Live rig – Daedelus. Photo: Dania Gennai.

Defining and re-imagining performance with computers and technology is an ongoing theme of this site. In a special guest column, artist Primus Luta goes deeper into that question with some of our favorite artists to look at practical and philosophical dimensions of playing electronics.

Today, the fruits of electronic musical labor can be heard in every corner of culture, from academic to niche to popular. Still, there remains a perceptual disconnect between traditional and electronic music, especially in the context of performance. With traditional instruments, performance proficiency can be measured as a physical accomplishment. Electronic performance, on the other hand, is generally understood as music made by computers. That poses a question: if the music is being made by the machines, what exactly does the musician do? To find out, I talked with some of the best electronic performers on the road, and got a glimpse of what exactly is going on behind the screen.

Live Rig: Mark de Clive-Lowe

Live Rig: Mark de Clive-Lowe

Live Rig: Mark de Clive Lowe.

From the Studio to the Stage

Historically, performance long preceded recorded music. Early recordings weren’t what we think of today as studio productions, but rather recordings of performances. Electronic music is a bit of an anomaly. While some early electronic compositions were created for live performance, most electronic music today begins with a recording.

Translating the high production values heard on a record into a live performance isn’t an easy task. It isn’t always possible to recreate the same aesthetic on stage, but it is important to make the connection.

“We can multi-track sounds in the studio,” explains 8 Bit Weapon, “but live, you are stuck with all the limitations the vintage computers, consoles and sound chips have to offer. So we have to trim down parts or add parts that are recorded by recreating them live.”


Live Rig: 8 Bit Weapon. Image by Rachel McCauley.

For Richard Devine, assembling the live performance begins in the studio with “trying to translate all the programmed MIDI data and song transitions into Ableton [Live]. Ableton is running the pieces of my tracks. I have hundreds of audio clips running in session view.” Onstage, this allows Devine to “mix and match breaks, intros, or builds for different tracks, and even manipulate how those are played if I select them. I can really do anything with the arrangement of the original track. It is now total remixing and producing on the fly.”

What this means for electronic performance is the ability to condense what could be days of production work into a performance piece of a few minutes. “It’s really similar to my studio process, on fast-forward!” says Mark de Clive-Lowe.

“We create tracks in the studio in the normal fashion,” says J Tonal of The Flying Skulls. “They get broken up in to drum and bass parts, which get played live on the MPC, melody and lead parts which get played on the MS2000, and samples and other melody parts which get broken down into [Ableton] Live clips and played from [an M-Audio] Trigger Finger.” These pieces are then used live to create what they call deconstruxions.

As Mark de Clive-Lowe explains, “the idea of reinterpreting and translating the same pieces to different audiences with different bands and setups is nothing new.” In other words, rearranging electronic music for performance contexts does have its roots in a larger musical tradition.

For some, this has resulted in working to restore the historical role of performance as the heart of a recording. “The experience of participating in a musical happening is ephemeral and never translates to a record,” says Tim Exile. “I have developed a number of paths of improvisation which you could consider scores… these are adaptive positive feedback responses to features of the musical environments I’ve been in. These features can be very local, such as the slight manufacturing error in one of the buttons on the control surfaces causing it to be slightly harder to hit to be sure of pressing it, to the very wide, such as the proliferation of a new genre changing the way audiences categorize and respond to certain musical structures.”

This interplay of the studio and performance feeds the creative loop to take a new shape each time the artist goes on stage. “Most of my studio output is mellow,” says Daedelus. “Most performances are riotous or at least dance-able. So finding relationships and movement in my own output is quite fun, and leads to disaster in the best nights.”


Mark de Clive-Lowe playing live.

Is It Live Or Memorex?

When it comes to electronic music performance, is the music is being performed or played? As technology like Ableton Live evolves, the line between the two may blur to the point of irrelevance. As Tim Exile explains, “the discussion lies more in the boundaries between performance of compositions and improvisation. Most of what I see being played live these days seems of the live arrangement variation, focusing mostly on compression or expansion of set arrangements in response to the environment. This is live and adaptive and of the same genus as the style of performance exercised in DJing.”

Whatever the prepared sources, this adaptive style is undeniably a performance. “I can’t always reproduce the same exact show twice now,” says Richard Devine. “There are now so many different variables that can change or be manipulated.”

“I employ a lot of pre-made loops,” says Daedlus. “In some regards the legos are in a large box and I try to make spaceships or castles accordingly.”


Richard Devine’s live setup, looking like the bridge of the Enterprise.

