Week 1: Desert Island Tools

I’ve been thinking about being stranded on a desert island a lot lately, for some mysterious reason. Once I got past the survival horror aspects of living away from civilization, I started thinking about the classic “desert island records/books/movies” questions. My guess is that I would get tired of the same 5 records and books and movies, so my hypothetical lifeboat that brought me to these desolate shores would also have room for some tools that I could create my own art with.

If I found myself on a desert island, what music tools would I want to bring with me? If I had to pare down my studio to the bare essentials, what tools are most important? From the pure thought exercise perspective, my questions revolve around:

  • What would I need to create music on a desert island?
  • Are the tools primarily intended for live performance, or for composing & recording?
  • What would keep me occupied for an indefinite period of time?
  • Would I want to go with tools that I am 100% comfortable with, or would I want something that I need to bring myself up to speed with, in order to while away the hours?
  • Am I supposed to bring food and water with me as well? If so, should I pack light so that I have more room for the survival necessities?

After spending several weeks thinking about all the above questions, and trying out different “survivalist” music rigs, I’ve landed on the following rig for my own desert island musical tool setup:

This is a fairly portable electronic music rig, that will allow me to record and compose on the island, using both familiar and unfamiliar tools. A quick breakdown:

  • M1 MacBook Air. I just got this machine in December 2020, in order to compile the Valhalla plugins for Apple Silicon. I really enjoy this computer, due to its small size, low weight, speed, and how QUIET it is (no fan!). I’ll be using it for recording, as well as for coding new Valhalla plugins when I feel the need. I’ll probably also use it to send out emails saying HELP ME PLEASE HELP ME I AM ON A DESERT ISLAND THAT SOMEHOW HAS POWER AND INTERNET
  • Novation Launchpad X. I originally bought this to launch clips in Live, but it has become my keyboard controller of choice. When entering MIDI notes, the Launchpad defaults to an 8×8 grid that is similar to the notes on a bass or the bottom 4 notes of a guitar. It turns out that I instantly took to this way of playing music. I really appreciate the size factor of this controller – it packs the density of a 43-note keyboard into a 9.5 x 9.5 inch space.
  • A small Eurorack modular system, based around the Intellijel Palette 62, the Intellijel Atlantis, and Make Noise Maths. This is a minimalist modular synthesizer, but it packs a lot of power into a small size. The Atlantis is based on the SH-101, which was the first synthesizer I ever owned back in 1995, so it is very familiar to me. Maths is very powerful, but also not exactly intuitive to use at first. The combination of these is something that I both know a lot about using, and have a lot to learn about. Perfect for spending long hours on the island, in between desperately scanning the horizon for a passing ship and hunting fish with spears and gathering rainwater and fighting off wild boars.
  • Focusrite Scarlett 4i4, for getting audio in and out of the computer.
  • Ableton Live
  • Valhalla plugins (of course), as well as other plugins as needed

I’m honestly hoping that an electric guitar and fuzz box wash ashore at some point during my island sojourn. A satellite phone would be even better, but failing that it would be fun to run guitar through the synthesizer filters at some point.

If you found yourself on a desert island that was strangely well equipped for survival, and had time to prepare beforehand, what tools would you bring with you? Would your goal be to perform music for yourself, or compose music, or to make recordings as your souvenirs of your island stay? Do you want comfortable tools, or something that you can spend some time learning? Do you pack light, or do you need some heavy gear for your island stay?

Let us know what YOU would bring with you to your desert island! Write a comment below, or reply in the social media thread of your choice (Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook). Want the weekly prompts delivered to your inbox every Tuesday? Sign up for the Creative Practice newsletter!

