Integrating the SP404 MKii into your DAW workflow

The SP404 MKii is a creative beast, it’s quick and easy to get ideas down and it goes without saying the FX are top notch.

As a brand new user of the MKii a couple years back, having never owned a 404 previously, I went through a few different ways of trying to use it before I found one that fit in nicely with my workflow.

This article just gives you some ideas on setup and food for thought to work out your own best way to work with the Mkii.

Everything in the Box

Diehard 404 legends like Dibia$e are famous for producing beautiful tracks completely inside a 404 (or two). Doing this on an original 404 or 303 really blows my mind, the attention to detail and painstaking approach is incredible.

If you copped a Mkii recently and you are anything like me you will likely want to try producing a couple tracks entirely in the box just to test the limits and work out what your pain tolerance is…

The classic method is of course resampling, where you layer together multiple takes of live played or sequenced samples with the SP FX, stringing together longer and longer loops and adding more layers until you get a finished track.

This is a completely destructive process.

Fortunately with the MKii we have a ton more flexibility with the addition of the step and pattern sequencers, the undo button in the live sequencer, and as of the OSv3 – motion recording of FX and track mutes, bouncing sampled sequences to audio, and a bunch of other improvements.

Even with all that flexibility I still found producing an entire track solely in the MKii a pretty exhausting process as a lot of resampling with FX is needed to free up the FX busses if you want to do anything more than just run an effect on an entire ‘track’ or two.

You’ll also likely be resample eq’ing on the go with Equalizer or Isolator and once it’s done it’s done.

Went a bit wild on the 303 Vinyl sim on your drums? Too late, that’s baked in now as well.

Of course that’s part of the charm and the rich/dense sound of the 404 but I think I’m safe in guessing the majority of MKii users are not producing their whole track in the box.

It’s a very viable option, and I would encourage anyone to do it at least once for the experience.

The method I found quickest and easiest was still using resampling heavily to get up to 4 or 8 bar length loops then using the pattern sequencer and motion record to add mutes/delay etc.

This is the only remaining ‘all in the box’ experiment I have. As you can hear it turned out ‘over cooked’…

Stezo – It’s My Turn SP404 in the box remix
Sausage WAV file

Stem Bouncing

In this method you’re still doing the majority of the work in the SP, building out full length stems of each ‘track’ / sample sets / or individual pads.

You can then record them directly into your DAW tracks, or resample them to a new pad and transfer via SD card.

Either way, you end up with full editing ability in your DAW to pan. EQ, use plugins, slice and dice or do whatever you want to build out your track then mix and master it.

Hybrid SP404 MKii and DAW Setup

After a lot of experimentation this is the method that works best for me. It takes a bit of setting up but the flexibility is definitely worth it.

There’s a few different ways to do this.

SP404 Mkii as USB audio interface

As the MKii is USB class compliant you can plug straight into any Mac (unsure on Windows) and it will show up as a core audio device with the respective inputs and outputs available in your DAW once selected.

Just set up a basic drum track (or metronome), arm an audio track, select the SP stereo output pair as your track Input and record directly into your DAW with whatever FX you applied, or record a sequence in the SP first, midi sync and record the loop in whilst playing the SP FX etc.

Take lanes and comping will be your friend in this method as you can live play multiple takes and select the best parts of each.

Make sure you set up the options correctly for this to work as intended.

Utility > USB In > Set to MIX OUT or you’ll be applying FX to your daw output and hearing both sets of audio.

This is a really nice method I used for a few months and allows you to get the sound and feel of the 404 (the vinyl pitch mode is important for me personally) with the flexibility to program drums, synths and anything else you want in your DAW.

This is awesome, but what if you want to apply the SP FX to what you recorded, after recording it, or use them on a DAW bus or a VST, or as a mastering effect?

You can’t do that due to the limited input and outputs of the SP, but fortunately if you are a Mac user there is an easy solution, an aggregate audio device.

Create an Audio Device with SP404 Mkii

Mac OS gives you some pretty useful inbuilt audio and MIDI config options, one of these is the aggregate device.

This lets you combine any combination of on-board and Core Audio devices together. There’s a few articles about this knocking around in addition to mentions directly in the Ableton knowledge base.

Most of these talk about increased latency with aggregate devices, which makes sense as you’re doubling the amount of USB bus connections. 

For example, Ableton’s disclaimer states:

“However useful, aggregate devices cannot be expected to perform as well as a configuration based on a single hardware audio device: under certain circumstances, clocking errors can take place, resulting in audio drop outs and generic performance issues. Latency might be misreported and connectivity issues are more likely to occur.

