Do you need a computer to make electronic music?

Simon Toon sm2n

 Guest Sm2n

I’m a husband, a father, and a musician. I’ve been using the name “sm2n” since March 18th 2011.


Someone asked me recently
whether I make all my music on a computer. It made me wonder, is there perhaps a common perception that all modern music these days is made using a computer, especially electronic music? What about the music I’ve created recently, which pieces fall into the category of computer-made music, and which ones don’t?

Of course pretty much all recorded music these days goes through a computer to some extent. Even the most acoustic-sounding record goes through several layers of computer processing, as sonic effects are applied to make things sound as good as possible on a variety of playback mechanisms (this process is called mastering).

However, the amount of computerisation in the music-making process prior to mastering varies wildly. Some music is created purely within the computer from start to finish, with musical notes drawn onto the musical stave with the click of the mouse, with every nuance of human ‘expression’ carefully faked via a touch of the scroll wheel or co-ordinates plotted scientifically on an automation curve.

But a lot of music, even electronic music, is created outside of the computer and is only digitised at the last possible point in the creative chain.

In recent years
there’s been a resurgence in the use of hardware synthesisers, as devices such as the Korg Monotron have brought low-cost hardware synthesisers to a much wider audience of musicians.

When you use a hardware synthesiser for performance, you have a much more physical connection to the sounds you are creating, with the tiniest flex of a tendon causing a discernible difference to the sound created – like you do with an acoustic instrument, but more intense.

Something similar has occurred in the world of iPads and other mobile devices; new and imaginative instruments and interfaces have been innovated on these platforms, taking advantage of the blank canvas that is the multi-touch interface.

This is a world of music
I have been exploring and enjoying, especially for live performance.

For the first Jamfolder gig, in July 2012, we didn’t want to bring our computer equipment along, and we wanted to perform the music, so I used my iPad to sequence, synthesise and manipulate sounds, while my bandmate played and looped his guitar. Here is one of the songs from that gig:

For my solo musical efforts, the rest of 2012 was about music made on the computer: 11.17am, 11.17pm, Repetition, Missing, BrontosaurusOctaverosis, and In Octaver.

2013 was a year of musical experimentation for me, with the acquisition of the Korg Monotron Delay, the Korg Monotribe and the Stylophone inspiring me to experiment with hardware synthesis and performance. After a couple of false starts (1, 2), I created two proper tracks in this manner, which ended up on the EP ‘Analogue EP‘ by German band Stahlbürste Darling:

  • Am Strand
    This was recorded on the beach. Performed on the iPad using ReBirth with some pre-programmed sequences being triggered and tweaked, the beach sounds recorded on my iPhone, and then these two recordings were combined and post-processed on the computer.
  • Stynotribelay
    This was played live in one take using a Stylophone plugged into the Korg Monotribe plugged into the Korg Monotron Delay. This was recorded into the computer for post-processing and subsequent distribution on the web.

Of course, to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, so Stahlbürste Darling’s other new tracks were computer-based, including the lead track ‘Da ist eine Spinne im Haus‘.

Towards the end of 2013 I started acquiring more sophisticated synth hardware from the Korg Volca range, further fuelling my experimentation with hardware-performed music. Again there were a a couple of false starts (1, 2) before this video from April 2014:

Meanwhile, Stahlbürste Darling continued to make computer-based music, and as Cakefolder I continued to work on hardware-based performances for my own amusement (1, 2).

My most ambitious solo project yet, was to participate in the RPM Challenge, creating a whole album within the month of February 2015. Naturally I used the Korg Volcas extensively on the album, which is called ‘Exceptions‘, and indeed two of the songs were recorded ‘live’ on my hardware synths:

  • Polyrhythm (track 5) This is an example of a piece of music made using electronic hardware, with a computer being used only for post-processing the recorded audio and video and its subsequent distribution on the web: it was made with the three Korg Volcas and the Korg Monotribe, performed and recorded in one take, and captured on video using my iPhone. In the performance I used sequences I had pre-recorded, so the actual live performance consisted of triggering and tweaking my prepared sequences on all four devices, the (clever) twist being that I changed the pattern lengths on the three synthesisers so they drifted in an out of sync with each other.

  • Dual (track 2) This is another such example. This time the piece was recorded in two takes. The first take was an improvisation on the Volca Beats and the Volca Bass. The Beats had a simple rhythm which I had programmed in beforehand. The Bass was played live: I triggered notes on the ribbon and used the low-pass filter cut-off to shape the sounds. The second take was me playing along using the Korg Monotribe and the Volca Keys. The Monotribe was playing a simple repeating melody which, again, I had programmed in beforehand, and I used the low-pass filter cut-off to shape the sounds. The Keys was played live.

Following the completion of the album, my experimentation has continued, one recent example being ‘Dodecahadron’ which was made with the four Korg Volcas, performed and recorded in one take, and captured on video using my iPhone. In the performance I used sequences I had pre-recorded with three of the Volcas (Beats, Sample and Keys), but the 4th Volca (Bass) was played live. So the actual live performance consisted of triggering and tweaking my prepared sequences on three Volcas and playing live on a 4th:

So, Paul @omaniblog, who originally asked me the question, does that explain it?

If you like my music:


Important note:

Thank you very much sm2n. It’s a honour to publish your work.

In my imagination this blog will become a place where lots of people will be welcome to display & share their work.

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I'm a husband, a father, and a musician. I've been using the name sm2n since March 18th 2011.

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