Do you need more music gear?

We all love adding new instruments, effects, processors, computers, mixers, samplers, recorders, display cases, and cables (well really, cables?), but we should all take the time to ask ourselves if we really need more gear!

As musicians, part of the fun in being creative is getting a new tool to express ourselves. There are companies putting out fun and cool new toys competing for our dollar, and it makes it super easy to end up spending a lot of money on gear that you don’t need, doesn’t inspire you, or just ends up consuming your time and taking you away from being productive.

An important factor is just knowing where you are in relation to your gear. Does it make you money, is it just a hobby, or is it somewhere in between? I don’t know about you, but unless you’ve got a lot of disposable income, it is unlikely that you can just save up for some new gear. Also, if you’re independently wealthy, I still think it is worth considering how much you’re really willing to invest because more gear does not directly equate to more music.

For me at least, there’s a balance to be struck between never picking up some new instruments or just setting out to get whatever your heart desires. Some of this can be offset by knowing what you have, what you want, and what you no longer need. There are plenty of secondhand markets to both buy and sell gear, so don’t let too much of your old gear get dusty, but also don’t be afraid to hold onto something that you may still want to take use.

What do you need?

Personally, I am an hobbies musician, I mostly do this for fun… though I did used to make some money on the side producing music. I didn’t survive off of my music though, and didn’t ever transition into a starving artist. That said, feel free to take or leave my thoughts as they may or may not apply to your situation.

One reason to pick up some new gear is that something in your current kit that you have is broken, malfunctioning or no longer compatible with your setup. These are all very valid reasons to get something new, and is usually just a consideration of timeliness.

In particular though, I would like to highlight that when hardware and software that integrates with or is your DAW, if it goes out of date with your new computer, it does become a good time to consider if you want to stay on the “forever upgrade” train. I have countless plugins that I have abandoned in my environment because through the upgrade cycles and changes to new hardware platforms, sockets, and other interfaces they are no longer usable by me. What seemed like a great deal to invest in software years ago, has turned into rubbish that I can no longer use. Consideration is all I am asking.

Another important reason to pick up some new gear is to add something new to your music creation that you just cannot do today. Where to be harder on yourself is to consider does it really add something new, or is the ‘newness’ just a factor to give yourself an excuse to pick up more gear you don’t really need, but it offers a characteristic that your existing gear doesn’t have. For example… you might have a bunch of guitar pedals for various effects, but something new just came out that is basically the same as what you have, but it is portable. Now maybe you are imagining yourself hitting the road, and this would be really helpful, or are you just interested in getting it for whatever reason, but have convinced yourself in the moment that how portable it is makes the purchase worth it?

Probably the last reason for me to consider is if the new gear makes me more effective or efficient. As a monetary consideration, especially for professionals this can be the key between loosing money and making money. As I said though, I am a hobbiest with my music, so I’m going to have a hard time convincing myself that something is saving me money. Your mileage may vary, but I am sure if you are doing this as a business you know how much it will cost you to pick up a specific piece of gear, figure out how much it will save you, and then determine how many jobs you’d have to take for it to break even and then start making you money.

Is your music limited?

I suspect that many musicians are pretty happy to make music with the gear that they have on hand, and can make plenty of compositions with what they have. Even with a guitar you can make percussive sounds knocking on the body. With even a basic sampler you can pitch shift and time stretch sounds into an infinite world of sounds. Sometimes these limits will make you more creative, and when you get the idea to purchase new gear perhaps instead you just need to take steps to reduce your setup and force yourself to work within an even more restricted environment. You’ll learn more about what you can do with your gear, and it might make you crack open a manual or check out a Youtube video for some fresh ideas.

On the other hand, once you really understand what your limits are, you may come to the conclusion that it is time to pick up something new and fresh to give you a new creative spark. I guess my suggestion though is to make sure that you know the difference between the gear you have and your own skill level. New gear will not give you new skills that you have not developed, and it is frustrating to get new gear the you will ultimately have the same problems with if you have not put the time in. The only way to combat this is to just put the time into your new gear.

