We look at the history, the theory and the practice of making electronic music without a computer.
If you’ve been on the internet in the last 10 years, you’ve probably stumbled across the phrase ‘DAWless jamming’. It’s a mildly clumsy expression for making electronic music without a computer. For older readers, this won’t seem like a new thing, but for anyone brought up in the age of computers, the DAW is the obvious first step in an electronic musician’s journey. But what happens after that?
The focus of DAWless jamming tends to be on solo performances where pre‑programmed drum machines and sequencers provide a framework around which experimentation and fluidity are still possible, both in the sound and arrangement. A DAWless jam can provide anything from the structure for a new song to a six‑hour live set in the club. The machines are the orchestra and the performer is the conductor.
Whilst the first instrument to use electricity as a sound source dates back as far as 1876 (Elisha Gray’s Musical Telegraph), the first popular electronic instrument was the Theremin, designed and built by Léon Theremin in 1920. Whilst these instruments paved the way for electronic music, it wasn’t until the invention of the drum machine — the Rhythmicon in 1930, again by Léon Theremin — that the idea of using machines to generate real‑time musical performances really took off.
It would take another 40 years before the use of drum machines began to infiltrate popular music in any significant way. Sly & the Family Stone’s ‘Family Affair’ was the first number‑one pop single to feature a drum machine (the Maestro Rhythm King MRK‑2) in 1971. Even then, it wasn’t until the 1980s that the drum machine, synthesizer and sequencer took a proper hold over popular music.
Built in 1948, Raymond Scott’s Electronium was a beautiful and innovative modular synthesizer which housed an ‘automatic composition machine’ which would allow the user to develop musical phrases. This could be considered the first synthesizer/sequencer combo. It would take Buchla and Moog another decade to arrive at much the same point. In 1964, the Buchla 100 synthesizer contained the first commercially available sequencer with the Moog Modular sequencer module arriving a few years later.
After this, sequenced music began to filter into the mainstream. Artists like Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schultz embraced the sequencer in the early 1970s. Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’ exploded into the number‑one spot in 1977, and although it used sequencers they were painstakingly multitracked. The Moog modular, the song’s primary instrument, consistently went out of tune and had to be retuned mid‑take. At this point, in the late 1970s, sequencers and synthesizers were still too expensive for anyone but the very rich and successful. It was cutting‑edge technology which often cost the equivalent of a house or a car.
It was during this period that the first seedlings of electronic jamming began to sprout — specifically the idea that multiple machines could run in synchronisation. In the analogue domain, modular synthesizers working with CV and gate signals could accept an analogue clock to synchronise their sequencers. A drum machine is essentially a complicated clock, and so even without a dedicated clock output, a drum machine can still be used to synchronise a sequencer. Musicians in Germany during the late ’60s and early ’70s were the first real pioneers of these techniques. ‘Kosmische musik’ (or Krautrock as the British press contemptuously labelled them) made great use of sequenced elements in their music and laid down the foundations for ambient and techno music in later decades.
The 1980s would see significant advances in technology, with digital components reducing cost and increasing complexity. Arguably the world’s most iconic drum machine, the Roland TR‑808, was released right at the beginning of the decade. The standardisation of MIDI in 1983 played an enormous part in allowing instruments to communicate with each other. Drum machines, synthesizers and sequencers also came down to affordable prices and this sparked an electronic music revolution. The pop charts flooded with electronic music and underground music styles like breakdance, boogie, electro, house, techno, acid and rave were all products of the 1980s.
DAWless jamming isn’t a revolution, it’s a natural progression. Building upon the work by pioneers of synthesis in the 1960s and 1970s has naturally led to this point.
Artists still struggled with synchronisation during this period. Tape was still the common recording medium, and many electronic songs were still made using traditional overdub methods of laying down multiple tracks, one at a time, onto multitrack tape. There are many early breakdance and electro records where you can clearly hear the drum machine is not quite in sync with the rest of the song. Instead of relying on any machine‑based synchronisation, the artist simply set their drum machine to roughly the same tempo as their song and pressed play at the appropriate time whilst punching in on the tape machine (check out Ollie & Jerry’s ‘There’s No Stopping Us’ from 1984 for a great example of this). By the late 1980s, however, MIDI clock was becoming widely adopted, as was SMPTE timecode, which allowed multitrack tape machines to synchronise with sequencers and drum machines far more accurately.
The 1990s brought the widespread use of computers into the music‑making process. With MIDI well established now, computers in the studio were at first restricted to MIDI programming. Audio recording came later. In both home and professional studios, the Atari ST became widely used as a sequencer thanks to its integral MIDI ports. Steinberg’s Cubase and C‑Lab Notator (which later became Logic) were both born on the Atari. Whilst this revolution was going on, manufacturers were still evolving standalone instruments. Digital synthesis, sampling and grooveboxes were all very popular. In many ways, ’90s grooveboxes were the genesis of a lot of modern desktop devices from manufacturers like Elektron, Akai, Teenage Engineering, etc. Roland recently revived their groovebox concept with the MC707 and MC101 (see Simon Sherbourne’s reviews in our February 2020 edition).
