Laptops have made it possible to bring your computerbased
studio to the stage, but the needs of musicians are
quite different from salespeople lugging around laptops
to corporate offices so they can run spreadsheets
and do PowerPoint presentations. You want power,
performance, and portability—and you want it all now.
I’ve been doing laptop-based performances for more
than a decade, and learned a lot in the process. So why
reinvent the wheel? Read on, and save yourself the hassles
of learning the lessons I learned the hard way. And, pick up
some helpful gear suggestions for the tasks at hand.
Plan for the Worst The show must go on, so if your act is laptop-based and your laptop goes down, unless you’re really, really good with acoustic guitar, singing, and kazoo, you’ll want a Plan B. And assume your computer will die, because it will—the only variable is when.
The Mirrored Computer The ultimate backup is to
have two laptops with duplicated contents. No matter
what happens to computer 1, just slide in computer
2 and keep on going. (It can be impractical to carry
around two computers, and fortunately, there are other
options, so keep reading.)
|Fig. 1. Yes, this illustration is recycled from a recent Craig’s List
column, but it bears repeating: Choose a computer for the job you need
to do, not for its logo.|
Mirroring the System Drive Many laptops make it fairly easy to remove an existing system drive and replace it. A system drive is not only the most crucial part of any computer but also the most likely
element to fail (unless it’s a solid-state drive,
which we’ll address later), so making an
image of your system drive is inexpensive, and
usually effective, insurance.
Mirroring to a New Computer The
next best option is being able to mirror
your computer on demand. If the problem
involves not just a drive but something like a
motherboard failure, you will likely need to buy
a new laptop or borrow one. The best way to
be prepared for this scenario is to bring all data
necessary to reconstruct your set, as well as any
host programs or plug-ins you use. Thankfully,
the days of having to insert a CD-ROM for
verification are behind us, but you will need
serial numbers and activation codes to install
from a set of backup discs or from online.
|Fig. 2. Adapters like Belkin’s Thunderbolt Express Dock let Thunderbolt drive a host of legacy devices.
When creating your backup data set, be
aware of any “gotcha” data. Some crucial data
may live in a documents folder on your system
drive, so make sure you have all of the data and
preferences a program needs—a “file not found”
error message during soundcheck is a buzzkill.
Don’t overlook demo versions as a possible
way to save your act. For example, the demo
version of Ableton Live (the software I use
for live performance) does everything except
save. So, if anything happens to the registered
version on my computer, I can download the
demo, perform my set, use all the effects and
instruments, and carry on.
Backup Cloud storage is wonderful—except
when your hotel’s internet connection makes
dial-up look blazingly fast. You often need a
gigabyte or more to reconstruct everything
needed for your set, and that can translate
to hours of download time. So, while having
cloud backup is prudent, have a physical
backup as well.
|Fig. 3. An extension cable keeps dongles from sticking out from the motherboard, which invites breaking them off at the base—and could necessitate a pricey motherboard replacement.
USB sticks or SD cards often have sufficient
storage capacity for backup, which, given
their robust nature and fast transfer times,
makes them ideal. For really large amounts
of data, external drives are inexpensive and
plentiful. Solid-state external drives (SSDs) are
even better, as they’re pretty much immune
to mechanical shocks, and can tolerate the
rigors of the road better than platter-based,
mechanical hard drives. Call me paranoid, but
I use the cloud and carry some kind of drive
and DVD-ROMs . . . then again, I’ve never had
to cancel a performance.
Mac vs. Windows For many people, their
platform of choice is like a religion, but bear
with me (Figure 1). For live performance,
computers are basically appliances dedicated
to running your software of choice. Sure, there
are differences in the operating system between
Windows and Mac—but onstage, the first thing
you do is leave the operating system and open
your fave application. Programs like Native
Instruments Traktor, Steinberg Cubase, Ableton
Live, and so on look and feel pretty much the
same regardless of the platform you use.
|Fig. 4. Kensington’s MicroSave DS keyed notebook lock fits the standard Kensington security slot found in 99% of notebooks and computer devices.
For about a decade, I used nothing but Apple
gear for live performance. Apple makes great
computers, and the older models were much
easier to maintain tha Windows machines. Now,
I use Windows products live simply because
if anything goes wrong, it’s easier to replace
a Windows machine. Apple has about 250
Apple Stores in the U.S., and also sells through
Best Buy (with about 1,055 stores) and local
authorized dealers. But you can buy Windows
laptops not only at Best Buy, but also Target
(1,740 stores), Office Depot (1,100 stores),
Staples (1,575 stores), OfficeMax (almost 1,000
stores), and various other outlets.
Also, while Apple makes gorgeous laptops,
they can be overkill for live performance.
You’re paying for the extra battery life (which
doesn’t matter, for reasons we’ll explain
later), the lighter weight, the retina display,
and Industrial Design of the Gods. You’re
more likely to be able to afford two Windows
machines and have a mirrored backup than
two fully loaded Macs.
|Fig. 5. For the best performance, run your processors to the max under AC power.