“There are a lot of our songs that have a prerecorded studio version,” says J Tonal. “That gets played for about two minutes, and then we switch it up into a deconstruction and play a live remixed version of the same song.” Over top of backing tracks from their songs, Seth and Michelle of 8 Bit Weapon “play the Commodore 64 and 128 live like pianos, and use the Apple IIc as a mono synth in the same fashion. The Game Boy can do very basic live sounds and sequences.”


Tim Exile’s live rig (top) and Reaktor brain (bottom).

The Nucleus

At the center of any musical performance is the instrument. For electronic music, that instrument is the live rig. That rig can be a single laptop or an intricate hybrid of hardware and software; the possible configurations are limitless. Combining controllers, sound sources, mixing, and effects determines the breadth of available sound. The shape the rig takes becomes the defining point for the artist.

No matter how large, most rigs contain a center – a nucleus from which the soundscape is derived. For Daedelus that nucleus is the monome. “My preoccupation is with the Monome,” he explains, “especially MLR and added goodies tailored for use. I find it the most freeing from linear shackles, figuartive handcuffs, and my own preconceptions. It is improvisatory in the same way jamming in a jazz ensamble is, but with samples.”

Even if your rig is multi-faceted, the improvisational aspect is essential. As Richard Devine explains, his hybrid rig provides “maximum flexibility to change anything at any point in my show.” At the center is a MacBook Pro running Ableton Live 8 which syncs his three primary controllers. “The Monome is dedicated to doing random FM synth triggering with Max, and the MonoMachine is doing lots of synth and baselines, while the Machine Drum handles the huge analogue kick drums, and skeletal backbone percussion.”

Equally complex is the hybrid rig of 8 Bit Weapon. There’s still a laptop, but along with it they have “a Commodore 64 computer, a Commodore 128 computer, a Game Boy, a Apple IIc computer, Elektron Sid Station [containing a C64 sound chip], Nintendo Entertainment System, KORG microKORG vocoder, and a 12-channel mixer.”

While a laptop does all of the number crunching for Tim Exile, the true center of his rig is his two Behringer BCR2000’s and one BCF2000. “The 2-way control is perfectly implemented, and there are hacks around that allow you to use every single button on the surface. I’ve made my own context-sensitive control for layer switching in Reaktor. Pretty much all the state info I need is right there on the controllers.”

Mark de Clive-Lowe’s rig may look like that of a keyboardist with a Rhodes, Clavinet, and other synths. But what he calls “the heart of the show” is the MPC3000 he uses to program beats live. “The tactile interface means i can really get into playing the drum machine like an instrument.”

For The Flying Skulls, each performer takes different instrumental roles. Bringing those instruments together is the Rane Empath. “It operates like a master mixing console for several elements of the show: Snareface on the MPC, Jerome on the MS2000, and a channel from Live running on J Tonal’s laptop.” Using the Empath’s Flex-FX, they “get real-time access to over 100 effects that can be applied to any or all of the channels with touch-sensitive parameter control.”


The Flying Skulls Live. Image by Eric Weisz.

Audience: Engaged

There is always the need to engage the audience. “This is crucial,” says Richard Devine. “You have to somehow connect with them. I usually try to play some songs that people know, and of course try to play out lots of new material that hasn’t been heard. I like to program large builds and breaks to take the audience on a roller coaster ride, if you will.”

Leading the audience through the performance is no easy task with all the variables in a complex rig, but getting the audience to link the performance to what they are hearing aurally is its own reward.

“Movement is as important as sound in this respect,” says Tim Exile. “I’ve noticed that audiences respond well when they make connections between movements and sounds which they’ve never made before. So if they can see you directly controlling a sound structure which they’d only heard devoid from its kinetic correlate before (a lot of electronic sounds) then they will have a transformative experience.”

“They are seeing a full studio production created at break-neck speed live on stage in front of them,” says Mark de Cliv-Lowe. “They go on a journey via the music – the rhythm, the harmony and the melody.”

Artists can adapt the journey by feeding off the audience. “They are the ocean currents,” says Daedelus muses. “Fighting directly against [them] is useless. I mean, you can tack the ship against the prevailing winds, but you don’t get very far. I like having a direction, but watching and listening and being willing to go elsewhere.”

This doesn’t eliminate the value of more traditional ways of audience engagement. “Definitely always have a mic to talk to yer crowd,” advises J Tonal. “We like to make sure the audience is on the same page as us,” 8 Bit Weapon shares. “We check in from time to time between songs using fun banter.” There is always room in any musical performance for fun banter, but Daedelus warns, “never let audience members try to speak to you in drug-addled states during performance. It is a careless whisper, no Wham reference.”

Live Rig: The Flying Skulls. Image by Eric Weisz.

