Jan Schacher at Sonic Circuits. Is the object to his left the best form factor for the situation – or not? (CC) IntangibleArts / Hawkins.

The sight has become ubiquitous: if you’re hearing an electronic live act or computer DJ, there will be a laptop hovering nearby. The glowing logo of one fruit-themed computer brand in particular has appeared all over shots of artists, and the phrase “computer music” has come to be interchangeable with “laptop music” or “laptop performer.”

You can hide the laptop, of course. But, while that’s a valid choice, you do have to wonder why it should be necessary. After all, we don’t hide instruments, or mixers, or microphones, or performers – and, to be sure, the performers aren’t always lookers. And so, the object is there, and reflected onto it is the aura of the performer.

Laptops as a form factor aren’t going anywhere just yet. In fact, I think we may discover by way of contrast why the design of a laptop can be useful. But if it’s not the end of the laptop, it might be the end of the laptop’s hegemony. “Computer music,” after all, once meant hauling computer towers onstage, something reserved these days for a select few. The laptop’s monopoly hold on most computer performers isn’t a sure thing. And this could be the year the tide turns.

Oh, and not just because of the iPad. But we’ll get to that.

David Merrill, David Bouchard, and Ben Vigoda made the Audiopint in 2007, merging the flexibility of a computer with the plug-and-play satisfaction of hardware. Build a similar box today, though, and you can make it more powerful, more reliable – and much cheaper.

The Forerunners

The idea of putting a computer into some other form factor for music is nothing new. Plenty of artists do carry rack-mounted equipment or small form factor PCs. PC vendors catering to musicians sell computers in racks, and there are dedicated rack-mounted machines running Linux like the MUSE Receptor.

The problem with these machines is simple. You can’t tote them back to your hotel room and continue working on your set. You lose some of the advantages of computers – like graphics.

Other solutions are simply too big, or too costly, to work for an average musician on a budget. Open Labs has put computers into keyboards, but the specs of these machines don’t differ greatly from standard computers, whereas the cost difference is significant. They may work well for someone, but the test remains: can you just put a keyboard next to a laptop and call it a day? If you can, then all but a few die-hard touring artists may move on.

Some of the happiest musicians I’ve seen are the ones who have embraced tablet PCs. “I was into tablets before tablets were cool” would be an appropriate thing for them to wear on a t-shirt, especially in 2010. These computers should have, by all estimates, been a huge success, at least among PC users. They have the advantages of a laptop, but can convert into something that will rest on a music stand. They can be used with pen input and touch. They don’t have to loom in front of artists on a table, and you can pick them up while they’re on without performing a balancing act. The reasons these tablets didn’t catch on, though, are pretty well known: they commanded a price premium, many weren’t available with higher-end specs, and they lacked compelling software tailored to their form factor.

In each of these cases, of course, some brave individuals carried on with these solutions. Some key ingredients were simply missing to catapult the idea to a broader audience. You might want to go befriend one of those individuals, because I think they were onto something. And I think the rest of us might soon have rigs closer to theirs.

Signs of Change

The iPad, Bringer of Slates

In the midst of the iPad-crazy tech bubble, Rana Sobhany aka DJ Rana June has been getting a lot of press and Twitterati attention for using iPads in place of decks to DJ. Of course, the only thing that makes this a “DJ” setup in the eyes of observers is the presence of a mixer in between the two Apple slate devices. That’s caused criticism from some – DJ Tech Tools’ Ean Golden lamented that the the whole situation was kind of irritating.

I’m not about to jump on the hype train. Novelty, by definition, wears off. So let’s consider what Rana is really doing here. I actually find it interesting to watch people pick up devices, to see how they approach them. In this case, the iPad is replacing three different categories of devices: conventional digital decks like the CDJ, DSP-based sound hardware like the ElecTribe, and, most importantly, laptops. Software developers may want to take note of the fact that she’s consuming apps in a disposable way, swapping from one $2 app to another, rather than devoting time to mastery and greater investments of time and treasure. But beyond that, the main revelation here is that the tablet is the computer. And the laptop computer, like specific sound hardware and various arbitrary devices for playing back recorded sound on circular discs before it, proves not to be as sacred as the sound-making activity itself.

Translation: look out, MacBook Pro. Read Rana’s take on what’s happening on her site. And another thing, MacBook – it’s not just the iPad gunning for your job, but a bevy of other tablets and slates in its wake.

Of course, the Revolution won’t necessarily be at the Apple Store. (Where’s Gil Scott-Heron when you need him? “The Revolution will not be presented in a keynote by Steve Jobs. The Revolution will not have an unboxing video. The Revolution will not be first seen in Williamsburg. The Revolution will not appear on Twitter.”)

The computer, in new boxes

iPads may look to musicians a bit like computers without the keyboards, but the Orange PC (“OPC”) looks more familiar. It’s a portable amp with a computer inside – or is that a computer with a portable amp outside? We still don’t know exact pricing or other details on this just-announced beast, but part of what makes it special is that it seems to have big-boy computer specs. It has 4GB RAM, runs a full 64-bit version of Windows 7, has a whopping eight USB ports and wifi, plus an optional dedicated ATI GPU. Check out more details here:

The computer, gone mobile and embedded

I was struck this month, even more than interest in the iPad, by interest in things completely unlike conventional computers – Apple tablet or otherwise. Digital musicians are rediscovering synth hardware. But they bring to those kinds of sonic devices some of the expectations of computers. They want synths to be customizable, modular, extensible. They want to be able to reprogram them, to make their hardware synths platforms on which they can run software.

For me, personally, instead of an iPad, I bought a Shruti-1. It may look like a synth with an analog filter. It’s actually a computer. Then again, once MPC users start running their own firmware to change its capabilities, maybe the MPC really is a computer, too.

Consider, too, the Minicommand. It uses the Arduino environment so you can run code sketches on the hardware, programming custom rhythms into your drum machine. It is, in effect, a pocketable computer. So, too, could be discarded mobile phones running Android as their operating system and connecting to physical hardware through hacks to their USB port.

But wait a minute. You’ve heard all of this before. You heard all of it years before. So what’s different this time?

Why everything will change – No, seriously, for real this time!

Advances in computing in music have, for years, been counted in processor cycles and growing performance. But aside from the fact that Moore’s Law never said we’d continue to watch machines get faster (read up on that), something else is happening. Computing is getting cheaper and lighter. It’s generating less heat and consuming less power. That means that the intelligence of computing can appear in new devices.

Um… okay, actually, you’ve probably heard that before, too. What’s different now is, well, we’re older. The technology is more mature – and so are the software and hardware designs. In fact, it may be because you’ve been hearing this story over and over again that the technologists designing the solutions are closer to getting it right.

Getting new form factors right has specific musical relevance when it comes to computer performance. Form factors matter in music. Just take a look at the history of musical instruments. Instruments are constantly redesigned in different sizes, carved with different decorations, merged with furniture, folded into walls, re-engineered to be held differently or played differently.

There are many wonderful things about laptops. They retain the greatest power-to-weight ratio for computers. They (usually) come with lots of ports for expansion. The hinge means you can see the screen without propping them up, and the screen is big enough to show lots of stuff. The keyboard lets you type. Deviate from the design, and this and many other advantages disappear. For all these reasons, expect to see traditional laptops onstage for a long time to come.

That doesn’t mean computers have to be the only solution for everyone. There are plenty of reasons to suspect we may finally see a greater number of other form factors in computing in music performance – and to me, nothing tests the use of computers more than someone going in front of a crowd of people with one.

In other words, there are reasons computer music could go from majority to plurality.

Reason #1: Computing goes cheaper, cooler, leaner. Look inside the iPad, or your cell phone, or those new netbooks, or slates, or tablets, and you’ll see the same thing: new architectures that fit in new boxes and last longer on batteries. Heck, even Roland is now touting new more power-efficient DSP on their devices, which means suddenly a lot of Roland gear runs on batteries for extended periods of time.