Comments (16)

  • It’s hard to go past the laptop as much as it’s a bit of a catch-all cheat unless we’re stating individual software tools. A mix of immediacy/familiarity and depth of capabilities is essential for me (including in that depth a healthy peppering of lack of familiarity or predictability). Laptop (like you, probably an M1 Air) is running Bitwig, if I only have that then I’m probably still happy tbh but add one of the big deep soft-synths like Falcon, Pigments, Absynth, Phase Plant (all of which will import audio in various ways and hence are infinitely extensible). VCV Rack, your Vintageverb & Delay, UA Sandman Pro and maybe Glitchmachines Quadrant and there’s enough to explore but enough that just does a great job when you need it (software is the ideal weightless carry-on!). Hardware modular? Maybe but largely digital and weird, complex oscillator(s), FM, plenty of strange FX in a 6U 104HP suitcase I just happened to have packed. Controller has to be good keys, keys are essential for the happiness of my fingers but a set of decent pads for drum/perc and a few twiddly knobs for automation. Biggest thing is a field recorder, depending on how long I’m stuck there the ability to keep capturing audio to mangle is a must. I can work on my longform opus of minimal tracks based on the tiny variations in the rustling of my favourite palm tree recorded at exactly 33 minutes past 4 every day.
    Thanks for the inspiration and the great plugins, looking forward to my weekly creative nudge.

  • I think I’d go with:
    – MacOS Laptop
    – Scarlett 2i2
    – Logic Studio
    – Any small keyboard, like the Keystep
    – Pair of stereo condenser mics
    – Uhe Synths (Diva, Repro, Hive, Zebra)
    – Valhalla FX (All of them)
    – Something for distortion, maybe just Decapitator
    – Spitfire BBC Core

    This maybe what, a $3500 setup?

  • As much as I adore all the tools inside the computer, the real musical conversation for me has always been with the piano. I seem to process the hell out of everything when making my own recordings… but 95% of the melodies that have arrived in my life have shown up while I’ve been playing piano. A piano through Shimmer, Vintage or Room (Ulm Munster… holy crap) sure makes my ears happy once the notes have been committed to tape, though!

    • Marshall Otwell

      I share your piano-centric orientation (and the feeling sometimes of music “arriving” – beautiful!). Thanks for the tip on Ulm Munster, will check it out.

  • Definitely a laptop with my Apollo interface. Some DPA mics. 1 gorgeous, mysterious gong and rope to hang it with. 1 acoustic guitar. Novation Launchkey mini for chording and beat making.. and a pair of super comfy headphones. Thanks for the prompt! 🙂

  • laurent.mialon

    Hi wonderful Sean,
    I’d bring the best macbook pro with Live 11 and the VSTs I currently use, which include yours, a compatible multi in/out DC coupled sound card (it’s strange you don’t have one, if I dare !), my little modular case, maybe smt like an Hydrasynth, some Adam A7X – or an excellent pair of headphones. I’d love actually, as a socio-artistic perfo-experience, à la Beuys, to spend one year in a lighthouse or desert island (with electricity !!!), to come up with “an album” – I’d love then to have zero contact with the external world, zero new plug-in, zero influence.

    • laurent.mialon

      plug-ins I currently use (notably) : stuff from NI’s Reaktor, Unfiltered Audio, GRM tools, Madrona Labs, Diva, Melda, , Diva, yours, etc / hosted by Ableton Live 11 full.

  • Gary S Hall

    Your desert island seems to have quite a bit of infrastructure….

  • Jim Coulter

    I think I would enjoy whittling away the hours with this:-
    MacBook Pro
    Ableton 11 + a couple of Plugins (Valhalla, Uhe Repro & H910)
    Motu M4 (dc coupled / cv outs & Audio)
    Beyerdynamic DT770 & Yamaha MSP3’s
    Moog Grandmother or Korg MS20 Mini
    Both can take cv input and process audio.
    Aston Element Microphone.
    If there’s still room a cheap Electro accoustic guitar.

    Look forward to your creative practices.

  • On my weekly show on RadioSpiral.net, I often play live for my online audience. Often I don’t feel like turning on my whole studio (which includes a full Ableton Live setup), so I find inspiration in a very small rig.

