How the biggest electronic acts play their music live

Cartoon Banner

So far we’ve talked about digital audio workstations, basic components of a home studio, MIDI controllers, and even mobile apps and how they can fit into your creative process for making music. With Ultra Music Festival wrapping up this month, I figured it would be appropriate to talk about how some of the most technology-heavy music producers in the world utilize these technologies to create their sounds during a live performance.

Here are a few names you might recognize and which devices they use during their live shows:

Skrillex

Electro House, Dubstep

Skrillex, a former post-hardcore singer/songwriter, began creating digital productions and has been a major contributor to bringing electronic music back into the mainstream. Having been nominated for a total of eight Grammy awards and leaving with six, Skrillex is showing no visible signs of slowing down. Here’s what his live rig looks like:

Skrillex's Live Setup

Although not widely known as the most technically-skilled artist, Skrillex has gained massive success and helped bring modern electronic music into the popular culture. (From left to right: M-Audio Trigger Finger, Apple MacBook Pro, & Pioneer DJM-800 Mixer/MIDI Controller.)

Where you can hear Skrillex: Skrillex’s Official YouTube Channel

Flying Lotus

Experimental Electronic, Hip Hop

Flying Lotus comes from Los Angeles, California and proves how enormous sounds can be made on a small laptop. You might have heard his beats in-between cartoons on Adult Swim or you might not have heard of him at all – either way I suggest you check out Flylo. If you are fortunate enough to see him play live, here is what you’ll most likely see lying in front of him:

Flying Lotus' Live Setup

Flying Lotus utilizes technology while still maintaining a very organic and human feel to his music – a lot of this is due to his practice of recording and playing beats without any computer correction or editing. (From left to right: M-Audio Trigger Finger, monome 40h, Apple MacBook Pro, & Novation ReMote 25SL Keyboard.)

Where you can hear Flylo: Flying Lotus’ Official Website

Bassnectar

Breakbeat, Drum & Bass, Dubstep

Bassnectar aka DJ Lorin hails from Santa Cruz, CA and has been playing his electronic music in huge live settings for over a decade. In the last few years he has become known for putting on insane live shows and playing his loud, bass-heavy music to the masses. If you’ve seen Bassnectar live and had a second to stop dancing and look his way, then you would’ve seen him headbanging in front of these:

Bassnectar's Live Setup

Bassnectar chooses to dual-wield Apple MacBook Pros and M-Audio Trigger Fingers during his bass-heavy shows – this allows for the creation of more complex sets and improved reliability in the case of something going wrong.

Where you can hear Bassnectar: BassnectarLabs YouTube Channel

Pretty Lights

Electronic Funk, Hip Hop, Dubstep

Pretty Lights comes from Colorado and brings some incredible funkiness into the broad genre that is electronic dance music. If you’re ever able to look away from the light show that accompanies his live performances (and gives him his name), then you’re going to see Pretty Lights jamming on a variety of controllers:

Pretty Lights' Live Setup

Pretty Lights has embraced technology as a means of creating his music. For live shows, he connects two Akai MPD32 drum pads and an 8×16 monome grid controller to two Apple MacBook Pros and gets funky.

Where you can hear Pretty Lights: Pretty Lights Music

deadmau5

Progressive House, Electro House, Trance

deadmau5 is a Canadian producer of the electronic music genres of House and Trance, and has become a household name because of his extravagant live shows and signature mouse-head. An innovator (and cynic) of live electronic performances, deadmau5 is not afraid to take advantage of any and all technologies available to him:

deadmau5's Live Setup

deadmau5 has some of the most spectacular live shows in the world, and he uses an incredible amount of technology to make them happen. (From left to right: 16×16 monome, Native Instruments Maschine, JazzMutant Lemur, Apple MacBook Pro, & Pioneer EFX-1000 Controller.)