Reason #2: The ARM race. Remember RISC (reduced instruction set computing)? Remember the Acorn computer – which, incidentally, ran the precursor to today’s Sibelius notation software? Most people probably don’t, because these technologies were supposed to be on the losing side of a battle. The world became “Intel Inside” and the PC platform, and the rest is history. Or is it? Well, just as the 90s were about computing platforms that ran on x86 (read: PCs, Windows), the world today is all about ARM, RISC-based architectures descended from the Acorn. Some billion phones a year use almost entirely ARM architectures. Mobile tech is reaching all the parts of the world’s population who didn’t even have computers or basic infrastructure. ARM is now the largest chip architecture out there by an order of magnitude. And just as the PC platform stormed the world because it was licensed to partners, ARM, too, is growing in dominance because no one company controls its manufacture. ARM is everywhere. It’s the future. And that means it’s also the future of music making with computers. Clarification: I should note that ARM does charge its licensees, but, just as installing Windows proved lucrative for an industry of computer vendors and their associated ecosystem, so, too, a number of big hardware players have found there’s great economic incentive to build their own ARM chips.

Want something new to happen with computer music? Well, billions of people who never had a computer before are getting computers. Some of that future of electronic music likely will come from people not reading this story – and that’s a good thing. You may have scoffed at the One Laptop Per Child initiative, but in the meantime, the world is rapidly becoming One Mobile CPU Per Person.

Reason #3: Open OSes. Don’t laugh. How do you run on billions of devices with no central vendor? We may need the opposite of the kind of control we’ve traditionally seen in operating systems. Linux is a logical front-runner. (If it’s not Linux, it might be the Linux-based Android or Symbian – all three are mobile-ready and open-source, and each have some serious market share trends behind them.)

You can pick up a computer for $100 or $150, or a cell phone, or what will soon include a bunch of cheap tablets, and run something as common as Ubuntu Linux, today. A surprising amount of your software will “just work” on the ARM platform – even though there’s no direct equivalent on Mac or Windows. You’ll accordingly see a lot of big names investing. ARM is inspiring the competition, too – Intel is investing heavily in Linux and in making their x86 architecture leaner, meaner, cooler, and cheaper, too.

Put these pieces together, and things get interesting – and cheap. Think about $200 slates that run free, powerful sound creation environments like Pd or SuperCollider, $300 netbooks that could fold like a book and balance atop a keyboard, and the countless Linux, Windows, Android, Chrome, and other devices coming your way. Yep, even those Chrome browserbooks might work: you could have a UI built in HTML5 Canvas and JavaScript, with sound running native behind the scenes, and your entire music set stored on the cloud. Play the gig, output audio, and have the live set up on Facebook and Soundcloud before you’ve even wound your audio cables.

The ability to hold vintage digital synthesis in your hand spawned entirely new breeds of music software, and then a musical phenomenon, something that seemed retro but turned out to be new. And that’s just what used Game Boys did. One key ingredient: they were cheap. Photo (CC-BY-SA) Lucius Kwok.

Reason #4: Build it, and they will come. The hardware is going to be out there: cheap, flexible, numerous in quantity and variety. People will use it and do stuff.

But whereas laptop musicians today sometimes seem like armies of look-alike MacBook users, I don’t think this brave, new world is going to look the same way. The Mac laptop (and to lesser extent, its PC brethren) became popular with good reason. But now, as digital performance techniques become more widespread and the artists make greater demands on their gear, maybe variety is exactly what’s needed. I think you may soon see everything from strange hardware boxes to iPads to slates and tablets and handheld gadgets and more showing up onstage.

Musical invention, when it’s healthy, doesn’t lead to one or two designs. It leads to absurd, insane chaos. Take even the piano, an emblem of standardization and mass instrumental consumption. The piano has spawned endless mutations, sizes, manufacturers, sounds, and so on. Or the guitar: the icon of the 20th century mass music culture was at its best when people were abusing it and feeding it through boxes that destroyed its sound and breaking every rule of how you’re supposed to play it. And that’s about as conventional as instruments get.

The musical applications that start to get most interesting:

  • Boxes with physical controls – think stomp pedals, faders, knobs, the like – but programmable computer brains
  • Intelligent, cheap synths, effects, and the like that can be easily reprogrammed
  • The return of the hardware sequencer (as evidenced by the minicommand), now with the intelligence and flexibility and customizability of software
  • Tablet computers, from the iPad to new devices that also handle inputs like the stylus, that – far from being just a controller – take the role of the computer, an all-in-one digital brain for a performance. Via hardware support, they could still connect to high-quality audio outputs, headphone monitoring, and external MIDI keyboards or physical drum pads. They could become interactive canvases that would make Xenakis proud.
  • Computers that can double as physical instruments, music stands, amps (like the Orange) or other musical devices.

Trivia note: in 1977, Xenakis implemented his UPIC graphical system on a Hewlett Packard computer. In 2010, HP will introduce the Slate. I have no idea if the Slate will be any good, but all of this has happened in roughly the span of my lifetime. Sometimes, technology takes time.

What’s next?

I realize I’m making an argument about musical practice based on technology, and that that argument isn’t entirely complete – but that’s what blogs can be for. I just want to introduce the idea first. I actually have some ideas about technologies that could enable the sort of performance changes I’m talking about, and ways they could be more musically useful (which is what really matters). But I’ll keep that for another day. In the meantime, I’m interested to hear what you think.

I think we all know why we love laptops: they’re cheap, they’re powerful, they have big, bright, usable screens, and they can move from the desk to the tray table on a plane to a stage situation with aplomb.

And I do pick “live” as the context for a reason: desktop computers can still best even laptops when it comes to bang-for-buck in the studio, if something doesn’t have to leave a tabletop.

The question is, simply, is that all there is? Some of you are already using mobile phones, Game Boys, tablet PCs, netbooks, PSPs, embedded hardware, Arduinos, homebrewed synths, modular synths…

As the digital landscape continues to evolve in the mobile and embedded realms, what sorts of solutions are you dreaming of for playing?

For further reading…

Palm Sounds, a site that has championed alternative form factors and mobile music production in its very charter, has an interesting take on all of this:

Where will the desktop go?

He argues that Apple’s laptop line is now lagging the iPad and iPhone in innovation. I’m not entirely sure I agree. Apple’s pace with the MacBook line is dependent on the availability of chips from Intel, NVIDIA, and many other vendors. Evolution there may indeed seem slow, but then, the laptop space has long required price/performance/heat/battery compromises, and has always been more or less iterative and evolutionary. Also, I think when Apple says “mobile devices company,” they’re lumping in sales from their Mac laptops because it makes their numbers look more impressive. (I would have to look closer at their numbers, though.)

What is interesting to me is that laptops, too, may benefit from the new mobile center of gravity, with touch, stylus, low-power/low-heat, and new operating systems and user interfaces trickling “up” to the more powerl machines. Apple’s line is more streamlined, so some of this variety may appear first on the PC, but looking at laptops generally, there are some interesting changes in store – all making the laptop more mobile and more flexible as a musical device.

  • Orubasarot

    hate knobs, hate sliders, dont like touch screens (too oily)

    is there anybody making some kind of potentiometer sets that immediately plug into a USB hub and transmit OSC or midi data? that way you could go out in the woods like i did, find yourself an abandoned tractor, rip out the rusted gear shift levers and work them into some sort of box that you crunch and smash and wiggle

    i dont want to javascript and solder shit together, i want to make my own gear out of duct tape and zipties, but have the nerdy internal bits already made and functioning for me

  • > ARM, too, is growing in dominance because no one company controls its manufacture.

    Well, ARM controls licensing – the architecture and IP are not free. I think x86 will still dominate in any computing application laptop or bigger for a long time to come, and Intel/AMD will aggressively push down so they don't lose the netbook/tablet market.

  • djproben

    Software is obviously a big issue with these devices — that orange PC looks pretty damn cool, but what can it do? The website advertises playing games in between guitar sets and playing itunes and recording your input — not exactly revolutionary. Obviously it can run Ableton or traktor or any other Windows program but to use that you will need a screen, and then you're back where you were with the laptop (though you also have a cool orange speaker and no need to lug any other gear, so I guess you're still ahead of the game).

  • I see a touch interface as no different to any other device laid flat on the table. The tablet removes the vertical screen that is synonymous with a laptop and hence identified by some in a negative light. The tablet style seems to be more accepted probably because it is the new fad now…dunno?

    I am looking forward to a screen that is touch but also see-through so it can be set up and the crowd can see what is going on as well 😉

    I would also like to see more hardware that can be customized and enhanced/augmented via a laptop interface (maschine seems to be heading this direction). Something that can be expanded with patches etc. Maybe even sure on a developer community because of this.

