Electronic music live - a special focus
Electronic music live offers unique potential, and problems. Richard Walmsley reports on some innovative artists and their distinctive approaches.
For a lot of practising and would be musicians the advances in musical instrument and production technology have, more than anything else, signalled a liberation from the conventional rock band format, and all the creativity-blocking hassles inherent in it. I mean of course the problem of finding and co-ordinating band members, rehearsing, transportation, even of musical execution. In short, synthesis, sampling, and most importantly, sequencing, offer to the single musician sounds that a whole band of musicians could not possibly have realised a decade ago. For these and other reasons therefore, electronic music has become the largest growth area in music today.
One area that has diminished however, is live playing. The problem is not limited exclusively to bands that use electronic instruments, but applies also to those that take advantage of multi track studio facilities. In other words, just about everyone, Live performances should ideally be exciting, but the illusion created through multi track recording very often make live performances of the same music at best a lack lustre non-event, or at worst an unrecognisable shambles by comparison. But the problems of live playing are more acute for those who use predominantly electronic instruments, firstly because they are often used not only to compensate for technical ineptitude but to achieve feats not humanly possible, secondly because boxes of electronics look boring whereas a good live band is expected to be visually stimulating, and lastly, because there is a problem in the definition of what live music actually is; for many, electronics remain synonymous with canned, processed music regardless of whether it's coming from a hi-fi or a PA.
Despite this, some electronic bands and musicians have not been deterred from at least attempting to present their music to people as a performance, and gradually as you will see, styles and techniques are evolving that enable electronic music to reach people in its most exciting context. The problem is knowledge really, and the confidence to know that convincing performances are feasible. I've been having a look then at some of the methods used by electronic, or electronic based, bands, who actually do live performances, to see what it all entails.
The idea of using pre-recorded tapes as part of a live performance is nothing new and was first used back in the fifties. Since then bands like Depeche Mode, O.M.D., New Order and The Cocteau Twins have all used tapes as an integrated part of their performances, and have not found them to significantly diminish their appeal as a live proposition.
A tape for use in a performance differs greatly from a demo tape or master tape. One performer using tapes in live work is German singer Gina X, whose single No Grey Dark Man was a recent visitor to the indie charts. In charge of compiling her tapes is one Zeus B. Held producer of Fashion's Fabrique album and of early Dead Or Alive recordings.
The earliest formats of live tape Zeus used, working with bands in France and Germany back in 1979, were simply half track reel to reel tapes consisting of, on one track, vocoder sounds or some other type of special sound which the band were not able to produce otherwise onstage, and a click track which the drummer used as a guide.
With Gina X the format differs, and the 'live' tapes are made up from the studio 24 track masters and vary in composition according to the context in which they are going to be used, but in any case are all mixed down in stereo onto ½ track.
"Sometimes Gina does PAs (personal appearances) by herself, so the tapes have all the music bar the vocals. Sometimes she goes onstage with a guitar player, a synth player and a guy playing Simmons drums. There of course, I do less drums, leaving on just the bass drum, snare and maybe a thing like the hi hat. There are all mixes which are down straightforward, really fast. Gina likes it really rough so it sounds different than on the record."
Creating a sound mix that is amenable to a live accompaniment entails more than just dropping out those parts that will be played live. Once the tape has begun to roll onstage it is quite intransigent; you can't scowl at a tape machine as you might at a belligerent drummer to make it pipe down. Furthermore you have to take into account the fact that it is going to be heard over a PA not a hifi system.
"I do the mixes in regard of how they sound on a PA. The important thing is the drums and the bass - having them really loud and punchy, and really upfront and any events which introduce the vocals must be loud so you don't have to count too much. Also, where she sings it is better to mute stuff so it is not confusing. Just have the voice and the groove and then when the voice finishes you can bring the other parts in. Whereas on the record you have all little synths going in, it's better to have it really clear for live work, not a confused picture."
With Gina X, Zeus uses a ¼" Revox machine which he describes as 'really great', although domestic hi fi reel to reel machines are also adequate for the task. The tapes are recorded at 15 ips, rarely with noise reduction on although it can be a help, especially between tracks, to reduce hiss coming over the PA.
If you are using live instruments in conjunction with a tape, tuning must be taken into consideration when you are making the tapes.
"When you play with live instruments remember to put test tones on it - some for lining up the machine, some for the instrumentalist to tune up against, so when you check the tape you just tune the instrument to the tone coming from the tape. Again you must make sure that all the tracks are in tune with each other. Because some tracks may be done in different studios, and because of all the copying involved, you may find you have a few tuning problems, and these have to be checked before splicing the tapes together." Once a tape is compiled ready for live use, any discrepancies between what the performers and audiences should actually be hearing and what actually comes over must have been ironed out. Little can be done to change them during performance.
"Sometimes it happens that you did one backing track in another studio so you may find out after pulling all the backing tracks together that the levels vary a bit. So I copy the whole thing again to bring all the backing tracks to the same level.
