Once in a while I’m asked what gear I use. Though these days it’s usually more along the lines of “You use Massive, right?” – now I don’t blame people for asking that, given that if you ask any aspiring EDM-musician, Massive is probably the soft-synth they can all name instantly.
To answer that question: I do _have_ Massive, but it’s not my go-to soft synth at all. Yeah, I’ve used it here and there, but it’s not even on every track or remix I do. So, I thought I’d write a short post about what software and hardware I use, just to try to draw a picture of how I work when creating music. Not that the list is particulary interesting or even valuable in any way, but just because as I write this I’m stuck on a 11-hour flight to San Francisco and I don’t really have anything better to do.
- Reaper (DAW) – should come as no surprise really. I have used everything from Sony ACID up to Digidesign Protools and pretty much anything in between. In the late 90s I used Cakewalk (now Sonar) and Logic, but I never really felt comfortable with those DAWs. Same goes for Protools: it’s just so slow and cranky (drivers, OS updates, breaking files) and really not that intuitive. I have touched Ableton Live a few times but I didn’t like it much. Too flat, and the “stacked loop”-approach feels unorganic to me. That said: which DAW you use is honestly completely irrelevant. If anyone ever tells you that you need to use this-and-that DAW to be able to make so-and-so music, you should probably stop listening to that person immediately since they are full of shit. Your DAW is your hammer – you pick your nails and what to build yourself.
- Tone2 Gladiator 2 (Synth) – this is my go-to synth. It’s usually the first one I try when I want to get to a particular sound. It can create some really gritty stuff and still be silky smooth for pads and strings.
- NI Reaktor (Synth) – I don’t really use Reaktor itself that much, but rather synths based on it. My favourite Reaktor synth is Razor, which works very well for FM-like insanity leads.
- NI Massive (Synth) – yeah, it’s on the list, but I don’t use it much.
- KiloHearts Faturator (FX, distortion) – go-to plugin for subtle saturation as well as nice crunch and overdrive.
- Fabfilter Pro-Q/Pro-C/Pro-L (EQ, compressor, limiter) – Insanely usable plugins that I use all the time.
- Brainworx bx_XL V2 (M/S mastering limiter) – Limiting on the mastering stage. Gets things loud without crushing them. Love it.
- Brainworx bx_digital V2 (M/S digital mastering processor) – EQ and M/S processing for mastering. Mono-control for bass and suchlike.
- ValhallaRoom (Reverb) – it’s easy to control and sounds awesome. Nobrainer.
- D16 Decimort (Bitcrusher) – cheap, extensive bitcrusher. Very versatile.
- D16 Syntorus (Chorus) – for life to multi-band distorted leads, as well as just simple and good chorus.
When it comes to how I work with hardware synths and FX, I usually go sample crazy. Yeah, I don’t have stuff hooked up to the DAW via MIDI for an entire session, but rather work on independent parts in MIDI and then record them and chop up/loop the samples afterwards. Working with audio-files gives me three important things:
1) iron-tight timing (no “put all your drums on channel 1 to keep them in sync” here),
2) control (cut, fade, EQ, effects – by keeping it inside the DAW, it makes things easier to manage as the project files grow),
3) destructive editing (yeah, I like it actually. I hate “having all the possibilities in the world” because then it’s easy to procrastinate and don’t commit to something).
- RME Fireface 800 (Interface) – industry standard audio interface, FireWire-connected. Low latency, excellent transparent sound and super stable.
- Roland Juno 106 (Analogue) – a classic. Used with a distortion pedal, the two built-in chorus effects and the Voltage Controlled Filter can produce utter madness.
- Access Virus C (Digital) – another classic, but a so-called “virtual analogue”.
- Roland TR-909 (Analogue) – need oompfh in your kick drum or to have the best hi-hats in the world? This is the unit.
- Roland TB-303 (Analogue) – yeah, I do have one and I love it. Bring the resonance and cutoff down low for some insane bass-action. Switch to square and sample away. Also good for classic acid lines of course.
- Arturia Minibrute (Analogue) – made in 2012, this new (!) analogue synth from french software makers (!) Arturia is the most fun you can have without breaking any laws.
- Jomox Xbase 888 (Digital+Analogue) – drum machine for more creative sounds. Uploading short samples and playing around with it can yield interesting results, though I rarely take the time to do so.
- Jomox T-resonator (Analogue) – time-delayed resonating filter. Feed something into this and it’ll turn into a resonating monster of a sound. Create lifts and fills with random inputs in seconds of tweaking.
It’s important to restate that while I do use some outboard gear and hardware synths, there is little that cannot be replicated with software today*, it’s simply that I work faster by quickly turning knobs to getting the sound I want and then sampling it than by staying totally in the software domain. Therefore, this list should not be seen as any sign for you to give up if all you have is a laptop and some software.
Don’t be fooled by massive (pun intended) hardware rigs or mega-desktop computer-monsters littered with all the latest releases from all your favorite music software vendors: learn a few things and learn them well, then add to that knowledge with more tools as needed.
If I can offer any advice (or you care to take it) it’s this: learn your tools. Read the manuals, then learn your tools again. A sawtooth output of Massive is no more or less basic than a sawtooth output from some random freeware VSTi you find on KVR. Also: another piece if advice – if you just want to get your idea down before its gone, or a sound fits well within your project: there is absolutely nothing wrong with presets.
* except the TB-303. Nothing beats the real thing :)