Use whatever you want when you get home.
However, some considerations could sway
you toward one platform or the other for live
With Windows, you’re on your own as far as
tech support—don’t expect the salesperson at
Target to provide much help. With Apple, you
can bring any laptop under warranty to any
Apple store, anywhere. Apple also maintains a
database of names and serial numbers, so you
don’t even have to bring any paperwork, and
they’ll know if your particular production run
was prone to any problems.
Another problem with Windows machines
from “big box” stores is they usually come
loaded with junk, like trial versions of software
you don’t need, bloated “assistance software”
that’s just a waste of drive space, and the
like. These can slow down performance, and
what’s worse, you may not receive the actual
Windows OS discs, which would let you wipe
the hard drive clean, install Windows, and start
over. Learning how to get rid of the bloatware
isn’t difficult, but if you don’t know how to do
it, you’ll likely run back screaming back into
the comforting arms of an Apple store.
But there’s much to be said for the low
replacement cost of Windows computers,
and the ability to get them up and running in
very little time. Furthermore, companies like
PC Audio Labs, Rain, and ADK make laptops
designed specifically for musical applications.
They’re more expensive than a cheapo Toshiba
from Office Depot, but they basically you give
you an Apple-type, optimized experience on
the Windows platform.
|Fig. 6. Disable wi-fi and other performance drains using Windows’ Device Manager.
In any event, you want to choose the right
laptop, so check for the following.
With non-Retina MacBook Pros, pay the extra
money for an internal 7,200 RPM drive, or
do the DIY upgrade for less. The same is true
for Windows. The extra speed compared to a
standard 5,400 RPM drive means everything
happens faster and audio streams better.
Solid-state system drives are appealing, but
be careful. 250 or 500GB may sound like a
lot of storage, but you’d be amazed how fast
that gets eaten up with today’s programs and
media, particularly sample libraries if you
use virtual instruments. If you do get an SSD,
factor in an external drive to hold library
data and the like, even though this reduces
A bigger screen is worth the extra bucks and portability hassles. You just can’t look cool
on stage if you’re squinting.
Don’t worry about battery life. Laptops have
all kind of power management schemes
for squeezing the last possible drops of
energy out of batteries, but these degrade
performance. Run off AC power when
you’re onstage, and set the power options
for maximum performance, not minimum
Don’t skimp on RAM. Extra RAM and
additional processor cores are investments
that pay rich dividends.
Make sure you have the ports you need. This
is important enough that it deserves its own
Interfaces Avoid a computer’s internal
audio if possible, which implies adding an
audio interface. If you’re thinking of FireWire,
also think back to when Roland Reagan was
president, Human League was topping the
charts, and Dell introduced a computer with a
blazingly fast 16MHz processor—because that’s
when FireWire was born (although both it and
USB came into prominence in the mid-’90s).
FireWire has had a great run and will continue
to serve us well, but it’s getting harder to find
laptops with FireWire ports. Some Windows
laptops have ExpressCard slots where you
can insert a FireWire card, but that’s kind of
a kludge, and not particularly stable (from a
mechanical standpoint) for live performance.
|Fig. 7: The window on the left uses DPC Latency Checker to show a laptop’s performance prior to performing the system tweaks mentioned in the text; the red spikes in particular will almost certainly cause dropouts at lower latencies. The window on the right shows performance after turning off unnecessary devices, closing unnecessary programs, and changing the look from Aero to Classic.
Although USB is the most universal
solution these days, Thunderbolt is now
being built into Windows laptops as well
as Macs. Thunderbolt is an extremely fast
(10Gbit/second data transfer), low-latency
interface protocol, although currently,
the only audio interface available for
Thunderbolt is Universal Audio’s Apollo, and
as of this writing it’s Mac-only—although
that may have changed by the time this issue
hits the streets.
One of Thunderbolt’s great features is that
with various adapters (Figure 2), you can easily
run FireWire, Ethernet, USB, and even PCI cards
from the interface; your older gear won’t become
a doorstop. It’s entirely possible that someday,
the easiest way to run a FireWire interface will
be through a Thunderbolt adapter.
Laptop Security The same element of
portability that makes laptops so desirable
for live performance also makes them easy
targets for theft, and 97% of stolen laptops are
never recovered. But there’s more to security
than theft, like making sure your laptop
doesn’t go crashing to the floor, or damaging
the motherboard by catching a dongle on
something. Here’s a grab bag of tips to keep
your laptop safe.
Never leave a laptop, or computer bag,
visible in your car when it’s parked. Keep
your computer in the trunk, or hidden in a
brown paper shopping bag.
At the airport, when you have to take the
computer out of its bag, put it on the X-ray
machine’s conveyor belt last, after your belt,
shoes, carry-on, etc. It’s almost impossible
for someone to take your laptop and go out
the way you came in, but if it’s the first thing
off the belt, it’s all too easy for someone to
grab it while you’re being wanded or felt up
by a TSA worker.