If you want to use a sequencer as well onstage it becomes necessary to use a four track machine. In this format, Zeus puts a code on track 4 to sync up either an MSQ or MC4. Then on two of the remaining tracks there is a stereo mix of the music, leaving one track for certain special effects, or 'events' as he calls them which you might like to have some independant control over, either to mute or to make more prominent in the mix.
"We've used a TEAC four track for this, or sometimes a portastudio. The portastudio is a little bit hissy so the music has to follow the moment you switch on. Mind you, Joe Public won't really know because you have a hiss anyway on a PA in a club or concert hall. And besides, the portastudio is good for onstage because it's easy to handle and it looks good. "
Tapes perhaps more than any other method of simulated live performance, encounter prejudice from the audience, and as tape formats become more involved the idea of it being just canned music becomes more implicating.
"A few years ago many bands were going onstage with 8 track tapes. You have 8 channels, one of them is a pure code to run your MSQ, MC4 or Fairlight. On the other tracks you have percussion, backing singers, some special events, sometimes even whole players going solo, and there it all gets a bit ridiculous; you have a harmonica solo and no-one is playing."
Whilst working with Fashion, Zeus did use 8 track as part of the band's live performances.
"But when I was on tour with Fashion we tried to avoid all that. We used 8 track tapes, but we tried to make it really involved in the music. We used TEAC 8 track and I strongly recommend the TEAC for a stage thing; it's good to have something that has real good separation because you do the 8 tracks in a studio from 24 track, and you play safe and put the things on separate tracks, but sometimes in a live situation you decide it's better to drop things on the tape and to play them live. "
Tape could in fact be a little more widely used than one might imagine. Zeus maintains that Frankie's first appearances on The Tube, which was ostensibly a live performance, was beefed out with some clandestine backing tapes. So in the end, how ideal is the use of tape as a substitute for live musicians?
"You gotta live with it, especially when you have a one man show. What's the difference between having things programmed where you just press a button, and having things on tape? The only thing is that if you have an MC4 or basic sequencer triggering keyboards through MIDI you can actually change the sounds while it's running, which is a handy thing. But with the Fairlight it's the same. If you use the Fairlight with the sequencer page R live, you can't really do a lot while it's running. It's just that people get more and more aware and they feel a little bit cheated if you have too much on tape, and there's a very fine line between where it gets to be just music out of a tin box."
Although using pre-recorded backing tapes onstage has great potential in terms of complexity or depth of sound, its greatest disadvantage is inflexibility. A very simple format of using just a click track on tape to drive analogue sequencers and for a drummer to play against gives perhaps the most flexibility, since sequencers can then be switched in and out at will, and the tonality of the sequences changed giving a greater space for spontaneity and improvisation. Alternatively a rhythm box can be used instead of tape to perform a similar function, syncing up a drummer or actually providing the rhythm tracks, and with an external click to drive sequencers. This takes you clear into the domain of machine driven set ups.
Until recently, Eyeless In Gaza were an avant garde duo, whose live performances were made somewhat remarkable by Pete Becker's antics, which involved playing basslines on a Wasp synth with his left hand, whilst playing a makeshift drum kit with his right. For various reasons a change of direction has occurred and though the band are still only two - the other partner being Martin Bates on guitar and vocals - their live performances have been augmented by the use of a UMI sequencer interface.
Briefly, for those of you who have not see our review of this system (see June/July ES&CM) the UMI, used in conjunction with a BBC B micro computer, enables you to split 16 part sequences between two keyboards, and to drive a drum machine as well. Sequences can be created in real time, arranged in any order to achieve complex and structured song patterns, and then stored on floppy disk.
Eyeless In Gaza's live set up now consists of DX7, Juno 60 (with MIDI interface) and a Roland TR909 in addition to Peter on bass and Martin on guitar and vocals. The versatility of the UMI enables the band to have a great variation in the live presentation of their songs - something which conventional live bands rarely achieve.
Pete; "Using the UMI, I have the DX7 playing a bassline when I'm actually playing the Juno, or when I'm playing the bass then the two keyboards are either playing like a brass or string arrangement. I like to use these things to make it sound as though you could imagine a horn section or strings playing - it's not used in an overtly electronic way. What we do is more like a conventional group thing, it's just that there's two people missing."
Perhaps the most offputting thing about using machines in live situations is the idea that they may not be user friendly and could lead to embarrassing breaks between songs. As yet Pete has encountered no major problems in spite of the fact that prior to their present set up the band had never used a sequencer onstage before.
"All the songs are stored on disk. You start one song and it plays. Three minutes later it stops by itself and then you have to key in the information for the next song which takes about ten seconds. So it's perfectly usable in a live situation, and if you do it sensibly you can even have two or three songs running together with one song stopping, then a four beat gap, then the next song."
The UMI interface which Eyeless use is one of the early models, and since they purchased it another model, the 2B has come on the market. Hopefully therefore, the few problems which Peter has run up against will have been put right on the newer system.
