Electronic musician performing live – deciding on backing / midi / etc

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Electronic musician performing live – deciding on backing / midi / etc

Post by c_h_music »

Hi everyone

For those who are electronic musicians I would love to know your process in deciding how to turn your music into a live performance. I've looked around online and there's a lot of opinions and suggestions from people who perform using Ableton Live and Maschine and similar, but much of the stuff online seems to be based on music that is built up through loops and layering, etc. My own music is a blend of electronic and acoustic instruments, with quite complex key and tempo changes, sometimes going many bars before repeating a chord progression, perhaps closer in thinking to jazz and classical than what is often considered 'electonic'. Tracks often have dozens of synth parts and in some cases hundreds of channels of automation – impossible for me to do everything at once if not pre-recorded so it has always been a challenge to translate it into something live (at least as a solo artist).

When I've played live in the past, since I was motivated by wanting to be 'authentically' live (i.e. no pre-recording or backing) I did very stripped down versions of things, or sometimes used a hardware looper as a way of building up and down. But I'm much more interested now to put on proper full performances that are, in scale at least, the same ambition and complexity as the recordings.

From an audio perspective I understand the options (e.g. having 90% as a backing track and choosing one instrument to 'perform'; or having everything running off a midi sequencer, etc.) but I'm interested in people's thinking from a musicianship perspective, and how they decide how to break down their tracks.

- It "feels" like there's a difference in having the synths sequenced (so the sound is 'live' coming out of them) but is there really a practical difference (from a musicianship perspective) to just playing a more reliable wav file backing track?

- is there, in your opinion a step up in musicianship (and by extension PERFORMANCE...) if the automation on the synths is sequenced, but the notes themselves are played live via midi controller? or is it all or nothing, i.e. play the notes and do the automation and knob-twiddling live

- if being a live performer is important to you, do you rationalise having all the obvious background stuff (e.g. percussion and bass?) as a backing track?

- How do performers like Jon Hopkins and Nils Frahm do it? I've found a few references online that suggest they have at least some midi sequencing but no further info... really curious how they manage to get that authentic performance feel still.

I'm basically curious to know how you make sense of the decisions that you take when taking apart a track and deciding this part goes WAV, this part goes MIDI, this part I'll play live; and whether it's ever acceptable to fake things like some DJs do (knob twiddling something that isn't even live) for the sake of increasing the drama of the performance.......

Any perspectives appreciated!
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Re: Electronic musician performing live – deciding on backing / midi / etc

Post by Music Wolf »

It's a tricky one.

These days I'm playing in a couple of bands where everything is live but there are a handful of tracks where I've pre-recorded a few seconds of intro (usually just sound effects) but I have, in the past, worked with backing tracks.

The way that I approached it was to try to limit the number of 'virtual musicians' so, when it was just me (guitar / backing vocals) and the singer, I'd pre-record the drums (Superior Drummer), a bass guitar and either 1 other guitar or a keyboard. The idea was that we could turn this into a fully live 5 piece if we had the musicians available.

c_h_music wrote: Mon Sep 20, 2021 11:37 am - It "feels" like there's a difference in having the synths sequenced (so the sound is 'live' coming out of them) but is there really a practical difference (from a musicianship perspective) to just playing a more reliable wav file backing track?


The only person who will give a flying monkey's about this is you. Go with wavs.
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Re: Electronic musician performing live – deciding on backing / midi / etc

Post by MarkyC »

Hi there,

Yes this is an interesting one and one you do have to strike a balance that you feel happy with.

I have done a few live performances and played with others and it really does run the board from everything basically pre-recorded with some pretend knob twiddling to large modular with everything live. Then there is the middle ground with samples being triggered live from something like a Push or Deluge with live work going on on top of that.

And I do think there are definitely levels of performance and levels of gear that you are going to take out with you.

If you want to have a big performance with lots of outboard then Orbital are very open about the way they use their gear and use scenes in ableton to push wav and midi files.