There Will Be FAIL

With all of the amazing things we’ve been able to do with technology, we’ve yet to perfect the anti-fail science. If only repairing a crashed hard drive were as simple as changing a guitar string.

“I’ve had MPC’s blow up and melt down right before and during gigs,” recalls Mark de Clive-Lowe. “I have played many shows,” says Richard Devine, “where my computer had crashed right before I was to play or I had some hardware sync problems.”

“We have sent the Sidstation back to Sweden for repairs 2 or 3 times,” 8 Bit Weapon recalls. “A drunk club patron tore it right off the stage and it slammed on the floor.”

Managing these inevitable situations is as much a part of the performance as anything else. “The biggest skill for a live performer,” Mark de Clive-Lowe says, “is to be able to take a mistake and flip it so it was never a mistake.” “When you have only a short amount of time to play — when something goes wrong, you have to have a back up plan, which may be having another computer ready to go on standby or another piece of hardware that you can use to play,” says Richard Devine. “There is nothing worse then flying around the world to play a show and running into technical problems.”

But perhaps the absolute worst scenario is, as Tim Exile says, “not being in the right mood. There’s very little you can do about that. There are no other mistakes.”

Primus Luta is a musician, technologist and a writer. When not working to finish his Heads Project, he’s trying to convince himself he’s got it in him to write that book he always wanted to write.

Primus Luta’s blog on noisepages, featuring computer music performance techniques, Plogue Bidule tips, and a lot more:


See the companion video gallery for this story, featuring live performances from the artists interviewed. [about to be posted]

  • Epic post – can't wait to go through this with a fine-toothed comb and pick out the genius 🙂

  • tj

    apple IIc onstage = awesome.

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  • disappointed dj

    well i was just going to comment about the previous comment.

    but it is already deleted.

    i didn't agree with the poster, but he was not swearing or anything. why delete it?

    of course his comment was basically irrelevant (mentioning drug use by a musician in the above clip).

    but an apple worshipping post (tj) is completely relevant an MUST be read?

    c'mon peter!

    that's been happening here alot lately.

    what a shame….

    btw i am an apple user as well…. and still have my ][c

  • disappointed dj

    ooops jeez SORRY peter, mixed up my posts.


    the comment is still there – please erase my embarrasemnet here THANKS and SORRY

  • decrepitude

    Bravo CDM! I've already posted a link on LivePA.org as this is must read material for that group. I would love to see more performance-centric articles such as this in the future. It's not like you haven't before, but I'm always hungry for more and I would imagine many of your readers are too.

  • Awesonme post, thanks

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  • newmiracle

    Had some issues trying to post yesterday. I got 404's when I submitted a comment.

    But yeah, love the article. This is important for electronic musicians to know. I'd love more detailed posts from specfic artists and acts- see their workflow, problem solving, etc.

    One thing I'm curious in is if people who do live acts 'write' their material live and then perform it live- or if they sequence/program their material and then think about performance later.

  • fRankie

    Dont get me wrong. I love, love, love electronics! However, my opinion is, you are a true musician when you can make good music with no electricity. Just my opinion.

  • fr

    Great post. It got me thinking. I've been reading this blog for years, but I don't like to post stuff (laziness? full time job?), but this one triggered me. So here I am. Just some personal comments.

    I've seen hundreds of electronic (or pc based) gigs and many more standard gigs (with standard meaning: with "real" instruments), like anyone writing here, I would imagine.

    There is still an abyss if you compare the effect and power they can convey, especially when the comparison is with a lonely guy and a laptop.

    As Tim Exile says, there is something undenyable in movement. And typically laptop composers/performers move very little: only a mouse. So a hybrid rig is fundamental. However it still doesn't match the movement, the physical energy and the involvement that a power trio can convey.

    I remember for example a gig of Kim Hihortoy. This guy has great albums, really. I enjoy his music a lot. But the gig was depressing. It was him, his laptop and a nice 4×4 pad controller. Believe me: watching the guy beat the shit out of the pads at 280bpm and over was almost hilarious, but very little impressing music-wise.

    It becomes more interesting when the rig is complex, because you get to understand a lot of what is going on, and understanding is one thing that catches your brain and emotions. For example, circuit bending is great fun to watch and listen, or even audio-sculptures or installations, but I tend to think of them more as audio/visual experiences and less a musical events (maybe it's just me). However, I still think that there is something more profound (could the 1000 years-and-over of history be it?) in playing instruments live than in live digital sound production.

    Clearly, my best option is to get served both the elements on the same plate. This means "hybrid bands" or people playing instruments and doing dsp in real time. Some bands are amazing in the interaction. They use anything in any way making it their own particular resource. This is very stimulating to watch.

