I’m kind of obsessed with the idea of making electronic music without a computer or a digital audio workstation (DAW). I’m not the only one, either, as there are entire YouTube channels dedicated to making music without a DAW.
When I think about it, some of my favorite albums of all time were made without a DAW. But would The Pleasure Principle have sounded any better if Gary Numan had a copy of Pro Tools? It’s tough to say. My guess is few professional recording artists are going DAWless these days. We live in an age of convenience in the 21st century, and the invention of the DAW makes the process of making music quick, easy, and cheap.
We also live in an age filled to the brim with crappy music that I can’t stand, so I suppose that convenience is the double edged sword of making music quick, easy, and cheap to produce. It’s unloaded a tsunami of audio diarrhea directly onto soundcloud, and I have to sift through it all to find the nuggets that actually sound good.
And that’s the thing, when you get right down to it. The invention of the DAW made music creation faster and easier, not better. I’m sure Mozart would have killed for a copy of Ableton but, as it stands, he did well with what he had. If you’re a good composer you can overcome almost any limitation presented by technology.
So how do I, a hapless noob, write music on all of my synths and drums machines without the aid of a DAW? The first idea that popped into my head was to get a hardware sequencer. I can’t play all of my synths and drum machines at the same time. I’m not Goro from Mortal Kombat and I don’t have four arms, but thanks to midi that isn’t necessary. Midi was invented in 1983, long before the advent of FL Studio, thus making the use of multiple hardware synths and drum machines vastly easier.
“Simple!” I thought. “I’ll just get an Arturia Beatstep Pro.” I’ve seen those things in action and they can control anything that responds to midi. Look Mum No Computer has about a dozen of those things and he uses them quite frequently to control the army of 1980’s synths and drum machines that he owns.
I love the Arturia Beatstep Pro and I want one so badly. There is a problem, though. Well, at least it’s a problem for me. If you’re a normal person with steady income then I suppose it doesn’t matter to you that the Arturia Beatstep Pro costs $299. To be fair that is an extremely reasonable price for what it does. Sure, sometimes it goes on sale via certain vendors and I could get it for less, or maybe I could get it from Reverb.com and get it used, but at the end of the day I’m just not making that kind of disposable income at the moment. It’s a sad fact of life for me, a classical guitarist who barely makes a living teaching lessons and playing gigs. I’ve fallen on hard times, but I also recently got into making electronic music without a DAW. What is a broke musician to do?
Then I found it, the answer to all of my DAWless problems: The Yamaha QY10.
Made in 1990, the Yamaha QY10 does all of the things I want it to do, namely it can control up to four instruments at one time via a midi out cable. Yes! An antiquated hardware sequencer! The answer to all of my prayers!
The Yamaha QY10 even comes with onboard sounds! Are they cheesy and limited to 30 instruments and a single drum kit? They sure are! The 12-bit audio in the QY10 may sound a bit dated, but as a rabid fan of retro electronic music and synthwave I love the sounds of old electronic gear. That being said, even if I hated the onboard sounds of the QY10, it wouldn’t matter. The reason why is simple: I can use those dated, sometimes corny sounds to compose a piece.
If you can compose a piece with the onboard sounds of the QY10 and have it sound good then let’s face it, you have a killer piece. Composing beyond the limitations of hardware is a time honored tradition that hearkens back to the chiptunes of the 1980’s, when composers like Koji Kondo were able to create masterpieces using nothing but the square wave generator and the noise channel on an NES.
After composing a killer piece I don’t have to go with the onboard sounds of the QY10. That’s because the QY10 is so much more than the sounds that come with it. If you want, rather than using those onboard sounds, you can port out the midi from those four channels (as mentioned earlier, you are limited to four instruments) and use them to control instruments that sound better than the QY10 onboard sounds.
That being said, some of the onboard sounds of the QY10 are decent! I particularly like the instrument 17 “Synth Bass” and instrument 31 “Drum Set” presets that come with the QY10. Drum and bass? Right there you have the foundation to a solid track. The rest is just a bonus. I also enjoy using instrument 12, “MuteGuitar,” as a pluck. Solid sound right there, if you ask me.
