Computers, they aren't so bad! (aka Just Buy a Computer)

I’ve been spending most of my time doing most of the things I do, using a computer, for over 30 years.

I understand the push towards embracing of constraints, as well as the greater degree of reliability that can come from using outboard gear to the exclusion of computers in a live music rig.

But I see so much of that sentiment expressed so forcefully that sometimes I feel like a pariah for simply loving my computers and what I can do with them. I realize it’s not for everyone, and I love that people are finding new ways to do things. As a matter of fact, watching the modular synthesis very closely frequently inspires me to try using my computer in new ways I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. So, I’m all for the cross-pollination of hardware and software ideas.

But I just wanted to start a thread to lend some support to those who, like me, haven’t jettisoned the computer as of yet. For me, one of the biggest advantages to an inboard system is the significant space savings that are possible.

Got any tips for increasing the reliability of a computer-based music system? When using a computer to make music, what do you do to make it an efficient experience, to avoid endless noodling with minimal musical result? How do you seek out and establish constraints when using a computer?

Sometimes I think “freedom from choice” can potentially be a matter of mental discipline. Do we really need physical barriers to flexibility in search of constraints, or can constraints be more a matter of choice, a choice that perhaps evolves over time?

Curious to hear your thoughts.


i love computers for music-- it’s just taken a strange turn in the last half decade.

i still stand by the macbook air as a design achievement. but my building frustration with mac os is hitting a threshold.

right now i’m imagining: linux on a macbook air, high quality sound card, controller (or two). and start to embrace systems that use computers but don’t need to be computer-centric, as well as small little tailored patches (in supercollider/pd/etc) as single instruments, rather than try to run a crazy ton of things off one system.

i like the idea of giving the computer a role, as an instrument. thinking of it like a stompbox or a keyboard or whatever. and then just have it be a little piece of a composition or performance. something totally separate from a studio computer. in fact, my idea is to have a separate studio computer entirely, that does recording/etc. that doesn’t need to be mobile.


I love computers, on and off stage, to make music, but live music and studio production reveal very different problematics, not sure which one we’re adressing here?

Mostly, I use computers as hubs to connect acoustic instruments (typically electric and acoustic guitar, flute, voice and some harmonic percussions) to electronic devices and help them interract. I’m yet to find a dedicated interface other than a computer that allows me to merge both those worlds without having to give up on a lot of ideas. Octatrack comes close but doesn’t quite cut it.

Most of the time though, it’s also a matter of what your goal as a performer is. Modular performances (and other minimalist gear oriented gigs) often feel closer (at least to me) to classical music solists performances. And it’s somehow a wonderful thing that electronic music can go there too. But the reason I always loved good computer driven performances is in how they can allow small groups of individuals or even solo artist to build extremely rich and complex landscapes (more like orchestral music, if you will, without wanting to sound too grandiloquent) without relying too much on their ultra-deep knowledge of a particular instrument, and more on a lot of small little ideas put together in an inventive way, and I think it requires a completely different set of skills and that for those, computer still is the best option.

Not sure if that makes sense at all for you but it’s something I think about very often anyway ^^


this is quite a timely conversation for me as i’m currently thinking about integrating a laptop into a live performance setup which will really only be a larger modular flightcase, the laptop, and a few controllers.

i am not planning to run a daw as a multitrack playback/record machine, but essentially envision to use max and maybe ableton as a glorified routing matrix running M4L patches and a couple of effects plugins.

using a laptop on stage is not intrinsically problematic for me, but it should be as unobtrusive as possible with ideally zero staring at the monitor. and i’d love for the laptop to be as compact and light as possible. currently hijacking my partner’s macbook pro when necessary, but that starts to become a little too messy.

as brian already mentioned the macbook air above, how are people’s experiences using it as an on stage laptop? enough horsepower to run a couple of patches and plugins and ableton?

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Depends on the era of MBA. My 2010 maxes out at 4GB RAM and has a Core 2 Duo, so I ended up buying a MBP with 16GB RAM and an i7 when I got tired of watching the spinning beach ball. Newer MBAs have better specs.

