From The Studio To The Stage

I’ll set the scene:

It’s come to that part of the night where the artist with ‘Live’ next to their name comes to the stage.  Now, as with any music fan you’re going to be thinking one of these thoughts;

  • is this going to be boring? 
  • Will it be a vibe kill?
  • Does anyone care that they're performing Live? 

Well this certainly doesn’t have to be the case and with a few live performance tips and tasks we can make sure you’re the guy who everyone leaves the venue remembering that performance, for the right reasons!

We’ve all seen the shows with a guy crouching behind a laptop, it visually pretty boring right?! We can do better than that.

With the development of more and more midi controllers as well numerous bespoke synths, drum machines and FX units the time to take your productions onto the stage is certainly with us!

With this in mind, Ryan from the team thought he’d explore some of the thousands of options available when performing with Ableton Live.  He'll demystify the maze of performance directions and provide you with a ‘Studio to stage checklist’.  The process always ends up being a little trial and error but with these things in mind hopefully you can enter the process feeling wise and in total control with a hand full of great Ableton Live performance tips to help.  

Before diving head first into the wormhole let’s consider a few of the following:

·      Is this set supposed to be like a DJ, a band or a combination of the two?

·      Are the crowd going to find it interesting?

·      How am I going to monitor the sound?

·      Improvisation Vs pre-rehearsed content.

·      Should promoters and fans be scared if you include the words (LIVE) after your name on the flier? I.e Extensive sound check, space needed etc etc. 

Once these have been answered we can dig a little deeper and start to contemplate:

·      Software Vs Hardware or both?

·      Controllers – Price, Features & Flexibility.

·      Midi / Interface choices

·      Live Instrument / Synth Pro’s & Cons

·      How many stems do I need to perform?

Planning

Planning is no doubt a word, which sends shivers down the spine of all producers but this early stage preparation can save hours of time. 

Try drawing out your live set with routing and scribble notes on it – this planning can be a life saver in the long run.

I usually start by roughly mapping out my Ableton live setup or by drawing pictures of how I imagine it all to work.  This should include the amount of channels and stems, whether I’m including any routing or grouping, the use of midi or live instruments and how I’m going to transition between sections. There’s no point getting stuck in only to run out of channels on your midi controller.

Try sticking labels onto your midi controllers for easy navigation.

Source: Ableton Live - The endless options for performance can be overwhelming.  

Bouncing Stems

Undoubtedly bouncing stems is one of the most boring parts of live performance process but getting it right at this early stage can be crucial in terms of producing a memorable and epic live show.  You’ll need to decide if you’re going to bounce complete track stems or just 8 / 16 bar loops etc.

If we’ve done the planning we should know how many stems we’re going to need.  Most producers have anywhere between 4-8 stems and can often look like this:

1.     Kicks

2.     Drums & Percs

3.     Bass

4.     Synths & Music

5.     Arps

6.     Vocals

7.     FX

8.     Extras

Mastering Stems

An often-overlooked element of the process is deciding on whether you’ll need to master your stems.  It’s not rare for producers to send their stems to be professionally mastered ensuring when they perform live it sounds identical to the release.  This can no doubt have amazing results but it shouldn't stop you from moving forward.  A word of warning on this one:

Remember: If mastering your own stems be careful not to overcook the compressor / Limiter. They might sound great individually but could sound over compressed and harsh when placed back together.

I personally found a little compression and EQ tightens everything and when combined with a master bus compressor / Limiter sounds great.  This can take some experimentation, as when different tracks are playing the settings might need adjusting to ensure continuity.  The live performance environment is quite intense so the more you have these things covered the better.  

Tip: When sound checking listen to your tracks in the club not just through the monitors.   They always sound strange through wedge monitors and you might be tempted to tweak the mix.  Don’t!

Controllers

The plethora of performance & Midi controllers available can be somewhat overwhelming and finding the right one, as with the layout can be a little trial and error until you get it right.  With planning done we will either be looking to purchase a new controller or shaping things to work around what we’ve got.  I usually ask the following:

1.     Do I want to launch clips?

2.     What control do I actually need – Aux, Levels, FX etc etc

3.     Do I need to be able to play midi info and 'perform'?

4.     Most importantly: Is it too confusing to use live? i.e too many dials and buttons - Keep it simple. 

Each controller will have it’s own quirks and charms but finding the one that works best for you always takes time.  Obvious options include The Ableton Push, Akai APC40, Novation Launch Control / Launch Pad and the more bespoke but super interesting Special Waves Modular system where you can tweak and change the amount of options within your own controller.  The options really are endless.

