My year of grooveboxes and "toy" synths

Want to talk about music hardware or software that doesn't include Reason?
User avatar
jayhosking
Posts: 520
Joined: 28 Nov 2016

Post 02 Dec 2018

Hello! This is the year I really got into hardware, and I thought it'd be a good excuse to put together a list of small machines that can really inspire the songwriting/soundmaking process, including in Reason. I was hoping maybe others could point out other interesting, cool little units that may be similarly inspiring. So without further ado:

Novation Circuit: A spectacular little groovebox, probably the best value and most intuitive of all the ones I'll list here. Two polyphonic synths and four drum tracks (which can have multiple sounds each, just not at the same time), with excellent effects and sequencing capabilities. Every firmware update has vastly improved the machine, and it's hard to describe just how well thought-out each aspect is, how much fun these are to play with. Switching between the dedicated synth, drum, effects, sequencing, mixing, etc. pages is quick and perfectly laid out. Lots of stereo width options, from within the synth (e.g. chorus), to the reverb and delay effects (surprisingly great), to mixing in the stereo field. Having a master filter is fantastic for builds and progressions. The biggest drawbacks are that a) it's so much fun you wish it had twice the number of tracks and units, and b) the accompanying software is no fun to use.

Teenage Engineering's Pocket Operators: If you had told me I'd have a $100 sampler I could carry around my neck and power with AAA batteries, I wouldn't have believed you. But the PO-33 is simply stellar. Its limitations, like a four-sample polyphony (if that's even the right term), mean it can't really be used a standalone machine, but it is the ultimate little inspiration device. I was climbing the stairs in a very reverberating stairwell, pulled out the PO-33, sampled me whistling in it, and five minutes later I had a song and beat to go along with it. The real special feature on these Pocket Operators are their performance effects, and how they can take a two-bar phrase and make endless variations out of it by stuttering, filtering, detuning, etc. After that I picked up the PO-32, which is fine, but shines for its performance effects, and a PO-20, which has this brilliant chord-progression feature that allows you to take short phrases and turn them into full songs. Altogether, the PO-33 is a must-have for me, and the others are just some fun toys to tinker with. And all three are cheaper than even a Circuit!

Elektron Digitakt: Not for me! It's a sampler and sequencer with some neat effects parameters, but I found the workflow to be very slow and fiddly, sampling and file management wasn't super simple (compared to the PO-33 above), there were troubles with chaining together patterns into longer songs, and all of the samples were mono. Still, as a sequencer for other hardware, plus for its effects and its "return to basic state after cranking everything crazily", there were some neat features to it. I sold this one after a couple of weeks.

Teenage Engineering's OP-1: If you're looking for a device that makes you write things you'd never write otherwise, the OP-1 is it. With nine (!) different synth engines, drum machine, sampler, and weird onboard effects, you can make standard subtractive or FM synthesis, but a standard approach leads to weird, playful sounds instead. In lieu of MIDI sequencing, it has a four-track "tape" recorder, with easy cutting and pasting functionality, which means that it's much less about sequenced data and much more about playing your tracks. There are some severe limitations to the device, including having only four tracks to work with, and all the tracks/sounds are mono (though you can stereo pan them), and some of your bread & butter effects aren't well represented (e.g. reverb). It's also very expensive. But for all its shortcomings, it makes fantastic and weird sounds that aren't easily reproducible anywhere else, whether you're slowing down the "tape" to get a beautiful Boards of Canada feel, or cranking up the Cow effect (a sort of flanger/phaser/delay thing) and watching the cow light up, or simply generating ambience by tweaking one of its arpeggiators to an extremely fast rate. Plus, when it's time to export these sounds, you can plug the OP-1 into a computer and it is recognized as a hard drive, so you simply drag the "tape" tracks off. Putting new patches and samples onto the OP-1 is similarly easy. All in all, a one-of-a-kind music maker that quickly allows you to bring inspiring ideas into Reason.

