Pro / Hardware

The Performing Laptop

Craig Anderton walks us through his laptop-based live performance system, including guitar effects, samples and loops and the equipment that makes it all come together.

So far in these articles, I've talked about tips and tricks involving Rain laptops, specifically, the LiveBook. But now, let's zoom out and look at the big picture: A laptop-based live performance system, and what that entails.

My solo act consists of doing live, improvised, techno/dance remixing of loops with Ableton's Live software, and playing guitar and singing on top of that. It sounds simple, but doing a dance-oriented solo act means you can't mess up-everything has to flow pefectly, all the time. Miss one beat, or fail to tempo-match two pieces of music properly, and the audience will not be pleased.

For those not familiar with remixing, my basic process goes something like this (others use different approaches to achieve similar goals). First, I collect loops that work well together. For example, in my last series of concerts, I wanted to do a tribute to Pink Floyd's founder Syd Barrett, but add a few twists. So, I "deconstructed" several songs from Pink Floyd's first album, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, to create some 2- and 4-measure loops, including the famous guitar riff from "Interstellar Overdrive" and some compatible loops from other tunes. I then created additional drum, bass, keyboard, and effects loops that sounded compatible with the original Pink Floyd loops (Fig. 1).


Figure 1 - Loops set up in Ableton Live. Each row represents a "scene"; triggering the scene causes all loops to start playing at once, right on the beat. You can then mix them in and out, solo them, mute particular loops, stop and start loops, trigger new scenes, etc.

A performance consists of bringing in loops, having them play against other loops, mixing particular sounds in and out, muting and soloing loops, and so on. For example, the concert might start with a simple drum beat, then have a bass loop come in, then a keyboard pad, and then the guitar riff from "Interstellar Overdrive." From there other loops weave in and out, and when there's a stable, grooving rhythm section, I'll improvise on guitar over that.

The hardware elements involved in my performance setup are:

Rain LiveBook. It's never let me down. Enough said.

PreSonus FireBox interface. This firewire-based interface is ideal for what I do: It's compact, has MIDI in and out, suitable inputs for guitar and mic, and of course, audio outputs. It's also bus-powered, and the LiveBook has enough juice to power it. Perhaps most importantly, it's virtually indestructible. If you ran over it with a car, I'd be more concerned about throwing off the car's wheel alignment than the FireBox.

Peavey PC-1600x fader box. This is the heart of my remixing process. The PC-1600x (which unfortunately is no longer in production) has 16 faders and 16 buttons that generate MIDI control signals. The faders are tied to mixer controls within Ableton Live, which allows for smooth fade-ins and fade-outs, while the buttons are linked to Live's solo function. This means that if I want a cool breakbeat section, I just hit the button, solo something like a drum break for a few measures, then have everything crash back in again-very dramatic. The PC-1600x also stores presets, so you can have big changes happen at the touch of a button.

Doing a dance-oriented solo act means you can't mess up-everything has to flow pefectly, all the time. Miss one beat, or fail to tempo-match two pieces of music properly, and the audience will not be pleased.

Audio Damage FuzzPlus 2 distortion plug-in. I almost feel guilty using this, because it's a free plug-in yet it's so darn good. The Rain LiveBook is fast enough that I don't need a separate guitar processing setup; I just feed the guitar into a FireBox input, send that to a Live channel, and use the FuzzPlus 2, a Filter Delay, and EQ to add effects (Fig. 2).

Guitar Processing

Figure 2 - I used to carry around a big pedalboard of hardware guitar processors. Now I just feed the guitar into Ableton Live, and use plug-ins to process the sound. Note that areas not pertaining to the guitar aspect are "grayed-out" to emphasize the guitar-related modules.

With latencies of around 6ms, delays caused by playing through the computer are simply not an issue. One reason I can get away with these low latencies is because my Live sets are stored on USB memory sticks; see the related article RAM Recording/Editing and the Solid State Disk Drive.

Shure SM58 microphone. This also plugs into the FireBox and feeds a channel in Live, where I add a chorus plug-in, delay, compressor, and EQ to make my voice sound a little bigger.

Accessories. There's not much: A barrier strip, some guitar picks, a MIDI cable to go from the PC-1600x output to the FireBox MIDI input, a few guitar cables, and an AC adapter for the PC-1600x, and I'm good to go.

The beauty of this setup is that I can be up and running in about 10-15 minutes (!), going from everything packed up, to sound check, to playing back my first loop. When packed up, everything is extremely compact: I have a laptop bag for the Rain LiveBook, another small computer bag for the interface, cables, FireBox, mic, etc., and my guitar (if I could only find a travel guitar with a vibrato tailpiece, I'd be in really good shape). As long as there's a table or other playing surface big enough to hold the LiveBook, the PC-1600x (which is usually set up in front of the LiveBook), and the interface, I really don't need anything else...well, except an audience, of course. Assuming the venue where I'm playing has some kind of PA system, my entire setup can be carry-on baggage.

But if a picture is worth a thousand words, then an audio file is worth a thousand pictures. Click here to hear a performance done using the setup described in this article - I had a good time playing, and hopefully, you'll have a good time watching/listening. Let's hear it for the live laptop!

Copyright 2008 by Craig Anderton and licensed to Rain Recording. All rights reserved.