  • Dom

    A fantastic thought provoking post Peter. Brilliant.

  • genjutsushi

    On this topic, i was looking at moving to the Akai MPC, but have instead set up a monitor less rig for an MPD32 midi controller after seeing how integrated NI had got MASCHINE – the idea that using a computer needs you to look at the screen is pretty much false now – you just need the appropriate preparation.

  • Peter, you've got some strong points. The main reason I'm "afraid of tablets" is future developers and vendors turning those computer into media consuming devices (as the iPad, I'm afraid) instead of creativity tools.

    Nowdays, consoles like the DS and the PSP already could be used as instruments (please don't flame at me, I run my LSDJ copy on a PSP running Gameboy emulation, and do some beat making on PSPRhythm). But the mainstream preception is still "just run some Call Of Duty type shooter while I'm at the bus".

    My personal point of view is that usually us electronic musicians tend to follow "the new fad" that will bring new air to our compositions. Be it controller surfaces, plug-ins, expensive modular hardware… you name it. A few years ago, some people I knew sell all their MPCs and Nord Leads claiming "hardware is dead!". Today some folks run to their stores looking for the new Grial of tablets/slates. Why don't we INTEGRATE instead of SUBSTITUTE?. I'd love to have real syncronisation between my Nintendo Korg DS-10 and my DAW, so when making my beats I could export all my tracks quickly instead of using Ardour as an old tape-reel (press play on the DS, record, then trim start-end of tracks)… I mean, we could add new stuff to our process: maybe some customized circuit bent/ hardware sequenced gear for live performance and traditional DAW based studio for home recording.

    Now we are closer to the "all in a box" paradigm, but maybe we don't need everything in that box. Maybe we need some new perception, like when we watch a folk singer doing an acoustic set of his/her electric song.

    Is there anything close to an acoustic/unplugged set in Electronic Music. Maybe we could aim at that with more diverse/low powered devices onstage.

    Sorry for the long rant. Not posted from an iPad

  • The biggest problem with all these touch screen products has always been software suited for the form factor.
    All software assumed that you'd be using a mouse, or if all else fails use a stylus to emulate a mouse.

    If the iPad can raise awareness of the important of good, full screen finger touch interface, then it has been good, despite all its flaws.
    The keyboard and mouse (and knobs) are not formfactors optimized to be expressive. Our hands on the contrary are (see turntablists or african drummers; Nothing as expressive as banging on something with your hands).

    In my opinion touch interfaces are definitely the way forward for live electronic music performance. The (cheap and hopefully performant) hardware will be available. Here's hoping interface design follows suit.

  • @genjutsushi

    I was aiming at the MPC way also . Could you share how to set up your system so you could work just with a MPD and no screen?

  • Bynar

    This a very timely article. I actually recently decided that I don't really need a screen for live performances. I'm planning on getting a Mac Mini and creating performance patches that work tightly with my midi controllers. Part of this realization came from the frustration of damaging my screen by accident. With ipads that can send osc touch info, I imagine all my DSP living on my Mac Mini and the control info coming from the touch interface.

  • This sticks out most for me:

    "Digital musicians are rediscovering synth hardware. But they bring to those kinds of sonic devices some of the expectations of computers."

    I think we are in a transitionary phase, and I hope the transition we are making is that soon people wont always compare alternative music making solutions to a computer/laptop.

    The most common criticism I see on forums and in reviews of 'hardware' is that you can get so much more for your money in software. But I find that 'powerful' software has it's own hidden costs – you need to keep upgrading your computer to run it; you lose creative time to sorting out bugs in the newest version of your chosen DAW etc.

    I hope that the new generation of small, portable devices will force developers to create many more efficient music making applications.

    A comment on the iPad for music creation and live performance… being a 'closed' system could have advantages over my current Laptop and Ableton Live set-up:

    1. No need to lug round a seperate audio interface – I'll just have to deal with the built in one. (side note: the audio output on my Nintendo DS isn't the highest spec, but the Korg DS10 sounds fine through it.)

    2. No need to lug round and configure seperate MIDI controller(s) because I can interact directly with the device.

    3. No more expensive software upgrades (and then helping the developer resolve his/her programming bugs.)

    4. The device is familiar to your audience – this opens up some interseting possibilities for live performance. Imagine an iPod / iPhone app that links to your onstage iPad app that the whole crowd can control in some way.

    Great article by the way – very thought provoking!

  • Angstrom

    I think that the whole idea of using a screen as an interface invites problems. The primary reason 'computer musicians' have garnered a reputation for being hunchbacked email-checkers is the reliance on looking at tens of parameters in order to modify them.
    The ideal interface allows the performer to keep that screen-time to a minimum. The performer needs to give the impression of connecting with the crowd, it's one of the reasons the various instruments have varied levels of perceived 'sexiness' . Guitar/vox are the sexiest, then drums and then piano/keys and lastly … laptop.
    I think this is simply due to the percentage of time each of these appears to visually connect with the audience.
    Consider other performing arts, such as stand-up comedy, where lack of eye-contact with the audience would pretty much kill the act.

    Of course, screens are incredibly helpful, as are reactive screens, but I'd prefer to use a learn-able tactile interface, one which allows us to just get on with it. We should only need to look at our displays every now and then.
    Again, just my opinion.

  • Ian

    @Angstrom & @genjutsushi And I think critically the hardware which enables us to reliably remove ourselves from the 'standard' laptop interaction is getting much cheaper and easy to access. Just look at the launchpad, nocturn, APC 40 & 20, Maschine Livid block etc etc… all of these allow us to remove a certain level of contact with a laptop – in some cases we can simply use the screen as a rarely used reference. The cost barrier for this kind of interaction is always dropping! Exciting times indeed.

  • Ian

    I also think it is worth underlining what the guys at Jazz Mutant said regarding the iPad (which I think is a wonderful product BUT) – Capacitive touch screen – deal killer for live use IMO.

  • I think laptops in music performance have a bad image because they are not specifically created for music.

    When an average person sees a guitar, piano, drums, or even a mixer or drum machine, they can relate it to music.

    When they see a laptop they can relate it to games, emails, the Internet, their day job and the last time one crashed on them.

    Indeed alternative forms could work well to remedy this.

  • Sacco&Vanzetti

    I just wanted to say fantastic post.

    This is exactly why I come here. To feed my brain up!

  • Angstrom

    I don't subscribe to this widely touted "home/office use" theory.

    I point you at "Stomp" http://stomp.co.uk/shows.php an explicit usage of houshold and industrial use items for production of music. Here it is seen as a positive benefit!
    No, I do not beleive it is habituation to the laptop that turns audiences off

    As I said earlier, I believe it is because the performer appears to give more love to the laptop than to the audience.

    It's about the perceived performer-audience connection, not what you use to do that
    I bet I could make a connection to an audience using an anglepoise lamp, a pad of post-its and a coffee cup. As long as it didn't just stare at these items as if I was performing open-heart surgery while constipated.

    there's your problem!

  • Thomas Cermak

    Oh the towers. They hurt my back.

  • @ Angstrom

    Re. the percieved performer/audience connection, that's what I find exciting about the iPad. The audience will understand the device; they might be able to join in the performance using their iPhone or iPod.

    There is one thing better than seeing a great live performer: getting amongst it yourself! That's why people crowd surf, stage dive, grab the mic and scream in it etc.

  • genjutsushi

    @jorgeand @Ian

    At the moment, im running Live on my laptop, but going to shift it to a monitorless computer with Live booting with my gigging session automatically.

    Ive drawn on Moldover's controllerism ideas and http://createdigitalmusic.com/2010/02/25/fast-fin
    in that you need to have ONLY WHAT IS REQUIRED available. You can then develop muscle memory and performance expertise within these limited parameters.

    I use a Launchpad as the main melodic clip launch interface with bass always on the left, going across to 'main melodic themes' on the furthest right hand column.

    The MPD is set up to four drum racks with the same drum layout for each rack, but a different set of sounds. The four banks on the MPD correspond to this.