Note:  If you happen to become a super star because of your music then one last consideration might be whether it can fit into an over head locker of a plane – not something we all have to consider but worth thinking about non the less.

Tip: Be careful of cross talk between different controllers i.e one dial effecting numerous things it shouldn’t do – Check your Ableton midi settings and test everything, hundreds of times.

Live Instruments & Midi

Live instruments and synths have the ability to really bring your show together and give the crowd something they can tangibly understand & interact with.   Problems can sometimes occur but here are the things you should consider when using instruments in a live setting:

1.     Do you need some form of dynamic control on the channel?  Compressor / Limiter etc.

2.     Can you monitor the instrument without the crowd hearing?  Just in case!

3.     Are you going to be performing the notes or sending midi to these from Ableton?   We’ll go into more midi detail shortly – stay with us.

4.     Does it all work smoothly?

5.     Have you enough time & hands to perform successfully. 

6.     Has any of your equipment failed on you before?

7.     Do I need to tune them? 

Personal Rule: If a piece of equipment has failed once in a live setting then it has to go – even if you love it, it’s way too risky and could easily happen again! It’s either sold or left in the the studio.

Midi!  This approach has two sections that are easy to understand and problem solve:

Working with one synth is easy especially if you send midi to the device and just control the dials.  A few (bad) past experiences have taught me to keep a few things in mind:

Latency: Is there loads of latency from the buffer size & soundcard.  This should help:

Tip: Ableton > Options > Reduced Latency When Monitoring reduces the latency without effecting buffer size that could cause clicks & pops.

Levels: Will it always be the same volume every turn I start using it – let’s not deafen the crowd.

Tip: Add a limiter to the channel your synth is coming in on - just in case things go mad. 

Master Fader

Now this one requires some experimentation and lots of patience.  It’s worth running through your session with your compressor and limiter on screen and keep an eye on what’s happening.  You might need to tweak the clips or the settings to make sure you don’t go too overboard.

Session Arrangement & Navigation

Arguably one of the most important things is being able to navigate your session.  It’s no good having built the ultimate ‘mega-session’ only to find you end up completely lost every time you start and lose control of what’s actually playing.  This all links back to the planning stage so now you can see why getting this spot on at the beginning is so crucially important.

Each live set is so personal to each individual but these ideas are worth experimenting with:

Grouping Tracks – If you decide to run 8 channels side by side try sending both ‘Kicks’ to a separate channel called ‘Kick Aux’.  This can be your master channel for FX saving you vital CPU as well as giving you complete control over both kicks at all times. 

As you can see the session below is clear to understand with all matching channels being grouped into their own return (R).

I also know that my controller has 8 channels so gives me complete control of the entire first track including my 909-drum machine plus any full tracks I want to play on the ‘Deck’ Channel.

Ableton: Live Arrangement View - 8 Channels Per Track

Midi Controller Short Cuts: Learn them!  This includes holding 'shift' down to jump across your session by 8 channels, crucial if your session is 16 channels wide like the example above.

‘If you’re performing in a club environment make sure you’ve practised transitioning between tracks.

Back Up Plans & Safety Features

Non of us ever want to be a glass half empty kind of guy but things often do, and will eventually go wrong.  Because of this it’s vitally important to have safety features built into your set.  This can range from stopping FX sends all the way to completely stopping the audio. 

A personal favourite is placing limiters on any FX channels.   More for peace of mind but I know if things go mental it will never get too out of hand. 

Tip: When mapping your midi controllers set the max level of feedback on delays to a level that prevents it from ever going too wild, feeding back on itself and destroying your sound

Dummy Clips

A great way to add a level of safety is to use dummy clips in Ableton.  These can be blank clips that only include automation data so won’t make any sound.  A good use of these is to have one on every drop that turns off your effects, ensures all filters are up (especially on drums) and resets all your faders to where they need to be.  There’s nothing worse than going for your epic drop only to find most of the track has a High Pass Filter on it.

Practising

This has to be the most important step of the whole process.  If you can go on stage with the confidence of knowing that everything works, is well tested and feels natural then you’re onto a winner!

Tip: Things always sound and feel different at full volume.  Practice close to club volume and get used to how it feels. 

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