Soft to Hard?

Since I started talking about my recent work with the Octatrack, I’ve been getting a lot of people asking me about making the switch from software based audio production and performance, to a hardware based set up. In some ways I’m probably not the best person to ask, since I was the opposite and came from a hardware background and eventually got into software. But I’ll try and cover some of the more obvious differences for those thinking about trying to work a little differently than they’re used to.

The first thing that will be pretty apparent to most people is that you end up relying a lot less on your eyes when you’re writing. Sounds dumb since we’re making music with these tools, but I think a lot of people really never realize how visually oriented you are when writing music with software. Not saying it’s good or bad necessarily, but it can take some people awhile to get used to just doing things based on what they hear.

Sort of on that same note, with most hardware you’re going to have to get used to what we call “menu diving”. Obviously, it’s just too expensive for most hardware manufacturers to put fancy or large LCDs on their gear, so you end up doing a lot of your sound design and sequencing looking at smaller displays. The good manufacturers do their best to minimize this and make it easier on the end user, but sometimes it can feel a little tedious. I’m used to it mainly, so it doesn’t usually bother me most of the time.  It’s not all bad though, as I’ll talk about shortly.

Another difference is the amount of detail you’ll likely find yourself putting into your music. Not saying that you still can’t get detailed, but a lot times you’ll find that really detailed editing of your songs can take a LOT longer. Some people have the patience for it, especially some of the MPC based guys. Personally I find that it just makes me focus more on creating the individual parts of my song stronger right from the get go, versus relying on micro editing after the fact to provide the ear candy.

In fact this is probably one of my favorite things about working with hardware. It’s usually easier to just try and rerecord a part by playing it correctly, versus having to go back after the fact and edit any mistakes out. Forces you to be a better musician, and not a better programmer.

Ultimately I think this leads people to realize that you end up trying to do most of your sound manipulation in real-time, instead of drawing automation curves (for instance). So in many respects I find that hardware-based workflows tend to lead the user into a more performance oriented method of creating songs. I think this is one reason the whole groovebox thing took off for some companies. A perfect package for creating and performing music, fitting the needs of both the studio and touring musician.

Another thing I think that really makes working with hardware unique is that you really begin to look at your gear like a musical instrument, even if it doesn’t have obvious performance oriented controls like knobs or keys.

For example, I remember my Akai S3000XL sampler surprised me on this front. Tiny LCD screen and lots of buttons, and rack-mounted no less.  Doing anything on it generally required lots of menu diving and button presses, usually repetitively over and over again. After awhile though, you find that you’re doing these really complicated key combinations very quickly, without really thinking about it. You get in the zone while working, where you can realize complex musical ideas and the interface doesn’t get in the way, despite it not being what most would consider the most musically oriented way of working.  Your muscle memory takes over and you often don’t realize how complex what you’re doing really is.

The final difference I think that really will stand out to most people, is the lack of presets. Or maybe I should say useable presets. Most hardware groove boxes or workstations come with a decent amount of presets, but honestly most are kind of cheesy and dated sounding in my opinion. You’ll likely end up spending more time making your own sounds from scratch than you would with most software synths, many of which come with hundreds if not thousands of useable sounds.

Again, not a bad thing in my opinion, but it’s not for everyone. I could go on with examples of how hardware workflows are different from software, but I think these are the most obvious ones, at least from my perspective.

A few people have asked me for recommendations on what to buy if they want to get into making music with hardware.  I’m obviously a huge fan of the Elektron gear, though I realize that those boxes are at a premium and some people might not want to invest that much until the know if they like the workflow of hardware.

In that respect, I think the Korg EMX-1 is probably one of the best choices for most people to get into the hardware side of things.  Decent drum sounds, solidly built, portable, and you can easily do complete songs on it with just a little perseverance.  The synth section will probably seem super basic to most people, but there’s more depth there than a lot of people give it credit for.  It’s one of those synths where the controls have huge range, so often just tiny movements can have a radical change in the sound.  Definitely something you don’t want to give up on too early.

If anyone has any questions about writing music with hardware versus software, or maybe has some other examples of the differences (good or bad), please leave them in the comments, thanks!


2 Replies to “Soft to Hard?”

  1. Nice post! A few more good words for the EMX… it was one of the first pieces of hardware I got and I am to this day in love with it. From the day it came in the mail I’ve been learning new things about it and figuring out new tricks, and that was about four years ago. It’s competent at nearly everything. I’ve used it to do 100% improvised jams with friends for an hour or more at a time, where I dictate the structure on it but use only one pattern (muting a drum part, changing the sound and sequence, then unmuting it, stuff like that). I’ve also used it as a sound module, just plugging in a midi keyboard and playing with synth parameters and effects, which get totally wild. If I don’t have an idea, I will get one after playing with the thing for 10 minutes. It has its limitations, and sometimes I wish you could get a little more detailed with it, but as an instrument it is amazing and tons of fun.

  2. I started on hardware because that’s all there was 40 years ago. An organ, some guitars with pedals and a tape deck. Up dated to MIDI in the late 80s, went to digital hardware recording in 2004 and finally went DAW two years ago. I still use hardware instruments for most of my sounds.

    I love software for doing the actual recording, but software instruments not so much. I dislike menu diving as much as anyone but I think the GUIs for most softsynths are poorly designed. Like you mentioned, the interfaces are too visually oriented. Why not use sliders for everything rather than knobs? When you mouse a knob you actually make slider motions with it anyway. Since it’s not a piece of hardware, why even bother with GUIs that replicate hardware interfaces? I like the plugs in Ableton Live because they share a common look and feel and give you all the control in a minimum of screen space.

    Dedicated controllers like the APCs, Launchpad, etc. that automap to the software make much more sense to me than using a mouse. It’s really the control interface of soft instruments that needs work. Even with menu diving, hardware has the upper hand here.

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