Analog-Style Beatmaking - EMusician

Analog-Style Beatmaking

Knob-twisters, cord patchers, and button sequencers, unite! Join us in this deep dive into hardware-based gear for improvisational performance and production
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It’s no mistake that the current trend of old-school meets new-technology analog gear has followed along with the returning trend of hardware-based live electronic music and improvisational recording. Electronic music has always been beat-oriented, using “beat” in the hip-hop sense of also including melodic instruments and phrases that could be created on an MPC sampler. However, this analog-style beatmaking relies less on the drum pad sampler and more on step sequencing, real analog sound (or exceptionally precise analog modeling), and the most square footage of hands-on, physical controls as possible.

In thinking about the options for analog-style beatmaking, there are several directions to take it, and a staggering amount of options available for whatever direction you choose. The following four scenarios represent various types of dream setups—mouthwatering, yet accessible and not too big for a reasonably sized stage show. We present the gear in a highly curated (rather than comprehensive) way, and interested parties would do well to mix and match these together as they please, as well as pepper in whatever vintage treasures they possess.

Most of the items here have both MIDI and CV/Gate connections, and the overall setups give you multiple options for the ways you want to compose music and control the equipment. All prices are common street prices. The setups including software assume you have a laptop, and all of them require some kind of mixer or multi-input audio interface. See you in heaven! Analog heaven, that is.

LOW-COST, ALL-TA BLETOP SETUP

The knob-and-fader fiddling, head-bobbing-while-hunched-over-a-table-of-beat-and-synth-boxes style of electronic music performance helped many of us fall in love with the genre. It also continues a years-long resurgence, except now with easier compatibility, flexibility, and expandability. Mass-production of new analog gear also adds another ability: affordability.

As the centerpiece of this rig, Arturia’s excellent BeatStep Pro ($249) acts as a controller, three-part sequencer, and master clock for any MIDI, CV/Gate, and DIN Sync gear, as well as computer software and most other analog clockable gear, including the Korg volca clocking standard. Sets of 16 encoders, step sequencer buttons, and velocity-senstive drum and MIDI note pads help form a portable, road-worthy, and highly creative tool for composing beats and musical parts, and playing them back with literally infinite variations using the per-track Randomness, Swing, and Roller-Looper controls.

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Let’s inject some real analog sound into the mix right away with the Korg volca keys Analog Loop Synth ($159), which packs three voices of huge and beautiful analog sound based on the circuitry of the 1974 MiniKorg-700S into a tiny box at a tiny price. However, it still has a 27-note touch keyboard, tons of hands-on control, delay and ring modulation, a sequencer, and MIDI and Sync connections.

For this computer-less setup, the Korg volca sample ($159) will let you play any sound and tweak, effect, and sequence it in an analog-style box. The volca sample includes 100 percussion, bass, vocal, instrument, and other sounds, and you can input your own material through the use of an iOS app. It has 11 editing parameters, as well as reverb, MIDI, and Sync I/O. It even has an analog-circuit Isolator for injecting warmth. Both volca units’ sequencers record the motion of parameter edits, as well.

We can get all our monster analog drums in one place with the Arturia DrumBrute analog drum machine ($449). It has 17 rich and highly variable analog drum and percussion sounds, from booming kicks to lush snares and claps, as well as special treats like reverse cymbal and “zap.” It has an analog lowpass/highpass resonant filter and a built-in sequencer with discrete tracks for every sound. Its Polyrhythm mode is an amazing innovation that lets you create long-evolving patterns where every sound repeats using individual step lengths.

Now, add some re-creations of timeless classics at much lower prices. Roland’s Boutique Series uses the company’s state-of-the-art ACB (analog circuit behavior) modeling technology to reproduce the sound of analog classics as closely as we’ve heard. No vintage electronic tabletop setup would be complete without the screaming filter and wet synth squelches of the TB-303, and the new TB-03 Bass Line synth ($349) provides the same layout and feel of the original, except with a new LED display, overdrive, and delay effects.

Neither ’80s New Wave nor ’90s rave music would be the same without the Roland Jupiter-8 analog polysynth, and its beautiful pads and gorgeous leads sound just as special today. The JP-08 module ($399 or $498 with the K-25m keyboard) offers the sounds, feel, and 36 front-panel controllable parameters of the original in a compact, 4-voice module that adds extra LFOs and extended oscillator range. Both Roland modules have built-in speakers and operate on either battery or USB power. They both have MIDI I/O and can work as an audio interface over USB.

