Despite the strong evidence presented by Richie Hawtin, Jeff Mills, the Invisibl Skratch Piklz and hundreds of other club mixers and turntablists, plenty of naysayers are still against DJs as legitimate performers. Should you care? At this point, probably not. If the stubborn remains of the old guard can't tell the difference between a beat-matching hack and a DJ in full control of a percussive, expressive musical rig, forget them. They missed the boat party, so to speak.
Now, get a little more introspective. The number of electronic artists putting on live P.A.s has always paled in comparison to performing DJs, yet in the past few years, a miniature explosion in laptop performers has harkened toward a possible golden age to come for live electronic music. Naturally, laptop artists share the same critics as DJs. “The computer's doing everything,” “He's just standing there,” or “Any idiot can press a few buttons,” they say. Again, should you care? Think about it. You, of course, appreciate the work involved with the preparation and presentation of good music on a laptop. Yet unless it's done with some kind of flair, a laptop performance to the average audience member can look like little more than some hip übergeek checking his e-mail while listening to a mix CD. Honestly, if it weren't for the incredible visual element of Kraftwerk's latest shows, watching four old German guys stand behind computers would be about as fun as the Port-a-Potty line at Coachella.
But most don't yet have the cash for a drop-dread light and visuals show. Some laptoppers even make an effort by mirroring their computer's screen on a projector, and although some may appreciate the sneak peak, a little booty motion will do more than your cursor motion to capture the audience's attention. That's what this feature is all about — not shaking your rump steak, but simply forming a connection with the audience by putting on a show that establishes you as a true live performer.
KNOW YOUR STEEZ
Sometimes, electronic performers tend to want their live performances to sound exactly like the recorded versions, as if it would damage their reputations as producers were it anything less. However, this mindset has a few potential problems. Full-blown studio mixes can often sound too busy, muddy and cacophonous in a live-performance space. Also, if you are by yourself onstage with a laptop and producing epic, symphonic tracks, you may end up spending all of your energy and attention on managing the countless details of your mixes and much less time adding any improvisational flair, dynamic performance or audience connection. Perhaps most intangible, there is nothing wrong with an electronic artist sounding different live than on record. In fact, it is probably favorable: It marks you as a performer rather than a button-pusher.
How many electronic artists have cultivated a live sound that is distinguished enough to merit live albums in the way that many rock bands do? Orbital, Underworld and certainly a few others flying further below the radar come to mind, but the vast majority of producers would still rather spin DJ sets or create shows that mimic their records. For all of you eager readers, this is actually a good thing. It means that the present and future are ripe for you to blaze your own trails in this arena. So spark it up.
Remember, there are a hundred ways to perform with a laptop, and none of them are essentially correct or incorrect. Fundamentally, presenting your music with a laptop could be as easy as connecting your audio output to a stage mixer and clicking Play in your DAW software or as difficult as the near-impossible goal of completely remixing your songs by yourself with stacks of external gear connected. This article will give suggestions for the relative beginner on how to efficiently turn your recorded material into an interesting and engaging live show. This is based on three principles: simplicity, dynamic performance and improvisation. With these, you will forge a connection with your audience; begin to create a live sound for your music; and most important, establish yourself as a legitimate performer, not just a studio rat.
Striving for simplicity in your laptop performance has nothing to do with how your music should sound. You can and should feel free to make it sound as intricate as you like. This is about breaking down the pieces of your finished songs just enough to make them manageable to re-create. It would be better for you to be less busy onstage yet in constant control of your performance than to expect too much of yourself at once and panic. If you've ever seen a band make a mistake while playing a song and panic rather than handle it well, you know the entire set could potentially get ugly really quick. When you alone are in charge of the entire performance, the possibility of disaster increases exponentially if you screw up and freak out.
You want to let the audience appreciate your performance with their eyes, as well as their ears. That is part of the reason that they come to a show rather than listen to a CD at home. To that end, I suggest playing some of the music live at least three times for at least a couple of minutes each time during your set. Too often, laptop performances don't give audiences anything in which they can see cause and effect — what they see doesn't resonate visually with what they hear. Say you're using a MIDI controller to freak a filter with a couple of knobs. If the audience can't see what you're doing, they won't necessarily know how you're changing the sound. The computer is probably the first musical instrument to create this problem and thus break what I think of as a sacred performer-audience pact. Playing part of your music in a more traditional way will restore the balance and trust.
