There was a time when studios were only comprised of hardware. Whether that be sequencers, drum machines, synths, reel-to-reel tape recorders, mixers, effect units, patchbays, compressors, EQs and such – these were the mandatory tools in order to take your music from concept to something physical. Building a home studio would have required thousands of pounds, miles of cable, a huge amount of space and a great deal of know-how.

The invention of MIDI around 1981 somewhat streamlined the synchronization process, with a single language for machines to communicate with, doing away with controlled voltage. With this came the temptation to hook more stuff up, no longer being bound to one brand.

The advent of affordable home computers began to do away with the need for external sequencers and clocking devices with programs like Emagic’s Notator and Steinberg’s Pro-16 allowing a centralised clock, with MIDI being spat out in various direction. With an Atari ST or similar, DAT tape recorder and a few synths and samplers you could write, sequence, record and edit your own music.

This step was a huge democratisation of music technology, and along with the invention of the sampler around this time, perhaps some of the most important developments in the last twenty years.


Emagic Notaor. Image © TweakHeadz.com.

Around 1992 Emagic and Steinberg released Logic and Cubase respectively. This is where the modern sequencer really began to shape up. Computers became more and more powerful, now able to run audio (where the name Digital Audio Workstation came from). In 1996 saw Cubase VST, and it was soft synths (or, virtual synths) that was perhaps a final nail in the coffin for hardware. Or so we thought.

In the last five to 10 years there seems to have been a big hardware resurgence with companies like Roland and Korg releasing reissues of classic synths and drum machines, the eurorack modular explosion, software companies Ableton and Native Instruments releasing controllers and entire fractions of the market dedicated to new and innovative controllers specifically designed for digital DJs.

Before Getting Started

Some things worth mentioning at this stage: if you intend to use a MIDI synth or drum machine it is necessary to send out MIDI data from Live. Most devices nowadays use USB but machines that predate the USB revolution might still use MIDI or (shock-horror!) controlled voltage.

If you’re going down the MIDI route you will need a MIDI interface. I have a couple of M-Audio MIDISPORT 4x4s that are really simple to use. They connect to your laptop/computer via USB and then to any MIDI devices by the standard 5-pin DIN cable.

It should go without saying that you also need a soundcard that can handle audio inputs as a bare minimum. In the case of external synths and drum machines, the soundcard will receive the generated audio signal and return that to your DAW.

In the case of using effects as inserts or send/returns you will need a soundcard that has more than 2 outputs. I have a Focusrite Saffire PRO 14 and a Digidesign Digi 003, both of which have multiple outputs. This means we can send a signal out, have it processed externally and return the effected signal.

Everything but the Kitchen Sync

Another consideration is synchronization. If you’re using a drum machine, synths with arpeggiators, digital delay or some sort of external sequencer then it’s entirely likely you’ll want to have that synced to your host tempo.

In Ableton, hit cmd + , (cmd + comma) or go to Live > Preferences and go to the MIDI Sync tab. Here, enable any device that you want to receive tempo information from Live, including stop/start transport messages and a regular pulse from the DAW clock.

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In Logic you’ll need to access the project settings. Navigate File > Project Settings  > Synchronisation and click on the MIDI tab. Enable the MIDI clock to be transmitted to the relevant outputs.

Ableton

The ease of integrating external equipment with Live is really a joyus thing. There are two plug-ins we need to be familiar with: the External Instrument and the External Audio Effect. Let’s start off with the External Instrument.

Load a new MIDI track using shift + cmd + t and add the External Instrument to it from the Instruments tab in your browser. Set the MIDI To to the instrument you’re going to use, in my case my Kenton Solo which is hooked up to a Teisco 60f.

Next set the Audio From to receive audio from whichever channel your instrument is plugged in to, in my case channel 8.

Now I can program in MIDI notes and they will trigger the synth in time with the DAW.

I’ll now record this to a new audio track (cmd + t) ensuring the input in my I/O section is set to listen to the External Instrument. Be careful your buffer size isn’t set too large, otherwise you’ll hear noticeable latency:

Now let’s look at using the External Audio Effect. I’ve loaded a sample from the excellent sample pack Soul Soup by Patchbanks onto a new audio track. Here’s the dry loop:

Now from the Audio Effects browser, add the External Audio Effect. I’ve set my Audio To to outputs 3 and 4 and Audio From to inputs 3 and 4. In the chain is a Line 6 FM-4 using the Comet Trails algorithm and a DigiTech Time Bender set to a reverse delay patch:

We can blend between the dry and wet signal using the rotary on the effect, giving us a nice controlled mix of the two signals:

And that’s it! Live will automatically bounce in real time as soon as either an external instrument or effect is in use. Let’s move on to Logic.

Logic

Apple’s Logic X also has functionality to send MIDI to external devices and receive the audio or just use external inserts with the External Instrument and I/O Utility. Let’s start off with the External Instrument.

Creating a new MIDI track (alt + cmd + n), click Software Instrument and select External Instrument from the drop-down menu. Similarly to Live, we need to set our MIDI Destination (in this case MIDISPORT # Port B) and Input (inputs 1 and 2).

I’ve programmed a whole lot of MIDI and sent it out to a Casio CZ-230S (a great little synth, cheap as chips too). I’ve overdubbed the results and processed them a bit:

Can’t recommend this synth enough, only cost about £40 and listen to what you can do with it, courtesy of Rex the Dog:

Logic doesn’t automatically do real time bouncing so ensure you enable this when you are bouncing otherwise your output will be silent!

Now let’s have a look at using Logic’s I/O plug-in to integrate audio with a mix. I’ve knocked together a super-quick eight bar loop of some drums, bass guitar, FM8 stab and melodica (recorded poorly!) – so far it sounds pretty drab. Here’s the dry mix:

The next logical step would likely be to start effecting our stems and to try and inject an ounce of authenticity to it. I’m going to use three external send/returns: a spring reverb, an echo box and a phaser.

I’ve created three auxiliary channel strips in my mixer and added an I/O plug-in to each (all mono) using the next available busses 3, 4 and 5. Each channel has a send to these busses.

The first bus is going to be my spring reverb. This is coming out of output 3, going to a Doepfer A-119 External In (to first convert line level to eurorack level) then a Doepfer A-119 Spring Reverb (the output is routed back to the computer on input 1).

After this I’m just doing some attenuation around 290 Hz to clean it up a bit. Remember with all spatial send/returns to keep them at 100% wet.

Let’s hear how the mix sounds sending the snare, stab and melodica to our spring:

I’m going to mute the return and move to our next bus, the echo. This is going out of output 4 and into an old Better EC-444 Echo Chamber and returning on input 2. I’ve sent the hi-hat mic, stab and melodic to this bus. Let’s hear how it sounds:

Finally let’s move on to our phaser. This is leaving on output 5 into a Mu Tron Phasor and back in on input 3. The Phasor has no dry/wet control but it sounds pretty good nonetheless. Here’s how it sounds with the overheads, bass, stab and melodica being sent to it:

We can inject some movement into the mix by automating the send amounts on each channel; we can also send the sends to itself, creating self oscillation, though be careful as this can quickly descend into chaos.

The easiest way I’ve found to do this is cntrl + click on the return channel and click ‘Create Track’ so it’s added to the arrange view.

You can manually automate the tracks or, far better, assign them to a MIDI controller and record the data in using Latch or Touch in the channel’s Automation Mode Pop-Up. The best thing about external effects (especially spatial ones) if that you can tweak them as the track is bouncing. Here’s our next more dynamic mix with some on-the-fly dubbing. Enjoy!