Maschine MkIII: Not strictly a groovebox, but rather an interface for using sounds on computer software. As such, it's much less portable than the others and requires a tether to a laptop at all times. But it's amazing how well the Maschine MkIII captures the groovebox experience, while also greatly expanding modularity (e.g. stacking effects on effects), sound library (the Native Instruments sets, plus many compatible VSTs I already own and love), and editing features (quantizing, moving MIDI data around). The main reason I bring it up is for a feature that most people, including dorks on YouTube, fail to mention when talking about Maschine: 100% of your workflow can be on the hardware device itself, never requiring you to look at your computer. The main reason I got into hardware and grooveboxes this year was because I was sick of staring at my computer for fun (after a day of staring at my computer for work), so the Maschine is a great way to get the benefit of the "box" without looking at said box. The only time I need look at my laptop is when naming files and when changing out of 4/4 time signature; everything else is handled wonderfully by a piece of hardware that feels sturdy and looks like a great hardware machine. If you don't need the portability, the Maschine MkIII is arguably the most powerful choice.

Synthstrom Deluge: Often referred to as "the Novation Circuit on steroids", this boutique groovebox from New Zealand is pricey but powerful. The expanded grid (8x16), plus zooming in/out, make sequencing super easy. Unlike the Circuit, where you only have access to eight parameters on the hardware, the Deluge gives you access to all elements of the oscillator, filter, envelope, effects, etc. And the most important selling feature of all: it has unlimited tracks, well, until you sufficiently tax the little CPU in it. This means that it could potentially circumvent all the frustration of working on a Circuit, having multiple synth and drum lines all in one box. But ultimately I haven't been super happy with the Deluge. Its build quality feels cheaper than the rest here, its default synths and drums are very bland, and there are a number of choices that only hinder the experience (like mono mod effects, or no way to effect your entire drum track at once, or dull reverb algorithms). Most importantly, its workflow is far less intuitive than the Circuit, which means I spend more time looking at the manual to pull up commands, or navigating around within its menus, instead of making music. I thought this would be the best of all of them, an über-Circuit, but ultimately I think I'm going to sell it, since I don't love the sounds or the workflow. And instead, I'm going to pick up another Circuit.

Teenage Engineering's OP-Z: Not much to say here, as this one is in shipping, but it seems to have some of my favourite elements from TE's Pocket Operator series (e.g. the performance effects), plus some stereo sounds and effects, plus its own distinct sound/vibe going on. I'm hopeful.

Ultimately, my favourite part of tinkering around with all these little devices is how they become the starting point for songs I finish in Reason. I'll be posting some on the forum once my semester is over and I can mix some tracks.

How about you? Any secret hardware grooveboxes or synths or music-makers that you find super inspiring or useful in later producing music in the box? I'm curious about the Critter and Guitari Organelle, or the reissued classic drum machines, or even some of Arturia's hardware with sequencers. Anything you're in love with right now?

User avatar
aeox
Posts: 1848
Joined: 23 Feb 2017
Location: Oregon

Post 02 Dec 2018

I've been planning to buy a "flagship" synth in the future when I've got the money. Deepmind 12 has had my attention for a while but would probably do fine with the 6 voice variant.

I'm still having a lot of fun using stompboxes on Reason synths! They are fairly cheap too. It's no secret or anything, people do it all the time :) I just find it very inspiring to run digital stuff through analog boxes. Even just running something out of the interface back into the interface preamp can be useful for some things, then you can distort the preamp of your interface as well. Lots of fun!
whoahh

Last edited by aeox on 24 May 2018, edited too many times in total.

User avatar
jayhosking
Posts: 520
Joined: 28 Nov 2016

Post 02 Dec 2018

aeox wrote:
02 Dec 2018
I've been planning to buy a "flagship" synth in the future when I've got the money. Deepmind 12 has had my attention for a while but would probably do fine with the 6 voice variant.

I'm still having a lot of fun using stompboxes on Reason synths! They are fairly cheap too. It's no secret or anything, people do it all the time :) I just find it very inspiring to run digital stuff through analog boxes. Even just running something out of the interface back into the interface preamp can be useful for some things, then you can distort the preamp of your interface as well. Lots of fun!
It was a good year for musical equipment for me, and getting a "flagship" synth has been super inspiring. Honestly, though, it's as much for the tactile set-up as it is for the actual sounds. Makes me consider getting Omnisphere if only so that I keep the tactile interactions but get the bonus of overcoming specific limitations of each synth (e.g. polyphony).

And, embarrassingly, I've never been able to quickly figure out how to route audio out of Reason, into an external effect, and back into Reason. I'm sure it's not so hard, and I've done it aplenty in other DAWs, but something about the Reason set-up isn't intuitive for me. It's something I'd like to amend this month, since I have a couple of effect pedals I'd love to take advantage of in the Reason environment. Time to read the manual, or find a video on it.

