In 2020 I learned how much you can do with one monosynth and one looper.
Lately I’ve been practicing with this setup almost daily, sometimes multiple times per day, usually just naturally resulting in a 20-30 minute “set.” So it falls under both categories for me…
It also strikes a nice balance between playing (literally, with hands on a keyboard) and responding to happy accidents (building up the confidence to just run with whatever makes it into the loop buffer).
In particular my tools are a non-preset-saving mono and a really expressive/powerful looper (can jump octaves, change playback direction, etc). Having to program the synth on the fly and having the option to change the loop’s textural qualities provides a lot of room for exploration.
I feel much much more motivated to compose, and I do so multiple times per week. What paralyzes me is saving something that I like. Teletype has been a godsend and it was really the only way I composed or organized music for years. It was very motivating to save off a scene and then start with a clean sheet and build from there. Sometimes I would copy/paste from other scenes, sometimes I would not. However in the end what happened was that my scripts within a couple particular scenes could be commanded to auto-generate new random patterns, so I didn’t need to ever change scenes. I would just randomly generate a new melody, and then ‘tune it up’ manually to get something nice. So I stopped being productive in scene/script development.
I bought a nerdseq recently and have composed a lot of example patterns to test/try all of the features it’s capable of. What is tripping me up here is actual patching! Since there is no i2c yet, I make something nice but don’t want to undo it because I don’t want to have to repatch it later. Yes I’m that lazy.
But really it gets to the second part: recording. I almost never record. If I recorded more frequently I could blow away patches/patterns/scripts more readily to make way for new compositions, but it’s hard to make myself do it. Whenever I do, and I go back and listen, I just don’t have the same feeling I did when it was coming live from the equipment? Also, though I enjoy the sounds I make but don’t really think others will, so what’s the point (I tell myself). I let my family listen ‘realtime’ and sometimes they like it…I guess it’s mostly dissatisfaction with the over-simplified elements I create in comparison with actual musicians.
So I would say it comes down to this “I’m a modular expert, but a truly basic amateur musician” and I don’t mean that in a non-effort can’t be bothered way. I have had a lot of fun over the last several years in reading about music theory, beat creation, song development, and other topics. I have a book on counterpoint theory on my nightstand (it’s been there for at least 4 years, ha!)! I understand basics but recording something that truly hangs together? I’m a long way away from that I’m afraid.
Just typing this though has made me realize I’m too concerned with filling things out while jamming/composing to a modular stereo mix and should probably multi-track and only allow myself to focus on 1 element at a time…
Great topic! Made me think about what joy and productivity in music mean to me. Today they are very different from my early music days. But let me answer the question straight away, as it dates back to my early days: a Roland MC505 I bought from a DJ in the late 90’s.
As a student I worked side jobs and saved diligently to be able to afford it. At the time it was the most expensive thing I ever bought in my entire life. It felt like ‘an instrument from above my league’. I did not know the full extend of what it could do. But the flyer I saw of it at a local music store gave me a sense of great opportunity. Once I got it I was totally inspired and squeezed everything out of it that it could possibly do. A whole new world opened up. Above all it allowed me to write/demo songs that we could iterate on in the rehearsal room. It sped up the songwriting and brought new sounds/flavors/ideas/ways to create. We used one track of its sequencer as dedicated click track, routed to a separate output, into a headphoneamp for our drummer. It was a home grown invention that made me become a better rhythm guitarist and helped all of us become super tight as a band. Which was important to me at the time. It also allowed us to include synth/beat sequences into our heavy guitar driven music on stage. It became our signature sound. We used it on three demo’s, before switching to Cubase. Later came pricy iMac setups with ‘the big VST names’ et al. But I look back more fondly on my early MC505 days. I moved house recently and sold quite some gear. But I could not part with the MC505. I haven’t used it for the past few years. Maybe some day I’ll do a little project with it. Little fella deserves some tlc.
Playing music with others on a regular schedule. Doesn’t seem to matter what kind of music. I’ve been in two rock bands, three electroacoustic experimental ensembles, two duos and two jazz ensemblesm and high school and college symphonic band, jazz band and chorus. Of these I did find more artistic satisfaction working with the ones that improvised, but the satisfaction I got from performing with the ones that were more traditional was greater.
All were very different, very satisfying and challenging modalities for me. As much as I like my solo music making practice, I am quite sure that I would be happier and more productive working with others.
this is so good. I recently sold a standalone 32 track recorder in favor of a laptop setup, and re-listening to some of the many, many snippets of recordings from the past ~8 years was like unravelling a case.
Most joy? Definitely Eurorack as a whole, especially after a lot of configuring and trying out different setups I’ve landed in somewhere that feels complete and my own. The tactility of hardware, building signal flows, aiming for a goal and then arriving somewhere else through happy accidents. An instrument I can turn on, try out new stuff very quickly and building my repertoire of techniques and sounds without stressing too much about everything being good or worthwhile to record. Little snippets of good ideas from different patches melt into this pool of knowledge that I can tap into when I really want to make something.