    The 8 faders on the MPD are the effects routing for each of the 8 tracks on the Launchpad. The buttons on the MPD are the effects 'active' in the effects return bus. I only use one bus and vary the effects in there (idea taken from NI's 'The Finger'). The knobs on the MPD are assigned to master output effects (usually Beat Repeat!). The foot controller input on the MPD is a mod pedal for the drum racks effects.

    With some careful arrangement, i need never look at the Ableton live screen but still have access to all the elements needed for a live set.

  • Good post – I've been performing with laptops since 1994 (yikes!), I've never seen it as a issue to have a laptop, or not. It's just part of the setup.

    Performance has tended to get 'lighter' for me: I use what I have, add new tech as it becomes affordable and useful, and hang on to old tech until it gets too heavy or clunky. I still bring my violin and oboe to gigs and run them through a Kaos pad, along with iPod theremins, Live, and handbuilt apps. Digital or analog, it's all electronic.

  • Mudo

    Who cares? take your weapons or build them!

    I'm doing that you are calling future…


  • @ SkyRon

    Great point. You've got my vote! 🙂

  • @Angstrom

    "I believe it is because the performer appears to give more love to the laptop than to the audience."

    I see your point tho I guess the same could be said for instrumentalists staring at sheet music or 'Shoe gaze' rock musicians staring at their effect pedals.

  • Blob

    <blockquote cite="@Angstrom

    “I believe it is because the performer appears to give more love to the laptop than to the audience.”

    I see your point tho I guess the same could be said for instrumentalists staring at sheet music or ‘Shoe gaze’ rock musicians staring at their effect pedals.">

    Nucleon, I also see your point about "shoegazing", but in that case at least the audience can attempt to interpret the performer's physical movements(which may add to the performance's meaning and effectiveness). Though I'm about to repeat a cliché (and has been mentioned in this thread), laptop musicians most of the time look like they are checking emails. There is no discernible physical connection between your movement and the sound that you generate with your computer, and that might the turn audience off even if your music is great. I use a midi keyboard/controller and laptop in my performances and even then I feel a bit of that disconnect between myself and my sounds, which is why discussing new physical performance interfaces becomes so important, not just because of "what it looks like", but also because of how musical physical gestures influence / affect / determine your performance.

  • @Blob

    Indeed, you could be doing loads or nothing behind a laptop and it look the same.

    Using some form of obvious controller or instruments helps alot I think.

    Possibly a tablet type laptop you can place flat on a table makes it less of a focus. Yet still lets you view info when you need to. Its screen would need a large viewing angle I guess.

  • First, I have a hard time taking Rana seriously as she likes to tout "no synthesizers or computers" when obviously the iElectribe and iPad are both, respectively. I think she is merely doing it for the publicity.

    I'm actually quite happy with my laptop, Live, launch pad and nocturn setup. My work flow is simply to get everything into Live and perform from there. And while you've touched on the age old argument of a guy with a laptop = boring, I really don't find that true, at least with electronic dance music. Most fans of the genre accept to a large degree that computers are just the way things are done these days and I have never really felt that there was a stigma about it. Especially with the large variety of useful and affordable controllers and multimedia systems on the market, you would almost have to go quite far out of your way these days to look like you were just checking your email. Ironic how that is no longer the badge of honor it used to be isn't it?

    What I find particularly exciting is the new love people are finding for the old chip based synthesizers and drum machines. There's quite allot of modifications going on, new OSes being written etc.

    I would also like to see more digital modules for analog modular synthesizers. FM oscillators & vector based or even modules that are compatible with patch memory.

    The ability to re-engineer older technology in new ways is more exciting to me that just being able to run custom programs on a device without a laptop. Although I can appreciate it if they are run on something with an intrinsic value, such as nanloop or for convenience such as with effects pedals.

    I feel there is still too much older and readily available technology on the used market that is staving off an explosion in new boutique / cottage items. I would welcome open sourced arduinoish type devices but they would have to do something or improve on something that current technologies doesn't do. That is why largely the Monome was such a success.

  • Angstrom

    on the subject of the possible disconnect between the sounds and the actions, when they are produced from a small plastic square.

    I have started to think that this is less of an issue. Many lay people have confessed to me a complete lack of understanding and interest in what a bass guitar is, what a lead guitar is, which drum makes which noise. I sat in on a conversation where ten people confessed they had no idea what "bass" and "treble" were, as they related to their car stereo.
    It seems unbelievable to music perverts, but the layperson does not care where the music comes from.

    Once again – I believe that staring at the audience and pointing at them, then smiling like an escaped mental patient … will reap more rewards than playing a bass at them while staring at your effects pedals.

  • Thanks, everybody, for the thought-provoking discussion.

    @Nathan: point taken; clarified that in the article. And yes, I expect Intel to be competitive in the market, even if ARM has rekindled interest in low cost / low power.

    I'll make the general observation that no amount of tech is going to make you interesting to watch if you lack stage presence. On the other hand, we live in a sort of rock-influenced era. Plenty of performers *don't have stage much presence*, and I think that's actually okay. ("Wow, that oboist was mesmerizing" may not apply to every oboist.) So to me, this question is about finding the tools that fit what you're trying to accomplish. For years, the 15" laptop has sort of monopolized that choice. For some people, it's clearly the best solution (with some other goodies plugged into it), and the right artists can make it look good. But it's only logical some of the alternatives currently at the "fringe" of computer music may become more common – with, as readers are arguing, some necessary adjustments to how the software works so that they are practical and not just fad/publicity stunt.

  • Also, I don't have an answer to this, but just for reflection:

    Will the stigma of using a laptop onstage lesson if *fewer* people are doing it? (If it seems less like a cliche, just one choice among many?) It seems some of that has happened as laptop performance has escaped association with specific genres.

  • Blob

    @Peter K.

    "Will the stigma of using a laptop onstage lesson if *fewer* people are doing it? (If it seems less like a cliche, just one choice among many?) It seems some of that has happened as laptop performance has escaped association with specific genres."

    In my humble opinion, the "genre" factor is important, 10 or 15 years ago you would see computers being used onstage almost exclusively by avant-garde electroacoustic ensembles, some dance-music enthusiasts and the occasional underground rock band. Nowadays they are used in all sorts of situations. In these past few years I've seen laptops being used by pop singers' backing bands, rock bands, in hip-hop performances and in pretty much all conceivable types of electronic music performance. Personally, for instance, I'm playing keyboard controller + laptop with a fusion jazz ensemble. So yes, the laptop has become less of a "stranger" and the stigma will definitely become less important. If it is used with (and improved by) other tools for performance, then the stigma will definitely disappear.

  • Blob

    "staring at the audience and pointing at them, then smiling like an escaped mental patient …"

    HA! 🙂
    You have a point about most laypersons not understanding where the sounds are coming from. In any case, I'm still inclined to believe that physical and visual feedback are important in a performance.

  • laptops,as you stated, are the best combination of portablility and power. and they represent a profound paradigm shift from anything that went before them. we are only just scratching the surface of what is possible. i think our "interaction" with them is and will continue to evolve.

    what i see now is the standardization of the paradigm of "laptop as musical tool" but the there is no such standardization of usage concepts. just when you think every laptop onstage is running LIVE or FL Studio, or Serato, here comes someone running a tracker, or Pd or, as i was fascinated to watch at a house party, two tabs in firefox,"DJing" between youtube music vids. the scope for a digital,conceptual toolbox is unprecedented and not even fully grasped as we are now finally growing past the limitations of the previous generation of UI's.

    computers will continue, unabated, to become a more invisible enabler. laptops will become even more of a tangible externalization of our imagination and dare i say,our nervous system,as we blend our music, with our images with sensors with lighting templates with…

    BUT, of course, some trendy cats will declare the laptop music era dead, all the while, hiding their laptop backstage. doesnt matter, as long as they stay out ofthe way of the rest of us…

  • ch.tomorrow

    what to say
    all this gear questions
    making music depends on gear
    and so using gear its just fine
    but always the main focus
    should be on the music you are making
    forget gear
    just make music…

  • "So to me, this question is about finding the tools that fit what you’re trying to accomplish."

    I agree completely that this is the force behind personal expression in electronic music. But sadly most people are not in it to try this hard and simply by the synthesizer with the hit preset banks.

    I think aside from groups of passionate peoples, electronic music is in a crisis in this regard.