For some people, this will go without saying, but others may find it intimidating. It doesn't have to be. Your own skills, personality and style will dictate what you're most comfortable doing. If you're a good singer, by all means, do your vocals live, even if you have to ignore the computer entirely and just let the music play for a while. If you are comfortable playing keyboard parts live, put a MIDI keyboard in a place that the audience can see you playing it, and figure out a part in each song that you will play rather than muting tracks and tweaking effects the whole time. Laptop musicians are beat-crazy people. As such, you should definitely take advantage of any percussion skills that you have. Although stepping behind a full Roland V-Drums V-Stage (which costs more than $3,000) to drop some incredible beat science would be sick, that is not a practical option for many people because of the set's size, cost or both. Travel-friendlier options include pounding some beats on the Roland Handsonic or breaking out the sticks to trigger the onboard sounds on the Roland SPD-6 Percussion Pad — yes, Roland makes my favorite electronic percussion. You may be surprised how fast people lose it when they actually see you playing some of your insane rhythms.
Do some turntable scratching, play guitar or even add some live dancers if you don't want to play an instrument. Any human visual element will add to the excitement of your music. But unless you're superstoked to prove that you're a one-person band, limiting your dynamic performance to one element is sensible. Just make sure that whatever you do is plainly visible to the crowd, and ham it up a little. The rules of accepted behavior in life don't apply once you step onstage.
You will develop your unique sound in part by taking the stage with a mix that differs from your records and in part by changing elements of the track on the fly — improvising. This may or may not be included in your dynamic performance, because you may choose to improvise the parts you play on a keyboard or a drum pad. However, oftentimes, the spontaneous elements of a laptop show primarily include muting and fading tracks — as well as tweaking effects from a MIDI control surface, a MIDI keyboard or the laptop's keyboard — which don't often make for interesting viewing. Improvisation will probably come naturally for the many of you who are already DJs, because DJing is based on improvisation. This, then, is the least lacking of the three elements in the lexicon of laptop performance, but it is still crucial and can fall by the wayside if you are too concentrated on dynamic performance.
TWO ROADS TO TRAVEL
Laptop performance really comes in two situations: gigging solo or performing in tandem with another laptop musician or with a band. Essentially, you will need a decent laptop computer, a couple of software programs and at least one piece of external hardware to make your dynamic performance and improvisation possible.
You will want to have the fastest, most recent computer that you can manage, preferably no more than two years old. This is not only so that you can run the latest software programs and operating systems but also because two-and-a-half to three years old is that magic age when computers tend to develop reliability problems. I highly recommended maxing out the RAM in the laptop. If you want the entire set in one DAW file, then you need as much RAM as possible. Finally, never take the stage without the power cord with the appropriate power supply, as well as a fully charged backup battery. You can't afford to assume that your battery will have enough juice or that there won't be problems with the power supply.
For software, get one DAW program and a compatible software instrument or instrument suite. I recommended Ableton Live and Propellerhead Reason. In addition to being phenomenal programs, they're quickly becoming the standard software suite for electronic-music production.
You've read Remix interviews with artists such as Cirrus and Underworld that take weeks to prepare for their live shows. Preparing and then practicing your performance will be worth every minute that you spend once you're onstage with all eyes fixed on you. Unless you're a minimalist (and perhaps even then), you have to decide how you will adapt your finished tracks for live performance. The methods suggested here help you follow the rules of simplicity, dynamic performance and improvisation.
Start by opening the original, final session files of the recorded material on your computer. Immediately save the file under another name so that you don't overwrite the original. To keep it simple, I suggest that live songs have no more than eight tracks in your DAW. Even if your studio versions had upward of 64 tracks, eight should be enough for laptop artists working on their own. Eight streams won't overburden your computer, and it's the perfect number to be able to assign one MIDI control knob per track on the multitudes of MIDI controllers that dole out sliders and knobs in groups of eight. As mentioned in the March 2004 issue's live-performance feature (“Go Live”), your eight tracks should be mono in anticipation of a mono P.A. at your performance space.
