The improvised techno thread

I’ve recently been listening to a lot of Blawan, Surgeon, Karenn etc. who play live and improvised techno sets. I’ve also enjoyed listening to the knob twiddlers podcast.
Given I have very limited time to produce (typically 1-2h a week) I think my goal of making tracks should be replaced with a goal of jamming/improvising when I turn on my gear. I thought this thread could be a hub for people to ask questions, provide tips and advice, share their setups, share philosophy etc.
I’ll start by asking about transitions - I find it easy to get a groove going with a nice riff but at the minute I find it difficult to smoothly transition to the next motif/groove/riff. How are people making such transitions?

Cheers

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2 things really helped me: mix on a dj mixer (with eq’s and filters) and use a midi controller to have all track levels of my AR and MC right there at hand. I find that having to select the right track before i can move its level is really limiting live.

On MD i mostly bring sounds in and out by muting tracks though. But i ve developed some cool tricks with the filters on the xone96 that smooth the transitions.

All my studio work is basically mini-live jamming which is a way to get a lot practice.

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Regarding transitions, I believe Karenn, Surgeon and co use loopers during their performances. Karenn with the Roland RC-505 (they even keep their loops to use them in other sets) and Surgeon with either the Octatrack, or a synced delay module.

In my opinion when building a live techno setup, you should be OK with only using few sounds that take a lot of space and move a lot on their own using randomness, LFOs and polyrythms. If for example you use an OT with 8 tracks, you can limit yourself to 5 tracks at the same time. You let those loop while you work on the next idea, and then transition it in while taking some of the old loop out.

The key is to not have a huge number of tracks, and they must all have dedicated roles. Also, don’t be afraid of randomness and writing sequences by feel on a muted track and accepting to work with what comes up when you bring it in.

I’ve tried to do it a little bit with an OT for drums and DN for synth, here is a recording. You’ll see the loops are very simple, I just try to use as many LFOs as possible to take some movement away from my hands.

An example of set I recorded

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Another approach i ve had fun with recently is that i compose sounds and patterns not as fixed tracks but with the intention of recombining freely. So my patterns are filled with material that is not meant to play all at once, but rather to build mixes and structures on the fly.

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Great idea for a thread. I’m thinking of doing almost the same thing once I have my equipment setup in my new place. My idea is to not be 100% live with a single stereo track from the mains but to use my 4 input soundcard to give me a little flexibility in the edit stage. So I plan to record my kick/bass from Model:Samples on one mono channel, the rest of the drums on another mono channel (all panned appropriately for separation into two mono tracks), then have my synths from Polyend Tracker recorded in stereo on the last two inputs. Everything on those four tracks will be recorded into Bitwig. This way, any slight imbalances in volume can be adjusted later on and synth parts can be placed over different drum parts, additional reverb and delay added for transitions, and Analog Heat can be used on the individual tracks or the master after the fact. Alternatively, I might send the M:S through the Tracker then the Heat and just record stereo live jams with minor edits in Bitwig to create the full finished track. I’ll update when I’ve worked out the best method.

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Yeah, that’s a great point. You should be asking yourself what improvising means to you, and that’s definitely a topic on its own.

Does it mean that everything must be build up from scratch and that you don’t allow for any preparation, be it sound design, pattern building? Or do you want to prepare those in advance and have pools ready to mix up?

In my opinion it’s not possible to improvise without building a framework and systems to work within. For example, in the set I posted above, I had a dedicated kick track with a few samples, a dedicated sub bass track with a few samples too, some dedicated hats and perc tracks (not more than two at the same time). And then regarding synth, I decided to have one mono working like a 303, one poly, and one fm perc emulating a BIA, all with high pass filters to have an OK mix. I decided to stay in one pattern, my scales were all programmed before, I only hade a few select samples ready and my sounds did not move a lot except for the fm perc one which I randomized a lot to be surprised.