  • @cosmonaut: That's a new problem? 😉

  • maybe not.. it seems like i encounter few and few people into their own creations and more peoples about just wanting to see what is new from roland or korg.

  • I just mean I think we are in an ebb time as opposed to the huge interests in DIY and sorts of thing from a few years ago.

  • @cosmonaut: Activity here would suggest otherwise. I mean, obviously, a lot of people don't have the time or imagine they don't have the skill to put in time to do things the DIY way. Our obligation is to find a way for at least some of those people — provided they're self-motivated — to be actively involved in making their own sounds. And concerns about overly fetishing tech aside, for me the reason to get deep into issues of how our computers and software and such work is that you feel closer to the process by which you use these media in your music. That's certainly the case for me personally.

  • it is for me too, I agree with moving people to make their own musics and sounds. I am always very impressed with the passion from the people that read you.

  • Very good post. Let's see what happens.

  • Ha! Planned on having this as the original website in 2005.

    Of course, the Revolution won’t necessarily be at the Apple Store. (Where’s Gil Scott-Heron when you need him? “The Revolution will not be presented in a keynote by Steve Jobs. The Revolution will not have an unboxing video. The Revolution will not be first seen in Williamsburg. The Revolution will not appear on Twitter.


  • <blockquote cite="Holotropic">I am looking forward to a screen that is touch but also see-through so it can be set up and the crowd can see what is going on as well 😉
    Those of us performing with Lemurs have it kind of easy that way; we raise them up so that they're slanted down, towards the audience, and this is pretty much all the feedback the audience needs. We look down on the surface, the audience looks up towards the same spot, which is unifying. Since the surface isn't all that big the player can use muscle memory to a great extent, and do painting/sweeping gestures.

    What I love about this period in technology is that it is a time of *convergence*. Our digital camera has shrunken enough to fit snuggly inside the phone along with the music player etc. Similarly the studio has shrunken to fit on the computer AND the computer has shrunken to fit in our front pockets ( http://www.globalscaletechnologies.com/t-guruplug… ). We will soon have modular synthesis modules running embedded systems, made by proper businesses.
    The hardware (VA) synthesizer is assimilated with the computer, too, with USB connections piping audio, on-screen editors and so on.

    What does that do for the digital performer? Well, first of all it confuses the FUCK out of most of them 😉 Secondly, it gives us the freedom to develop tools for more or less any platform, that'll control any process on any of the other platforms; I can happily make my modular synth control my computer, I can control my modular synth from, say, a violin (through another computer process) and so forth.

    This, in turn, provides us with a problem of *focus* – because it turns the hardware system into a bit of an Ouroboros, if we don't control it – what is happening is that the governance in the studio is becoming decentralized; more computers doing outsourced processing, and a growing need for inter-communication (OSC and the likes)

    The first immediate problem, however, is that we need to learn how to feature freeze our rigs. Dream up *one* setup, and build it, and learn it to perfection.
    We have to remember that these are *instruments* and that we are *intrumentalists* – hell, this has nothing to do with email-checking syndrome. That's a clutch that we've held on to for TOO LONG now. Look at a video from a laptop battle and you will KNOW that just a laptop is NOT an excuse – those people can KILL with a qwerty!

  • stk

    <cite>"The glowing logo of one fruit-themed computer brand in particular"</cite>

    Heh, I've come to mildly detest that sight – not through any kind of silly brand allergy, rather that – at least round here – I immediately know what manner of music to expect, almost without fail. So predictable, so dull.

  • ch.tomorrow

    everything is fine
    there are beings…instruments…
    playing them and out comes music…
    companies doing well
    diy is doing well
    we will making fit them all in one way
    or the other
    for me the thing is to find a new way
    putting sound and rhythm together
    putting them together in a rough nonlinear
    focus-point on expansion
    so sounds by coming together creating
    expansions of themselves
    getting creative by there own…
    playing this music live
    every piece will diver every time you play it
    you will be happy by making music
    and it will be always a new experience
    no reproduction…
    until now the focuspoint in making music
    where to get to the point to reproduce
    your music…perfect as it could be…
    but understanding that there is no perfection
    only ongoing experience
    had to lead us to a different way of making music…
    what also means a different way to live life…

  • @stk: Ha! Well, something's wrong in that case; I've heard some pretty damned fine music come out of computers wearing Apple logos. I just don't view the logo as causation – positive or negative – that was the point I was making. 😉 But maybe there's some correlation with the people who deface their laptops or spread duct tape over the logo.

  • enrico

    all very interesting topics, great alive community. The generational gap is so wide that in the '40 years span' quoted in the article, we've (they've) revolutioned the way we control music. Even if I enjoy being dragged into this vortex of innovations – sometimes hard to keep up with, all the nights spent on this forum trying to get my apps to work – but I feel a bit let down by the music outcome.
    It is interesting to control the matter in a different way or through a different device, but I think we should never forget that the material we have in our hands is waves, complex sequence of air pressure and their impact on humans – and not only.
    It would be nice to see a topic with a video that shows a little more than a few beats on a loop. It's impressive if you can do it putting sensors on your teeth and quantizing your chewing, but it would also be nice to get some new music.
    This being said…
    Great forum, great community, quite unique and fundamental for the future development.

  • michel

    there seems to be a belief that while that performing music with a laptop is problematic for the moment, this will all be solved with multi-touch screens, fancier software, ore possibilities, more intuitive hardware controllers, etc… but i think there's something fundamentally different from performing with a laptop to performing with a more traditional instrument like a bass guitar. and that is that it's primarily visual.

    i perform with a laptop, but i always have the lid down and use hardware controllers to control ableton live. not being able to see the screen means i can only use a small subset of the possibilities of ableton, because the visual feedback is limited to what my controllers offer. the advantage is that i don't really have to look at what i do, just like when i play bass. of course, i will have to look if i roughly grab the right knob, but it will never have to be as precise as when i would want to do something in ableton on the screen. (or ipad, or lemur)

    using very crude folk psychology i would say that bypassing the neo-cortex (visual) and tapping into the older brains (motor function and listening) helps me get more involved in the music as a performer. whether that makes it more interesting for the audience is another discussion.

  • @enrico (and @michel, too, I hear what you're saying but this is relevant) – the gap is even narrower than that. The 1977 UPIC debut was 33 years ago, not 40. Laurie Spiegel I think was one of the first to do a music virtual instrument shortly after the introduction of the Mac – just about 25 years ago. Voyager CD-ROMs and Morton Subotnik performances with Mac towers were just over 15 years ago. I recall in roughly that timeframe my first time on Max/MSP on Mac IIs at a summer program in Oberlin. I left convolution processes running on Tom Erbe's SoundHack for, literally, a few hours to cook – something that can now be done in real-time. Laptop performance has only really been going for a little over 10 years. It's a generation gap that doesn't even span a generation.

    Of course, a certain amount of stability is a good thing, which is why I think people are getting more comfortable. So I'm certainly not suggesting we're going to toss what we've learned from laptops – on the contrary, I think what has been a narrow category of "laptop" could extend to other form factors that do allow more physical controllers, and/or software and screen interfaces really built for performance and not the studio.

  • HEXnibble

    @Jorge Barrientos: "The main reason I’m “afraid of tablets” is future developers and vendors turning those computer into media consuming devices (as the iPad, I’m afraid) instead of creativity tools.

    The first thing I did with my iPad was make music. I draw with it, too using the Pogo Sketch stylus. Take a look at iElectribe, iDrum, Brushes, Sketchbook Pro, TouchOSC, Midipad, or any of the (very many) other apps for creative work. The New Yorker had already put three sketches done in Brushes on its cover back when Brushes was just an iPhone app and the iPad was barely even a rumor.

    I also make music every day and draw from time to time as well. Not a coincidence. Creative people are doing creative things with the iPad. If you can't imagine people doing anything creative with it, that's not the device, it's you.

  • HEXnibble

    @Ian: "Capacitive touch screen – deal killer for live use IMO."

    You have it backwards. When it comes to fingertip response, iPad’s capacitive screen is currently the best solution available. Lemur's resistive technology is flawed because unintended touches can occur as evidenced by multiple reports of Lemur users getting burned in live situations by the lack of response and by the film initiating unintended events.

