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How to play your electronic music live: an introduction

  • 28 January 2016, Thursday
Keyboards and DAWs

Hello. We are Skinnerbox. We make jazz music. It does not sound like jazz music, it does not use traditional jazz 'instrumentarium', and we usually play it in moist and hazy clubs or festivals at obscure hours of the day. Nevertheless, you gotta trust us! It´s jazz - to its extended notion.

And now - to make things a little less abstract - we (Iftah, hailing from Israel and living in Berlin since 2002) and Olaf (born and raised in Berlin) met back in 2003 and been making music together ever since. We spent the first year of our monogamous musical marriage exploring electro acoustic improvised music, doing ambient studio sessions, playing on everything we could find. As time went by, we were finding ourselves focusing on two instruments: Olaf would play the Minimoog and Iftah would play the computer - and the music became more and more defined and beat-oriented. We had a vision of being able to perform outside with a small setup whenever we wanted to. So we had built a small portable PA powered by a car battery, went outside to the streets and did our thing.

Those of you who spent the summer of 2005 in Berlin will know the so called “rave renaissance” that washed the city. Party was everywhere and for free. Party organizers like the Bachstelzen and the Bar25 were practically shaping the aesthetics of clubbing for the years to come. And, yes, we were at the right place at the right time, drawing attention due to our bad haircuts and our notorious live afternoon sessions at Görlitzer Park. Throughout the past years we have released a dozen of singles and an album on labels like “BPitch Control”, “My Favourite Robot”, “Darkroom Dubs” and others. We started building our own instruments and effects and programmed a drum machine called “Time & Timbre” which was officially released in conjunction with Ableton in 2014. Our music might have changed a lot in the past 10 years but one thing remained the same: We play live improvised electronic dance music.

What are we going to talk about

In these monthly blog articles we would like to talk about being a surviving DIY electronic music warrior - both technically and philosophically - with emphasis on playing live electronic music, finding the right setup / building our own instruments, developing a sound signature but also about fundamentals in music like 'groove', 'harmony', aesthetics in general and the development of new ideas.

What we would like to cover today is computer based live setup. Keep in mind that this is the first article, so we might not dive too deep into the points. We will also keep it less technical as we´ll certainly get lost in geeky details in the following articles.

So what does it mean to play live electronic music?

We have build our own setup and use a lot of custom made equipment and software that enables us to have the freedom we need on stage. Today's tools offer so many ways of customization even without being a programmer or instrument maker. You just need to know how to stay focused within the ocean of possibilities and how to make the right tools work for you. You should take a lot of time figuring out what suits your creative flow.

Forget about analog or digital, forget about soft or hard instruments. Everything can be beautiful or horrible, but useful in both cases. Our core fascination with techno back in the days was that it was not about the 'what', it is about the 'how'.Nowadays you can (and should) make electronic music from practically everything.

The key to play great live music - so we believe - is to feel good on stage, and you can only feel good if you feel free. While obviously mentally it means to overcome stage anxiety and believing that your music has earned its place in the over-saturated electronic music scene (That´s a hard one! Ignorance is helpful to some extent…), technically it means to have a setup which is deep enough and offers a lot of control (...but not too much. Too much control usually ends up in loosing control!). Know your setup as if it was extension of yourself!

Create your music on the fly

For the sake of terminology, we presume that you use Ableton (disclosure, we do). This works with any DAW:

Nowadays there are two main ways of playing live electronic music on stage. The first and the rather boring one is to play pre-arranged tracks broken to stems while messing around with the elements (i.e filtering, effects, muting tracks etc.). The second one is to have a big pool of sounds divided into categories on different channels (i.e bass, percussion, melodic stuff, drums) which can be combined in numerous ways to create new music on the fly (another disclosure - this is what we do). We recommend going this way, because this will assure you - and the crowd - won´t get bored very soon. There is nothing more sobering than "live" music which does not use the potential of being shaped on the fly in accordance to the reactions of the audience.

Keep these 3 points while playing your set

Even if you play completely improvised music, it is still very helpful to have three defined points in your set: First, a beginning that works for you and the crowd as well. Everybody will usually need five to ten minutes to get into the mood. Second, an anchor for the middle part so you can catch some breath (improvising dance music is a very demanding thing!). Third, a ''rock 'n' roll'' ending. The world does not need performances to end with two-minutes of lonely bass-drums. The rest should be left to the moment - this is where the great things happen! That said, if you feel inspired, do not hesitate to give up one or any of these three points. Beautiful accidents happen when you ditch your plan. Record your sets and listen to them, learn from it and do it better next time.

The visual connection

Find something to play on during your set: A MIDI-keyboard controlling a software synth, drum pads for the drums. Hell, connect electrodes to your brain if needed, just make sure that there is an element in your live set which is visually connected to your music. Live electronic music coming out of blinking boxes and computers is a very abstract thing for most of the audience. People really appreciate finding the connection themselves. When they do, they yell more, and when they yell more, you play better - that´s a fact!

This is just the tip of the iceberg, and in the following articles we will continue the “live playing” saga, if there is something specific you would like to know, do not be ashamed to ask, we are very much looking for your thoughts and comments!

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