Over the years, Electronic Music Production student Hamish Mitchinson has become embedded in the world of Eurorack hardware. After recently landing a job at specialist electronic music shop Elevator Sound we caught up with him for his advice for breaking into this exciting, but intimidating world.
There's a very real stigma attached to the Eurorack and modular scene. "It definitely gets a bad name," says Hamish. "There are definitely people that get obsessed and build these humungous racks, but they might never actually make any music with them."
This is really only a small part of the big picture, and the reality of Eurorack is something quite different. More people are discovering Eurorack-based production and really latching onto it.
In spite of this growing appeal it's one of the more inaccessible aspects of music production. To demystify the topic we turned to Hamish Mitchinson to learn about his personal journey into hardware, what it offers that software cannot and his key steps for getting into Eurorack.
All about that bass
For the longest time music had always been a hobby for Hamish. A bassist for ten years, his career path was initially heading towards engineering, but his interest in maths and science was actually the gateway into electronic music.
"That was what made me choose dBs," recalls Hamish as he sits surrounded by boxed modules in Elevator Sounds' storeroom. "I caught the production bug, specifically hardware production. I wanted to investigate this side of music production that you don't often see. When you start out producing in-the-box you're presented with limitless resources and software, but because I came from an instrumental background, it didn't really inspire me. I connected much more with hardware synths."
Before ever considering the world of Eurorack, Hamish started small with the Behringer Crave, a semi-modular synth that sowed the seeds of Eurorack, which was closely followed by an Arturia DrumBrute.
"I wanted to start with something fairly cheap that wouldn't cause major issues if I didn't like it, and the Crave was perfect for that. That's the benefit of a manufacturer like Behringer; they're problematic in the synth community but for someone starting out in hardware, they're a great starting point.
"If you're trying to get into hardware it's important to remember it's not about the machines, it's how you interact with them. So many people can create amazing results using software, because that workflow inspires them. Anyone who doesn't get that feedback or gratification from using a soft synth might find that hardware is the route for them - it certainly was for me."
Penetrating the world of Eurorack
The Behringer Crave may have set the wheels in motion, but Hamish's passion for Eurorack was firmly sealed after a masterclass at dBs by sound designer and Elevator Sound co-worker Ben Chilton.
"Ben did a talk on sound design using Eurorack in my first year at dBs and I thought it was amazing. I saw it as a really exciting opportunity and was really inspired by these machines. I actually sold the Crave and DrumBrute to buy my first modules.
"I should say now that I got into VCV Rack before I actually spent any money. It's something that Ben and I always recommend in the shop to anyone before buying their first module.
"It's a free piece of software and while it doesn't give you everything that modular does, it does equip you with the know-how on the process of signal flow, understanding the concepts of what each type of module does and gets you into that mindset to make modular music. It may not have that physical feedback or inspire me in the same way as having the machine in front of me, but it's the best way to learn your way around a Eurorack system."
At this point in our conversation, we come back to the perception of Eurorack, specifically why the format is more desirable than a pre-packaged synthesiser.
"It's definitely having the ability to express yourself on a level that you can't with a traditional pre-built synth. I've had the pleasure of creating a synthesiser that is entirely my own and I feel a deeper sense of affection towards it. That's a huge boost to your music making. Knowing that this instrument is unique to you and is the culmination of your hard work designing the workflow that suits you best is really gratifying."
Limitations and flow
Workflow is a word that Hamish uses a lot during our conversation and for anyone looking to transition into hardware, workflow is at the heart of how you will succeed.
"It's definitely become a main philosophy of mine that you need to build an ecosystem to create music in. We live in a world where we can have almost infinite resources to make music on a laptop, whereas hardware gives you a specific workflow to operate within. In a weird way it helps you forge a musical identity, which I don't really think is possible with software."
Hamish does point out that for newcomers to hardware, it's important to pick your battles.
"It can be frustrating for people starting off, going from that ultimate convenience of a DAW to a hardware workflow. I've definitely seen people get disheartened when they first try a hardware synth because they don't really know how to use it in a way that suits their workflow. You can become so used to playing a melody, it being sequenced by a soft synth, and not needing to think about it much more than that. Hardware does come with limitations, which can be a hindrance at first, but those limitations become a tool for reflection and really help you understand how you like to make music."
7 key steps for making the move to hardware
We're stating the obvious here but music creation is an incredibly personal endeavour. In some ways Hamish's journey will be very similar for anyone reading following in his footsteps, but ultimately everyone is different. With that in mind, we asked Hamish to close out our conversation with his top tips for anyone interested in hardware and Eurorack production.
1. Follow what your passionate about
“Start with whatever interests you in the hardware world because that’s where the passion really lies. It’s really hard, especially if you’re not that experienced a producer, because you’re not that confident and aren’t aware of your own creative process in the same way you will be in a few years down the line.
“If there is a piece of equipment you see online and it catches your eye, you like the sound or it just excites you then that’s a pretty good indicator of something to start with. It’s all well and good me talking about creative process, but the excitement of trying out a new piece of hardware is enough to spark so many new ideas.”
2. Learn from your mistakes
“It’s a learning experience each time. With modular you’re working with every little section of your synth and each module is considered because you chose it yourself. You won’t always make the right decision or be happy with the result but that’s part of the process. Each mistake or misstep helps you understand your own creative process.”
3. Don’t copy someone else’s setup
“When you make the decision to go down the hardware route, it’s usually because someone else’s setup has inspired you, but that system is hyper specific to them and it’s probably not going to suit you. Consider your own feelings towards your workflow and don’t feel pressured to listen to other people’s opinions. Just go with what feels right for you.”
4. Read the manual
“There have been so many occasions where someone has done something with a piece of hardware that I never knew you could do and that’s usually because I didn’t read the manual.
“If you’re going to get the most out of a piece of equipment, read the manual. You don’t need to read it all in one go, but go through the basics, experiment and when you get stuck just refer to the manual. Eventually you’ll work your way to the end and though it’s not the most exciting thing, it’s a really important step in the process.”
5. Utilise YouTube and 'synth-fluencers'
“There are so many YouTubers and ‘synth-fluencers’ that do these really great demo videos of new equipment; they are the best option you have. They're so much more informative and inclusive to a less experienced audience than some of the forums online. I highly recommend checking out mylarmelodies - their channel is fantastic.”
6. Try before you buy
“If you can try something out before you buy it then that will make all the difference. You can never really make a decision on equipment until you interact with it and there’s only so much you can learn from the internet.
“If you're in or near to Bristol then come and see us at Elevator Sound. There's not many specialist electronic music shops in the UK where you can get personal input from people that know what they’re talking about, and we love helping people find the right piece of equipment. It’s so important because we have people coming in all the time who finally get to play with a module, a synth or an effect unit and suddenly there’s this moment where they realise this is exactly what they needed."
7. Take your time
“It does not need to be this over the top gigantic thing. You can get by with just a couple of modules. Always remember that this is a tool for creating music. You want it to be inspiring, and for you to define it not it to define you. Eurorack should never be the focus of your music, it should be seen as tool like any other instrument. Take it slow, don’t buy too much too quickly and just get the hang of things at your own pace.”