  • No doubt computers will get smaller, cheaper and more capable, but I don't really see things like the iPad as the start of some bold new paradigm for music performance that will Change Everything and Make Everything Awesome.

    What computer-driven touchscreens like the iPad are theoretically good at (allowing for sophisticated control of several parameters in a complex set) is not very conductive to an engaging live performance (you hunched over an ipad, lightly tapping on and rubbing an emulation of real gear). No doubt there will be ambitious people doing creative things with the iPad etc., but I imagine its more common usage will be to simply supplant the laptop for solo artists/DJs who want to lug around the least gear possible.

    The laptop itself is a way to supplant what would otherwise be racks upon racks of real gear that would be impractical to carry around. The iPad etc. is by and large just an evolution of that– a more consolidated laptop. By itself that's a totally legitimate use, since if you were to materialize a typical Ableton set into a real-life rack, it would be a bunch of redundant loop players, effect machines, MIDI sequencers and analog synths that you don't necessarily have to access in an in-depth way during a show.

    Seeing the iPad "iElectribe" app however does NOT tempt me to toss the real Electribes I have in my live rig. I react to that like a guitarist would react to the thought of using an iPad running some guitar emulation. The iPad as the ultimate Gear Supplanter is terrifyingly dull prospect that I want no part of. Really, the touchscreen/computer should be the part of the rig you ignore as you play real instruments and wail on real gear and/or controllers. My rackmount ableton rig has a 6'' touchscreen, and I try to design my set so that I'm touching it as little as possible.

    Not that there's a fixed way to have a live show, but I think the requirements for an engaging performance have been laid out in the previous comments– the audience should see you connecting with your music in some tactile, tangible way that they can follow. Lightly rubbing and tapping a series of iPads on a table probably isn't the way to do that, so I don't look to the iPad as the magic bullet that will advance the art, or see the prospect of laptop performers becoming tablet/slate performers as a particularly interesting evolution in itself.

  • In the future I hope that these technologies are made physically tougher and invisible and as such more enjoyable for a layman audience member. In this article and in the comments there are repeated mentions to what the audience sees when they see a "laptop band" etc. the glowing fruit, the email checking syndrome, the trend of tilting lemurs and monomes outward or hiding the laptop are all indications that the visual and aural connections on digital performance are tenuous at best.

    When your average audience sees one of us twisting the knobs, or engaging an LED they most often cannot say with any certainty what any specific action by the performer is doing sonically. A guitar player in a traditional band has luxury of the pete townsend windmill, feed back, throwing the guitar etc if he bends his strings too hard in the last solo his tuning goes slightly out etc etc. We as computer musicians do not have access to the best and most chaotic parts of a rock performance. Nor must we deal with strings going slighly out of tune if we bump the bassist or rock too hard.

    I believe traditional musicians who have incorporated laptops have done so to broaden their palette of sounds. A guitar, as varied and tempermental (in a good way) an instrument it is, is obviously limited by its sonic palette compared to a laptop.

    I believe we are headed towards a solution. Why cant a guitar be re-sampling every eighth note for the last 32 bars and at a touch of a button switch the purpose of its frets from notes to drum pads. with string bends time stretching each sample and whammy bars controlling loop rates. why cant microphones do a similar thing? I want every conceivable physical event of a stage performance to be able to connect to some event. I want a singer to send audio from his mic to a trigger on the drummer's kit in realtime.

    To slightly different angle I think the revolution of touch screens is in audience interactivity of performance. xy pads controlling effects should be sent from the bands rig to an audience member's phone. the band should be a network of expressions.

    I cant tell if I'm Lamenting, Dreaming, Ranting, rambling or all of the above.

    We need to de-youtube these instruments. If I need a webcam right above your rig to understand what the hell is going on, even as a CDM reader, then you really aren't performing- you are demonstrating.

  • J. Phoenix

    I'll agree we're in a transition period re: laptop performances…but I don't think we're going to see them all vanish from the stage anytime soon to be replaced with iPads or even amps with built-in computers.

    It took long enough to get people comfortable with the idea that a laptop can be an instrument…it will take about that long to get people comfortable with not seeing the computer now.

    One of the biggest problems with laptops & computers onstage is how to position them for easy access/viewing. The standard table solution blocks the audience and the artist from each other. DJ's are used to this, but not all laptop users are DJ's, obviously.

    I do think we're going to start seeing a movement among artists that moves the laptop/computer out of the way in favor of the controllers. With smaller and smaller monitors

    My solution was to create a platform that sits on the floor; the platform holds my midi footcontroller and an Uberstand, which holds the audio interface, midi interfaces, and then my laptop gets strapped down to the top of it.
    I also use an external monitor and a mini wireless qwerty keyboard I strap to a gauntlet on my arm.

    This keeps me away from the inevitable tables onstage, the hunching over a laptop, but best of all, it lets me get closer to the audience and focus on my guitar, rather than my computer. My next transition will be to build a small computer and omit the laptop entirely.

    A pic for the descriptively disinclined: http://c4.ac-images.myspacecdn.com/images02/125/l

    Amusingly, I've had more conversations about my wireless qwerty keyboard and 'why don't you use a Mac, they're made for music?' since I started using this set up a year ago.

  • @onyxashanti CLOUD DJING is the FUTURE
    "two tabs in firefox,”DJing” between youtube music vids" *LOL* i did this on ustream once.
    just need a nice strong wireless connection if you do it live at a party 😉

    actually i wanted to give my 2cents. recently i decided to do a NON-DJ (vinyl/Serato) set with my laptop, ableton live, DJ mixer, and a drum machine.

    i did an Ableton Live set of some of my original tunes. my laptop's single core intel P4 2.0mhz processor could not hang. so instead of playing the drum tracks back on Ableton Live i dragged out a Casio RZ-1.
    i ran the RZ-1 into a Djing mixer and the outputs of a firewire 610 into another channel of the DJ mixer. i used an Axiom 25 to tweak effects and play basslines. it was a basic set up as i was only triggering clips in Live.
    i wasn't Djing because i would introduce each track. I think most people have a similar setup maybe minus using a DJ mixer? i liked using the DJ mixer because i could "perform" DJ tricks like using the line switch to do transforms…and use the mixer's EQ's to do EQ kills. that's about it. i wasn't "DJing" though. and i definitely think that the girl in the iPad videos is NOT Djing either.
    so now i'm trying to figure out how to ditch the laptop…my only solution is to use my BOSS Dr. Sampler in addition to the RZ-1, sometype of mono bassline synth, and an effects rack. the problem? feeding all of that into a DJ mixer…where there is a will there is a way and that's the beauty of this.

  • I'm going to record my entire set onto a cassette recorder, press play, and then "visually connect" with the audience by staring at them for 60 minutes straight.

  • RayFlower

    Very interesting article, i think whats different now compared to 10-20 years ago when it comes to computer music is real time manipulation vs a semi automatic "jukebox", for me(as a guitar player) the orange seems interesting but it doesn't change how i interact with sound like touch screens has for me.
    Sure being able to use a daw with the touch of my fingers is nice but it doesn't change the workflow in the daw unless i interact with it in real time, where i most likely use a "proxy" app for that like itouch* midi apps for instance but thats essentially like plugging a midi keyboard into a laptop anyway.
    It would be interesting to see daws integrating these "new" controller concepts directly as i don't see any daw today as being touch friendly myself.

    Whoever first succeeds into making a good touch interface that makes your "computer/portable device" work as good as a "real" instrument will probably decide the future of computer music, hell if i could implant a chip that translated my thoughts into midi i'd do it anytime, the less i have to interact with anything the easier the creativity flows.

  • Skippy

    @teiked: you sir, are a genius.

  • Ian

    @HEXnibble – I agree on that point BUT a capacitive touch screen is next to useless when any water or excess moisture is introduced. In my mind any live performance, heck, most live performance venues are going to be hot, sweaty affairs. Combine that with the need for accurate tracking on a pad with capacitive tech and you have a serious issue.
    I appreciate that not all performance would see this issue but the vast majority I would be interested in would be severely hindered.
    I look forward to trying it out myself once the iPad UK launch rolls around. But for my uses, I don't accept that I have it backwards. Sideways maybe. 😉

  • Yes, my sense is that capacitive and resistive technology each have their own trade-offs. Resistive tends to more reliably sense input, at the expense of having to apply pressure. (Accidental triggering I think may be overstated here, as that can happen with either tech – and there are ways of setting up the control surface in ways that it's less of an issue.) Resistive works better with pen. Capacitive can be more enjoyable to use because you *don't* have to apply pressure, which can make it feel more sensitive and responsive. And the simple fact is, many of the resistive screens in the marketplace are of poorer quality, the fault of the maker, not the tech.

