A leftfield musician's "synth workstation" / "synth arranger" - does one (or should one) exist?

My condolences for the health issues. :frowning:

For me, what I seek is related to a more mundane thing - as long as I have a setup consisting of several pieces of hardware and (to exaggerate) a tangled mess of wires, it stays at my desk on my work / music corner where I rarely like to stay at for very long myself. I also end up getting bored at “integration” issues. Having a single instrument usually makes me carry it around and use / compose / practise a lot more. (I think I made more sketches and ideas with Deluge than any other piece of hardware just about ever, and now that I mostly play a stringed instrument once again, it’s something I enjoy because I can just plug it in and play.)

Elektrons are sort of the obvious choices that always come to mind when talking about this. I think Machinedrum was actually the first hardware machine that “clicked” in that way ages ago - suddenly someone who was used to the power of software, and playing & recording things to a DAW, could make interesting tracks with one hardware box without feeling super limited or irritated.

My problem with Elektron is that their boxes are really always designed “sequencer first” which isn’t a bad thing, but a choice that feels difficult to me. On one hand, they never sound super interesting to me without a lot of parameter locks and modulation (they really come alive and sound great that way) - and on the other hand, they aren’t “playable” without an external MIDI controller of some kind. I’ve tried liking them enough to just make things with one of them, but it always feels there’s something essential missing. This is completely subjective of course.

3 Likes

honest take:

My intuitive response to this query is that you are looking for a computer running Bitwig and a couple of good controllers.

In 1999 my answer would be a mixer, a couple of looper and reverb pedals, a sherman filterbank and either a pretty good synth or a guitar. Also, a couple of minidisc recorders.

You’re just going to see limits every possible direction looking for an all in one these days because of two things: all in ones have always been a poor fit but for anything except what they are very intentially built to do, and second because the computer has taken over the all in one market. So my take is that what you are looking for doesn’t really exist outside of the OP-1 and Elektron spaces. If those don’t suit you are going to have to integrate the limitations that you will be living with, and not reject anything that presents you with limits… unless you go for the laptop. Which, for the record, is my choice. I think that the new all-in-one is a single purpose machine running Bitwig and some plugins and then set up so that it is not online, plus someting like the NI Komplete Kontrol 88, with the drivenbymoss scripts that makes the keyboards knobs and screens integrate with Bitwig.

I use a rig like this to do beatless multitracked sequencing, looping and recording, to make my own instruments and effects with the Bitwig Grid, to use Bitwigs really extensive built in effect and instrument abilties, and to host Kontakt instruments. I also have a Touche controller, a usb pedal thing and a Linnstrument. It is easy and beautiful and seemingly limitless. But the emphasis is on the “can’t talk to the internet part” – I use some software tools to make it an offline device but for 20 minutes a week. This is the key aspect for me.

6 Likes

I agree with everything you say about Elektron instruments, in fact I’m surprised that I enjoy them so much. Using them often involves a lot of sequencer programming, with performing relegated to pattern-switching, and a bit of parameter tweaking on top.

The step-sequencer is so fundamental to Elektron design, and you really have to be able to live with that to get along with them. It’s led me down a particular path of making psychedelic music by leaning hard into repetition and multi-dimensional rhythms. Turns out that setting tracks to different lengths is much more fun than it should be!

Thankyou, I appreciate that.

3 Likes

I’m surprised nobody has mentioned SAMPLR or Borderlands.

5 Likes

That’s a good response, though. I’m currently using a laptop, Logic with some favourite plugins, and a Linnstrument 128. No other synthesis hardware at the moment - unless you count the Kurzweil I use for keyboard practise rather than VAST synthesis these days, and a malfunctioning DIY banana modular I’ve been reluctant of repairing because it’s such a mess inside.

So that idea isn’t far from the state things are now… And building additional things with eg. Max4Live, Bitwig or Numerology (even PD which I’m somewhat familiar with, or Logic Environment which I think is still there even though they don’t advertise it anymore) isn’t too big a leap from that.

