What Exactly is an Electronic Musician Doing During a Live Show?
Electronic music covers a wide variety of acts genres and experiments so it goes without saying that there are a wide variety of approaches to the performance of sounds, organized sounds and music generated electronically.
Hardware Based Electronic Performance.
At some shows the artists construct electronic instruments on stage from scratch, soldering circuits in real time, and the first successful sine wave test tone is the whole point of the exercise, they they pack up their oscilloscopes and soldering guns and make way for the next performance.
Ei Wada plays CRTs.
Some artists build or modify their own modular synthesizers and tweak them on stage in real time to generate interesting patterns and sonic timbres.
Others will haul in a collection of analog synthesizers and play them live on stage, modulating audio output to create loops, repetitive tones and rhythmic blips and bleeps and then jam with themselves much like modern guitarist with a delay/loop pedal setup.
Beardyman beatboxes, generates and captures most of his samples in realtime.
Software Based Electronic Performance.
For other shows artists will actually code music in realtime, typing commands into special programs and generating musical tones and effects in that way.
Other artists will use modular software programs like Max MSP (with Ableton Live) to manipulate audio feeds from contact microphones or other sonic sources. This is very common in sound installations requiring some kind of participation or interaction from the audience.
Then we have the laptop + controller based electronic artists (such as myself) who primarily perform at club like venues and to the casual observer appear to be no different than a regular DJ. Most live electronic acts will be artists (who are primarily producers) playing back compositions of their own creation, either in whole pieces or broken down into loops of key parts like bass lines, melody lines and drum tracks. We can then reorder and remix the tracks in real time and run individual parts or whole sections through effects (like delay and reverb) to create a build up or break down and other dance floor shenanigans.
The most important concept to grasp about most modern live electronic music performance, is the “triggering” of “Sounds” and “Samples“.
“Sounds” are noises created by the computer itself (using software synthesizers and noise generators like Reaktor) and “Samples” are audio recordings stored on the computer’s HD like books in a library. Each sample will (usually) be categorized, by type, into groups like “dirty rhodes riffs” and “hip hop snares” etc. The electronic artist then becomes a curator, collector and/or creator of these and the kinds of samples they accumulate and combine become a signature of the artist’s sound and style.
Some samples are very short, a single beep or tone lasting a second or less and some samples are long, like a complicated sound effect of tires squealing on tarmac followed by a car crash running at 10 to 40 seconds. Technically a whole song can be classified as a sample – it just happens to be a really long, complex sample – though, traditionally, a sample is considered to be a short audio recording.
The Set Up – Overly Simplified.
A simple live set up would be a computer running software like Ableton Live connected via USB to an external controller with 16 touch sensitive pads arranged in a 4 x 4 grid – like a giant, mutated calculator pad.
Before a show the artist selects 16 sounds from their “library” and loads them into their software. It’s typically a selection of short sounds for the drums and then a few longer sounds like several variations of a 2 bar synthesizer riff, a 4 bar bass line, a vocal sample and an atmospheric “pad” sound. Depending on the artist this might be original material or samples from elsewhere.
The artist can set the software to trigger, or play back, a specific sample when a corresponding pad on the external controller is hit.
Depending on the controller, how hard the pad is hit will send different data to the software – a soft hit plays the sample back at a lower volume and a hard hit increases playback volume of that particular sound. This velocity control allows for a more nuanced performance just like drummers and musicians who rarely play all the notes on their instruments at precisely the same volume.
This plastic example is a simple live set up, the actual controllable parameters are endless.
For example how hard you hit the pad could also control how long the sample plays for, or where the sample starts to play back from, and we didn’t even go into direct control and manipulation of the sample itself or the layering of effects on top of the whole thing.
This basic system of triggering samples and layering effects over the output remains the core functionality of most modern live electronic performances.
When critics say electronic music performance is just about pushing play they are being disingenuous, it’s much like saying playing the guitar is merely causing strings to oscillate.
A thoughtful electronic artist has spent a great deal of time curating, collecting and/or creating sounds and, depending on the level of control they are after, the lengths of the samples they trigger will vary. Some artist will trigger an entire set and focus on layering effects and spectacle on top – quite common in trance performances and large scale festival performances – others will break it down to individual parts and play out a track note for note, while others choose to generate samples in real time, loop them and manipulate them on the fly. No two artists do it exactly the same way and some are more dedicated to microscopic control than others. What makes or breaks a good live electronic performer is their ability to select, juxtapose and present this library of recordings to an audience in an engaging way – timing transitions well, building suspense, creating atmosphere, meeting some expectations and surpassing others.
Any good performer would be juggling these dynamics over and above the technicalities of their equipment or instruments and electronic performers are no different.