Stagefright (Part 1)
In the first instalment of a two-part article, UK synthesist Ian Boddy gives budding EM performers the confidence and advice you need to take your show on the road.
It's probably true to say that if electronic music suffers from one major promotional failing, it is the relative scarcity of live performances. Most electronic musicians who've made successful recordings fear of venturing out on the road because of the technical complexity involved, but respected EM composer Ian Boddy has managed to shake off such anxieties and now has no fewer than 25 live performances under his belt. Here he gives some friendly advice on how to make the transition from front-room to concert hall as painlessly as possible, while next month's issue will see a detailed run-down of his own equipment line-up and how it's used live.
Electronic music concerts are in general few and far between, a situation that's more often than not engendered by the sheer technical complexity of staging such an event. However, if you can keep a realistic sense of proportion, such a concert can be well within the capabilities of many musicians whose output is normally confined to home, and I hope this article will give you the necessary impetus to try your hand at a gig or two.
Please remember though that what I'm going to talk about should not be regarded as a set of hard and fast rules. Rather, these are comments based on my own experiences from the 25 or so concerts that I've played over the last four years. Furthermore, there are many different styles encompassed within the general term 'electronic music', ranging from musique concrete and classical performance right through to electropop, and obviously each field has its own individual problems and solutions. Since my own particular style falls into the instrumental category inhabited by Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, Jean-Michel Jarre et al, I'll be concentrating for the most part on the problems of performing that sort of music, though at the same time, there's no reason why some of the lessons I've learned shouldn't be of value to performers of a slightly different creative bent.
The first myth I want to shatter is that to put on a concert of electronic music that's going to be taken seriously, you have to invest in vast quantities of keyboards, sequencers, outboard units, and so on. OK, we've all seen pictures of Tangerine Dream & Co surrounded by mountains of equipment, but is all that gear really necessary? Well, yes and no. Without a doubt, the sort of artists mentioned above do succeed in making a very professional sound and are able to perform complex pieces of almost studio quality in a live situation, and this is often a direct result of their having a large number of instruments from which to choose - they've also got the money to pay for them! However, there's no reason why we mere mortals shouldn't set our sights a little lower.
The simplest concert set-up I ever used was at a poetry reading where I played two ten-minute improvisations using a Moog Opus 3 string synth and a Roland RE501 chorus/echo machine. I used the sound-on-sound facility on the 501 which effectively gives a delay of just under two seconds - sufficiently long for me to be able to play over the top of repeated melodies, producing some pretty impressive canon-like sequences. Make some rapid changes in synth settings and this delay can also give the illusion of two or more different sounds occurring simultaneously, and the effect can then be used to build up chordal layers even if all you have is a monophonic synth.
This technique lends itself very well to the 'ambient' style of music popularised by Brian Eno and his contemporaries, which is itself particularly well suited to musical performances at art galleries, poetry readings and so on.
The above set-up is very simple - one synth and an echo machine - but what do you do if you want to perform music of a more complex nature? As I see it there are three options, all of which have their own set of advantages and disadvantages.
This is probably the easiest solution, but even in the current technological climate, there are still some people who regard this as 'cheating', so it's wise to justify in your own mind from the outset if and when this can be regarded as legitimate practice in the context of your music. Some of the situations in which I use backing tapes are as follows. First, recreating a complex studio piece which I am unable to perform on my own; second, for sounds which cannot be performed in real time (eg. slowed down or reversed tape effects), and third, to provide areas of sound texture during which I can alter synth settings.
I feel these are all perfectly acceptable uses of backing tapes, but there is one form of 'cheating' that I could never sanction, and that is miming. Whatever you do, don't try and delude your audience: they'll probably realise what's going on a few minutes into the concert, and all you'll have achieved will be a cheapening of your performance. So, if you haven't really managed to convince yourself that backing tapes are artistically ethical, don't resort to just playing along to a prerecorded album.
Of course, backing tape unbelievers can always resort to the use of sequencers and/or drum machines, but let's face it, some of the newer designs in this area have such huge memory capacities that if you're against backing tapes, you've got to be against using these machines as well, or else risk being accused of gross hypocrisy.
Well, that's my view anyway. If it seems as if I'm going on about this subject at rather too great a length, I apologise. But I do feel that the excessive use of backing tapes has caused many people to gain a vague impression of electronic music as being dull, monotonous and repetitious, lacking in human invention. And that impression, is, of course, misguided.
Of course, your tapes can be anything from two-track stereo cassette to multitrack reel-to-reel. I think it goes without saying that you should try and go for the best tape format you have access to: always remember that at a gig, your backing tape is replayed at a fairly high level, and that any recording inadequacies are going to show up rather more clearly than they would do at home, especially tape hiss.
The second possibility of simply acquiring more musical hardware is one that almost all musicians contemplate at some stage or another in their career, but it's something that needs a great deal of careful consideration if you're not to make a lot of rather expensive mistakes.
Assuming you're not a millionaire, you're going to want gear that gives you maximum flexibility for minimum cost. Inevitably, this involves a degree of compromise, but assuming you're performing solo, the following is a general list of the sort of equipment line-up you might need to make your concerts interesting and varied soundwise.