    To cose the rant, I remember once I was watching Kid606 live and he only had a mac a mic (if you pass me the joke). He was yelling all sorts of bullshit like: "C'mon you fuckers" or mothafuckin' this or that (can't recall the real words now, it was too long ago, but they were some what offensive – a lot of fuck going around). Well, he was really annoying. The show was crap. I have a feeling he would have been much more effective if he had his foot on an amp and was handling a nice les paul. I don't know why, but I just feel it would have been so (not that I would have liked it anyway).

    So now this gets me thinking: why is it that when rappers start motherfucking this and that they create hype, while Kid606 just created nausea? Coming to think of it, I believe it is because they create an environment for their motherfucking. I mean: they are all dressed up in gold chains and big pants and all that. They have a context. Kid606 had nothing. He was bare naked next to a glowing apple.

    Ultimately, that is the reason why most electronic performances are much better with visuals. I saw PanSonic play live and displaying their realtime audio waves. It was simple and it was effective. Great show. Another time Ikeda and Noto presenting Cyclo: they showed the xy axes of an oscilloscope triggered by the sounds. Fantastic.

    When it came to Murcof: no visuals, just him and his pc. It was exactly like when I play the cd at home, only at home I don't have to pay to activate my cd player.

    Don't get me wrong: my point is not the visuals. It's the creation of an environment.

    A rock band is an environment in itself, or an established environment. Electronic performers have a long way to go, still. But they might catch up in short time.

    OK, sorry for the delirium.

    Great stuff in here, Paul. Keep it up! Cheers.

  • primus luta's article and fr's last comment (July 22, 2009 @ 11:33 pm) are both on point. thanks, CDM, and all those involved in the article.

  • nkem

    Electronic producers have to come up with something other than the hot-potato act every time a knob or controller is touched. This is exceedingly lame.

  • brian eno said long ago that the music created in a studio actually shouldn't be called music, because in essence it was something completely different from what came before.

    similarly, i think performance of electronic music hasn't got much to do with performing in the traditional sense. the increasingly abstract discussion about where 'the musician' and 'the instrument' is in an electronic performance, completely misses the point imo. the terms we use to describe in a performance just can't be readily applied to electronic music.

    electronic music is finding new ways (it has to), although it still has a long way to go. some turn it into a band + electronics situation. some rely on visuals. some use exotic controllers. some use tons of gear on stage. and some just jump around like a madman.

    the bottom line is that a music performance should engage an audience with the music. and electronic music can't rely on the traditional ways because of its nature.

    maybe the problem is inherent, and electronic music performance will never really be engaging. or maybe all this creativity currently flowing around will rewrite the rules of what performing music means. we'll know in a few decades.

  • decrepitude

    "I have a feeling he would have been much more effective if he had his foot on an amp and was handling a nice les paul."

    Before I start beating my chest, I just want to stress that I respect all the comments made here – mostly well spoken and thought out. But this quote is exactly why I am so BORED with the state of affairs in music today. I am sick of the same three-chord bullshit that has been regurgitated over and over and over for the last 4 decades. Rock n' roll is and has always been about bending the rules, innovating new sounds and bold performance methods. The comment above (and others like it) are basically the sentiments of the previous generations who said "that's all just a bunch of noise."

    That's not to say any bands haven't been able to break molds – Radiohead, Janes Addiction, Nine Inch Nails come to mind – but probably the quintessential example is when Jimi Hendrix played the national anthem. NOW it is considered sheer genius, but back then It was extremely controversial to many people, even those within his own generation. To many people at that time it was not only criticized but it was also considered a sacrilege to music.

    Hip Hop (back then called "Rap") had similar challenges. It was misunderstood for a while, but now "turntabilism" is widely accepted and Grandmaster Flash will go into history as a supreme innovator just like Hendrix.

    "maybe the problem is inherent, and electronic music performance will never really be engaging." Once again, I'm not trying to discount any opinions, but I respectfully and wholeheartedly disagree. You need to get out more. These video examples are only the tip of the iceberg. I recommend you go see some of the following artists:

    – Imogen Heap

    – Prodigy

    – Pendulum

    – Underworld …just to name a few.

    Oh and btw, we don't have to wait for a few decades – it is happening now. Thankfully.

  • cmon now

    All I need is my laptop and brain.

  • E.X.P

    there are cool electro acts out there !

    never the less djing will always be djing even with a computer , where as live , true live will always be better than computer automated music…

    butlasy laptopers should be kicked out of the stage…

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  • cmon now

    E.x.p….. go watch a rock band.

