Unless you've been hiding in a cave for the past several years, you've certainly heard of Ableton's groundbreaking live-performance loop software, Live. The concept and design of the software program have inspired a wealth of musicians and DJs to incorporate loops into their live performances. Live has transformed laptops the world over into extremely flexible loop-playback devices that blur the boundaries between a traditional musical instrument and computer-music production. The program's roster of endorsees speaks for itself: DJ Sasha, Pete Tong, Carmen Rizzo, Charlie Clouser, Daft Punk and the Dust Brothers, to name a few.
In general, Live is used onstage to trigger prefabricated loops and samples on the fly. Its ability to launch multiple bpm-synchronized loops and trigger samples in a variety of ways (from simple one-shots to machine-gun-style fills) makes Live the ideal partner for loop-based music performances. Of course, the program can do much more than just trigger loops and samples. A less publicized but no less amazing feature is the program's ability to record incoming audio, then automatically loop the recording and add it to a track for playback and triggering — all in real time. It requires vision and some solid musical chops to take full advantage of this feature, but renowned beat-boxer, vocalist, throat singer and all around cool guy Kid Beyond of San Francisco has the skills. And you haven't seen Live's real-time audio-loop-creation feature at full throttle until you've seen one of his shows.
Stepping onto the stage with just one instrument at his disposal, his voice, Beyond weaves a sonic tapestry that flows seamlessly from turntable scratches and drum machines to analog synthesizers and electric guitars. With Live on his Apple G4 laptop, a MOTU Traveler audio/MIDI interface, Digital Music Corp.'s Ground Control Pro foot controller and his trusty Shure SM58 microphone, he records and stacks loops onstage that get even the most cynical electronic-music fans on their feet and dancing. Beyond has lent his vocal stylings to a diverse range of artists, both in the studio and live, including Spearhead, KRS-One, Sage Francis, Gavin Hardkiss and BT.
The demand for his talent has him on the road often, so Beyond likes to keep his live setup lean and mean. “When I first started doing live looping, I knew that there would be a certain amount of gear involved,” he says. “There's my laptop, the interface, Ground Control Pro, a Belkin UPS that can power my rig for up to 20 minutes, along with extra power supplies and backup cables for everything. When all is said and done, I'm lugging around a lot of gear. But it all needs to fit into a rolling luggage bag that I can stow in the overhead compartment of an airplane, so I don't have to check any gear. In fact, one of the reasons I chose the Ground Control Pro — besides the fact that it's built like a tank and very easy to program — is it fits into my rolling bag.”
Beyond begins each song with a Live session that contains tracks and effects set up for a specific song — without audio. “I create whole songs, loop by loop by loop,” he says. “I've got the tracks in Live for each song — drums, bass, keyboard 1, keyboard 2, lead, harmony and so on — but they're all empty of audio. All of my levels and effects are in place, so it's like I've produced the song already. Then, I pour the audio, my vocals, into the tracks. I can improvise within the structure of the Live session, but the session is already laid out.”
The Ground Control Pro foot pedal and SubtleSoft's MidiPipe control the recording, looping and playback functions within Live. “I'm using MidiPipe to take incoming MIDI events and transform them into sequences of multiple keystrokes,” Beyond says. “I have lots of computer-keyboard shortcuts mapped to various functions in Live, so I can press one button on the footpedal and have three, eight or even 12 things happen at once. So, if I press button 3, that might begin recording on one track and mute another track while pressing button 8 might turn on a reverb, increase a delay feedback and mute the rhythm section. There might be 40 different performance cues in a song; I just step through them in succession, making sure I hit them at the right time.”
To recall different songs during a performance, Beyond employs Startly Technologies' QuicKeys with his footpedal. “Normally, buttons 1 through 8 on my footpedal are performance cues until I press button 9,” he says. “Button 9 switches me over to a special menu script and, now, buttons 1 through 8 correspond to songs 1 through 8. So if I want to perform my song ‘Mothership,’ I press button 9, then button 6 to open up the Live song file, along with a new MidiPipe file that maps the song's keyboard shortcuts to my footpedal. That's an example of a macro I created; it opens two files at once.”
One crucial live-looping feature that Live is missing is “first loop,” the ability to set your song's tempo based on the first loop you record. As a work-around, Beyond prerecords a click-track loop with his mouth and includes it in his song files. “Right now, the only way for me to make sure that I am in sync with a session's tempo is to have a click track against which I can record my first loop,” he says. “I try and make the click track unobtrusive, and in some of my more uptempo songs, I'll even turn it into a sweeping, arpeggio synth effect, as if the sound were part of the song's intro. Then, after I record my first loop, I'll turn it off so that it's out of the mix, and everything from there on out is totally live.”
Beyond is adamant that his laptop is not a distraction, either for himself or his audience. “The energy of the laptop comes between the energy of the performer and the audience, so I set up my laptop as far from myself as possible,” he says. “It's on the stage, but I never touch it during a show because I don't want people to notice it. And some people don't; they look at my footpedal and say, ‘Wow, that's a cool machine.’ The footpedal looks good, but, really, it's the dumbest part of the whole equation. It's sort of like the magician who, through his actions, says, ‘Look over here, not over there.’ I do it all by the foot.” In this case, the foot may be quicker than the ear, but without a doubt, Kid Beyond's mouth is something you must hear. For more on the artist, visit www.kidbeyond.com.