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.