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Live sets: Planning, Performance and Perception

August 4, 2011

Being a laptop performer playing live puts you in a unique situation compared to other musicians who bring what they do in front of an audience. Normally you operate a modern (I won’t call it virtual just makes me think of Lawnmower Man) studio environment that can be feasibly transported to a stage but then what? Do you do what you always do? With all the repetition that generally involves while you craft and carve the track until it fleshes out your imagination? Some can do this well. I think I could manage something like this with a sympathetic crowd but what if you have a crowd who are more demanding than understanding of what you do? What if you’re following a DJ who can draw upon the creativity and styles of dozens of producers? What if you follow a five piece rock band who lash out their set with a combination of craft, artistry and adrenaline?

There’s as many answers to this question as there are performers. I’ve seen and heard raw electronics programmed from blank machines, and reigned in live, to the appreciation of heaving crowds. I’ve seen very talented musicians pretend to play live when they’re actually using Windows Media Player, hidden by their laptop screens, because they’ve had to flog their performance machine to pay the gas bill (Not judging and i’ll never say who btw.) and the crowd still loved it. I’ve seen attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion (sorry!) (nerd – ED) I’ve tried at least a dozen approaches from the MPC driven hardware set up to the borderline auto-pilot set over anxiously designed on Live and I have no final answers just observations.

Total Risk Vs Safety Net 

Of course what you actually have to do on the night is completely up to you. You may over prepare because you’re afraid of choking in front of a crowd. I’ve had periods, when I first used laptops, when this was probably the case. However risk creates adrenaline and chance breeds as many beautiful mutants as it does clangorous mistakes. Also it’s sometimes good for the crowd to hear your mistakes. If they’re following the show and they begin to realise you’re taking risks they will rise with you to your successes.

Great but what if the crowd are a bit more complacent and haven’t got time for you to get your head into it? Maybe a few safe routines may not be a bad idea to have at hand while you get your head in the zone. Or even for when your head falls out of the zone for whatever reason (falling speakers, people who start talking to you etc…)

So the solution I’ve come to is a set which I can perform sections of with little effort but that allows me to improvise whenever I want. I can head off to the wilderness for some experimentation knowing I can easily find my way back if it all goes wrong. Something else I do but I don’t recommend (because I suspect it’s a bad idea) is never properly rehearse the full set. When I play a set live it’s usually the first time I’ve heard it as a whole. The main reason for this is I am too easily distracted by technical issues and exploring fresh possibilities without an audience to keep me focused on full rehearsals. But it has the advantage of keeping the gig fresh and a bit dangerous for me. And yes, sometimes, it blows up in my face.

“Just give yourself plenty to do” -Advice from Alan O’Boyle (Decal) after his Coil support slot.

Again just thoughts and bits and pieces I picked up 

1. At the moment, a lot of the crowd aren’t informed about how you do what you do but some are and these people may turn out to be important. Even at the very start I always felt there were two audiences at my live sets, (A) the main crowd/dancers and (B) the other performers/ promoters and producers. Of course you can add (C) yourself! That much is obvious. People making music they genuinely hate are very rare, I reckon, (“I only do it for myself and if others like it it’s a bonus”™) but faking a performance is unfortunately very possible. So even though it’s possible to fool most of the people by miming a set there’s a good chance somebody will realise it and this will play badly in some circles and I can’t help feeling you’d be cheating yourself too. You could go too far in the other direction and give yourself so much to do behind your gear that you end up setting yourself up to fail and all in the vain hope that somebody will think ‘wow he synthesised his high hats live!’. Probably best to put (C) before (B).

2. People at gigs like to see you work hard at the performance. If they can relate your movements to what comes out of the sound system they will buy in to you as a performer and this will help them accept the music. Think about a DJ and the crossfader. People understand it because it’s physical and it affects the sound in a way that’s immediately apparent. The same goes for mixing in a new vinyl record. There’s the tension of possible mistakes and the thrill when it goes correctly because people understand whats going on. This is why using a mouse a lot is a bad idea, people can’t relate to it.

3. In this excellent piece, Robert Henke makes the point that beyond a certain stage, the complexity of the music will detract from the audience identifying (A) what comes out of the speaker with (B) what your doing on stage. Seeing somebody sweat over a controller producing a bassline, a synth and a drumtrack is easier to buy into then the same sweaty performer working away and twenty channels of orchestra and synth layers coming out. The crowd are less likely to buy the fact you are doing it.

At the bottom of this post there’s a screen-cast video of me performing a section of the same set I did for luminous live mention in posts 1 and 2. With this set I had the following objectives and ideas:

  • I wasn’t going to play all my own music. It would instead be a DJ/liveset hybrid composed of 6 channels of tracks and loops (some of which were third party material I purchased for the occasion. I don’t intend to use them in any productions but for me, when DJing, anything goes when it comes to source material. As long as it fits the musical objective). I simply don’t have enough of my own material to keep my live sets continually fresh. Plus I want different things when I produce than when i play in front of a crowd. After ten years of compromising productions so they’d fit my live sets and compromising on the music directions I can take live due to my stock of original material I currently only play 100% original material in sets by special request. The last occasion being a small event at the 2010 DEAF festival (everyone else DJ’d, I had the wrong end of the stick and I scared the crowd away completely for the duration of my set. Score!)
  • My main attention should be on the room sound and the balance between the two sound systems so keep it as simple as possible without removing the possibility of me making it a performance.
  • I need to be able to tweak, change and re-arrange the audio to justify the fact a person is controlling the set in response to the immediate situation as opposed to me standing behind something pre-ordained just so I can get any credit at the end.
  • The effects should suit the gig. Gates worked well as they expose the room reverb by making rhythmic spaces. Filters always work well and EQ is essential. The randomised beat re-arrangers give me something to keep me on my toes by injecting the unexpected. I also used a fade effect and very fast feed-backing delay.
  • Similar effect set ups were used on the master output and the second master output (Send A) which fed the second sound system (see earlier posts.)
  • Mixing out of each track I had restricted the set in such a way their was only about two or three directions I could go next in terms of what to play next excluding the wide variety of bass, atmospheric, percussion and drum loops etc.. This was the acceptable level of freedom verses preparation I settled at. This combined with the fact each new track had as many choices and tracks were playing in groups of twos and threes with the loops meant I had a nice level of freedom. Plus I could dramatically change the interaction of these elements.
  • I also used a custom device rack built out of 2 banks of audio slices that’s evolved with my sets over the last year or so. I’m not giving away the techniques behind it yet.

Here’s the video, most of the info is in the first half in the form of video commentary boxes. Currently I use a much different set up for my acid sets involving a lot more Max patches for the APC40 (not designed by me but customised) and Touchable  on the Ipad. I hope to put up a video demonstrating this soon.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 8, 2011 17:02

    Great article, thanks! Would love to hear what you’re doing with the set and your new tools now.


  1. Trying a Different Approach to a DJing Gig. Part 3 (With Recording) « ikeaboy – Arpanon

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