Friday, 17 June 2011

Back to Basics

I’m in the middle of writing the music for an album, and I have the basic parts written for a good chunk of it. They still need to be arranged, but when that’s done I reckon there will be about 20 minutes of music. I was going through the session files earlier on (I’m converting them all from Cubase SX and Cubase 5 sessions into Pro Tools sessions, because I prefer to work in Pro Tools) and I realised that almost all of the synth parts use Reason as a sound source. There are a couple of little flourishes that use my D-50, and one Juno-106 bass line, but the rest is all done in Reason. What’s more, a good chunk of it was programmed in by mouse, rather than being played in. This has got me thinking; why do I have all of this wonderful vintage gear if I’m just going to use Reason for everything?

Before I was a Cubase user I used to sequence music using a Yamaha QX-21 sequencer, playing in music, quantising it and recording overdubs. It had two tracks, each capable of recording the full 16 tracks of MIDI, and it could record roughly 5 minutes worth of music before it ran out of note events. I liked working like this, because I could loop sections and build up complex arrangements while improvising over the top. This all stopped when I began using Cubase SX, because I could drag notes onto the piano roll and control all of the parameters very easily. I began using VST instruments and soundfont sample banks to make music, so my outboard gear (which at that time was my F-100 and a cheap Yamaha PSR) became little more than MIDI controller keyboards. The QX-21 began to gather dust, so I sold it on eBay.

Slowly I built up a collection of gear that I liked, and had it all set up so I could jam with it, but with plugins being so easy to use most of the time the hardware synths were pretty much just for jamming. One synth in particular, my Juno-G is great for that, because it has an on-board sequencer that’s somewhere between the QX-21 and Cubase in terms of functionality. I used it a lot at first for getting ideas down, and some of them have stuck with me, but after a while I began using the Cubase/Reason combo for that sort of stuff, leaving me with yet another piece of hardware that isn’t reaching its full potential. So neglected is my Juno-G that I thought of selling it a couple of months ago. I even had the eBay listing typed up, but I couldn’t bring myself to in the end,

Using Pro Tools and Reason as composing tools has made me lazy as a musician, engineer and composer, especially when it comes to setting up gear. My laptop and my Axiom are what I use most of the time to make music these days, usually because I can’t be bothered to set up the Juno-G or the TX-802, and I feel slightly ashamed that I've become so dependent on software. Sure, it’s a great way to record music, but it’s not the best way to write music, because 9 times out of 10 I can’t play what I’ve written unless I learn it, so live performance becomes a real chore.

I mentioned the Yamaha QX-21 for a reason; a few weeks ago I went onto eBay and found one going for £20, so I bought it. I’m going to re-learn how to use it, and get back into the habit of computerless sequencing. Of course I’ll have to use Pro Tools to capture audio, but that’s different from relying on it as a sequencer. I encourage everyone who has become a slave to their computers to try this with me, see what you can produce without a modern MIDI sequencer, and without plugins and virtual instruments. It’ll be hard, but it might encourage me to get off my backside and do something, rather than sitting here at my laptop dragging MIDI events around. Who know, I might even make better music as a result.

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  1. Hi, just read your article. Interesting! I a a guitarist (synth-guitarist) and have just bought an old QX-21 to dip my toe into sequencing.

    Do you have any tips on how to save songs externally for importing back into the QX-21?

    How have you found it as a workable unit in the modern context? I intend to use it live for a couple of synth-based tracks.



  2. Hi there Steve

    I use the QX-21 once or twice a month, usually when I'm working with my microkorg and my D-50. It's not the easiest of sequencers to use, especially when you're used to something meaty like Pro Tools or Logic, but it can work in a life context. I tend to use it for getting ideas down when I'm sick of looking at a screen.

    As far as data backup goes, the way I would do it is to use the tape out socket on the back and record the sound into your computer as an audio file. Failing that you could use a MIDI sequencer program and record it in in real time.

    Best of luck with it,

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