Cosmo D, in for a demonstration of cello with Ableton.

The computer as bandmate is nothing new. It’s just more stable, more powerful, and friendlier than it has been ever before — and that, coupled with growing familiarity, has been making it more commonplace with artists. So just how are artists working with computers onstage when they also play instruments and sing?

Recent guests at New York’s Ableton Live user group have been demonstrating their own techniques for playing Live, live. They work with loops, recording, sampling, live effects, synths – all the things you’d expect – but find ways of navigating all that functionality while still playing their instrument. I was just editing interviews in which electronic artists made the opposite argument, that they preferred producing only electronic sounds with technology. But whatever your desire, you can find a playing technique to accommodate it.

It’s just one set of snapshots from one city — consider it the tip of a very large, very global, very diverse wave of artists getting more comfy with live laptop performance. Here’s how Cosmo D, on cello as part of the band Archie Pelago, and Erin Barra, singing and playing keys, work with software live.

Cosmo D

New York-based artist Cosmo D is doing some wonderful cello and laptop music. Even that’s something that’s becoming more frequent – a good thing, I think, as it means a range of artists will explore ways of working with instrument and machine.

In a video for our friends at the bangbang blog, he demonstrates a simplified version of his set.

And here’s Cosmo D with his band Archie Pelago, jamming away…

If you’re in the New York City area, this ensemble is playing live at the Ableton User Group at Tekserve on Thursday.

Archie Pelago on Facebook

Erin Barra

On the singer side of the spectrum, Erin Barra was also a guest this year at the New York Ableton UG. She’s working on a Live setup that’s a hub of vocal performance and keys, using the computer to host chains of effects.

A Berklee graduate with the chops to match, Erin is a recent convert to Ableton use; her publicist tells us she just dove into the manual last summer and is working on a training certification. The musical idiom is a bit different than the kind of artists’ work regularly featured on this site, but that’s further evidence that the tools aren’t genre-specific.

She walks through her live rig for the performance above in a separate video:

Also, in July she did the first of a writeup for a local New York production and recording outlet, Sonic Scoop, in which she talks more about production. The video is geared at novice and intermediate artists, so it walks through things gradually, step-by-step, and also reveals a bit of her approach to working with Live for vocal processing:

“Insert Scene” by Erin Barra: Creating a Vocal Chain in Ableton Live

It’s great to see artists being brave and patient enough to do this kind of walkthrough. (I say that because I personally find doing screencasts to be a huge pain, though I do promise more in the future on CDM anyway!)

One small nit-pick: I think the Shure SM57 is very, very popular as a vocal mic!

Erin calls herself a “one-woman army,” and deservedly so — playing keys, singing, and operating a computer requires some serious multitasking chops, and she handles her APC with aplomb.

Erin has an album out called Illusions, and a tour of the US on. (Warning: autoplays music.)

Your Neck of the Woods?

That’s just one city’s recent Ableton user group appearances, and a fraction of the kinds of artists who have appeared in New York alone. Got artists working with laptops — using any software, not just Live — talking in your community about what they’re doing? Want to share your rig? Get in touch.

  • well i'd like to watch these videos. i remember buying a little cello sample library from cosmo d years ago. some of the samples even had the subtle sound of traffic outside his apartment. it was a very genuine production compared to most of the glossy stuff out there. 

  • Random Chance

    I'd like to know just how he configures the FCB-1010 and Live to do the job because time and again I think that's a pretty neat way to create music (or musical ideas), but the alleged pain of setting up the footpedal and the rest has kept me off.

  • Fosforo uses Ableton Live to trigger drum sounds primarily. Check the video
    Drummer started out with Tama drum set, with ddrum triggers, that sent signals to a E-MU sampler and then a K2000 rack. We used a Roland Trigger to Midi Convertor. Evolved to using a Roland SPD-S. A Korg Kaoss was then used as effects unit for the drum sound outputs. Sometimes a MIDI controller is used to manipThe video was recorded that way.

    My rig is basic: Waldorf rack synth into an Ibanez analog delay triggered by a midi controller. I tried using a laptop and soft synths but my laptop couldn't take the rigors of playing 2 to 3 times a month.

    Lead singer/guitar player used to play a k2000 synth/sampler and then switch entirely to Ableton Live/Softsynths as well as Logic as a VST host.

    No sequences were ever used during the 8 year history however we have been known to do live loop chopping and trigger or loops the way DJ's would tripper loops.

    The RME Fireface has been a key component doing double duty as a audio, recording, and midi interface for the band.

    I do hope to getting around to making like a How To: type video with my new Canon T2i. That's what we used to shoot the video.