Where you can hear deadmau5: deadmau5’s Official YouTube Channel

Daft Punk

French House, Electro House

Daft Punk is a mysterious duo of robotic Frenchmen that have been pushing the limits of electronic music since their formation in the early 90s. In 2007, they went on tour with a new, and very complex, live set-up that used an impressive amount of technology. If you were somehow able to get inside the Daft Punk “pyramid” on their Alive tour, then you would have seen them working in a futuristic cockpit consisting of these devices:

Daft Punk's Live Setup

The robotic duo known as Daft Punk has long been an innovating force in electronic music; receiving multiple awards and becoming a huge influence on electronic artists and music today. For their Alive 2007 tour, they created a stunning live performance using a variety of devices and controllers. (Top row: Daft Punk’s “Super Computers.” Bottom row: 2 Behringer BCR2000 Controllers and 2 JazzMutant Touchscreens.)

Where you can hear Daft Punk: Daft Punk YouTube Artist Page

That’s a lot of buttons and knobs.

Now you have an idea of how a few of the best producers in the world have decided to use the available technologies to create and play their music. If you’re overwhelmed by these diagrams or eager to buy all the devices you see in them; don’t be. These artists have built their live setups as their music has matured and required it – remember that getting a rig like Pretty Lights will not make you sound like a professional unless you truly know what you’re doing. On the other hand, putting on a giant mouse-head like deadmau5 or being born a french robot like Daft Punk seems to help…

Update

Since I wrote this article, I’ve been fortunate enough to talk to many people about the different live set-ups these artists utilize and learned a lot about how they’ve played their most recent shows. Technology moves very quickly, and the top acts evolve with it and change as well. Here are some updates:

  • Skrillex ditched the Trigger Finger + Ableton Live combo and now plays 4 Pioneer CDJs.
  • Bassnectar replaced the twin Trigger Fingers with a pair of Custom 60Works Controllers…so cool.
  • Pretty Lights is still using two MacBook Pros, but he has simplified his live rig to a single Akai MPD-32.
  • deadmau5 has changed his live set up entirely, and now has a veritable studio in his cube, decked out with multiple synthesizers, a 24-track mixer, 2 Native Instruments Kontrol X1 Controllers, various hardware effects, and a few more bits that I need to research further.
  • Daft Punk has a new album on the way, so we all must wait very impatiently to see how they choose to play their new sounds in a live setting.

Thanks to everyone who discussed these topics with me, I appreciate your help!

Past Articles:

Get Mobile! – How mobile apps can become an active part in your studio and your creative process.

Take Control! – What MIDI controllers are, what they do, and why you should consider using them.

Give Your Studio Some Life – The different components of a simple, but very powerful home recording studio.

Choose Your Music’s Workplace – What digital audio workstations do and a bit on the popular options for DAW’s that exist.

63 comments

    • Gjestar

      Yeah, these are “sort of live” performances and are basically fancy dj set ups with a live aspect which is still bad ass, as Paul Van Dyk has been doing this for years now. But if you want to look at REAL live performance artists, look at ORBITAL, PRODIGY, CRYSTAL METHOD, MOBY, UNDERWORLD, and other actual BANDS. The only “band” in this bunch is Daft Punk.

      • cwcushman

        Deadmau5 is just as live as Daft Punk. The main thing both those guys have done is replace racks of gear for a laptop. If you watch the Chemicals Brother concert video “Don’t Speak” you will see a shit ton of gear, all of which can now reside on one laptop.

  1. Tao Jones

    You forgot to mention that Bassnectar and Pretty Lights both use Ableton Templates by ill.GATES ;)

    also: Skrillex switched back to CDJs because he felt Ableton prep was too time consuming.

    Have a nice day!

    • Aaron Zilch

      I think Skrillex switching to CDJs had more to do with him running out of Trigger Fingers than Ableton prep time ( which should be practically non-existent considering he’s making the tracks in there and therefore wouldn’t really need to muck about too much with finding tempos, setting warp markers etc ). Pretty sure he was using the “ill.Gates” template (which was for a long time only available for Trigger Finger until myself and a few others helped ill figure out how to convert it to other controllers) as well. Also getting some more cred and escaping the ( luddite ) “Ableton button pusher DJ” stigma might have played a part ;o)

      Part of the reason you see so many Trigger Fingers on this list is that it’s ability to transmit separate pressure ( aftertouch ) data from each pad allowed you to do “momentary” mapping ( pressing and holding a button turns the effect on, releasing turns it back off) , rather than the “toggle” mapping ( pressing button turns effect on, pressing a second time turns it off ) Ableton is hardwired for. Momentary control works a lot better for many DJ effects and allows you to more easily do things like quickly opening and closing the input of a delay to only effect the snare, or “transform” style gating.

