Inside the Gear of Four Solo Performers with Grimes, Panda Bear, Grouper and Dan Deacon

The idea of the solo performer holds a timeless appeal. Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Woody Guthrie inspired thousands with a dreadnought and some lyrics to climb in front of a coffee house and clamor out three chords and a tune. The acoustic guitar, like a sepia photograph or tattered tour poster, evokes a past world of music constructed of youth, ambition, and innovation.

The singer-songwriters haven’t gone anywhere: they just increasingly come armed with new types of gear. The culture of musical instruments evolves in tandem with the growth of technology; as musicians continue to seek new mediums to express their creativity, an unending stream of synths, programs, samplers and controllers provide the tools they need. The guy with the acoustic at open mic night is still there, but so are throngs of musicians with a bit more happening in their rigs.

Today we’re taking a look at four influential modern solo performers, their styles, and their rigs. From phrenetic drone to somnambulant ambience to jazz beat frenzy, these artists are carving out new approaches to music all on their lonesome on a stage.

Grimes

Claire Boucher, better known as her futuristic synthpop project Grimes, perfectly encapsulates the age of the internet and millennial sensibilities. Erratic, ecstatic and exciting, Boucher weaves twitchy synth, lulling drum patterns and breathy vocals with a generous dash of modulation and pitch-shifting to push the boundaries of what “pop” music can do. Able to effectuate an entire show from her command center of keys and buttons, Boucher boasts enough dexterity to perform in front of thousands with only her gear as the backing band.

Our Pick: Roland GAIA

Clocking in at under ten pounds and boasting three oscillators, 64 polyphonic voices and a bevy of onboard effects, the GAIA SH-01 is one of the most impressive analog modeling synthesizers on the market. The 37-key design and no-nonsense board layout make the SH-01 intuitive, approachable, and immediately fun to play. A little powerhouse without the intimidation of a more involved synth, the SH-01 is an excellent aide for achieving weird, synthy goodness onstage.

Panda Bear

One-fourth of the seminal experimental group Animal Collective, Noah Lennox, the man behind Panda Bear, holds an impressive career as a solo performer in addition to his work with the group. While most may know him from providing guest vocals on the Daft Punk track “Doin’ it Right,” Lennox’s work as Panda Bear has evolved from delicate acoustic chorales to dense, mesmerizing electronic arrangements splicing organic and synthetic elements into a seamless creation. Working from behind a wall of samplers and effects with a guitar in hand, Lennox sounds like he’s part man and part machine, but regardless of his status as a cyborg, he’s all musician.

Our Pick: Elektron Octatrack DPS-1 Sampler

Sporting an eight-track step sequencer, four software processors and 80MB of internal ram, the Elektron Octatrak is a flagship product in the world of samplers. Able to adjust pitch and tempo in real-time and apply phasing, flanging, delay and more with an internal effects engine, the DPS-1 goes from studio to stage fluidly with its compact design.

Grouper

Liz Harris, the woman behind the experimental ambient project Grouper, is the least recognizable act in this article, but anonymity is a component of her music’s allure. Harris crafts sparse loops of her voice and guitar into lush worlds populated with echo via her RC-20XL and a cavalcade of Walkmen for natural tape decay. Seated onstage with her guitar in lap and effects at her feet, Grouper illuminates an audience with shadows, dreams, and a throng of distant voices, all coming from a single source.

Our Pick: Boss RC-20XL Loop Station

Cost-effective and loop-effective, the RC-20XL is a favorite looper of professional musicians and burgeoning players alike. Capable of storing eleven loops within the unit’s 16 minute storage capacity, this pedal’s dual-stomp design and streamlined interface make it an excellent choice onstage for crafting loops on the fly. From a simple backing phrase to an enormous eleven-part soundscape, the RC-20XL is essentially a band in a box.

Dan Deacon

One of the most inventive people creating music today, Dan Deacon also holds the record bar none on this list for the most dizzying amount of gear. “Dizzying” is also an apt description for his music. Dense, spastic, and ultimately impressive, Deacon sends samples, vocals and notes through a thick forest of modulation producing an end product that could make even a coma patient giddy. Known to allow the crowd onstage as he bobs and weaves over a table filled to the brim with pedals and keys, Dan Deacon is one of the best examples of what one person can do with a little blood, sweat, and gear.

Our Pick: Akai MPK61

The MPK (Music Production Keyboard) Controllers can be your best asset when working with a production program. Each rendition in the series features weighted keys, a bank of touch-sensitive MPC pads, Q-Link controls and an onboard arpeggiator for fine-tuned control over the program you’re working on. Just as functional onstage as in a studio or bedroom, the MPKs offer an impressive amount of functionality in a MIDI controller.

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