(I do also have the hardware looping / FX board that I currently use with a single instrument, that’s sort of a separate “get away from computer” space I like a lot.)

I guess the main issues here are:

  • I make more music when I can take something out of the workspace, plug in headphones and start playing & sequencing. The more devices, wires and “integration hassle”, the less likely is that’s going to happen. Single box compromises work fine, so does eg. a small laptop and the Linnstrument 128 which is the current best compromise. Any setup more complex than that is bound to stay in the workspace which is OK, but probably not as heavily used / practised.
  • In the dark winter time, probably 75% or more of my waking time consists of computers in different forms (including mandatory ~8 hrs at work), so “getting away from the computer” is a real need. Having a separate music laptop without internet and building “as headless as possible” setup would go some way towards music time not being part of “computer time”, but I’m not sure how much - maybe I should try that.

I suppose I’m just wondering whether there’s a setup of one piece of “predesigned” hardware that would be to the direction I’m thinking of. The best answers seem to be “a computer and a controller” (that’s minimum of two pieces of course) or “the kind of modular synth you like”, with runners-up that are missing at least one major aspect being eg. Deluge, OP-1 and Elektron boes. Or something like the Easel (maybe a Medusa) for a much more limited but still interesting alternative.

So it isn’t as much wondering if there’s something limitless or box that fulfills very, very specific requirements, rather than whether there’s a particular combination of things I’m looking for I should try out for curiosity. The resounding answer seems to be “no, build / configure it yourself or use something else that works” :slight_smile: And maybe getting a little dedicated music laptop like a used M1 Air would be the way.

To expand on my previous post, i am somewhat fond of the Elektron workflow and sequencing, It just sort of feels that for what I want to do these days, the limitations are in different places than I’d ideally want them to be. Plus kind of liking the idea of other than step sequencers after spending so much time with them.

1 Like

I would submit the gotharman synths as extremely leftfield in every way

http://gotharman.dk

6 Likes

It’s not exactly getting completely away from a computer…
Consider an ipad! Drambo, Loopy Pro, AUM and other apps can serve as amazing foundations for very customized creative playgrounds. If you don’t have one already, pick up a not too old, not too new ipad (headphone jack preferred) and you can get rolling for under $50. Plus the screen can function as your interface. Want granular? Grab Borderlands, Sample, etc. Want synths? There’s amazing stuff from brilliant indie creators like iceWorks, Beep Street, etc. Drambo may click for you as it has a lot of DNA from the Elektron workflow and it’s crazy modular.
Just a thought, it’s totally changed my creative world and I can sequence my modular with it too.
Post script… I see folks loving their M8 and all the other single device music labs thingies and maybe one day I’ll pick up something like that… but for now it’s best I keep that stuff at arms length. I was reading the Soma Cosmos thread and thinking, I wonder what creative complex delays are out there? I grabbed iceWorks Kajita and it’s insane what I can do with AUM as a host, one instance of Borderlands and this crazy delay.
It only cost me an additional $6!

4 Likes

And it’s portable as all get out!

Even if you add a keyboard and an external audio/midi interface like a MOTU M4 or the new and very interesting for iOS M6…

1 Like


Case in point, waiting on my wife now, running thru the car’s bluetooth connection. Sounds amazing!

6 Likes

I know u mentioned the gotharman sound demos didnt really seduce your ears…but ill be damned if its not an amazing and utterly unique sounding synth…These days its much easier to not have it not sound all crazy and aggressive like most demos will have you believe.(Theres a global internal gain staging adjustment) I can only describe it as the most analog sounding digital synth thats not trying to sound like virtual analog…kinda like the waldorf M actually and there arent many demos that do a great job of showcasing its versatility. But thats with almost any synth demo imo

To program I do find it a chore…but thats only when your kinda setting everything up from scratch…but I find elektron and other similar devices a chore too,otherwise to jam on its freakin great…theres LOTS of tricks in there with the sequencer and sonically that your not gonna find anywhere else. The sequencer can get really really freaky…That and the sound is the reason I hold onto it.

