Getting into Alternative/Indie Electronic Music: Gear, Techniques and Practical Advice from Established Artists

In this article, we hear from some hugely successful Indie & Alternative Electronic artists and get their advice on gear, how to perform your productions live -  with some life lessons along the way. Also checkout Getting into Synthwave for gear, techniques and practical advice from Vincenzo SalviaDana Jean PhoenixMorgan Willis and ArvoParty.

By Eimear O SullivanMusicngear Editor

Article photo - Getting into Alternative/Indie Electronic Music: Gear, Techniques and Practical Advice from Established Artists

Just before we get started -Indie and Alternative Electronic music can at times be used interchangeably, and encapsulate almost limitless styles of sounds and artists - there is however a slight distinction between the two which I will quickly delve into as we will be covering both of those. Indie electronic generally tends to combine an instrument or instruments with electronic elements and synthesis added - some examples being Caribou, Alt J, Saint Sister, Glass Animals, Little Dragon  and while it often is experimental and meshes a huge variety of other genres and sound styles together - it generally tends to stay more within the realms of more traditional songwriting structure than Alternative Electronic would.

Alternative electronic [FKA Twigs, Björk, Purity Ring, Jamie XX] tends to be more experimental and abstract in nature, and generally is made up of synthesis, electronic and programmed elements, straying outside the more traditional structures used - the music being delivered more via a concept.

SYLK

Industrial Electro-pop duo (Producers, Vocalists + Musicians)

Article photo - Getting into Alternative/Indie Electronic Music: Gear, Techniques and Practical Advice from Established ArtistsPhoto cred @ Olga Kuzmenko

✅ Keep it simple, less stress!

Gear you would recommend for alternative electronic music:

Maschine, (which is Native Instruments) this comes with synths such as Massive which is an unbelievable tool - you could spend a day morphing the parameters within this synth.

Arcade by Output (software) We have been using it a lot lately it is unbelievable for vocal sampling

Logic - their software synths such as the ES2 is incredible to mess around with - once you open up the parameters to software synths there's so many things you can do! 

We use a lot of plugins on our synths and vocals, the primary ones being Waves guitar amps, Soundtoys CrystallizerSoundtoys Little AlterBoy (amazing for pitch shifting sounds or making a hardtune sound).

Practical tips for performing your productions live and the gear/setup you would recommend using:

We use Ableton to trigger electronic elements of our set - we also have this triggering our light show which we programme through midi tracks (we have a midi to dmx converter which we plug our lights into and then the converter goes into the laptop so we can control our light show via midi) we use this.

We premix everything with our audio interface (laptop with ableton, midi keyboard, then have a hardware sample pad, maschine sample pad, electric baritone guitar and pedal are all connected to our audio interface) so everything is connected to our interface and then going through ableton - this means we have control of the mix and only have a Left and Right going out to the sound desk. It helps us know that everything should work ok and we have been lucky that it has in fact worked out pretty good for every show!

We use Maschine a lot for vocal samples and synth sounds; and when I want to get a new sound I simply click on each pad (some songs might have 3 synth sounds and I have this set up with the midi keyboard so that I can go from one sound to another immediately during a song) I also have the knobs on my Midi Keyboard connected to a filter reverb and delays in Ableton so I can morph the sound as I play (same with the input of the electric guitar).

I strongly recommend having a great audio interface for the sound quality. While performing make sure to keep all other software on your laptop closed, make sure the Wifi and Bluetooth are turned off. I always restart my laptop before a show, even after soundcheck, just before going on stage, this has saved me! I recently bought a Moog Subsequent 37 so we are very excited to add this to the live show! 

Other useful tips

Youtube has been our best friend. It is amazing what can be found on it - especially when learning how much one synth can do. I found a 5 hour lecture on 'Massive' synth - I think when you realise how much you can do with one thing it opens up so many endless possibilities to explore sounds and be creative and enjoy what you make!

We aren't very technical, we have so far self produced all of our music but we just go with what sounds nice to us! We love that this genre is so open and accepting and anybody who has a passion can create something. 

