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Live P.A. 101

May 1, 2002
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Check out any flyer for a massive outdoor summer rave or an old ad for a Winter Music Conference party, and you'll likely see “Live P.A.” next to at least one of the artists on the bill. Like electronic music itself, the term live P.A. has no rigid definition; it can be used to describe any number of performing scenarios outside of just DJing records.

The definition of what constitutes live electronic music continues to evolve and blur. When Richie Hawtin uses effects and drum machines to alter every record he spins, is that a live P.A. or a new progression in DJing?

Hawtin may lie somewhere in between, but the acts Remix consulted are unquestionably straight-up live. Whether it is one person playing mainly one-off parties or a full band playing clubs, each one has insights into how to take existing studio songs and adapt them to a live stage show. And no live tutorial would be complete without travel advice and tips about how to avoid shady bookings.

THE SETUP

The No. 1 question fans of Moonshine recording artists Cirrus ask the group is, “How do you do that?” Because the group has a live drummer and the band members play guitar, bass, keyboards and use turntables, much of what the band does is evident. To get the complete sound, however, they run audio and some MIDI tracks on Apple G4 PowerBook laptops. Stephen James Barry and Aaron Carter each use a PowerBook running MOTU Digital Performer. They submix similar tracks from the studio recordings (which often occupy more than 100 tracks) down to about 12 stereo tracks on a computer. “It's more manageable, and the computer runs smoother,” Barry says. “So we can edit while the show's going, cut back and forth between songs, copy and paste or throw an effect on one of the tracks and tweak it out.”

Cirrus also has some MIDI tracks on the computers, including program changes for the Clavia Nord Lead keyboard. Depending on the situation, the band will play the keyboard live, edit the parameters of the sound being sequenced from the computer or use the Nord's knobs to tweak a plug-in parameter that's effecting an audio track.

Despite the volatility of computers, Cirrus has had decent luck using them onstage. To decrease the vibrations that can freeze a system, they place chunks of foam underneath the laptop while performing, and the computers have not crashed. Once, however, Barry stepped on a power cord that cut the computer's audio interfaces that send all the sound to the front-of-house (FOH) mixer. “Luckily, we play live,” Barry says. “Aaron started scratching on the turntable, I jumped on the bass, and Jim started wailing on the drums, and we were still grooving. The audience thought it was part of the act.”

Lab4's eight-year-old live strategy excludes computer sequencing. Lez and Adam, the Lab4 duo, mix prerecorded audio tracks on two Akai 12-track hard disk recorders that include real-time varispeed, allowing them to change the tempo with a slight change in pitch. The Akai syncs to an Alesis Datadisk sequencer holding all of the MIDI information. “It's more like a data filer than a sequencer,” Adam says. “You just have playback functions. But it's rock solid; it's never packed in.” If something were to happen, however, and crash Lab4's machines, Adam and Lez have songs backed up to DAT and MiniDisc. “People will be patient for a few minutes if something goes wrong,” says Adam. “But the better your set has been, the less patience they have, because they just want it back on again.”

As a former studio engineer, Adam programmed a great deal of MIDI, which he continues to do in Lab4. “You can really program anything to do anything,” he says. People may be confused when they see him hold down a chord on a keyboard and a wild arpeggio is coming out, because he's programmed a MIDI volume program to do that. A lot of preprogramming goes into Lab4's live set, and although they do live mixing, they leave little room for improvisation. “We leave enough unprogrammed so that there's stuff for us to do,” Adam says, “but the whole point is to be almost a physical incarnation of the music. That's where our strong image comes in. We recognize that some guys improvise from start to finish, and that blows me away.”

Solo artist Hesohi, aka Doug Martin, would blow more people away with his improvised sets if he would only let them know he's there. “I'd rather have it so people didn't know I was playing,” he says. “I don't really like for people to make announcements or anything like that. A lot of times, you see people playing live, and people don't dance; they just watch. The whole idea is still to make people dance.” Martin performs with essentially three sequencers: an 8-track Alesis MMT-8, a Korg ES-1 Electribe and a Yamaha RY-30 drum machine. With those, he mixes in and out his bank of sequenced loops and writes new patterns straight off of the dome.

“There's no set sequence,” Martin says. “I play whatever combination of loops I want. The MMT-8 has tracks you can turn on or off, and I can mute or solo any drum sound in either drum machine. It's like a band. Everybody's got their part to play, and I just tell everybody when to play it. The MMT-8 is really fun, because everything's in small loops. So I can play the congas from one song while a bass line from another song is still playing. In that way, it's like mixing in like a DJ.” With the mixer, Martin likes to solo just the effects and prefers to have four buses on the mixer. That gives him the freedom to send multiple sounds into the ES-1 for recording or to use the sampler's effects and send them back to the mixer.