      So since Trigger Fingers are out a production, what are your options? Well firstly you can use the momentary technique I developed for the new versions of the ill.Gates template. This utilizes a variation of the “Dummy Clip” technique in Ableton that has a world of potential applications live and in the studio, and is even more powerful and intuitive in Live 9 with the implementation of Automation recording in Session View.

      Also Mad Zach has found a way to map controls sending CC data to be momentary. However it won’t work for controls that send note messages, only ones that send CC.

      The best option though would be a Keith McMillen QuNeo, which can send poly aftertouch from it’s pads, like the Trigger Finger, as well as having a mind boggling amount of additional programming and control options. You’re going to have to RTFMs to make all this work, but it will be well worth it. Also spending some time with an Ableton Certified Trainer is an investment that will be invaluable, and they can show you a whole world of custom performance options utilizing the aspects of the software many people miss, or don’t realize the full potential of ( ie. MIDI effects: the best friend you never knew you had )

    • deejers

      That’s a great idea – I will do some research but I have seen them all playing the Lemur Touchscreen Controllers and a MPD32 drum controller. That would have been a cool cartoon to make – I may have to do it.

      Thanks for the suggestion!

  2. Matt D

    Nice, but it would be great to see some less mainstream people like Chris Carter or Robin Rimbaud, or even Autechre.

    • deejers

      Yeah I agree – usually the less mainstream an artist is, the more complex and interesting their shows/setups tend to be. I think an entire blog could be written to focus on these things, considering they change every year or so as technology evolves.

      Thanks for your reply man.

    • deejers

      Ohh ok. It’s really hard to tell from that angle – I haven’t seen a controller with the positioning of the knobs and everything in the picture.

    • deejers

      Haha no unfortunately the Trigger Fingers aren’t being made anymore – I would like to get one. I’ve been told that Skrillex uses 4 CDJ’s in his sets now instead of using a Trigger Finger and Ableton Live. Bassnectar has now switched over to 2 custom 60Works controllers – http://blog.60works.com/archives/678 and ditched the TF’s.

    • deejers

      Yeah I believe you’re right. Pretty Lights has simplified his rig entirely and now just uses the monome while working on tracks in the studio. deadmau5 has a couple different set-ups, and I’ve been told he uses multiple iPads as well. His live set is so planned-out that he doesn’t really have a need for a monome anymore.

      Thanks for your reply

  3. Oscillate Music Group

    Great article. I just bookmarked your blog after reading on article about it on Create Digital Music. Thanks for the info. I’ve been using a DAW (Reaper in my case) to make music for years but only in the last couple of months have started to learn how to use it for live performances. I discovered the hard way that I needed more than just my cheapo M-Audio 88 keyboard that has virtually no buttons. LOL!

    Does anyone know of a website that’s dedicated to just sharing tips on playing electronic music live beyond DJ sets like DJ Tech Tools? I like that site but the focus is more on manipulating loops (and the usual DJ duties) instead of playing instruments with other musicians in a live, band dynamic.

    Keep up the good work.

    • deejers

      Thanks a lot for the kind words! I would also like to know about a site like that…DJTechTools is an awesome resource and CDM is great as well. That is the direction I would like to take my website, but at the moment I don’t have too much to share already. Keep checking it out though, I’ll be adding some new articles that you might think are cool. Thanks again!

    • deejers

      Yeah I wrote that in the parentheses after the “super-computer” joke. I didn’t put any of the synthesizers in any of the drawings, just the controllers and laptops they choose to use. Thanks for the reply!

    • deejers

      There are a lot of great pictures online of Richie Hawtin’s live rig. It seems he is working with giant dual MacBook Pros, a Xone:4D Mixer/Audio Interface, and a Native Instruments Maschine. Chris Liebing has a similar set-up with 2 MacBooks and a Xone:92 (I’m pretty sure) with Xone:K2 Controllers on each side and a Native Instruments Maschine. He also seems to have a mixer-type controller that I need to look more into. Thanks for your reply!