For years we just had Logic and a laptop and no additional gear or software or knowledge -  I think it's how you use the tool creatively that really matters, whatever that tool may be!

Connect with SYLK

Spotify / Facebook 

Anna Mullarkey

Producer/Composer/Musician/Vocalist

Article photo - Getting into Alternative/Indie Electronic Music: Gear, Techniques and Practical Advice from Established Artists Photo cred @Emilija Jefremova

✅ Make it as enjoyable as possible

Gear you would recommend for alternative electronic music:

Start with a good laptop. Then - a soundcard. I am currently using a MOTU ultralite mk3 for my laptop and an Irig for my iPad. To start you don't need a really expensive sound card just so long as you can record into it. Focusrite does really good quality sound cards at a good cost. 

Next, speakers or headphones or both! The more the merrier.  It's all about sound so this is where I would invest. I really love bass sounds so I went for Adam A7X speakers which have a lovely warm tone. Good speakers or headphones will help motivate you to create more because it will sound better! 

I use Logic Pro X and Ableton Live. Both Ableton and Logic have built in soft synths which are a great starting point to familiarise yourself with synthesisers. Get to know what sounds you like! I personally love the Mellotron soft synth -very lovely sounds. 

When it comes to synthesizers - Roland have a great boutique range that mimics old vintage synths with very affordable prices. Moog are fantastic, super reliable and well built. I own a Moog Subsequent 37. Korg also have a great range, the Korg Minilogue is really brilliant for live and super versatile. Always keep an eye out for vintage gear in second hand shops or online. I own two organs by Yamaha and they are like a secret weapon in production. Great for layers and intensity. Finally, I recently got a Clavia Nord stage piano and my mind is blown at how brilliant they are. I can't imagine being without one for live music.

Practical tips for performing your productions live and the gear/setup you would recommend using:

Make it as enjoyable as possible. If you don't love it - then change it up, and create challenges like adding an analogue synth to your live set! I use an Ms20 live, a monophonic semi modular synth released by Korg. It always adds an element of excitement playing live because you never know fully what you will get. Behringer have released lots of new synths that could be great for this purpose. Learning as you play live makes it a lot of fun. 

I recently got a custom flight case made for all my gear to be contained in and this makes gigging much easier, as I have a much shorter time setting up and taking down! All I need to do is try not to keep adding synths!

Other useful tips

Practice everyday. Even if it is only for ten minutes it will add up. For me, It's all about getting into a flow state with music so the more practice the easier it is to get there. I am always trying to learn new skills and repertoire. I think that's one of the best parts of being a musician, there is always more to learn. 

Connect with Anna

Spotify / Facebook / Bandcamp

Bantum

Musician/DJ/Composer/Producer

Article photo - Getting into Alternative/Indie Electronic Music: Gear, Techniques and Practical Advice from Established ArtistsPhoto cred @Abe Neihum

✅ Try to double up on your cables if you can

Gear you would recommend for alternative electronic music:

I mainly use software when making music so my main DAW is Ableton Live. On top of that I'm using a lot of Korg VST synths alongside Massive and Serum synths. I've also signed up to Splice for their sample library, it takes a bit of digging but you find some gems in there! I also have a ton of synth apps on my iPad. 

You'd be surprised at the quality of the sounds you can get now just from apps, I actually hook up my iPad directly to Ableton just to record synth sounds I found, then I play them back in Ableton as MIDI. I'm discovering the ableton push now for generating ideas and have been using a knackered APC20 for years now, on top of 2 or 3 MIDI keyboards.

Practical tips for performing your productions live and the gear/setup you would recommend using:

Try to double up on your cables if you can. I'm always forgetting cables for my gigs and the sound engineer might not always have the ones you need! I usually stock up on a bunch online every once in a while.

I keep my setup pretty minimal. It consists of Ableton live on the laptop and my apc20 - I'm looking at bringing a bit more to the set later but I like how quick and easy it is to rock in and setup. I've tried a bunch of things before like live guitars and keys but I always go back to triggering samples and loops with the APC.