    That said, each of these technologies has improved greatly, which is what's making the predictions I'm making above less far-fetched. 😉

  • graincloud

    very interesting indeed, though everytime i see topics on visual connections between performing artists and the audience i remind myself Autechre live : no show, total blackout : music is the show. (harder to get girls backstage this way though)
    Music aims at ears and brain, vision is so limited and too easy, why would we have to care about it, a revolution for me would be to manage to have the audience not caring about the way your dressed or the funny faces you do while traumatising an instrument. Music is the message.
    What's coming out of the speakers the most important thing in a performance imho. Who never saw a boring perf by someone bloated with topnotch msp patches and or whatever obscur modular setups and now trendy tablets ?
    Maybe an exception would be a really worked on show/visual going together with music as a whole piece, but that's not just music anymore.

    Just looking at musicians at work is a bit boring , i'll personaly valorise the result over the means anytime. choose your tools and (mis)use them well whatever they are 🙂

  • leMel

    Widespread adoption of a better communication protocol will drive a lot of innovation I think.

    Also, the multitouch tablet does represent something genuinely new: a generic, nearly purely neutral yet infinitely variable surface. I think this should do a lot for prototyping – creating user experience "skethces" (as Bill Buxton might say) of instruments either real or virtual.

    Instruments? I think the best bets are really intelligent percussive controllers, like the wavedrum.

    As for performance, it's like public speaking – yes you can codify guidelines and rules and best practices, but in the end some people are just captivatingly good, and some aren't.

  • graincloud: I did see an Autechre show back in 2005 (part of their Untilted tour), and yes, they were practicing their concept of no-visuals-all-music. The music was good, sure, but the show itself was dull for the most part. The lights turned off, and contrary to Autechre's expectations for their high-minded concept (as expressed in interviews, they expected the lack of visuals would make people dance), everyone pretty much stopped dancing. People stood in the static darkness and cheered occasionally, but otherwise the energy on the floor was dead.

    There was no connection being made between Autechre and the audience. As far as Autechre was concerned, there was basically no acknowledgement that that the audience even existed, and they may as well have been playing to nobody.

    There's a great live bootleg of that tour ("Live in Montreal 2005" on PercussionLab.com) and I vastly prefer that recording to the actual show I've seen. In other words, that particular tour worked better on CD, and that's a problem cuz you have to ask "why is this even live in the first place?" — what's the point of playing music really loudly through some PAs in a large, dark room if there's no sense of "immersion" being created? How do you, as a performer, create "immersion" for your audience? If the music itself isn't loaded with cues to the audience to start dancing (which is merely one form of "immersion"), then you need to find some other way to connect your audience to the music, whether that's through visuals (lighting etc.) or something you're doing to engage the audience. If the audience isn't engaged or immersed in your show, then the show is a failure.

    I'm basically saying that shows need to be something more than music being played through PAs, much to the chagrin of studio-minded producer types (like myself actually) who wish it were as easy as exporting our studio work to a laptop. It's from this perspective that I don't find the gadget revolution particularly interesting, because I don't see many ways it'll make music performances more immersive. The networked interactivity seems neat (the audience affecting some aspect of the show via a web interface through their smartphones) but by and large the iPad will be used as a laptop alternative or a lazy Gear Supplanter. I don't see how that inherently expands or advances the art of music performance.

  • leMel

    Widespread adoption of a better communication protocol will drive a lot of innovation I think.

    Also, the multitouch tablet does represent something genuinely new: a generic, nearly purely neutral yet infinitely variable surface. The laptop *should* be neutral, but it comes with a set of contexts that are difficult to transcend. I think slate devices should also do a lot for rapid prototyping – creating user experience "skethces" (as Bill Buxton might say) of instruments either real or virtual.

    And instruments? I think the best bets are really intelligent percussive controllers, like the wavedrum.

    As for performance, it's like public speaking – yes you can codify guidelines and rules and best practices, but in the end some people are just captivatingly good, and some aren't. Authorship of a good book != a good public reader (not always, anyway). Certainly you can learn and get better, but you reach your natural limit and it may not be enough to spark people emotionally.

  • kobe

    Rana's hot. <3

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  • bliss

    Good post, Peter. Thanks!

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  • Greg

    I'm terribly amused by DJ Rana bragging "no computers" when she has 2 iPads.
    She's not using computers the way Richie Hawtin doesn't use computers.
    Otherwise, what Michel said above.

  • The future the future.. anyone clairvoyant enough to show us what is the right now?

  • graincloud

    @SEAN : the fact there is no consensus in the audience or the fact that the audience didn't get it, in my conception doesn't remove any qualities of an act or a musical performance.
    that's exactly when an artist bases too much of his work on secong guessing audience's expectations that it start to be boring or compromising his musical work imho.

    Imagine autechre doing those gimmicky upgoing snare rolls, reverse cymbals, rewinds or anyother gimmick of communication with audience…ok this works..but how cliché is that? In your sense Celine Dion is then doing far better ;p
    Popularity and consensus in art imho is not at all a proof of quality. Of course this can go with quality, but in a context of experimetation or avant garde stuff (like autechre or else) , it's normal that people with most of the time formated minds and huge "dancefloor" expectations and a wish to romantise music by personalisation and identification to the artist, don't get much into it that.

    that's mostly psychologic. of course autechre could have fancy dress codes, some cool technoid visuals and sponsorship by whatever brand that makes the latest hype tool…would that make their music and live perf better ?

    that's simply why i think, if we speak of innovation, there are some things that could maybe give more to music than a new toy : actualy maybe aware people of what are their unconcient mechanisms of expectations, love and deceptions. Having an honest connection with them, not only this fake and ephemere seduction game.

    Make connection with public only based on a way too look good on stage, have some gimmicky tricks ("raise you hands", "show your tits", etc)..is a bit weak imho.

    tools for better expressivity ARE awesome and useful and fwd going… but why necessarily think it so people have visuals ? Do like deadalus and have a monome turned front to the audience ? well hrr that looks like boring marketing to me 🙂

    maybe it's just techno culture vs rock culture or something 🙂
    we need also to re establish contact with audience on a kind of educated (as in freeminded) manner imho… look how the avant garde from mid last century is still not "reachable" for common people.why ?

    sorry guys i hope i'm not hijacking this thread too much, but i sincerely think it is connected in many ways.

  • @ sean, i saw autechre live at the dour festival in a bigass tent. it was also pitchblack. people were dancing sortof but even though i really love autechre i left (and so did most of the audience too) because quite frankly the performance was just boring. the music? not so much. but the performance could just as easily have been in your headphones in your living room as in that big tent on a big music festival. the only viaul confirmation that they were even there were a couple of blinking lights from some sortof of hardware/software (hybrid?) box and some shadow occasionally covering on of those lights. they had no connection to the audience and most of them simply just stood there, dance a little then left. sitting behind a laptop and checking emails would most certainly have been a better connection with the audience as the audience would actually see that you were there, at the least.

  • Ian

    @Sean I have to agree with you with regards to the Autechre live show. I caught them a couple of months back in Leeds UK when they came through.

    I left the show feeling a little disappointed – whilst I get the idea of blacking out the lights I personally felt it took away a little from the excitement of the show. The novelty of darkness wore off and my instinct as a digital musician took over and I wanted SEE what the guys were doing – I find that element of electronic music so fascinating. I think the dance floor also felt a little dead. Now don't get me wrong – I was in no way expecting club bangers and massive tunes – nor would I want any of the generic sounds other have spoke of, in-fact I think it's unfair to use that argument against @sean. I felt what I imagine he felt in that the visual aspect felt a little bit lost – the crowd seemed to have wandering eyes. I certainly did – I felt a little vacant by the end.

    The sound mind you was absolutely incredible, I was blown away by what was coming out of the speakers – I just would have liked to have seen even a modicum of just how it was coming out of those speakers.