"The only thing that I've got against the UMI is that it doesn't remember tempo. On the hardware box it's got a little knob that you turn and on the VDU it's got a readout of BPM. So in between numbers I have to go back to the main menu, which means hitting one knob, and then looking at the screen and turn the knob - which is quite fine - and it tends to shoot up to 300 bpm then back to 30 when you want it to be 100. So you tend to panic about people waiting for the next song."
Prior to the TR909 drum machine which they use in the present setup, the band used the TR808 for a while, though their reasons for changing were more to do with programming capacity than with the actual sound of the machine.
"We could only get about five songs out of the 808 which worked if you wanted a sort of chick-boom-chick-boom thing going all the way through; it was OK for hypnotic dance stuff. But what we do now is big pop and I wanted to get away from all that, so memory was all important. I can get a whole live set out of the 909 which is about an hours music."
Although the sounds on the 909 are a bit better, only the cymbals are digital and it still needs some additional treatment to make it come alive through a PA.
"I take the bass and snare out separately, and depending how many channels there are on the desk I usually take the stereo-out for the rest of the mix. That's just so they can be Eq'd, because the bass drum sounds like it's got 300 pairs of socks in it and you really have to get that treble spike to come out. Then when we hire rigs we usually put the snare through something like a Roland D200 delay to give it a longer, more resonant sound. It's never going to sound like a guy hitting a real kit, but for us now that's just about OK."
The biggest problems come out not from interfacing with the computer, but from interfacing with the sound crew.
"Sometimes the guy behind the desk may get a bit confused because there's only two guys onstage, and on one number I'm playing bass and the next number I'm playing keyboards. And sometimes the DX7 is playing a bassline and the next number it's playing strings, so I've got to get a middle ground on the EQ so that it sounds good whether there's a string or a horn part coming out."
More than tapes, sequencers and computers are prone to the 'tin box' stigma, and it can be a bit uncanny suddenly having all this wonderful music materialising out of thin air. However the biggest worry tends to be that equipment might malfunction.
"It's a bit weird because you're always thinking - is this machine going to go wrong? But then the drummer could get totally drunk so there's really no difference."
So far we've only talked about systems which use machines to control or guide other machines and other musicians. Thus there may still be some valid objections to describing this as live music. But there is more to electronics than sequencing, and for some the appeal of using electronics in a performance lies in its sound creating/reproducing, rather than its automating, abilities.
Someone who has seized on this idea is Mark Stewart, one time member of The Pop Group, now with his own band the Maffia. They use a set up consisting of Keith LeBlanc on Simmons drums and DMX, Doug Wimbosh on bass and Steve Beresford on synths. Meanwhile, at the other end of the hall two other band members sit at the mixing desk, not only mixing the music live, but also triggering three AMS delays and loading and punching in sounds on cassette. Could this be a new concept in performance, one which eschews the traditional macho posturing in favour of musical invention, the final nail in the coffin of rock stage excess?
Mark: "There's two engineers mixing it and triggering the AMS and the cassette deck. They're like part of the band, but they're better off on the PA desk."
For the most part, the AMS's, which have captured sounds such as explosions, car noises etc in them, are triggered by hand, not according to any rehearsed plan, but in a basically improvised manner which responds to the beat. Sometimes however they are triggered by the Simmons snare, and the band are working on using all captured sounds instead of the Simmons sounds so that for instance, the snare drum will be an explosion and the bass drum a deep bell. The sounds of the DMX are also mixed in with the Simmons sounds, although drummer LeBlanc does not use the DMX continually, switching it in and out with his foot some of the time.
The general sound the band aim for is very sparse, often with just the bass and drums playing, as opposed to a very complex, sequenced type texture. But they do use sequencers from time to time although in the cause of greater spontaneity they set the unusual precedent of not actually syncing them up.
Mark: "We use sequencers live, but not necessarily synced up to anything but manually switching them on and off, using varispeed on them. If the beat starts going funny you just turn it off and bring it in manually.
Nothing goes wrong because we follow what Keith and Doug are playing and bring it in little bursts, so you have a sort of D-D-D- then just turn it off again manually, even just using the on/off switch on the machine."
So you see, the art of live performance is not dead, and neither is it the exclusive domain of garage bands and other die hards of the acoustic ethic. In actual fact, when you come to consider it, given a certain amount of imagination and consideration of the problems involved, electronics can provide a complete liberation from conventional stage formats.
The fact that conventions of live electronic style have yet to be established should really be seen as an encouragement for bands to get out there and do their stuff, since the opportunities for a completely individual stage approach are to be had for the taking.
The physical absence of musicians can be a bit disconcerting it is true. Alien Sex Fiend for instance, who have been using a Sequential Circuits Drumtraks since their drummer left in a huff earlier this year, have found it comforting to put the drum machine through a large onstage speaker rather than feeding it direct into the PA, since this helps to make up, both in terms of physical and musical space, for the lack of their drummer (they are even thinking of putting a blond wig on top of it to complete the effect!) In any case we are living in a time of change, and if we can get used to these things then electronics may prove to be not just a possibility onstage, but in fact the way forward into a whole new era of performance.
Feature by Richard Walmsley
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!