    If I were broadcasting my live performances day and night to the world from my lonely island, I would use that rig in its entirety:

    – iPad Mini 5 running iPadOS 13.x with AUM as a host for a variety of instruments, plug-ins, and MIDI sequencers
    – iPad Mini 4 running iOS 10.x (32-bit old skool, yo) with Alchemy Mobile running through AudioDamage Eos 2
    – A Novation AudioHub2x4 and a Korg plugKEY for MIDI in/power in/audio out for the iPads
    – LinnStrument 128 as my primary controller, running USB output to one interface and MIDI output to the other; it’s easy to switch between the two outputs from the LS128 and control either iPad from it
    – Both iPads run into a Yamaha AG06 mixer/interface, along with a Roswell Mini K47 mic for voiceovers
    – Any Mac would work for streaming, including my “beater” 11″ MacBook Air

    However, if I wasn’t streaming live and just spending time playing and recording and composing, I could probably ditch everything but the iPad Mini 5, LS128, and plugKEY, with my trusty Audio-Technica ATH-M50x headphones.

    (Initially I thought that maybe I’d want to take along one of my rarely-used oddball little synths to learn it better — but then I realized they’d probably make me weep tears of blood and rage rather than be creative. So, no.)

    Here’s the thing, though: one disadvantage of going full iOS is that when I do, I have to give up all my ValhallaDSP plug-ins. They really are my go-to effects whenever I need anything time-based, and I do miss them on my iPad.

    I see you have an M1 Mac now, Sean… any chance you might someday consider compiling any of your plug-ins for iOS? A guy can dream…

  • Actually you really started some serious processes in my head. I tend to pack too much. Restrictions are a great way to fire up creativity. Something that I’ve learned experimenting in the studio and in my daily work as art therapist.
    I’d definitely take my laptop (an 8 year old Samsung) with Reason 10 as DAW. Keeping the beformentionend restrictions in mind I’d choose uHe Diva, Korg Wavestation and Arturia Synclavier as synths. Together with Valhalla Room, Vintage Verb, Unfiltered Audio Byome, Soundtoys Decapitator, FabfilterProQ and one of my brainworx consoles (SLL E) I’d get along quite well.
    Next to my laptop my RME Babface and my 2×104 HP modular system and some cables together with my Zoom H4n field recorder there would be enough freedom to never run out of options.

  • Duncan

    Great Q. I think my minimal setup would be:
    * M1 macbook (w Live, and a nice variety of software synths, Kontakt, & Valhalla FX of course!)
    * RME audio interface
    * Some nice monitors (it’s a desert island, so they might as well be big ones!)
    * Haken Continuum (it has a nice synth engine, and I’ll plenty of time to learn to play it well)
    * A good field recording setup (mixpre and some decent mics)

  • Dylan

    Cool, that is a great little set-up. Desert Island for me would be more of a mindset change. No pressure to make actual tracks. Just scrap-booking sounds, perhaps thinking up novel workflow ideas. Tinkering with synth patches. So maybe my zoom h5, and a laptop with Max or Supercollider.

  • alexander.howard

    My brand new M1 Air that arrived today. Logic Pro; Diva; all Valhallas; G-Force OB-E, Phaseplant, Pianoteq 7, Microtonic, Mododrum and Modobass. Tal J8 and UNO–LX. My Sennheiser headphones. Nectar 61 and a fridge with beer.

  • Erik Miller

    Hardware: 17″ convertible touchscreen tablet/notebook, ATH M50’s for monitoring, Novation Impulse 49 for input.

    Software: Cakewalk by BandLab, Glitchmachines Fracture XT, Unfiltered Audio BYOME, Freakshow Industries Dumpster Fire, Backmask, and MISHBY. Meldaproduction MFreeFX and MEssentialsFX bundles. TX16Wx, AIR Hybrid 3 and Expand!2. Valhalla Supermassive, Exponential Phoenix Stereo Reverb.

  • Flo

    not exactly desert island,but La Palma!
    got my macbook and a focusrite.
    and of course Ubermod.


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