Exit Strategy - Answering the Age Old Gear Question

When I play shows and meet people around the world through music, one of the most common questions I get asked is "what did you use to make _insert album title_?"  Of course, my normal friends (read: not involved in the music world in any way) never ask this question, but it seems to come up a lot in music circles. The answer is never really that interesting--I have always used a very stripped-down set up as far as equipment goes. I used to write entire songs (sequencing and all) from an Ensoniq EPS 16+ keyboard sampler. Eventually, I added some synth and drum modules, then effects, then software sequencers until the mass of wires and flashing LED lights became a creative barrier.

For all of the Larvae material after Monster Music, everything has been sequenced with some version of Cubase and my primary instrument has been Native Instruments' Kontakt sampler. I've dabbled with plugins and other soft synths, and for a while I actually still kept some outboard gear that I synched up with MIDI and mixed down to audio tracks from an external mixer. But all of that got to be too cumbersome. Cubase never kept up with my computer upgrades, and it seemed like even fresh installs, upgrades, patches, and new hardware never solved the problem. I lost countless creative hours and motivation that I will never get back trying to get software and hardware to work.

With Exit Strategy, I finally decided to take the plunge and write everything using Ableton Live. I have used Live to perform since 2004 and it's always served me well on the stage, but I had never quite wrapped my head around composing in Live. For one thing, the way external instruments and MIDI trakcs work in Live has never been that intuitive for me. Then, the tension between Live's different views always made it hard for me to figure out how to approach structuring a song. I used to hear songs that people wrote in Live and I could tell right away how the songs were composed because they had that additive loop sound where I could picture the composer stepping through scenes.

It took me about a week to get into the swing of writing with Live. The first couple of tracks were witten in the scene view and based around building up loops into something organic. After a while, I realized that I needed to go back to the standard Left-to-Right timeline approach so that I could see where the songs were headed as they developed. I'm not much of an improviser, so I like to lock down a structure rather than have scenes that can play for indeterminate lengths.

So Live replaced Cubase, but I still used Kontakt as my primary instrument. Like a songwriter who bangs out a melody on a piano only to develop it into a fully-orchestrated piece played by a band, I tend to work from samples in Kontakt to build a foundation that I then flesh out with other instruments. Bass came almost exclusively from the Novation V-Station (as it has for every Larvae record) but I played around with Massive, too, and used that on a couple of songs. Synth sounds came from Absynth, Massive, and a hanfdul of free or cheap plug in soft synths that worked to fill in gaps. I also swear by the Audio Damage fx and I used them on every song!

I am not a tinkerer or knob-twister--I don't have the patience for building synth patches or tweaking complex LFO patterns. I tend to prefer out-of-the-box sounds that I can get some emotional content from in minutes rather than hours. As a result, the studio setup looked like this:

Sequencer and FX: Ableton Live 7
Sampler: NI Kontakt
Bass Synth: Novation V-Station
Synths: NI Absynth 5 & NI Massive; Tweakbench Padawan, Minerva, Peach and others; Glue Reeds, RIP, Majken's Chimera
FX: Audio Damage Dubstation & EOS
Guitar Processing: NI Guitar Rig 2 

Now, a handy infographic made in Ableton Live that shows the history of my studio setup, as best as I can remember. (You can open it to make it bigger.)

Make with the clicking!

Next time: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Guitar