Once the rules are set and you build a system that’s satisfying, stay with it and practice.

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Im far from an expert but…I feel some machine are better than other for that. I used my md like that, and ive never found other machine with the same feeling for that. I think thats easier with synth based machine. And the kit ability was great: you can easily revert back the evolved sounds in the previous pattern (the only reason digitakt fail for me)… i want to try cycle, i think it could be playable as a md??

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Not at all to say that you have to go modular to do improvise techno (it’s mostly a wrong impression we get from youtube) but this article on Noise Engineering’s blog on how to build a system for improvised techno is great from a philosophical point of view. They actually only use five voices, including percussions, because they also have to fit in sequencers, mixing and effects.

"Techno, especially live, can be very minimalistic. Especially since we’re planning on doing at least some improvising, keeping our system minimal is an important goal. Obviously, we always need to have a kick, probably some hats or cymbals, and some kind of bassline. However, other than that, we don’t need a lot of layers, and the fewer instruments we have, the less we need to think about when we’re jamming. Less is more, and when you’re rocking a dance floor people mostly just want a consistent, evolving groove. "

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This is what I lose sight of if I try to produce finished tracks. Also like @Greatexpectations I don’t have more then a few hours a week to work, I don’t need to spend that fiddling endlessly with parameters on the same track over and over in the quest for ‘perfection’!

I find that sampling the source sounds (into OT) when I hear a groove I like and then moving on helps massively with creatively. That way I can come up with a nice library of elements to work with, but every time I play them it’s largely improvised. I really gel with the idea of taking risks and going with things that come out rather than rigidly preparing things. Like @Martebar said, have some material, set some parameters, and go to town within those.

I’m not very good with scenes (OT) and scenes/performance (Rytm) yet - this is what I should spend time on next. This might become my favourite thread on here - god knows I need to get away from ‘your setups’ and ‘what’s your latest purchase’!

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Regarding improv, always be recording.

There will be times that you will surprise yourself and others, please, make sure you’re recording. :wink:

Also, a limiter strapped across the master insert on the mix is a good idea. Many a good improv session recording is ruined by an overload.

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Great thread, @Greatexpectations! I have the same goal and a plan to reorganize my set-up this weekend around it.

This example isn’t techno, but it’s an awesome set–instrumental versions of her songs that usually have vocals. She sequences with MPC and Elektron box, and plays the mixer as much as her synths and effects. It’s the kind of thing I want to do… prepared sequences + improv, live, no DAW.

Pete

[edit: I should have said, it’s not “pure” techno, but “techno inspired pop”, as the description calls it… who cares about genres, really]

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I practice a consistent basic sample lay out to try to help with this as well. On the OT, for example, I always load a kick drum on track 1, snare on track 2, etc so that at a minimum I can just load a new pattern and get right to work with a beat, no matter what I’m playing or who else I’m playing with. I like being able to just show up, plug in and start laying down a beat in seconds.

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My goal has been to provide a palette of instruments that do not have patch storage and are WYSIWYG, knob per function. Since purchasing my first piece of hardware in late 2018, I’ve gone from wanting to pre-program patterns and songs that I can move through to wanting a system that I can play as an instrument. As @dtr mentioned, I personally believe a DJ mixer is critical to this setup. I have an Allen & Heath PX5 that I’ve been waiting nearly two months for (should be in next week!).

As for transitioning between ideas, I have a TR8S and there’s an annoying quirk when switching patters; while they do stay in time, the tails of sounds get clipped as does the external input sound. If I wanted to transition to a new pattern/kit then I’d have to accommodate for that annoyance with drowning things in reverb or cutting the TR8S down to short samples/hits before transitioning. Not what I wanted so I bought a TR6S to have two drum machines. This will let me bounce back and forth between the two or use one/other as a cool bank of FM sounds. Loving that bit so far.

