The full story about my Techno Live Act by MOUT
Live = Life
An article by Amsterdam based LIVE Act MOUT
Playing live electronic music can give you the smoothest goose bumps in the world, but it can be the struggle of your life as well. The decision to start playing live for a crowd with your own setup is easy to make, but the road ahead will be slippery and you have to be persistent to get there. I will give you a little insight about the motivation to play live and the decisions you will have to make.
My experience with playing Techno Live!
In April 2018 I had a booking for an intimate festival in Belgium. The timing was perfect. After performing live some years as a duo, I was ready to go solo. I knew that most of the people who where present there where musicians themselves, so I felt even more pressure to come up with something good. The set was ready and I was feeling confident. I had practiced the live set a few times in my studio and it was banging, so chest forward and chin up.
The promoter booked me as one of the headliners and thought it would be cool to create a Boiler Room style setting. For anybody who has been in a situation like that it’s obvious that it is fucking scary when everybody is watching your hands doing the tricks. So I thought; let’s make it bigger then! I brought with me; my Elektron Dark Trinity (Octatrack, A4, & Rytm) SE-02, Beatstep Pro, 909, Pioneer mixer and why not; let’s add my new TB-3 acid machine. Not because it was an important factor in my set, but the lights are so cool. To finish up I brought the E-RM multiclock to make sure the clock signal would be steady. With a fully packed car I was heading to Belgium. Confident about my great plan to show all these guys what I can do live.
It was almost set time and I started to unpack all my gear. Within a few minutes a lot of nerds and gearsluts like me gathered around me to watch all the faders, knobs and lights. I received a big applause when the MC introduced me before I had even started. The intro on the Analog Four was going great and slowly I faded in the filtered kick from the Rytm. When I released the filter a nice round banging kick was filling the room and it was exactly what I had in mind! Hours and hours in the studio sweating my ass of for this content. Off course including all the saving mistakes on the Elektrons, crashes of harddrives without back-ups and so on. But I survived and now my time had come!
After three minutes the kick started to drift off the clock. Weird and didn’t happen before, but no worries. This is why I have the €560,- euro worth multiclock to correct things like this. In a moment I checked if anybody heard it and considers throwing beer at me, but no. Everything cool, so I correct the drum machine. While I am doing that a synth drifts off, and another one, and my cool shiny TB-3 as well. At that point I knew something was fundamentally wrong. And there I was; The cool guy with all his fancy equipment sweating like a baby above his multiclock trying to correct the timing.
It was a mess. A true nightmare for any live performer. Nobody there was talking negative by the way, they all knew things like this can happen and they where forgiving. But for me it was a disaster and it made me think again to just continue DJ’ing with only a USB stick and a headphone on the road.
So, why do I start with this sweet little story? Because this moment spurred me on to actually start thinking of myself as a live performer. Why do I want this, how am I going to do that and what is that I actually going to do. Looking backwards this horror gig was the game changer for me.
That would be the number one question to ask yourself; Why do you want to go live? Maybe it sounds like an open door, but you really have to love it when you want to proceed with it. I guess there is no real right or wrong as long as your answer to this question is truthful to yourself. It has to be an intrinsic motivation, so answers like “my manager asked me to” or “it’s a hype so I want to jump on that train now” is just not the way to go.
You have to look for the answer inside yourself. What do you think will give you positive energy when you play live on stage, because that’s what its all about. It’s a very special feeling you can give your audience with a proper live set. Seeing people going nuts on your music, improvisation and happy accidents is great. But when you can’t take that energy from the crowd, because you are not enjoying what you’re doing, it’s useless. Like the story about my gig in Belgium made clear; it will not give you the right energy when you are struggling with your gear and you deeply know that the crowd was better of with a DJ set.
Maybe it is not an easy question to answer, because you have to let go of all the stuff around you. What would my friends, parents, manager or my cat think? What kind of expectations will I throw into the universe when I start talking about it? Will it hurt my DJ career if I fail? All bullshit when you really want to dig deep into your guts and find the answers to your why. Just take a deep breath, meditate if you are into that, take a hot bath and think about why you like producing. And again, I’m not talking about the fantastic feeling you get from great feedback on a release, but really you in the studio doing the job. What parts do you like? Are you a producer that loves to jam around with hardware or are you creating stuff in the box that pops up into your head. Do you like to make chance music or do you feel comfortable to stick to your own rules or other’s. Again; there is no right or wrong, but I will help you to think about why you want to go live and will give you a head start on the following chapters “how” and “what”…
It might be a bit weird with a header like this. But let’s discuss what live performing actually is, because there is some controversy. If you ask a talented pianist if her concert is live she will give you the “hell yeah” and she is right. When you ask her if pushing a button that triggers a scene in Ableton that follows in the same piano play is live she will probably give you the “hell no, that’s cheating”. I understand this response, but it’s pretty easy to counter. In the world 99,99% of all humans are born with two hands. When you are born with less it’s a bummer. When you are born with three or more hands you are - in the light of live performing - a lucky bastard.
