“xobrenniks era ew olleh.”

Skinnerbox, the duo of Olaf Hilgenfeld and Iftah Gabbai, are now so comfortable in their roles of playing live that they’re playing backwards to spice things up. (It seems there was some effort involved here – like, learning a song backwards in order that they had composed it the way they desired when reversed. I just find it oddly enchanting watching things defy gravity and roll across cymbals.)

Playing with other people can feel like a mind meld. There’s a special discipline to working things out alone, to be sure. But it’s when you play with someone else that it seems like you really learn – from technical details straight through to discovering new musical directions.

Now, it seems Olaf and Iftah mostly play with one another, but they were kind enough to bring me in as a third person for a recent live stream. And I have to say, that was itself something special – because sitting in with these two, you do really get a sense first-hand of how much musical exchange and inspiration is flowing naturally between them.

Some pre-shoot technical lessons: definitely double-check audio card settings to minimize latency (that’s ASIO on Windows here), do make use of Ableton Link. (Link is stunningly reliable so long as you’re on a dedicated wifi network. Here we even had it running atop the live stream.)

There were also some video tips. Open Broadcaster Software, available on all OSes, is the free and open source tool I’m hearing everyone use, from live streams (ranging from simple to very complex) to screencasting and other chores. There’s even a Max patch automating cross-fades, so there isn’t a separate video operator (just in case you aren’t Boiler Room).

The webcam – yes, that’s still a thing, and a very useful one at that – is the Logitech C920. That one is selling like crazy on Amazon, because it’s a fraction of the price of a GoPro or similar, and can easily be connected via USB. (All these clever mobile cameras assume you don’t want to do that – even though, thanks to streaming, you may want to do that more now than a few years ago. And you can plug in several USB cameras into the same computer, even; modern machines keep up.)

From a musical standpoint, I love that we were able to really improvise, yet still come up with something that sounded like a song. That included some pre-programmed patterns, of course, but there was plenty that just came in the moment, listening.

My rig these days is pretty simple: I love the Roland Boutique stuff (TB-03, TR-09) for its versatility and ultra-portability, and then the grimy sound of our own MeeBlip. The ROLI Seaboard RISE is unusually portable for a 25-key keyboard, but also adds the possibility of additional expression – especially nice with instruments like Chromaphone, even though I’m not using all the expressive control functionality. A lot of the rest is in the box – Reaktor Blocks synths, Ableton Live as host, iPad control via touchAble lets you control absolutely everything without mapping and saves an additional controller. A Razer Blade PC now gives me a hefty Core i7 processor (handy with Reaktor), huge hard drive, tons of I/O, and a desktop-class GPU for live visuals when I choose.

But of course Skinnerbox play out a lot more than I do. So I was curious what they’re using and how.

The basic rig here for compact setups – the sort of core, if you will is:

Olaf: Minimoog (yep, the old one), plus Ableton Live as effects processor.

Iftah: Two monomes and an Arduino-based, DIY controller for mucking about with samples and sequencing drums.

Eurorack modular is a small skiff for basslines. (That’s also sequenced via Max for Live patch, with monome control.)

Fans of Skinnerbox’s excellent Max for Live patches will be unsurprised that this is part of their rig. This particular one is a hacked-together affair just for them, not one of the publicly available patches.

And of course you’ll spot the Roland JX-3P adding additional melodies. It’s interesting to me how much Olaf sticks to the Minimoog, though, as a singular instrument, with Iftah doing more instrumentation. (Yet, somehow, that sounds 50/50 balanced when you actually play with them.)

I also appreciate as with any good improv that there’s a bunch of spots here where I’m really not sure who’s playing or where sounds are coming from, including my own.

Then again, it’s not hard to get through an hour like this. Where Iftah and Olaf exceed a lot of people playing live at the moment is their marathon sets. For instance, here’s a six hour set from Kater Blau. Now, sure, in theory, there’s nothing so different about six hours than one. But creative endurance I think requires some skill, some preparation, and having enough toys around for variety / mental stimulation.

The extended Skinnerbox toolset includes some other goodies:

The Elektron Analog Four is a cornerstone of their work these days. (They even point to its four track limit as a blessing, by keeping sets from getting overwhelmed.)

From Roland, there’s a Jupiter 6 and Juno.

They’re also using the Endorphin.es Shuttle System modular, which they’ve been presenting. That seems like a terrific, eminently musical, approachable modular.

Here’s that Shuttle, plus some goodies from Doepfer and others, and the aforementioned Elektron:

This video includes a bit more, plus a nice view of that custom controller/monome rig of Iftah’s:

To me, there’s really a lot to learn here. You might not be able to budget for the classic keyboards here, but now you’ve got Roland Boutique versions that are cheaper and more portable, entry-level Moogs and excellent Moog emulations in software (like the Native Instruments Monark), and many basic variations on these theme.

Actually, just going back over this inspires me to head back and practice more, and jam more with friends. It’s great fun.

Got questions for us about how to set up live sets? What would you most like to learn? Let us know in comments. (A survey on what educational material would be most useful is in the works, so … do be vocal now, to help us shape that!)