Portable Sound System / Live Setup

I’m about to head out on the road for a couple of months or so which means I wont have access to my regular music making machines. All the keyboards, synths and the modular and other gear will be out of reach.

My wonderful modular ;-)

My wonderful modular ;-)

Naturally I can’t go for 2 months without making music, and so I was researching various ways of staying productive while on the road. I came up with 4 different alternative setups that I think would have worked for me. I’m sure there are others but those are the ones that felt viable in terms of what I was looking for.

Figuring there might be others looking for the same I decided to write up a short explanation of how and what I ended up with.

Scroll down to the end for pictures of the end result :).

First the Criteria:

  1. Portable
    I wanted a system that I could carry or lug around without too much effort. Pocket size was not a requirement.
  2. No Computer / DAW dependency.
    I wanted to be able to set it up and jam / mess around without having a computer nearby.
  3. New
    I wanted the setup to be a new learning experience with gear and/or a workflow that I had not used before. Also, I wanted those learnings to be relevant not just to the system at hand but for other scenarios / tech / workflows as well.
  4. Full circle
    The system had to be capable of producing a full track with all parts and sounds necessary (under realistic constraints of course).

Option 1. The Groovebox

At first I was looking at various self-contained groove boxes like the Korg Electribes and the Roland MCs. They are certainly capable boxes, but the Rolands I ruled out right away as being to big for their feature sets, and having to out-dated i/o options. The MC808/909 looks like a lot of fun, and as a future addition to the studio I think they would be great, but not for on-the-road work. On the other hand the Electribes have the perfect size but felt like they were to restricted sonically (at least for the type of music I want to create). Finally, any workflow or techniques that I would learn from these boxes felt like they would be tied very closely with the particular box and not translate well to other tools.

Option 2. The Pocket Synth

Unless you’ve been living under a rock the last year or two you know about the Teenage Engineering OP-1 synth. A fantastic little instrument that is kind of like a groove box on steroids, shrunk to fit in your palm. However, the hardware has gotten a lot of negative reviews/feedback as a novelty toy, and with little to no expansion options, for the price it felt like a very limited way to go. Also, the OP-1 seemed like a dead end in terms of live, cooperative jamming. I’m all for setting up constraints to explore creativity but the OP-1 was simply to far from where I’m heading with my music.

Option 3. All Software

While certainly the most portable solution, this violates the 2nd criteria. And seriously, how fun is that?? ;-)

Option 4. The Portable Studio

So finally I started asking my self what the minimum required instruments are to be able to create the music I strive for without a DAW or any of my larger modular systems or synths. What would it take to essentially shrink down the sonic palette that I want to work with into a system that would meet the 4 criteria and also be fun and inspiring to work with.

I knew I would want some kind of percussion / drum sequencer, a dedicated bass voice, at least 1 dedicated lead voice, something to experiment with for atmospheric sounds and effects, and some way of mixing all the voices together.

Looking at what I had at hand I decided that my Elektron Analog Four should have a spot in the setup, as well as the Meeblip. For effects I could bring my Eventide Space and Timefactor pedals, and to spice things up even more I ordered a Nebulophone from Bleep Labs. Next I needed some form of note / melody source so I decided to include a Doepfer Dark Time sequencer, and for percussion a Korg Volca Beats. Also, to add another voice to the mix, and because it pairs so well with the Dark Time, I’m considering throwing in a Dark Energy synth as well. Finally to mix them all together I’ve included an Allen & Heath ZED10-FX mixer which will also allow me to record the stereo mixdown over USB to a computer.

Screen Shot 2013-07-15 at 11.21.15 PM

SketchUp model

I figured I could build a custom, heavy duty but portable, case that would hold all of this gear so I started looking into custom ATA cases, but a friend pointed me in the direction of the Pelican brand cases instead. Those cases come in a huge variety of sizes and colors so after some measuring and careful modeling in SketchUp I decided to go for one of those.

In the end I would agree that this setup is far from the most simple or portable solution, but it feels extremely inspiring and I can’t wait to set this rig up and start exploring it.

If you have any questions about the case or any of the gear inside it please leave a comment and I will answer as best I can.

Here’s a complete list of the gear:

  • 1x Allen & Heath ZED10-FX Mixer
  • 1x MeeBlip SE
  • 1x Korg Volca Beats (to be added in Japan)
  • 1x Elektron Analog Four
  • 1x Eventide Space
  • 1x Eventide TimeFactor
  • 1x Doepfer Dark Time
  • 1x Bleep Labs Nebulophone
  • 1x Doepfer Dark Energy mkII (TBD)
  • 1x Pelican Cases 1610
The Pelican 1610 Case

The Pelican 1610 Case

portastudio1

Inside the case. The mixer is one level down.

DSC00661pFB

Jamming with the setup.

Bleep Labs Nebulophone

In order to add an extra ‘voice’ to my mobile setup (more on that later) I got a Nebulophone from Bleep Labs. The Nebulophone is a tiny (very tiny) monophonic arduino based synth that packs a might punch and an impressive feature set.

DSC00669_pYou can read all about it at the Bleep Labs website, but suffice it to say that this little instrument sounded and played better than I imagined. I had a chance to play it at a jam session yesterday and it added some impressive sounds and textures to the set.

It has 5 waveforms that all sound very raw and punchy. The built in, programmable arpeggiator also adds a lot of fun. Even though the interface is very bare in terms of buttons and pots it’s still not complicated to grasp, and as a small, improvisational source of randomness and uncertainty it sounded fantastic.

Ableton Push available from Amazon!

Ableton Push is now available for order from Amazon! If you want to support this site, please consider ordering it via the link below :)

Ableton Push Controller for Live 9 with 11 Touch-Sensitive Encoders

Here’s a walkthrough / review of the controller and the workflow it enables:

If you are serious about music production / composing in Live 9, this should be a no-brainer!

The Cumulus Machine is growing…

They say once you get into the modular synth scene you never turn back… Not sure about that part, but I will admit that this is definitely the most fun I’ve had with a musical instrument so far.

When I got my first 9u Doepfer case the plan was to slowly grow and add modules as the need arose. Well, that need seems to arise so fast when you’re standing in front of it patching in cables and trying out different sounds.

Therefor, well actually since my first case is now full, I have added a second case to the setup. Can’t wait to start adding in the modules and grow the potential of this sweet, sweet synth…

cumulus

Actually, since I took this photo I have already added a Pittsburgh ADSR envelope generator to the case :).

New Song (Cumulus 2 – The Bridge)

Part two in the tentatively named Cumulus series. Based entirely on the modular synth, with the exception of the kick drum. This track continues to explore the theme of sound textures started with the Cumulus 1, but this time with a higher tempo.

The track was recorded in 3 different layers, with no sequencing or MIDI. The clock came from Pamela ;-). The Morphing Terrarium was used as the primary sound source, except for some guest play from time to time by the Bubblesound VCOs. Only reverb was added as an effect while mixing the 3 layers. There are no other computer generated effects.

Of course, all 3 layers where recorded as 3 continues ‘live’ recordings, each track ‘over dubbing’ the previous ones.

Hope you like it!