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How To Go DAWless (The 3 Things You Need)

By Matthew Vultaggio

October 7, 2020

The more and more I make music, the more I want to go DAWless. The idea of making music free without the shackles of computer is super exciting, so I decided to do some research and write down my findings on how to go DAWless.

The main 3 things you need to go DAWless is a synthesizer, sequencer/sampler, and drum machine. A DAWless setup can have more or fewer items depending on if you want your computer-free setup to be completely portable, more flexible, or have the ability to record.

The cost and size of your DAWless setup completely depend on what you want to do with it. So how can you tell what gear you specifically need and what examples of actual DAWless setups look like?

I’ve gone ahead and broken this down for you in the article below. Just remember this is more of a beginner’s guide than anything. So if you are new to the world of computer-free music and are trying to figure out how to go DAWless, then let’s hop right in. 🙂

The 3 Main Things You Need To Go DAWless (& Why)

Whether you want to go DAWless to be able to jam anywhere or because you can’t seem to figure out why Ableton looks so bad, you’re going to need to start picking up some gear.

I previously mentioned that you will be needing a sampler/sequencer, synthesizer, and drum machine to go DAWless. Let me explain why that is in some more detail below:

1. Why you need a sequencer/sampler

A sequencer (also called a music or audio sequencer) is a piece of gear that can record, edit and play back music. You input note and performance information into the sequencer and it plays back the music. The sequencer also syncs all your other gear together so that everything plays in time.

The sequencer can be considered the brain of your DAWless setup.

A sampler is a piece of gear that can play back sound recordings (called samples) of things like real instruments, vocals, chord progressions, and sometimes even full songs.

An example of a great budget sampler is the Korg Volca Sample:

In addition to playing back samples, you can usually chop them, edit them, and perform them. Using samples is the perfect way to add a lot of personality, vibe and soul to your music.

The sampler can be considered the heart of your DAWless setup.

The best part?

A lot of DAWless gear has a sequencer built-in them and it is very common for a sampler to have a fantastic sequencer.

2. Why you need a synthesizer

In a basic DAWless setup, the synthesizer is what you will use to make musical sounds. In a basic setup for dance music, you would most likely use the synthesizer to play the bass line.

An example of a great budget synthesizer is the Behringer Crave:

You can use your sequencer to input notes into the synthesizer, but some synthesizers have a sequencer built-in that you can use to program your bass lines and other melodic lines.

The synthesizer can be considered the arms of your DAWless setup.

3. Why you need a drum machine

To put it bluntly, a drum machine will handle the drum sounds and drum programming (or drum patterns) in your DAWless setup. It is more common for drum machines to have a decent sequencer built-in, but you can always let your sequencer handle the drum patterns if you want.

Drums essentially lay the rhythmic foundation that all your melodic and musical ideas can live on top of and can have drum sounds that are either sample-based (like the Novation Circuit) or synthesizer-based (like the Elektron Model:Cycles).

Check out this list of the best drum machines for techno and other forms of underground dance music to take a lot at more great examples.

The drum machine can be considered the legs of your DAWless setup.

How To Sync Your DAWless Setup Together

Once you have a few synthesizers, drum machines and other music-making devices, it is important to sync them all up so that they all play at the same tempo or even start/stop at the same time.

The only thing worse than human beings playing together out of time is a bunch of robots playing together out of time (hehe).

There are two main ways to sync your DAWless setup together:

  1. With MIDI (stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface)
  2. With CV (stands for Control Voltage)

In laymen’s terms, the two options above simply use different types of cables. CV is a 1-pin cable and is more common when it comes to things like modular synths and semi-modular synths, while MIDI is a 5-pin cable and is common on just about every musical device.

Because the most common type of connection (by far) that your gear will have is MIDI, I will focus on that approach here. There may be more steps but here is the general process when it comes to syncing your gear with MIDI:

  1. Choose which of your devices will be the master device. The tempo you set here will carry across your other devices. This is usually the sequencer/sampler or whichever device you choose to be the brain of your setup.
  2. Connect your master device to your other devices. Your master device should have at least 1 MIDI out. Connect a MIDI cable from the MIDI OUT of your master device into the MIDI IN of the device you want to set up a sync.
  3. Set up both your device’s settings. If things aren’t syncing up right away, you may need to simply dive into your device’s settings to make sure they are set up to send and/or receive MIDI data.

When it comes to syncing up your own devices, you may come into quite a bit of troubleshooting. MIDI can be a bit finicky, but once you get it to work it is very satisfying.

Generally, the more devices you need to sync up, the more troubleshooting you will inevitably have to do. As a wise man once said… ‘mo hardware ‘mo problems. 🙂

The more hardware you have, the more you will need to figure out how to choose the best mixer for your DAWless setup. So why not start with just 1 device instead?

How To Go DAWless With Only 1 Device (Budget-Friendly)

If you’re just starting out, you may want to keep things simple and keep things more affordable (to be honest, when I first started out that is exactly what I did). Otherwise, your total costs to make electronic music can really add up.

