Hardware Or Software?
Sequencing On Stage
Sequencers are a boon in the studio, but on stage they create the potential for problems that can ruin a gig. Paul Ireson explains how to steer clear of trouble.
MIDI has revolutionised the way most of us write and record music, opening up a whole new world of possibilities, but the increasing use of MIDI sequencers can create problems when it comes time to play live.
If you rely, as do many musicians, on a MIDI sequencer in composition and recording, you will most probably have to use a sequencer on stage in order to bring your music in all its glory to the public. Style of music and availability of extra personnel permitting, it may be possible to actually play everything live, but relatively few bands who make extensive use of MIDI in the first place are that fortunate. So you need a sequencer to use on stage — what's it going to be?
At home or in the studio, most musicians eschew hardware sequencers, of which there are relatively few in production these days, in favour of a computer running a sequencer program. The benefits in the studio are evident — you can also run voice editor/librarian software, use the computer as a word processor and, yes, play games — but a stage is a hostile environment for a piece of hardware designed strictly for home or office use. Computers don't take kindly to being dropped or drenched in beer, they're awkward to transport, and they have a largely deserved reputation for unreliability when used live.
You can minimise transport problems by using a laptop machine (there are laptop Ataris, Macs and PCs; note that only one MIDI interface is currently available for laptop PCs, which cannot accept regular PC cards), but the other problems remain. If you must use a computer, at least use one with a hard disk, and if you are rash enough to venture on stage with only floppy disks, back up everything. Twice.
Hardware sequencers lack the helpful edit screens and endless editing options of their software counterparts, but they do offer peace of mind. When Martin Moscrop (A Certain Ratio) was asked to handle live sound for Intastella, he agreed only on condition that the band ditch their Atari ST, a constant source of problems on stage, for a Yamaha QX3. Since the switch, gigs have been hassle-free, at least as far as sequencing is concerned. Units such as the QX3, and Roland's excellent MC500 and MC300 are worth looking out for second-hand as tools for live use. Alternatives in current production include the Roland MC50, Brother PDC100, and Alesis MMT8.
If you want to save the trouble of creating all your songs from scratch in the hardware sequencer, and it won't read Standard MIDI Files created by your computer, remember that you can simply record the song in real time by hooking up a MIDI lead between computer and hardware sequencer, and pressing 'play' and 'record' respectively. If you're lucky the hardware sequencer will be able to handle multiple-channel input. If not, record one track at a time; you may have to connect a second MIDI lead between your two sequencers, so that the hardware sequencer is acting as a master clock for the computer and its sequencer program, which is generating note data for the hardware sequencer to record.
Of course, hardware sequencers aren't quite the ultimate in MIDI playback units for live use. With their editing facilities and composition features, they do carry a degree of unnecessary complexity, and therefore risk of operator error, in live work. Also some hardware sequencers actually have to be booted from a floppy disk: great for updates to the system, but disastrous if you lose your only copy of the system disk between dressing room and stage.
MIDI data filers, however, are pretty much bombproof. The Alesis Datadisk is an example of just such a unit — it simply records any and all data received at its MIDI In port, direct to a floppy disk, and reads it straight back when you need it. Response is almost instant, as there is no delay while data is loaded from disk into RAM, so you can shuffle the order of songs in a set more easily than with most software or hardware sequencers. Not surprisingly, they have proved very popular with touring pros.
The SOS Guide To Going Live
Feature by Paul Ireson
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