Aron Magner on Combining Live Synths, Jam Bands, and EDM


Aron Magner may be best known as one quarter of Philadelphia jam band the Disco Biscuits, but his burgeoning fan base has elevated his side project Conspirator to headlining status at festivals around the country. Magner’s keyboard wizardry has melded with the electronic dance movement to create a hybrid sound that just might herald the future of EDM. He should know—the Camp Bisco music festival that the Disco Biscuits started over a decade ago draws jam band and EDM fans in equal measure. Here, he reflects on the cultural crossover of the two scenes, and details how Conspirator and the Biscuits combine live and programmed elements.

Image placeholder title

How did Conspirator start and how has it morphed from its original mission?

I wanted to dive deeper into programmed electronic music and hooked up with a producer named DJ Omen for a bunch of sessions. We quickly brought (Disco Biscuits bassist) Marc Brownstein into the fold and Conspirator was born. The live show was just keys, bass, and CDJs. The band then became just Marc playing and me triggering tracks off the computer. Marc and I quickly realized that Conspirator was better with more musicians, so we’ve since had many world-class musicians sit in with us for the shows we play over a course of a year.

Conspirator seems like a live band by nature. How do you approach making a studio album?

We’ve taken the live model of Conspirator playing over our pre-produced tracks into the studio. That fed back and affected the live performance as well. We took each drum sample and assigned it to different MIDI channels for [drummer] K.J. Sawka to trigger, so there are no more double drums. I routed all of my synths through a compressor that has a sidechain input assigned to K.J.’s kick. Most importantly, we tightened up the set with various dummy clips that not only send program changes for K.J.’s drums or for our ear mixes, but can trigger specific things like filter tweaks so no one has to give up a hand to turn a knob.

Do the computer tracks limit your live performance possibilities?

It’s a constant battle of anticipating what the limitation is going to be and figuring out how to circumvent it. We’re becoming more aware of playing along with the computer so we’ll now do specific mixes to allow flexibility onstage for key changes or improvising. Our musical backgrounds make us want to find points in every track to open up and jam. Looping four- or eight-bar segments only goes so far. While it would be easiest to mix all the 128 bpm tracks into each other for one segment of the show, then all the 140 bpm tracks, and so on, we enjoy finding creative ways to get from 96 to 128 or 175 down to 90—and in different keys!

Image placeholder title

Aron’s Disco Biscuits Rig

Clockwise from top: Roland V-Synth GT with Boss DD-20 delay pedal above Moog Little Phatty and Novation X-Station; Apple MacBook Pro running Ableton Live; Akai APC40 and Access Virus TI Polar above KeyB Solo organ above Yamaha Motif ES8; Boss DD-5 delay pedal; Roland JP-8000; Mackie VLZ3 mixer. Click image to enlarge.

How do you use Ableton in live performance?

In the Disco Biscuits I use it to trigger song-specific loops or samples, but for the most part, I have a slew of soft synths across many channels, and that enables me to live-loop in an improv setting. With the Biscuits, my computer is slaved to [Biscuits drummer] Allen Aucoin’s. He’s the only one that has the click in his ear so he can tap tempo on his Akai APC at any point and slave the full band to his click. At this point, I can layer as many elements as I have loaded into Ableton channels—arpeggios, pads, leads. Massive, Sylenth, and Gladiator are probably my main three soft synths. I use CamelSpace and Dr. Device on the return sends, which lets me add more on-the-go character.

In Conspirator, my Ableton rig is configured differently, more like a DJ’s. I have mirrored A/B decks juxtaposed for each of the different tempo ranges so I can mix appropriately. I only use the computer to trigger the “backing” audio mixes, though I’m tempted to use a second computer solely to play the patches that were written for the specific tracks.

Have we blurred the line between keyboard player and DJ? If so, how?

We’ve certainly blurred the line between producer and DJ, and most keyboard players with synthesis skills are also producers, so by the transitive property, I guess that makes sense. It also works the opposite way. So many DJs grew restless of not having original content and got into the production game, thus learning synthesis and some basic keyboard skills. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but for some producers a lack of knowledge can actually work in their favor, as they’re only listening for what sounds good, not what “should” work according to music theory.

How do you challenge yourself on keys? Do you rehearse and if so, what can you share with readers about your process/inspiration/technique?

I warm up before shows with a few scales or exercises. Every few years I remember that my roots are in jazz and I begin taking lessons again and that gets me back in the game. But alas, the road always calls and I get sucked into balancing the life of a touring musician, producer, husband, and father.

How do you define a musical instrument in the age of Ableton and Reason—or a musician, for that matter?

There are ridiculously innovative musical controllers out now that are redefining musicians’ approach to conveying emotion through sound. Take for example the Continuum Fingerboard, the Reactable, or the Eigenharp—they’re what are pushing the boundaries of what a musical instrument is. Software programs are merely the catalysts. Taken to the extreme, you have artists like AraabMusik or Jeremy Ellis who seem to physically play the computer and controller. Who cares what their knowledge of musical theory is? They’re creating music in absolutely unique ways. Is all this partial to electronic music? Perhaps.

Are trends such as dubstep worthy of incorporation, or fads to be avoided?

I think it took a couple of years for some musicality and variation to find its way into the style. Or at least it took me a couple of years to wrap my head around the artists who push the boundaries of the genre and write absolute bangers. I was stubborn and when a genre can take the scene by storm you can’t be the last man standing—so I wrote my first dubstep track, “Last Man Standing.” Now, as with most electronic genres, the style warps and evolves and different instrumentation comes in. Check out Nero, Porter Robinson, Feed Me, or Dillon Francis, just to name a few. All are masters of incredible sound design

How has your Camp Bisco music festival bridged the live and electronic music scenes?

The first years were mainly bands with electronic influences, with DJs sprinkled in as in-between or late night sets. That was in 2000 when electric guitar was king. Now, the biggest DJs in the country are headlining the main stages. We’ve introduced our fans to so many varied acts over the years and in return, their explorations have exposed us to many more. Perhaps the appreciation of both live and electronic “pre-produced” music has finally merged.