1 Like

If you already have a linnstrument may I suggest a Deckard’s Dream mk2 + that and some kind of effects processor, maybe the new eventide H90? Hard to go wrong there. I can visualize a way to mount these all permanently in some kind of case, too.

2 Likes

Yeah, on one hand Fleming’s instruments are missing the “playability” aspect, and focus on (modular) sound design and somewhat quirky sequencing… But on the other hand they’re still very interesting and unique, and definitely along the lines I was thinking of!

I’d probably have tried out one of them by now, seeing how many times I’ve considered them, but a LD3 owner and Urano owner friend both said they think they’re really at their best being aggressive, abrasive, fuzzy and nasty, and both the gain staging (good to know that’s globally adjustable), raw sound and effects sort of steer you to that direction. I like listening to music with that kind of aesthetic but it’s not something I usually make.

But it sounds encouraging that it’s not all aggressive and noisy. I’ve been interested in trying out the zaTurn, and was thinking of LD3 a year ago, but most of the demos online, the the price of admission, inability to try them out easily before buying, etc. etc… Which doesn’t mean they wouldn’t / couldn’t be brilliant, just that they’ve been a particularly hard sell for me :slight_smile:

(At least that makes me focus on stuff I have if nothing else!)

@mystasea Do you happen to have recorded any tracks, clips or demos showing the other side of the Gotharman, and which one do you have?

I actually have an iPad, it’s the second (cheap used) one I own! I originally bought it as sort of a portable sound module for the Linnstrument 128, but it shares that duty with the home laptop now. And gets used for reading stuff, playing puzzle games, for travel documents while traveling and so on.

I find it’s almost as easy to lug around a compact laptop though, and I’m still more at home with keyboard & trackpad than touch interfaces when making music. Both also most often require staring at the screen non-stop - which I’m admittedly very good at due to practise, and which also happens with a lot of “purpose built” instruments once they get complex enough, but…

I admit I still haven’t tried out Drambo though! The things I’ve liked most on iPad have been all the granular apps - the touch screen is really a good and natural UI for scanning and messing around with samples (and mapping Linnstrument to that is fun as well)

2 Likes

I think yes and no. There is a predisposition to use the Octatrack to make “Octatrack Music” in a certain style because that’s what A) it’s really good at and B) all of the available videos and online materials point in that direction.

I’ve been poking at the OT and trying to use it outside of those familiar lanes because it can do so, so much. If I ever get off my arse and start making videos again I think there is a lot to explore. I’ve found that you can do entire performances with the OT without using the sequencer or even pressing the play button!

2 Likes
  1. a desktop Hydrasynth is playable, portable, self-contained seems deep enough to get weird with. This is the synth workstation part. No sequencer though.

  2. something where you write down arrangement/composition/sequence ideas…a notebook

  3. a 4 or 8 track tape recorder. This would act as the synth arranger

Take the notebook and synth out to wherever and create synth patches, practice parts etc. save your patches and take notes on big ideas. When you are ready (days, weeks, months later) fire up the 8 track which is waiting for you at home, consult your big idea notes and play, arrange, record. I don’t have any of this setup but in theory I could get into it.

The setup, now that I’ve described it, reminds me of the OP1 work flow…so another option is an OP1. Of the two I could get into the Hydrasynth option if I were to become unhappy with my current setup, which I don’t see happening for a long while.

2 Likes

it for sure does and theres a hell of a lot of interesting ways to do it but I steer in the direction I wanna get to depending on what the vibe is and the machine is definitely capable. At some point tho its good to just let loose, let the machine do its thing and bask in its filthy digital glory

Heres a link to a some sounds and oh ya its LD3!