FULLY ANALOG TA BLETOP SETUP

Try to contain the drool as you peruse the Koma Elektronik Komplex Sequencer, (1,699 Euro, approx. $1,782), a unique 4-part sequencer for MIDI and CV/Gate gear with four fully featured 16-step sequencers and an 87-point patch bay for patching both internal and external CV sources. Any sequencer parameter can control another, making for some wild possibilities and improvisation. For example, Sequencer B could control Sequencer A’s start point, while Sequencer D transposes Sequencer A, and so on. Adjust the glide, clock division, speed, sequence start point, random play mode, gate length, reverse play mode, ping-pong play mode, “ratcheting repeat” mode, skip-step behavior, and more.

Inspired by the control set, circuit path, and sound of classic ’70s products from Oberheim and Moog, the Analog Solutions Nyborg-12 semi-modular analog monosynth ($999) uses digital MIDICV conversion, MIDI In and Thru ports, and two audio inputs for processing external sounds. With two oscillators; a 12dB/octave, 4-mode filter made in the style of Oberheim; LFO, and a selection of modulation patch points, it can spew forth dirty or smooth basses, ripping or sparkling leads, special effects, and drum sounds from an upright tabletop (or rackable) frame.

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Continuing with the ’70s theme of the Nyborg and the white-fader-box theme of the Komplex Sequencer, the Korg ARP Odyssey Module Rev1 (white, $599) fits right into the mix with its unique, fully-analog sound that sticks like glue to the character, controls, and circuitry of the 1972 original. So many recognizable blasts from the past emanate from this box, it’s a steal at this price, and this modern version has USB, MIDI, CV/Gate, and an external audio input.

We’re spoiling you with all this analog synth goodness. The criminally overlooked Elektron Analog Keys 4-voice multitimbral synth ($1,349) adds some keys to this setup but stays on the theme of super-legit, vintage-sounding analog basses, organs, tinkling ear candy, leads, and pads. Its sound and programming are both highly diverse. It has expressive controls and even a 4-track sequencer, as well as USB, MIDI In/Out/Thru, CV/Gate, and analog inputs. Consider the Elektron Analog Four synth module ($1,249) if you want to save space and some money.

Here come the drums. The OG of drum machines, Roger Linn, teamed up with analog synthesis legend Dave Smith for the DSI Tempest analog drum machine/synth ($1,999), and it’s a full-featured, comprehensive beast of beats. It starts with six analog voices with 2 VCOs and 2 DCOs each, but has hundreds of sounds and 32 tracks per sequencer pattern. It includes analog compression and distortion but digital conveniences like a high-res display and FX touch strips. With 16 performance pads, it’s made to compose, manipulate, and arrange full beat-oriented musical pieces in real time.

MASCHINE JAM BASED STEP-SEQUENCING SETUP

With its recent Maschine Jam ($399), Native Instruments added an intriguing, step sequencing-based button grid controller with a great workflow to the Maschine line. You can’t get much more analog style than a hardware step sequencer, and you can’t get much more digital style than the way the Maschine hardware syncs up with and operates the powerful Maschine 2 production software. Luckily for us, the software MIDI preferences can be configured to use a Maschine 2 Virtual Input and outputs to different connected hardware gear in order to control external instruments from the Maschine Jam’s step sequencer. Every Group in the software could control a different synth on multiple MIDI channels.

If your audio interface only has one set of MIDI ports, you’ll want something like the MOTU micro lite MIDI interface ($139) to reach all the instruments below. It has five MIDI Ins and Outs, connects to a computer, and receives power over USB, and features MOTU’s rock-solid syncing and timing.

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With the Maschine Jam, you can step-sequence up to four parts simultaneously, so we have four analog, MIDI-ready gems to help create this analog-to-computer connection. Dave Smith Instruments/Tom Oberheim OB-6 desktop 6-voice polyphonic analog synth module ($2,299) re-creates the thick and punchy sound of the vintage Oberheim SEM products in stunning fashion. It offers tons of hands-on control, as well as an arpeggiator, analog distortion, and high-res digital effects.

To complement the versatile OB-6, the Dreadbox Hades analog bass synth ($339) specializes in low end, with one VCO and two suboctaves. Hands-on filter, envelope, LFO, and overdrive controls combine with an 8-point, Eurorack-compatible patch matrix.

Along the same semi-modular lines, the Moog Music Mother-32 analog monosynth ($599) works as a standalone tabletop instrument for distinctively Moog sounds, or as a rackable module for expanding with other Mother-32s or with Eurorack systems. It has sequencer buttons that can be played like a keyboard, 32 patch points for interacting with other Eurorack gear, and of course, that creamy Moog filter and space-age sound.

For drums, the Elektron Analog Rytm drum machine ($1,449) gives you 12 total drum tracks and eight simultaneous, fully-analog voices, so you can take advantage of sequencing parts over multiple MIDI channels from the Maschine Jam. The Rytm even supports digital sample import, so you can layer samples over analog sounds. It has an analog filter for every track, as well as analog distortion, compression, and digital delay and reverb. Of course, it also has its own sequencer for standalone use.

