Refresh Your Live Setup
Future Music|August 2021
As worldwide restrictions begin to ease and the live music sector eyes a tentative return, it’s time to refresh your live rig – we’ll help you get gig-ready with essential tips and must-have gear

The past year’s global pandemic has had a huge impact on the live music world. Almost all venues have been forced to close their doors, and touring, festivals and club nights have pretty much been a non-starter. For musicians, at all levels, this has been devastating – cutting vital sources of income and, for newer and aspiring acts, removing an important way to get your music out there and grow your audience.

You may or may not be able to attend gigs by the time you read this, but it currently looks highly likely a full return of gigs and clubs is on the cards for this summer.

For performing musicians, this return could be as nerve-racking as it is exciting; a daunting challenge to brush the cobwebs off that live rig. It also offers a good opportunity to refresh though. Given the time off, it could be the perfect moment to change things up and experiment with new gear or ways of performing.

Whether you’re making your live return or planning a live show for the first time, over the next few pages you’ll find performance tips and ideas, along with guides to the freshest electronic gear to consider for your live setup. We’re focusing on gear released since early 2020 – things we’ve been itching to take out on stage. See you on the dancefloor!

PUSHING BUTTONS, MAKING BLEEPS: LIVE ELECTRONICS

> In many ways, performing live can be a far more complicated affair for electronic musicians than a traditional band. While a rock outfit might have decisions to make about what amps, drum kit or pedal setup to take on stage, for electronic solo acts or groups, you effectively have to devise the whole concept of your live set from the ground up.

You might have created some killer club tracks or a gorgeous ambient album in the studio, but how do you translate that live? What are you actually going to do on stage? And what gear will you do it with?

There’s no right or wrong way to answer this. It ultimately comes down to what you want to achieve and what your skills and resources will allow. Treat these tips as something to bear in mind as you plan...

START SMALL

Whether you’re performing live for the first time or building up a new setup, be careful not to overdo things too quickly. It might be tempting to load up with as much cool gear as possible – the latest synths, multiple drum machines, a stack of sequencers and controllers – but bear in mind your own limitations. Even working in a group, you only have a certain amount of hands, and managing multiple hardware devices will make your performance exponentially more complex, with more to go wrong. At least at first, it’s best to pick one or two instruments that you can really get familiar with, and practise creating cool performances with a limited setup – even if that means relying on a computer backing track or CDJs to playback some elements.

PLAY TO YOUR STRENGTHS

It might sound obvious, but focus your live setup around what you’re actually good at. In the studio, electronic producers tend to do everything – from inputting beats and melodies to creating out-there FX, and it might be tempting to try and prove you can do all of that live too. But realistically, if you’re not some virtuosic keyboard player, do you really need to be playing that eight-bar-chord part live, when a sequencer could handle it fine? Instead, lean into the things that make you unique as a musician. Are you a talented drummer? Grab some percussion pads and get creative with MIDI triggering. More of a tweaker than a player? Then let the sequencers handle the patterns and get creative with filters and effects. Is someone in your group a great guitarist, vocalist, sax player, etc? Find a way to incorporate that into your live show.

EMBRACE THE COMPUTER…

Laptop-based live shows often get a bad rap, which is understandable to an extent. At their worst, laptop focussed electronic performances can be dull and sterile – like watching someone check their email onstage while tracks playback with little audible human input. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Realistically, if you’re looking to perform full electronic tracks as a solo artist or duo, DAWs such as Ableton Live, Bitwig Studio, Studio One, Apple Mainstage or FL Studio offer an invaluable set of tools that would be difficult and expensive to replicate with individual instruments. The key is to make sure you’re engaging with the software in an expressive way, and one that’s interesting for your audience. Make use of controllers to play and trigger sounds, and turn parameter adjustments into something tactile and physical. And where possible, keep your focus off the screen and in the room.

…BUT DON’T BE AFRAID TO STEP OUT-OF-THE-BOX

All that being said, there are many benefits to taking a computer-free approach to live performance, or at least de-emphasizing the laptop. For one thing, it will inevitably be more interactive, and may well look more visually interesting for your audience too. Moreover, the restrictions of working away from the endless possibilities of a DAW can inspire you to structure your set in interesting ways, whether that involves using an analogue sequencer to trigger and manipulate patterns, or building up a lattice of overdubs using a looper pedal. There’s also the reliability factor: if you’re not fully synced to a single digital clock source, there’s less risk of your entire performance grinding to a halt if you have a crash.

CONSIDER YOUR OUTPUTS

If you’re using more than one or two instruments, you may also want some form of mixer onstage; something that will allow you to blend, balance and mute different elements. Consider what you’re sending to the venue’s PA/front of house desk. Summing everything down to a stereo master output on stage will give you more control, but will limit what a front-of-house engineer can do to adjust any wayward levels. It’s worth having some kind of monitoring solution of your own, so you can hear what’s coming out of your master outputs and monitor elements of your setup without the audience hearing them, to cue up patterns or audition sounds.

Native Instruments Maschine+

Want to ditch the laptop without losing all the conveniences of a DAW? NI’s standalone Maschine might just be the perfect middle ground.

WHAT IS IT?

