Ditch the laptop: How to make music with a Roland JD-XA-based setup

If you're looking to create beats, basslines, chords and songs live, without a laptop, this particular all-hardware setup could be the solution you're looking for.

The JD-XA has a powerful 16-track sequencer that can be set to control the internal synth engines (analogue and digital), as well as any external gear over MIDI or CV/Gate - or both! The analogue section is great for creating leads, basses and poly sounds, and serves as a fantastic analogue drum machine, too, with that classic Roland character.

Some preparation is required to get the most from this setup live, so we like to dedicate Analogue Part 1 to bass, Part 2 to the kick drum, Part 3 to the snare and Part 4 to the hi-hats, then leave layering/percussive duties to the Moog DFAM, with its extensive modulation, sequencing and filtering, and flexible semi-modular patch bay.

To set things up, take a gate output from the JD-XA into the DFAM’s Clock/ADV input. Enter 64 steps into the sequencer on track 5 of the XA’s sequencer (set to external), and when you hit play on the XA’s sequencer, the DFAM sequencer will start in sync it. For an extended live set, it’s worth creating between eight and 16 sequences in the XA at varying tempos (and with varying degrees of swing) for variation, then saving each one separately, named appropriately: sequence 1 for slow builds, sequence 2 for faster, housey feels, etc.

You can then record a bassline into the XA’s first analogue part, and kick, snare and hi-hats into the others - or pre-record them and mute/unmute them as you wish. Add further pads, strings, pianos, percussion and so forth using the XA’s remaining digital parts, then get down to the performance using the knobs and faders on the JD-XA and DFAM’s front panels! When you’ve rinsed out a particular sequence, move onto another and repeat the process!

JD sports

We’re also using the Boss RC-505 here, not as a looper (although that is an option, as both the XA and DFAM are running into its inputs) but as an effects unit for adding reverb and mod effects to the DFAM, which has no onboard effects. The RC-505’s effects sound great and up to three can be used at once, easily controlled and manipulated via the big level dials. It's a very hands-on way to add further processing and interest to your live DFAM beats.

Don’t forget, too, that you can use the JD-XA’s high-quality effects and filters via the dedicated effect knobs to really twist and dramatise the sounds it produces. This gives a lot of scope for sweetening or destroying sounds, as taste dictates!

You could always add another synth to this setup for further atmospheres, sounds/FX and arpeggiations. The Behringer DeepMind 12/6 is a great option, being very hands-on, packed with modulate-able effects and easily synced up to the XA’s sequencer over MIDI.

The pros and cons

This is a powerful setup for a hands-on hybrid approach to live performance, working well for a good many styles, from funk to electronica. 

Pros include a lot of sonic flexibility including a fat analogue/digital sound from the XA; and the DFAM is at home playing abstract sounds as well as drums.

The cons are that you can’t fly in samples without adding in another piece of gear (an MPC, for example), and the JD-XA’s sequencer can’t seamlessly move between sequences without stopping.

It should be also noted that the DFAM has no memory, so it’s a good idea to draw a few markers on the front panel, for quickly reverting to a default fallback sound.

For more hardware-based live performance tips and tutorials, check out the August 2018 edition of Future Music.

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