Over the last few years, hardware synthesizers, drum machines, and effects seem to be making a comeback. To get some insight into this renewed movement, we speak with music producers, sound designers, instrument manufacturers and boutique retailers about the latest rise of the machines.
Over the course of the past 20 years, the computer has shaped music production more than any other technology. Moreover, the computer has taken the place of those devices in most cases, since software and computer emulations of instruments are much more affordable than hardware. Computers take up less space, are more powerful, and can house countless instruments and effects compared to a physical space. In today’s professional realm, the computer has become the center of the studio. So now, when music software can finally do everything that we always wanted it to do, why are so many producers gravitating to hardware?
Rise of the Machines
Hardware music devices such as synthesizers, stomp boxes and drum machines have seen a renewed popularity in the last few years, attracting everyone from producers and sound designers to musical instrument manufacturers who are seeing a resurgence of interest for instruments and effects that run “outside the box.” Ebay prices on vintage Roland gear and E-Mu samplers have been steadily rising. Guitar stomp boxes are starting to appear in more and more live electronic sets as performance devices. And then there’s the modular synthesizer phenomenon, leading many of our peers to spend endless nights patching and noodling on custom-built oscillators and filters that can cost as much as a new car.
“It’s just generally a lot more fun to use hardware synths with knobs and patch cables. It’s more hands-on,” offers Shawn Cleary from Analog Haven, one of the United States’ premier retailers for modular synth equipment and hard-to-find/boutique music gear. Cleary says he is seeing,”an increasing market for Eurorack modular gear. Patchable synths such as the Doepfer Dark Energy, Tom Oberheim SEM and the fully modular Pittsburgh Modular Foundation make fantastic gateways to an even larger Eurorack setup.”
Music Hardware for Modern Sound Design
One of the most prominent champions of hardware-based production is sound designer and producer Richard Devine, who says, “I think there has been a big influx of producers who have taken notice to using hardware over the past few years.” Devine himself has been returning to hardware for creation more and more recently, specifically with modular gear. “Lately I have been making music with just modular synthesizers. I originally started out working with analog synthesizers when I first began making electronic music. I then got into using computers for synthesis and grew bored after using them for the last 14 years.”
While modern recording environments allow advantages like saving and recalling presets, Devine feels that the lack of these features adds to the creative process with hardware. “It’s sort of like creating this audio ghost that exists only for a short time. So you just try and capture and record it as many ways as possible before it disappears. I love this aspect as you don’t get too attached to the piece. I would sometimes spend months on a piece in the computer constantly trying to nitpick and redo sections over and over without ever letting go of something. With modular synthesizers you come into the mindset that you will have to pull the patch and move on. Limitations can sometimes bring out much more creativity in me.”
Devine feels that the new Eurorack movement in particular is an inspiring movement for innovation in sound: ”It’s really the wild wild west of music instrument design as of late. There are so many strange new devices and companies popping up in this format. I feel there is still so much to explore. The Eurorack format is just so fun and you can customize your system just for you. In particular I have been loving these companies: Makenoise, Harvestman, 4ms, Intellijel, WMD, TipTop audio, Doepfer and Cwejman.”
Another artist (and modular user) who is currently embracing the use of hardware in his own work is Droid Behavior co-founder and techno producer Drumcell, whose album will be released on Chris Liebing’s esteemed CLR label in the coming weeks. “I just finished my first full-length album to be released this April, and the album was made almost 90% with hardware. It was truly an inspiring process for me,” the producer explains. “My recent return to using hardware came after being totally uninspired just looking at the computer screen and twisting knobs with a mouse. The hands-on and tactile feel of hardware is something that truly drives me to be more creative. Software does have the edge in areas like accessibility and it is far more convenient to just open your DAW and be able to save presets and make changes as you go, but I like the fact that with hardware, once I make something and I record it, there is no going back…it’s finished and it’s time to move on. It pushes you to get things done.”
Less Options Can Equal More Creativity
“Hardware equals power of sound, tone, knobs, sliders, control, inspiration, random patch creation, machines to hover over and feel like the master of the lab,” explains DJ Thomas White when asked why people are returning to hardware. White is one-half of production duo Natural Rhythm and a renowned synthesis guru who feels that the computer’s endless options didn’t help his own workflow. “The computer offered what I had always dreamed of, frankly: an endless set of options and the ability to do whatever I could think of. But you know what? I got roadblocked by options. I found myself wondering why I hit the wall with creativity at times. And to find the answer I returned to my hardware roots.”
DJ Thomas White explains his love for hardware at the Dubspot LA OP1 workshop
Dubspot instructor and dub champion Raz Mesinai agrees with this idea and feels that hardware brings a more natural flow of creation. “All technology is an extension of the body,” he explains. “Hardware gear is having a comeback because musicians want more tactile control, which, no matter how much software companies want to push you to believe, they are not delivering.”
Touching the Past
“Some people want vintage for the sake of vintage. Others want vintage for tone. Some want hardware for esteem. It looks pretty, but damn if it doesn’t sound mean,” offers White when asked about the popularity of older Roland devices, Moog synths and other vintage gear. These in-demand and out of production instruments often fetch high prices on the resale market.
Drumcell adds that some people want to touch the history of their own musical heritage with these devices: “We do go in and out of these retro stages with music and a lot of vintage and old electronic music instruments have become iconic to people. For instance the TB-303 or TR-808 are devices that you often see on T-shirts, iPhone covers, CDs , stickers and party flyers. I think many people know what these instruments are even if they don’t make electronic music and actually want to touch them.”