Nothing but Drifters

I just picked up the Cooper FX: Arcade… and have been putting several of the cards through their paces to see what kinds of sounds I can get out of them. So far, enjoying the tape effects, lofi effects, and getting some quite interesting distortion. Definitely feels like a pedal I can take on the road with me without needing to lug around a huge pedal board.

To hook it up, I have really just setup output 3 on the Live routed into the Arcade input, and the output of the Arcade is going back into the Live’s In one. Honestly, nothing too fancy yet, heck I haven’t even tried to use CC or midi between the two devices yet to control the FX parameters, but that’ll be coming soon.

Mostly I spent last night playing around with the sounds and loading up patterns and loops on the MPC Live to see what I could coax out of it. I’m quite pleased with how well the Arcade handles line level, though you can definitely overdrive the signal… the over driven audio sounds pretty good, but you’ll want to keep it in check because it can really squash a sound quickly.

Anyways… I got a few sounds together, chopped up some loops, and then spent about an hour just arranging the sounds a bit… nothing too fancy, and then tried to polish it off as best I could inside the Live to get the Air FX to do the heavy lifting for some LP/HP filtering. Honestly nothing too fancy.

STBB #705 – Dance Boy

Another STBB track! We had three tracks to work with this week, and I pulled a little something from all of the tracks. I mostly focussed on trying to sculpt the sounds with some filter to give everything a bit of room. The only sample I pulled from externally was a drum loop that I chopped up to give the drums a bit more depth.

I definitely spent more time on this track than I meant to, and it didn’t come out as great as I had hoped, but it still sounds kind of fun. Probably got to get back to vocals in STBB tracks if I want to have a chance at competing over there though 😀

MPC Forums Synth Pop Challenge Sounds

I recorded off some of the sounds that I used on the OP-1 as key groups into the MPC Live mk2. They are not going to sound exactly the same, but it should be pretty close. Definitely go into the key group and change the release to taste, as I pretty much left them as defaults, so it’ll be a pretty abrupt end of the samples as is.

Track – MPCBB #290 – Heavy Drag

I put this track together for MPC Forums BB #290. It was a quick flip on the MPC Live mk2… and although I did a lot of chopping, I literally just went with the loop that I pulled and then just dropped percussion all around it. There isn’t too much to say about this because it just went fast. Sometimes the simplest flips work best 😀

MPC Forums OP-1 Question…

Over at MPC Forums Danoc was asking a bit about the OP-1… here’s my response.

It’s the Teenage Engineering OP-1. It has taken on the status of being an overpriced (released in 2011’ish at about $799 USD, today sells new for $1299 USD which was the latest price hike in 2019) piece of hipster music production hardware. It’s an interesting piece of gear, but isn’t exactly user friendly… if you want to push yourself to think outside of the box, it has that in spades, but for me it is not a serious piece of music gear in today’s space.

Under the hood, it’s got about 12-15 (I forget) Synths, 2 Drums, I want to say about 10’ish FX, and about 10’ish different sequencers. The mentality for all of these is to (mostly) focus on four parameters (sometimes up to 8 through the shift key) to control. So it’s got a design aesthetic of keeping things mostly simple, and obfuscating what the controls are really doing. While you’ve got subtractive, fm, resonator, etc… synthesis… you don’t always have a direct correlation for one knob doing a straight LP/BP/HP filter or whatever it is… this forces you to use your ears more to actually hear what is happening.