User avatar
aeox
Posts: 1848
Joined: 23 Feb 2017
Location: Oregon

Post 02 Dec 2018

jayhosking wrote:
02 Dec 2018
aeox wrote:
02 Dec 2018
I've been planning to buy a "flagship" synth in the future when I've got the money. Deepmind 12 has had my attention for a while but would probably do fine with the 6 voice variant.

I'm still having a lot of fun using stompboxes on Reason synths! They are fairly cheap too. It's no secret or anything, people do it all the time :) I just find it very inspiring to run digital stuff through analog boxes. Even just running something out of the interface back into the interface preamp can be useful for some things, then you can distort the preamp of your interface as well. Lots of fun!
It was a good year for musical equipment for me, and getting a "flagship" synth has been super inspiring. Honestly, though, it's as much for the tactile set-up as it is for the actual sounds. Makes me consider getting Omnisphere if only so that I keep the tactile interactions but get the bonus of overcoming specific limitations of each synth (e.g. polyphony).

And, embarrassingly, I've never been able to quickly figure out how to route audio out of Reason, into an external effect, and back into Reason. I'm sure it's not so hard, and I've done it aplenty in other DAWs, but something about the Reason set-up isn't intuitive for me. It's something I'd like to amend this month, since I have a couple of effect pedals I'd love to take advantage of in the Reason environment. Time to read the manual, or find a video on it.
Tactility is important for sure! Makes music creation more fun and human. I don't have any hardware synths or grooveboxes of that nature but I do have a midi controller with 16 knobs/8 pads that is really great for recording automation on filters, etc.

This is how I do external effects:

Make sure to activate the outputs and inputs if they aren't activated already. Then I use an entire mix channel just for the external effect and route the mix channel to a second channel. This way you can use delay compensation pretty easily.

Image
whoahh

Last edited by aeox on 24 May 2018, edited too many times in total.

User avatar
jayhosking
Posts: 520
Joined: 28 Nov 2016

Post 04 Dec 2018

aeox wrote:
02 Dec 2018
This is how I do external effects:

Make sure to activate the outputs and inputs if they aren't activated already. Then I use an entire mix channel just for the external effect and route the mix channel to a second channel. This way you can use delay compensation pretty easily.

Image
This is WAY easier than I was trying to make it. Thanks! I'll try it this month. (I'll also finally be recording vocals on that song we discussed!)

User avatar
aeox
Posts: 1848
Joined: 23 Feb 2017
Location: Oregon

Post 04 Dec 2018

jayhosking wrote:
04 Dec 2018
This is WAY easier than I was trying to make it. Thanks! I'll try it this month. (I'll also finally be recording vocals on that song we discussed!)
Glad to hear that!
whoahh

Last edited by aeox on 24 May 2018, edited too many times in total.

prophecy
Posts: 41
Joined: 18 Oct 2018
Location: Liverpool

Post 07 Dec 2018

Well now I want to buy loads of things! I'm really tempted by a Pocket Operator and the OP-1, maybe there'll be a January sale.

EDIT - Just seen the OP-1 is almost £800! That's not happening.
Reason 10 Lite | Surface Pro 3 i5 | Akai MPK Mini II | Yamaha Clavinova CVP5 | Fingers | Ears |

User avatar
jayhosking
Posts: 520
Joined: 28 Nov 2016

Post 07 Dec 2018

prophecy wrote:
07 Dec 2018
Well now I want to buy loads of things! I'm really tempted by a Pocket Operator and the OP-1, maybe there'll be a January sale.

EDIT - Just seen the OP-1 is almost £800! That's not happening.
Hah, AND the OP-1 just got discontinued, so it probably won’t even be around for you to buy!

But I would really, really recommend the PO-33. That thing just makes inspiration fast and accessible. You can take a two-bar beat and sample and make endless permutations of it. And for under a hundred bucks! Pretty incredible.

prophecy
Posts: 41
Joined: 18 Oct 2018
Location: Liverpool

Post 07 Dec 2018

jayhosking wrote:
07 Dec 2018
Hah, AND the OP-1 just got discontinued, so it probably won’t even be around for you to buy!
What luck!
Reason 10 Lite | Surface Pro 3 i5 | Akai MPK Mini II | Yamaha Clavinova CVP5 | Fingers | Ears |

  • Information
  • Who is online

    Users browsing this forum: CommonCrawl [Bot] and 0 guests