ABLETON LIVE + MODULAR SYNTH SETUP

Ableton Live is all about the digital audio revolution, but it is still the most popular workstation in electronic music today. So there’s no reason why we can’t combine its power and infinite possibilities with the most analog-y gear out there: modular synthesizers.

Start with the Ableton Live 9 Suite + Push 2 bundle ($1,118) which will give you the most integrated step-sequencing, playing, and performing controller there is for Live 9. You’ll also get access to Max for Live devices, which can add deeper capabilities for interacting with modular gear besides the basic MIDI syncing and controlling in this setup.

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Add a little analog-style software, such as the incredibly deep FXpansion Geist2 ($199) beat production software. It provides advanced step sequencing, as well as an old-school MPC-style workflow, but also adds a horde of sampling, beat slicing, effects, scenes, and song mode features. For re-creating the litany of hallowed vintage analog synths, as well as classic FM, wavetable, and other instruments in a software environment, you can’t get much more complete than the UVI Vintage Vault ($499) a gargantuan collection of 36 instruments and 80+ drum machines in 116 GB of WAV or 63 GB of FLAC files.

On the modular side, we’ll begin with the awesome Pittsburgh Modular Lifeforms System 301 Modular Synth ($1,799), which combines the preconfigured Lifeforms SV-1 2-oscillator complete analog modular synthesizer voice with the Life-forms KB-1 pressure-sensitive touch keyboard, which has a 7-octave range and houses a playable 10-note, three-octave arpeggiator and a versatile 64-step sequencer. These two units come housed in a Structure EP-208 Eurorack enclosure with 112hp of empty space to expand with other Eurorack products. It includes patch cables and a MIDI adapter cable.

For the expansion units, let’s also add Pittsburgh Modular’s Lifeforms Percussion Sequencer ($349), a 4-part, 32-step sequencer designed for creating drum sounds and beats from any input sound. It has four built-in, percussion-tuned envelopes and VCAs for shaping sounds from modular VCOs. Six powerful pattern effects—Shift, Glitch, Density, Morph, Swing, and Add/Drop—add character, unpredictability, fills, and other variety to patterns.

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For feeding sounds into the Percussion Sequencer, you can’t go wrong with classic 808/909 kicks sounds, so we selected both the Tiptop Audio BD909 and BD808 analog bass drum modules ($180 each). These are real analog kicks with tone-shaping capabilities in the style of the originals. For a more diverse voice that you can use either as a standalone synth voice or with the Percussion Sequencer’s VCA and envelope for drum sounds, the Studio Electronics Tonestar ($499) is a complete analog VCO/VCA/VCF/LFO synth voice with two envelopes and a sub-oscillator. Its tone was inspired by the ARP 2600 and ARP Axe and sounds fantastic. With those tools in place, there’s still 44hp of space left in the rack for building out a modular powerhouse.

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ADD-ONS FOR ANY SETUP

With any of these analog-style beatmaking setups, you may want extra syncing, controlling, and interfacing devices. These suggestions could slip right into any of them to expand its overall capabilities.

Roland AIRA MX-1 Mix Performer

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The Roland AI RA SBX-1 Sync Box ($499) will wrangle sounds and messages together from computer software and MI DI, CV/Gate, and DIN Sync hardware. It simultaneously converts MIDI and DIN Sync and sends to CV/Gate outputs. It can be the master clock with fine tempo tuning and can even work as an LFO generator.

For an incredibly mobile and nearly indestructible keyboard controller, the Keith McMillen Instruments QuNexus ($179) tops the charts. Its expressive Smart Sensor illuminated keys react to velocity, pressure and location/tilt. With the right cables, it can control, MIDI, USB MIDI, CV, and OSC devices at once.

With so much hardware, you may need many audio inputs, as well as 5-pin MI DI ports, to mix and send your gear to main outputs. A couple suggestions offer you different options. The MO TU UltraLite mk4 ($595) has eight analog audio inputs and 10 outputs—including the main outs—as well as MI DI I/O, USB, and an internal mixer with DSP processing. You can save mixer setups to be recalled and used either with or without a computer.

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A different beast altogether but used for similar ends, the Roland AIRA MX-1 Mix Performer ($599) has six audio inputs and stereo mix outputs, as well as MI DI I/O and USB for working as an audio interface. It’s also a unique mixing instrument for performing and recording, with channels for the audio inputs, computer input and other AI RA instruments connected over USB. Each channel includes a Tone/Filter knob with 10 types of processors, fader, mute, and effects switches to separate Beat FX and Master FX engines. The FX engines even have a 16-step sequencer for adding customized rhythm to the effects.