How the biggest electronic acts play their music live
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:
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:
- Computer: Apple MacBook Pro
- Software: Ableton Live or Native Instruments Traktor
- Controllers: M-Audio Trigger Finger Drum Pad, Pioneer DJM-800 Mixer/MIDI Controller
- Other: Native Instruments Traktor Audio 2 DJ Interface
Where you can hear Skrillex: Skrillex’s Official YouTube Channel
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:
- Computer: Apple MacBook Pro
- Software: Ableton Live, Max For Live
- Controllers: M-Audio Trigger Finger Drum Pad or Akai MPD32 Drum Pad, monome 40h grid controller (8×8), Novation ReMote 25SL MIDI Keyboard
Where you can hear Flylo: Flying Lotus’ Official Website
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:
- Computer: 2 Apple MacBook Pros
- Software: Ableton Live
- Controllers: 2 M-Audio Trigger Finger Drum Pads
- Other: Allen & Heath Xone:92 Mixer, 2 PreSonus Audio Box USB Interfaces
Where you can hear Bassnectar: BassnectarLabs YouTube Channel
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:
- Computer: 2 Apple MacBook Pros
- Software: Ableton Live, Max For Live
- Controllers: 2 Akai MPD32 Drum Pads, monome grid controller (8×16)
Where you can hear Pretty Lights: Pretty Lights Music
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:
- Computer: Apple MacBook Pro
- Software: Ableton Live, Max For Live
- Controllers: Native Instruments Maschine, monome grid controller (16×16), JazzMutant Lemur Touchscreen Controller, Pioneer EFX-1000 Controller
- Other: Allen & Heath Xone:4D Mixer, Apogee Ensemble Audio Interface
Where you can hear deadmau5: deadmau5’s Official YouTube Channel
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:
- Computer: “custom super-computers” – this is how Daft Punk describes it, although they have been seen performing with 4 MacBook Pros in front of them (presumably a main computer and a backup for each person). However, it wouldn’t seem too farfetched for a large electronic act to invest in custom hardware and software.
- Software: Ableton Live
- Controllers: 2 Behringer BCR2000 MIDI Controllers, 2 JazzMutant Lemur Touchscreen Controllers
- Other: 4 Minimoog Voyagers
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…
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!
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.
The mobile app industry has exploded since the debut of the iTunes App Store five years ago. No matter what operating system your mobile device runs on, there are available applications to help you improve your process for making music (or just have fun messing around). For the sake of brevity, I’ll talk about a few options that are available to iOS users that will allow you to make your mobile device an active part of your studio and creative process (If you use an Android or any other platform, don’t feel left out; there are similar choices available to you as well). These different apps can turn a phone or tablet into an amazing tool for making music whenever the creative inspiration happens.
In my last post, I discussed a few types of controllers that can be used for producing music electronically – thanks to mobile apps, a single device has the ability to fill the roles of a variety of these controllers or instruments. Depending on your needs and preferences, it could just be a better idea to invest in a large tablet device and a few applications rather than buying multiple controllers. After reading a bit more, you can make a decision on which route you should take with your studio.
Apps on Apples
If you have an iPad, then you have an extremely powerful tool for digital music production lying in your hands. The large touch-screen, portability, and the variety of available apps will allow you to do a lot of cool stuff for music production. Like I said before, an iPad (or Android tablet) could replace every one of the controllers that I described in my previous post because of the different available apps that were designed to serve their functions.
But even if you don’t have the iPad and its large display, its little brother can still do just as much and is even more portable. Apple’s iPhone is responsible for about a quarter of all mobile phone sales in the world and they come with over 800,000 apps that are currently available for purchase in the iTunes App Store. There’s an amazing amount of these apps that were designed for music production, but I’ll just focus here on a few types of them.
Remember some of the software that I described in my first post? A couple of these are available in mobile form, and many others exist so that your musical ideas can be captured anywhere at any time. Last month, Steinberg released their popular Cubase DAW in a mobile version called Cubasis and Apple’s Garageband has been available and affordable for a few years now. These types of applications are extremely useful because they provide you a mobile workplace where you can create and save your ideas no matter where you are. I wouldn’t recommend these for doing full projects or as a main DAW, but they are a great resource for producing while you’re on the bus or during a boring TV show.