But that is where the answer is. The pianist has her two hands dedicated to 88 keys in front of her. When you play live electronic music you have to take care of the whole arrangement. You are the piano player, but as well the drummer, the synth guy, the effect guru, the conductor, bass player etc. So, yes it is possible to play all the keys live the whole set and make the pianist happy, but in that case you will have to make sure everything else is prepared and plays on its own. And then a real bass guitar player or drummer will say; “that’s not live mate”.
So who is right then? And what is live? In my opinion you are playing live when you play music that you have made and created. And if you just fire of stems or actually playing with drum machines and synths is secondary. So I am not talking about a live mixed DJ set on CDJ’s or turntables. I don’t want to kick anyone to the chin, but in my opinion putting live after that in promotion is a bit abusing to the term. Putting live mixed, live recorded or live broadcast after that is more suitable. But I will leave it with that.
How you play live is personal and again there is no rule or law that dictates how it’s done. I know a lot of live artists and there is not one the same in how they play live. We have the guys from Octave One where Lenny Burden is throwing audio to his brother Lorne and he is composing it with a big Midas mixer. Two guys, four hands… Reinier Zonneveld is kind of flexible in the amount of hardware he takes to different gigs. Nils Frahm has a couple of pianos, vintage synths and effects so the sky is the limit. More and more live artists decide to only take a laptop and midi controller, sometimes with one drum machine or synth. The process of bringing less hardware accelerates when they travel by plane and bringing gear in a flight case becomes more complicated. Other performers like Colin Benders or Florian Meindl play live with a modular system and they cut out the computer. This is just the tip of the iceberg when we are talking about different live setups.
The answer to your “why” is also the driving force behind your studio work. Try to think as simple as you can and connect that dot to the how. For example, when you are very skilfull with your DAW it might be a good idea to work with stems. There is so much you can do live with a midi controller to create that real live feeling. When you have a favourite drum machine that you enjoy working hands-on try to figure out if that one is a possible pearl to bring on stage. If you are into modular synths just try to fill 30 minutes without having to change the patch too much. Can you play keys properly? Use it! But don’t think you can do it all.
Maybe you are thinking; But MOUT, why did you take all that hardware with you to that gig you were talking about in the intro? Well... I was stupid and had the wrong intention. I will tell you more about that failure and the reason why it went wrong at the end of this writing.
To finish up the section about the “how”, let’s talk about the option to collaborate. Having a live act with two, three or even more people can be a pure strength, as well as the recipe to failure. You have to complement each other. If one of you is a trained musician and the other one is creative with the DAW for example. Or when you can create fantastic music, but you don’t have the talent to communicate properly or you are always late on gigs. Then you might need a serious wingman. Maybe you are melodically strong and need someone else who can make beats.
If you are talented on the same subjects it might give you the best feeling at the start, but it will be harder to actually finish a live set. This sounds all positive and it can be like this, but we are still animals. Working eight hours in a row on a warm day in a small studio without air-conditioning together with a grumpy partner can drive you nuts. As well travelling is not a vacation when there is frustration or disappointment to deal with. Last but not least there is the option that it is never good enough. When one of you has finished a track, the other one wants to make changes and vice versa. So make sure you complement each other, agree on the tasks and trust the knowledge of the other. And you have to feel a personal connection and trust that you can work stuff out together in harder times.
So there you are. You have an idea about why going live will give you the right energy and you figured out how you want to do it. That is great news and you are a lot further then most DJ’s or producers that want to make the switch! What are the most important things to keep in mind when you start with creating your own setup?
- A computer is not necessary when you want to go live, but if you include one in a setup there are several DAW’s that you can use. The most common are Ableton and Bitwig. I know it can give you headaches only thinking of switching do another DAW, because you feel paralysed for two months before you find your way into it. But try it! The time it will take to figure out how to deal with a live set in for example Cubase, FL or Logic will take that time as well. And trust me; there is a big chance you will eventually switch over anyway. And then you have to rebuild your templates all again and that’s not a funny job. In most cases you can have a free trial version of a DAW as well you can find all kinds of interesting tutorials on Youtube that can give you a little insight of a DAW.
