Regardless of what style of music you create, at some point, you will need to perform your material live. For a solo pianist or the average rock band, the process is seldom more involved than choosing a list of songs and rehearsing. For electronic artists, the process of moving material from the production studio to the stage is an infinitely more complicated endeavor. Throughout the next three issues, we're going to zero in on several different approaches to live performance. This first installment examines the process of incorporating electronic elements within the context of a live band. The following months will include an in-depth look into performing with a laptop and a thorough exploration of the ways in which DJs are bringing new digital-playback and signal-processing tools into their sets.
Taking electronic music from the confines of the studio to a live environment is a daunting task. The power that is afforded to musicians by computer-based recording and sequencing applications allows users to indulge in the type of elaborate recording and mixing scenarios that were once only reserved for multimillion-dollar studios. The impulse to create songs with dozens of layers and nearly limitless track counts is alive and well in project studios the world over. Aside from those elaborate production techniques, the main issue that makes electronic music so difficult to reproduce live is that much of it can't be duplicated outside of a computer or synthesis environment. Glitchy 64th-note stutter edits, quantized double-time bass lines and the like are seldom played live, and, usually, these types of production elements are programmed or drawn within some type of sequencer or workstation application.
The trick, then, is finding a way to combine those otherwise unplayable pieces of audio within a live-band environment. The experience must both preserve the original electronic feel and general sonic character of the track while allowing the musicians to bring a fresh sense of life to the performance. Although this process can be handled in variety of methods, this article will present several basic examples and scenarios of how a live band can re-create electronic music.
LOSE THE FLUFF
Once you've amassed a collection of material that you wish to perform, the first step in playing live is to decide what kind of band you need. For instance, are you going to use a live drummer? If you're in a more pop- or rock-oriented act (think Radiohead), then a live drummer is essential. If your music leans more toward house or hip-hop, a drummer is not as crucial. In both instances, you might want to take into account the types of audiences that you anticipate playing for and what they might generally expect of a live band. Also, you need to figure out if you're going to have a bass player or a keyboard player, a guitarist, a vocalist and so forth. Side note: You may want to determine if some of the people in your band can play different instruments at different times. Once you have a basic idea of what your band will be able to play live, you'll have a much clearer picture of how your material is going to be re-created.
The next step requires you to call up your original recording sessions. For most, this is a simple process of opening up the DAW or sequencing program in which the material was originally created. From there, it's time to start stripping things away. (That's after, of course, you create a duplicate backup session of the original — very important!) With a basic idea of what your band can do, the process of muting or removing tracks should be pretty straightforward. The first things to go should be any principal parts that a human could realistically perform (bass, guitar, keyboard, vocal and so on). For beginners, the initial impulse will often be to keep much of the original tracks intact, using the live musicians to double the prerecorded elements. For the early stages of this process, this impulse is understandable, and it is often necessary in helping the band members to each learn their parts. The process of stripping away the original tracks is not a one-time affair, so don't be too strict on what stays and what goes fresh out of the gate.
Once you've mined those original sessions, you'll most likely be left with the elements that can only be re-created with machines. For instance, no one will want to play a 90-bar synth-bass line made up entirely of staccato 16th notes. These remaining tracks will generally include processed loops, repetitive percussion pieces, ambiences, a bass line or a particularly fast arpeggio.
The next items to go, then, are unnecessary effects. During the mixing process, most producers mix their tracks without any regard for live performance, adding EQs and reverbs as needed to create a polished production. For your purposes, most of these effects can be turned off. Unless the effect introduces a sound that is important to the feel of the song (rhythmic gating or filtering, chorus, vocoding, distortion and the like), it can probably go. The most important effects to remove or drastically reduce the wet/dry ratio on are generally reverbs and delays. These are spatial effects, and, ultimately, this material is going to be played live in a “space” that will affect your material all on its own. That $1,000 reverb may sound amazing in headphones, but it will probably sound awful in a performance area.
This is also the perfect opportunity to move your material from stereo to mono. The truth is, unless you're a top-shelf artist touring with your own P.A. and crew, 99 percent of the venues that you play in will have a mono P.A. One of the quickest ways to mono your material is to switch the stereo files to mono from your DAW's mixer window and to line all of the pans to 12 o'clock from the arrange window. Most DAWs now include track-based automation, so you may choose to adjust your pans in this manner instead.
At the end of that process, you should be left with a handful of relatively effect-free tracks that are all essential to the reproduction of your song, and for the purposes of this article, those will be referred to as backing tracks. Hopefully, you've also taken the time to reorganize and label the tracks in a way that makes sense to you. Now, it's time to create an environment in which you and your band can begin to rehearse and tweak the material.
Before you go any further, however, it's paramount to decide what kind of musical experience that you want to present. Do you want to create a free-flowing, jam-based environment in which your group is free to change the music and arrangement at will, or are you comfortable in committing to a fixed arrangement and song length? Each scenario has its advantages and disadvantages. If you opt for the more open approach, you can cater your performances to the mood of the band and the audience, but you run the risk of some musical train wrecks if all band members are not on the same page. If you go with the fixed-length approach, you can create a tight and polished performance, but it may, unfortunately, become increasingly dull for the musicians to play every night.