It’s also got a synth sampler which can record up to six seconds of audio that you can pitch up and down, and a drum sampler which can record up to twelve seconds of audio. I suspect a lot of the folks looking to produce “LoFi” tracks gravitate towards this limitation right here, because it absolutely forces you to do more with less as it were. You can definitely use the drum sampler for chopping up beats, but you’re kind of fighting with the auto chopping algorithm… 

Personally, I find the magic of it in the four track tape emulator, and how it handles looping. For me this is the biggest strength, because it definitely forces you to think about laying down audio in real time, versus sequencing content at your own leisure. Unfortunately this also becomes a huge weakness because if you want to make a full track on this thing, you’re stuck trying to work within the intricacies of the tape simulation to chop, lift, and drop tape segments. I tell people that this is fun until it is not. Sure you get happy accidents, but it’s still fairly easy to get clicks (you can hear a few in the track I posted).  

This leads most people to a workflow of using the OP-1 to it’s advantage, and then moving to a DAW. Especially since… and I laugh at this… you can effectively only work on one project at a time. You can definitely use each of the four six minute tracks independently, or dump different songs at different time segments, but this is where (like four track tape decks) you can quickly feel like the device is actively working against you if you’re not working with it.

All that said though, it is great for getting ideas down, and it functions super well as a small device you can toss in your backpack. It has a built in microphone and radio… so you can quickly sample sounds into it from those sources, it’s got a 1/8” input and output jack… so with the right cables you can also hook just about any audio you want into it.  

Where I am on the fence is actually mostly in the Midi implementation. It’s got a USB jack, and it can work as a class compliant midi device. There are templates to use it to control Ableton and Reason as well, so you can use the transport controls pretty well, and even map CC around. However, if you’re looking to clock lock to another device, you’re really going to need to either have a USB host device that will support it, or… have a USB host device that can then perform your midi out/sync duties.

What else? Well the keys are not velocity sensitive, so it becomes a bit awkward to program in high hat rolls for example with various velocity. There are a bunch of ways to do this, but what I usually end up doing is setting the record volume on the loud hats higher, and record that to tape… then set the record volume lower on the quieter hats and record that to tape. If it sounds fiddly, it absolutely is… and if you mess it up and have forgotten to save off an A/B copy of your tape can quickly lead to “well I have to do that again” moments. However this is mostly just an issue of layering. You *can* get one layer of undo by lifting a section of tape and then dropping it back down before you record… but you have to remember to do this.

Any way… I personally like the device for what it is… but the price tag for what it is… well it is crazy. Sure it is a boutique synth… but TE is a design company first. You’re paying more for it because of how it was designed and all the weird intricacies, and not really because it is a technical powerhouse. Heck the CPU and screen are straight up from old cellphone technology from the 2000’s.

MPC Forums Synth Pop Challenge – Systematic Noise

This is my third pass at a Synth Pop track. I did some cool stuff on the MPC Live, but it is definitively not Synth Pop. Something I will absolutely put together as a finished track, but both tracks strayed from the Synth Pop sound way too much, and I decided I’d give it one more try.

This entire track was done “in the box” on the OP-1… the Drum Synth did the “heavy lifting” for the drum samples… and I ran it through various FX to get the sound I hit. The FM Synth did almost all of the Bass and Lead sounds… I know this isn’t DX7 territory, but whatever. Really the only non FM synth sound here comes courtesy of the DR Wave Synth that has that noisy and tinny piano sounds only the back end of the track.

For those of you who have experience with the OP-1… I just tracked sounds out, usually with a single pass, so I wasn’t really doing too much as far as multiple layers… I intentionally did this so that I could focus on 4 specific tracks that worked as mono, instead of getting stereo depth… so yeah, no stereo sounds unfortunately, but I just wanted to avoid getting to crazy with layers so that I could play the track mutes a bit more live.

For the drums, I wanted the super programmed sound, instead of going without timing correct… so for the drums I used the Finger sequencer and just programmed out tracks and used the record/sequencer player to just record in straight… for the arpeggios I used Arpeggio to really just play out two variations of F/G# and C/D#. Yeah, actually nothing exciting, but I put Arpeggio into a mode where it was transposing out 4 notes, for either variation randomly… I could’ve figured out the scale, but plenty of Synth Pop bands didn’t really care either… so to heck with it 

:D

Laying down each section of the track was effectively me just putting the OP-1 into looper mode, and holding down the sequence for “about 4 bars”… which lead to a few glitchier parts since sometimes this would lead to the loop start doubling up a sound… again… I wasn’t going for perfection here. Either I was being lazy, or you can figure the glitches are part of the sound/process of synth pop.