- Of course your audio has to go to a PA system. From the computer it’s an easy job with an audio interface. When you’re using hardware you have to figure out how to make sure this audio will end up there as well. How many inputs does your interface need? In some cases the audio of a synth can go through another synth, so it will save you inputs. When you have a lot of hardware you might consider a mixer to blend it all together. Thinking it through can save you time and unnecessary buying and selling of equipment.
- MIDI. Sending the clock signal or actually MIDI/CC information through your midi out on your interface can work like a charm. But as well there are possible obstacles like latency or dropouts. Every midi cable can send information on 16 channels, so it is possible to run sequences to hardware when you connect your hardware in a chain (midi thru) and you program your hardware on different midi channels. Except for very vintage gear you can trust the fact that there is a midi in, but not all hardware has a midi out or thru. So check if your chain is up to your plans.
- You want to make sure the timing in your DAW is synchronized with all your hardware, so there has to be a master clock signal that sends the signal to the slaves. That can be your DAW, but it doesn’t have to. There are hardware devices with a more consistent clock signal that you might want to use as the master. Also think about what you would do when something goes wrong. Pushing the start button with the right timing is harder then it sounds. Using a multi-/midi clock that you can restart is not a cheap option but can work very well in times of need. Realize that your clock signal in a chain described above will give you latency the further you go up the chain. A rule of thumb is to start the chain with drum machines and continue to synthesizers.
- CPU. Digital hiccups due to a high CPU while you are producing is not that bad. When it becomes too bad you just restart your DAW, freeze some parts or find another way to just continue with the job. When you are live on stage all that is not possible. High CPU is not done on stage and will give you trouble. Personally I try to stay under 30% and that’s not always easy. There are a few tricks in your DAW to lower the CPU. For example using stock plugins instead of 3rd party plugins will save a lot. Also it is possible when using effects plugins to unable them when you use them, but it will automatically switch off when you don’t. The way you warp things has an effect on how much energy it will take from your computer. It’s a struggle between high quality and CPU and you will have to find your own balance in that. Playing live without a computer has the great benefit of not having this whole issue.
- Mastering. You have to realize that there is a big chance that you will be programmed in between DJ sets. They all play professionally mastered tracks, so you are likely to lose the ‘loudness war’. That doesn’t have to matter if your audio can be adjusted in volume. Don’t just crank up a limiter on the master channel, because you will loose your dynamic range. And exactly that is something that people enjoy on a live set. But in some way you need to think about the volume and spectrum of your output. If all the audio of your hardware is just coming through without EQ’ing there is a chance that the venues limiter will destroy your sound. In the rougher techno styles you can go pretty far, but it becomes more clear when your style is a bit more polished. So think about the sound and make sure it’s regulated so it will survive a big sound system. Always try to arrange a try-out session on a big system to test your sound before you accept your first live gig.
- Buffer size. With a big buffer size the pressure on the computer’s processors is lower, so safer for a live set. You simply give your computer more time to process the audio, so you decrease the CPU that I have mentioned earlier. True, but the bigger the buffer size the larger the latency gets. That can be annoying for monitoring, but more important when you want to play keys on a synth or midi keyboard or when you bring a vocalist with you. Normally with a buffer size of 256 samples or less it’s possible to play keys. Running on 512 samples is reasonable when you don’t play live keys or using live vocals. Just realize the more plugins you use, the higher your buffer size has to be. It’s a matter of trial and error and testing if your computer can handle it.
If you have thought all these things through you will have a much more focussed approach to set up your own live act. I hope it helps J
When you have made it to the end of this writing you deserve to know what happened at the gig in Belgium. First of all I was stupid enough during that period to not understand why I was doing this. My primary intention was to let a happy and dancing crowd enjoy my music, but instead I was too focussed on the people backstage; the other artists, the promoters, the bookers, agencies etc. I wanted to look cool for a handful of people behind me instead of all the party people in front of me.
The technical mistake that I made was that the E-RM multiclock was getting not only the audio from the computer, but a direct signal as well. During the travel the knob was twisted. Not much so I didn’t see it during building up, but enough to confuse the clock so it started to drift. That can happen and stuff like this will happen more often as long as I decide to continue on the slippery road called live.
I have to accept that it will always be a challenge and every machine or cable is a potential threat to a comfortable gig, but I will keep chasing those smooth live goose bumps in my life.
Written by MOUT
Recommended Techno Sample Packs for Hardware Samplers like Akai MPC, Elektron, Toraiz SP-16 and all digital sampler in Ableton, Cubase, FL Studio
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Written by MOUT, last update 11. October 2019. Version 1.1