▶ Thoughts on “we all hit play”

Back in June, Joel Zimmerman (a.k.a. Deadmau5) posted a very candid article on the state of live performance in electronic dance music. It included lots of juicy details on how to pull off a “flawless” EDM performance, such as this nugget about timecode:

Somewhere in that mess is a computer, running ableton live… and its spewing out premixed (to a degree) stems of my original producitons, and then a SMPTE feed to front of house (so tell the light / video systems) where im at in the performance… so that all the visuals line up nicely and all the light cues are on and stuff. Now, while thats all goin on… theres a good chunk of Midi data spitting out as well to a handful of synths and crap that are / were used in the actual produciton… which i can tweak *live* and whatnot… but doesnt give me alot of “lookit me im jimi hendrix check out this solo” stuff, because im constrained to work on a set timeline because of the SMPTE.

I’ve played backup for more traditional groups in large arenas, and without bashing any group in particular too hard, I’ll just say that this is quite commonplace. Every candid aside was scripted, even down to a “from the heart” prayer (it was a religious band). The higher dollar the event, the more failsafe and disaster-proof the show needs to be. Setting every tiny part of the show to timecode ensures stability, and allows for tweaks to be made to perfect a show during its run.

But what about getting out of this box? A great aspect of EDM is that improvisation can be achieved with any number of degrees of safety nets – backing loops, in-ear cues, scale locking, live quantization; all of these can be achieved in a live show, even a quite-scripted mainstream House show.

For example, the group EOTO performs with similar gear to other shows, but uses it in a 100% live method. I would wager the big disadvantage might be a general lack of failsafes, but they play much smaller, lower-dollar shows. It’s their niche, you could say. Just check out their wiring diagram:


And of course a video of EOTO performing live:

It’s different than normal EDM – like a jam band version of it or something. This type of group reminds me of a fully realized, 21st century version of FSOL. (You never heard of FSOL? Go educate yourself.) These guys improvised their music, but were limited to in-studio productions because of 1990’s-style gear.

Another good example of at least not being cynical about live performance would be The Glitch Mob. These guys may very well be dealing with extremely simplified “stems” of their music, but they certainly look like they’re doing a lot on stage. From a 2010 interview with Electronic Musician, they talk in good detail about the technological limitations of recreating a sophisticated EDM song live:

Almost every melody that you hear on the album has been sampled note for note [for the live show]. That was the only way that we could get the actual sounds of the record to translate live. There”s no way that we could essentially load up the plug-ins that we use, stack 20 plug-ins and play live; it would kill the computer.
Boreta: It”s also just the way we make music. If you wanted to actually play the synths live—maybe if the technology was there it might be better—but our sounds are processed over and over and over again, from the first phase to the mix phase. And when we mixed the album, we bounced down everything to audio because we have multiple sessions of hundreds of UAD plug-ins. Each sound would have to go through about 15 to 20 UAD plug-ins. That”s what brought us back down to audio was really technological limitations.

Notice though, that they can play with a SMPTE track but still add plenty of live elements by resampling their own material. It probably takes a lot of work, and even more rehearsal to make it look effortless, but it’s been a part of their schtick from the beginning:

But notice they do significantly less when their hands are less visible:

I think there’s a place for both styles, but I think it’s kind of limiting to concede to playing electronic music in a totally linear way. This kind of constraint is something we broke free from years ago; it doesn’t mean everything has to be a jam session, but to deny the possibilities of variable performance sets the genre back in the 20th century.