an independent musician

You can explore my music at these links:  Spotify, Apple Music, Bandcamp, Youtube

Learn more about me   here

music workflow - the technical part

This post is not about inspiration, which is the most important aspect of music creation. It is about the equipment and tools that I use in order to create and finish a piece of music. The technical part of our creative process is integral to the inspiration we have when making music. As I read once on a wall:

"As an artist I aspire to become a craftsman. As a craftsman I aspire to become an artist."

The equipment that I use is the following:

  • Yamaha MODX6
  • Roland SH-4d
  • Roland JD-08
  • Korg Wavestate
  • Nektar Panorama P6 midi controller
  • Arturia Keystep 37 midi controller
  • A Lenovo ThinkPad T14 with the following software
    • Debian
    • Ardour Digitial Audio Workstation
    • SurgeXT synth plugin
    • Vital synth plugin
    • various FX plug-ins

Also, there is a MacBook Air with Logix Pro available in the house. It is a super-strong DAW, clearly superior to Ardour on an one-to-one comparison, however, I prefer my workflow under Linux. Regardless, Logic Pro provides access to solutions that may not be (easiliy) available in my Linux system and hence it has become a part of my process. 

I love creating music utilising a range of instruments. All instruments that you hear in my pieces are virtual. Either directly synthesized sounds or sampled acoustic instruments processed with subtractive synthesis methods. 

My usual routine is to just enjoy playing on my hardware synths and once I have something that I really like, I start recording it multiple times until I feel that I get what I want. Sometimes, we get the feeling while we are playing that the melody and performance "is perfect" while when we hear it back we realise that it is... "not even close."

My workhorse is the MODX6. Just browsing the presets and twicking them is a source of inspiration. It also allows for a straightforward use of its sequencer and/or midi recorder that works flawlesly with the DAWs to the point that I wonder if I really need the midi controllers at all. If I had to choose only one piece of equipment this would be it. I mostly use the AWM2 synthesis engine to make my sounds or alter the existing and don't do much with the FM-X synthesis engine (other than the very good presets) as I have trouble getting a sound that I really like from it. Some of the FM presets show the incredible potential of FM synthesis but I can only create sounds that I like with the AWM2 so far. The workflow is straightforward but in order to harness all that potential of the synth, there is plenty of menu diving, which I know some people find annoying but to me there could be no other way to have such extensive expression capabilities.

The SH-4d is a fantastic synthesizer. More traditional and hands-on than the MODX6 with plenty of knobs to make changes to the synthesized sound on the fly. It has eleven (11) synth engines, which may sound overwhelming but they are all quite easy to program. I'd say that it is easier to learn and use all eleven engines of the SH-4d than the two engines of the MODX or the single synth engine of the JD-08. 

The JD-08, which is a boutique clone of the legendary JD-800, seems to be the hardest to learn but as a synthesizer engine, it could be considered the strongest of the three. It is quite an achievement from Roland to fit such a beast in such a small package and the user suffers to create their sounds. Its engine is more complex, with multiple waveforms, separate envelopes for pitch, filter and amplitude, which are more complex and flexible than the traditional ones and two LFOs. Harnessing its potential seems daunting to me. At one point I was considering selling it. Fortunately I didn't. While it is harder to use, the reality for me is that I have used it in my melodies a lot more than the SH-4d. It is far more capable to create evolving sounds and pads in a complex way that seems impossible to do with the other.

The Korg Wavestate is a new addition and I am still trying to get my head around it. Wavesequencing is a straightforward concept and it is combined with traditional subtractive methods. However, it is a unique instrument and I have to admit that, while I enjoy playing with it, I haven't managed to fit it in my workflow.

A more or less standard process for me is as follows: after I have a first cut of my melody, most likely on the MODX6, I will transfer everything (midi and sound) to Ardour and start editing/correcting my midi for obvious flaws and then re-record from the hardware synths. Then I'd complement the melody with the software synths and finally proceed to the very limited mixing and mastering. My mastering knowledge is lacking and this can be heard by experts right away and even non-experts may be disappointed at how my pieces sound if they don't use headphones. I have been studying this and expect my next releases to be improved in terms of mastering. Mixing on the DAW doesn't require much, since I usually do some mixing on my synths before my final recording. The latest update of Logic Pro allows for an automatic mastering of the piece and the first attempts show that it does much better job than me. I am reluctant to introduce any kind of automated or AI methods into my workflow (I am stubborn enough to want to do anything on my own) but this mastering is really tempting.  

In terms of software synths, I find both Vital and SurgeXT extremely useful and versatile. Vital is easier to use and powerful but SurgeXT is even more powerful and still not too hard to learn. While initially I was using Vital more, I now have been using SurgeXT as I can get more inspiring sounds from it, even if that requires a bit more effort. Of course, this is a personal choice, like everything else mentioned above. 

Some people say that inspiration comes from the mind and the equipment doesn't matter. This may be true for other creators, but to me the equipment sometimes helps me unlock something in my mind that I didn't even know it was there. Bach and Mozart didn't have access to a DAW or synths and created the best music in the history of our civilization but, if I had to guess, I'd say that their instruments gave them some inspiration too. I've heard that Beethoven was taking his piano to its maker annoyingly often to make continuous modifications to the structure to achieve the sound he wanted.

I highly recommend supporting the FOSS projects that help us create music. This is an incomplete list:

  • Ardour: a digital audio workstation software
  • SurgeXT: a software plugin hybrid synthesizer
  • a suite of applications for music creation 
  • Debian: GNU/Linux OS that forms the foundation for a lot of other s/w