It should be pretty simple to reduce your track number. First, delete any ear candy, or tracks that do little to support the rhythm, melody or harmony of the song. These are often cool effects sounds that fill up the stereo mix and add flair to a song on record but could actually get lost in a live mix and take away from the raw, visceral experience that your set could be. Next, bounce all of your drum or percussion tracks down to two, one with stripped-down rhythms that would be suitable for breakdowns and another with the remaining parts for a full beat. After you round out the remainder of the song, you can use any tracks left over to further separate the rhythm parts.
When writing, everyone separates instruments to assign them their own effects levels. However, also as mentioned in the “Go Live” feature, you should use caution with spatial effects (primarily reverb and delay) when performing live. If you turn off these effects in your original mix, you should be able to bounce instrument tracks together that appear at the same time in a song and don't need separate processing or panning. You could also bounce instruments to the same track that don't appear at the same time in the song and use automation curves to adjust the effects and pan levels as needed. Finally, if you want to follow this formula, determine one distinct instrument part in each song that you can play live from Reason, and delete that track from your DAW.
Including transitions from one song to the next is one way to creatively assert your style into a show. If your songs are on the poppier side, you may just want to break songs into their own files and pause for applause while you load the next tune. However, many of you won't want the music to stop, and if you're using Live (version 2 or higher), then you have a fantastic tool at your disposal: the crossfader.
Once you have all of your songs pared downed to eight tracks, figure out the order of your set. If you're going for a nonstop, DJ-style set, you may want to start with something mellow, build the set to a crescendo (Live 2 or higher lets you automate tempo changes in the Master Track) and maybe end with something a little slower and stripped-down. Load all of your tracks in order into the Arranger View of one Live set, placing the first song in tracks 1 through 8, the second song in tracks 9 through 16, the third back on 1 through 8 and so on until the end. Let the tracks overlap for 30 seconds or so. Now, go into the Session View and assign tracks 1 through 8 to A in the crossfader and tracks 9 through 16 to B. Next, assign the crossfader to a MIDI controller (the modulation wheel works well), and you'll be able to smoothly fade from one song to the next in your performance. You may want to keep some elements of the music constant (like a sustained string pad or a conga rhythm) as you fade or switch back and forth from one track to the next. This can add a cohesion to your live set that a DJ set can't always offer. You can automate changes to a track's crossfader assignment, too.
While you're in MIDI Map Mode in Live, think about which parameters you want to control for each track. A good portion of the improvisation in your set will come from muting tracks and adjusting levels, effects-send levels and effects parameters. If you have eight MIDI sliders and knobs to work with, you may want to assign the sliders to the volume of eight tracks and the knobs to effects sends and specific effects parameters. Also, remember that you can assign simple on/off functions (like track and effect activation) to keyboard keys.
Practice playing the audio portion of your set in Live, and experiment with how you are going to improvise with your MIDI controls. Monitor your CPU usage to see if there is significant strain, especially around the areas in which two songs overlap. If strain is notable, you may have to limit the number of tracks that overlap to, say, just the drum tracks.
Eventually, you'll be ready to add Reason to the mix. Open Live first, followed by Reason. Both are ReWire-compatible, and this will automatically set Live as the master (host) and Reason as the slave (client). Set up a track in Live (in this case, track 17), and choose Reason for the input of that channel. Next, select Reason's main stereo outputs (01/02: Mix L, Mix R) as the channels you want to hear. You'll now hear Reason and Live's output together, and Live's transport bar will also control Reason.
Now, practice playing all of the instrument parts you left out of your Live audio tracks in Reason while playing the remainder of the tracks in Live. Even if you're not the most accomplished keyboardist, letting the audience see you play will add that dynamic element that I've been harping about. (I'm confident that you can at least do better than the one-finger/one-note method from that A Flock of Seagulls guy in the ancient video for “I Ran.”) Practice your Reason performances first without worrying about the improvisation element in Live. Only when you're proficient at both should you begin to marry the two.
