What’s on my iPod right now: Crystal Method: Vegas

I am very psyched about my setup for making techno. I use a bottom-shelf macbook, an Evolution UC-33e, some bomber noise-cancelling headphones, and Ableton Live. I can go anywhere, it all fits in a backpack, and has all my bases covered. It would be nice to find a way to fit a small midi keyboard into the mix to smash out some bass lines or melody, but I’m pretty stoked about my setup.

The UC-33e is basically a midi mixer with faders and knobs for 8 channels. It’s bus powered and pretty much does everything I need to jam. Once you start to settle into your own production patterns with knob assigments and such a simple controller with no labels or assignments really work well. Just like an instrument, as a beginner you just need to do a lot of experimentation to make your tools work for you. For years I thought a killer setup was a killer app and killer controller that gave me canned looping and functions to do some live techno producing. Well, if you want to do that just punt and go be a DJ.

When put together a mix it’s really important to have super quality monitors, and a room that doesn’t suck your sound to peices. But, again the most important thing is that you are just used to your sound medium. I bought the terrific top-end $300 Bose noise-canceling headphones, and now I can work on the plane or in a construction site, and the sound is pretty good. If I really want to finish off a good production I do it at home in a studio environment. You spend most of your time being creative where the mix-down doesn’t matter, so being mobile and flexible is really nice.

What really makes everything possible for me is Ableton Live. It runs and does everything you need on today’s cheapest laptops, and is so flexible and well designed that I never think about the role the software plays. Make yourself a default set with midi mappings for your controller, and start having fun.

The macbook is great because it sleeps very well, and never gets in the way of my music. It is a very simple computer, CoreAudio is as solid as it gets, and with the Network midi bus you can midi sync and jam with another person’s laptop over wifi. Now THAT’s what I call bad-ass.

OK, now let’s talk about style.

The blending of electronic and organic styles can make for some pretty touchy and complex subjects when you are making music yourself. You are cramming your poor creative nerves into all of this technology, and you’ve seen the cool things that it can do but it’s tough to find your niche. I’d like to do more complex looping and stuff, but for now I’m settling in to deep and progressive trance, and The Sweet Setup is very, very good at that kind of music.

The core of my musical guts comes from arpeggiated synths, a delay, a simple bass line, and maybe some pads if I want to make it a bit softer. For the most part I use canned drums since I’m just not that good a programming them, though I’ll usually do my own kick drums since they play so much of a role in the sidechaining compression and gutsy feel of the techno.

Progressive is all about long sweeping transitions and effective use of spacious effects. You pull your listener into the sounds because they simply don’t change as often, which makes them more engaged in the intricacies of the sounds. Having that manual control with the hardware controller makes all the difference in the world for expressiveness.

Yes, you will get used to the nuances of your effects and sound-frequency space, and after a while you can actually become a performer that makes full use of the DSP palette, just like you always imagined that first time you saw a DJ fake you out with his stupid dramatic hand genstures just to hit the play button or turn up the bass.

Further, I think you really know you’re getting somewhere when you start using a compressor’s controls in real-time. I usually use Live’s built-in compressor with manual control over the threshold, and MAYBE the release as well. It’s not just for post-production mix down anymore, baby!

Getting it on paper

The real killer is getting your creative process down. Being my own worse critic, I’ve always pushed myself to make something decent as fast as possible. Unfortunately, having my standards way high in the stratosphere meant that I missed a lot of opportunities to just get into the patches and music that was right in front of me all the time! Several years I wasted when I could have been learning basic composition skills and the overall flow of music, where I could have nailed down my creative processes from week 1.

The big lesson is that it doesn’t take SQUAT to sit down and jam with people. You could get pretty far with a two-peice sine-wave band for crying out loud, so don’t worry about the fact that you can’t get that huge trance sound right away. Most of those sounds are far simpler than you think anyway.

So the way I approach my creative process is to sit down with a simple synthesizer and try to think more about the expression of the music than the tools I’m using or the way it sounds. Music is a method for describing what you are feeling inside your mind and body, so plug in one of those canned drum loops and start playing with it. Yeah, go make it sound shitty, but also try to understand that the music in’t about what goes on the recording, it’s what you are feeling when you are playing it. Stick with that and you’ll go places.

Anyway, I usually pull in a patch that I know really well like the “Analog Bass” synth patch that comes with Ableton’s “Analog”, and start messing around on the keyboard. I usually assign the cutoff param to a knob on my midi controller, and the mixer fader to the fader on my midi controller. Then I find some drums and do the same with a cutoff and fader. Then I add some pads, and go from there. The rest is history.

Remember, the best setup is a setup that doesn’t get in your way. Fun stuff.