Posted by on 2011/07/18

These days countless controller apps and hardware controller devices promise emancipation from the dreaded computer interface. DJs and live performers have fallen head over heels over the concept that touching the computer somehow lessens an onstage appearance and the act of touching the computer at all is often met with derision and disdain.

This philosophy is certainly at the core of many product marketing campaigns and it has really distracted from the fact that a computer, particularly a laptop, is a bonafide playable musical instrument in and of itself.

Granted, watching the top of some pasty geek’s head sweat glisten in an LCD haze whilst he (most always a he) pours over his screen onstage as if merely browsing Reddit, occasionally stumbling upon a delightful cat video and jumping around a bit in memeful glee is – to usurp Laurie Anderson – as interesting as watching someone else doing the ironing in a game of Sims, but the idea that a kind of authenticity is lent to a laptop performance because a performer “never touched the computer once” is absurd.

The idea that the computer has limitations as an instrument and performance tool is a widespread myth, and countless vendors rely on perpetuating that myth to sell their gear, but these “limitations” might not be all they are demonised to be.

A hollowed out log with animal skin stretched over one end would also appear to be a very limited tool for creating music but the drum, the external heart, has formed the roots of all musical expression.

It’s not that external controllers don’t have their place or aren’t necessary; they provide a way to perform task that a computer interface is simply not designed to do, yet. Multiple, simultaneous manipulations of faders and knobs are impossible with a mouse or track pad and twisting an actual physical knob wins hand down for tactility and expression over mousey maneuvering and rubbing a flat glass panel, but the fact that the computer keyboard/mouse/trackpad trifecta is largely ignored as a medium for musical input and performance is crazy even when the software has keyboard functionality coded into the fabric of its GUI.

The issue is that the medium of computer production and performance has become largely framed as such that the computer itself is somehow lacking or limited as a physical musical instrument and therefore must be externally enhanced to be useful or authentic. Since it is one of our most intimate technologies – and an extension of our nervous system – it’s no big thing to wonder if these ideas seep into ourselves too.

How does this false notion of an inept device, itself an extension of self which then, by association, must also be inept, affect our music making and performances?

This notion certainly drives sales of gear but does it really assist us in becoming better musicians and performers if, at its base it is, in effect, undermining our interactions with ourselves?


  1. Shane Berry

    > “The most common type of laptop performing is comparable to watching a rock band play on stage with each member … ”

    Yes agreed, it’s this lack of tactile feedback for the audience that makes laptop performances so difficult to grok, in fact I find the iPad exacerbates this aspect even further.

    I remember you and I spent much time at the studio talking about how important it is to emphasize movements with the machines on stage during a show and connect that movement to a sonic event.

    Twisting a knob while striking a pose might feel gaudy and gimmicky but it seems to send a message to the audience that something is happening – it is very didactic but necessary I think.

    One of the most irritating things for me when train spotting a DJ or live act is when they are not engaged with the audience during a break or “event” in a track – they’re digging in a record box/flipping through a CD Case, scrolling through HD catalogues or setting up the next bit of their set, and what happens sonically is disconnected from their behavior so dramatically it becomes very ambiguous as to what they are really doing – in a live set exponentially so.

    That is why this culture of “hands off the computer” baffles me somewhat. Perhaps deliberately touching the computer during a show and affecting the sound directly from the keyboard would bring laptop performance into a more accessible realm for a wider audience.

  2. Shane Berry

    >”This is definitely thought provoking. Hand percussion requires very little encoding on behalf of the human in order to …”

    Back projections with visual cues for the audiences are a great idea but again it pulls attention away from the computer itself as a device for input and performance.

    Are the visuals controlling the audio like this or is it the DJ/guy at the computer onstage doing something?

    It’s this resolute lack of correlation between what the laptop/keyboard player does and what happens sonically (and more and more these days visually) – from the audience’s perspective – that makes the issue so complex.

    I think that is why your earlier Rhythm Droid Live Techno Jams are so popular, of course these are laptop free, but nonetheless you really perform the sounds, there is a connection between what is heard and seen, a very important aspect of modern sound performance.

    But even so, show these jams to someone unfamiliar with modern music machines and what we as live performers are doing will be completely lost on them, for now at least.

  3. Rhythm Droid

    The most common type of laptop performing is comparable to watching a rock band play on stage with each member standing inside a giant, black felt covered cube, with just his/her head sticking out the top; no visual connection between audience and the performer’s body as it touches the instrument. Well, that’s how I feel, at least.

  4. Rhythm Droid

    This is definitely thought provoking.
    Hand percussion requires very little encoding on behalf of the human in order to express themselves. Expressional intensity is directly correlated to harder or faster playing.
    Theoretically, this is applicable to the keyboard, mouse, and trackpad. The combination of keystrokes can be more complex, or faster, for example.
    If a performer truly wishes to achieve a standard “live music experience” with the audience, the input devices, like mouse, keyboard, etc, would have to be shot with a camera and projected onto a huge surface. Keypresses themselves could be electronically indicated by whatever, a red, glowing outline superimposed over the pressed key on the large screen. That way, the viewer could begin to create an understanding of the gestural input/sonic output relationship.

    Nobody has really agreed upon a standard set of keyboard/mouse/trackpad gestures and their software controlling effects–so every performer has to start at square one in terms of becoming proficient. I think it’s a worthy challenge.

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