To go with the more open approach, you have several options. Each involves slicing your remaining backing tracks into smaller, uniform pieces based on the sections of the songs (verse, chorus, bridge and so forth). For example, the verse of a song might include a four-bar bass line that repeats four times before the chorus. This element can be cut into a single four-bar loop and labeled “Verse Bass (4 bars).” You may also have a one-bar loop of percussion that is used at various places in the chorus; this can be chopped up and saved as “Chorus Perc (1 bar).” Once you've completed this for each of your songs, there are two principal ways for reconstructing your song live.
The first technique requires the use of a hardware or software sampler like an Akai MPC-series unit, a Korg Triton workstation or various software options. Each of these backing elements then needs to be keymapped and organized into instrument files that correspond with each song. In one scenario, the longer backing elements could be mapped to a collection of drum pads and triggered by a live drummer. Otherwise, you may elect to have one person in charge of triggering the elements from a keyboard or other MIDI controller. For instance, if you're working in a group that doesn't have a live drummer, one member of the band may have the various percussion loops mapped to a sampler instrument. The first section of the song might include two kick-snare patterns that are each eight bars; those two samples could be mapped to C0 and C#0 on the keyboard. Then, perhaps there are two two-bar hi-hat patterns that could be added at different times; those samples could be mapped to the right side of the keyboard at C5 and C#5.
A general rule is that only one person should ever be triggering tempo-based samples onstage, and whoever that person is ultimately becomes the chief timing source for the entire band. Any member of the band could trigger a one-shot or ambience-type sample as long as it doesn't contain any rhythmic material. If two or more people are triggering multibar samples at the same time, the chances of everyone falling out of sync are extremely high, because unlike DJs, the players will be triggering these elements in real time, and they won't have the ability to preview the material in headphones or to alter the tempo.
A variation on the approach involves a software program that is built for live performance: Ableton Live. Without going too far into the program's capabilities, one would be able to take those same precut elements and arrange them into various sections that can be looped and swapped seamlessly in real time. Of course, that requires a computer onstage, as well as some type of audio hardware. And you could experience a slight lag time between songs as you switch from file to file. But, overall, this program can bring an infinitely higher level of freedom to your playing.
Some musicians also use standard DAWs in a similar fashion. In this approach, a particular song is divided into its various sections: intro, verse, chorus. Each section (which may contain several tracks of drums, bass, synths and so on) is arranged vertically in the arrange window of the DAW. For instance, the first section may comprise four tracks; this section of the song is placed on tracks 1 through 4. The next section of the song may contain six tracks; this section is then placed on tracks 5 through 10. Each of the sections are cut and pasted to be exactly the same length: 32 or 64 bars. Each section or group of tracks is then sent to a discrete output or group of outputs on a multichannel audio interface that connects to a hardware mixer. Every section of the song is then set up to play at exactly the same time in an endless loop. By muting and unmuting particular channels or channel groups on the hardware mixer, you can seamlessly turn on and turn off the various sections of the song at will.
Another thing to keep in mind is that nobody is going to get any of this perfect the first time. With any of the techniques mentioned previously, you're more than likely going have to return to the original backing-track session and re-edit some samples or adjust the overall tempo. Practice will make perfect. Sliding pieces of audio around on a DAW is easy and stress-free. Maintaining a groove and dropping your parts perfectly in time is going to require practice. So don't get discouraged if the first rehearsal session isn't a magical experience.
THE BALL-AND-CHAIN SCENARIO
If your group doesn't feel the need to extend or improvise song arrangements, a lot can be said for committing your backing tracks to a fixed-playback medium. This could be something as simple as a DAT or a CD player; a mulitrack recorder, such as an ADAT; or a stand-alone workstation, like a Roland VS-880. If your band includes a live drummer, your backing tracks could easily be condensed to one or two premixed mono tracks. If you've opted to keep your percussion elements as part of your backing tracks, then a multitrack playback system is the better choice. And if you don't like either of these options, you can always use your computer or laptop in the same manner.
If you're using a live drummer, that person should be the timing source for the other musicians. The backing tracks should simply play in the background, with the rest of the group members taking their timing cues from the drummer. To accomplish this, the drummer must have a click track that is set to the exact tempo as the backing tracks. To do this, first create a click track that the drummer is comfortable with. It should comprise percussion samples that are easy to hear and that clearly identify the beginning of each measure. Most popular music is in 4/4 time, and depending on the tempo, your click track may only need to be a simple “1, 2, 3, 4” pattern with a unique sound on the first beat. If you're working at a faster tempo — say, 130 or higher — a double-time click track that follows a “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and” pattern may be necessary. The click track that most DAWs automatically generate will work as a good starting point. From there, you'll need to line up the click pattern with the backing tracks in your computer session so that they are all playing in perfect sync. At this point, you should be able to hear your backing tracks and the click track playing together in time. You should also include at least a two-bar lead-in of just the click track so that the drummer has an idea of the tempo before the music starts; then, he or she can count in the band.
