With more and more acts playing live sets instead of DJing, Chris Lyth looks at what you need to get started
I’m not going to lie to you: playing live electronic music is hard. There are a near infinite amount of things that could go wrong. If by nature you tend to be risk averse, this avenue of the arts could break you - or, conversely, give you what 1,000 hours of counselling never could. So why on earth would you want to put yourself through that?
The answer’s simple: playing live, for many people, is the best way to truly connect with that audience in that club on that night. It’s a one off never to be repeated. The opportunity to change the narrative, experiment and dynamically interact with the environment is too much of a lure to resist.
So what exactly is a live set, when it comes to electronic music? There’s no real gold standard, and there are many different approaches which I will go through. The approach Mr G or Octave One may take is likely very different to the one taken by Skrillex. Nobody has the right to be the arbiter, but for me a live set should involve the following…
1. Playing your own music
2. Some level of audio manipulation/ improvisation
3. The ability to react musically to your environment
Conversely, what’s not a live set is hitting Play and dancing around like a tit for an hour - although there are of course some electronic 'musicians' who earn a fortune doing exactly that!
Before we approach the technical aspects, it’s time to think about the type of performance you want to create. Do you want it to be a representation of existing tracks that can be repeated multiple times? Or a looser, evolving, more fluid set that’s adaptable to various types of event? After all, you wouldn’t play the same set at 5pm on a beach that you would play at 2am in a strobe-lit warehouse. It’s important to get a clear idea of your vision for the show, because your technical requirements and how you organise your workflow will differ according to what the end goal is.
Gear fetishm is still very much with us, and many fans and producers with beards still hold very forthright opinions on this matter. This led to a backlash against lazy Ableton sets that saw a boom in hardware set-ups. But for most people it’s very much about the ideas and what you are saying, rather than the equipment that you use. There are thousands of different ways you can set up for a live electronic performance, but just about all set-ups will fall into one of three categories:
1. Laptop/soundcard with controllers
This perhaps carries less kudos than an all hardware set-up, but it does allow you more flexibility and the opportunity to do more processing with your sound. If you want to create a very polished production, perhaps playing long audio clips, then this would most likely to be the route to go down.
You are ultimately at the mercy of your laptop CPU, which while not really an issue when working on studio tracks may become more of one when you need to play seamlessly for a full hour. There are of course ways to get around this, which we'll cover in the next article. Your choice of controller will be important, as its functions and features - or lack of them - will play a big part in determining your workflow.
2. Live hardware set-up
With hardware, what you lack in flexibility you gain in areas such as tactile immediacy, swing and authenticity of sound. If you want to recreate a track perfectly, this probably isn't the route to go down. It’s also more expensive, and generally less portable.
You will need a master sequencer such as an Akai MPC or Elektron Octotrack, sound modules such as synths, drum machines and FX, and a desk through which to route and mix all instruments. Generally this type of set is less arranged and more about the feel: the sounds are likely to be tweaked more and elements dropped in and out, in more of a live jam style. It’s a looser and riskier, but potentially more exciting method.
3. Hybrid set-up
You may alternatively choose to have a laptop taking on sequencing duties, complimented by other gear such as a drum machine or modular kit. This can be great, as you're basically having your cake and eating it, but too much cake can clog up the arteries and a potential pitfall with this way of working is that you attempt to cover too much ground. Less is more when you are starting out!
Organising your workflow
Okay, so assuming you have chosen your working method, it’s time to think about how to put together a template for you to work from. These fundamentals apply to any set-up, though how you achieve them may differ.
1. Assign all similar sounds to a dedicated channel. For instance, always have all your kick drums on Ch 1, all FX on Ch 8 etc etc. This will help you develop something akin to muscle memory, so that when you need to mute something quickly or adjust levels, it comes naturally (with practice).
2. Minimise the number of channels. If you're using hardware and have a large mixer it’s maybe not as critical, but it’s still worth keeping the track count down. However if you are using a laptop-based set it’s more important for CPU and visual clarity.
As most software controllers come in an eight-channel format, you ideally want this to map to all your channels so you have control over all elements. So for example you could have 1. Kick, 2. Snares/Claps, 3. Hats/Rides/Crashes, 4. Loops and other percussion, 5. Basslines, 6/7. Synths/Leads/Vocals/Melodics, 8. FX/Miscellaneous. Obviously this can be finessed to your own requirements, but as you can see you can sub-mix and share the channels with other similar material.
3. Name absolutely everything! Keep things simple and clear. If you're playing with a laptop, use colours as well, and keep them consistent throughout. Remember: you're likely to be performing in a dark, unfamiliar environment with lots of distractions, so it’s important to be organised.
4. Create a detailed timeline for your set. Obviously you will need to play around with it to find the right order, but it’s good to have in mind what you're working towards. Detail transitions, parts where you will jam and improvise, and so on. Your set can be as loosely or tightly scripted as you like, but having an idea of the overall development will keep you focused.
Next time, we will go into more detail on how to structure your set, improvise and turn parts of your tracks into live elements to hold the dancefloor’s attention.
Words: Chris Lyth