TLDR: Spent the last year+ writing a live Digi-based set. Learned a lot. Hated a lot. Loved a lot. Threw a few things. Read on if you’re interested.
Over the last year or so, I’ve been working hard at creating a Digitone and Digitakt set (with an iPad for a few more synth voices) that I can perform live without having to stem anything out or travel with more than just those devices and a few cables. I’ve been an Elektron fan since 2016 or so when I first got the Monomachine and Machinedrum. Since then, I’ve also had the Octatrack (both versions) and an AnalogFour. I currently only have the Digis left as they are, overall, my favorite out of the bunch the majority of the time. With all that said, I learned a lot, came to some new opinions, and definitely grew in my production and composition abilities. I figured that between that and my 21 years of overall music production experience, I would share some thoughts, pros and cons to the setup, and some future ideas/explorations.
- Digitakt: Percussion, samples, basslines, extra LFO and mute destinations for Digitone. Audio and MIDI via DIN to and from the DN.
- Digitone: All synths/pads, MIDI sequencing of iPad, master transport and sync, audio mixer
- iPad: MIDI control of pattern changes, extra synth voices (DRC x2, Drambo, Continua, Synthmaster). Audio and MIDI to/from DN via USB
Composition - I had to get creative in many ways in order to not overload voices and CPU, not to mention limitations in FX on the DN specifically. It really caused me to dive deeper into my love of sound design to make sure each sound sat the best it could in the track. I ended up editing a lot of my previously made presets, which helped me learn even more about the whole process. With the polyphony limitations, I also had to look at what needed layers, what type of melodic elements I could have going at once, and how to simplify when necessary (which can be hard for me). Luckily, the iPad helped to offload some of the polyphonic pad stuff.
Mixing - Without dedicated EQs, FX, and compressors per track on the DT and DN, not only was my sound design skill tested, but I did a LOT of sample editing on my computer. It was a great way to reincorporate my desktop into my rig as I had been ignoring it for a while. A legit EQ, or at least individual outs via USB or audio, would help with this.
Performance/Arrangement- This was a friggin’ blast. Just 2 boxes and an iPad meant I could sit outside, sit on the couch or at the kitchen table, or even in bed. I also really enjoy the hands-on approach as I am a terrible instrumentalist and my music theory is limited. Being able to touch and manipulate all my parameters helped me connect more to the whole experience. Even though the set is mostly arranged linearly, I am able to extend or return to other patterns or parts if I want.
Cons: The cons list is going to seem a bit longer than the Pros list, but don’t let that make you think I hated this process!
Composition - Limited voices is a huge PITA when trying to make some hugely epic stuff. There were many times where I wanted multiple interweaving tracks and had to limit what I could actually do due to the voice and CPU restraints. The DT and DN sequencers, while good, also leave a lot to be desired in terms of individual note lengths and articulation. On the DT, the lack of even duophony made some clicks unavoidable.
Mixing - The lack of EQ/compression/FX per track meant a LOT of sacrifices on sounds. I did a lot of sample editing on my computer, even with the DT’s new BW filter. Also, the lack of stereo on the DT really took away from a lot of what I wanted to do with some of my fx and sounds. As for the DN, FM can be finicky when it comes to volume across multiple different sounds. To be fair, when I started this project, I didn’t gain stage correctly on either machine, and at this point, it’s too much of a hassle to fix it, but I now know for next time.
Also, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again - the lack of kits, or a way to keep certain tweaks the same across sounds/tracks/patterns, made this whole process take exponentially longer. Also, if Overbridge would output the individual DT tracks as stereo for the panning and LFO automation, it would be friggin’ fantastic (the uselessness of OB due to this is a whole other conversation, though).
Reliability - The amount of times my DN froze up or did weird things was ridiculous. Luckily, I only ever lost a day’s worth of work once. I also had some issues where the iPad wouldn’t register program changes so a bassline would accidentally be played by a pad sound until I manually changed it.
Performance/Arrangement - I realized how much I’d love song mode on these boxes. Since there’s the PC bug when having tracks of different lengths/speeds, I had to use Mozaic on my iPad to time them correctly. It also meant that I had to make sure I didn’t miss a cue while also trying to do live tweaks when playing the set. I only have 2 hands, and they’re small, so I can’t even reach both fill buttons at the same time.
Wrap-up: I did the performance this past weekend. It was the most nervous I’d been since I first started performing, which was kind of fun, tbh. I had a few issues with the preset changes via PC messages, and some of the levels didn’t translate well from the studio to the live setting. With my iPad PC for changing patterns on the Digis, it went off smoothly, and nothing shut down or crashed. I did realize that an Octatrack would be really great for this as I could offload all the iPad synth lines to the OT and use the iPad only for MIDI stuff and maybe Samplr live - so I bought my 3rd one… Haha. I definitely plan on expanding the set more and trying to use the setup as the brain (with the OT that comes tomorrow) to write my new album.
This whole project was based on a specific goal that I set out to accomplish, and I’d say I succeed. It took a long time to get to this point, but now that I’ve done it, I feel like it opens up a whole new set of skills, tools, and ideas for whatever I do next. Thanks for humoring me and making me feel important.