sample playback and an extra track for realtime looping. And still, no computer in sight.

What’s in the Box?!?

So the modular has grown (again) no shocks there eh? Well for me this is, yes…but this recent growth has come out of sheer frustration over the lack of real precise, but hands on sequencing options out there. So I didn’t add just one sequencer to the setup, I added two quite different CV generators to the system. Whilst my colleagues and most people in my immediate family and friends circle couldn’t give two tosses about the intricacies of my modular setup J, I know those who are reading this would derive some sort of workflow lessons from how I’ve got things arranged, so I’m gonna break it down for you so you can see how I can form precise, interesting, yet effortlessly simple sequences using a handful of modules. So what makes the sequencing system? Well I’ve got a Westlicht Performer Sequencer (WPS), a Noise Engineering Mimentic Digitalis (NEMD) for pitch information, a Doepfer A-160 and A-161 for non musical clock division to drive the different states of the Mimentic Digitalis, plus a Rebel Technology Stochiea for Eulucliden Triggers with a switched multiple and a precision adder to tie my gates from my various sequencers together, or break them apart to form more musical and less linear patterns. Here’s the signal flow, master clock from Analogue Four feeds the clock on the WPS, the WPS spits out two tracks of precise CV and gate (which are user created) and 6 tracks of randomly generated square wave LFO’s. The NEMD also splits out two tracks of CV, which I randomly generate using the shred functionality, these four CV’s are quantized by the Ornament and Crime, then they are fed into the Precision adder, since each track runs at a different speed, length and resolution, adding and subtracting the voltages at this point leads to patterns that can be anywhere from 2 steps to literally 100’s of steps long. So in short I am summing all four voltages from my two sequencers together to form a bank of switchable evolving patterns, meaning from one single sequence I can form a whole sets worth of tracks. So the A-185-1 is set up as follows:
  • Input 1 = WPS CV track 1
  • Input 2 = WPS CV track 2
  • Input 3 = NEMD CV track 1
  • Input 4 = NEMD CV track 2
Positive + output 1 goes to my bass voice, negative – output goes to my lead voice, so they both get the same groups of CV information, but how I BUS them is different and how they are triggered is different too. So I can make up CV busses based on adding and subtracting voltages, which feed multiple voices and are triggered in various different ways. To select which gate goes where, I am using a switched multiple…now this served two duties, it allows me to switch between which voltages control which voice and which gate goes to which voice, so let’s cover that. The A-182-1 is a bit of an unsung hero in these forms of sequencing setups, believe me when I say what I am doing is not my idea…it’s a collection of partial ideas I stole from a good friend of mine, to get this type of “multi point” sequencing working, you need a means to junction your voltages and gates around, that’s what the A-182-1 does in my setup, here’s how it’s setup.
  • Input 1 = WPS sequencer channel 1 gates
  • Input 2 = Rebel Technology Stoicheia output a
  • Output 3 = to bass voice
  • Input 4 = WPS sequencer channel 2 gates
  • Input 5 = Rebel Technology Stoicheia output B
  • Output 6 = to lead voice
  • Input 7 = Precision adder summed voltage output +2
  • Output 8 = to lead voice
So in using this, I can switch between predictable gates from the WPS, Euclidean gates from the Rebel Tech Stochiea or a mix of the two together. Using input 7, I have a second source of melodic content I can switch in and out at will. Needless to say I’ve hacked the back of my switched mult to pieces to make this work, but it’s a simple mod that is well worth exploring. Imagine a 16th note 5 step sequence, interacting and being offset by a quarter note 8 step sequence the gate information of which is being derived from a mathematical pattern generator. Sound complicated, but it’s just a case of familiarising yourself with the concept of separating CV and gates from one another to create more unusual phrases. With the WPS, I can make more predictable sequences, combined with the voltages I randomly generate and modulate at the NEMD end of things; I can create anything from sheer chaos to insanely complex, yet rather beautiful melodies. So as you can probably gather, all of that too some homework to design and conceptually form, which as I said in my last modular blog is EVERYTHING. You might be looking for a type of function that doesn’t exist, which means you might need a few modules to get to where you need to be. Experiment, research and only buy something if it’s entirely crucial to your end goal of making music.

What’s outside the box?!?

