Heidi Sabertooth: Studio Talk

Talking all things machines with self-confessed hardware obsessive Heidi Sabertooth.

At the heart of it all, DJ, producer and vocalist Heidi Sabertooth’s passion is hardware. Her sound can be characterised by sizzling drums, arpeggiated leads and a general unruly approach to sound. The New York native’s music is spontaneous, live and relies heavily on her thorough knowledge of gear. She has found homes for her work on labels including New York Haunted, Lobster Theremin and has just produced an EP for Ellen Allien’s UFO inc.

The fourth episode in the UFO series, the record comes packaged as four live experiments that are the result of an interplay between the three machines that Sabertooth uses in her sets: the Roland SH-101, Korg ESX2 Electribe and Yamaha DX200. Titled With The Void, the EP reflects Heidi’s approach to sound, finding the magic in imperfections and essentially, jumping into the unknown.

To celebrate the release, we catch Heidi in her favourite place as she runs us through some of her most cherished machines.

Heidi: My process is hardware focused – all the sounds are generated by synths, beat machines, and my voice. The main instruments I use at the moment are my 1983 Roland SH-101 mono synth, my 2003 Korg ESX1 Electribe beat machine, and some FM synthesis from my DX200, which was made in 2001. I also use the Elektron Octatrack for sequencing.

I really like how these machines play together and I’ve had them for a long time – Each one of my machines has a unique personality to me and this is my main set up when I play live. For recording, I get all the parts together and then record a live take into ableton and that’s basically what you hear on the recording, plus some EQing and light editing if necessary. I really try to capture as much live experimentation as possible in the track because I think you can hear when the hand touches the machine. And I like my tracks to have a lot of human quality in them, not necessarily perfect. Anyway, so here is a little bit more on the gear I use:

Roland SH-101

As you can tell, this is my baby.  Made in 1983 and is so lightweight you would think it’s a toy, but the sounds are so iconic, from smooth Boards of Canada stuff to ripping mean acid licks.  It is always part of my live rig whenever possible because it just can’t be truly replicated by the newer models, in my opinion. It actually fits neatly under the seat of an airplane in a soft case – I tested that out when I played live for some Detroit movement afterparties a couple years ago 🙂 

I purchased it back in 2012 or 2013 from Max Raviz (who produces as Patricia) when Max was selling some gear to go modular. At the time I hadn’t yet worked with CV/Gate so I had to figure out the ins and outs of midi to cv/gate conversion and different ways to send a signal to the SH. I experimented a lot at first – using different drum machines to send a pulse and using the internal arpeggiator, but now I mostly use an octatrack to sequence the arpeggios, and also a Korg SQ1 – which is a super fun little CV/Gate sequencing box.  Love that little guy! It’s very cool because you can generate tones that are not exactly on the scale – a bit off – I like it when the arpeggios are not perfectly lined up and square – otherwise we start sounding too much like Beethoven.


The Korg Electribe ESX1 is the piece of gear I have had the longest. I started using one way back in 2004 or 2005 I think. The one pictured below is not the very first one I have had – I have gone through a bunch, maybe 3 or 4 because they just keep breaking in one way or another. Sorry Korg, I love this machine but it is prone to breaking. Some way that they made the pad connections back then wasn’t made to last, and sooner or later I have lost the function of one of the drum pads or the mute button doesn’t work, etc – and even when I have taken it in to be fixed, sooner or later it starts to corrupt again. 

I once read a gear article with Xosar and she is surrounded by like 5 or 6 of these old red Electribes because she said the same thing — she loves them, but they all have 1 thing broken. Now why would someone keep seeking these out, if they keep breaking? Well, they are just really fun!! You can slice up samples really easy, the drum mute functions are really intuitive for live performance and you have all of these FX ready to use on the fly in the live context, rather than menu diving. It has a unique sound – maybe from the tubes – and it really feels like an instrument.  And I am so used to programming on them that creativity is very easy. Mainly I use the ESX for my drums – and my sample base is mostly a collection of sounds I have made over many years – some of them are recordings of the drummer in my band a decade ago, some of them are me banging pots and pans around the house, and I am always adding to this collection.

The DX-200

I saw this bad boy posted on Craigslist back in 2015 for maybe 250 dollars, or maybe less.  I snapped it up from some nice guy in Harlem. Here I am in his hallway on the happy day.. lol

This one has the signature FM synthesis, which I have to admit that I don’t fully understand in a scientific way yet – but I do know that I love the range of sounds that are possible and all the real-time controls on this machine.  It is super fun to program, and has probably my favourite user manual of all time. It’s pretty cheeky and silly. These guys were high when they were writing this…

 I say more manuals should be written with such levity.  

Anyway, I think the through line of all my gear is that I really like to play machines like instruments.  My approach to making tracks is to capture as much live experimentation and weirdness as possible, while still making something that grooves and kicks on the dancefloor. 

I grew up playing all kinds of wind and string instruments – guitar, piano, trumpet, violin – and I played in bands for many years before DJing or producing tracks, so I find great satisfaction in playing live and making my machines feel like they are the players in my band.  I want the machines to have some life and breath in them and then we play together. I like to really get to know a few pieces of gear very well – then we have sort of a relationship together – then I can learn all the ways to make it sing – and many times they will surprise me too.  It’s like they become human sometimes. We have a lot of fun together.  

With The Void is out now on UFO Inc.

Buy it here

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