2 Likes

Octatrack is the one Elektron device where I hear that a lot - you aren’t the first one to say its awesomeness isn’t particularly tied to the sequencer. That’s also one Elektron device I never did a deep dive with, used my mk1 as a glorified prerecorder sample player and mangler.

At the risk of being a victim of the same predisposition, it feels the other “synthesis oriented” Elektron devices are as fun as they are because of the sequencer, and without them they wouldn’t be very remarkable. I haven’t explored alternative ways of using them either, but that’s the feeling I get when using one of them…

Yep, I’ve considered going with just a good (possibly multitimbral) MPE polysynth and using the Linnstrument’s sequencer to “accompany” myself - although the 128 has a lot less space for that than the full size I used to own for years. DD mk2 sounds fantastic.

I think, ultimately, a small purpose-configured laptop without internet might still be more fun out of those two ends, now that you mentioned that option - although it inevitably means somewhat more screen staring than without one, at least when jamming / performing, it isn’t necessary. I was thinking that another laptop with internet blocked, dedicated just for music, feels a bit extravagant but then again, used M1 Airs are cheaper than most of the other options I’ve figured out, and pack a lot of power… (Plus I guess I could do the other necessities with my upcoming work laptop so I wouldn’t need a second home computer anyway)

This kind of out of the box thinking I like! (And I didn’t think of Hydrasynth at all and I’ve never tried out one. Ooo bad for the lack of sequencer - Medusa came to mind because that one I’ve actually tried extensively and liked, and that has all the “required” parts but maybe a bit easy to bump to limitations again…)

If the OP-1 was just a bit bigger with a multi-octave velocity or pressure sensitive keyboard, it’d be a prime variant of what I’m thinking of. I owned one and it was wonderfully quirky and flexible but I’d have liked to “play” it a bit more. At this point I should probably emphasize that the idea that a “playable” synth ought to have some form of touch / velocity sensitivity is entirely my own and others may not necessarily agree at all…

Of course, if it had a velocity sensitive MPE grid, it’d be called OP-100 Pro and cost 10k, so I’m happy with what we have. (Seriously though, I seem to remember TE hinted at some form of velocity sensitivity for OP-1 Field using the internal accelerometer, but remains to be seen if they do it and if they do, if it will actually work at all.)

Bitwig + the drivenbymoss’s controller extensions and a Push 1 (pr 2) really go a long way to get the screen out of your face.

You can set up your patches like you want them and then navigate and control and do parameter control via remote pages without looking at a screen.

When I improvise or perform my laptop is over to the side with the screen off. I have my komplete kontrol 88 set up to be able to navigate all around my session, switch instruments, and control every needed parameter. If you get fancy you can do a lot more: sequencers of various types, loading presets from the browser, etc.

1 Like

My combo of Easel plus Octatrack is endlessly variable and engaging. As is Easel plus Norns/Grid.

2 Likes

Yep, that seems like a good compromise - I don’t mind using the screen at all when it’s the best option, eg. configuring / building patches / micro-editing sound or sequences, but when playing, recording, tweaking parameters and generally improvising (which seems to be bulk of what I do nowadays), it’d be nice to be able to do that with as little “mousing around” as possible.

I’m so familiar with what’s available on the software side anyway, that I know things that sound good to me and fit my style, and have licenses for many of them. It’s more the distractions associated with using computers, and staring at the screen non-stop that start to bother me these days, and there seem to be good potential solutions to both.

That’s somewhere along the lines of what I often think about as well. I used to have a (repro DIY) Easel that I used it both alone and a looper and had great fun. Might still buy or build one at some point in the future, as it feels sort of the minimal (in design, not price) instrument that is super fun to interact and improvise with by a combination of sequence programming, patching and playing.

2 Likes

Theres also the awesome sounding synthi A/vcs3 clones from switchtrix…he even does a KS clone

3 Likes