The first decade of the new millennium I shall call ‘the lost years’. This is grossly unfair, but it is true to say that the trend to work ‘in the box’ was unsurprising given just how revolutionary DAWs were. The computer could now do everything. Creators of electronic music were beguiled by the possibilities of audio multitracking, sequencing, virtual instruments, effects, large hard disks and RAM, all on one affordable PC. It seemed like a dream come true. Clunky, expensive, analogue instruments were sold off at bargain prices (or worse, skipped!) in exchange for the latest Pentium processor technology.
Of course, in hindsight, it’s easy to see that making music with nothing but a mouse and a keyboard was never going to be musically satisfying. There is no doubting the convenience and power that editing, mixing and mastering on a computer provides, but when it comes to the visceral, tactile, emotional and spiritual aspects of writing music, real instruments win every time. And so over the last two decades, despite the computer revolution, and to some degree because of it, a new wave of electronic musicians are discovering the joys of making music away from the computer.
Generally speaking, making electronic music without a computer now looks something like a larger version of a guitar pedalboard. Desktop instruments take up little space and can be rearranged with ease. Gone are the huge keyboards and synthesizers of the 1970s requiring two roadies and a technician. Lay out a few small instruments, plug in audio, MIDI and USB cables and you have a connected system that will, with a bit of technical know‑how, synchronise and behave as a coherent whole. This synchronisation is the key, with multiple machines producing complex patterns in (hopefully) perfect time with each other.
At the budget‑conscious end of the market, these devices might include Korg Volcas, Roland Boutiques, Elektron’s Model range, Behringer’s ever‑increasing range of clones, an Arturia Beatstep sequencer or a huge number of devices from smaller independent manufacturers. There is plenty of choice at the more expensive end of the market too. Flagship machines like the Akai MPC X, Elektron Octatrack MkII and Sequentix Cirklon can act as powerful centrepieces orchestrating multiple other machines.
Most setups, just like a pedalboard, or even a full studio, are unique to their owners but they will share common elements. First of all, it is worth examining the various technologies which help connect everything together. Largely, they are the same protocols and connections we used back in the 1980s and 1990s.
Audio connections: Of course, you need to move audio around. Audio connectors take the classic format of quarter‑inch TRS or TS jack plugs. Some budget instruments use 3.5mm jacks to save on cost. If you have more than two or three instruments, you will likely need a mixing desk, although some instruments have audio inputs, which allows you daisy‑chain audio.
MIDI connections: MIDI is a widely adopted, digital protocol which allows instruments to communicate important information such as what note to play and when, what bpm your song is at, and exactly where in the song you are. MIDI connections are made via either 5‑pin DIN cables, USB cables or 3.5mm jack cables. MIDI can send up to 16 different channels through one cable (more with USB), which means a single cable can be used to control multiple individual sounds or, with the help of a handy MIDI Thru box, multiple instruments.
CV/Gate connections: These are purely analogue connections made of simple voltages. A gate is an on/off switch (voltage high or low) mostly used for note on/off. CV is a variable voltage which can be used to automate anything, but is mostly used for note pitch. CV and Gate are used in analogue devices, especially in the modular world. In most desktop devices they take the form of a 3.5mm jack, although in larger modular systems quarter‑inch jacks or ‘banana’ jacks are common.
Clock connections: Clocks are used to transmit timing and transport information between devices. MIDI clock is the most common, and can be transmitted and received via the same MIDI cables used for note information. Clock can also be transmitted via audio cables as an analogue clock. This will take the form of voltage pulses similar to Gate and CV signals already described. Different manufacturers use different analogue clock rates, so making sure your devices use the same rates is essential for good sync (you can usually select between the most commonly used rates using a setup option).
As a general rule, for good synchronisation one instrument needs to act as the master. This machine will control the others, especially with regards to clocking and sequencing. Normally, this will be the machine with the most sequencing capabilities. At the very least, it should be able to transmit MIDI notes and clock to other machines which can receive them. Other machines may also be able to sequence, but will start, stop and get tempo information from the master machine. If, for example, you have an Akai MPC, but wish to add some analogue drums, you might add an Arturia Drumbrute. The Drumbrute can sequence itself, and so you have two machines both playing complex sequences in sync. In this case, sync would come in the form of MIDI clock, with the MPC set to send clock, and the Drumbrute set to receive it. Once correctly configured, the master transport controls on the MPC will start and stop both machines and keep the tempos matched.
