Tagged: midi controllers

How the biggest electronic acts play their music live

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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.

Take Control!

Express Yourself

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.

MIDI/USB

MIDI is how controllers talk to your computer – here is a MIDI cable and interface, as well as USB, which can also handle MIDI.

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

MIDI Keyboard

This M-Audio Keyboard has 49 keys and can connect with both MIDI cables and USB.

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

Drum Pads/Grids

Drum Pad/Grid Controller

The Novation Launchpad is a grid controller consisting of 64 back-lit buttons.

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 LPD8Novation Launchpad, Akai MPD-32

Mixers

Mixer

The Novation Nocturn has 8 knobs, 16 buttons, and a cross-fader that can be assigned to whatever you’d like.

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

Hybrids

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!