Other useful tips

If you don't have access to speakers make sure you get some good headphones, I swear by my Sennheiser HD25 headphones which I've had for like 10 years now. If you're trying out new songs live and want to see if people react I always finish my set.

Connect with Bantum

Spotify / Facebook / Website

Xylo Aria

Producer/Vocalist/Engineer/Founder and creator of MPW ( Music Production for Women)

Article photo - Getting into Alternative/Indie Electronic Music: Gear, Techniques and Practical Advice from Established Artists

✅ Start simple

Gear you would recommend for alternative/indie electronic music:

I’m all about keeping things simple. Personally I don’t have a huge set up for my production. I think if you’re starting out especially it’s good to buy essentials and slowly build from there. I have the Audient iD14 which is a really nice little audio interface which has exceptional sound quality for it’s price. I’m a big fan of Novation products and like having a couple of midi controllers at hand when I’m producing. The new Novation Launchpad X is really versatile and has quite a bit that can be done with it. I also have a Novation Launchkey 49 Mk2 which I use often particularly while performing live. 

If you’re recording anything obviously mics are necessary. I feel like mics can be a really personal choice. I have an SE Electronics Z 5600A Mk II which is a beautiful and warm mic which I love, but probably not one I’d buy as a first mic as it’s not particularly cheap. As a first mic, I’m still a huge fan of the Audio Technica AT2020 which was my first mic and still one I often go back to. I don’t think anything can compare with it at it’s price.

Monitors wise, I remember doing a bit of listening in a few different music stores when I was out shopping for a new pair. I remember the Yamaha HS 7 's really standing out clarity wise for a pair of monitors at that price range. There were a couple of monitors which sounded "prettier" but at the end of the day, when producing/mixing you want something that will give you the truest representation of your track at that point which I feel my HS7s give me!

Practical tips for performing your productions live and the gear/setup you would recommend using:

Start simple. There are so many options and variables that are available to us now with relation to performing electronic music live and it can at times be overwhelming. When I first started setting this up I was determined to play as much as possible and also sing at the same time, since being a vocalist is primarily what I do. Looking back on it, it was a bit of a mess! 

I recorded myself doing this and you could really see the stress on my face of remembering every element and learning no time for audience interaction. I think I simplified this significantly by splitting my tracks up into scenes in Ableton (if you’re using other DAWs to perform live I’ve strongly recommend ditching that for Ableton..!) And taking out one element to play live while singing and slowly introducing more things as I got more comfortable with the set up. I’d also assign a few effects to a few knobs on my Launchkey 49 to give myself a few more elements to play with. This left me time and headspace to connect and interact with the audience which at the end of the day  - is what performing in front of an audience is all about!

My biggest advice would be to start simple. You can always make it more complex as you go along, but try not to get overwhelmed by it on the outset.

Other useful tips

Electronic music production can seem like a scary mountain to climb, but when you break each element down and take it one step at a time, you start to see progress which is where things get exciting!

Connect with Xylo

Spotify / Facebook / Website

Double Screen

Producer/Composer/Engineer

Article photo - Getting into Alternative/Indie Electronic Music: Gear, Techniques and Practical Advice from Established ArtistsPhoto cred @Stephen Murray

✅ Find a good balance between performing live and playing with a backing track

Gear you would recommend for alternative electronic music:

The first thing I always recommend to anyone who wants to start making electronic music is a good laptop. I’m always on a budget, so the one thing that I really put my money into was a laptop and a DAW, in my case Reason 9.5.  Personally I wouldn’t recommend Reason starting off, I’d recommend Ableton. The majority of producers use Ableton and so there's a lot more resources out there for it; YouTube Tutorials, Forums etc.

In terms of actual hardware, I love Behringer gear. They do cheap, but high quality clones of equipment. If you want a Roland TB-03 to make some acid but can’t splash out, don’t worry, Behringer has the TD-3. Getting into music production isn’t cheap and you have to cut corners as much as you can. I also have the Behringer FCA1616 audio interface which is definitely the best bang for your buck.

