Whether you want to compose a whole album worth of music without touching a mouse, deliver a live performance that is guaranteed crash-proof, or simply get away from your laptop’s screen, there’re many choices today if you want to ditch your DAW completely (or just set your computer aside for a while!).
It’s Sunday evening and you’ve got a bit of spare time to make some music… you turn on the laptop, hook up your audio interface, fire up the DAW, open an old project… and even before you start it already starts to feel like a chore! Sounds familiar? Yep, been there, done that. Sometimes it just feels like time flies while you stare at the beat-grid with not much else happening, revisiting the same old sounds in a workspace that often feels worn out and tired.
There’s no question that computers and modern music software solutions have done wonders for us musicians and engineers. Things have come a long way since the early days of computer based music. Pre-internet era trackers -“proto-DAW” programs with not much else than archaic MIDI sequencing capabilities-, have rapidly evolved into full audio editing suites, where you can compose, generate, cut, paste, reshape and process (to a ridiculous degree) an almost unlimited amount of tracks and sound sources, with a quality that almost equals -and even surpasses- that of top 70s and 80s studio control rooms.
Yesterday I was at the studio desk, warping some clips -read, using audio timestretch- and editing a vocal track to the tiniest bit for a movie soundtrack I’ve been commissioned to do, and once I ended, I thought to myself: “If this feels exhausting, just imagine for a minute doing all this cut’n’paste work with tape, or even an MPC-60!”. The mere idea of doing something like Jean Jaques Perrey’s “Gossipo Perpetuo” (an amazing showcase of analog tape-splicing mastery) with just reels and a cutter gives me goosebumps. I don’t really believe in the concept of “Dawless Music” (in the purest sense, ie: for the sake of it), or at least it’s just not for me. Much like any instrument or piece of gear, I see the computer as a tool, and sometimes it’s the perfect tool for the job. Hell, even if I composed a whole album with an MPC (à la Prefuse 73) or with my beloved Octatrack, you can bet your audiophile ass I’d finish it in the computer.
But it’s fair to say that the convenience of a computer or DAW-centric studio is a double-edged sword. If you’re not careful, it’s easy to pick what I consider bad habits (overuse sequencing instead of balancing it with hand-playing, leave things way too “clean” or perfect, lose yourself in a sea of VST plugins, never end a project, get sucked into an endless YouTube time vortex just because the internet is at hand, etc.). By the same token, laptops can be great tools to take your productions to a live environment -given their almost limitless possibilities- , but they also come with their own set of problems (CPU crashes, sync problems, the cumbersomeness of the whole laptop + interface + controller setup…). That’s why, “dawless” or not, I think every musician should have at least an alternative to the computer when starting a project, composing, doing a live-set or just fighting temporary writers block.
Sometimes that alternative can be something as simple as a field recorder and a piano, or a quick snippet of your acoustic guitar taken with your cell-phone’s built-in mic. But non instrumentalists and electronic musicians usually need something a little more “polyvalent” and multipurpose in order to sketch a few relevant ideas (and, if we talk about live performances, not everyone can afford to have a full fledged band to leave their laptop home, like LCD Soundsystem do). So, if you’re one of those that want to scape from the DAW (whether that’s forever or just something short-term), here’s a curated list of some of the best “do-everything” little hardware boxes currently available in the market.
CRITTER & GUITARI ORGANELLE
The Organelle is one of the most amazing boxes that have come out in the last few years. Its pocket size and characteristic tiny wooden round buttons give it a toy-like appearance, but don’t let its naïf looks deceive you! it’s a very serious instrument -in fact, it’s MUCH more than just an instrument!-. This tiny blue box is able to run puredata patches (an open-source programming language) and as such it can be almost anything depending on which of those you choose, so you can think of it as a “pocket musical computer” with a friendly and fun, no frills interface. The Organelle can be a sampler, a synthesizer, a looper, a sequencer, a beat box, a real time FX processor, an arpeggiator, vocoder… you name it! With an ever growing list of patches and frequent software updates it’s a never ending box of joy, a Swiss army knife of audio fun!
