In Part 2 of this three-part series, Chris Lyth looks at how to prepare your live set
Working in the comfortable, familiar environment of your own studio/bedroom is one thing; taking your music to the stage is another thing entirely, and can be quite a culture shock. After playing your first live set, your perceptions of your music will undoubtedly be altered. This is definitely a Matrix red pill situation, which when all is said and done is no bad thing.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Before you can play a gig, you need to make sure your equipment and workflow are set-up ready for the job. So that's what we're going to talk about today.
Once you know which of your tracks you are going to use in your set, it’s time to break them down into their component parts, either either rendering them to audio or by saving MIDI and plug-in data.
CPU load is a real consideration when playing live: you don’t want your computer or master hardware unit stuttering due to being overly taxed. So if your snare drum, for example, has eight FX, it’s time to render it to audio so it can be re-triggered once you rebuild the track. Indeed anything that is taking up a lot of CPU (basically anything with FX) needs to be tackled head on before we go any further… difficult choices will need to be made.
Streamlining your workflow is essential when preparing your set, as you will not be able to perform an hour-long set with all the CPU and memory luxury of a six-minute track. So spending some time gathering and preparing your signature sounds so that they can be re-triggered and reimagined later on will serve you well in the long run. This is especially true when using hardware, as RAM and disk space is much more limited. Name all of your parts without any ambiguity whatsoever, and if possible colour-code everything.
Epic swathes of time will pass while this is happening, so remember to eat and sleep! Preparing a live set is incredibly time-consuming, and one of the most time-consuming aspects is gathering together all of the musical assets from your various tracks. You will soon start to develop your own way of doing things, and getting ideas about how this can be played with.
Gather together any leftover parts floating about your sequences, too, as these can perhaps be used as variations/ live remixes. Remember that alternative version of Track X that fell by the wayside? Perhaps now is it’s time to shine (see point 4.)
2. Make a master live template
Once you have rendered off all of your signature parts for all of your tracks, import them one at a time into your new master project. It’s a good idea to leave a couple of blank patterns/rows between each track, as once you start stitching tracks together you will need room to expand and transition to other tracks in a fluid manner. Doing this after the fact can be problematic, as the workflow of devices like Akai’s MPC make it difficult to move sequences around once you’ve started. A few blank rows will lessen the chagrin!
How you manage the nuts and bolts of your transitions is down to your own taste and artistic aesthetic, but a basic start is to dovetail your sections, ie, gradually drop parts from the outgoing and add from the incoming. Do keep in mind that this is a live set and you should arrange it so that you have some structural flexibility. It’s also a good idea to make up a bank of kicks, snares, hats etc and choose a few helper FX, like a couple of reverbs (one long, one short) and a couple of delays placed on sends into your master live programme.
3. Map your controller
Spend some time working out how you want to control your set. It’s important to set out your controllers properly to maximise their full potential, so map out your knobs and sliders in the way you feel will be most useful. Mutes, volume, filters, FX sends all spring to mind, as does a way to trigger different parts and scenes.
One of the the great things about working with hardware, of course, is that much of this work has already been done and is mapped into the machine.
Unless you want your set to be completely improvised (which you may), it’s an idea to have a rough framework from which to sculpt your timeline. You could, if you wanted to, have it so that each time you move along the timeline it plays your track in order from start to finish and then transitions to the next… but who wants to play it that safe?!
One way to build more flexibility is to have more tracks in your set than you will actually need, so you can move from Track D to Track Z should the mood take you. Also, have a few different variations for all of your tracks. You could, for example, have one variation where you play a live synth line and more percussion comes in, and another where it breaks down to just strings and a filtered 303 line. The point is, if you structure the framework of each track to have a number of possible outcomes, you could play the same set 10 times and it will come out different every time.
5. Practise and experiment
Once you have a rough structure, have sessions where you just jam on certain parts and experiment with dropping things in and out. Practise going from track to track so you get a feel for the changes. You may wish to make a section longer or change to another track quickly, due to audience response. For each track, practise the number of variable paths, then spend an entire session on each track to get completely inside it so you are fluid and confident.
Then, of course, it’s time to rehearse your set as a whole. This is the acid test to see if your set-up is working properly. You will no doubt discover things that need to be addressed. Make the changes and test it again. Record your set and listen back to it, as it will sound very different as a listener than as a performer. Make notes, then go again!
6. Bring the live element
To bring the live element to your set, have sections that are set up for experimentation. For example:
1. Changing a track’s structure on the fly by switching your sequence to a half-bar, adding or subtracting parts
2. Playing a live keyboard line, live finger drumming
3. Singing, perhaps using a looper to build up a dense wall of sound
4. Modulation of FX sends, filter cutoff and resonance, LFOs, delay time
5. Live sample manipulation, ie, start/end points, loop length, reversing etc.
Any parameter is able to be manually automated during your show. Amplitude envelopes, for instance, shouldn’t be thought of as inert: even subtle changes will make your music sound richer and more alive.
As always, this is not meant to be prescriptive - it’s more a series of considerations and a few ideas for the beginner to think about before embarking on this epic quest. In Part 3, we'll look at what to expect from your first actual, proper live gig.
Words: Chris Lyth