When it comes to live performance, this might be the year of living dangerously.

There’s not one answer to the question of how to play live, but as we consider the possibilities – and the risks of playing live – Mouse on Mars is one terrific case study. Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma are joined by drummer/vocalist Dodo Nkishi. Since part of their setup is playing live as in Ableton Live, Ableton shot a video mini-documentary of their performance rig earlier this year. It’s an intensive setup, but you might just glean some ideas for how you play live.

What these three artists do is to go from just playing a setup on a laptop to forming an electronic band. It’s not a traditional band: there are still electronic and production elements that are pre-recorded, so unlike an acoustic trio, not every sound is played. I’d describe it as an “augmented band.”

Augmented as it is, it remains a live performance, with the same potential for uncertainty as people play that you’d have with acoustic instruments. Whereas deadmau5 talked about reliability, Mouse on Mars champion just the opposite. This rig is “a dangerous setup,” says Andi, and “things can go wrong, but this is a good thing.”

The production work they’ve done in the studio is still there: while chopped into small pieces, the “backing” track content is available. But adding live performance elements, and the ability to reshape and manipulate tracks, means that you aren’t hearing what was produced in the studio. Instead, the trio playing live is “a cover band of our songs,” Andi says, keeping performances “as free as possible.” It’s “jazz” on some level, in Dodo’s description.

“A good live set begins when we forget about caring about anything,” adds Jan.

The elements:

  • Three laptops, each with identical, MIDI-synced sets (though viewed differently and with some understood division of labor)
  • Andi as “mixer” and sequencer
  • Jan as synth player (see also some hardware synth action in his rig)
  • Dodo as vocalist and percussionist, both playing live acoustic drums and routing those sounds for further computer processing, but also triggering sounds electronically
  • Some level of duplication between all three, since they all have access to the same set

Got questions about the specifics of how Jan, Dodo, and Andi play together? I’ll be talking to them, so I’m happy to pass those questions on.

And how do you play live – or does this inspire some new ideas to try out? We’d love to hear from you, ladies and gentlemen.

I’ll add this mini-editorial, too, perhaps to be covered in detail at some point: I’d like to know why developers don’t think about live performance. Not everything needs to look like Ableton’s Session View, because not everyone wants that onstage. But there’s been a real failure from other music software developers to even attempt to approach live performance in their designs head-on. Why aren’t more instruments and DAWs geared with specific facilities for use onstage and out of the studio? (Alternatively, care to disagree and explain to me why your software is set up that way? I’m all ears.)


We visited Mouse on Mars earlier this year, as they talked about other elements of their music – their approach to listening, and life in the studio.
Mouse on Mars: In the Studio, and Reflecting on Performance, Listening, and Melody
Mouse on Mars Release “Parastrophics” LP; Tech Talk Video in Studio, Listening