The QY10 is small, it practically fits in your pocket (well, a big jacket pocket), and you can work on music on the go with this battery powered gadget and a pair of headphones. What’s not to love?
I’m forgetting the best part: The price. A used Yamaha QY10 in decent shape goes for about $60 to $70. Nobody wants these things anymore so the price could not be lower. That’s perfect for me, a broke guy who wants to get into DAWless and computer-less music production, which is something that could potentially be outrageously expensive.
However, there is a hidden cost to the Yamaha QY10 that I was prepared for, and I’m prepared for it every time I get into a new piece of hardware: Time. Like any new piece of hardware it takes some time to get the hang of the Yamaha QY10. Thankfully someone has uploaded the following video to YouTube, and it is truly glorious:
YAAASSS!!! This video tutorial on the QY10 is amazing! Witness it in all of its standard definition glory! The bespectacled teacher with a mullet on this video is one of the greatest instructors of all time. This man is a genius! I would say that, in under an hour, I was able to grasp just about every concept I needed to be able to utilize the QY10 as a hardware sequencer. I even learned a ton of operations on the unit that I will probably never use.
I mean, I might use this thing as a backing track device to practice jazz or something, but it’s not likely. Between Jamey Aebersold and YouTube there are a plethora of backing tracks for just about any jazz standard that you can think of. Then again, it’s so easy to make accompaniment on this thing. Just select a pattern, type in a chord progression, and you’re done. Wow! They had this level of technology in 1990? Amazing!
Now for the crux of this project: Getting this thing to talk to my synths. It’s quite simple, really. All you need to do is take the midi out on the QY10 and hook it into another device that accepts a midi in. What synth doesn’t take midi these days? Don’t answer that. There are a few budget synths that don’t, but most of the synths and drum machines in my collection allow themselves to be controlled by midi. However, it is worth noting that the device you want to control has to accept a 5 pin DIN midi cable. Midi via USB just wasn’t really a thing in 1990 (that being said, there are ways to get around this).
There is one catch, though: To control all four instruments said instruments would need to also have a midi thru (or some sort of midi out that transmits the midi sent to it) as well as a midi in so you can daisy chain everything. This limits you to specific gear. I would say that something like my Microkorg, which has a midi thru port, can do it, but not all gear transmits the midi it is receiving out to other instruments. Then there are synths that don’t even have a midi out port. Sadly, fantastic sounding synths such as the Arturia Microbrute and the Korg Volca series only accept midi in. However, this problem is surmountable if you get a midi-splitter. It just so happens that I found one, and guess what? It splits the midi out from the QY10 to four different instruments, which just happens to be the limit of the number of instruments that the QY10 can control. Perfect!
Setting everything up isn’t that difficult. Plug a 5 pin DIN midi cable into the midi out of the QY10. Plug the other end of that cable into the “MIDI IN” socket of the midi splitter. Then hook a midi cable into any one of the four “MIDI OUT” sockets. Plug that into the “MIDI IN” on the device you want to control. Change the midi channel on the device you’re controlling to the number of the track on the QY10 that you are writing for it, set the device you’re controlling to be synced to an external midi clock, and bam! You’re off and running.
I used this setup to control all of my Korg Volcas. When I heard all of these synths and drum machines working in tandem I started cackling like Doc Brown in the Back to the Future movies. IT WORKED!
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Experimenting with using my Yamaha QY10 as a hardware sequencer. It works perfectly! It can only control up to four instruments but that’s all I’m going to need for this track. Going minimalist. Also really enjoying the time travel. So this was one way to make music in 1990? Oddly enough it works great with my Korg Volcas here in the 21st century. Gotta love midi. It’s been getting the job done since 1983. #hardware #sequencer #edm #synthwave #synth #korg #volca #beats #bass #fm #mix #yamaha #qy10 #dawless #electronicmusic #live
If you don’t want to also pay for a midi splitter then I would say just daisy chain everything but, again, not all gear lets you do that. I am also told that there might be midi clock issues if you do this, so you have to experiment. I say just get a splitter. It’s relatively cheap (a decent one runs from $50-$65) and it will do what you want with no hassle.
