The system has failed us, but not Adam Jay. He’s here to show us how he rigs up his latest live techno sets. And he can make 3 tiny waveforms on a $300 Elektron make you want to dance.
There’s some fantastic music here, so feel free to sit back or get up and let your smartphone’s step counter know you’re still very much alive. But if you’re wondering how anyone plays like this live, he talks us through his setup.
And yeah, if you need any added motivation to work on your chops as stay-at-home producer in isolation, this is like a free cross-training decathlon intensive master class. It’s not about amassing a lot of gear – what the Indianapolis-based artist with a deep Detroit soul has amassed is a ton of skill.
A single-cycle exercise
“The System Has Failed Us” is a live techno track that channels “frustration with our current global predicament”:
…how our leaders have failed us and how we must work together to overcome the reckless choices made by those who have abused their power. I could not sleep last night and had to get this out of my system.
The track was a way to exorcise frustration, but also served as an exercise in minimalism:
[It’s] all single cycle samples. Trying to find out how far I could push the machine with the minimum amount of source material – and it’s only three separate single cycle sample .wavs at that, using them across 6 tracks on the Model Samples.
- Elektron Model:Samples, with 3 single-cycle samples (556 bytes in length!), across six tracks
- “Heavy” LFO modulation for the kick and bass and hat (so you get them out of the same waveforms)
- Model:Samples output hits an Alesis Micro Limiter and some light Octatrack effects (EQ/Compressor)
- Midi Fighter Twister controller controls a bass equalizer (also hosted on the Octatrack).
In a nice instance of Elektron sonic recycling, those 556 bytes x 3 were originally produced by an Elektron Digitone (kick, bass) and Analog Four (hat). The samples were created by Taro, and you can grab them for yourself – they’re free:
A full-length set – and how it’s structured
That’s one track, but here’s an expanded set.
I was really curious about how he puts the pieces together. So Adam details the setup for CDM. The basic idea here is to play the Model:Samples as the main sound source, but use additional Alesis hardware and some clever performance routings on the Octatrack for dynamics processing and (on the Octatrack) messing about with re-sampling loops and adding effects.
The Octatrack is the performance command station, both with additional loops, effects, routing the Model:Samples, and additional control via the MIDI Fighter Twister for hands-on encoder moves. The ingredients:
- Elektron Octatrack is MIDI clock host, sending clock to the Model:Samples
- Elektron Model:Samples is the sound source for “all the material”
- Model:Samples signal chain: Alesis MicroLimiter > Octatrack AB input
- Octatrack track 3 is a THRU track (Model:Samples with Compressor and EQ in the two effects slots)
- Track 7 is a FLEX track, “recording/looping/mangling the T3/Model:Samples audio.
- Track 5 is another FLEX track “with just some other very short loops previously recorded, made on the Model:Samples with heavy EQ filtering and Dark Reverb in the the two FX slots. Re-sequenced on Track 5 on the fly, as needed.”
- Track 8 Master “has a dark reverb that I tweak during some of the dubbier bits.”
And then there’s control: “The Midi Fighter Twister controller goes through a USB MIDI host box to convert USB-A to 5 PIN DIN MIDI. The Twister controls Octatrack levels, EQs, reverb sends, allowing me to creatively mix between the thru and flex tracks, without any paging around on the Octatrack.”
Now obviously, keeping these tunes together means there’s some pre-programming – but then it’s about the ability to mess with it, thanks to the routing above. He explains:
Ultimately, each tune is a single Model Samples pattern, tweaked and freaked live. And the Octatrack is there to loop it, effect it, and mix the live-looped Model:Samples for transitions.
The conceptual approach is to use the 6-track limitation as an advantage and make sure each sound is a good fit, since there are so few tracks to work with — and to set up the patterns so they can be played live in interesting ways that keep moving and stay dance-y.
Hooks are heavily filter-modulated and the Model:Sample’s Pioneer DJM-style low-pass/high-pass filter is very beneficial in this regard. They often come from small recorded Analog Four synth phrases that have some motion in them already, modulating start point and/or filter brings them to life. Bass lines are often the same samples as the kicks, with the start point shaved to take off the attack, and then pitch/distortion/filter to get them grooving. The latch-able FILL mode often works as seventh track, mostly for pattern variation, as each tune is only a single pattern.
Cramming in as much dance-able content into each pattern was the key to keeping it interesting. The Octatrack just adds a bit of trickery-flair and keeps the transitions seamless. I was a DJ first, so my live sets have always had that mixed element to them.
Keep techno punk
Oh yeah, and Adam has a message for you: stay punk. Play cheap.
Doing all the creation on the Model:Samples is also a big middle finger to those who like to poo-poo low cost instruments to make themselves feel better about their $3,000 synthesizer expenditures – the people who call instruments without a long list of features “cheap plastic toys” and never add anything of substance to the conversation.
Techno should be more punk, more visceral, and more pushing what you have to the limits. Some of the most inspiring stuff I’ve ever heard in my life came from an old friend on his Roland R-8 [drum machine] through an AIWA boombox. I’m all for Elektron and Korg and Roland and Novation pushing out inspiring, capable instruments to the masses. Everyone should have the option to be able to express themselves and get their message across, no matter what their budget is.
This narrative that now that Elektron is more appealing, and more affordable to people who can’t afford the Digi or big boxes… that the “glory days are over”? Oh man, I couldn’t disagree more. The most creative, brilliant, and under-served people I know are the ones who can only afford the $299 instrument. Even before the pandemic, they were struggling, disadvantaged, living life day to day, check to check, working multiple jobs. They are no less deserving of quality tools to express themselves.
I would argue that creating this lower entry point to far more people is when the glory days actually begin. Far more music will be made on these boxes by a greater number of people. And that number will include more young people, and more disadvantaged people than before. This excites me the most. Their voices are equally valid and should be equally valued. If that reach, that influence on the populace is less “glorious” than a metal case with more LFOs, then I think some have lost the plot.
Music is here to connect humans together. The connection I have with someone else I do not know, when I hear and enjoy their music… it’s like nothing else in the world. Why on Earth would anyone want to keep the gates up on that? Why would anyone want to wall themselves in with only the people who can afford more expensive tools?
For some musical evidence of that, Adam has pulled off not one but three exceptional, forward-thinking electro albums on Detroit Underground, including this year’s terrific Inoperable Data (a title that kind of sums up our brains right now, too).
Have a listen. No further witnesses; the defense rests.
You might want to have a look at that one, too, as there are videos for every single track:
And for still more Adam Jay action, check the mastering credits for the likes of Mike Parker, Noncompliant, Daniel Troberg, and Kero. (To butcher the 1980s BASF ad, Adam didn’t create some of the music you hear. He’s made some of the music you hear bang harder.)
Thanks, Adam, we may be checking in with you routinely in these strange times!