The Live PA Interview

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A few weeks back I was interviewed by Ali Berger, a student at Tufts University in Boston.  He was working on a paper for a class called “Sketch Studies Today”, and wanted to pick my brain about different aspects of how I do my live sets, specifically my “Wired Roots” live set that I posted on YouTube.  You can find more details on that set HERE.

Over the course of a couple weeks we traded emails back and forth, and I thought the dicussion was something others might like to read as well.  Some of the most interest on my blog has been when I discuss different aspects of Live PA’s, so I figured there would be some interest in this too.  As usual, if anyone else has any questions on this topic, please add them in the comments and I’ll be happy to answer those.

INTERVIEW

Ali:  First, when you wrote Wired Roots, did you make a conscious effort to keep the sounds or musical features consistent across the set? From the blog, it definitely sounds like you think of it as a single piece of music. How much do you define a theme (in terms of inspiration, not necessarily a musical theme) and other constraints/parameters before you start writing the set?

Tarekith: I definitely had a very clear goal and sound I wanted to achieve across the whole set with something like Wired Roots.  The actual sound was largely determined by the gear I was using, in this case the two Elektron boxes.  But in terms of the overall feel of things, and how it all flowed together, I knew right from the start that I wanted it to be a sort mellow, downtempo set, with just enough energy to keep people from getting bored.

For my hardware live sets, I often have a plan of attack before I start writing anything.  The point of live sets like this is to progress in a logical way, so I spend a lot of effort sort of pre-planning where in the set I want the peak song to be, where I want things to be more chill and laid back, how I want to start and end, etc.  As I write the individual songs, it’s not uncommon for me to move them around a lot in the set so I can maintain this sort of flow.

For instance, say a song was originally in a position in the set where I was planning on having a bit of a breather, and things were more minimal.  Then while writing that song, I get a great idea and now the song is more upbeat than I intended.  I’ll move things around so that the overall flow of the set as a whole reflects the intent I originally had.

Ali: Is your choice of hardware at all related to the theme/central idea of the set, or do you choose particular gear combinations for other reasons?

Tarekith: Well, these days I’m pretty much a minimalist when it comes to gear, so often it’s just whatever gear I happen to have at the time.  Sometimes I’ll buy gear just to see how it works for a live set, in fact the Monomachine was one of these kinds of purchases.  Sadly, as much as I liked it, Wired Roots showed me that it just wasn’t as flexible as the machinedrum for performance based music, so I sold it to fund other gear.

Other times the sound of the set itself will be based completely on the gear I want to use.  Again, with the Elektron stuff, I know they are pattern based boxes that really shine doing loopy electro techy sounds, so rather than fight that I’ll write the set so that the gear in mind.  I’ll embrace the repetitive nature of them when I write the songs.

Ali: How much do you plan the structure of the set, and how much do you improvise? Does this change a lot as you practice the set? What drives the choices you make during the performance? (That might be a tough/broad question.)

Tarekith: I think the overall structure of the set is definitely planned well in advance, and for the most part I stick with that.  If I feel the songs I’m writing for it are really strong but pulling the set in another direction though, I’m not against altering my orginal goals either.  You have to be flexible when it comes to writing music, trying to force crativity to be something its not just leads to frustration in my experience.

In terms of practice, a lot of times the live sets I record and post online are the first complete run through of the set.  It’s one thing to play the same set over and over when you have a crowd to interact with and make it exciting, but doing that at home just gets boring. You start losing the urge to be spontaneous, and fall back on things you know work.

So a lot of the set is improvised, as it’s when you take risks that you run into the best “happy accidents”.  Besides, if you make a mistake in a live set, it’s not a big deal most of the time.  It’s over done with before most people notice, and as long as you don’t do it too often, no one cares.  It helps remind people that you’re really doing something live, and not just pantomiming a preplanned set (*cough* Glitch Mob *cough*).

Does improvise drive the progression of the set?  Definitely.  In Wired Roots you have to remember that each “song” is really only a 4 bar loop, and I’m controlling the song structure and how the sounds evolve live on the fly.  If I hit on something that’s really grooving, I’ll let that play longer, and when I can tell that something just isn’t working, I move on to something else more quickly than I might have.

