panther panther! live

research & development process OF A LIVE SETUP

acapulco ss Version 1.0

Improvements needed on Version 1.0

 

Since developing the performance installation Acapulco Space Station in 2013 (pictured above) I have worked to improve the way I perform electronic music in a live environment. Acapulco S.S. although highly successful in it’s scope of manipulating both audio and visuals through the interaction between Resolume and Ableton Live had some significant drawbacks which I will list below:

 

  • Transitions between each piece of music took too long. This disrupted the flow of the performance, with the transitions sometimes taking up to five minutes. This meant that audiences would stop dancing or view the work passively instead of responding to the music.

  • Each piece of music was divided into eight or sixteen bar sections. These sections were mapped out onto a Novation Launch Pad, a MIDI controller. To play a composition I would have to trigger each eight or sixteen bars of music chronologically to form the music. Whilst if I wanted to, I could alter the order in which the parts were played, after various performances it became evident that it was way too easy to fall into a set routine. This meant that the ability to trigger each section became futile. I might as well have just triggered a backing track. There was little performance in these actions to my liking, a factor that made me feel uncomfortable as a performer as I felt that my performances were simply waiting moments between one section and the next, with not much for me to do in between. Whilst some compositions required me to play guitar or keyboard parts, in general I was dissatisfied by these results. There was not enough element of risk.

  • I used two MIDI controller keyboards, the Launch Pad and a footswitch to trigger different scenes when my hands were busy playing an electric guitar. It felt like a very strange one-man band were my interaction with the machines could always be greater. I think this sense of distance between my body and the music created was in large part due to the role of the computer in the system. All the sounds, apart from the guitar, came from within the computer. The amount of pre-recorded tracks that I set up to trigger, were too numerous. The immediacy and liveness that I aspired to struggled to come across to the audience.

  • To control Resolume through Ableton Live I used two MacBook Pro laptops, sending MIDI information via a local network between one machine and the other. The delay in the MIDI signal through the network meant that, whilst I could trigger video clips on Resolume at the same time I triggered scenes in Ableton, I could not achieve the same kind of synchronicity between changes in sound effects in one program and visual effects in the other.

Version 2.0 on Tour

In 2015 I was invited to perform at various venues and festivals in Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Lima and Morelia as part of a tour to promote my album Acapulco Space Station, recently released on Argentinian-based label LeRonca Records. For this occasion I decided to carry out a massive overhaul of my live set by focusing primarily on the performance aspect of electronic music so that I could then organize effective visual counterparts to the show.

The main aims of this new set up would be:

  • Music compositions would be created from the ground up. By this I mean that I would no longer trigger whole scenes in AL but I would start with minimal elements such as a kick pattern, a percussive element or a melody. This would allow me to build up a whole sound world by introducing different elements in whichever order I wished, opening up possibilities for each performance to be unique but also for errors and happy mistakes: elements of risk that I consider essential in performance.

  • I would not play any “soft-synths”. Instead I would play hardware synths that would need to be programed live and whose sounds would need to be sculpted as part of the performance.

  • I did not want to watch a computer screen during my performance. Therefore the whole system would need to be setup in a way that allowed me to close the lid of my lap top so that I could focus on the knobs, slides, buttons and keys that would make up the performance. For a long time I have considered the screen to be detrimental to electronic music performances, acting as a barrier between the artist and the audience. In this way I was hoping to demystify the performance by enabling audiences to see exactly how the sound was being manipulated through specific hardware elements.

  • Everything had to fit in a small suitcase that I could take with me on buses, planes and taxis around the South American continent without having to put anything in the main luggage compartment of planes or buses.

Preparing album music to be performed live.

There are various tutorials online that show different ways around this in Ableton Live but the technique I developed is the following:

 

  1. Group all the tracks within a composition into eight categories. The number of categories is determined by the amount of sliders on my MIDI controller LaunchControlXL. Each category would correspond to Kick, Bass, Percussion, Tropical Percussion, Atmospheric Sounds, Melody 1, Melody 2 and Voice Samples.

  2. Export these eight tracks and split them up every four, 8 or sixteen bars, depending on the section’s needs. Consolidate each section so that they can be treated as loops.

  3. Drag all these sections into the Session View, thus populating all the channels and scenes with individual clips.

  4. At this point I was left with exactly the same result as in the original Acapulco SS performance, where launching scene after scene would have resulted in an exact replication of the album track.To avoid this I deleted all the clips that were repeated. This left me with the very essential components that make up the song, with only some repeating clips allowed to maintain rhythm continuity such as the kick, for example.

  5. Finally I colour coded each clip with a vague system that showed how instruments progressed in complexity and energy, going from a lighter colour to a darker one so that I’d know more or less what I would get when launching a clip.

Ableton Live tutorial w/ josh bess pt 1

Ableton live tutorial w/ josh bess pt 2

Choosing hardware

 

Since for these performances my laptop would be the main container and carrier for all my sounds, I invested in two MIDI controllers that would enable me to manipulate and trigger sound in the most tactile way possible without having to look at the screen. These are:

 

  1. Novation Launch Pad Pro. The update from the original Launch Pad I owned was very substantial. It is easier to change parameters and different pages for manipulating sound but the most important aspect for me was that it is colour coded. This meant that I could close the lid of my laptop and use my colour system to remember what clips created specific sounds. There were still countless clips to choose from and whilst I could not remember them all, I did learn to recognize colour and shape patterns on this machine. This has allowed me to experiment mid-performance with different sound structures but also to know what buttons to press if it is all going “wrong”.

  2. Novation Launch Control XL. I originally purchased this to control the parameters in Resolume. It is set up as an eight-channel mixer with assignable slider and three knobs per channel. This allowed me to assign specific effects to each channel that I could control, as well as setting different tempos, without having to look at the screen.