As I already mentioned, using the QY10 does require some setup on your instruments, and that means reading through their respective manuals. It may require some tinkering but pretty much any synth and drum machine should work provided you 1.) Have each instrument synced to an external clock (the QY10 is the master clock of everything) 2.) You have each instrument set to the receive right midi channel 3.) The instrument accepts 5 pin DIN midi cables.
Knowing which channel is what on the Yamaha QY10 is simple: Track 1 goes to midi channel 1, track 2 goes to midi channel 2, Track 3 goes to midi channel 3, and track 4 goes to midi channel 4. Easy. Whatever number track you’re on is also the number of the midi channel.
Now, remember how I said that you can use the onboard sounds to compose a piece and then just port them out? That is basically true, but there are some caveats. There might be some problems with octaves depending on the preset on your synth and the onboard sounds on the QY10. For example, I found that the QY10 instrument 17 “Synth Bass” preset did not line up with the octaves of the notes it ported out to my Korg Volca Bass. Always check before you go nuts composing a track. That being said, if you did go nuts and composed an entire track that doesn’t line up, thankfully the QY10 has some options to transpose tracks up or down an octave.
The procedure for this is simple enough: Hit “SONG” to enter song mode. Hit the menu button on the QY10. It’s the orange button in the upper left hand corner that says “menu.”
Now hit the tiny, circular orange button underneath the word “Job.” The one that has the white line connected to the button and the word “Job.”
Now hit the plus (+) button (also the “YES” button) until it displays “Transpose.”
Hit enter. Now select the track you want with the plus (+) and minus (-) buttons until you have the right track (TR). Use the arrow “CURSOR” keys to scroll right and select the measures you want to transpose. You can select a range of measures. “M” has a number after it. That’s the start of the section you want transposed. The second number, separated by a dash, -, is the last measure of the part of your song that you want to be transposed.
Now use the right “CURSOR” key (>) to scroll all the way to the right and select how many half steps you want to transpose to (the number on the menu display that is after the plus “+” sign). Want to go up an octave? Enter the numbers 1 then 2 for +12 half steps (or hit the plus button 12 times, whichever you think is quicker). Want to go down an octave? Use the minus key to go down to -12 half steps. Press enter. It will ask if you are sure. Hit the plus (+) button, AKA the yes button, to confirm. Done! Problem solved.
Now that that problem is out of the way there is another problem: The sole drum kit that comes with the Yamaha QY10. Instrument 31, “Drum Set.”
Oh, the Yamaha QY10 drum machine.
To be fair to the QY10, not all drum machines have the same sounds triggered by the same midi notes. There are some universals, sure. C1 seems to trigger the kick drum on most drum machines, but that is not always the case. For example, the kick drum on my Roland TR-505 is B0 for some reason (I should really check to see if that was done by the previous owner, it just seems weird to me). Check your midi implementation charts before going to town!
I would say that most drum machines probably won’t lineup perfectly with the midi notes used by the Yamaha QY10’s drum kit. This is why, for the drum track, I go with instrument 32, or “Unknown Instrument,” on my Yamaha QY10. Then I hook up the midi out from the QY10 to the midi in on a drum machine and fiddle with the QY10’s onboard keyboard. The onboard keyboard is sending midi out as well, so start pressing some keys and, if you don’t get anything, try shifting octaves with the arrow keys above the keyboard. Eventually you will find the sounds on your drum machine.
