While music production techniques made great strides over the last fifty years, resulting in our current era of digital sound recording, live electronic music has proven to be more difficult to perform. Most traditional genres of music carry an inherent component of performance, but as music technology advances, this aspect of live creation seems to diminish. The emphasis on traditional instrumentation is reduced in electronic music, as the producer utilizes the full range of studio trickery from synths and drum machines to MIDI devices and sampling to create their material. It's not always easy to duplicate that setting on stage.
As the studio began to shift from a mere recording device to full blown instrument, the art of music production evolved and became more complex. The means to create electronic music didn't happen in real time; it was well thought out and calculated, finely detailed and labored over in studios for countless hours. Replicating this material in a live setting is a challenging task, and most electronic artists have historically been happy to stick to DJing as their method of performance.
DJing has been a thriving practice throughout the EDM boom, with most contemporary producers choosing the medium as their sole mode of live performance. DJs replaced the rock star, and focus shifted from the creation of the music to mixing. The DJ model set the standard in the culture and helped foster the current era of prosperity in the scene, but it always felt as though the live aspect was a missed potential. A few artists broke the mold over the years as the EDM movement developed, but this just wasn’t the mentality driving the live scene. That being said, today the playing field is starting to even out as a number of prominent electronic artists are making the transition from DJ to live act.
Embracing The Human Edge
The number of artists embracing the live performance has substantially risen over the last year or so. Porter Robinson put down the decks and revealed a sophisticated assortment of noise makers for his Worlds Tour. Nero announced their intention to perform as a band, cementing Alana Watson as the frontwoman and live vocalist for the three piece outfit. The Glitch Mob unveiled The Blade, a customized performance rig that gives the group full control of their live show, while Kygo dropped DJing in favor of a band-like approach, Netsky toured heavily with a drum and bass ensemble, plus Floating Points and Bonobo also offered up a translation of their music with a live band.
When the EDM craze first kicked off around 2010, it was thriving as a mostly instrumental genre, with vocal collaborators showing up on the occasional track. As the lines between electronic music and pop blurred in recent years, we’ve seen a rise in vocal collaborations on dance records that have given producers an edge on the charts while shifting the emphasis away from sound design and production back to more traditional songwriting. It’s a proven strategy for artists like Jack Ü, The Chainsmokers and Calvin Harris, who climbed the pop charts with their vocal driven dance hits and crossed over to the mainstream. If the trend of fusing traditional songwriting and dance music continues, it seems natural to expect more mainstream electronic acts to make the switch from DJing to live performance.
There are now a number of electronic artists pushing the limits of live music by implementing their own customized performance system in their shows. These set-ups are quite varied, but usually feature a mixture of MIDI controllers, keyboards, outboard synths and drum machines, samplers, electronic drum pads, as well as the presence of a live vocalist. A laptop and a copy of Ableton Live often lay at the center of these custom set-ups, but they afford the performer a great deal of versatility and control in the live arena.
Disclosure are a fine example of an act gaining steam in the pop arena with their dance fueled sound, and the duo began showing off their custom live set-up earlier this year. Back in March, they teamed up with Red Bull Music Academy to release an in-depth video detailing their tour set-up. Disclosure utilize an elaborate array of instruments and electronics, including a variety of drum pads, a 909 drum machine, an electronic mallet set, a JUNO 6 synthesizer and more. Ableton is used in the background during their set, but the group have stated they intend to keep the focus on their real time efforts while on stage.
Robert Delong has one of the most impressive looking performance hubs, featuring a variety of odd gadgets he uses to control the sound. One of the most interesting aspects of his live setup is the use of video game controllers as sound devices, including a joystick, a racing style steering wheel and a wii remote. He mashes up vocal chops on a MIDI Fighter, noting that the arcade like feel of the buttons conjures up a similar gaming vibe. Do to its flexible nature, electronic music can be performed in a manner that caters to the artist’s interests and in this case, Delong is repurposing game controllers in conjunction with more conventional hardware to re-create his material in the live setting.
The Glitch Mob’s The Blade, however, is the granddaddy of electronic performance rigs. The LA based trio announced their new touring setup last year, a custom interactive performance system the group commissioned for their live shows. A massive undertaking, The Blade represents a milestone not only for The Glitch Mob, but for the history of live electronic music. It commands a massive stage presence and allows the band members to truly play, and improvise, their tracks on a number of different musical surfaces.
Of course when talking about house and techno, live performances have always been prominent. The most talented artists in this area are techno pioneers Jeff Mills and Octave One, along with one of the best live artists to witness today, KiNK. Also, Detroit Swindle recently wrapped up a live tour that was truly a spectacle to witness. These performances tend to focus on an array of sequencers, drum machines, and various synths, taking what's in the studio and bringing it to the stage. Plenty of talented underground producers are known for their innovative live sets, like Antenes, Patricia, Juju & Jordash, Surgeon, and much more.
Other producers to expand their performances with live instrumentation are Bonobo, Floating Points, and Pretty Lights, just to name a few. Rather than attempting to recreate their music in a live setting all by themselves, these artists choose to enlist a group of musicians. Floating Points recently toured with an 11-piece band, delivering a truly groundbreaking and captivating show. As the trend continues to reveals a dynamic side of the musician's artistry, we might be seeing more producers follow suite.
The Instrument Of Electronic Music
Hardware developers have released a number of electronic products over the years designed to be used as live instruments, but the progress towards developing high-end performance capabilities has progressed slowly. There’s always a shifting supply of MIDI controllers available, but few of them ever truly grab the attention of the industry. That being said, Novation’s Launchpad carved out a niche as one of the most popular MIDI controllers around, helping to bring a new level of playability to music production. In 2013, Ableton launched their flagship dedicated hardware controller, Push, with the goal of creating an instrument counterpart to the popular production software. The Push 2 was released this year, but the effectiveness of the device as a dedicated instrument is up for debate among users.
The technology is advancing to the point that musicians can cobble together some compelling live kits, and it's going to be exciting to see how this aspect advances in the future. While DJs won’t be going anywhere, it’s a great time for performers to push the limits of live electronic music and fill a longstanding void in the genre. While obviously not every artist will be able to commission the kind of rig The Glitch Mob now tour with, there are plenty of affordable options on the market for the aspiring musician to build their own setup.
Live shows give artists the opportunity to engage with their audience in a unique and memorable way. The nature of electronic music grants a futuristic wave of musicians the ability to stretch the limits of traditional performance. With major electronic acts like Disclosure and Nero switching up their live methods and a number of promising up and comers continuing to explore new ideas, now may finally be the right time to get your EDM garage band together and start booking gigs.
[headline photo: A Guy Called Gerald]