Examples: Steinberg Cubasis, Apple Garageband, Propellerhead Figure
These types of apps will turn your device into a playable instrument such as a synthesizer or a drum set. There are many keyboard apps available, and many of them have MIDI capabilities that can connect to your studio. I’m sure an experienced pianist or drummer would hate these because of how they feel to play, but they’re great for jamming a few quick melodies or sketching down some MIDI sequences to improve later. There are also many apps that emulate grid-style controllers, drum pads, and mixers. The ability to control an app by the device’s touch-screen makes using digital faders and knobs on a mixer application extremely fun and powerful.
Examples: Moog Filtatron, Korg iMS-20 (iPad Only), Liine Lemur, AppBC touchAble (iPad Only for Ableton’s Live DAW)
If you want to integrate your phone or tablet as an active part of your home studio or make it a hub for your other devices, then it is important to get some hardware in order to do so. You will need to get adapters such as a MIDI or a guitar interface that will allow you to hook your device into your studio or to connect your instruments to your mobile apps. These interfaces simply hook into your iPhone’s 30-pin dock connector or the new Lightning port and provide you with inputs and outputs for communicating MIDI or audio data. Once you have this connection, you are ready to treat your mobile device as a new component in your music studio or as a recording hub for your other devices.
Examples: Line6 MIDIMobilizer, IKMultimedia’s Variety of iRig Devices, Yamaha iMX-1 MIDI Interface, Alesis iO Dock
Find what works for you.
These types of apps can transform your phone or tablet into an active part of your main studio or even give you a separate environment to work with while you are away. Like I’ve said with all my recommendations, choose which apps or devices you think will best complement or contribute to your creative process. It’s possible that you may find mobile devices frustrating and hard to work with, and there is nothing wrong with that conclusion. However, inspiration happens at random times and places, and a mobile device with a couple great apps on it can allow you to capture it when it strikes. Choose an app or two that work for you and you will have a powerful musical creation tool at your disposal at all times.
So now that we have our DAW and some basic hardware, it’s time to start thinking about how you’d like to communicate with your computer and its software. A QWERTY keyboard is nice for writing this blog post, but it won’t be my weapon of choice when I want to work on music. Peripheral devices, also known as controllers, will allow you to have a tangible instrument to play with while working in a mostly digital realm; they help provide a distraction from the exhausting glow of the computer’s screen and focus your attention into something real. At the very least, they will help you move more fluidly throughout your software, help facilitate decisions, and generally reduce the time spent not playing music.
There are a few different types of controllers, each one having different purposes and powers. Almost all controllers communicate with a protocol called MIDI, and thanks to the evolution of technology, they are now able to communicate through a USB connection rather than with a special MIDI cable and interface. MIDI messages, sent by controllers, tell electronic instruments and software what to do (such as which notes, what tempo, etc.) and allow you to be more expressive with your computer. The style of music you would like to make or how you’d like to make it will determine which controllers are right for you.
Keyboards are the electronic version of the piano, and probably one of the only controllers that resembles a traditional instrument. These generally come with 49 keys (four octaves) and are an amazing tool for songwriting and getting musical ideas flowing. If you have experience with playing piano or just need some sort of peripheral device to start with, then these are probably your best bet. I think a MIDI keyboard should be considered by anyone making music with a computer; they’re fun to play and are a great starting point for the creative process. Also, pretty much any MIDI keyboard is compatible with any software you can find, making them extremely reliable and easy to use.
Examples: Akai Pro LPK25, M-Audio KeyStudio, Alesis Q49
These types of controllers don’t really do anything that a MIDI keyboard can’t, but they do provide a different sort of feel and tactile feedback that is very important. They usually consist of rows of rubber pads that can be used to control drum machines, activate samples, or do almost anything you assign to them. Many of the newer types of these controllers also have LED lights behind the pads to give the user more information or to serve different functions. Drum Pads were designed for – you guessed it – playing drums, but some artists have began using them to play their music in original and creative ways. It’s really up to the musician’s imagination to figure out how they want to use the power of these controllers.
Examples: Akai Pro LPD8, Novation Launchpad, Akai MPD-32
There is a lot of variation within this type of controller, but each one generally consists of two things; knobs and faders. These are designed to control the volumes of different sounds, modulate effects, or do anything else that makes sense to control with faders and knobs. Just like with drum pad controllers, there is a lot of potential for creativity with mixers – they are rather simple but will provide you with a lot of control over your music – it’s up to you to harness it.
