Live electro-pop: I thought I was done debugging!

I was a web software developer for 12 years, both front-end and back-end systems.  I do NOT miss debugging and troubleshooting.  But my new electro-pop project is bringing back haunting echoes of the debugging and troubleshooting I used to do way back then. 

I’m going to share some of what’s going on inside the band, since EDM (electronic dance music) and electronic music in general (electro-pop, electro-rock, etc) are commercially rising genres right now.  Perhaps you are using some electronic elements in your act or are curious about how to do so.  Hopefully you can learn something from my experiences.  I’m still wading through them, and certainly don’t have all the answers yet, but this may give you some things to think about if you are using – or considering using – electronic elements in your show.

 

Synchronization

We are a trio, but we sound way bigger.  Part of that is because we use loops triggered from Ableton Live.  Now, when playing a gig you don’t want to be hunched over a laptop using a mouse, trying to move a little cursor on-screen to make sounds start and stop.  So, you use an interface with easier controls.  We are currently using a Novation Launchpad.  (The Ableton APC40 interface is better, but has been unavailable for over six months.)  There are many such interfaces available.

Ableton can be set to trigger sounds on the “1” beat, even if you hit the trigger button early.  This is good because then you don’t have to worry about being so precise, and it frees you up to do other things like play keys or guitar, which Justin does in my band.  Ableton also stretches or compresses loops to ensure they are in time with the tempo.  This is called warping.

Ableton’s tempo awareness means that if you have live drums, there needs to be some kind of coordination between the drummer and Ableton.  As far as I understand, there are two options:  either your drummer plays to a click generated by Ableton, or your drummer sends tempo data to Ableton.  Basically, one has to be the master and one has to be the slave so that they’re in sync.

We chose the latter – the live drummer in control – because we want to be able to slightly push and pull the tempo for emotion, rather than be fixed to a 100% mechanical tempo.  We have a product that analyzes the tempo from his playing, and sends that information via MIDI to Ableton.  He uses an electronic kit in this project, but if you have acoustic drums there are also products where you can attach sensors to the drums to do the same thing.

Here are some of the issues we’ve run into:

Sometimes loops don’t get triggered at the beginning of the song because Ableton is not in a “ready” state.  We had to hook up a “start/stop” MIDI event that the drummer can send in order to set Ableton to a “ready” state.  We also have to work out a system of communication between Tad the drummer and Justin the Ableton DJ, so that Tad knows when a “start” or “stop” command is necessary.

We can’t use drumstick clicks as our countoff, because those send no MIDI events and thus no tempo information to Ableton.  We have to use hi-hat hits to count off the song so that Ableton receives tempo data.

Once in a while, in the middle of a song, Ableton starts triggering loops one beat OFF of the 1.  Very, very bad.  We suspect either possible RAM or CPU limitations on an old laptop, or issues with how the loops were exported from Logic, because Ableton should never, EVER lose a beat.  We’re still working on this one.

Sometimes, loops exported from Logic play at the wrong tempo in Ableton, or play with way too much warping, making them sound bad.  We suspect issues with tempo information embedded in the loops.  Still debugging this one too.

 

Musicality

Although using loops enables us to bring in a lot more sounds than three people could generate live, we have to make sure that what we play is still musical – and feels live.  We aren’t DJs and don’t plan to be.  We don’t want to just press play and then play along to a recorded song!  So, using Ableton has affected our musicality in a few ways:

Justin has to think ahead and trigger sounds slightly before it is time to actually play them.  This is a switch from feeling where a song is going, to thinking about where a song is going to go.  And unlike playing guitar or keys, if he fails to trigger a sound, there’s no catching up a second or two later.  This has meant that Tad on drums and I on bass need to be very clear about when we are changing sections, so that Justin can know well enough in advance to stop or start loops.

Some of my vocal harmonies are triggered.  This means that the harmonies are in control, not me.  I have to make sure to sing when I’m supposed to sing, or else it’s just plain weird.  Live backup singers could be more responsive to variations in my performance.  Yes, I could consider using something like the TC-Helicon VoiceLive for my harmonies, but not all my harmonies have parallel movement or use the same lyrics as the lead voice, so that wouldn’t work.

We have to give consideration to which sounds are played live and which are triggered.  We are doing a live show, after all.  So we use loops mainly just for padding and ambient sounds, not for out-front riffs, and certainly not for solos.  But this isn’t something you even have to think about when everything is played live.

Once we get everything working well, it should continue to work well (fingers crossed).  If you want to see it in action, we’re playing at Herman’s Hideaway in Denver, CO on Thursday, July 19, 7:30-8:15pm along with the Brent Joyce Band and Straight Nerdy Like a Cool Kid.