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 group-interplay possibilities.”
Keyboardist Oli Rockberger works with three controllers. 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/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 and tricks.
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 improvisation possibilities.
In performance and on record, each member of Mister Barrington triggers the other musician’s instrument. How do you do this?
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 stronger units?
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 setting?
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 you?
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 rhythmically.
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 musical situations.
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 tube amplification.