What Is This, a Keyboard for Ants?

It is amazing how reliant one can become on a normal working environment, certain tools, and software setup. I’m on a quick trip to attend a wedding this weekend, and brought a mini-rig with me to attempt road composition. My workstation consists of my normal DAW, Digital Performer, running on a MacBook pro and using a Novation LaunchKey Mini controller for input.

I’ve tried two other rigs in the past. The first was similar to what I’m using on this trip, but using Propellerheads Reason software, and a larger Novation X25 controller. This was a great setup once in the hotel room, but it was completely unworkable while on a plane, which had been my initial intent. Reason, especially up to version 7, was a sleek and speedy production environment. It’s gotten a bit piggier over the last couple of versions and, while it may be even more capable that it was previously, it’s a lot slower to move around in.

  1. What Is This, a Keyboard for Ants? Ray Toler 2:11

That’s not entirely fair – I suspect that if I spent as much time working in Reason as I do in Digital Performer, it would probably be just as fluid. The mixer is quite nice, though the sequencer isn’t my favorite.

My other travel rig consisted entirely of an Elektron Analog RYTM, which proved to be a creative environment, but completely useless as a workstation. Elektron, in their infinite marketing wisdom, decided to cripple the device by not allowing the sequencer to send MIDI out, meaning that anything put into the sequencer will stay there forever. No bringing things you wrote on the road back and downloading it into the mothership for further production work.

The Analog RYTM is a nice, if overpriced and buggy, end-device for a larger performance rig, but it doesn’t play well with others. Neither does Elektron for that matter, but that’s a story for another time.

So for this trip, it’s back to the laptop/controller approach. I decided to try using my normal sequencer, and the much smaller controller. And this is when I discovered how much I need certain things to be even remotely productive with Digital Performer.

First is a full extended keyboard. The vast majority of my interaction with Digital Performer is through the numeric keypad. I use it to set times, move the wiper, enable the metronome, set count-ins, record, play back, and on and on. It’s my transport section and not having it on my laptop was like trying to work without one of my hands.

I had also decided to try and use only the built-in soft-synths and effects that come with DP. My failure in this area was due not to the synths themselves, but instead to my love of and increasing reliance on my go-to products like Omnisphere, Stylus RMX, and the Korg Legacy Collection.

Additionally, my normal layouts, preferences, clippings, and all of the other environmental niceties that I’ve worked out over the years were completely missing from this fresh installation. You wouldn’t think it would be a big deal to use the normal menu command, but after getting used to a faster way, it’s very difficult to go back.

The mobile studio. Amazingly powerful, yet still frustrating.
That keyboard needs to be at least… three times bigger.

Finally, I am quite certain that if I were to be eternally damned, a possible punishment would be having to compose on mini-keys until the end of time. They are evil, inspiration-sucking, glorified pushbuttons. The only benefit I can see for these tiny things is that they are probably nice for triggering long-sounds or loops or playback on stage. I would never use them for important work or performance, though. Even my “almost full-size” keys on things like the Roland System 8 don’t feel entirely right, but at least I can play a chord without triggering an extra 17 notes.

I fought this system – DP without a numeric keypad coupled with a spawn-of-the-devil mini-key controller – for about an hour and was about to give up entirely. I was just going to have to miss a day.

Reason to the rescue! I had forgotten that I had installed the latest update a few months ago. While it took me a little time to get the controller working and become reacquainted with the basics, I was quickly browsing various sounds and beats.

Having forgotten most of what I know about the Reason mixer, I opted to just try and get my levels up decently without clipping and call it a day. There’s no mastering, no EQ, and things will probably make me wince a bit when I hear them back on my normal monitors, but it sounded good in headphones, so I called it a day.

It’s hard for me to call this piece anything other than a sketch, but it’s a reasonably fleshed-out sketch. Once again, I was sorely tempted to title this one “Contractual Obligations,” but after thinking a bit more about how much of a pain it was to play even the most basic chords, the title became obvious.


  • All instruments: Propellerheads Reason

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