Turning electronic music into a improvisational experience that both maintains the feel of the original material and allows for some flexibility is not an easy task. Live bands with a drummer and couple of people playing “real” instruments can do a pretty good job at faking it, but nine times out of 10, they're still locked to a click track and a rigid preprogrammed arrangement. For solo artists, it's usually even more grim, as performing live is all too often a case of pressing the Spacebar on a laptop and knocking out the occasional keyboard lick to keep things interesting. And although numerous pieces of software, hardware controllers and DJ CD players promise the ability to remix live, most of these products only offer some sort of smart looping capability — which is great for the dancefloor but not very useful anywhere else.
When artist, producer and sound designer Keith Hillebrandt began preparing to take the tracks from his debut album, Blue (Piggyback, 2005), on the road, he wanted to present an experience that was both unique for the audience and exciting to play each night. Hillebrandt is most widely known as a sound designer and remixer, with a background that includes a long stint working as a programmer with Nine Inch Nails and remix projects with N*E*R*D, U2, Clint Mansell and David Bowie. For Blue, he penned 14 instrumental tracks that drew on his collection of classic analog synths — an ARP 2600 and Odyssey, a Roland Jupiter-6 and others — as well more current items such as the Roland V-Synth. Hillebrandt then devised a way of bringing his material into a live environment by using Ableton Live 4 and the V-Synth in conjunction with an Evolution UC-33 controller.
“All I really want to do live is present reinterpretations of the tracks,” he explains. “I don't want things to sound like they're just coming off the DAT player. I don't want people to know what the next part is going to sound like, because they've already heard the record. Using Live, you could make your live tracks sound exactly like they sounded on your CD. But the nice thing about Live is that it gives you the option not to do that. The live approach that I'm taking is a remix style where I'm mixing things on the V-Synth, which is my main keyboard live. I'm mixing things on the V-Synth that are either being triggered from Live or that I'm playing. The V-Synth is kind of the real-time element, and Live is kind of the improvisational arranger. I'll have a lot of the different things coming out of Live; it gives me the ability to work between different arrangements from performance to performance.”
CUT, PASTE AND PLAY
Hildebrandt's process for preparing the material to be played began by dividing the elements of each song into two rough categories: things that had to be played live and things that are better served as triggered or looped elements. By using the V-Synth in conjunction with Live, Hillebrandt is able to use the V-Synth both as a more traditional instrument and as a way of processing sounds that are coming out of his Live rig.
“There are certain things that you just need to see somebody playing, and I'll do that on the V-Synth,” he says. “Or anything that I'm going to be processing over time, that is also coming out of the V-Synth. My approach to the stuff that comes out of Live is, I try to look at the elements of the song that are more static — obviously, the main beat and, in a lot of cases, the bass or little synths ticking along or anything like that. One of the big things I use Live for is having underlying ambiences. The kind of drones and things that I do on my Useful Noise CDs are what I like to have layered underneath the tracks to give them more depth. So Live will do more of the static-type elements. With that said, I've got the UC-33 controller here, which allows me to take all of the tracks I have playing in Live and mix in different effects, like particular delays and sound-design-type effects so it doesn't sound completely static.”
NOT SO OBVIOUS
One studio technique that Hillebrandt likes to bring to the stage is the idea of using melodies and sounds that blur and change during the course of the track. But as a solo performer with only two hands at his disposal, it's often difficult to play a line on the keyboard and alter its sound at the same time. On the track “Exchange,” he gets around this issue by using the MIDI functionality in Live to trigger clips on the V-Synth that can be altered on the fly. For those not familiar with the V-Synth, the unit includes myriad real-time controls such as the D Beam controllers (beams of light that can alter both standard parameters such as LFO rate and the actual pitch of the sound) and the Time Trip Pad, which can freeze and reverse the playback of sampled material based on tactile movements.
“The track ‘Exchange’ was literally something that had spawned from the V-Synth to begin with,” he says. “What you'll get in a track like that is, you'll have a lot of the rhythmic effects and things like that coming up out of Live, and then all of the sounds that I have happening on that one, I can hit those on the V-Synth and process them differently every time I'm hitting it. It also has one of the techniques I used a lot on the album: smearing melodies, which is basically the idea of creating a melody and not making it obvious. In doing ‘Exchange’ live using the V-Synth, I'm able to create that effect, which previously, without the V-Synth, I would only be able to do in the studio. What I'm allowed to do with the V-Synth on that track is have the sound slowly come in; you're obviously hearing a melody, but it's not obvious, and as I'm kind of defining the elements of the sound, you're hearing the melody more and more. And then as the song starts to come to an end, I start to actually deconstruct the sound, so it's starting to fall apart to where at the end, it's just the pumping of feedback delays. Another approach I used is where I'm playing nothing on the V-Synth, so Live is playing the MIDI notes, and I'm playing the knobs.”
An inevitable problem with any live music performance is the issue of gear breaking down or not working properly. So having a contingency plan when things do go wrong onstage can help performers deal with technical problems in a way that seems almost invisible to the audience.
“Since the V-Synth has so much memory in it,” Hillebrandt explains, “I've got patches I go to where I can hit a note, and a drone will come up, and then hit another note, and something else strange will come up, because I've got it timed out to how long it takes to reboot. So with that timing set, I've got presets I can go to in the V-Synth where I can hold down notes with one of my hands and use the other one to wipe the sweat off my brow and reboot the computer.”
Hillebrandt will be on tour throughout the remainder of the year in support of Blue. You can also check out his Useful Noise series of sound libraries (now in version 3) at www.usefulnoise.com.
KEITH HILLEBRANDT STAGE RIG
Ableton Live 4 live-sequencing software
Apple Mac G4/1GHz PowerBook
Evolution UC-33 controller
M-Audio FireWire 410 audio interface
ProCo Rat distortion unit
Roland V-Synth, SH-101 synths
Yamaha MG10/2 analog mixer
“After putting together the set, I cut it into segments, so, onstage, I will be literally loading the Live session after 15 or 20 minutes,” Hillebrandt says. “That way, I can have different effects on different tracks so you're not hearing me do dub delays on every track for the entire set. The first section of the set, which runs 20 to 25 minutes, I've got it strapped across a number of different effects, and most songs I've got segmented into eight tracks on each side of the crossfader. So I'm able to mix between the two, not put too much weight on the CPU and still have an improvisational tool.”
ON THE B-SIDE
One of the most simple yet powerful live-remixing elements of Live is the crossfader. Any track in the program can be assigned to either side of the crossfader, and because the program automatically syncs clips to a specified tempo, it becomes easy and attractive to mix between different tracks or between radically different versions of the same track. For his live set, Hillebrandt spent quite a bit of time in the studio running entire songs through his array of hardware synths and archiving the results for use later on. “After I had gotten to the point where I had heard it all before,” Hillebrandt continues, “I started taking tracks and running them over to the 2600 and the MS-10, like entire chunks of tracks or entire bass lines or bass lines and beats and everything. And I started giving myself alternate, sort of destroyed analog mixes that I could sort of crossfade into.”