Tagged: technology

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:


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


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


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…


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.


Get Mobile!

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.


Garageband for iPad

Garageband shown here running on an iPad – having a mobile workstation empowers you anywhere you are. (Courtesy of flickr user aforgrave)

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


Moog Filtatron App

The Filtatron App developed by Moog emulates one of their famous hardware synths – turning your mobile device into an elegant digital instrument. (Screenshot courtesy of flickr user Alvaro Farfan)

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)


Alesis iO Dock

This iO Dock by Alesis gives the iPad the ability to communicate both MIDI and audio data and become a full-fledged mobile studio. (Courtesy of flickr user jochenWolters)

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.