  • re: autechre … i'm not sure this has much to do with the blackout. There is concert series here in Philadelphia called "The Gatherings" run by the guy who hosts "Stars End" on WXPN. The music hosted ranges from berlin-school space music to contemporary shoe-gaze at its most ambient. Over the last 10 years, I've stopped going to see some of the artists whose music I listen to the most – Steve Roach, in particular, and this weekend, Robert Rich – because even though their concert will feature a moderately pleasant light show, and an up-close and personal view of their synth/laptop/mixer rigs, i just lost the feeling that it worse seeing this kind of deeply electronic music live. This doesn't apply to all Gatherings concerts, but it extends even to some things that I'm suprised by. Seeing Stars of The Lid with a string quartet, for example, was cool but ultimately it just felt like the "real" experience was to be had back home with the CD.

    I think that for live music performance to be compelling it has to offer something over and above what any studio recording provides. I don't really know what that something is – there could be many things, in fact – but I do know that seeing people perform, even with the lights on, music that fundamentally cannot be played live (hence the many pre-recorded tracks) and was never really intended to be played live just doesn't work for me (anymore).

  • graincloud

    of course i didn't meant to offend anyone, sorry if i did 🙂

    @Ian : "The sound mind you was absolutely incredible, I was blown away by what was coming out of the speakers – I just would have liked to have seen even a modicum of just how it was coming out of those speakers."

    maybe because you are a musician ? but what to think about the fact you think it is awesome and intense but removing some creds due to blackout? i think that's the great question they ask to people by doing this.
    the performance is there : they are improvising radical and technicaly great music that even manage to be dancefloor.

    maybe you can grasp some infos or guess something when you see them torture a monomachine…but do you think the average audience that is not making music does ?

    personaly everytime i see there, 10mins before they start i take a beer in each hand, prepare a couple of cigarettes, go in the middle of the dancefloor before the blackout, then when i'm done with my beers close my eyes and dance like mad ;D i even think any musical listening is more powerful eyes closed, try this at home haha 😉

    and really i often close my eyes in concerts when i love the music.

    what a perf could offer over an album ? well : different versions of the tunes, improvisation , unreleased material, great soundsystem , a collective experience of the music (indepedently of any show) etc…

    so i'm guessing not everybody will applaude when some geek will invent a full connectivity between brain and your DAW, when we will make and peform music with our minds only. 😉

  • Ian

    @Paul Davis
    "I think that for live music performance to be compelling it has to offer something over and above what any studio recording provides."

    I agree with that entirely.

  • Jesper

    Oh god. That Rana video was painful to watch. It's a sad, sad world where something like that is newsworthy.

  • i gotta say…. i've never had anyone be mad at my computer….
    i once did a show with an MPC and old casios…. some old man and his son were heckling me the entire set up, cuz my stuff was "junk"…. ah well, in the end… got the old man up on stage and he sang a blues song, while i banged out a beat….
    everyone has their tastes…..
    the laptop isn't going anywhere soon, as the mass public has yet to accept it as acceptable performance medium…yet…
    they will…. oh, they will….
    but all in all….
    just get em out of your face…. move em to the side out of the way… and no one will hate…
    well maybe….:

  • blop

    most of the public dont give a fuck wether you use a mpc , live , a tape or whatever.

    1/ there must be something happening on the stage : visual vj shit , live instruments , dancing , cheering etc , …
    people aren't stupid , they know electronic music cannot be played 100% live , they just want to have a good time and here interesting music , but there's got to be some sort of performance.
    2/ only tech guys and musicians care about what tool you are using but again , if the perfomance is dull they wont want to check it so…
    first , just work out a way to perfom : pads , keyboard , invite a friend to sing or to play the guitar on a few songs … tweeking knobs can be a performance too
    3/ dont try to mix , people dont care about mixing , you can have silences between songs.
    Remember you need to give your audience something
    4/ last but not least , dont try to make long performances if you dont have enough content , short performances are best perfs ( 45 mins is good)/

  • aww no mention? 😛

    I've been doing this with a wearable and Linux circa 2007 with my project robotcowboy. All effects, samples, sequencing etc done in Pure Data in realtime on a 500 Mhz machine. I've been using it on the road for the last 3+ years now.

    I'm currently working to clean up my code/scripts so that anyone can install and try out my setup.

    Time for the return to the body, the return to the physicality of performance. Slates and apps are not the way to go if it means you still stand in front of a table looking down at a screen …

    @blop You are totally correct in all points!

  • @Gemini Club I agree with both points: computer gear has to be rugged for live use and the future could be mini computers built into all instruments.

    I think the problem is that people equate "computer music" with screens and applications (Ableton, etc). I would rather propose we move from the centralized computer to a network of smaller devices …

    I can see a future where you don't buy individual devices, but interfaces and controllers that have a slot for a micro computer which runs live dsp you can reprogram. Throw in some mesh networking and open standards (osc) and imagine the possibilities … These could be implemented now with Linux and Pure Data/Super Collider.

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  • thoughtful discourse, this blog rocks.

  • On that note, i am a firm believer in putting the laptop anywhere EXCEPT between you and your audience. Serato/Traktor DJs are notorious for this, putting the laptop directly above the mixer, creating a physical facade which is a disconnect with your audience. I understand the need to reference the screen because you don't have vinyl grooves to look at, but quite frankly many, hell even MOST Serato/Traktor DJs i know simply stare at the screen. Granted, some are simply visual beatmatchers with little vinyl experience and this is more of a vice than a lack of understanding for them. But to be conscious of this disassociation with your crowd is the first step.

    A crowd appreciates a performer who is enveloped in his task of entertainment, they can feel it when you can feel it but they can't feel it if they can't see you feeling it. So raise the curtain, so to speak. Unveil yourself physically to your crowd and the emotion you seek to convey will shine through far brighter than any laptop's logo.

    Even for Live PA's i prefer for my laptop which really is the center of the system (add a couple drum machines and a synth), off to my right side (i am right handed, and a sucker for key-commands), on a low unelevated surface so that i must tilt the screen back further to create as small a barrier between myself and audience as possible.

    And one last note, beware of DJs that do not dance.

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  • Blob

    @Gemini Club
    "I can see a future where you don’t buy individual devices, but interfaces and controllers that have a slot for a micro computer which runs live dsp you can reprogram. Throw in some mesh networking and open standards (osc) and imagine the possibilities … These could be implemented now with Linux and Pure Data/Super Collider."

    Yes! I also think that will be a valid option in the near future although proprietary systems of that kind will certainly surface (look at how fast the Monome principle was reproduced by music tech companies). Which doesn't particularly bother me, proprietary systems have their advantages (while open systems might be unstable, but also more flexible).

    @Adam Jay
    Positioning your equipment seems a bit of a side issue, but you raised an important point. I also place my laptop on the side, and my keyboard in front of me. It just creates a more natural performing flow plus, since I play with acoustic musicians and we improvise quite a lot, I have to keep eye contact.

  • Blob

    @Adam Jay

    whoops, small typo:

    – Positioning your equipment MIGHT SEEM a bit of a side issue, but you raised an important point. (…)

    (meaning: I DON'T think it's a side issue!) 😉

  • peter parker

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  • Peter

    Woah, I thought this was a story from this year, especially considering the tablet bit; I would love to test out some music software on a Surface Pro. I’m fortunate enough to afford a MacBook Pro, but I think it’s awesome that someone who can’t can still get stuff like Jasuto on a phone that’s probably faster than the computer I started making music on 13 years ago. Definitely agree with the optimism here, especially considering I thought this article was going to be about the retro/hardware trend in a lot of recent electronic acts. Recently saw Eli Keszler perform with a strange featureless metal box in addition to his drumkit – it turned out to contain some kind of Arduino device.

  • Peter

    Woah, I thought this was a story from this year, especially considering the tablet bit; I would love to test out some music software on a Surface Pro. I’m fortunate enough to afford a MacBook Pro, but I think it’s awesome that someone who can’t can still get stuff like Jasuto on a phone that’s probably faster than the computer I started making music on 13 years ago. Definitely agree with the optimism here, especially considering I thought this article was going to be about the retro/hardware trend in a lot of recent electronic acts. Recently saw Eli Keszler perform with a strange featureless metal box in addition to his drumkit – it turned out to contain some kind of Arduino device.