When it comes to equipment, I have made a hierarchy of equipment from Essential, Handy to Have, to ‘Ooh, I’d love one of them’.

Essential 

- Good Laptop
- Digital Audio Workstation Software

Handy to have

- Audio Interface
- Microphone
- Midi Keyboard
- Good Studio Monitors
- Good Headphones

‘Ooh, I’d love one of them’

- Synthesizers and Drum Pads
- FX Hardware (Kaoss Pads, Delay Pedals, Send FX etc.)
- Launch Pad or Live Midi controller.

Practical tips for performing your productions live and the gear/setup you would recommend using:

Find a good balance between performing live and playing with a backing track. Live electronic musicians always face the same problem; How much can I perform and how much should be a backing track. It’s a tough balance because you want the performance to be engaging with the audience and so you have to be busy on-stage, but at the same time, not too over encumbered with tasks that the performance suffers. The worst electronic live performances I’ve seen is just one person on stage pressing play and bobbing their head. It’s like a DJ set, but less skillful, if that’s even possible to achieve. Then the flip-side of that is the electronic act that’s too live. They’re just a regular band with synths, playing out of sync with too many things going on. It can be too messy. Two examples of Irish electronic bands that have found the balance perfectly would be King Kong Company, Wob! and Krisdeberg. Special shout out to Krisdeberg who actually does not play with any backing tracks whatsoever.

If you are an electronic music producer and want to start performing live, I’d recommend getting drum pads. People go crazy for them because they can see that you are visibly doing something on stage! Also, do you have a track with a singer on it? Get them to join you on stage to sing your tracks. Also, get something for live effects, either a DJ mixer or in my case, a Kaoss Pad

Don’t underestimate a live electronic show if you’re performing one. It takes time and rehearsals to figure out what can be done and what cannot be done. As a band we practiced for a good 6 months before getting up on stage.

As ‘Double Screen’ I perform as a live band with a bassist and a drummer and I think we’ve finally reached that balance as a band. I use a ‘launch pad’ hooked up to ableton to trigger the backing tracks, effects and also additional electronic drum patterns. With my Behringer FCA1616 Audio Interface, I’m able to send a click to the rest of the band so they can keep in time and not when the drops are coming up.

As well as Ableton, I’m also running Reason 9.5 (good thing I have a good laptop amiri?) so I can do live vocal processing including vocoder, auto-tune, delay, reverb etc. I then use my Korg Kaoss Pad 3 for additional noise sweeps, vocal loops and FX. I also have a midi keyboard to trigger samples, play the piano and synth lines and finally an Alesis Samplepad Pro which I use to trigger samples. I’ve spaced out the set so I generally just have to concentrate on one or two pieces of equipment for each track. All of these combined keeps me busy, but I’m not pulling my hair out on stage.

Other useful tips

It may sound obvious, but listen to music. I’ve fallen into the trap, I think a lot of producers in their mid-twenties have done this, of listening just to comedy podcasts these days (I’d recommend Tiger Belly, If I Were You and Your Mom’s House). Because of this,  I found that I was making less music. I needed to get inspired so I’ve now forced myself to listen to new music for an hour a day. Try and test yourself, don’t restrict your library to just music you like or have heard before, it’s hard to get inspired by what we are familiar with. Out of all the genres of electronic music, especially IDM and Liquid, I've never been a fan of Tech-House. So, I forced myself to get into it. I listened to mixes, new releases, learnt the techniques and now I produce a lot of tech-house. It keeps your mind fresh and inspires you to get into the studio and actually make some music! Thanks to streaming services, it is easier than ever to listen to ANY GENRE EVER so don’t restrict yourselves, explore the music landscape. I recommend Finnish traditional folk-singing to start off.