Ali: When do you consider the set finished? When you finish all the patterns, when you make a final recording?

Tarekith: Whew, tough question.  I think I’ve learned over the years that I tend to always plan out sets to be more complicated than they end up.  For instance, Wired Roots was originally supposed to be a little more glitchy, with more fills and things programmed in it.  But as I started to get all the patterns written and organized, I inevitably reach a point where I realize that adding more to the set really isn’t going to make it better.  I could easily spend a lot more time fine-tuning things, but ultimately at the end of the day most people would never realize.  I think this is true of writing music in general for me, I just tend to suddenly KNOW that it’s done.

Some of it is boredom and wanting to move on too.  Writing an entire live set is A LOT of music to write, and sometimes I just want to finish it and move on to the next project.  It’s always a gut feeling though, a little light bulb going off that tell me “right, you’re done, wrap up the loose ends and get this recorded”.

Ali: Are there any influences you’d point to for where this set came from? (other artists)

Tarekith: Not so much.  Mostly it was just exploring what the MnM could do as that was a new purchase, and I wanted to see how it paired with the MD for a live performance.

Ali: In the process of writing the set, did you use any additional midi controllers like a keyboard, or was it purely step editing/live recording with the step keys?

Tarekith: No, it was all done directly on the MD and MnM.  I like the focus working with the least amount of gear possible gives me, and it helps familiarize me with the way it works.  Since those are the only tools I’ll have on stage to perform, it’s a good way to get more comfortable with how they work on all fronts, in case I get an idea while performing.

Ali: What kind of audiences might this set be for (besides the people listening to the recording or watching the video)? Dancing, seated? Watching you, or not? I ask because people in the class were curious how this would translate to an in-person audience. Would you consciously do anything differently if there were people there? And what are the audiences like in general for downtempo sets you do in person?

Tarekith: Umm, good question.  I guess in this case thoughts about the audience wasn’t really a factor in how I wrote the set, it was mainly for my own enjoyment (in this specific case).  If there were more people there, or if I knew for sure people were going to be watching this particular set, I probably would have had more material prepared, just to give me more flexibility in how it progressed based on people’s feedback. In some cases you can tell when people just aren’t feeling a particular section, so it’s nice to have more material than you need so you can skip to something different if needed.

Most of my downtempo sets are for more relaxed crowds, either at art galleries, lounges, or chill out tents where I don’t need to make people dance.  I have plenty of more clubby and uptempo sets prepped in case the venue or crowd dictates that kind of approach.

Ali: To what degree to you expect/want your audience to know what you’re doing when you play a live set? People were curious about who you had in mind when you did the commentary (other producers/live PAs, or audience members who you wanted to educate, etc).

Tarekith: The commentary in the youtube videos was strictly for other electronic musicians and performers.  A lot of people had questioned whether my sets were truly done live, so I wanted to offer up some sort of proof if you will.  But I’ve found that a lot of other musicians like to see how other people perform, it seems to be a common question I get a lot.  Most producers these days seem to start out in their bedrooms alone, so they don’t understand the process of taking studio work live, or creating music JUST for live performance.

I got into electronic music almost solely with it being a live performance type of deal.  Most of my friends were DJs, and if I want to play at parties with them, I wanted it to be my music and not just records written from other people.  So all of my early music making was spent creating material solely with a live setting in mind.

In terms of do I care if people know what I’m doing or not, well… not really.  There’s plenty of live acts out there where the performers focus more on putting on a good visual show versus truly creating something unique on the fly.  Some people wear a big mouse head, or jump around like a rabid monkey trying to avoid a swarm of mosquitos, but that’s just not my thing.  I grew up in the early rave days, and even a club scene, where the performer or DJ was often hidden off to one side and people were only concerned about what they heard.  Sure, you might have a couple musicians curious about what was going on watching, but for the most part people were happy to just dance or enjoy the music without that visual interaction.

In a lot of respects I think that’s been one of the worst things to happen to electronic music, trying to make a visual show out of something that just doesn’t inherently lend itself to spontaneous gestures where the lay person can understand what is going on.  Let’s face it, a lot of today’s live acts dumb down their live sets merely so it looks good, and as a result there’s a lot less improvisation and truly on the fly creation.  Too much of it is performers just pretending to exaggerate a big filter sweep with a knob or touchscreen, because it’s the one motion just about anyone can correlate to a sound they hear. It’s become pantomime.

