| Zach Danziger|
IT’S LIKE that old-fashioned shell game, Three-Card Monte, where a
hustler moves his hands so fast that the audience can’t tell at the end
which shell covers the card. At a recent performance at New York’s Blue
Note club, Mister Barrington—an instrumental trio that adeptly uses
Ableton Live as part of their improvisational process—similarly turned
music into a bizarre
visual and musical sleight of hand. When Mister Barrington performs,
it’s almost impossible to
tell who is playing what, who is controlling what, and where the final
musical note will land.
Triggering each other’s computers through a combination of sidechain compression,
sidechain gating, and various programming tricks and scripts, Mister Barrington merges
instrumental improvising and computer programming into a wicked new beast. As heard on their two self-released CDs, Mister Barrington, and Mister
Barrington II, it’s obvious that the trio of Oli Rockberger,
keyboards, vocals, and programming; Owen Biddle, bass and
programming; and Zach Danziger, drums and programming, are
synth-walking, time-stretching genies. But with deep roots in
New York’s music scene, Mister Barrington also improvises on-the-
fly as easily as most DJs cue up a Technics 1200.
Mister Barrington’s collective credits reflect the trio’s serious skills:
Sting, The Roots, Wayne Krantz, Erykah Badu, David Holmes, John
Legend, Common, Mos Def, Al Green, Levon Helm, John Mayer, and
Corrine Bailey Rae have all worked with members of the trio. But Mister
Barrington’s own records and videos signal something well beyond R&B
or pop. Like Stevie Wonder spinning soul tales over programming by
Flying Lotus or Squarepusher, Mister Barrington’s music is startling,
especially when each musician seems to be in total sync with and
literally controlling the other’s computer’s rigs and instruments.
“With the perception that live electronic music performances are
confined to a ‘just push play’ mentality,” Danziger notes, “our mission is to keep searching for ways to use technology in
an organic manner to further improvisation and
Each member of Mister Barrington uses a
Mac Book Pro running Ableton Live, which,
with specific patching and software scenarios,
allows the musicians to effect changes in each
other’s computer rig. Examples of this include
enabling the drum rig to gate or sidechain gate
or compress the keyboard or bass rig, and the
keyboard or bass rig to control the drum rig’s
internal synth/effect patches.
|Keyboardist Oli Rockberger works with three controllers.
Keyboardist/vocalist Oli Rockberger
uses three keyboard controllers: M-Audio
Oxygen49; an Akai MPK49 controlling Ableton
Operator, Native Instruments FM8, and Iris;
and an additional controller, a Korg MicroKey,
controlling his software Vocoder (typically for
vocals), all running into an M-Audio Profire
610. A Korg NanoKontrol connects to the
MicroKey, allowing looping and extra effects
to the Vocoded signal. Rockberger often loops
short keyboard or Vocoded phrases in real time
that can be further manipulated by his onboard
effects or gated by an incoming drum-rig signal.
Zach Danziger uses Ableton native effects,
iZotope Trash 2, and Native Instruments FM8
to transform/effect his live performance drum
sound. He triggers not only electronic drum
one-shots, but also a variety of synth patches. A
custom-designed Max for Live script lets him
play realtime melodies, chords, and arpeggios.
A Danziger remix, “Stix Beiderbecke vs.
Deadmau5,” based on the original Deadmau5
track, “Maths,” recently reached 21,000 hits on
YouTube within three days after being shared
by Mötley Crüe’s Tommy Lee.
Ableton Live also enables Owen Biddle,
former bassist for The Roots, to trigger synth
bass tones. Biddle, Rockberger, and Danziger
also use Keith McMillen Instruments’ Softstep
to manipulate effects further. Danziger clues us
in to some of Mister Barrington’s techniques
One of Mister Barrington’s stated goals is to
“use technology in an organic manner to further
improvisation.” What does that mean?
We want the technology to enhance our
musicality. We don’t stop at the technique of
what the gear gives us; we use it to further our
In performance and on record, each
member of Mister Barrington triggers the other musician’s instrument. How do you
In several ways. Both in the studio and live,
we use sidechain compression, mainly having
the kick drum duck the volume of a track
or instrument to produce a pumping feel.
Live, we also do things such as routing our
individual computers to control the other
ones; you’d call it live sidechain gating.
These techniques are usually associated
with more programmed music. We’ve asked
ourselves, “Why can’t we harness our favorite
elements of electronic music, but do it with
live instruments?” We’ve been talking with
different manufacturers about producing
products that will help musicians to work
more in this way. We need this technology to
fully achieve what we want to do to.
From the drum chair, how are you improvising
simultaneously with your and the
other bandmembers’ electronic gear?
I’ve been using a KAT KP2 as a trigger unit,
attaching piezo pickups to the drums. I also
tape the piezos on the top of the cymbals. One
problem is having a level of sensitivity to not
double-trigger and false-trigger. But the bigger
problem with more affordable gear is latency,
meaning when I hit the drum or cymbal, how
long does it take for the trigger to react and
produce the sound? What is the delay time?
The technology will never be instantaneous,
but companies are developing newer interfaces
that have less latency.
What are the other limitations of current
gear to use when improvising?