First up is polyphonic synth, and preferably a programmable one because having preset buttons is such an enormous help in a live situation: once you've used them you never want to be without them. You'll probably want a monosynth as well, since one of these can be controlled by a sequencer or drum machine, as well as acting as a lead instrument in its own right. It goes without saying that you've got to be sure your intended equipment is readily interfaceable otherwise you might as well halve the amount of gear you include in a performance; make sure your system works before you part with any hard-earned cash.
A third - often overlooked - possibility on the keyboard front is that of getting a modular system. Although these systems have never been exactly thick on the ground, they can in fact be picked up surprisingly cheaply secondhand, and have the advantage of being able to carry out various functions at once.
In addition to equipment that's directly involved with sound generation you're also more than likely going to want to invest in some outboard effects such as reverb and echo units, which can usefully be employed in helping to counteract the adverse effects of concert hall acoustics.
Now, obviously we've come quite a long way from the very simple set-up I discussed earlier, but it's still nothing extraordinary, and in fact bears more than a passing resemblance to my current live equipment line-up, to be discussed in more detail in part two of this article. As a system it's both compact and flexible, but don't worry if you can't afford to go out and buy an equipment array like it all in one go: it's taken me the best part of four years to amass this line-up...
If you find yourself without any real hope of ever acquiring such a set-up, there's bound to be a temptation to gain access to better equipment by hiring or borrowing it, but beware. Make absolutely sure you're conversant with the functions and controls of any instrument you borrow before you take to the stage, otherwise you could find yourself in the middle of an inspired solo when it suddenly becomes apparent you can't remember how to turn off the drum machine you've got on loan!
Performing electronic music as a band is something you see very rarely indeed, largely because the number of musicians able or willing to undertake such work is extremely limited, for reasons we've already discussed.
Whether or not playing as a group is a viable proposition for you will depend to a large extent on your own personal and musical circumstances. All I can say is that no matter how closely the members of a group work together, there is always a degree of compromise involved in the end product that simply doesn't exist if you're playing on your own and thereby retaining complete artistic control. And that's always assuming you can find people that are suitable in the first place...
In the past I've performed several concerts with other people - usually as duos - but nowadays almost every gig I play is solo, simply because I prefer working that way and because arranging rehearsals is no problem. It's well worth bearing the latter point in mind, because if you're using a lot of gear, you're more than likely going to run into problems of logistics when it comes to getting several people to transport their equipment to, and set it up at, a suitable rehearsal venue.
Once you've established a more complex performance set-up by use of one of the methods discussed above (or possibly through a combination of all three!), it's now almost inevitable that you're going to face any number of further problems before you finally mount a really successful electronic music concert. There follows a list of the sorts of questions you might be asking yourself at this stage. Where do I play? How do I advertise the gig? How do I get my equipment transported? Do I get paid? If so, how much? Is a decent PA provided? And so on ad infinitum.
Frankly I don't think it's worth dwelling on too many of these problems in detail here, as a lot of them are common to almost every sort of modern music event, not just performances of electronic music. However, I will just make a brief mention of choice of venue, because unlike pop or rock music, electronic concerts can acquit themselves very well to environments other than traditional gig venues. Try various arts centres, universities, art colleges, galleries and so on, or maybe even a festival such as the annual UK Electronica.
The question concerning PA equipment also deserves more than a passing mention. The sort of music under discussion here simply cannot be treated in the same way as conventional rock music when it comes to amplifying the sound so that the audience an hear it. For one thing, in the case of electronic music sound quality is often more important than sheer volume, so if a PA is being provided at the venue, try and have a chat beforehand to the person responsible for its well-being, just in case he's expecting the usual rock band and its accompanying sonic demands.
For smaller venues, it may be quite feasible for you to provide your own PA, which is almost always preferable as you will at least be familiar with the characteristics of the equipment you're using. A mixer, a power amp and a pair of large-ish monitor speakers may be all that's required.
Mixing your own sound can be a real advantage, not only because it gives you complete control over your sound balance, but also because that control enables you to use the mixer as an extension of your instrumental armoury, so that changes in sound level become as much a part of the performance as playing the instruments themselves. Such control is also essential if your music contains instrumental passages, since it simply isn't feasible to communicate complete changes of mix to someone on the other side of a hall.
The disadvantage of doing your own mixing is that you're rapidly going to run out of hands. If you're playing two keyboards at once you can't very well reach over to the mixer to change a couple of levels. Still, I manage to get around this to an extent by using volume pedals and making extensive use of the rotary level pots on the instruments themselves - they're certainly a lot closer to hand than the mixer will ever be!
The last point I want to make is perhaps so obvious that it may well be overlooked by the budding performer; know your instruments inside out.
Assuming your keyboard technique is up to the standard required to play the compositions in your running order, you should also be fully in command of the different pieces of equipment in your possession, which means knowing everything from how to turn a drum machine off (as mentioned earlier) to what each module of a synthesiser is used for so that, if things start going disastrously wrong, you can modify a sound without too much trouble.
If you're using a lot of hardware, it's inevitable that at some time or other at least one item of equipment will go wrong, so don't get hung up about it before every gig. Just make sure you've got some sort of back-up you can drag in if need be: this can take the form of either a back-up instrument or additional material that isn't dependent on particular instruments being available. In essence, don't panic!
Feature by Ian Boddy
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue:
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!