After years of wishful forum posts, in 2020 NI finally unveiled the first truly standalone Maschine that can be used independently of a computer. With its quad-core CPU and bespoke Linux operating system, Maschine+ lives up to the promise of a fully integrated beatmaking experience, albeit limited on the plugin front to a selection of ‘classic’ NI tools. Like the current generation MPCs though, Maschine+ can also work in controller mode, for limit-free desktop operation.

WHY USE IT ON STAGE?

As with the MPC Live/One, Maschine+ is a good bridge for those who want to be laptop-free onstage but with the convenience of modern software. Its system of Groups, Patterns and Songs provides plenty of flexibility for breaking down tracks so they can be triggered live – whether launching patterns, finger drumming, performing melodies on the pads, or any mix of the above. The touch strip controller Perform FX are great for on-the-fly tweaking too.

ANY DOWNSIDES?

Compared to similarly priced/sized instruments, Maschine+ is a bit lacking in I/O (just one MIDI out and one MIDI in, along with a single master output, stereo pair line in and mic input). There are two USB ports that can expand the I/O though, via USB-equipped MIDI gear or a compatible audio interface such as NI’s Komplete Audio devices. Some onboard tools, like Prism, can put a strain on standalone CPU, so stress-test projects before taking them out live!

SETUP IDEAS

Limited support for NI’s Maschine Jam controller has been added to Maschine+ as of the latest firmware update, which may make for a powerful on-stage pairing. Jam is a little different from most Maschine controllers, trading the standard MPC-inspired design for a grid of 64 smaller buttons. In practice, when connected to Maschine+’s USB ports, Jam can trigger and arrange similarly to Ableton Live’s Session View. Jam’s eight, fader-like touch strips can manipulate Perform FX across multiple Groups at once.

LIVE TIPS & TRICKS

> While Maschine+ boasts plenty of DAW-level synthesis, sampling and arranging capabilities, one of its most handy uses in the live sphere is as a replacement for a humble looper pedal. Enter sampling mode and set recording parameters to Loop and Sound to emulate the workflow of a classic looper, whereby users can create up to 15 overdubs on top of an original loop, each assigned its own Audio device across the 16 tracks of a Group. Hook a pedal up to the input on Maschine+’s rear for foot control.

> Maschine+ is equipped with Ableton Link, so it can be wirelessly sync’d to compatible software running on a laptop or iOS device – a handy way to sync two machines on stage without a full-on MIDI/USB connection. Even if you don’t have access to a venue’s WIFI network, this can be done using an ad hoc (computer-to-computer) network. See how to see this up here: bit.ly/linknowifi

> Unlike Akai’s MPCs, Maschine+ puts no limits on track counts in standalone mode. However, going too hard with synths and effects can risk artefacts or even a crash. For live purposes, consider what plugins you really need to leave active, and what you could potentially bounce down to audio. Is your lead riff a Massive synth part running through compression, reverb and a virtual tape delay? Consider bouncing it down to an audio loop with all but the delay ‘baked in’, so that you’re not taxing the CPU but can have that final effect running live, allowing you to tweak and edit for a little live ‘ear candy’.

Akai MPC One/Live II

Akai’s latest MPCs are fully standalone, broadly powerful, and play surprisingly well with analogue synths and modular gear

WHAT ARE THEY?

The latest MPCs continue in the standalone mold established with the original MPC Live and MPC X. Software-wise these two are identical, but there are sizable hardware differences. The most notable are on the I/O front: the cheaper MPC One has just a single stereo pair out, stereo pair input, and one MIDI in and out. The MPC Live adds two extra pairs of outputs, doubles the MIDI I/O and adds an RCA in. Both machines pack four stereo CV/Gate outputs though, for controlling analogue or modular gear.

WHY USE THEM ON STAGE?

Like Maschine+, the latest gen MPCs offer a good compromise between DAW-level computing power and laptop-less freedom. Essentially, the One or Live II could host the bulk of your live show and drive multiple pieces of external hardware. For finger drummers and hip-hop beatmakers, a major draw are the superior pads. For cutting up beats on the fly the MPC remains the way to go.

ANY DOWNSIDES?

The software side of the MPCs can be a little convoluted, so expect a fair learning curve and a significant bit of prep time to get a live set together. On-the-fly pattern editing is nowhere near as fluid as with Maschine or Ableton Live and Push. Stock the MPC with pre-made patterns, loops, instruments and effect routings, it can be a great hands-on live tool, but for going off-piste it’s not the most intuitive.

SETUP IDEAS

One of the highlights of these latest MPCs is the inclusion of CV and gate outputs, so it’d be a shame not to use those. Either MPC here pairs well with a compact modular system or semi-modular hardware. One approach is to treat the MPC itself as a trigger for patterns and backing elements – using the Clip Launch mode – while clocking a creative Eurorack setup that lets you get hands-on for some cool live modular tricks. Live II’s extra I/O comes in handy here, for processing beats or loops with modular effects.

LIVE TIPS & TRICKS

> The MPC pads offer a good level of customisation over their feel and response, and it’s definitely worth taking time to consider this before taking one out on stage. To us, the pads feel a bit stiff in their default state, and there’s nothing worse than thinking you’re about to jam out some cool drum pattern of FX drop only to find it fall flat because you haven’t hit the pads hard enough. Take time to tailor these to suit your own performance style.

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