One computer can generate all the parts for a live jam, especially when you employ a software program that has sophisticated live-performance features. Consequently, armed with little more than a laptop computer, you can hit the stage solo and still sound like an entire band. But what's missing in this setup is another human being to collaborate with musically. An undeniable energy occurs when two (or more) musicians make music together. Fortunately, with the right software, hardware and a little know-how, you can build a system that will enable live jam sessions with fellow computer jocks.
KEY SOFTWARE FEATURES
Not every music program is adequate for jamming. Your software must include two important features: the ability to map and control parameters from an external MIDI controller (such as a keyboard or a control surface) and reliably slave to MIDI Clock. With remote control of your software's parameters, you will be able to tweak, trigger and control several facets of your software at the same time, allowing you to really “play” your instrument. Without MIDI remote control, you're stuck using the computer's mouse to control one parameter at a time, which is not good at all for live performance and certainly not the way to put on an exciting show.
Clearly, loops and sequences need to be synchronized for tight, beat-matched performances. But even if you don't plan to use loops and sequences, slaving to MIDI Clock is still important. For example, tempo-driven effects (which sound great live), such as bpm-synchronized delays or a soft synth's LFO rate, should be locked to a master clock. It's crucial that your software have extremely stable synchronization — no drift, no hiccups — or you'll end up with a train wreck midjam. To check synchronization, keep your programs slaved and in use for at least an hour. Then, without stopping playback, play the same sequence (or loop) of a solo percussion instrument (cowbells and wood blocks work well) on each computer and listen to the beat match. If the sequences are out of time, you have a synchronization problem that needs troubleshooting.
Rock-solid synchronization requires a stable master MIDI Clock source. Using a computer — especially one that is also being used for the music — to generate the master MIDI Clock is asking for trouble. If your master clock goes down, even for a brief moment, slaved programs may stop playing or, worse, freeze altogether. The solution is to employ a dependable hardware unit, such as a groove box by Korg or Roland, as your master MIDI Clock. Most of these boxes output stable MIDI Clock, and once they start running, they rarely freeze.
SUM OF THE AUDIO
It's essential that you're able to cue your sounds before adding them to the mix. This helps to ensure that your loops, sequences, effects and patches are in tune and locked to the beat before anybody hears your performance. To pull this off, you'll need a multioutput audio interface (featuring at least two stereo outputs) and a DJ mixer. Set up your system so that you can audition individual sounds using the DJ mixer's headphone-cue system. For example, assign each soft synth to its own stereo output, and plug in these outputs (from the audio interface) to individual channels on your DJ mixer.
With audio issuing from multiple sources — like each DJ mixer's main stereo out — you'll need a submixer (such as the Mackie 1202-VLZ Pro) to combine all of the signals. When playing a club in which you're responsible for your own soundcheck, connect your submixer's main stereo outs straight into the club's P.A. mixer and set your levels from the submixer. This is a great time-saver and prevents other bands from messing with your mix when they're setting up.
LAPTOP OF LUXURY
Any computer powerful enough to run a program such as Live or Reason can be used for a live jam session. However, for obvious portability reasons, a laptop is the way to go. For optimum performance, choose a sturdy laptop with a fast central processor (such as a Pentium III or a Mac G3 or better) and the ability to address at least 1 GB of system RAM. Samplers, such as those found in Reason, depend on system RAM to load their samples, so the more RAM in your computer, the bigger the samples you'll be able to play. A laptop that has proven its roadworthiness (such as Apple's PowerBook and iBook models) will be a wise choice if you plan to play live regularly.
Few programs can touch Live and Reason for jamming. Even if loops and sequences aren't your thing, Reason offers a rack of amazing instruments for straight-ahead playing, and the newest version of Live also includes instrument plug-ins. Emagic Logic Audio deserves mention, as it packs a bundle of solid-sounding instrument plug-ins and features Touch Tracks for live sequencing. Whichever you choose, make sure it slaves to MIDI Clock and offers ample remote-control functions, or you may find yourself staring at your computer screen instead of interacting with your fellow musicians.