The computer can build up a static charge
when it goes through the X-ray machine.
Don’t touch any of the ports when picking
up the computer; touch the cover first to
discharge any static electricity.
On the plane, put the laptop under the seat
in front of you. All you need is for someone
to put the carry-on with their rock collection
on top of your laptop bag in the overhead
bin. Also, contents in the overhead bin can
shift; someone might open it, and if your bag
ends up leaning against the bin’s door, it can
crash to the floor.
At the gig, if possible, secure the laptop
to a table or stand with bungie cords.
Many laptops have a flat area between
the keyboard and screen, or between the
keyboard and touch pad, where bungie
cables can sit without getting in your way.
Keep the laptop’s cover closed unless you’re
performing. This protects both the screen
and the keyboard.
Use cable extensions between laptop
connectors and the outside world. For
example, use a short USB extension cable
with dongles (Figure 3), and an extension cord
between audio outs and the cables going to
the front of house mixer. The goal is to have all your cables configured so that if someone trips
over them, they’ll pull out of the extension
rather than out of your computer. Use duct
tape to affix the extensions to your playing
surface so they’re held securely in place.
Kensington locks aren’t foolproof—no
anti-theft device is—but they can be a
good deterrent (Figure 4). These work by
attaching a difficult-to-cut cable to your
computer; you then thread the cable around
something permanent or difficult to move,
like a table leg bolted to the floor.
Optimizing Performance The live
performance laptop should be dedicated to
only one task: Making you look good on stage.
All it needs to do is the minimum necessary to
run your programs as quickly and efficiently as
possible, so relieving it of its other duties can
increase performance and reduce latency. The
following tips relate to Windows machines, but
some of the concepts apply to Macs as well.
Always run the laptop from its AC
adapter, and disable power-management
schemes. In Windows, create a power plan
for live performance: Select Power Options
from the Control Panel, pick a plan, and
click on Change Plan Settings. Set “Put the
Computer to Sleep” to Never, then click on
Change Advanced Power Settings. Expand
the Processor Power Management section,
and set both the minimum and maximum
processor states to 100% for both AC power
and battery (Figure 5). While setting them
to maximum is important, setting the same
value for each is also important. One laptop
I used produced an audible click every time
the processor switched to a higher- or
lower-performance state. Next, open
Device Manager from the Control Panel,
expand the various trees, and disable (do
not uninstall!) devices you won’t need
onstage. Start with internal wi-fi (Figure
6), which can have a major negative impact
on performance. But you also don’t need
the onboard camera, internal sound card,
Ethernet port (except in rare instances),
fingerprint sensor, and the like.
While in the Control Panel, click on System
then click on Advanced System Settings. Click
the Advanced tab and under Performance,
click on Settings. Under Visual Effects, select
Adjust for Best Performance. This basically
turns off all eye candy. Although in most cases
a dedicated chip offloads graphics tasks from
the CPU, from time to time I still find audio
programs that don’t function as well under the
Aero look as they do under the simpler Classic
Now click on Start and in the Search box, type
msconfig and open msconfig.exe. Click on the
Startup tab, and uncheck any frivolous startup
programs. (Do you really need Adobe updater
to check for updates to Acrobat when you’re
playing a DJ set?) This frees up CPU memory
and distractions. As you’ve already disabled the
wi-fi and won’t be checking your email while
performing, turn off anti-virus programs, as they may decide to scan at an inopportune moment
and slow down your system.
Finally, download the free DPC latency
checker utility from www.thesycon.de/deu/
latency_check.shtml. This monitors your
laptop’s realtime performance and displays
CPU spikes, which reduce performance, or
worse yet, can cause audio dropouts (Figure 7).
USB RAM Sticks As RAM Disks With
some programs, you can use USB RAM sticks
as external disks, and stream data from them.
Although USB sticks aren’t fast when writing,
they read very well. For example if you use a
virtual instrument that reads samples from a
library, load the library on a RAM stick, and
point the program to the library.
My favorite application for this is running
Ableton Live; using this technique increases
performance so much you can even use laptops
with slower 5,400 RPM drives. First, invoke Save
Live Set As and navigate to a USB 2.0 stick to
create a project folder. Then go to File > Collect
All and Save, and click “Yes” to all the options.
Open the .ALS Live project file from the
folder on the USB RAM stick, and select all
audio clips by drawing a rectangle around
them. Select Live’s Clip View, and under
Samples, uncheck RAM.
Now Live will think the clips are disk clips,
and stream them from the USB stick. But
note that now, Live no longer has to stream
anything from the laptop’s hard drive, and
doesn’t store these clips in system RAM either,
because the program doesn’t think they’re RAM
clips. So basically, you’re streaming all that audio
without it taking up any of your laptop’s RAM, or
stressing out your hard drive. Is that cool or what?
Laptop Love So there you have it: a survival
guide to using laptops live. In all my years of
laptop-based performances, so far, the show
has indeed gone on. Treat your laptop kindly,
and it will return the favor.