The main one is CPU horsepower and, again, latency. The faster the laptop the better, and even
the fastest one is not fast enough. Oli likes to have
ten soft synths loaded at a time, and the more you
load into a DAW, the higher the CPU load. They
are all running in the buffer. We bought some
new soft synths that are great, but they are too
robust to use simultaneously without overloading
the CPU. On a more powerful desktop they are
perfect, but we use laptops, like most DJs, on the
road. The latest MacBook is a little better. We’d
like to have more high-end effects at our disposal,
but again, they take up too much CPU power. So
we often go with a scaled-down reverb, synth, or
compressor; or use “eco mode” on certain plugins.
That is the main limitation. There are many
great plug-ins that we’d like to use all the time,
but if you use too many in-tandem on a laptop
they will shut it down.
So you’re developing road-worthy and
Yes, we’re always finding ways to refine our
setups, especially for touring purposes. We seem
to favor portability over sturdiness. Some of the
manufacturers come up with features that we
find too general or redundant. These features
can affect the unit’s size and portability. I’m
getting tired of electronic drum brains having
not much more than the usual techno stabs and
stock funk drum sounds. We’ve been talking with
companies to develop products that have the
right balance of features for our needs.
How does sidechain gating work in a live
I’ll give you an example. Oli can loop any vocal
or keyboard phrase in real time and utilize such
plug-ins as iZotope Stutter Edit to mangle it even further. He uses an M-Audio controller pedal
which, when engaged, mutes his signal until he
receives the output from my drum rig. We do the
same thing with Owen’s bass. I send him my bass
drum signal, which goes to his bass rig. When the
bass rig gets a signal from my bass drum, it reacts
and either sounds or ducks the note he is playing
in that moment on his bass. It produces that
familiar cut-up/whooshing sound so prevalent in
today’s electronic music and allows us to harness
this aesthetic with improvised material.
|Top to bottom—Korg MicroKey, Akai MPK49, and M-Audio Oxygen 49.
When does each musician know this effect
is going to happen?
It’s a choice that we make in the moment.
Both Owen and Oli are incredibly intuitive
musicians. We respond when one of us goes on
a tangent, using these various techniques. It’s
an extension of knowing when to support or
interact with another musician.
So each of you can hear when the other is
sending the signal?
Yes. In my case, I am always sending out a
drum signal; it’s just a matter of when and how
they choose to engage their respective rig,
letting the drums influence its behavior. I can
hear when Oli is engaging his gate because his
keyboards are suddenly mirroring the rhythms
I’m playing on the drums. This often inspires
me to tailor my drumming to the altered
dialogue in that moment.
What are the steps to understanding this?
I think it’s important to have at least a basic
understanding of modern studio production
techniques and music software. I eventually
discovered that it’s not a great leap to apply
production techniques in a live setting. If
you’re new to all of this, there are a growing
number of innovative and cost-effective
methods to get you started. We use a bunch
of great music apps on our iPhone and iPad
such as Animoog and Bebot, which inspire
a different workflow. Steinberg, Native
Instruments, and Propellerhead have great apps as well. Akai just introduced a virtual
Akai MPC for the iPad called the iMPC.
|Owen Biddle’s bass rig.
What other software are you guys using?
We use Lennar Digital’s Sylenth, Ableton
Operator, Native Instruments Massive, and
Guitar Rig both in the studio and when
performing live. Again, we try to use synths
and effects that don’t tax the CPU too much,
and these have worked well for us. I asked
my friend Matt Moldover to write a piece of
software for me in Max for Live. It’s become
indispensable in my live setup.
Moldover built a MAX for Live script for
Yep. MAX is a programming language for
audio and video; it’s been around for years.
You can build synths and effects and all sorts
of MIDI scripts. He built me a template that
allows me to play melodic and harmonic
material on the drums. I use it a lot with
Mister Barrington. The inspiration for this
came about because I wanted a way to have more creative realtime control over melody
and harmony, rather than resorting exclusively
to a static backing track. I have a solo project
called Stix Beiderbecke which relies heavily on
Moldover’s script. It follows the song form and
harmonic progression so that I can improvise
and compose on-the-fly in addition to just
Each musician’s hands are full, so how are
you each controlling the various effects?
In a variety of ways. Owen’s main control
surface is a Keith McMillen Instruments
Softstep. It’s a MIDI controller that you
control with your feet. Oli’s Akai and Oxygen
have plenty of sliders and knobs that are all
mapped in Ableton to control his effects. I’ve
been using a Novation Launchpad as well as a
Korg NanoKontrol. My drum pickups can also
send MIDI messages, which I use to turn my
effects on and off, or make my drums stutter.
Another way I control effects is through
automation in Ableton. I’ll program it to
activate a specific plug-in in a specific bar.
Could a musician in the audience sit in and
still perform within this framework?
In some regard, absolutely. Although we
have a lot of technology on stage, our musical
approach is not all that different from what
we’d do if all we had was a piano, bass, and
drums. The technology allows us to expand
our musical possibilities in a variety of ways,
but not at the expense of spontaneity and
interactivity. A musician who is comfortable
playing in an improvised/interactive
setting might find that there are even fewer
constraints in our approach with Mister
Barrington than there are in many other
Ken Micallef has covered music for all the
usual suspects, including DownBeat, the
Grammys, and Rolling Stone. His first book,
Classic Rock Drummers (Hal Leonard), is
currently in reprint status while he manages
his family’s cotton farm down south and
ponders the future/past of the vinyl LP and