Small/minimalist live gear setups and performances

Dear all,

I am very much interested in your live gear setups (especially the small/minimalist setups) and your whole process and structure of performing live with these.

As I am slowly moving towards my first live performance, I would love to get some inspiration and input based on your live experiences.

  1. What ist the gear/software you use in your live performance? How is it all connected/routed? How do you utilize your grid/arc?
  2. Is anyone out there still working exclusively with grid/arc and laptop?
  3. Do you perform ‚long form’ or ‚several tracks‘? How long is your ‚average‘ performance?
  4. How much is improvisation, how much is composition? What about the aspect of repeatability?
  5. Do you use pre-recorded material (field recordings/clips)? Do you process it live?
  6. What kind of venues do you perform in and what are your experiences with good and bad PA systems as this is the key to electronic music maybe even more than to acoustic music?

Please do not just post a picture without explaining what we see (we have the ‚pictures‘ thread for this) but rather write some words about the complex process of choice, preparation, practice and performance.

I would be deeply thankful, if you took the time to share your knowledge and experiences.

Best from Berlin
K

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I’ll speak on both the modular side and the laptop side of things.


One of the big reasons I got into electronic music was to perform live. Most (but not all) of my performances have been done with modular. Like a lot of people, when I got into modular (early 2016) it was super exciting, and within a year and a half I spent lots of money and had built up a 12U system. But at that point, it was like I had built up a large collection of modules, not a cohesive instrument, and it became unwieldy for performances. But one day in the Trade section of this forum, an isms popped up for sale and I jumped on that ASAP, and began to downsize.


I think a lot of people might think of a large modular system like an orchestra, but right now I’m more interested in treating mine as a solo performer or chamber ensemble. The limitations can be frustrating sometimes when listening to others and wishing I could have more independent voices playing at once, but then I remember my approach is just different, not better or worse than others.

The core of my system is the Teletype/Just Friends power combo and 2 W/. Often, I’m using the grid through Teletype as a playing surface to play Just Friends in real time. Then I’m often layering and building up parts with W/ to build up larger textures. I also love to throw in other things like guitar into it as well. I made an album with a similar approach.

The rest of the modules in the system shift in and out, but recently it’s been more consistent. It’s mostly settled into a set of monome, Mannequins, and Make Noise modules:

  • the monome modules offer the flexibility in sequencing and modulation, as well as letting me plug in grid/arc/midi etc etc
  • I love the sound and aesthetic of the Mannequins modules. They’re so packed with features and highly flexible. I actually have been using Mangrove and Sisters a lot as LFOs recently. The relationship between square/formant and the three filters leads to interesting modulation shapes. Sisters ALL as a pan control is pretty crazy!
  • To me, the coolest things about Make Noise modules (besides the DPO and Rene etc which are awesome too!), the filters and “-mix” modules are incredible. The MMG is my other favorite filter besides Sisters. And to me, the flexibility of the Optomix and Moddemix plus their own sonic charm make them incredibly useful and indispensable to me. I have 20hp left and I might pick up a Maths again for some envelope generation and CV mixing duties.

/modular-rant


Somewhat parallel to my modular journey was my journey into Max. This was the original reason I got a grid in the first place. (I actually remember having no intention to own any monome modules, and to keep things totally separate.)

But for me, suddenly having the power to define the function of my instruments and system was a game-changer. I had a Push for awhile and it didn’t gel with me for this reason, although there were many things about that design which I appreciated and admired. It can be a struggle to balance between programming and actually making music with what you create/design. Thankfully, a lot of great instruments and devices are being shared with the world. Gridlab and re:mix are big ones for me. I don’t really like programming synthesis in Max, but I do love building sampling/looping/delay systems.

At some point tho, doing visual work became my primary use of Max. These days, my Max work is almost entirely Jitter visual stuff, and while I use the grid and arc as my “VJ” controllers, that isn’t super relevant here. Any other time I’m using Max or Max for Live, it’s being used in a studio/production way, which again isn’t the point of discussion.