  • ben

    @RandomChance, The FCB1010 is a total pain. Programming the FCB1010 from the pedals is a real pain and can be confusing as each pedal press can do up to 5 different things at once. 

    The easy way to set it up is to use a computer based editor, there is a  free PC and pay Mac one available. Then setup some versatile mapping configuration on the pedal and just use Ableton Live's midi learn from there on out. 

  • I'm using an APC40, Launchpad, Macbook Pro, SoftStep, and an OP-1 and loving it! It's constantly evolving and changing into something better. Here's a video that gives you a good look at it in action…&nbsp ;

  • woot! Music Ecology!

  • For the FCB pedal, I use iFCB for Mac by Wabbit Wanch Designs.  Makes setting it up a breeze.  check the site here.

  • sjc

    Longtime Cosmo D fan. Serious player, composer and all around funkster. See if you can find some of his earlier stuff: "On The Ocean Train", "Plus Three" and more. : >

  • just curious… but what does everyone like to call this practice? Its hard to stick to a name to tell people (mainly people outside the music world) what i do. there's live electronics, controllerism, live looping.. but it seems like none capture what's actually going on in a single word, and i'd like to differentiate it from DJing.. i think we need a new household name

    on a side note cosmo d = amazing

  • Miguel Marcos

    Ditto on the above request on how to integrate the footpedal with Live, etc.

  • Miguel Marcos

    No sooner do I post than I find this, with lots of relevant knowledge and links:

  • For Foot pedal, I use the Soft Step by Keith McMillen Instruments.  It is amazing, it senses on/off, pressure, left to right and up to down movements….  I use it to turn on/off effects, increase dry/wet, sustain pedal, as a wah wah type thing using auto filter, initiate recording, and one of the most handy uses is to copy a midi clip, paste it one slot lower, and begin recording (awesome for variations).  Really handy piece of gear, and super portable!

  • Blob

    1) The Cosmo D video was cool.

    2) Good thing that everyone has posted some links regarding the FCB, but from what I've gathered, configuring it for Ableton Live is apparently very annoying and non-user friendly, even with the extra software tools (correct me if I'm wrong).

    Anyone else has other MIDI foot controller suggestions for Live? As in a Novation Automap-like solution? (asking for too much, I know…)

  • mduncs

    I use my fcb1010 with ableton, to control a polyrhythmic looper setup. I use four looper plugins that are fed by a master guitar input so i can run loops and overdubs in 3, 4, 5, 7/4 simultaneously. for it to work correctly i had to use ifcb for mac to set the buttons to send notes instead of midi cc. I believe this is key to getting the board to work

  • Random Chance

    Thanks everyone for the answers. It's not entirely clear to me how to integrate with Live specifically (after some years my brain still has not rewired to the way of working in Live), but I see that people use editor software for the FCB (or don't use the FCB at all). I've had a look at iFCB and was a little shocked. Here's a piece of software that is not polished, does probably not feel like a proper Mac application and they even charge a non-trivial amount of money for it. I don't criticise the people behind it, but rather the apparent mentality of most Mac users that will put up with it. But, I should not do much criticising in that direction either, because I myself use Macs because most of the time they just work (unless you're running Lion which is a PITA, but that's another story). Grumble, grumble, grumble … 😛

  • ben

    Blob and Random, 
    Yes the FCB is complex to program but much of that comes from it having WAY more options then most people want. Each pedal can set 5 program changes at once, a note message, and CCs all at once. All while being able to remap the expression pedals to different CCs.  Most people don't need anywhere near this control but i'm sure for some it's awesome. 

    The editors make it easier to setup a much more basic mapping setup and then I think most people never reprogram the controller. I personally haven't reedited my FCB patch in about 5 years. 

    There are a number of awesome foot controllers out there. The FCB is definitely not the BEST, but it's about a third of the price of it's closest competitor. So for many people an FCB + editor + one confused afternoon is worth more then the ~$200 more that another pedal costs.

    Personally I think the SoftStep looks pretty damn bad ass.  

  • vjwunderkind

    I have watched all of this with great interest but I haven't found any inspiration how to solve let alone a solution solution to my problem:

    I'm a singer songwriter and I play the guitar. For various reasons I have been unable to find any bandmembers but I have used Ableton in other, electronic projects before.
    What I am contemplating is an approach that uses Ableton to replace a band BUT – and here comes the difficult part – without being too much of a playback machine. In other words: aren't people confused when hearing instruments that aren't on stage in situation that is NOT pure electronic music?
    Live-looping aside – what are your ideas?