The polar opposite of an artist like Hesohi is a band such as Morel. Although the band's album Queen of the Highway (Yoshitoshi, 2001) is full of club-friendly tracks with looped drums and synth arpeggios, the group sticks to guitars, bass and percussion onstage. The remaining elements go down as backing tracks on MiniDisc. Frontman Richard Morel says he chose that method because if he were to bring keyboards onstage, a sequencer would be playing them anyway. “To me, there's no difference between a sequencer playing it or it being on disc,” he says. “Plus, computers crash, and that's a headache we don't need.” The MiniDisc sends two separate elements to the FOH soundperson, the keyboards and the drum or percussion loops. “That's crucial, as far as getting the live show sounding right,” says Morel.

In the past, Morel has played with an assortment of drum machines and keyboards with just one other person on guitar, but he prefers the energy of playing with a full band. “There's just something that happens when everybody's yelling,” he says. “And we're really tight as friends but also as musicians. It just makes it more exciting as a performer.”

“To me, hearing a DJ play is as live as going to see an electronic band play,” says Gavin Hardkiss, who records and performs as Hawke. “The live part is a human being doing his thing.” Nonetheless, Hardkiss is supporting the latest Hawke album, Heatstroke (Six Degrees, 2002), with an amorphous, ever-changing live show that includes one or two guitarists, a vocalist and sometimes a percussionist. “I'm never, like, on the same ticket, man,” Hardkiss says. “I just keep morphing it all the time. It's a refinement process. It's a DJ mentality where I'm not sure what I'm going to do next.” The one constant presence for a Hawke show is, of course, Hardkiss himself. He prepares elements from songs on the album to a Roland VS-880 hard disk recorder so he can remix tracks on the fly. The 880 also MIDI synchs to whatever drum machine he's using at the time. Hardkiss likes to run vocals and other elements through the Korg Kaoss Pad effects processor. He also has partial versions of the album's tracks cut to acetate for the turntables.

Should any gear BREAK down onstage, Hardkiss has backup music on an MP3 device specially modified with a pitch control. “There have been shows where I just blanked out and left my gear on the plane,” he says. “I was like, ‘Holy shit, what's wrong with me?’ But I've always got records with me for some sort of backup plan.”

THE TRANSITION

Recording tracks in your studio and playing them out is an entirely different experience requiring a different attitude toward layering sounds and setting the signal path. One common suggestion for transitioning recorded material to a stage show is to pare down the business of the sound. At the mixdown stage of their studio tracks, the members of Cirrus begin to choose which tracks to submix onto the computers for live performances, which ones they will play live and which they will cut. Barry of Cirrus says: “You need things to be a little more sparse. You need to create space for everything to travel around the room and come back; otherwise, it sounds mushy and muddy. You could have tons of reverb in the studio, but when you're playing live, it sounds like shit because there's already so much space in the room.”

Morel goes through a similar process when preparing the backing tracks for his stage show. “Some of the little details that are really important on an album don't translate live; they just clutter it up,” Morel says. “I've got a drummer and a percussionist; if I have a boatload of drum stuff going on, it's too much. You have to weed it down.” The vocal in Queen of the Highway's “Cabaret Pt. 2” is a mixture of a vocoded track and a dry vocal track. In the live show, Morel sings the song, accompanied by the vocoded track on MiniDisc.

Hardkiss and Martin advocate flexibility. “As far as signal paths go, I really don't know much about it,” says Hardkiss. “I just know what I hear and whether I like it or not. Having a nice, quiet, solid mixer in front of me has helped a lot. It's nice having control of the mix. It's not going to a front-of-house mixer, so I'm not relying on someone else's ears for that.”

UPGRADE THE FORMULA

Technology progresses so rapidly that it can be a blessing and a curse for electronic musicians. The latest gear tends to offer functional advances and more bang for the buck, yet stressing or obsessing about having the hottest tools can throw your focus off of your musical goals. Unfortunately, the dilemma doesn't disappear when you reach that next level.

Lab4 has rocked thousands with basically the same setup for the past eight years. The old sequencers and synths have operated relatively problem-free throughout. “But we're thinking, one of these days the whole thing will just do one nasty back flip,” Adam says. The group is also thinking about designing a light show that would interact with the music and sync to MIDI, an impossibility with their current setup. To upgrade, the group is considering buying a computer system from Carillon Audio Systems (www.carillondirect.com), a company that builds rackmountable computers specifically designed for musicians to take on the road.

