Lots of people play violins. If you pick up a violin for the first time – whether it was an expensive instrument or not – it’ll sound really awful. So, given that music played on laptops is still music, it seems reasonable to assume that it’ll take practice, and that not everyone will do things the same way. There are technicalities to learn, of course – just as with a violin. But there’s also a combination of repetitive effort with originality. Your computer software may not be nearly as elegant a design as a centuries-old acoustic instrument, but some of this surely still applies.
Go out to clubs or concert halls now, and you’ll find musicians and DJs from a broad variety of genres playing live with software. Often, they’ll use Ableton Live, the one product that suggests live performance right in its name. Live is a good place to start, because its Session View is a kind of meta-view of music itself, with patterns, scenes, and interaction. Those clip slots can be played like a “sampling instrument,” and additional instruments can be added to channels. Playing the software requires a combination of performance and composition, even for DJs.
But the one elusive thing about Live is just how to deal with that Session View. There’s plenty of talk in the manual about how everything works, but not what that means musically. You can store clips in channels, but you can only play one clip per channel at once. How do you keep the number of resulting channels manageable? How do you control different musical changes? How do you avoid touching the mouse or squinting at the screen? And, at the simplest level, how do you manage the complexity of clips and channels so that you can perform a set from beginning to end and have a good time?
Bjorn Vayner is one of the world’s leading Live gurus and a master of Live tutorial writing. He’s been tackling this very problem on the Covert Operators blog. (Read parts 1, 2, 3.) It’s a good start, but it raises as many questions and answers, and by the third part he’s already reevaluating his whole approach. So while he sorts out his tutorial, I’ve been thinking.
I’ve spent a lot of time looking over people’s shoulders as they use Live, back to Live 1 when I first started using it. I’ve stood behind the much-hyped Sasha set back when he was still dragging a whole iMac around (before the Intel laptops), and I’ve also seen experimental violinists and modern dance performances. Part of what excites me about Live and what it means for music is that no one seems to use it the same way. There are tightly-organized sets of clips, particularly in DJ sets. There are DJs who drag clips in and out onstage. There are musicians who use Live more or less for backing tracks, or just as an effects hosts. There are people who can make a whole set out of one clip or one instrument rack. Some people have even grown frustrated with Session View and augmented it with an MPC or custom Reaktor patches – but then, that sort of makes all of this all the more interesting. We’ve even seen Live used for controlling visuals on our sister site, Create Digital Motion.
A Call to Action
Maybe there is no Ultimate Tutorial – or maybe, what we need before anyone can write that, is a look at the range of how people use the software in the real world, assembled in one place. In that spirit, I’d like to ask you for some help.
Live users, how do you use Live — live? Take a screenshot of one set that you feel best represents the way you work in performance or DJ sets. No need to be shy; part of the idea is to see how a range of people work in the real world, so it doesn’t have to be perfect.
Send it to us one of two ways:
1. Add it to our Flickr group, http://www.flickr.com/groups/cdmlivesets/ (Apply a Creative Commons license if you know how to do that, so it can be easily shared. Short videos are welcome, too, if you’re that ambitious!)
2. Email an image (JPG or PNG, please) to pictures (at) createdigitalmusic.com. (By doing so, you give us permission to reuse it.)
Most of these will be Session View, I imagine, but if you use Arrange View, send us a shot of that. If you do rely on a custom Max, Pd, Reaktor patch, etc. in conjunction with Live, go ahead and send us that, too. If you make use of Live’s new drum and instrument/effect racks, make sure you can see at least one of them in the shot. If you can, write a sentence or two describing how it works. And feel free to raise criticisms – we’re doing this independently of Ableton, so say whatever you like. Feel free to include a link back to your music site; I imagine your fellow readers would love to hear what others are doing.
You also might also take a look at the work that Puremagnetik has done, not only with their live-oriented sets but also the performance features of their drum machines and the like.
Now, I realize not everyone uses Live. I’ve recently been building sets in Kore, not only because we’re working on the Kore minisite but because, personally, I wanted to try breaking some habits I’ve acquired with Live. It lets me play without Live, but it also makes me a better Live user. Still, Live seems as good a place to start as any. (If this goes well and we survive, we’ll have to follow it up with a look at other tools.)
I’ll be very curious to see the results. Stay tuned, and we’ll do a roundup within a couple of weeks to see what you’ve shared.