If your interface has Multi-device support then we recommend connecting it with another suitable hardware device instead.”

Once you setup your aggregate device you can check the latency in your DAW – it definitely does APPEAR to add latency as reported in e.g. Ableton audio setup.

I can only go by my own real world experience, and on my M1 Macbook Air I am still able to get very usable latency (just over 10ms) with an aggregate device using not only the Macbook internal Mic as a placeholder, but an ancient Apogee One 2009 USB1.1 (yes USB one) interface, so…. If you were put off by latency talk before even trying this I would strongly suggest doing your own testing as it can be a game changer.

Setting up Basic Aggregate Device with Mac Internal Audio and SP404 Mkii

It’s pretty simple to set up, if you don’t have an external audio interface you can use the Mac Speakers as the stereo out pair one and the SP in/out pairs, you won’t need the SP Inputs unless you are planning on using a dynamic Mic or the instrument line in, and not adding them will result in less latency.

Note: The SP will show 2 pairs of OUTS, the second pair are the Line Outs which you will have to add to the aggregate device, but will be useless unless you are cabling into an audio interface’s inputs or running them out to powered monitors, the first pair run over USB.

It should look like this:

Basic Aggregate Audio Device with SP404 MKii

Setting up an Aggregate Device with USB/Thunderbolt Audio Interface and SP404 Mkii

Exactly the same procedure as above –  but exclude the Mac internal audio and add the USB Interface first (just for tidiness so you master outs will be 1/2).

If you have a 4/8/16 In/Out interface the requisite number of inputs will be added, and Drift Correction will be added to the SP to help it keep clock with your interface.

Setting up an Aggregate Device with a single input USB Audio Interface and SP404 Mkii

Having a mismatched number of inputs and outputs will cause problems, at least in Ableton Live, as you will be unable to select the SP stereo pair in Live itself.

I found a workaround for this after trial and error so if by any chance you do have a 1 in, 2 out interface (Apogee ONE series, Universal Audio Volt 1, Arturia MiniFuse 1 etc.) you can still get this working.

Here we add the USB interface first, then Add the internal Mac mic to make a matching input pair, then add the SP404 MKii.

It should look something like this.

Aggregate Audio Device with SP404 Mkii and Single Input Interface

Using SP404 Mkii as external DAW effect over USB

Now you have your aggregate device setup, select it as both the input and output device for your DAW, then check the input/output config and make sure your SP stereo pairs are enabled, you can disable any ins/outs you won’t be using to save CPU although unless you are running a VERY old machine the difference will be negligible.

Important: Go to Utility in the SP and set USB In > LINE IN

So now you can jam on your MKii, record the audio as takes and do comping PLUS run the SP as an external FX box and record back into the DAW.

The SP effects will behave in exactly the same way as you have them setup in the box, so if you have 1>2>3>4 setup as the FX routing you can use up to 4 effects on a single instance of audio running thru your DAW in USB and record any FX moves you make in real time.

It’s beyond my scope to test this in every DAW but in Ableton and Logic its very easy to setup, just drop and External Effect on your audio track, set both send and receive to your Mkii outputs (usually 3/4) , tweak gain etc to taste and that’s it. I have never had the need to use track delay compensation.

SP404 MKii Inputs and FX routing
Recording Audio Effected by the SP404

From there just add a new audio track and set the input to whatever track you are running SP FX on, and hit record.

Using the SP404 MKii as external Mastering or Bus effect

You might want to add a bit of 404 magic to your master, or maybe a drum bus, this is also pretty easy although we cannot ‘bounce’ or export with the effect, the workaround isn’t that bad.

Drop in the SP External effect anywhere on your master bus, for the last little EP I did (check it out below if you like) my chain looked like this.

Master Bus SP404 MKii
Ableton Master Bus with SP404 External Effects

So we have a clipper initially, then the SP FX which in this case was a little bit of 303 Vinyl Sim compression on BUS 1 and then some Cassette Sim on BUS 2 to glue it back together a bit and take out some of the 303 low end mud. Then straight into a limiter and metering. 

Once you’re happy with how it’s sounding just resample (or bounce) the master bus into a new audio track.

You can turn off the limiter or anything else after the SP external effects, and save that for later tweaking if you want but I prefer to just close the deal once I’m happy. You can do as many retakes as you need with different tweaks and give them a proper critical listening after a break.

Prepared with the help of the SP404 MKii

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