Some thoughts after a year of writing a live set with the Digi boxes

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.

The Setup: There was a lot here inspired by @DaveMech and @MilesKvndra, so big ups and thanks to them for their awesome tutorials.

  • 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

Pros:
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.

26 Likes

Congratulations! And thanks for the write up.

Was the performance recorded?

Thanks!

Not this one, but I will probably do a live studio recording, and the next show will be recorded.

3 Likes

What a great summary of your process @slicetwo and congrats for getting this going! :slightly_smiling_face: I’m super happy to hear that my tutorials could be of any use here and feel a lot of points you’re mentioning here both positive and negative.

One question that came immediately to my mind, because I struggle with this the most: What are your experiences with pattern length? That is still one of my biggest downsides as I find 64 steps way too little and even 128 with the pattern scale at 1/2 is very limiting and you have a problem when you want to make more rhythmical patterns.

Oh and I would love to hear a live recording of that! Always inspiring to see other people’s workflow!

3 Likes

Thank YOU! Legit, between you and Dave, it really gave me the final little tech knowledge I needed to really get this shit going. Haha. I’m really impressed by people who can get a whole song out of just the Digitone especially.

I def. found the 64 steps to be a bit limiting in certain situations. For certain tracks with long pads, arps, or single note basslines, I sometimes went down to even the 1/4 and 1/8 speeds. I also had to get creative with the delay sends (which, of course, meant the rest of the pattern couldn’t necessarily have delays) to get some cool rhythmic stuff going. The arp was really useful, too, though the problem with it not being key-locked (which I believe I read somewhere is getting looked into) allowed me to get some cool stuff. One thing I’d do is make a cool arp pattern, and then during playback I’d manually tweak the range between 1-3. That’s one of the reasons I got another OT - to p-lock the arp. Obviously, conditionals (esp. fills) and p-locks help, though conditionals can also limit how many steps you have available to you - if you have a 32 note pattern that you want a variation pattern of, then you use up all 64 steps with micro-timing and such.

Since this set was mostly a 4-on-the-floor experiment, which is not my usual style or wheelhouse, the percussion wasn’t insanely complicated, though using conditionals, some ratcheting, and careful use of looping and p-locks (like in Loopop’s DT video), I was able to get some cool stuff.

Literally thinking this up right now - I wonder if we may be able to get around the 64 step limit by using the DT and DN MIDI sequencers at the same time for one channel. If you set the conditionals properly, you could probably have 128 steps in one pattern and x1 speed. So on the DN, the first half of the pattern is 1:2, on the DT, you have it 2:2. Then you could essentially have all 64 steps on each device programmed melodically. Heck, you could even have them controlling each other’s as opposed to other external gear.

I am, hopefully, going to be doing this again in November at an event that will be live streamed with VJ stuff. I am also getting the OT tomorrow in the mail, so I plan on tweaking the whole thing a bunch and doing a studio video of it. Once I do, I’ll be sure to post it and tag you.

5 Likes

Awesome to hear! Good thoughts with the MIDI although I have to admit that my MIDI knowledge is super limited. Basically just use it to send clock from DT to DN and lately also to the Microcosm and I know there would be so much more possibilities. It’s on my list! :slight_smile:

Great to hear with the OT - would love to hear how it improves the workflow. Just had to think of The Messy Desk’s video on this “holy trinity” and all the new opportunities this adds. Was thinking of getting an Octatrack myself but I’m lacking the space.

1 Like

MIDI is wonderful and awful at the same time. I’m hoping MIDI 2.0 really makes it better. It can be a huge headache, too.

My reason for getting the OT a 3rd time is that, after this whole thing, I realized that what I was trying to do with the iPad in some ways as an OT replacement just didn’t work. The iPad will still be used, but in a way that is more inline with it’s strengths.

1 Like

Thanks for the write-up - it was really insightful especially for me as the last time I played live it was with a DT and DN combo - no extra iPad synths though. I only had about 3 weeks to prepare for that gig (and only a 20 min set so not that challenging) so it was interesting to compare approaches.

We were possibly coming at it from different angles though - I got the sense that you were really pushing the boxes to achieve quite specific musical goals. Partly because of time-limitations but also because I was wanting a more stripped-down approach I never had (or was able!!) to push the boxes that far and I was even quite happy to accept some of the limitations as informing how these live versions were more loose interpretations of the songs I’d written elsewhere and on other gear.

Thinking about working up another live set and using just the DT and Minilogue XD this time, but with my mate using some other gear so this has been really good food for thought. Cheers!

1 Like

Thanks for sharing your experience! Owning a DT i’be been really tempted to get a DN, but i’m not sure if i want to go FM or Wavetable with something like the Hydrasynth or Modal Argon 8.

A question regarding what you said: does the CPU problems are related to the DN?

1 Like

@jeye_musik @mncrmo

between processing external audio via usb and audio in, acting as the master clock and transport, and controlling 4 midi channels, all sending up to all 8 cc messages at a time, and the internal synthesis, I probably pushed it a bit at certain points. All that data and processing couldn’t have been easy. As for complexity, I really did try and do as much with the machines as I could at the time. I wrote all of it on them so it would be easy to translate into a performance. I also definitely struggle with minimalism. Haha.

2 Likes