Now you’ve had a glimpse of how my modular does stuff, I’ll give a quick explanation of what the Analog Four is doing for me..needless to say, I am NOT giving this box the focus and time it deserves, but it does serve a few purposes which means I can’t really do without it. It does poly bro. Yeah, that’s right I’ve got polyphony. Three of the four tracks on the Analog Four handle different polyphonic synth voices, which like the modular don’t have any predetermined sequences and are improvised on the fly, having polyphony in this setup was a bit of a game changer and something I felt was really lacking. Analog Four does polyphony just about as good as anything else I can think of and I get a whole world of sequencing variables right at my finger tips…loads of polyphonic goodness on hand at any time. It processes external audio m8. So my DFAM and my Drumbrute impact all pass through the external inputs on the A4. Sure this means I can’t loop them within the Octatrack, but it means I don’t have to use the dreaded mixer in my setup. It sends modular clock geez. Sure does. A4 slaves to Octa, so A4 has to pump out sync’d trigger info the modular to get it to all stay in time and it does a bloody great job of doing so, it also spits out MIDI clock to my Drumbrute, keep everything in rock solid sync. So the plan is to create some nice chord progressions on the Analog Four, in the key I’ve quantized the modular to and have some nice fall back material in-case it all goes completely t*ts up.


That initial learning curve for Elektrons masterpiece was steeeeeeeeeepaaaah! But I honestly could not do what I do without it, since the last blog entry on this subject matter, it’s the only part of my system that hasn’t undergone extensive redesign, nor have I considered selling it, which is super weird for any piece of hardware in my possession. It still handles: my mixing, my looping, my effects, my master compression, my percussion samples, my master effects and transitional aspects and it also serves as the master clock for everything. There’s not much to covered here that I’ve not covered a thousand times before, but I do promise to get into depth about how I use it in a video one day, because I get asked so frequently on how the thing works in an improvised setting, that proper coverage is surely warranted. So, that’s the setup. Loads changed, but the goal remained the same throughout: Make Angry Dance Music.

Improvising the right things at the right time:

So you’re DAW-less, you’ve practiced your setup endlessly and build up the muscle memory to effectively perform you’re given genre and you’ve been booked for your first show, now this is where you need to make a vital decision that’ll form your practice routine for the next few weeks, do you fully improvise your set, or do you follow the legendary Datalines rule of thumb of 70/30…where 70% of the content is written and you improvise the transitions and arrangements? Or do you go whole hog and improvise the lot? Well that my friend, comes down to the audience you’re playing to. If you’re playing to a “synth crowd” then you’ll be forgiven for making a few mistakes here and there, provided your sound design and arrangement is on point, you can literally do anything over a four to the floor kick and it’ll fit to the crowds expectation of a show, since afterall…most of them are just like you. But. If you’re playing in a run of the mill club and the expectation is a 3 hour set of evolving grooves, sick drops and pin-point accuracy, then you might want to forgo a fully improvised set and get grafting on a few tracks that you know you can drop in at anytime and keep the groove rolling…. I personally take a pinch of ideas from both camps no matter what the gig…if you play a shit gig, well it’s almost a dead given you won’t get booked again, but if you play a banger and show off some of your arrangement prowess then better be sure to get more work. So, for a 45 mins set make sure you have 2-3 tracks to fall back on…rule of thumb, make sure you have half of your potential set covered with pre prepared material…you might not end up using it, but it’s there if it all goes wrong. And trust me, IT WILL GO WRONG. Also take this writing time to familiarize yourself with any pattern recall quirks your machines might have, like Drumbrute Impact for example…since it’s totally analogue, you can recall a pattern but the sound parameters from your previous pattern remain, so be mindfull when moving from that banging all decay kick drum sound to that sweet minimal piece. Write 75% of the time, make sure you’re familiar and jam your rig / modular for the remainder of you time. Don’t turn music into work, believe me it gets old quick, so when you get bored, take the dog for a walk, read comics, watch Rick and Morty and change your attention to a different form of music making. For my next show I am trying to find a formula to get these pre-written bits together, what I decided to do: Analog Four and Drumbrute Impact form the backbone of my pre written tracks, pattern 1 and the A4 is equal to pattern 1 on the DBI and so forth, I then have pattern 16 as a blank pattern on both machines, which is where I do my improvisational pieces…simple really. Quite honestly I could play a really decent show with just those two, but it’s a modular gig…so whatcha gonna do? Those two units are my fall back, because it will go wrong, I am prepared for it to go wrong and I have a few bangers under my belt in when it goes wrong, I might not need the prewritten material, but I am glad it will be there. The take away from this blog entry is simple really, build a system that does what you need it to do and learn it. It doesn’t have a big a money hovering modular, some of the best tunes I’ve made were with a Korg Monotribe and the Octatrack…but find something that sounds good, feels good and learn it. DO NOT OVER COMPLICATE THINGS. You’ve only got two hands! I'll be back after my show's gone horribly wrong and everyone’s stopped talking to me because my techno level isn’t over 9000. As ever, let us know what setup you're using and what weird and wonderful ways you've got it making music - we'd love to hear from you. BUILDING A LIVE SET #3 - Click IMAGE BELOW :