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At the 1985 Grammies, Thomas Dolby played alongside Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, and Howard Jones. It was the golden age of synths and keyboard-driven pop. (Yeah, I know, some of us kinda miss those days.) But Thomas Dolby is significant, as well, as one of the pioneers of the computer-driven one-man band. Almost a decade into the age of soft synths, at a time when Logic Pro’s most punishing physical-modeling synths and convolution reverbs run just fine on a $1000 laptop and Ableton Live is becoming commonplace, musicians still struggle with some of the technical details of how to actually make the one-man band work onstage.

Here’s the comforting news: it’s not easy for Thomas Dolby, either. Normally when you write a print interview, invariably there’s a point where you get way off talking about technicalities and they don’t all fit. But because this is online, I’ve decided to reprint most of what Thomas had to say about making the tech work in its original form. These are just the technical details — gear stuff rather than art — but the important thing is that they have to support his performance. Part of why he’s able to bring such great presence to the stage is the gear in back is largely working — and he’s the one in control, rather than backstage techs. Here are all the gritty details:

On Choosing Apple Logic

One technique Dolby uses is to build up loops live in performance, by recording them directly into his sequencer and then triggering them later in the song.

I work in [Apple] Logic, and I actually find I can record layers into a loop and … have a strip that basically aliases them for the appropriate part in the song. If I put it in the main section, the B section … as soon as those bars are filled up, it will alias them everywhere else I need them in the song. So I have the structure pre-determined, but I have a two- or four bar-cycle that I’m feeding stuff into live. It’s in there, it’s in a spawned form in the rest of the song.

I asked, given the emphasis on loop recording and lots of live elements and interactive arrangements, why he chose Logic over a perhaps more obvious choice like Ableton Live.

I probably would have been more successful to have started that in Ableton Live. But it took me actually a couple of months to pick a new sequencer to begin with, because I was a Studio Vision user. [Studio Vision Pro is the audio workstation/sequencer formerly made for the Mac by Opcode, before its demise in the late 1990s. -Ed.] And of course that was no longer an option, and so I looked at Live, and Logic, and various other sequencers when I needed a new axe, and even some relatively unknown ones like Tracktion and so on. I really wanted to like something other than Logic, but it just ended up being the only choice recently.

And I think now that it’s owned by Apple, it’s very hard to bet against the incumbent. You just sort of assume they’ll be a lot closer to the iron as it were, and then they have been working with Apogee on the Ensemble. You know, all audio interfaces are not created equal. There’s quite a lot of difference in what the converters are and how tightly the drivers integrate… So what with all of that, I decided to make Logic my axe, and unlike some other people, I’m quite monogamous with sequencer. I find it hard to switch between Logic and Ableton, although BT is running both onstage and does a lot of his looping and stuff in Ableton. But I mean that sort of loop-based approach — building blocks — never really appealed to me because that’s not how I visualize most of my songs. I see them in a more linear kind of framework, so I can’t really see Live as a recording device. But given that it was built relatively recently from the ground up, it probably would have been better-suited to the real-time stuff that I’m doing.

For one number, Dolby constructs an entire song on-the-spot, with webcams tracking each step. At first he was concerned the effect would be overly obvious, but audiences actually connected. You can see the heart of his rig here: CME UF7 keyboard, M-Audio Trigger Finger drum pad controller, touchscreen display, and Novation ReMOTE SL 25. (A Mac tower sits in the background.) Photos by Aaron Weinsten, via Flickr.

Live Performance, with Logic and Max/MSP, And Fixing Problems

Logic’s got some things that are very annoying about it, given what I’m doing. One, for example, is that a soft synth in Logic — if it hasn’t been input to for a while — goes to sleep. That means the first time you hit a note, there’s a pause of maybe 20 milliseconds, and then a bit of a glitch and it comes in. And that’s on top of the latency that exists anyway. So it’s very bad for my playing.

I work with a [Cycling ’74] Max/MSP programmer named Peter Nyboer. We designed and built a Max app called ZoneOut that basically enables me to map all of my keyboards and input devices to different zones, going into Logic. You could do that in Logic Environment, but there isn’t a graphic interface for just drawing a keyboard and so on. I have a visual representation of all my keyboards and pads [in ZoneOut]. I just draw in the zones that I want and assign the MIDI channel. I can filter velocities; I can turn pitch bend on and off on a per zone basis. And then I save that as a patch, which is opened from the sequence.

Just a few days ago, I got the new version from Pete with a thing called “ping” in it. “Ping” basically sends a false controller message to Logic all the time to keep those soft synths awake. It’s fantastic, actually, it makes a huge amount of difference, but my muscle memory is now set on how to anticipate [the latency], so I still tend to do it. So now I’m coming in early with a lot of the stuff, which is very weird. So I just sort of lunge into it and play a bit early and hope that it’ll go out. I have to re-teach myself to play in time again.

Awaiting an Intel Mac Brain Transplant

And the other thing is the latency itself. It’s just for a lot of my parts it’s no big deal — the string pads or brassy parts, you kind of make a mental adjustment to play them. But on the more funky parts, pianos and things, it’s very distracting. I have a MacBook Pro, which I can run at a buffer rate of 64 instead of 256 which is what I have to run on my G5. But the problem is, not all the stuff I need is available yet on Intel. There are a few plug-ins and things, you know, some little company, two guys in Sweden or something, and they haven’t gotten around to porting it yet. So I’m stuck with a G5.

When I am able to get onto the laptop, it’ll be a big breakthrough. One of the things about this tour is that if I want to change something to night, I’ve got to wait until we set up, we’re sound checking, the bar staff are coming in, the DJ is warming up and everything. And now I’m expected to make edits and hit save, and the next time I open the thing is going to be in performance. Logic does something very annoying, where it borrows memory resources — if you have multiple songs open, and it runs out of memory, it steals something from a song that’s in the background. So if I’m working with one of the songs, and then I save them all, and quit, then I may have actually stolen the drums from the oldest song I had open, and there’s now no drums in there. I’ve saved it and I open it in the middle of a performance and there’s no drums. So this tour has been like a process of two steps forward and two steps back. I’m looking forward to being able to do it on my laptop, when I can just sit on the tour bus or in a hotel room and be working calmly, and when I’m done with it I just take it down and plug it in, and there’s my show.

Working with a Live Visualist

To have a VJ up there of Johnny [DeKam]’s stature, mixing live feeds with footage of his own, is definitely exciting. Of course, I’ve never seen the full experience myself, you know. [The visuals are projected behind Thomas. -Ed.] But he does a really good job, and he’s very spontaneous. He’s got a lot of different tricks and toys that he tries out on a nightly basis. Other video guys and VJs who’ve come have sort of been in awe of him because he writes his own software that everybody else would like to get there hands on.

More Coverage of Dolby/DeKam Tour Rig

More gory details:
Tech Talk, at Thomas Dolby’s blog (which, thank you very much, is actually written by him, unlike some of the nonsense PR stunts we’ve seen lately!)
Tom Brislin’s Interview/Feature for Keyboard Magazine (interestingly, the setup sounds as though it had been considerably improved by the time I saw it six months later)
Vintage Knob Madness: Thomas Dolby’s Custom-Built MIDI Controller [Create Digital Music]
Thomas Dolby’s Blog, Road Rig, Build Your Rig Cheap

And on the visuals side:
Visualist Johnny DeKam’s Website
Johnny DeKam’s Live Visuals Rig on Thomas Dolby Tour [Create Digital Motion]
Johnny DeKam Profile [M-Audio]

More Dolby

Thomas Dolby, on Music Making Past and Future: The CDM Interview