STUDIO-QUALITY SOUND FOR THE TRAVEL-MINDED MUSIC PRODUCER.
Going for nearly three years on the road now, I've tried and tested many different types of music production gear. From low-cost gadgets to the biggest wallet-thinning musical electronics, I outline the absolute essentials here.
If you have to leave everything else behind, but take only 5 items, these are it:
- Headphones (two, if possible)
- External HD
- MIDI Controller
- Optional: Portable studio monitors (if you don't mind the extra weight).
I'll explain the basics of exactly what I use to produce my music on the road. Think your lack of access to a "proper" brick-and-mortar studio is going to hold you back? Think again. This is the same setup I've used to produce records for artists such as VASSY (the vocalist behind "Secrets" with Tiësto and KSHMR) while in Bali; an original tune called "Rituals" while in Japan, which is now signed over to Paul Oakenfold's Perfecto label; and many, many more.
You can combine your love of producing music with long-term travel.
By the way, before we get to the list, I want to mention my free guides to help you uncover essential dance music conferences around the world – it's a good idea to plan your travels around these, if you'd like to expand your network around the world. I also have a guide to help you find free stays (and sometimes even food) during your longer stints of travel.
Minimize your mindset. mobility first.
Once you've fully committed to living a lifestyle of travel, and are completely okay with calling the road your home, you'll no doubt want to minimize the things that hold you back the most: things. You'll definitely have to make some sacrifices to achieve ultimate mobility and portability, but I assure you that these sacrifices are well worth the feeling of freedom.
One of the biggest sacrifices is your hardware gear. One of the hardest decisions I had to make before hitting the road was selling off my classic synths like the Roland JP-8000, Roland JV-1080, Access Virus, but the truth of the matter is that I was beginning to rely less-and-less on these due to the simplicity and convenience behind virtual instruments. No more need to worry about MIDI clocks going out-of-sync, or sitting and waiting for audio to record from a synth to my DAW. While the newer synths remove many of these issues by integrating to your DAW via USB and software plug-ins, I realized that to be truly and completely mobile, I'd have to access the fact that hardware synths just couldn't be part of the equation. Luckily, their software counterparts have increased dramatically in terms of sound quality, so much so, that it's next-to-impossible to discern an authentic hardware instrument from its software emulation counterpart. Fat, analog-sounding synth sounds can be replicated with the trade-off of additional CPU usage and hard drive space.
Once I got over that hurdle, it was a matter of choosing the absolute essentials to take with me. Everything you take with you, you will have to carry with you. And while some things may not seem like a big deal when you're sitting in the comfort of your home studio, once you start hitting the road, you'll really wish you didn't bring that extra sound card just because it had more inputs "just in case."
That said, here is list of 5 non-negotiable items and exactly which products I personally use.
The center-point of your entire mobile rig, your choice of a laptop is a very important one. Because you'll be producing everything in-the-box, it's essential to have enough processing power to make sure you can comfortably run an array of virtual synths without running out of CPU power. I recommend going with SSD drives and the maximum amount of hard drive space and RAM you can afford. Opt for nothing less than 256 GB of hard drive space and 8 GB of RAM (but absolutely nothing less than 4 GB).
I use a MacBook Air 13" because it's the lightest and most portable option. I find the 12" display more difficult to work on long-term, and the 15" is overkill for travel. The 13" is just perfect and I would not hesitate to purchase another laptop with the 13" display when the time comes for a new laptop. The latest MacBook Pros have gotten significantly lighter, but still, they do weigh more. You'll have to evaluate whether carrying the extra weight on your back is worth the bump in performance, but for me, mobility is always the tie-breaker. The MacBook Air has been absolutely perfect to work on.
UPDATE: As of 2018, I've upgraded my laptop to a 2018 13" MacBook Pro.
Your choice of headphones is equally, if not more, important. As your primary source of monitoring, it's essential that you invest wisely in your headphones. I vouch for the Sennheiser HD-650 open-back headphones. Closed headphones are great for containing sound so you don’t bother those sitting next to you, or if you're working in situations where outside noise – such as city traffic or wind – may disturb you. However, they do not offer the best reproduction of sound. Sound will change when it reflects back to your ears from the inner casing of the headphones, and open-back headphones are much better at alleviating this problem. If you haven't tried open-back headphones before, I recommend that you audition them to hear the difference for yourself.