Want one? You can get the Organelle here!
TEENAGE ENGINEERING OP-Z
Teenage Engineering have almost created their own niche market of pocket sized ultra-tiny boxes with their Pocket Operator line, but it was their flagship OP-1 that really put them on the map back in 2011, when it was first released. The OP-1 is still available from them, but to some folks it’s a bit out of reach given its steep price (it is priced close to 950 euro at the time of writing). Fortunately, the Swedish firm has answered our prayers for a more affordable OP-1 alternative giving us the new OP-Z, a box with an equally impressive feature set (16 track sequencer, sampling, 8 synthesis engines, built in microphone, fx processing… plus it can even sequence images!) for a little less that two-thirds of the OP-1s price (599 euro). To achieve this they have simplified the interface and done away with the screen, but you still can use an iOS device connected to it if you need one! A very cool box for both live and studio use.
Elektron’s Octatrack is a modern classic. Now in its mark 2 version, it’s the only revision of the classic (formerly) black trinity that has kept its original size and form (unlike the Analog Four and Rytm mk.2 which are now quite a bit bigger), and we kinda love that since it’s still small enough to fit in any backpack (making it easier to carry anywhere) or to take part in a compact but powerful live setup. Althought it’s often considered a mere sampler, the Octatrack can be so many things beyond sampling: it’s an excellent alternative to a DAW, an extensive MIDI sequencer with almost unlimited capabilities, an amazing live looper, an advanced fx processor, a realtime timestreching machine, a backing track playback device, a granular/wavetable synth… you name it! Since its release, competitors like the MPC Live have surfaced, but Akai’s workflow is quite close to a DAW so it doesn’t feel like much of a change. If you don’t mind it’s relatively steep learning curve, the Octatrack is definitely one of the most interesting devices to ever threaten the hegemony of computers as studio and live centerpieces.
MOD DEVICES MOD DUO
The Mod Duo is an endless box of sonic fun. It’s essentially a modular digital DSP platform in pedal form that can be almost anything: an effects processor, a virtual analog synthesizer, a sequencer, a controller, a source of midi utilities, etc. It’s one of the few devices of its kind that’s not really a tabletop machine, and its footswitchable nature makes it perfect for guitarists or keyboardists that need to use both hands at a time -and can’t afford to tweak things with them-. The Mod Duo’s software is compatible with Max/msp, the amazing programming platform from Cycling 74. As such it has a lot of available software and presets in the form of plugins, both from Mod Devices (via their plug shop) and from its user base. You can think of it as a modular pedalboard in a tiny box, with a few cool extras thrown in! P.S.: If you like the Mod Duo, the company have announced a buffed up version of it, called the Mod Duo X, and its already available for pre-order at the time of writing!
Novation’s Circuit is the british company’s take on the groovebox concept, but it goes much further than any of those ’90s/’00s boxes (like Roland’s MC line or Korg’s Electribe series). Essentially, grooveboxes are combinations of a synthesizer, sequencer and drum machine, all in one tiny box. With the Circuit you have two Nova styled synths (with 6 voice polyphony for each!), 4 parts of drums, 60 seconds of sample time, master FX (with a choice of 16 reverbs and 8 delays), a mixer… all in a small and lightweight package that fits anywhere. It also has a bunch of back-lighted RGB velocity-sensitive pads for easy sequencing and performance, plus 8 macro knobs for synth control (allowing you to tweak up to 4 parameters at a time, similar to how Ableton’s instrument racks work). The Circuit is very affordable and it even runs on batteries, so it’s an excellent alternative (or addition) to a laptop setup. If you like it, be sure to take a look at the “Circuit Mono Station” too; a similar device that mixes the groovebox concept with a Bass Station styled analog synth.
About the author: José -Pepe- Coca is a musician, producer and audio engineer from Zaragoza (Spain). He has a PhD in Art and teaches Sound Systems, Synthesis and Mastering courses at CPA Salduie and SEAS. He has also worked as a sound designer for companies such as Elektron, Befaco or HelloSamples.