I read through a great deal of blogs, reviews and articles describing the best entry-level analogue synthesisers in the market. Thankfully the growing interest for hardware synths and technological developments in recent years has allowed for these machines to become available at much lower prices than a decade ago whilst maintaining a very decent sound quality. These machines are also marketed for the touring musician so they are all relatively compact and light to carry. The two models I chose for this setup were:

 

  1. Waldorf Rocket Synthesizer. I was originally looking for synths that also had arppegiators and this was one of them, but what convinced me on paper was it’s sound sculpting capabilities, it’s ease of use and the quality of it’s sound. Very quickly I understood why it is called the “Rocket”, at least for me. Whilst it can be controlled via MIDI to produce bass heavy sounds, the best use for me has been the way turning the cutoff filter from low to high produces the most outstanding swells that are invaluable in a live situation for creating build-ups. It’s like listening to a rocket taking off.

  2. Arturia MicroBrute. The MicroBute is usually commended for it’s sound quality and bass-heavy mono sounds yet I have been mainly using it for lead melodies that I can quickly sculpt whilst performing. It is possible to connect the mod wheel to control cutoff frequencies and other parameters, creating amazing textures whilst in the middle of a solo.

 

These synths were then connected to my Ableton Set through a MOTU Traveler MK3 soundcard. This soundcard enables me to perform with a quad or eight speaker surround sound system.

VERSION 1.0

VERSION 2.0 ON TOUR

Turnado Magic

To this setup I added the plugin Turnado by Sugar Bytes. This is a very powerful effects unit made specifically for performance situations. The best aspect of this is that the effect only goes on when a knob is turned on a MIDI controller, with the effect becoming more intense as the knob is turned clockwise. All the effects and parameters are customizable, providing a great deal of freedom in the way sound is sculpted. I mapped instances of this effect to each one of the channels I was using in Ableton Live and the parameters to the various knobs on my Launch Control XL.

 

No Sleep

To close the lid of my laptop without it going into sleep mode, I used the application “No Sleep”. Although the MacBook does get quite hot, it is very stable for 1 hour – long performances. This program enabled me to just focus on buttons, knobs, sliders and keys to create a performance rather than having to look at the screen all the time. I’m very happy with the result.

Adding Visuals

 

To control Resolume through Ableton I used the IAC Driver that comes with OSX. This program enables me to create a small network via which I can send MIDI signals between programs. I used a similar technique with Acapulco SS Version1.0 using two different computers, one for the sound and the other for the visuals. Resolume uses a lot of computing power and it is recommended that it is used within it’s own system. For my AV performances however this was not an option since I could not carry with me two laptops on top of all the other equipment. I therefore made the decision of simplifying the visuals so that a single laptop could handle the workload, as the worse case scenario would mean the computer crashing or stopping in the middle of a gig. Fortunately this never happened.

 

I mapped all the individual percussion clips to MIDI notes corresponding to a set of five video clips in Resolume. This meant that as I triggered new percussion clips, the images on the screen would change too giving a sense to the audience of an audio-visual relationship happening in real time. Each video clip had effects that changed the texture of the video in real time, giving the impression that the visuals were responding to the music, when in fact they were only linked by their tempo, creating editing cuts when a new percussion clip was triggered.

 

Afterwards I connected some of the Turnado effects with effects in Resolume, but the latency in signal processing was such that I was left very disappointed. However, the way the visuals had been originally set up was enough to maintain that audio-visual relationship that I wanted to achieve.

live setup at trimarchi festival, mar del plata

americas tour 2015 poster

Novation Launchpad pro

novation controlXL

waldorf rocket synthesizer

arturia microbrute

motu traveler mk3

midi map for triggering visuals

internal routing for IAC driver

Version 2.0 in action

Version 2.0 works!

 

This is the setup that I took with me on my first tour of the Americas. It worked out very well on the whole. It was a pleasure to be able to setup within ten minutes of arriving at a place, to be able to pack everything within a tiny suitcase, and most importantly, to be able to sculpt sound on the go. However, there were certain areas that I still wish to improve. For example, some of the songs didn’t flow as well as expected because the building blocks were too minimal, making it difficult to improvise new structures. Perhaps the issue here is that I’d listen to the album so many times that my expectations on how the music should sound influenced my performance and improvisational decisions. Nevertheless, this was the best setup I’d created so far. It enabled me to improvise and create a good rapport with the audience as I built up the music. The risk factor in triggering clips at the wrong time or for sections to not work well, added to the excitement of a live performance keeping me very busy throughout.

Developing Version 3.0

Currently I’m investigating how feasible it is to play the music I compose without the use of a laptop. I’m not entirely sure whether I, or the music, would benefit from this limitation but I’m trying to work out whether this would improve the performance atmosphere. I’ve added two new pieces of hardware to experiment with this idea:

 

  1. Novation Circuit: a drum machine that has two programmable synthesizers and a sixteen-step sequencer.

  2. Roland Ju-06: a remake of the Juno synth from the 1980s. It has very warm sounds, a step sequencer and can program presets.

 

Both synths are semi-analogue and keep the best of both worlds, warm sound with digital capabilities. I am struggling a little with the limitations on the kind of rhythms I can create and the variations I can add to these rhythms. To make it all work without a laptop, I’d need a powerful sampler so I can make the most of the sounds I have created for my compositions.

 

All the machines are controlled via MIDI and kept in synch using a Kenton Thru-5, which according to the manufacturer provides a strong MIDI signal without latency to up to five other machines. In reality I have noticed some latency in the signal, not an ideal start.

VERSION 3.0

live at trimarchi festival, mar del plata, argentina, sep2015

setup trial at my bristol studio