At the end of last week, I had roughly a minute of audio… and I was really not looking forward to doing a whole mess of copy/pasting… this is probably the worst part of the OP-1 experience for those of you that haven’t done it. I honestly tried, but although I felt the sound from start to finish was pretty good, I really couldn’t find a good place to drop from the end, to work my way back and making a full track. I don’t know if that makes sense or not… but it does to me. I also seriously considered bringing the loops into either Ableton or Reason, but I don’t know… it just wasn’t inspiring me… and I was part way in feeling like I had something kind of cool, but just not worth the hassle.

This leaves me at the start of the week, not wanting to be a no show since I’ve put so much work into the various tracks, I had to kick myself in the ass to just try something. I was enjoying the track from start to end, but new I was going to have a hard time making a track in a DAW… so I decided to take a stab at playing it out live. I am definitely not an OP-1 ninja, as you can see from the video… but I figured I could make a passable try at it. Plus what is Synth Pop other than working with what you have to fake it until you make it 

:D

.

At any rate, this is my favorite take out of a dozen or so attempts to put something down. If I was trying to actually do something serious I’d definitely cut the best parts and mix them in Ableton, but whatever… my punk side is saying take it or leave it, and this was quite fun to do. My only regret is having some lyrics for this track, but not getting the vocals together. I’d blame this on the limited number of tracks on the OP-1, but honestly I found the tempo a bit too awkward to work with, and slowing the track speed down to record vocals introduced some very undesirable side effects to the sound, most notably the pitch.

Not sure if there is any interest… but I will offer to use the auto sampler on the Live to record off key groups if anybody cares for the FM sounds or Piano sounds I used to create the song before I nuke the settings on the OP-1.

So yeah… now you guys can imagine me as a hipster drinking green smoothies out of a mason jar while I pretend to make music on an OP-1 

:D

Track – STBB #704 – Where is Molly

I just got kind of into the dark vibe of the sounds after pitching things down. I suspect the vocals are take it or leave it… and I definitely could have cleaned them up a bit. I guess it could come across as some mumbling or something, but that wasn’t my intent. I also think the clickers are a bit too loud and probably could have used some filtering. Ah well… this was another quick one to pull together. It feels looser because of it, but there is something for me here to just keep knocking these things out quickly instead of getting so stuck in my head making the tracks, especially for BBs.

Track – STBB703 – Greatest Destiny

This track… well the rule was to use the sample… and do something outside your comfort zone. I rarely put any kind of silence in my track, so I wanted to force myself to have breaks throughout the song, but have it sound as natural as possible.

Most of the track was put together on the MPC Live mk2, but I also did load the finished track into Ableton Live for some further poking and prodding. The middle section that kind of functions as a drop, and the outro were both done in Ableton. I figured it was a short enough track, but needed something to mix it up a bit.

Track – MPCBB289 – Long Way to Go

A bit of a scramble this one… but had fun listening to the song and picking out the parts I liked. All done on the MPC Live mk2… only software intervention was to load Fission so I could just cut the track to length and do a quick fade out. I promise 😀

This time around I tried to create 3 different main sections, and then worked through drops, buildups and such to get the track together. Then just strung them together in song mode. It was a bit of a hassle because I exploded a few too many tracks in spots, and then from section to section they didn’t line up… add to this that I did not name any of the tracks properly, and it made for a bit more confusion trying to create various sections. Worked out pretty quickly though, I’d say this track came together in two hours max.

Personally, I prefer the middle section, I was trying to get a vibe going with the end, but I think it’s probably the gnarliest part. Still like it when it is working, but somehow it both sounds good and not so good at the same time *shrug*