This is preposterous, completely absurd, you can’t go DAWless on a budget! Hardware is too expensive and takes up too much room! Plus, why would you need to create a workflow without a computer? Who do you think you are?
Why did I decide to begin creating music without the use of a computer?
First, let's clarify what I mean by creating music without the use of a computer. As you may be well aware but for some of you who are not in the know, music creation on a computer use a DAW, abbreviation for a Digital Audio Workstation. It's a piece of software that musicians and producers use to record, edit, and create music. The combination of today's computer horsepower and the sophistication of plugins such as virtual instruments and effects has made it easier for any professional and amateur artist to create amazing music. As a musician myself, I'm blown away by the magnitude of instruments at my fingertips. My toolbox is literally overflowing with the tools at my disposal. For the last few years, I went down the rabbit hole of creating electronic music using an overabundance of sample sounds and virtual instruments. I could achieve a decent sound and experiment with so many possible choices. It was a lot of fun. However, suddenly it wasn't fun.
I felt like I was missing something. There was a disconnect. There was no sense of unpredictability. When I was done with my tracks, they sounded the same every time I played them back. It was predictable. I bought an excellent MIDI controller to connect with the music through the DAW, and it was satisfying, for about a minute. I've always been a drummer and only dabbled in learning music theory and playing melodic instruments here and there. DAWs allow those who didn't memorize their chords and scales to create music that makes sense. All you need to do is program it into the software. Even when using a physical keyboard, I was still programming in the MIDI notes. The controller allowed for the ability to map knob controls to the software parameters, but it still didn't feel authentic. Something was missing.
I then became interested in hardware analog synthesizers—the real thing, with physical knobs, switches, and faders. However, most of this equipment is expensive and large but lucky for me, there has been a surge of smaller mobile synths and desktop units in recent years. So, I started to research. What would I need to make electronic music fun again?
I thought about the elements of the song arrangement. There are the percussion and bass, which makes up the foundation. There are also pads which can be string sections, synths, or guitar power chords. You need a rhythm section, often played by guitar or percussion that brings in emotions and drives the song, and the lead sits on top of the music like vocals, keys, or a guitar solo. So how would I achieve this in a live setting with only two arms and two legs?
The foundation can be sequenced or programmed to play individual notes and drum sounds on a continuous loop. I discovered the Korg Volca series, which filled this need. They offer small synths that fit in the palm of your hand and sync together to play in unison. These units are very affordable when purchased brand new, and even more affordable slightly used. To add some real sounding drums and percussion, I picked up a used Alesis SR16 drum machine at an attractive price. The presets sound fantastic, and it syncs up to the Volcas using MIDI.
To create the pad sounds, I picked up the Yamaha CS Reface mobile virtual synth. It is a small three-octave keyboard with deep analog sounds. It comes with built-in effects and a looper that stays in time when connected through MIDI to the central clock, using the SR16 drum machine. This unit also serves to create motifs and solos.
Achieving the rhythm sound is done through the Behringer CAT desktop analog synth, controlled by the Arturia Keystep. The Keystep provides a built-in sequencer, but you can also switch the CAT to bypass mode to give a consistent drone sound that can easily be manipulated using the unit's analog capabilities. To add more sounds to the rhythm section, I also picked up the Akai MPX8, which offers eight sample pads in a slim design. This allows me to utilize the immense library of samples I have acquired over the years.
All these devices are plugged into my Yamaha MG10XU with built-in effects. Usually, I dial in the reverb. Speaking of effects, I also use guitar effects pedals to enhance the sound. The SR16 is plugged into a Boss GT-1, the Volca Bass is going into a Boss ME-50, and the CAT uses a group of chorus, delay, and distortion pedals. The CS Reface already has built effects, and the Volca Beats relies on the mixer's onboard effects.
So, you are probably thinking, how is this on a budget? Well, most of the gear I already had lying around or was given to me, the rest I bought used. The CAT and the CS are the only items I paid full price, since I could not find them used. They were purchased at just under $300 each. My advice is to look at what you already own and then build up from there. Always buy used before buying new. Some great bargains to be had are on Reverb.com, at local music stores, Craigslist, and Facebook Marketplace. Think about a good computer's cost, with a good DAW, samples, a controller, and plugins. I'm not saying that going DAWless is a better bargain. You get a lot more with a computer, but the limitations of a computer less system provide a lot more creativity, and it doesn't have to put a massive dent in your bank account. Plus, all of the physical gear has value and can be resold. You can't resell a plugin.
A computer less setup isn't for everybody, and it does bring some challenging logistics. However, once you dial it in and all of your devices are in sync, get ready for some great fun. My personal favorite is the spontaneity of recording a jam in one take. It might not be perfect, but that's the beauty of creating art.
Brian Lundgren is a marketing professional, musician, and family man living in the Southeast region of Massachusetts.