Most productivity? Learning out my DAW (Reaper) better for what I need from it, building templates and cleaning out my overcluttered plugin library with selection of good quality plugins that I know well. Far from the most inspirational and exciting thing, but getting in that work has boosted my productivity and creativity a lot. I was kind of searching for the secret ingredient myself because well, that is boring stuff, but it’s been so worth it. Software doesn’t get on my way the way it used to and digital recording, editing and mixing feels a lot less like sitting in front of a computer (althought it is what it is) and more like really working with an extension to my instruments.
I find that my productivity with sound design/music isn’t so much related to gear, but rather having a clear goal/project and a deadline. For me this has come mostly from doing scoring/sound design for theatre. When I have a project like this I’m able to discern what the best tools are for the job and then commit to them. One project I exclusively used Ableton/Push; another time it was a small modular setup, some wine glasses, and a looper; another time it was an Octatrack, a Lyra-8, and a microphone. I’ve also had success making things on a single piece of gear - just a Machinedrum for instance.
Any of these more minimal setups can work for me; what trips me up is when I have all of my tools available and no clear direction. I find it totally overwhelming. My current theatre work doesn’t have a lot of room to integrate my electronic music interests (it’s using mostly traditional Appalachian music) so I’m itching to find some side projects (preferable with a hard deadline) that can give me some structure around my music making.
There’s definitely a strong separation for me between the joy and the productivity.
If I’m judging purely based on churning things out, my “best” set-up was circa about 2002 & involved working with an old PC running Cubase, an Emu ESI2000 rack mount sampler and what was already becoming a pretty great record collection.
For the absolute joy of music-making, I have to say that I love where my set-up is at right now. Despite the cost-based barrier of entry to modular, I’m at an age & a point in life where I’ve managed to build a system that makes me grin every time I get some spare time to switch it on for a bit. This coupled with the raw adventure that is Norns ownership has meant that I’m blessed with a set-up that will hopefully keep me entertained for a long time to come.
was talking to @glia yesterday about losing joy & productivity in DAWland & realized I was using ableton too maximally - - in my case, adding too many effects to each track & cornering myself into choice paralysis when it came to automating changes in arrangement view, then saving every possible version of my set to come back to & interrogate
today I limited myself to EQ, fade curves, + master compression & found it much more joyful & productive !!
One of my most productive setups was some pedals, a synthstrom deluge, and a boomerang looper pedal. The immediacy of that setup was incredible, I could improvise a bass, drum, melody, intro/verse/chorus thing in like 5 minutes, then start manipulating the loop speed, reverse, overdubbing effects and loop decay fade outs while morphing into different sections or new movements. It was surprising, immediate, and easy to orchestrate live. The goal was always “to splash around with audio”. I’ve since sold all the pedals and kept the deluge, got into modular, and now I am facing the same problem lots of others here have of increasing complexity and potential, but that’ll be remedied by further study and simplification.
I would try doing speedruns of improvised loop songs. I’d try to loop and improvise a bass, beat, melody, A part, B part, and fade between the scenes using the boomerang looper in less than 10 minutes, then erase everything and do it again. Rarely did I record any of them, some of the best things I’ve ever made just came out of the feverish improvisation. I’d lay on the floor and listen to this thing I stumbled onto and then 20 minutes later erase it and move on. Typing this out suddenly makes me realize I’m missing that ephemeral live component in my set up today. Hmm.
Edit: Also want to add here that only after years of practice with that setup did it become as fluid and immediate as I am nostalgically remembering it to be. I had been playing with that looper for 7 years or so and had been learning how to use the deluge for at least a year or two, and had been practicing live looping for many years so that all contributed to the “musical grease”.
My most productive setup is also my cheapest and most minimal: simply using Koala on an old phone or on my iPad. My whole route into music stems from sampling sounds, manipulating them, then sampling them further… which Koala does so well it almost feels ridiculous that I own all the other gear I have accumulated! The effects are quite limited at present which forces me to be very creative. Sometimes I will work with a single cycle waveform that I’ve created out of a sound I recorded in and end up processing it to create all the other elements in a track; other times I will sample a host of sounds, process them in different ways and then combine them to make entirely new textures and tones… which I obviously then resample etc. The immediacy of recording sounds directly into the app from wherever I am is very inspiring too and has resulted in developing a love of field recording simply because I started making tracks on Koala wherever I happened to find myself and got into the habit of embedding a recording of the space I was in at the time of making the track into the track itself
To hark back to the question I hinted at regarding why I own so much other gear (and to reflect upon a point @eblomquist made earlier too) - I frequently use other setups almost because I am less productive when using them… because sometimes not being productive (i.e. creating an end product) is precisely what I want to do. Sometimes I want the end result, and that’s great, but sometimes not having an end result is the end result itself.
As pointed by others there’s a difference between productivity and joy (even if both experiences are good - it’s full of joy to just relax with a synth, and it’s very rewarding to have a good workflow and finish your projects).
My best productivity is achieved with minimal, portable and focused gear. Straight to the point: TE Pocket Operators, a bunch of records, some FX and a recorder. Or Digitone and nothing more.
My most joyful experiences are with the OP-1, Norns and the MPC 2500. I’m in love right now with the Roland D-05 too - remembers me of my travels to Japan.