Connect with Double Screen

Spotify / Facebook / Instagram

CYNEMA

Producer/Vocalist/Composer

Article photo - Getting into Alternative/Indie Electronic Music: Gear, Techniques and Practical Advice from Established ArtistsPhoto cred @cynema

✅ Take time to build your sound and be patient

Gear you would recommend for alternative electronic music:

So assuming we have the basics down - a software of choice (ableton all the way!), some decent monitors and/or good headphones, any half decent mic to start, audio interface and you're set. Then for me, while gear is obviously super important in the process - it's trumped by the need to be able to write songs with ease and enjoyment. So it's vital to have a setup that you know your way around and one that works for you. 

The last thing you need is to be scrolling through some sub-section on a forum trying to figure out how to get your synth to do a certain thing. So in terms of gear I would recommend, I would say get something you're comfortable with writing on (for me that's actually a guitar). But that might be one soft-synth plugin that you learn to know like the back of your hand - I was pretty much exclusively using 'Sylenth' for the early years of writing. Learn that inside out within your computer and then buy a cheap midi controller with keys & knobs, then start using that to control your soft synth and get expressive with it! If you're lucky enough to have the money for some analog gear then work out what's a good option for you and again just buy one and learn the crap outta it before you add more.

Always always always about being able to write quickly. My advice on that is not to buy a bottom of the rung analog synth - you'll get more from software synths. Wait until you can get something mid-level before entering here. Behringer are doing some absolutely sick re-models of classic gear and it's price is crazy good. Could be a good entry point into analog gear!

Practical tips for performing your productions live and the gear/setup you would recommend using:

Again my focus here is on knowing your gear inside out, making it easy and enjoyable to perform. Less is more always when you can really express yourself on a single bit of kit. 

Keep it simple - while also maintaining something visual for an audience to look at. I think launchpads are a solid staple to a live electronic set up - run whatever you need from them whether it's drums or midi clips sending sequences to something else, you can really jam out on them and from an audience perspective they've got that thing where you're visually pressing something and then we're hearing something, that's important it think. 

Laptops as out of view as possible! No need for an audience to look at an apple logo for your entire show. I think then a piece of gear then you can physically play is nice, some maybe a midi keyboard or synth. It connects you to an audience again. Similarly I think if you're manipulating parameters live, like opening filters or building fx etc. then it's great to have a piece of gear that you can really go for it on. 

A decent midi controller with big knobs or if you're playing on something analog and using the filter cutoff or whatever it is on the instrument itself. I feel that similarly to how a guitar player can express so much of themselves by the manner in which they hit a note or hold back on another or add a little bend here or whatever it is, on a synth you need to learn to work the parameters on that instrument to reach that same level of expression. It's there for sure though! So learn your synth!!

Other useful tips

Ah man it's such a cliché but take time to build your sound and be patient. You'll go through a million different styles of production and writing in the early days/years! And that's absolutely fine. To an extent you'll always be changing and evolving too. But you'll hit a groove one day and realise okay I've got something here that is uniquely me. 

Look for that, be you AF and stay true to it. Super cheesy but I think it's so important, what's the value in being EXACTLY LIKE that other artist? Be honest from day one and you're already the best artist you can be. Also, everyday is a school day so turn up and learn! Watch that youtube tutorial, read about that new drum machine, press compare on Thomann, you know what I mean!

Connect with Cynema

Spotify / Facebook / Instagram

Also checkout Getting into Synthwave: Gear, Techniques and Practical Advice from Established Artists such as Vincenzo Salvia, Dana Jean Phoenix, Morgan Willis and ArvoParty.

About Eimear O Sullivan

Eimear Ann O Sullivan is a multi-genre music producer, audio engineer and vocalist. After receiving a Masters in Music Technology from the CIT Cork School of Music, she went on to operate as a producer under the name Blakkheart. Her releases have received critical acclaim from Ireland's biggest music publications, such as District Magazine and Nialler9, alongside receiving heavy commercial radio airplay. She currently works in Cork recording studio Flashpoint CC. Previous clients of hers include the likes of Comedy Central’s Dragony Aunt star Candy Warhol, rapper Darce and Outsider YP. (Photo credit @Fabian Boros)

Contact Eimear O Sullivan at eimear.o.sullivan@musicngear.com

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In this section of the blog you will find recording advice, tips and tricks from fellow artists and music producers.

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