Examples: Korg nanoKontrol, Novation Nocturn, Behringer BCR2000
It is also important to note that there are controllers that fit into a couple of these classifications. It’s not uncommon for the higher-end MIDI keyboards to have drum pads and/or mixers on them as well. There are also many drum pad controllers that come with a bunch of knobs to fiddle with and a built-in mixer. These types of controllers are almost always more expensive than their simpler counterparts, but perhaps they might be a good investment if multiple types of controllers fit your style.
Examples: Akai Pro MPK mini, Akai MPK 49, Akai APC40
Take Your Pick
So these are the three types of MIDI controllers – keyboard, drum pad, and mixer – that make up the basic varieties that you can buy for making music with on your computer. It has also become very popular for the more tech-savvy musicians to create their own controllers to produce and perform with using available hardware and materials. The Monome is an example of a great independently-made controller, and it has even been adopted by large electronic acts such as deadmau5, Pretty Lights, and Sound Tribe Sector 9.
Controllers are what make producing electronic music fun; they are the instruments and tools of the digital musician. Try many different options, and think about which controllers inspire you the most or take care of your musical needs and desires. Finding which one (or combination of a few) that works best for your style is crucial to having an enjoyable and creative time while making music. Now take control of your studio!
Choose Your Music’s Workplace
The Laws of DAWs
In this modern age, almost every song or recording that you hear has been processed through what is called a DAW – or a “Digital Audio Workstation.” A DAW acts as a software-based hub for creating music digitally; it allows for recording, editing, and playback of audio and most modern DAWs have very powerful processing tools.
The most popular DAWs being used today include Ableton Live, Logic, Cubase, and Pro Tools, although there are also many other smaller software choices. The latter two of that list are considered “industry standard” and are commonly taught in audio engineering schools and used in professional studios.
Here is a quick run-down of these popular digital audio workstations.
Logic – Logic Pro was developed by Apple, so as you might guess it is available only for Mac OS. However, many musicians use Mac OS so it is very popular and important to mention. Logic is essentially a professional-grade version of Apple’s free recording software GarageBand, which comes already installed on all Apple computers. Logic Pro 9, the latest version, costs a reasonable $200 and can be downloaded directly from the App Store.
Cubase – Cubase 7.0 is the latest iteration of this DAW software made by Steinberg. The Cubase family of products has been widely used since the debut of Cubase 1.0 in 1989. Able to run on both Mac OS X and Windows 7 and 8, Cubase is a very competent choice for whichever platform you use. Cubase 7.0 is moderately priced at $500 and is a great deal considering its capabilities.
Pro Tools – Pro Tools is a beastly type of software that was developed by Avid Technology, and it has long been the standard for recording in professional productions. Pro Tools was first created in the mid-80s by a couple Berkeley grads and still remains the go-to DAW for many artists and sound engineers. As a result of its capabilities and widespread use, Avid is able to charge $700 for Pro Tools 10 and up to $2,500 for the HD-equipped version. It’s a huge price tag, but it would be an important investment for anyone interest in doing professional sound design or working in a studio.
Ableton Live – Live is unique DAW created by a company from Berlin called Ableton. It was developed to be used for live electronic performances and has versions that can be run on both Windows and Mac operating systems. It has similar features to the other software described earlier but also has a separate interface for developing music and sounds to be played spontaneously. As a result, Live has been adopted by many musicians who perform their music with the accompaniment of a computer. Ableton sells Live 8 for $450 and is perfect for people that use their computers to make and play music, as well as those who just use them to record.
So here’s a wrap up of the main ideas:
Use Logic if you own a Mac, as it’s affordable and an excellent product for Apple-based musicians. Get Cubase if you want a versatile, professional-grade DAW that can record and edit anything you’d like. Invest in Pro Tools if you want a career in sound engineering or if money is no object. Finally, take a chance with Ableton Live if you want to perform your music and use a computer while you do it.
Whichever software you choose, its all about learning how to maximize efficiency and get your musical ideas onto the screen as clearly as possible. When looking for software to make music with, look for the one that helps you accomplish these things most comfortably.