Stagecoaching (Part 2)
Making the necessary arrangements
You're up on stage, the equipment's performing flawlessly - now all you have to worry about is whether your programming was up to scratch...
Last month, we discussed the problems of using sequencers for live work and reached the conclusion that a hybrid system of computer sequencer for home use and a MIDI song file player on stage provided the best of both worlds - flexibility during recording and ease of playback live.
But what of the different techniques employed during the programming of music for recording and live purposes? Well, often when recording, a lot more subtlety is exercised than would ever be required for live purposes. For instance, a programmer will be justifiably concerned with the dynamics of a song which is going to be heard against a background of relative silence - like a lounge or living room.
By contrast, the general ambience of a club or pub - crowd talking, noises from the bar, etc - will often be such that a velocity difference of 10 from one string line to the next will become quite meaningless. In fact, a difference of 30 or 40 is unlikely to be noticed much either; in quiet passages you could well find yourself doubling the velocity of various instruments in order to make them audible at all.
More important is the overall balance between programmed instruments - and here you really need to be aware of the general response of the synths and amplification system(s) you're using. Many budget MIDI expanders - especially those which are essentially sample replay modules - have a poor response at the bottom end so there's a tendency to over-emphasise instruments like bass, bass drum, etc. by lifting their velocity values when programming.
If the PA you're using is your own this is unlikely to be a problem, because it will usually be possible, to set up the correct instrument balance based on the experience you've gained from previous gigs. Use an in-house or hired system, however, and you're at its mercy: there's little you can do but play it by ear - literally. That said, you'll probably find it helps to set the instrument mix reasonably 'flat' and use the EQ controls on the PA mixer to compensate for any deficiencies at the top or bottom.
Perhaps the biggest problem you have to overcome when playing live over a sequenced track is what to do when a natural gap occurs. Say you have a solo piano part of eight bars during which the other instruments stop; what are the chances of the sequenced 'band' coming back in on time? Zilch. Of course, it's your timing that will be out, and so you have to provide yourself with some means of marking time during the gaps in order to keep pace with the sequencer which is silently ticking away, oblivious to your presence. The usual solution is a hi-hat beat - but this will not necessarily suit the song. Try using other percussion instruments such as shakers or a cabasa which tend to be less intrusive. You could also experiment with the number of beats on which the instrument is programmed to play; it's not always necessary to use 8s or 16s.
OK, that's timing - what about pitch? It might sound like a stupid question, but have you programmed the song in the right key? A common mistake is to sing along with a piece of music quietly while rehearsing and to then find that you can't hit the top notes when you sing in anger. At this point you'll have already transferred the song to your playback device, which may not have the ability to transpose it. This situation also arises when other musicians are drafted in for the evening to bolster your live presence. Song keys which present no problem for you to program in on a keyboard can be fiendishly difficult (if not impossible) to accommodate on certain instruments - particularly those of the brass family. If this is likely to be a problem in any way, make sure you sort it out before you hit the stage.
If you do find yourself having to transpose (given that your machine will allow this), make sure that you don't use a global transpose function. The likelihood is your drums will be mapped to specific notes; transpose these and your bass drum may end up as a rimshot, the snare drum as a hi-hat and so on.
If you're working with a conventional (ie. non-sequenced) band and you can see that the audience is enjoying a particular song, a nod between the various performers is usually enough to ensure that the song is lengthened either with extra choruses or extended solos. But what do you do if you're working with a sequencer? You can hardly ask the audience to wait while you program in a repeat of the next chorus. In fact, in this situation, there's very little you can do. But you might think about having a couple of different mixes of each number (particularly dance tracks) and deciding in advance which to use for a particular audience. The most obvious thing would be to have a 'standard' version and a longer version with extended choruses, middle eights and outros, etc. OK, it's by no means ideal - but there has to be a downside to using this kind of technology for live performance and for the most part this is it.
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