So after reading all of this, you may be asking yourself:

…do I need to buy all this stuff to get started?

I’m glad to tell you that simple answer to that is: NO!

Let’s get real, that could get very expensive and I honestly wouldn’t even recommend that for a beginner. So what is the magical solution to this problem that allows you to go DAWless and keep things simple without breaking the bank?

Well, there are actually devices called groove boxes that can handle sequencer, synthesizer and drum machine duties all with one single box! In fact, quite a few groove boxes can do even more than that, including neat things like:

  • Effects (usually at least reverb and delay)
  • Scale modes
  • Chord modes
  • Multiple synthesizers
  • Audio inputs
  • USB audio interface
  • Mixer

In addition to all of that, a groove box can make for a really great brain for your DAWless setup. Over time you can expand your set up by syncing up different synths or drum machines to your groove box. This way you can start small, and grow when the time is right.

Personally, I use a Novation Circuit and an Elektron Model:Cycles. I would definitely recommend them as some of the best gear to make Deep house and electronic music.

Here are some popular groove box options on the market today:

Budget-Friendly Options

Novation Circuit:

Check the latest price on Amazon.

Elektron Model:Cycles

Check the latest price on Amazon.

Korg Electribe

Check the latest price on Amazon.

Roland MC-101

Check the latest price on Amazon.

Mid-Tier Options

MPC One

Check the latest price on Amazon.

Roland MC-707

Check the latest price on Amazon.

High-End Options

Teenage Engineering OP-1

Check the latest price on Amazon.

MPC Live II

Check the latest price on Amazon.

Examples of DAWless Setups

I’ve put together a few examples of DAWless setups so you can see what other people are doing out there. There are examples for different budgets and play styles, and I’ve even included some video examples of people using these setups.

Hopefully this will help inspire your very own DAWless setup. 🙂

Portable DAWless Setup

If you want to be able to play anytime and anywhere, then this is the DAWless setup for you. The Novation Circuit is battery-powered and obviously the iPad is battery powered.

Gear List:

  • Sequencer + Drum Machine + Synthesizer: Novation Circuit
  • Sampler: iPad with the Samplr app

Video Example:

Here is a video of me actually rocking this setup in the great outdoors:

Best Friends Club (aka ME hehe) jamming on an budget DAWless setup.

Budget DAWless Setup

If you want to go DAWless on a budget and use multiple pieces of hardware, then the Korg Volca series is definitely for you. They have a bunch more Volca devices but I’ve given you a basic set up that you could easily get started with today.

Gear List:

Video Example:

Here is a video of TechnoSample rocking this Volca-based setup. As you can see, you can do quite a bit with quite a little.

TechnoSample jamming on an budget DAWless setup.

MPC-Based DAWless Setup

Making music with MPCs is a very common approach. In fact, many great artists have been making music with MPCs before DAWs were even a thing.

Gear List:

  • Sampler + Sequencer: MPC1000
  • Drum Machine: Novation Circuit
  • Synthesizer: Moog Sirin

Video Example:

Check out this awesome video of Ricky Tinez rocking this setup. In fact, I watched a bunch of Ricky’s videos when researching everything for this blog post. I definitely recommend checking out his channel if you’d like to learn more about the world of DAWless. 🙂

Ricky Tinez jamming on an MPC-based DAWless setup.

The Elektron Trinity DAWless Setup

If you want to break the bank than there is no better place to look than getting the 3 main big Elektron boxes and going to town. This setup can be known in the community as “The Elektron Trinity”.

Gear List:

Video Example:

Check out this video of Mr. Dataline rocking the trinity. This dude is basically the Elektron God so check his stuff out if the Elektron devices tickle your fancy.

What Next?

Once you’ve got some jams under your belt, you might want to look into recording them and getting them up on streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music.

Thankfully, it is actually 100000X times easier to do this than it was 10 years ago.

Sure, when you look at how much Spotify pays per stream, it is not too much but it can definitely add up. Plus, it’s pretty cool to have your music available where everyone can hear it and it takes your musical project to the next level.

After recording and polishing up your DAWless jams, you will need what is called a “music distributor” to get your music uploaded to all the popular streaming services and stores.

My top suggestion for a music distributor is definitely DistroKid because you get unlimited song uploads for a small annual fee (it’s also what I personally use).

With that said, I’ve compared DK to other popular services if you would like to search around first to find the right digital distributor:

Or, if you would like a more detailed look into what DistroKid has to offer, you can check out my big fat DistroKid review. 🙂

Related Questions

What does DAWless mean?

Great question! DAWless means to make music without a computer’s Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). Essentially making DAWless music means to make music without a computer.

Can you record music without a computer?

Another great question! You can record music without a computer by sending synthesizers, drum machines and other instruments through a digital or tape sound recorder. A setup like this will allow you to record music without the help of a computer.

How can I make beats without a computer?

Another great question! You can make beats without a computer by using a setup made up of hardware synthesizers, drum machines, samplers or an all-in-one groove box. Examples of all-in-one groove boxes include the Novation Circuit and MPC Live.

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