Cirrus has already switched to using computers onstage and recently upgraded to Apple G4 PowerBooks from Apple G3s. Running audio tracks on computers gives them the freedom to improvise that wasn't feasible with their previous setup, an ADAT machine running audio and synched to an Akai MPC2000 running MIDI tracks. The increased power of the G4s also makes for smoother operation and the ability to route audio tracks through effects plug-ins. However, the band members don't run their musical instruments through the computer's plug-ins. “That's something to think about,” says Barry. “But for stability and latency reasons, we don't think it's right yet.”

Despite loving the Alesis MMT-8, Martin has been considering other sequencers for his Hesohi shows. But to keep his rig compact, they must serve exactly his purposes for the space they inhabit. One thing that he likes about his Korg ES-1 is that he can play the machine and record on the fly without pressing stop. “The E-mu sequencers can do that,” he says, “so I could just pick a track and write to it [while playing]. I was thinking about getting the Proteus 2500 because it's got six outputs, and it could probably take care of keyboard sounds. And it's got the 16-track sequencer on it. But it's still kind of a buggy sequencer right now.”

Hardkiss has his eye on the Yamaha RS-7000 workstation box that combines synthesis, sampling, effects and sequencing. He likes that it can give him the power of several pieces of older gear in one machine for easy transportation. “I like to keep it so [that] I can hop on a plane and nothing's going to get damaged. The idea of taking a whole studio with you works if somebody insures your stuff and you have a backup of everything.”

THE UNFRIENDLY SKIES

Taking precautions when traveling with equipment — especially on a plane — is an absolute necessity. The four Cirrus members who play live fly with three cases of gear each, leaving gig promoters to rent the drum set, keyboard stands and proper monitors. With so much machinery at risk, the group is extra careful. “Invest in cases; that's all I can say,” Barry says. “Don't get cheap cases. Buy Anvil cases. Good, hard cases will be worth it in the long run.”

Martin has selected a live rig that is compact to travel with and not too expensive to replace if anything should BREAK. No single unit cost more than $500. If he is traveling without a mixer, as he usually does, he can fit everything in a large backpack with an extra bag for cords. “I used to fly with stuff and check it in regular old stage crates, and they'd always get busted up,” he says. “If you get a Pelican case with foam and you pack it pretty tight, you're generally okay.”

Losing equipment in transit is a problem that, unfortunately, you cannot do much about. Lab4 recently experienced a situation in which an Akai DPS-12 was lost at the airport, and all the backup disks were packed in with it by mistake. After nine hours in the airport, the DPS-12 showed up.

GET THIS PARTY STARTED

Writing the music and working out the technical details of a set are not always the toughest aspects performing live. Booking your first gigs, avoiding shady promoters and assuring a venue will have everything you need are also challenges.

“The No. 1 thing is to get a really good booking agent,” Barry says. “Our main one is just a ball buster. She won't take a gig unless it's 100 percent kosher. Nothing gets by her.” Sending out mailers and demos to agents may land you one. Barry also says that if you get a gig yourself, before you actually book it, call up an agent and see if they will book it for you and afterward represent you. “That's not what we did, but I've thought about that a lot when people ask me questions,” he says.

If you can't get your own booking agent, you should draw up some kind of contract and make sure you get at least 50 percent of the money up front. Barry recommends asking for money at least a month before the scheduled gig. “Just because a promoter sends you plane tickets doesn't mean that it's all good,” he says. “You never know when a party is going to fold or a promoter's going to have problems.”

Cirrus also send out an equipment rider that gives their engineer's contact info on it, a diagram of how they set up their stage gear, and an input list for all their sound sources and how they're plugged into a mixer. Cirrus also require a preshow soundcheck. “You have to tell them the sound has to be set by some ridiculous time like 10 a.m. so that sound might be set up by 6 p.m.,” Barry says.

Some Lab4 requirements include a soundcheck, a 10-by-10-foot space for gear, and a reasonable distance from the crowd. Things are easier for Lez and Adam now that they have a large audience and some clout. In the beginning, it was much more of a struggle. “We'd take any gig we were offered,” Adam says. “You're not really thinking about the money; you just want to play in front of people. And that leaves you open to getting ripped off big-time.”

Because many artists are perfectionists or sensitive, or both, it can be tough to know when you're ready to present what you do to other people. “I wasn't [ready],” Martin says. “I just did it because I had the show and I wanted to play. But, also, I believe in trial by fire. You're never ready for the first show, so you might as well play when you're not ready. You could stay in the basement for 10 years, and the first time you play out, it's going to be totally different. Hopefully, you'll have people who are nice enough to say, ‘That sucked, but keep trying.’”