The procedure for this is simple: Hit the “SONG” button to enter song mode. Now hit the orange menu button. Now hit the orange button underneath the word “Voic” on the display screen, the button that is connected to the word “Voic” with a white line:
Scroll with the arrow “CURSOR” keys and select the “TR” or track you want with the plus and minus keys (or number keys of the track you want). REMEMBER THAT THE TRACK NUMBER IS ALSO THE NUMBER OF THE MIDI CHANNEL! Set your drum machine to that midi channel of the track and its clock to external or it won’t do jack! Now press the number buttons 3 then 2 for the instrument you want. You will notice that it now says “OFF.” This is misleading. It’s not off! You are now controlling the external instrument, rather than using the onboard sounds of the QY10.
If you still aren’t getting anything when you play the keyboard then hit the red record button and select the right track, then hit the exit key or the stop key. You can only play an instrument live with the QY10 keyboard if it’s set up to record on said instrument. Once again, the number of the track is the number of the midi channel, so make sure you’re instrument is set to receive midi from the correct channel.
Sadly, what all of this means is that you probably won’t be able to listen to the drum track of your song when you want to compose something on the go. Instrument 32 says “OFF” because it isn’t using the onboard sounds of the QY10, so that means you won’t hear anything unless the QY10 is connected to a device. You could get around this by using the QY10 itself as the drum machine. To be honest it’s not bad, but come on. I own a Korg Volca beats with a modded, snappier snare, an Alesis SR-16, a Teenage Engineering Pocket Operator Rhythm, and a Roland TR-505. They are all better drum machines than what comes with the Yamaha QY10. Yeah, you heard me. Even the cheap-o Pocket Operator Rhythm sounds better. The drum machine on the QY10 isn’t bad, but I have better drum machines, for sure.
This, to me, is one of the major drawbacks of the Yamaha QY10. It doesn’t make composing music on the go completely feasible (unless you can travel with three synths and a drum machine. That’s tough to do on public transit). Like I said, there are some universals, like the kick drum likely being C1 on your drum machine, just as it is on the QY10. But, if you compose your entire drum track on the QY10 and then send out the midi to a drum machine it will, most likely, not lineup. There is a procedure for this, and I’ve done it: You compose your drum track on the go, without the synths that you plan on using present. Then, when you’re done composing a drum track, send the midi from the drum track to your drum machine, and then listen for what doesn’t lineup. Then you change the instrument on the drum track from instrument 31, “Drum Set,” to instrument 32, “Unknown Instrument” (which should really just be called “external instrument”). Then you painfully go through and change every incorrect midi note you’ve entered to the correct one.
The other solution would be to check the manual of your drum machine and painstakingly re-assign the different drum sounds to the midi notes that lineup with the midi notes used by the drum machine of the QY10. Tedious, but hey, now you can compose while your riding a bus and still have it work with all of your instruments. It’s worth noting, however, that not all drum machines let you reassign the sounds to different midi notes. You have to RTFM to see if this is possible.
Like I said, it’s the biggest drawback of using the Yamaha QY10 to compose music on the go. Unless you use the drum machine that comes with the QY10 composing a drum track on the fly without your drum machine present can be somewhat tedious.
Now that I’m on the topic of tediousness, allow me to talk about composing a piece on the QY10. If you’re an awesome piano player it should be fairly easy. You can always enter in the notes live. I would recommend using an external midi keyboard to do this. You could use the onboard keyboard of the QY10, but it is small and awkward:
You can use any midi controller that sends midi out via a 5 pin DIN midi cable. Sadly this is becoming more of a rarity as many cheap midi controllers opt for USB these days, since most sane people use a DAW (I’ve always subscribed to the philosophy of The Tick, who once said, “Sanity is a one trick pony. When you’re insane the sky’s the limit”). But, if you have a midi controller that uses a 5 DIN midi cable, then just connect the midi out from the midi controller to the midi in of the QY10.