From there, you need to isolate the click so that only the drummer can hear it. If you're using only a 2-channel audio interface, the options are pretty limited. Simply pan all of your mono backing tracks to either the left or the right channel, and pan your click track to the other. Now, the backing material is isolated to one channel, as is the click. If you're using a laptop or if you have your computer set up in your rehearsal space, this is actually a great place to stop for a while. With the channels isolated, you can actually begin to rehearse as a band. For the drummer to clearly hear the click track, he or she will need a decent set of headphones or in-ear monitors, and the click track will need to be patched through a headphone amp so that the drummer can adjust the volume to his or her liking. Once you begin rehearsing as a band and listening to all of the elements in a live environment, you'll be able to make more informed decisions regarding the overall mix of your backing elements, what effects to add or reintroduce and what elements need to be eliminated or added. You'll also be able to create a much tighter performance.
With the composition of your backing tracks settled, you can then commit them to a portable playback medium. If you are planning to use a 2-track device, such as a DAT or a Sony MiniDisc player, simply connect the left and right channels of your computer interface and hit Record. If you have both a multichannel audio interface and a multichannel playback device, such as an ADAT or a Tascam DA-88, you may consider routing the backing tracks that fall into the bass range to one track, sending the percussion and higher-register items to a second track and printing the click to a third. This will allow sound engineers a little more control with the bass frequencies. The beauty of using a fixed-playback device like an ADAT or a MiniDisc is that those types of units are all based on older technology, and they have been proven to be roadworthy. They don't skip; they don't stutter; and if an ADAT or a DAT breaks down before the gig, you can always make a run to Guitar Center and buy a replacement.
If your band is not using a live drummer, an 8- or 16-track stand-alone digital workstation is often the best bet. This approach will require you to have a multichannel audio interface or to sync to MIDI Clock if you're moving the tracks from a computer. This technique affords users the ability to break up prerecorded percussion elements into separate tracks that can then be mixed on the fly. Starting with the backing-track session on your computer, you should begin grouping the elements based on the number of faders available on the stand-alone workstation. The first fader group should include only kick drums, the second should comprise snares and so on. Once your percussion elements are properly mapped, you can move on to bass and then the higher-register items. Eight tracks should generally be plenty. And as long as you have the kick, snare and bass groups separated properly, you can be less restrictive in your grouping. The key is to maintain consistency in your mapping from song to song.
With the workstation approach, proper monitoring becomes even more important. Some groups that use this method actually have a band member who mixes the backing elements offstage, often near the front-of-house mixing board. Although that doesn't allow that person to share in the same onstage glory, it will almost always guarantee a better-sounding show.
BE PREPARED FOR THE WORST
As if the technical issues of taking electronic music to the stage weren't difficult enough on their own, you also have the added issue of actually getting onstage in a venue and making it all work. Simply put, most sound engineers at smaller venues (read: dive bars) are often pretty ignorant to the needs of electronic acts. Therefore, it is important to plan ahead and make it as easy as possible for someone who has never heard your music to mix your show.
Most venues that host live music are generally equipped to handle a standard guitar/drums/bass rock band. They usually have two 8-channel XLR input snakes on either side of the drum riser. Stage mics for acoustic instruments, as well as guitar and bass cabinets, are generally provided and placed by the house engineer. Keyboards, samplers and computers, however, normally require a DI box that changes the impedance from line level to balanced XLR. Some venues have DIs available for bands; some don't. So be prepared. If your group uses four different keyboard/sampler rigs, then you should always carry four, if not five, DIs. Power is also often an issue. Make sure that you have a couple of power strips and extension cords on hand — most venues are not going to provide these items for you, so think ahead.
Soundchecks are yet another concern. Never operate under the assumption that you are going to get a soundcheck everywhere that you play. Your soundcheck might just be the 10 minutes between bands when you set up and the house engineer simply verifies that each of your instruments is, in fact, making noise, and then it's off you go. So as a band, practice setups and teardowns. Every member of your band should have a set agenda of what he or she needs to do. Overall, the more streamlined that you make your live rig and the more forethought you put into it, the more you and your audience are going to get out of it. Good luck!
TAKE YOUR SOUNDS WITH YOU
When recording and mixing a piece of music in the studio, most producers generally use every tool at their disposal. Any given track may have synth and sample patches taken from numerous instruments and processed in a variety of ways. When moving songs from the studio to a live environment, it's often impractical to bring each of the instruments onstage or to re-create elaborate signal-processing chains. For these reasons, it makes sense to sample or simply approximate the original recorded sound. If one of your songs includes a particularly important synth line played on some exotic hardware synth, sampling a tiny slice of the original file and loading that into a hardware or software sampler will allow you to take that sound with you in a much more compact format. And don't forget the rule of diminishing returns when it comes to re-creating sounds: You may have spent days chaining together dozens of stompboxes for that perfect bass sound, but in a live environment, you might just be better off picking up a bass, plugging it in and calling it done.