  • phineus

    "a lonely guy and a laptop"… sure, I get this point, and that "hot potato" off the knob comment is funny and so true, but how about if that "lonely guy" used a piano instead of a laptop and interfaces? Few would complain that there's not enough going on when they watch a solo pianist, or that he seems to move his hands more than necessary in flourishes, etc, because the sound produced by a piano is spine-tingling in the hands of a true artist, and the player's intensity is directly coupled to the resulting sonic output. Everyone has sat in front of a piano at one time or another, or tried to strum a guitar, so when someone takes that same instrument and incredible music comes out, it's impressive. Also impressive is the physical coordination required to be effective with turntables. Not so impressive to play music through your computer: anyone with iTunes can do that. It's often unclear what the heck a laptop or beatbox performer is doing, besides pushing buttons, and there doesn't seem to be much cause and effect in many cases. Playing "hot potato" with the buttons or knobs (which I actually enjoy, and think is done wonderfully by many performers) is about as close as you can get to demonstrating this cause and effect. Any electronic music show benefits from some sort of projection showing the computer screen or an oscilloscope or waveforms – something that creates a connection between the players, the audience, and the music. I think this is why new instruments like the monome are so effective: they show the cause and effect in a way that anyone can see/hear, even if they don't quite grasp what's going on. But the bottom line is that if the music isn't compelling or doesn't tingle the spine, all the jumping around, big pants, mutha-uckas, and visual displays in the world won't help.

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  • Chainsaw

    Part of the problem is that our notion of "performance" is unduly influenced by the rock star and the bar band. Phineas pointed out quite rightly that the showmanship of a laptop player can be compared to that of a solo keyboardist. You COULD do a Jerry Lee and play your laptop with your foot…

    But I'll leave that issue for another one.

    The dreaded "home keyboard". Not the cheap toys, the $3000 ones you have to go to a piano store, NOT a rock-n-roll music store, to get. They're designed for live performance, can be packed with your own sounds, loops, and beats, have all kinds of jam-with-yourself features and are otherwise ideal for the job already, but they're so incredibly NOT COOL. No, people will learn assembler and build a custom controller rather than be seen on stage with one of these…

    the whole performance issue is in some obscure way related to StSanders, and why his videos are, or aren't, funny, depending on – what?

  • octavio

    the most interesting note on electronic music i ever read…

  • DId anyone see Imogen Heap play live with a Tenori On and a piano the other day? Thats how to do it, … ok so there was a laptop in the background but she didnt touch it all the way through the performance.

    It was entertaining and inspiring.

    Ambient Guy

  • LeMel

    I've been primarily interested in performance for some time, but recently decided to start exploring how to create an audience connection for electronic music that doesn't revolve around dance.

    Here's my take…

    (Western) audiences for electronic performances don't have appropriate internal proxies to engage in those performances as they would with traditional musicians. As Phineus said up above…

    "Everyone has sat in front of a piano at one time or another, or tried to strum a guitar…"

    So there is an internal model that plays out in the mind of the (western) audience member, in a sense 'completing' the performance, giving an inner sense of how much the performer's actions are to be appreciated, so to speak.

    For most, no such model exists for the experimental and unexpected sounds that launch forth from button presses. The models that do exist are the gains of efficiency via personal computers (just click and your entire newsletter is typeset). Everyone *is* familiar with that, so the performance cancels itself out in the mind of the audience member.

    I think the work of Laurie Anderson might present some relevant lessons here, as she successfully created material (much of it electronic or with designed instruments) that came with little or no pre-existing context, yet she still managed to create that 'completion' event in the mind of the viewer (see "Home of the Brave" or "United States").

    Scott McCloud talks about similar principles in "Understanding Comics" – how the viewer can complete a scene by implicit understanding of conventions, context without which the action in the scene would appear to not happen.

  • Seadnamc

    At the end of the day i think its all about music as an end result. whatever gets you there is your own choice

  • seadnamc

    sounds class. wish i had all that equipment for my shows. just workin off a laptop and ableton. think i'd need to grow some new arms to be able to handle all that lot.

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  • These are indeed great instruments.. These guys are really cool.

  • In a small excerpt there Tim Exile mentions a hack for the BCR2000 that allows you to use all the buttons on its control surface… does anyone know where I might be able to get hold of such a hack?

  • I like your articles,I am agree with you,thanks for share.

  • Great blog! Music is my life and I love reading your blog… You did a great job.. Electronic music is very popular now a days…

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  • seventeen76

    jesus could dj like a boss. Look it up it’s in the Bible.

  • seventeen76

    jesus could dj like a boss. Look it up it’s in the Bible.

  • seventeen76

    jesus could dj like a boss. Look it up it’s in the Bible.

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