Artist: Cirrus

LIVE MEMBERS: Stephen James Barry, keyboards, programming, guitar, vocals; Aaron Carter, turntables, bass, programming, vocals; Jim Chaney, drums; Ken DeSantis, engineer

HOME: Los Angeles

STYLE: Funky, rock-tinged BREAKbeat techno

BACKGROUND: Barry and Carter formed Cirrus in 1994 and recorded a demo tape that caught the attention of Moonshine Music. Barry came from a rock-guitar background; Carter began DJing in the late '80s. Singles from their debut Moonshine album Drop the BREAK (1997) hit the Billboard dance charts, and the group was in immediate demand as a live act at raves across the country. This year, Cirrus released Counterfeit. The meticulously produced album shows off the group's fully mature studio wizardry. It combines scorching new school electro funk with dramatic vocal tracks full of sweeping synths.

CURRENT RELEASE: Counterfeit (Moonshine, 2002)

LIVE GEAR: Apple Macintosh G4 Titanium PowerBooks (2)
beyerdynamic headphones
Clavia Nord Lead keyboard
Ernie Ball bass through SWR bass rig
MOTU 828 FireWire audio interfaces (2)
MOTU Fastlane USB MIDI interface
Pioneer DJM-500 mixer
Roland Juno-106
Parker guitar w/Roland GK-2A hex pickup split between a Roland VG-88 amp and a Novation Nova synth module

Artist: Hesohi (aka Doug Martin)

HOME: San Francisco

STYLE: Soulful, bouncy deep house and tech house

BACKGROUND: The former lead singer and keyboardist of a funk band in northeast Ohio, Martin first performed as Hesohi in the mid-'90s. After establishing a solid reputation for live performance throughout the Midwest, he migrated to San Francisco and strengthened his relationship with Imperial Dub Recordings, which has put out four Hesohi releases.

RECENT RELEASE: Live in San Francisco (IDR, 2001)

LIVE GEAR: 16-channel mixer (Mackie 1604 preferred)
Alesis MMT-8 sequencer
E-mu Vintage Keys synth module
Korg ES-1 Electribe
Symetrix 606 Delay F/x Machine
Yamaha RY-30 drum machine

Artist: Hawke

LIVE MEMBERS (lineup varies): Gavin Hardkiss, programming, turntables; Swan, guitar; Jay Bowman, guitar; Sir Adamsmasher, vocals

HOME: San Francisco

STYLE: Genre-hopping mix of organically inflected dance music

BACKGROUND: Gavin Hardkiss, recording as Hawke, contributed to the Delusions of Grandeur compilation (Hardkiss, 1994). The album was the definitive collection of the spiritual, psychedelic, ethnic dance music that epitomized the San Francisco sound of the mid-1990s. Hawke returned in 1998 with the critically acclaimed Namaquadisco (Sunburn Recordings, 1998). Hawke's 2002 album, Heatstroke, is Hardkiss' sharpest work yet.

CURRENT RELEASE: Heatstroke (Six Degrees, 2002)

LIVE GEAR: Behringer console mixer
Korg Kaoss pad
Roland DJ-2000 mixer
Roland TR-808 drum machine
Roland VS-880 hard disk recorder
Turntables (Technics 1200s preferred)
Yamaha old drum machine

Artist: Lab4

MEMBERS: Adam and Lez

HOME: London

STYLE: Hard house, hardcore techno and trance

BACKGROUND: Adam and Lez began playing in the industrial metal band M.A.D. in the early '90s. The bass player left, so the band replaced him with electronics; when the vocalist also quit, the two remaining members decided not to replace him. Lab4 was born.

UPCOMING RELEASE: Virus (Fragile)

LIVE GEAR: Akai DPS12 hard disk recorder (synched to Datadisk)
Akai S2800
Alesis 32-band graphic EQ
Alesis Datadisk sequencer
ART FXR
Casio DA7 DAT (backup 1)
Casio FZ10M
Control Synthesis Deep Bass Nine
Kawai K1 MK2
Mackie 1202 mixer
Roland SH-101
Roland D-50
Roland Juno-2
Sony MiniDisc (backup 2)
Yamaha TG55

Artist: Morel

MEMBERS: Richard Morel, vocals, guitar; John Allen, guitar; Pat Flood, bass; Rob Black, drums; Dwayne Tyree, percussion, vocals

HOME: Washington, D.C.

STYLE: House and trance-flavored pop and rock songs performed by a full band with a MiniDisc playing the synths and looped drum parts

BACKGROUND: Richard Morel is well-known for his collaborations with Deep Dish, which included engineering tracks for the duo's Junk Science (Deconstruction, 1998) album and singing and co-writing several of the tracks, including the house classic “Mohammed Is Jesus.” Morel has also remixed high-profile artists such as Depeche Mode, New Order, Lo-Fidelity All Stars and the Pet Shop Boys under the producer name Pink Noise. However, Morel is a singer and songwriter first and foremost.

CURRENT RELEASE: Queen of the Highway (Yoshitoshi, 2001)

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