If you are feeling up to it, and if your CPU can handle it, you can also use Reason to add some extra drum parts. Either line up some patterns in Reason's sequencer that will sync with Live or just run the Redrum drum machine and mute or manipulate its 10 channels. However, resist the temptation to go overboard in Reason until you have at least a few performances under your belt. If you find that you can't be happy with your music unless there's more to do than you can handle, it may be time to add a fellow laptopper.
TWO LAPTOPS OR A BAND?
Henry Ford didn't only create one of the first hoopties, he also discovered the value of the division of labor. This is the separation of different tasks to different people, which is what I recommend if you're going to perform onstage with two or more laptop musicians. In this second scenario of a laptop duo, both of whose members have similar hardware setups as before, the fundamentals are the same. You keep things simple by each person working on one computer with one program — one improvising a mix in Live and the other performing more parts in Reason. The advantages are that you can do more due the decreased strain on each CPU. The Live improviser can step up to a more robust control surface, like the Evolution UC-33e, whose 33 knobs and sliders let you assign four controls per Live audio track, as well as a master fader. The partner working in Reason can also feel free to add some sequencer tracks, in addition to the parts that he or she plays, and perhaps throw in some vocals. Such a dynamic duo should add a small stage mixer to the setup to input the laptops' outputs and to input a microphone or another instrument, like the Roland SPD-6.
With a lone performer, I recommend laying out tracks in DAW fashion in Live's Arranger View and then manipulating their parameters for improvisation. With two people working, the improviser has more freedom to create a madcap live remix and can get more experimental. To do this, work within Live's Session View, where each track has unlimited slots in which to place audio clips. These clips can be mapped to and triggered from MIDI keyboard keys or another device, such as the Akai MPD16 USB MIDI Pads.
For this scenario, the partners will have to establish a MIDI link between the two computers, after which the ReWire relationship takes place. A MIDI Link goes from the master computer's (running Live) MIDI output (from the UC-33e, for instance) to the slave computer's MIDI Input (on the MIDI keyboard). You then set up the master to send MIDI Time Code and the slave to receive it.
THE FIFTH BEATLE
You might also consider a few ways that you could incorporate a laptop into a band's performance. The first is simply to use the laptop as a sound source for a keyboardist, which I'm surprised doesn't happen more often. A low-cost laptop with Reason or a host of other software instruments and a MIDI keyboard could at least be a lighter solution — if not cheaper — than toting a Korg Triton or some massive Rhodes piano with you. Plus, you'd have way more sample capacity than a sampling keyboard could give you; thus, you can bring a greater variety of sounds and textures into play.
Another situation could find the laptop artist in charge of beats, in lieu of a live drummer, as well as any other electronic sounds that the other band members can't perform. This shouldn't be a problem as long as the person on the laptop always begins the song with enough of a rhythmic element for the band to follow. Even though you could have, say, the bassist begin the song and then tap tempo to try to sync the laptop tracks, you run a much greater risk of a train wreck. Don't attempt it unless you've practiced it arduously and feel very comfortable with it.
An unmanned laptop just playing backing tracks along with a band is the final scenario. See last month's “Go Live” feature for further details, but the important point here is to make sure that the drummer has the backing tracks and a click track coming from the laptop to a good set of sound-isolating headphones with a headphone amp to adjust the volume. As a drummer of many years, I can attest that this is a cold, mechanical, even uncomfortable way to play drums, but everyone knows the end result of the music is more important than the feelings of the monkey holding sticks.
LIGHT UP YOUR LAPTOP RIG
Laptop (recommended minimum):
Mac: G4/800; 256 MB RAM; OS 10.2 or higher
PC: Pentium III/1.4GHz; 256 MB RAM; Windows 98 or later
Ableton Live (or other DAW)
Propellerhead Reason 2.5 (or other software instrument compatible with your DAW)
MIDI Device (one or more):
Edirol PCR-30, PCR-50, PCR-80 MIDI keyboard (focus on control)
Evolution UC-33e MIDI control surface
Roland SPD-6 MIDI drum pad
Akai MPD16 USB MIDI Pads
M-Audio Ozone MIDI keyboard/ USB audio interface
Shure SM58 mic