How to play live without really playing? :-)

Hi everyone,

I am pretty good at creating tracks with careful planning in Ableton Live or just by looping my synths and then going with recording the best take.

What if I want to start playing live and not cheat people just by playing back my tracks?

I would love to be able to mangle my tracks live, maybe jam on them with a small synth but mainly following my originally laid out tracks.

I thought a solution could’ve been an octatrack, but I am starting to realise that it may not be what I am looking for…

Any suggestions? (I don’t really want to bring my laptop around)


You could do something like take stems from your tracks as looping samples which you could process live with effects. Something more simple than an octatrack could be a Roland style sampler where some pads are loops with others are percussion, so you can keep some structure but still have fluidity in the moment. Then you can apply effects with the sampler itself, or something like a kaoss pad, to have gestural movement over your sound without having to interrupt the structure of a track.

This is a very gear oriented answer, apologies of that’s not what you were looking for lol. Also, knowing how to arrange something is talent, don’t forget it :slightly_smiling_face:


Any suggestions for a roland sampler?

This is a very interesting question. I’d recommend thinking of it from the audience perspective. What are they seeing? What are they hearing? Having gone to zillions of shows in the past, when I think of the performances that stand out I think of multiple qualities. Musicianship in some cases can be as alienating as it is impressive if there’s no connection with the audience. I saw a guy play with a modular and an octatrack once and he was way more engaging than some of the in your face punk acts because he performed as a facilitator/co-enjoyer of the music. I wouldn’t let thoughts of talent discourage you. Maybe record a video of yourself playing a part of your set and then when you watch back think ‘what would I like to see different about this?’ smoke machine? Houseplant next to the setup? Performer connecting more with the audience? The beats are just a small part of the experience.


Modular + octatrack is really the direction I would love to go…but I am being discouraged because I am used to create my “perfect” tracks in Ableton Live

You could always load the beats onto octatrack, set up some simple scenes (filter, effects, pitch) and jam along with an 0-coast through the octatrack or controlled by a small midi controller

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There is nothing wrong with playing stems / loops of your tracks, re-arranging or mangling them live.

Gear wise, I would have suggested an Octatrack. But you already ruled it out. So maybe something like two Roland/Boss SP404/303, a small mixer and an additional effect or two would also work.

But even a laptop and some midi controller can be cool.

Just start with some setup and practice for a while. You will feel more comfortable and find ways to improvise or enhance your perfomance. And you will probably realize what kind of device would help in reaching your goals. Or maybe you already have everything you need.


When you use live do you use any controllers like a push or keyboard?

I guess this is very dependent on musical style, but one approach I’ve seen is to perform the effects layer on top of your pre-recorded tracks and to incorporate some mixing/remixing/djing.

A good example, I think, is Jon Hopkins and all his Kaoss Pads - but this probably only suits certain types of music!

Edit - I’m not suggesting this approach is devoid of talent! Far from it!


Part of the beauty of live performance is the risk of messing up! It just takes practice to mitigate mistakes as much as possible (it’s never perfect which is also fine) and to learn to accept what we cannot control. But that’s not what you’re asking.

What you’re describing reminds me a lot of live “dub techno” sets, which are reallllyyy engaging (to me) and are essentially a live mix on stage. The tracks are precomposed and stems/individual tracks are usually played back from a device (SP404, Octatrack, Laptop) but the performer/producer will use effects and jam out with all kinds of things - EQ, other samples, remixing on the fly, etc.

Part of the beauty of using electronics is that we can control the degrees of freedom that we have when we’re performing — the more freedom I have in my mixing during performance, the more freedom I have to deviate from the predicatability/reproduced accuracy of my music. In other words, I have the freedom to play with things if I want to, or I have the safety of using my predetermined composition without risking mistakes or deviations.

But like others have said, it matters less to me what someone is doing on stage than what music they’re making. Performance has value, and can also manifest in myriad forms. One of my favorite performances was a guy walking on stage, plugging in his iPod, pressing play, and walking off — it was conceptual of course, but it felt unifying, and the music became the focus instead of the person on stage with flashing lights and stuff.

Another idea that I’ve had a lot of success with is playing a stereo track through multiple channels (surround sound) and manipulating where the sounds go in real time. It can be really beautiful if it’s done well, and while the musical content is the same every time, the audience’s experience is still moment-to-moment. Hard to perform in most spaces, but if you can get your hands on a close-to-identical set of 4-8 speakers, I highly recommend it.


I meant to link this video, first thing I thought of when reading the OP :+1:




Four-Tet would be another good example - his live sets are a mix of Ableton and one of the Roland SP samplers. I think there’s a video on YouTube where he discusses his setup. For a different genre/style, I also think about Panda Bear and his samplers.


Along with Panda Bear, much of Animal Collective’s entire recording and live performance setup since the Strawberry Jam era is based around a handful of manually triggered Roland SP samplers. They use them more as instruments, so could be interesting to look into if you’re not familiar.


Well I need some of that today, thanks for the tip.


Four Tet’s RBMA lecture on his live set is absolutely essential viewing on this topic, as far as I’m concerned:


Him going crazy with that mouse is too good.


on his last few album tours panda bear has been using two octatracks with the channels/stems split out to a big mixer in the middle and some effects units on sends. sorta like an advanced dj setup.
in the early days he would do the same thing with two sp-303 samplers and a mixer. i saw an old video where he’d transition to a new song, then turn off the sp-303 that wasn’t in use and swap out the smartmedia card.

side note: maybe the topic title should change to just be about playing live? i kinda feel weird mentioning someone i really admire, and who has lots of talent, in a thread called “how to play live without much talent”


This isn’t a technological subject IMHO… whatever instrumental technology you go with, just use it a lot. (Also known as practice.) I think the most important thing is to focus on listening. You’ll find plenty of naysayers when it comes to simple playback of studio music, but presenting previously recorded music to an audience is NOT A CRIME. It’s lame if you pretend to be doing something you’re not while it plays, and IMHO sometimes just tweaking a layer of FX to give you something to do while it plays is also a little lame… unless it sounds good. :slight_smile: If you’re bored by simple playback, then experiment and see what you can arrive at that feels fun and interesting and also sounds good. Above all, if you’re just making excuses to look like you’re doing something I think that’s approaching it from the wrong angle. Focus on how it sounds, and how fun or interesting it is for you to do.


totally agree, I hesitated to reply in the thread for the same reason. maybe something like “how to play live without traditional instruments” or something simpler/more general?