The procedure for recording live playing is fairly straightforward: Hit “SONG” to enter song mode. Hit the red record button and then hit the orange menu button. You will see the following options:
Hit the corresponding tiny circular orange buttons under the option you want. “stp” is the step sequencer, which I use because I suck at playing piano. If you can play piano then “rpl” and “ovr” are what you want, depending on the situation. “rpl” means you are replacing whatever measures you selected. “ovr” means you are adding more notes to whatever you previously recorded (overdubbing). “cho” allows you to enter chords based on the chords of the backing track onto tracks 1 through 4. This requires getting into the whole procedure for making a backing track and pattern mode, which is easily explained in the video above, but it involves either using one of the preset patterns or creating your own. I preferred to just do everything manually but if you have a pattern that is used frequently in your track then this might be the way to go (I’m not getting into that option but, if you want it, the tutorial on YouTube will explain it in detail).
So, bust out your piano playing skills (and a midi controller that uses 5 pin DIN midi cables. Otherwise, good luck with the QY10 keyboard), hit the “SONG” button to enter song mode, then hit record. Don’t worry, it won’t start recording. On the far left is the number of measure you want to start recording at, the number after T is the tempo, the numbers after that (separated by a backslash) is the time signature, and the last set of numbers on the right is the track (TR) that you want to record to. All of these parameters can be scrolled to with the arrow “CURSOR” keys and can be adjusted with either the number keys or the plus and minus keys:
Now hit the menu button. Select the “rpl” or “ovr” options via the corresponding little circular orange buttons underneath these options (both will work but remember that “rpl” replaces a passage while “ovr” allows overdubbing). Now hit the play button and the following screen comes up:
The first set of numbers “-(number)” is the metronome countdown (I had 5 beats left when I snapped this pic). That’s the number of beats in the two measure countdown that the metronome will click before you start recording (it starts counting down as soon as you hit play). This is so you can get a feel for the tempo of the track before you start playing. Much like the previous screen the T____ is the tempo you are recording at. The ___/___ is your time signature, and the TR___ is the track you are recording on. Once you’ve nailed your take hit stop. If your playing sucked then either go back and select “rpl” to replace your crappy take or “ovr” and then follow the procedure for recording again (hit record, select the measure and the track you want, then hit the play button) then hold down “shift” and the note you want to get rid of and it will be erased. That’s good if you only screwed up a few notes but if your whole take sucked then go with the “rpl” option and just do it again.
Also, if you screwed up the timing but you got close, the QY10 has the option to quantize your take so that the notes will be in time. In song mode (press “SONG”) hit the orange menu button then hit the little, circular orange button under “Job.” Use the plus and minus keys to scroll to the job you want, “Quantize Measure”:
Hit enter and you get this screen:
TR is the track you are quantizing and “M(number)->(number) are the measures you wish to quantize. Use the arrow “CURSOR” keys to scroll to each respective parameter. Enter in the desired measures (first number is the beginning of the passage you want quantized and the second number is the last measure of the part you want to be quantized) with either the plus and minus keys or the number buttons. Make sure the TR is set to the track you want (again, use the number keys or plus and minus to adjust), then scroll to the far right with the arrow “CURSOR” keys. This will display the note value you are quantizing to.
Use the note value keys to change it to the appropriate timing (for example, if you recorded a bassline that was all sixteenth notes then select the sixteenth note key):
Press “ENTER” then “YES” and your take will be quantized.
As previously mentioned, I went with the “stp” recording option. I have a B.A. In Music Performance for the Classical Guitar. I had to take a year of functional piano as part of my major. Unfortunately for me, playing the classical guitar means having nails on my right hand, so I can play piano with my left hand like a normal person. My right hand? Useless. I might break a nail, and I can’t have that since I practice and gig regularly on the classical guitar (All of the choices I’ve made in life, I swear. I’ve made everything harder on myself. Nails on my right hand just to play one instrument? Going DAWless? Why do I do this to myself?).
So, for me, the QY10 is, let’s just say… Not the quickest way to write music. I have to enter every note using the step sequencer. That wouldn’t be a problem if the Yamaha QY10 let me know the pitch of the notes that I entered. Instead, I see this:
There it is, my note: A tiny black diamond on the LCD display. It lets me know that a note is present. That’s it. What is the duration of the note? You can find that, but it’s tedious (you have to scroll through the measures, the beats of the measure, and the parts of the beat, to see when the next note occurs. That or press play to hear how long it lasts). What is the pitch of said note? That, my friend, is for the Yamaha QY10 to know and for you to find out.