    • deejers

      I actually wrote what he uses in the comment above this one…”It seems he is working with giant dual MacBook Pros, a Xone:4D Mixer/Audio Interface, and a Native Instruments Maschine.” Although in this photo he is using a single Macbook Pro… now all I need to do is make the cartoon!

      • cwcushman

        Sorry I missed that when scanning the comments. I think that is his old set-up. (I know that he re-evaluates and changes his gear once a year.) From the pic I posted to from his Enter parties it looks like a Xone 92, two Traktor Kontrols, a Maschine, and one Macbook.

  4. Lucas

    Great article! Will you be writing about the setups from techno DJs like Richie Hawtin and Dubfire any time soon?

    • deejers

      You can read about Richie Hawtin’s live rig in the couple of posts above yours – he uses an Apple MacBook Pro, a pair of Xone Kontrol X1’s, a Native Instruments Maschine, and a Xone:92 Mixer.

      Dubfire said (in 2011) that he uses “Native Instruments’ Traktor on a 17″ MacBook Pro, using two X1s as controllers. I run Ableton Live and Maschine on a separate 13″ MacBook and I use a TouchOSC template to control both. I also use a Roland Space Echo RE-201 pedal for some added tape delay effects.

      “So in total, I’ve got six different channels going on an Allen & Heath XONE:92 mixer and yes, at times it does my head in!”

      Here’s the interview: http://www.musicradar.com/news/tech/interview-dubfire-512701

      Thanks for reading!

  5. Rayan

    Awesome article!! Bookmarked the site for future references. I was wondering if you knew what James Zabiela uses for his gigs nowadays?

    • deejers

      Here’s a video on DJTechTools that shows James Zabiela showing some of his rig (this is from 2011) – http://www.djtechtools.com/2011/06/05/whats-in-your-dj-bag-james-zabiela/

      He has a 13″ Apple MacBook Pro running Ableton Live, Apple iPad, Korg nanoPad, Korg Kaossilator, Native Instruments Traktor Audio Interface, and a couple Pioneer CDJ2000’s. He also mentioned using a Pioneer DJM-800 and EFX-1000 but does not have them in the video. Hope that helps, thanks for your reply!

      • James

        Zabiela takes you through his 2012 setup in this vid with Pete Tong:

        He uses the DJM 900 nowadays and CDJs with rekordbox. Then runs ableton using the soundcard in the DJM 900

      • Rayan

        Fantastic! Exactly what I was looking for! Thanks a lot , hope to read more articles from you!
        Also thanks to “James” for the 2012 vid!

  6. Gary

    APC 40? I feel like half these guys use one…just throwing it out there that it is widely used. Deadmau5 did and SBTRKT certainly does.

    • steve

      btw, its funny that deadmau5 uses all those devices when his sets sound like he just threw in his cd and pressed played and allowed the entire thing to play out

  7. Pingback: How The Biggest Electronic Acts Play Their Music Live [Infographic]
  8. ChrisMack

    I’d love a bit more detail on how each piece is used. I’d also really like a breakdown of PVD’s kit.

    • Rick Dawson

      same here… although i know pvd uses a xone 4D, which i have as well…
      id like to know how it is mapped out and what is controlling what, rather than a generic “this is what they use”

  9. Wim

    Thanks for your interesting post.
    Anybody have an idea what could be (because they change often i think) the live set-up for Orbital? :-)

    • deejers

      From what I’ve seen, Krewella uses two Pioneer CDJs with a Pioneer DJM900 Mixer/Interface and two NI Traktor Kontrol X1s. They also have an Apple MacBook Pro that I believe is running Native Instrument’s Traktor software. Thanks for your reply!

  10. Pingback: Infographic: how tech-heavy DJs play live
  11. richard

    would you please tell us about OWL CITY adam young is too an awesome electronic producer and must tell about armin van buren and david guettta and porter robinson sure do leave me mail when you update about this stuff please..

  12. a

    Hello There. I found your blog using msn. This is a very well written article.

    I’ll make sure to bookmark it and return to read more of your useful information. Thanks for the
    post. I will certainly return.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s