Thanks. Sounds like a current Air could be the ticket.

For me it’s more the fact that my day job consists almost entirely of staring at a computer screen all day. It’s almost impossible for me to be musically creative with a computer as opposed to real tactile instruments. I also come from a background of playing guitar and taiko drums, which involves a lot of movement while playing music so the whole musical process for me is very movement-based. Even when using my synths I’m often dancing around and getting in to it, so stopping that to stare at a computer screen and point at things with a mouse or type on a keyboard just really kills the vibe.

One thing I’ve recently started experimenting with though is Max 7, but in an entirely different fashion. It’s a more analytical approach to composition as opposed to an intuitive one, and still I can only bring myself to experiment with it one days when I haven’t been working :slight_smile:


I completely agree about the “staring at a computer screen and point at things” part. And I remember that I once got quite depressed because of people telling me I looked like I was “checking my mails” during a gig, but I think controllers of all sorts are now rich and matured enough to allow us to forget almost completly about the computer screen. And to follow your examples, for “movement based” performances and/or composition, it’s just amazing to have a computer, some arduino sensors, max 7 or ableton, and a few other tricks.

It’s actually something I’ve based a whole show on once, where a musician was playing electric guitar, and another had wiimotes and other sensors and would use motions to transform and distort the guitar parts live while someone else would eventually merge both those things with sequenced rhythms and sample some bits live. In all that I don’t think we were looking at the computer more than 5% of the time to check everything was alright, it was completly intuitive, allowed some improvisation while still following a pretty pre-written composition. The computer just made that show easy for us and also we didn’t have to buy anything new (the sensors were pretty cheap from what I remember) to create a performance that was, well, far from what we usually create to say the least ^^


How to perform with a laptop on stage:


Damn, I guess I was overthinking this whole computer thing!

Totally love these guys.

Holding a beer while mumbling some of the lyrics is the most simple and elegant music interface I’ve seen in a while, I want one, where can we buy that? (I know, it’s out of my budget, and it will always be)


Just a bit of perspective for non-brits, this was on Jools Holland, the longest-running, most popular and critically acclaimed music show in the UK.

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what. this is great. really.


I just love how so very, very honest it is.


I have so many thoughts on this topic I could easily write an essay here. Instead here are some bullet points:

  • I love computers for music and computer music. More than anything computers made me want to be a musician.

  • I especially love when computer music challenges what it means to play an instrument or give a performance. I 100% support pushing start to initiate some algorithm live and then just guiding it or watching it unfurl.

  • Analog modular synths are a form of computer.

  • Whenever I use some commercial music software, like any DAW or almost any soft synth, I always feel like I’m struggling against the software. It always wants me to work with very traditional assumptions about what music is or how it should be made.

  • Computers are hardware.


btw anyone in or near London should go to this:


to link your two posts, best show i saw last year was mark fell pushing play on an algorithm and then drinking coffee.


Just want to express here that i just finished my first really personal live setup, homemade from scratch in m4l, consisting of 8 one shot samplers and two rené-like sequencer controlled by a 256 and driving my modular synths along samplers loaded with acoustic sounds. Basically a tool to improvise.
Gigging tomorrow with this, totally improvised. I am so happy to end up with something 100% made by myself and that works as i dreamt it would.
It’s so worth it and only computers could allow me this.
It’s been a long journey (to be continued) to learn max and how to interface with the monome but i’ve learnt so much, not just in technic and computing skills, but in music more generally, trying to analyse what’s important, what’s doable, what matters in terms of performance, etc.
Looking back at mlr, or the party van, the same feeling must have been here in the making of them, and there is something really beautiful in making your own thing.


I think he does that type of thing on purpose as some sort of anti-performance performance. I remember an interview where he talks about leaving a water bottle precariously close to his laptop just to make the audience feel uncomfortable. And then there’s the masterful SND boiler-room where he goes the whole performance without taking off his backpack.