So here we get into another major drawback of the Yamaha QY10: You can check your work, but only in the most rudimentary of ways. Basically every beat is divided into 24 parts. The readout is as follows:
In 4/4 a quarter note is worth 24 parts, so an eighth note is 12 parts, a sixteenth note is 6 parts, etc. Did you mess something up on beat 3 in measure 22 of your song? You have to go to song mode (press “SONG”), select the correct measure, hit record, select the correct track, then hit menu, then “stp” for step sequence mode, hit play, scroll to beat three of measure 22 using the left and right arrow “CURSOR” keys, and then sift through all 24 parts of the beat using the + or – keys, find the offending note, hold shift and press the number key 6 to erase it (shift+6 is probably the most useful command to know in step sequence mode), then hit the correct note on the keyboard (the up and down keys change the octave or you can hit the note twice to go up an octave), then hit enter. You should hear a click, which indicates that you have entered a note (also, remember to hook the QY10 up to some headphones or a speaker. It doesn’t have an internal speaker so you won’t hear anything if you don’t do this).
Oof. Oof magoof.
Ultimately, the procedure for the step sequencer isn’t great, but it works. I can distill it down to this: Hit “SONG,” press record, then menu, select “stp,” press play, then start entering notes. See the pic above for what each section of the menu means. To enter a note hit the note value key. The pitch of the note is selected with the tiny keyboard (or an external midi controller that you’ve hooked up), and when you have what you want press enter. Again, you should hear a click. Not the quickest way to write music, but it works.
Despite all of its drawbacks I love the QY10. I do not regret spending $70 on this thing (sure, it didn’t come with a manual, but the manual can be easily found online here). When I get all of my synths and drum machines working together it is just pure joy. It’s all the joy that comes with the spark of creativity coupled with the satisfaction of overcoming an obstacle.
Yeah, it’s not for everyone. If you’re cool with your DAW then yes, use your DAW. There’s no denying that it’s easier. Work with it, if that is what works for you.
I am a professional musician but I don’t make electronic music professionally. The electronic music I make is what it will always be: A fun hobby that I enjoy for my own pleasure. Call me crazy, but composing a piece on the Yamaha QY10 is just way more fun than drawing notes on a DAW. I don’t have a million plugins to throw on each instrument to make them sparkle and shine. All I have is the Yamaha QY10, four midi cables, a mixer, and four instruments. I have to make compelling music with those limitations in mind but, as I’ve always maintained, out of that limitation comes invention and ingenuity.
Do you want to control more than four instruments? Stop being a cheap dummy like me and get an Arturia Beatstep Pro (I want one so bad. One of these days I’m getting one). Or just use a DAW and an audio interface that is capable of controlling multiple midi instruments.
Still want to go DAWless? Still want to go cheap? Then get a QY70, which controls up to 16 instruments. For right now I’m working with the basics, but I loved the QY10 so much that I did end up getting a QY70. The QY70 is slightly more expensive than the QY10 (it costs around $120) but it is light years ahead of the QY10 in terms of what it can do.
Also worth mentioning: THE QY70 HAS AN UNDO BUTTON, THANK YOU GOD! Man, you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone. The undo command is just so important when you work with a DAW. Not being able to undo a mistake with the press of a button? Yikes! Better be sure of what you’re doing!
The QY70 was released in 1997, seven years after the QY10 was released. What a difference seven years makes. An undo button on the QY10 would have made the amount of time I poured into making tracks on the thing significantly shorter. Also, the onboard sounds of the QY70 are AMAZING and far more customizable.
I’ll have more on the QY70 in a later article as, much like the QY10, the QY70 was a journey unto itself. For now I want to get a little more time in on the QY10. I love it to pieces and I’m sure that, if you can get past its limitations and get the hang of using it, that you will end up falling in love with it as well.