It’s one thing to experiment with music production as a fun and enriching hobby. It’s another thing when making music is your job, and you depend on your gear – including complex computerized electronics – to help you earn your paycheck. Here’s one from the road, by working musician and DMA music production instructor Damien Verrett.
I’ve been touring the country in bands since I was 19. There’s nothing quite like loading up a van with expensive music equipment, piling your friends on top of it and hitting the road to play the music you love.
But, as fun as it may sound, touring brings with it a host of uncertainties: “Where is this venue?” or “Is this even a real venue?” and “Where are we going to sleep tonight?”
Add to these nagging questions the growing trend of incorporating computers into live music performance and you’ve created the perfect breeding ground for Murphy’s Law to wreck your day (or, more importantly, your set).
Like all of us, I’m still learning things about my craft all the time. I don’t consider myself immune to on stage disasters, but I’m a little closer to understanding why they happen and how to avoid them.
Here are three disaster stories to help future electronic musicians navigate the ins and outs of using a computer as an instrument on tour:
DISASTER STORY #1: ALWAYS CARRY A BACKUP
A few years ago I was touring with a computer for the first time and, needless to say, I had no idea what I was doing. I thought I had planned ahead, I thought I’d envisioned all possible worst-case scenarios, but of course that wasn’t the case.
I had forgotten to account for one simple variable on this tour during a particularly grueling summer: heat.
We all know computers generate heat when they are on and that they generally use fans to regulate their internal temperature. Something I had not thought about was how hot an inert computer could get while sitting in a backpack inside a van on an Arizona day. When we arrived at the venue, my computer was so hot that it wouldn’t even turn on.
This sort of thing wouldn’t happen with a proper computer from 2016, but I was using a beater of a laptop from 2010. The main reason I’m telling this story is to illustrate the importance of having a backup computer on tour. It sounds crazy (and expensive), but it’s no crazier than packing a second guitar in the van for any mishaps you might have on stage.
Nowadays, I bring two laptops loaded with the same Ableton set and I load all of my sets and samples onto an external hard drive (we’ll come back to this later) so that even if BOTH computers give out on me I can load the files onto a NEW computer.
This is where PCs outshine Macs in the touring department. Replacing a PC at a Wal-Mart sounds almost pleasant compared to finding an Apple store and/or buying a new Macbook while on the road.
DISASTER STORY #2: KEEP IT SIMPLE, ROCK STAR
It’s good to be ambitious, but when it comes to computer music, it’s important to be realistic about the rigors that you and your equipment will be put under while touring. There is an endless number of ways to incorporate electronics into a live set. I find myself routinely daunted by the potential for expanding my set. But I usually find that returning to a “less-is-more” aesthetic is the way to go.
This guiding principle is useful for a number of reasons: First off, the potential for error increases exponentially with each piece of added equipment. A couple of years ago, I was thrilled to incorporate a wireless MIDI controller mounted to my guitar into my live set. It gave me more buttons, more control and it looked cool.
However, now I shudder to think how dependent I became on this little piece of equipment that sent MIDI notes wirelessly over Bluetooth. One night, just before my set and without warning, the thing just wouldn’t work.
Practicality aside, I’ve learned over time that keeping my setup simple actually improves the quality of my performance rather than diminishing it. When I don’t have to worry about my equipment functioning properly, I can just enjoy playing the songs. The last thing you want to be on stage is stressed, so put together a setup you can trust and keep it simple.
DISASTER STORY #3: PREVENT COMMUNICATION BREAKDOWNS
About a month ago, I was playing an important set in front of some important people and, in accordance with Murphy’s Law, everything went wrong. My computer started dropping out audio partway through songs and my MIDI controllers lost connection with my computer.
It was hard to conceal my horror at being stranded midway through a song by my own computer. Guitars and amps are predictable. Barring a broken string or a broken switch, there’s little mischief they can get up to. But computers are another beast entirely and, deep down, I think mine might actually hate me.
It was a bad experience, but I didn’t dismay. I came away asking “Why?” What actually happened to cause those audio dropouts? Why had my controllers lost connection?
I came to find that the way I’d been setting up my Ableton sets all this time was essentially wrong (at least for my purposes).
I’d been running stereo tracks instead of mono ones. I had thought about it before and rationalized, “I have 16 gigs of RAM. What’s the point of cutting the stereo files in half?” WRONG! Not only is it pointless to use stereo files in most venues (the PA in most venues is running in MONO because otherwise the stereo image would be completely different based on where you’re standing in the room), but it’s also significantly more likely to create hard disk crashes in Ableton.
I bounced out mono versions of all of my stems in 16 bit instead of 24 bit (because who is honestly going to be able to tell?) and now I run all of my tracks off an external USB 3.0 hard drive instead of from the internal hard drive that is running Ableton.
My other problem, the issue with MIDI controllers disconnecting, was much simpler. I realized that when my computer’s display went to sleep it broke the connection with my controllers. When I had been rehearsing I was interacting with my computer frequently enough that the display never had a chance to sleep. But, between sound checking and performing at the venue, my computer had more than enough time to sleep and thus break all of the connections.
It’s important to keep learning about your system as you’re developing it and to not give up on it. Chances are there’s a quick fix out there somewhere.
I hope this leaves you optimistic about your ability to wrestle with unruly equipment. It’s important to remain patient and actively seek out new information about your gear. If you can remember that it’s about the music first and not the equipment, you’ll be set up for success.
(If you’d like to hear some of my music, you can download my new Idiot Soul EP for free.)
Damien Verrett is a singer/songwriter/producer from Sacramento, Calif.
TURN YOUR MUSE INTO MUSIC
If Damien looks familiar to you, maybe you saw him lead our recent How-To blog post on live looping with Ableton Live.
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