From Bedroom to Stage: Taking Beats Live

It’s a conundrum that’s faced producers since the dawning of the dance age. Scientists have poured over the problem (possibly), governments have invested billions into researching a solution (probably), but no conclusive agreement has been reached. So, just how do those who make music hidden away in bedroom studios, twiddling knobs and coaxing beats out of fried laptop processors, bring their toiled-over productions into the arena of live performance?! Fear not, Jus Like Music has the answer. Well, a few suggestions at least…

1. The ‘Bended Back Laptop Bash’

Perhaps the simplest method – and the easiest when it comes to transportation - is to simply bring your studio to the stage with you, standing bent-double over a laptop while desperately trying to look like you’re doing something. To be fair, most proponents of this technique are usually up to all sorts of complex stuff: from rehashing song arrangements on the fly with Ableton Live, to producing intricate mixes on Traktor or similar. Nevertheless, the temptation to hit play on iTunes and load up your push for the League 1 playoffs with Notts County on Football Manager will always be there, as well as the doubt in the minds of more sceptical audience members.

Some manage to counteract this cynicism by leaving audiences in no doubt as to their activities. For example, wonky beat-merchant Flying Lotus has a strong claim to the title of ‘most interesting rocker of a laptop’, and supplements the back-of-monitor look with a few bits and pieces of additional gear – from vintage synths to MIDI controllers on which to wrench faders and hammer buttons whilst hopping around madly to the sound of his unique brand of hyper-compressed astro-funk. Zaubernuss minimal techno head, Morris Cowan, is a former member of the Ableton Live mix school, a method he has recently grown tired of. “[The live set] is off the road at the moment, I’m giving it quite the overhaul!” he explained recently. “I was essentially mixing track to track in Ableton, with a multitude of live FX, which I didn’t feel was really live enough. So I’m chopping everything up into stems to build back up on the fly: much more versatile, but also a lot more demanding!” You still following?

In short, the BBLB is the easiest technique, and the one most true to the original material. But unless you’ve got the moves like FlyLo, or pair your screen-staring with some appropriate projected visuals for the more ‘expanded’ minds in the audience to gaze at, you’ve got to be sure that the crowd isn’t expecting a show, or attentions may wander.

2. The Full Band Blow Out

On the other end of the scale to the BBLB, the full band approach is one fraught with risks and possible pitfalls, but when done well can be the making of a producer’s career. Typically, those beat makers whose music strays into the occasionally pretence-filled world of ‘acid jazz’ have coveted this method. Brighton producer, Bonobo, has successfully toured his brand of heavily sample-based material for years with various incarnations of a live band featuring guest vocalists alongside a more archetypal back-line of drums, bass, keys and guitar. Andrew Turner’s AiM has done similar, with his live band eventually infiltrating into his studio work after initially starting life as a vehicle for fleshing out instrumental hip-hop productions on the stage.

Some pre-existing bands that may be based around the work of a single producer/composer – with a combination of live instrumentation and samples in the studio – are obviously in an advantageous position when it comes to live performance. Groups like Cinematic Orchestra, Submotion Orchestra, and Alternative Dubstep Orchestra (spotting a pattern here?) all play the kind of music typically associated with a one-man studio production team, providing not only a live visual aesthetic, but providing opportunity for the improvisational element of live performance. The band Introducing, a conceptual project set up exclusively to cover in its entirety DJ Shadow’s pioneering debut, Endtroducing, with a full live band, prove that painful replication of sample-based music can lead to some success, and, although as an exercise in nostalgia the band put on a great show, the ‘art project’ flavour to the whole thing does feel a little novelty.

The Full Band Blow Out has obvious advantages when putting on a show, but the risks are many and high, not to mention having to split payment more ways!

3. The Somewhere In-between

And finally, there’s the Somewhere In-between, perhaps the most creative and appropriate format possible. This allows the producer to preserve their original sound and style while augmenting it with a bit of live instrumentation to keep audiences interested: the scope is wide and varied. The be-masked SBTRKT has mastered the Somewhere In-between, fleshing out his live show into a duo with regular collaborator Sampha, the pair backing the circle of guest vocalists on drums and keyboards/vocals respectively, with a healthy dose of sampler bashing in between.

During his unique live sets, Bass Clef takes time out from twisting up beats and sine waves behind a bank of equipment to step out front and display his trombone skills over the top. Kevin Martin’s old school dub approach in King Midas Sound live sets - backing vocalist Roger Robinson on a straight out mixing board, cutting tracks and bringing in washes of delay and reverb – pays tribute to the forefathers of the group’s sound, while Squarepusher‘s demented bass noodling over twisted and frantic drum and bass has been engrossing crowds since the late ’90s. Aphex Twin‘s pure mastery of his equipment allows him to fully ‘perform’,
with all elements of spontaneity and interaction that comes with that, but creativity as advanced as Richard D James’ is rare.

So, hopefully that has given you some ideas about how to take those loops and successfully work a crowd. And if all else fails, you can always just put ‘DJ set’ after your name on the flyer…

  • Kaptin

    Nice one fellas, seen far too many boring lap top sets recently.  Really no need, just a little thought for the crowd goes a long way.  The other option is visuals of course.  Doesn’t have to be full blown AV set but something that’s more pleasing to the eye than some dude looking serious on his computer… failing that, dancers, acrobats, even jugglers have all been used to good effect. 

    • Anonymous

      I remember seeing Four Tet about 18 months ago in London and he had these acrobats wearing glow in the dark gear and they were using glow in the dark hoola hoops. Might sound a bit cheesy, but coupled with the lighting (and obviously the music!) it was really impressive.

      • http://mrtunes.ca/blog Mr. Tunes

        Funny you mention fourtet, he is also part of the in-between style. At mutek this year he did part of set with a band that was on stage prior. Always enjoyable live.

        But for my money i love seeing beardyman live. I want to see gaslamp killer too.