Sunday, August 27, 2006

Small tricks to make collaboration between livePAs easier


LivePa artists are often few and far between. Naturally, when meeting one another in the wild, we seem to have the natural urge to form symbiotic musical relationships with one another (sometimes laughingly called "collaborating"). This is a fine idea, but in reality, it can lead to some serious interface-related problems. For instance, an act whose primary devices are analog synths and drum machines may not get on so well with the laptop-and-control-surface crowd, and vice versa. In this way, the veritable sea of technology in which we swim is both a blessing and a curse; we can surround ourselves with devices that fit our needs and talents, but so much variety can often lead to chaos.

This is perhaps the only thing DJs can really lord over livePa acts; while we're scratching our heads and trying to work out the kinks in a MIDI chain that includes a 303/808/909 setup and a laptop with Abelton and a controller, they're laughing and sharing the decks without dropping a beat. Portability and the universal integration of technology are the strengths by which DJ culture spread, and holy grails we often fail to attain. Even if you end up in a venue on the other side of the globe, the DJ mixer is going to be just the same as anywhere else. For us, it's more complicated than that, especially if we're working with other people. However, before we commit hara kiri over that CV gate that keeps slipping out of sync with the rest of the midi chain, and the hardware sampler that starts .02 seconds later than the VSTs on the laptop, we should remember that there is hope for us.

My favourite method of keeping things simple involves a simple USB jump drive loaded with a set of signature samples. Since .wav support is almost universal in modern samplers, and of course software as well, this can be an instant way to inject a host setup with your half of the collaborative sound. Since I myself treat most of my samples with software anyhow, it can be as simple as saving backup copies of a library to a separate folder. If a USB port isn't available, the same trick can work with a cd-rw disc, smartmedia card, etc.. A lot of times it's easiest to trade libraries and get familiar with the other act's raw materials before jumping straight in.

Another, more obvious method is to bring one only peice of gear to the table, like a sampler or groovebox with which you are quite familiar, and a USB-to-MIDI cable (in addition to your plain MIDI or USB cables, depending on whether or not you're using a lappy or a hardware arsenal). Generally, one or the other will work just fine, allowing you to sync up your sound to theirs with few problems. Grooveboxes work particularly well for this, given their self-contained nature; even a cheesey toy like the Electribe ES1 with a midi-to-USB converter can turn out to be surprisingly useful in this situation.

And when it comes to gear choice, something with plenty of knobs and few functions that require the use of an LCD screen or a 'stop' button is a must. A good mixer with a lot of hands-on capability is often a great companion for a groovebox, as we can manage our own parts of the composition with one unit and the dynamics with another. With a little effort, we have a whole show's worth of potential right in front of us. Greater functionality with less space should always be the goal; that vintage analogue synth may sound fantastic and make you look like a god onstage, but it's only going to contribute so much to a collaborative sound, and that means the other side has to pick up that much more slack.

For laptop ninjas working together, ReWire seems like the interface method of choice these days. However, being a diehard MIDI junkie, I'd like to point out that midi clock, is compatible with nearly all other software, and in my experience has much less latency time. However, as I've never performed with a laptop, I don't think I'm the right person to take on this issue fully. However, after witnessing a couple of unsuccessful laptop-vs-laptop fiascos, I think it's probably the most boring and complicating way to do things. (That's just an opinion, of course.)

Sometimes, a setup that sounds utterly ludicrous can yield surprising results. For instance, when I first started out as a livePA act, my hardware consisted of a 486 computer which yes, I would haul out with me, and an anaolgue synth run via MIDI that rwent straight into the mixing board without FX. It was inflexible as heck, and required me to rely largely on pre-sequenced material, but when I did a show alongside an old skool turntablist, everything turned out alright. "A heck of a lot better than some jerk with a laptop," one crowdgoer told me after our set was over. "We could, like, actually watch you and shit, and see what you were doing. We could see the music happening."

And that's the part that really draws attention to livePA acts over the humdrum DJ passively mixing two records together. Like super heroes, our powers are always more effective when properly combined. With a little forethought it can be less of a headache than one might think; but inversely, it can quickly become overwhelming and unworkable if we're overly ambitious in our choice of gear and raw materials.

About me: I suppose I ought to introduce myself somewhat properly-- my name's J., and I've been a Pacific NW-based livePa act since age fifteen. Back then I made very dark trance and industrial music, though these days I'm more of a DnB type. I've gone under various names, but God In The Machine is the one I use more or less consistently. You can get ahold of me at

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