Most of what we do is music meant for dark rooms and for people to get lost in their own mindsets as they listen to it.  You don’t need to be looking at a stage for that happen, so I don’t concern myself about it.  The lack of rock star egos is what used to set this kind of music apart, and the second that sort of mentality crept in, it just got compartmentalized and lost it’s edge.

Of course, that’s just my opinion 🙂

Ali:  One more question for the paper: why do a live set over a DJ set? If you don’t expect people to know either way, and in fact that doesn’t really matter to you, is it just a personal preference, or do you believe there are advantages to the live set that allow you to provide a better experience for people than a DJ set might?

Tarekith: Because I enjoy the act of playing live, and I’d rather have the chance to show people my own music than someone else’s.  Don’t get me wrong, I DJ a lot too, been doing it almost as long as I’ve been playing live.  But in general I prefer the more hands on aspect of performing my own music, versus DJing most of the time.

Ali: And one thing I’m curious about as a producer/live PA. I’m planning to take this winter break and finally work up a hardware live set, since I’ve always wanted to do one and I’ve been making old-school acid techno and electrofunk tunes lately. Now that I’m free of complex song structures and sound design it makes sense to use a hardware sequencer, a sampler, and a few synths instead of need Ableton’s audio loops to organize everything. The main thing I’ve been wrestling with, though, is how to get smooth transitions.

Tarekith:  LOL, if you knew how many sleepless nights I spent trying to answer that question myself back in the day!

Ali: My setup will likely be an EMX for sequencing and some percussion, a small synth for 303 basslines, and an Akai S2000 for drum samples, all running into a Roland hard disk recorder/mixer (since it has some built-in effects). I know you’re a big fan of the RAM machine loops–I spend about a page on that in the paper–but I know you haven’t always had the MD for live sets. How did you do things before that?

Tarekith: In general I’ve tended to gravitate towards gear that had some sort of facility to enable me to do this.  Early on it was the Roland MC505 which had a function called Megamix.  Basically it let you grab a phrase or track from one pattern, and insert it into your current pattern, all in real time.  So I’d grab a phrase one at a time from the next pattern in my set (with each pattern basically being a song), and in this way I could introduce elements from the next song before I actually switched to it.

After that, I was using an Emu Command Station, and actually worked with the programmers to implement a better version of this feature that they called XMIX.  Same concept, just a bit more flexibility in how it worked.  For awhile I was also using the Roland SP808ex, which is a phrase sampler.  So I could have pre-recorded loops, or grab samples on the fly from my other hardware to play while I switched patterns on them.  Same basic concept that I still use with the UW aspect of the Machinedrum.

I’ve even done the rather simple method of just holding a long droning note on a keyboard while loading a new song too.  Done sparingly, it works just fine.  Lot’s of ways to tackle this issue really.  If you’re using multiple pieces of hardware, especially with built in sequencers, then you can just switch each piece of gear one at a time.  For instance, while it’s muted or has the volume down, switch to the next pattern on your 303 device, then raise the volume.  While that’s playing, maybe you drop the volume on the EMX and then switch to your next song on that, bring the volume back up. Etc.

Thanks to Ali Berger for allowing me to repost the interview, you can find out more about his own music and live set on his blog:

http://aliberger.tumblr.com/

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On a different note, I’m pleased to say that I had over 10,000 visitors to the blog last month alone.  Glad to see that people continue to find interest in what I write, and have helped pass on the site to others they think might be interested as well.

Unfortunately, while the number of visitors has increased, the number of people donating to help support the blog has dropped drastically.  If a few people a month send me just $1, it really helps to offset my hosting costs.  I’m not looking to get rich or anything, but if you’re feeling charitable and can spare $1, please click on the donate button up on the right hand side of the screen.  Thanks everyone, much appreciated!

  1. Holotropik12-16-2011

    Good read 🙂
    I have a gig tonight. For this one I will test out my hybrid setup using Ableton, EMX and the Monotribe. Should be interesting 😉

    I have been doing Live PA for 10 years now and always appreciate what other artists do and why. Thanks for this article.

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