As for the other pieces of kit:

  • DFAM
  • Subhamonicon
  • Rings
  • Elements
  • Clouds
  • Blades
  • Marbles

Selling my Mother 32 because, for as lovely as it sounds, I like crazy, atonal, noise. I’m not super keen on random so still looking at how I’d like to use Marbles (user programmed microtonal stuff comes to mind).

But the flow should essentially be this:

  • DFAM and Subharmonicon are in one case with Stages and Clouds. They will output into channel 1 of the mixer
  • Elements, Rings, Blades, Maths, Marbles (Erica Black Sequencer and Plaits in the next month or so) go into channel 4 of the mixer
  • TR6S into channel 2
  • TR8S into channel 3

So, this let’s me queue, noodle up the next soundscape on one set of synths/drums while the other is playing and being performed.

It’s essentially two separate, interchangeable systems running into a DJ mixer for performance.

One could easily strip down to one of the above euro cases, a simple mixer, and a looper to work Surgeon/Karenn etc. style. I’ve just never been good a looping things and I’d prefer to have a small variety of voices and modulation sources to work with. A lot of these small setups start to sound a bit “same-y” over a 1 hour set. I mean, they still sound great. I’m just trying to have some variety to my output.

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You can extend this a lot further by making a template part and copying it to all your other parts and banks. I like to have master pattern length set to infinite by default, 8 default custom LFOs, default custom rec setup, compressor on kick track, lofi on snare, LFO1 on hihat track set to RANDOM/AMP HOLD/HOLD/x64, really speeds stuff up

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Learn your circle of fifths ; I’ve been looking for a while but didnt find a more powerful tool to make an improvised melody/chord prog evolving.

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I’m so glad I started this thread - so much stuff to chew on and inspire already. I’ve been contemplating a DJ mixer for a while and I really need to pull the trigger and order one. I’m currently torn between a simple A&H (like a 43c) or the DB4.

@d4ydream I hear you with the knob per function idea. For whatever reason (GAS) I’ve accumulated quite a bit of gear, but I realise I only really enjoy WYSIWYG synths and drum machines. My OT is amazing but everything gets buried in button presses that hurts my head. I think I’ll box it up and let it rest for a while.

One thing I’ve never tried (or got my head round) is the use of a looper. Any looper users care to share their workflow?

Take a look at the Allen & Heath PX5. It has some impressive, highly usable onboard effects. It’s what attracted me to it. The 43C is bare bones in that regard where the DB4 is absurdly feature packed (and fully digital in case you’re looking for an all analog guts mixer).

I currently have a Styrmon Timeline and Bigsky for effects but I’m hoping that the onboard effects on the PX5 can do the bread and butter stuff I need to provide movement and fill gaps.

Apart from the above, I “think” (and some seem to confirm my thoughts) that the USB sends at the inputs stage can process audio externally then send it into the mixer at the channel input stage. As it is a class compliant soundcard, I should be able to setup 5 channels in AUM, run any of the Fabfilter plugins for EQ/multiband, then run it into the mixer channels. This is extremely valuable to me as I’m coming from a Soundcraft Signature 12 that had a more comprehensive EQ section (specifically a sweepable mid-band). DJ mixers EQ in broad strokes and are, IMHO, meant to EQ material that is already mixed and mastered. Doing live stuff means I can’t sculpt things as tightly on the PX5 as I could on the Signature 12. But, potentially having a Pro Q3 or Pro MB on each input mitigates this. Hoping that configuration is possible :).

Oh, the PX5’s effects engine can also be clocked by MIDI through the USB port (but not through the 5-pin MIDI IN for some reason). So you can time sync all of your delay algorithms!

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There are several looper threads on t forum already.

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I see the benefit of a DJ mixer for your set-up. For people running a normal, unified set-up, I think a regular mixer does the job. Am I missing anything? Would a DJ mixer add anything in the “normal” scenario?

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Stereo (send) channels and better playability at the expense of channel count.

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