We have the technology. We have the capability to play live sets on mainstages. And for a brilliant example of that, look no further than the frenetic, exquisitely hyperactive acid performances of Skinnerbox. Their set at Fusion Festival from this weekend demonstrates that you can command massive mobs of dance lovers outdoors with live sets, too. And maybe you thought such things were confined to chin-scratching handfuls of nerds.

Skinnerbox is the Berlin-based duo of Iftah Gabbai and Olaf Hilgenfeld, who join together to make sample-laden live performances mixing acid techno spiced up with grooves. Last week, they dazzled the outdoor throngs at Fusion’s legendary Turmbühne, the Mad Max-styled open air megaplex.

Fusion Festival’s organizers actually explicitly discourage documentation. The event, a kind of extended afterhours open air sprawling over a Soviet airfield, is best remembered like a dream anyway. But I think it is important to share the musical artists from that event. They span seemingly endless stages, from enormous openair arenas with set pieces and special effects to intimate tents and club-like indoor spaces.

And it’s important in particular to appreciate what happens when live sets do hit the bigger stages, which even at Fusion are awash with mostly CDJ sets. Live performance of dance tracks continues to be a comparative minority. And on big stages, the throngs may not know that what is producing what they’re hearing (being occupied instead with dancing and partying, natch). So spreading that information separately is a reasonable solution.

Indeed, the possibilities of live music are so poorly unknown that Skinnerbox have sprawled a notice on their SoundCloud banner explaining there are no track IDs, because they’re not playing tracks. (I actually hear this confusion a lot with live tracks.)

Here’s what the whole set sounds like:

I talked to Iftah a bit about playing. The rig:

Olaf on Minimoog model D
Ableton Live with effects for the Minimoog
Iftah on his homemade setup – Arduino-based controlled, two monomes, custom Max for Live patches for sequencing and sample slicing (quite a lot of live sample manipulation going on).

Iftah notes the inspiration of Brian Crabtree’s monome patches, namely mlr and mythologic.

Skinnerbox aren’t just championing live performance in their shows; they’re also sharing tools for such. Their 2009 sbx 2049 drum machine was one of the first collaborations between Ableton and artists. In 2014 they released the Time & Timbre drum machine, which i think remains one of the best examples of how a computer drum machine can aid live performance and generate ideas. Even with so many Max for Live creations out there, this is one you should definitely try.

Speaking of Time & Timbre, they recently showed how it can be combined with analog modular via the CV LFO now included in 2.0 (have to cover all of this in more detail later):

For more background on their live sets, here’s a session recorded at the pool, with monome meeting Minimoog:

the bali sessions from skinnerbox promo videos on Vimeo.

And from 2015, Skinnerbox (they’ve been Fusion regulars):

skinnerbox live fusion festival 2015 from skinnerbox promo videos on Vimeo.

And last summer’s Plötzlich am Meer:

They’re even crazy enough to play live … for twelve hours.

And yes, I love the monologue in the 2016 Fusion Festival set, which seemed to have a welcome message for attendees (cue to about 45:00): “Happiness the brand is not happiness … Smile at a stranger and mean it; lose your s***”

Finally, if you want to vicariously live Fusion more (or relive it), the fine folks of German-language blog Berlin ist Techno have put together a playlist with all the sets they’ve found uploaded so far:

Now… back to plotting my next live set. And… sleeping after Fusion.

  • wndfrm

    i am a bit confused, is there actually a bias against live sets out there?? i have not encountered this in any of my partying experiences, from old-school days (since 96) to current local shows, and large, modern urban festivals like MUTEK, etc..

    are you personally experiencing people saying they don’t want to hear someone get up there with gear and do their thing? bizarre!!

    • Actually… yes, I would say that; I’ve regularly heard people b***ing about live sets.

      But let’s put it another way: I think a lot of musicgoers and even many DJs are still relatively ignorant about what makes up a live set. That’s not to say it’s news, but … it would be that it’s worth highlighting.

      Now, of course, almost no one who reads CDM should be, so … I promise not to get so carried away on this angle. I think the question there is what’s visible to the audience, which is a topic for another day.

      Anyway, the point here is really what Skinnerbox are doing to make their live set happen, which to me remains interesting.

      And a lot of the live sets out there are still effectively DJ sets using original music, which to me is a different animal. There’s not much improvisation going on in a whole swath of sets billed as “live” (meaning they’re what’s sometimes called ‘live PA’)

      I do appreciate the feedback, though, as I’ve been grappling with how to write something meaningful on the topic at large…

  • Fatbob

    I’m with wndfrm – don’t get why live sets is a ‘story’ at all – in fact this article kinda contradicts itself in places – festival goers/clubbers are out to ‘lose their shit’ natch. So what, if it’s a live set or CDJ…?
    Not seeing the point except that Skinnerbox are awesome and so this might just be a puff piece.

    • wndfrm

      meh, i wasn’t implying anything negative on peter’s part, just honestly curious.

    • “Things that are awesome” still count as reasons for story… 🙂

      No, I don’t want to overplay the live set thing. But I will say, live sets remain a minority of programming… of course, they’re also more work.

    • And yeah, I’m happy to be challenged on this … as I said, thinking of how to write about this more effectively, looking at the broader topic.

  • Great stuff! Saw that Fusion video yesterday and couldn’t help smiling, totally wished I was there. Same goes for that video that’s knocking about when they’re playing in a field in what looks (and maybe even sounds a bit!) like something from the sixties. Can’t wait to see them live one day and shake my ass 🙂

    Btw, they’ve wrote some really good stuff on playing live which is worth a look http://www.imusiciandigital.com/en/blog/how-to-perform-your-electronic-music-live-an-introduction-by-skinnerbox/

  • GOOD STUFF!