Some devices will not sequence at all. A synthesizer module, for example, may focus solely on creating sounds, with sequences being provided by way of MIDI or CV/Gate input (sometimes both) from a different machine. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Too many sequencers can be a recipe for chaos. Let’s say you have written a song with four main parts: an intro, a verse, a chorus and a middle eight. There is no widely accepted protocol for changing song parts in sequencers. Most sequencers will happily let you arrange songs in parts and trigger those parts in a variety of ways, but getting one machine to synchronise the change from verse to chorus on other machines can be difficult. Some sequencers allow for MIDI Program Changes (a special type of MIDI message designed to change a preset or program) to switch song parts. Others simply have no system at all. This limitation, which has been evident in sequencers since their popularisation in the 1980s, is a strong contributing factor to electronic music’s repetitive nature. Ever thought a song sounded like the artist was simply muting and unmuting tracks in order to give the illusion of structure? That is, quite often, exactly what is happening. It has its own charm — just don’t expect DAW levels of structural flexibility.
Let’s consider the various roles which need to be fulfilled in creating a song. Firstly, there are the raw sounds: drums, synths, samples etc. These are arranged with a sequencer and mixed with a mixer. Also, some effects might be nice. And perhaps you might want to add some live vocals or other live instruments. For anyone starting from scratch, this might seem like a daunting hit on the bank balance, and it could be, but there are ways to start small.
There are many electronic musical instruments which can provide drums, rhythms, synthesis, sampling, sequencing and effects in a single box. If you are wary of weaning yourself off the DAW, many all‑in‑one instruments offer some optional DAW integration so that you can sketch out songs on the instrument and then fine‑tune and polish in the DAW if you so wish. The latest Akai MPC series are a shining example of this. In fact they may be the closest thing to a DAW‑in‑a‑box on the market. Many of Elektron’s instruments, such as the Octatrack or Rytm, can pipe multitrack audio straight to your DAW through their Overbridge software. If you’re looking for a halfway house between DAW and DAWless, these are a great place to start.
Once you master a single instrument and decide that you want to take it further, it’s worth asking yourself what is missing most in the instrument you already have. If you have an instrument which focuses mostly on sampling and sequencing you might want to add some real analogue synthesis. If you have something more synthesis focussed, you might want to add a dedicated drum machine. Or perhaps you need some effects, or a mixer to handle the ever‑expanding number of machines on your desktop (they seem to multiply at an alarming rate!).
Whilst you have only a few instruments, effects and audio routing can be largely achieved by patching cables from one instrument into another. After a while, however, it makes sense to consolidate the audio management to one place, the mixer. A mixing desk is an inevitable addition to any small‑ to medium‑size setup. Luckily there are many suitable mixers on the market. For a first time, I often recommend a 12‑channel mixer. Whatever you decide, just make sure to get a few more channels than you need. This will give some room to grow. The mixer can handle mixing different audio inputs, but also routing audio from one instrument to another. Whilst you might use the mixer’s aux channels to send a channel to a reverb or delay effect, the aux channels can also be useful for sending audio to samplers. In this way, you can sample any instrument without re‑patching cables. View any instrument with an audio input as a potential for a mixer’s aux channel. For this reason, I recommend getting a mixing desk with as many auxiliary channels as possible.
The goal of all this is to have fun whilst making music, but inevitably we need to mix and record a final product, whether it be a song, or a marathon live set. This is the bit where we admit that DAWless jamming might (but not necessarily) involve some level of DAW. Recording to a DAW obviously has many advantages. You can record multitrack from a mixer, either with a built‑in multichannel soundcard, or via direct outputs on the mixer to a separate soundcard. For many, this is the perfect balance of computer integration. DAWless for the writing and arranging, DAW for recording and mixing.
For a full DAWless experience, there are other options. If you like the 1990s sonic aesthetic, you can mix straight to 2‑track, direct from the mixer’s master outputs. Again, the computer can be involved, but there are standalone recorders. These include options for recording digitally to SD card, such as the Denon DN‑300R or Tascam SD‑20M, or you can go for something more old‑school, like a cassette recorder. Another option might be to get a mixer with integrated multichannel recording such as the Tascam Model 24 or the Zoom LiveTrack L‑20. These allow you to record multitrack to SD card and then play back the multitracks to mix.
DAWless jamming isn’t a revolution, it’s a natural progression. Building upon the work by pioneers of synthesis in the 1960s and 1970s has naturally led to this point, and although the technologies involved, such as MIDI and control voltages, are much the same, there is more choice and sophistication available than ever and at a price to suit almost everyone. It’s an exciting time for electronic musicians and there really is no excuse not to put the mouse and keyboard away and give DAWless jamming a try.
In the secondhand market there are plenty of instruments from the 1990s and later that work very well in a modern DAWless setup. Right now, rackmounted effects and instruments are very affordable, as are mixing desks from the same era. 1990s samplers can be a great source of authentic flavour too. Whilst many old samplers work with outdated storage mediums like floppy disk, ZIP disks or Smart Media, many can be updated to work with Compact Flash cards or SD card, which can give these old machines a new lease of life.