Hardware adds Character to Recordings
Dubspot’s Steve Nalepa combines hardware and software to achieve his signature sound
One of the reasons that so many producers are turning to hardware is to create unique sounds. In-the-box production often yields similar results while outside sources can add color to a recording and give it character. This is a tip that we hear over and over again when we speak to producers. Dubspot Ableton Live course designer Steve Nalepa champions this method, explaining his process to us:
“While Ableton serves as the hub of my studio, I have been collecting analog synths, pedals and other assorted gear over the years and I always try to incorporate them into my music. There’s something inspiring about putting your hands on an actual piece of hardware and experimenting with it, recording it, then mining for the best parts. While I utilize soft synths in just about every track, hardware devices have their own unique character and I find the combination of both works very well. Music made completely inside the box can sometimes sound too clean and digital, and lately I’ve been exploring a number of ways to give tracks a vibe: incorporating lo-fi field recordings done with a phone for example, miking an amp versus running a direct out, etc. Hit up those pawn shops, estate sales and yard sales, you might find your next secret weapon.”
This idea resonates with Drumcell as well. “I think there is a sound to hardware that is desirable to most people and each instrument has its own texture and richness to it.”
Hardware as Inspiration
KiNK’s “Hand Made” was the result of hardware inspiration and software execution
One artist who has been influencing the techno/house community recently is Bulgarian producer KiNK, whose YouTube channel has inspired a flock of producers to go back to basics for creation. The above video shows KiNK’s creative process for the song “Hand Made” which he released with vocalist Rachel Row on the influential Rush Hour record label. After a few watches through his homemade videos of live house music performance you may be surprised to learn that the chart-topping producer actually uses software to create the music he releases publicly. As he explained to Resident Advisor in a now-famous interview from 2010, he’s been using hardware to help find inspiration and new ideas:
“I have an inspirational part of the studio which I enjoy when I make some sounds. And the other part of the studio is just my computer with the software. Let’s say when I want to make a track, I think of the track when I am out with friends, or in bed when I am about to fall asleep. When I sit at the computer I already have some idea what I am going to do. I sit there, and I start to program. It is a very cold process; it’s not really impulsive and emotional.” - KiNK with RA
Arturia’s MiniBrute – An Indication of Things to Come?
One of the biggest telltale signs of this movement into hardware is software maker Arturia‘s release of the MiniBrute–an all-analog monophonic synth that communicates with the computer as well as MIDI and CV devices. The synth immediately took off with critics and consumers at its announcement during NAMM 2012, and has been out of stock in most places until very recently.
“The MiniBrute has proven that musicians do want synths with an immediacy to them,” explains Glen Darcey, Arturia’s Head of Product Development. ”You see a knob and it actually represents the position of the parameter; you turn it without the sound jumping or having to pass a zero-cross point. It is a very organic thing, and something that the modular community knows well but many others have forgotten or missed out on because the mainstream market went a different direction.”
When asked where he saw this trend of hardware going Darcey replied, “Our feeling is that there are jobs for pure hardware, there are jobs for hardware/software hybrids and jobs for pure software. All of these are tools for an artist to create with. Different artists are inspired by different sounds, touch, feel, etc. Our feeling is that we want to make musically useful tools for artists. We will continue to make software, hybrids and dedicated hardware products for the market. It is great to see a return to pure analog products with the modular boom. MiniBrute was designed to work well for both the computer user or the modular user.”
Boutique Hardware and TonyLight’s LepLoop
Italian developer, designer and synth enthusiast TonyLight has been catching a wave of popularity recently by way of a recent KiNK video where the producer uses TonyLight’s LepLoop synthesizer to tweak his way into a thumping groove (above). We reached out to TonyLight to find out about the inception of LepLoop and to get his take on this rise in hardware’s popularity:
“I use the computer mostly for recording, but I’m not a fan,” he explains. “I love tabletop instruments, small and compact. My setup fits in a backpack. Hardware instruments are more reliable and stable, modern digital synths are basically super special computers in a keyboard case. Also–at the show people like to see the performer doing something on stage and the computer forces you to stay immobile. After getting into techno music during the 90s, I started using a drum machine and synth. In 2004 I became part of the audio/video collective Otolab where I met Giovanni, a hacker/DIY guy. He is an expert in analog and digital electronics. So we started thinking about a compact analog synth for live performance, a small box for playing around with.”
A Hybrid Future for Creation
It should be noted that in our research for this article we didn’t find any producers who are using 100% hardware for creation. There is always a computer involved and as we move to the future there will probably always be one in the recording process. But we are also starting to see more producers go outside the box for inspiration, character, and fun when the glow of a computer screen isn’t delivering.
“To be honest I really love both ends of the spectrum,” explains Drumcell. “At the end of the day I truly believe it’s not about what you use, it’s just how you use it.”
I Dream of Wires
Future viewing: I Dream of Wires (IDOW) is an upcoming documentary about modular synthesizers that features some of the artists interviewed in this article as well as “a vast array of others who have dedicated their lives to this esoteric electronic music machine.” We are very excited for this film’s premiere in May 2013.
Dubspot blog editor Michael Walsh is a journalist, DJ, music producer, and Dubspot instructor. He believes in open-source ideas and advancing the evolution of music by sharing ideas that push technology in new directions. As a catalyst and curator for electronic music, Michael was co-founder of the Ritual Recordings house imprint, helped launch a series of turntablist records with Berklee School of Music, and has been a DJ for events including outdoor festivals in Nova Scotia, fashion shows in New York, and elite clubs in Russia’s Far East.