But most people don’t have the resources, time or sheer creativity to do that.
I can just about carry my rig and all I have in it is a TR8, Bass Station, Peak and mixer + PC.

I use Midi, live playing and wav files, and drive individual sequences from the PC (I use Cubase which is completely the wrong tool so don’t go there)
My thought process was put all the drum stuff out via Midi to the TR8 – that way I can change the sounds and mix live + go completely free of midi and use patterns to jam.

For other parts of the songs I broke the files into stuff that helps, stuff that is essential. If I can play the essential stuff live great I’ll take that out of the live song file, and have the appropriate patches if sequenced in order so recall live is easy. If it is just background, leave is as a wav file.
But for me, playing electronic music on my own, there was always going to be compromises particularly as I only have one pair of hands!

Two things I have learnt that may be of help though, do try and keep it simple (My limited setup took me ages to create performances with). If you are using wav files do make sure they are in mono, took me ages to work out why some venues everything sounded lush but others half baked!
Good luck!
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Re: Electronic musician performing live – deciding on backing / midi / etc

Post by Dave Rowles »

If you're performing more electronic music then I would in no way expect you to not have elements on backing tracks, so I think it's a given that you can have whatever elements you want as tracks.

What I do like when watching these kind of acts is the variation from live interaction with the synths. So if you've got synths that are transportable then running them being triggered from a sequencer via midi, with the capability of taking one of them "out" of the midi control and altering the settings/playing it yourself would add to the performance aspect. Or if you're in the box for production, get a few controller keyboards and use them to control the computer.

I think you've got to ask yourself - "what makes this performance worth people coming to see it?". If you're just going to play the tracks you've created whole with no variation as a solo artist, then you might as well put the pre-record on and mime. I remember Chemical Brothers live and you see them altering the songs live on the number of synths and gear they've got on stage in all circle around them. Obviously their stage show has to sync with the light show, but still they change the songs from the originals to make those performances.

I would also consider trying to find a compatriot, or a few band members to work with. That way you can offload some of the sequenced stuff giving you more freedom to create unique performances. One artist I work with has 5 performers backing her up, but still has the "extras" like random percussion or other instruments on tracks to bolster the sound. They also have an orchestra backing them up. That's a big show, but I think moving into performance requires more people if you've got complex songs to realise into live shows.
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Re: Electronic musician performing live – deciding on backing / midi / etc

Post by The Elf »

Cantabile performance software has become the beating heart of my live rig and everything I have on stage dances to its tune.

I run the whole show from Cantabile, and I have it scaled to allow me several options for a varying number of keyboards, modules and VSTIs depending on the gig. When I'm controlling the backing I have everything synced to make all of the patch changes for me. When I'm not running any backing/click, then I use foot pedals to switch between states.

Cantabile also opens/closes the on-stage mic between songs and multi-track records the gig.

These days all I need to do on stage is hit the right notes! :lol:
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Re: Electronic musician performing live – deciding on backing / midi / etc

Post by BigRedX »

Dave Rowles wrote: Tue Sep 21, 2021 9:20 pm I think you've got to ask yourself - "what makes this performance worth people coming to see it?". If you're just going to play the tracks you've created whole with no variation as a solo artist, then you might as well put the pre-record on and mime. I remember Chemical Brothers live and you see them altering the songs live on the number of synths and gear they've got on stage in all circle around them. Obviously their stage show has to sync with the light show, but still they change the songs from the originals to make those performances.

There's plenty of bands who don't use any type of programmed backing who, barring mistakes, will play the same set in exactly the same way night after night and no-one pulls them up over it.
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Re: Electronic musician performing live – deciding on backing / midi / etc

Post by Dave Rowles »

I agree. And I think they same thing about them too! I like a bit of variation vs what was on the record. They may play the same different version each night, but I like a band/artist that changes things up a bit for the live show.

Maybe that’s just me.
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