I recommend carrying not just one, but two headphones so you have two points of reference when mixing your music. With all of the limitations for closed-back headphones that I mentioned above, I still travel with a closed-back set of cans so I have a varied representation of what I'm listening to – sort of like asking two friends with differing opinions for their perspectives on something. The only closed-back headphones I trust are the PHONON SMB-02, made by an excellent Japanese company. I have to thank THIRD SON for recommending these to me while we were both traveling in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Forget about lugging your clunky audio interface with you. Choosing a good, portable Digital-to-Analog Converter will do an incredible job of delivering high sound quality with minimal space. Nothing I've ever tested has come as close to the quality and utility that the Audioquest Dragonfly provides. It functions as an exceptional DAC, pre-amp, and headphone amp. Plug your headphones into this baby and it'll power them with such great finesse, you'll wonder how you ever traveled without this little powerhouse – as small as a flash drive and fits right in your pocket.
4. external hard drive
Sample libraries, audio recordings, VST data files, music, photos and videos – these will all take up valuable storage space. It's best to keep these data hogs on an external drive, so that your OS will run smoothly and efficiently. An external SSD drive is the ideal solution for many reasons: it's the fastest hard drive technology currently available, is much more resistant to hard drive failure due to its lack of moving parts, and it's super light! The downside, of course, is the cost. In my opinion, it's well worth it. I recommend Samsung's T5 external SSD drive, which goes as high as 2TB of storage space.
For the more affordable route, Western Digital makes a great external hard drive. Of the regular hard drive options, I've found the My Passport series to be reliable and still light enough to carry. It's much more affordable than an SSD drive, though you should be careful to protect it properly to prevent drops and dings as you travel. The Western Digital My Passport 4TB offers more-than-enough storage space at a great price.
5. midi controller
The CME Xkey 25 is super slim and lightweight. It's a 25-key MIDI keyboard controller with pitch bend, octave shift, and modulation buttons. You'll be amazed at how small of a profile this guy has and for that reason, I love it. Of all of the MIDI controllers I've used, this continues to be my go-to for the road. A case for it is also available.
6. optional: portable studio monitors
This may or may not be an option for you, depending on how you choose to travel. If you'll be backpacking and constantly on-the-move, I'd recommend doing without these. However, if your travel style is more semi-nomadic (as mine as been), where you'll be planting down somewhere for a while in between your travels, then I recommend you take this incredibly light pair of studio monitors with you.
The Genelec 8010A portable studio monitors weigh only 1.5 kilograms or 3.3 pounds each. They're ridiculously crisp, clean, and powerful for carrying only 3-inch drivers. Having studio monitors for reference is advantageous for several reasons. First, your ears will fatigue much less. Second, you'll get a much more accurate representation of stereo width in your tracks. Third, if you're carrying two headphones already, you'll now have a third point of reference on a completely different medium.
The biggest drawback to these monitors is their lack of ability to produce lower frequencies. High-quality headphones, such as the one in the article, will be able to go far lower in the sound frequency spectrum. For this reason, you will have to rely heavily on your headphones when it comes to monitoring and mixing the low-end.
I go more in-depth into other options for choosing your portable studio monitors in the Nomadic Music Producer's Handbook. You'll also read about where I started and how I ended up traveling the world to 35+ countries, all while continuing to produce my biggest projects entirely remotely.
THE NOMADIC MUSIC PRODUCER'S HANDBOOK
The Nomadic Music Producer's Handbook is the result of over two years of trial-and-error as a nomadic DJ and music producer. I discuss ways you can earn an income remotely as you travel, landing DJ gigs, finding free meals and accommodations, staying fit while traveling, my take on mixing and mastering, preparing for travel, and much more.
The life you dream of is easily within reach – and whether you want to live a nomadic lifestyle for a few weeks, a few months, or a few years, what I have to share in this book will help you get there on your own terms.
Don't let your dreams of long-term world travel and producing music escape you!