I only have one recording of me using a laptop/monome system, and it was actually sandwiched between 2 modular pieces (so ironically it wasn’t quite a minimal setup that night). I recorded some guitar lines in Ableton and layered/looped them with re:mix. That portion starts around 15:45 in the recording


Some general responses to your points that aren’t exclusive to modular or laptop:

  • Whether I play long form or short form pieces partially depends on not just the expected length of the set, but also just whatever I come up with in preparation. First, I spend time coming up with general ideas to perform with. This could just be a modular patch, or in the case of laptop music, I have some some beat or cell of a musical idea that could be explored with effects processing and creative mixing. Live performances to me are about exploration/improvisation, so repeatability isn’t important to me, but having a broad starting place to explore from is. Even I was primarily gigging as a rock guitarist, I never played my own solos the same way twice.

  • I don’t perform music I’ve recorded or vice versa. For me it’s important to keep things separate. Even my album linked above, I didn’t just record myself improvising as if it were a show, otherwise each track would’ve been over 10 minutes in length. I love recording live performances, and embrace mistakes etc by presenting those recordings that way. But I also love editing and DAW workflow, and I personally don’t feel my recorded/released music would feel as authentic if it were recording it like a performance but not really a performance. There’s no “pressure” or audience or vibes to interact with, which I think is important for how a live piece ultimately feels for me. Maybe this works for other people, but for me I just get bored listening to myself without seeing myself (or without edits).

  • When I first got my 2 W/ modules, I used one for looping what I was playing, and one for playing back field recordings. I had like an hour of Boston city sounds I recorded into the module one day, and would jump around cue points as a background layer, dynamically shifting the placement of sounds in relation to each other and breaking linearity. Since the newest firmware came out I haven’t done this so much, but I’m learning to integrate a 4 track with my modular, so field recording might make a comeback in some form.

  • PAs are always a tricky part of gigging, so I just advise being prepared for anything. The mixer might be inconveniently far from the stage, or other performers forget a crucial part of their setup (like an interface or something), so you end up sharing things with others. We’ve also had to be our own sound-people many times. I played a show once where a speaker cable had busted, and the PA was rigged up in no convenient way to fix it that night, so we ended up having to play in mono which was a huge bummer.
    DI boxes and loooong cables are a good thing to have on hand, as are power strips and extension cables. If it’s a local show, scouting out the venue some time before the show is something I’ve done a lot, but I know that’s not always possible.

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This is something very interesting to me. I’ve been into modular a little over a year, but I’ve been playing guitar/synths in various bands ranging from straight rock to full-out free improv for about 25 years. While Eurorack is new to me, I’ve been augmenting my guitar setups with all sorts of synths, keyboards, gadgets and pedals since the early 00’s. So with that said, I’m really just treating the modular setup the same as would guitar or any other setup. Most of the places I’ve played with modular have been rock clubs, and as a creature of habit, I’m still using my guitar amp to run synth through because I like having direct control of my sound on stage. Also to date I’ve yet to just play modular and not have a guitar there too, so I have to have the amp there anyway.

As for the performance itself, its usually been improv. And thus far I’ve been playing with other people. I usually have my patch pretty tight for the show though. I have a handful of ideas to pull from. They are little sequences or loops or segments I’ve honed in beforehand. How and when they show up varies though. I’ve posted a while back on another post about this, but I’m trying to move to the stage where I’m using modular less like a playback machine and more like an instrument, but its a work in progress.
The performances I’ve done thus far are around 30 mins, usually one long piece.

The biggest thing that stresses me out about the modular is being able to get to a zero point that I’m comfortable with before the performance starts. What I mean is that I generally know whats going on with the patch and what the signal flow is once the spaghetti cable mess starts to mentally trip you up and get you worried about knowing whats going on. Sound checks are obviously helpful but sometimes in rock clubs you don’t get that. That’s when it gets stressful. You just hope that everything is working the way it was before you closed your case up at home. Also, I prefer analog VCO’s but tuning is definitely an issue, especially if you are playing out in the winter. I always run the synth through a guitar tuner pedal and I’m constantly tuning for the first ten minutes after setup.

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Thank you so much for taking time and sharing!
I really liked the clear structure of your post beginning with some personal history followed by information on the gear, thoughts on your ‘instrument’, the use of your instrument, the illustration with an album, the software experience and the ending with the general responses that I found very interesting! This is exactly what I hoped for and I read through it while listening to your ‘tides’ album. I deeply hope that other members will follow as I could not find any similar thread on lines and I think this might be very informative and full of clues for those of us beginning to perform live.

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Jacob is 20char awesome…

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oof, been on this journey for sure so I’ll serve you up another long one


re:gear - I’ve personally found that using less and sticking with software has been really crucial. my biggest breakthroughs with music have revolved around abandoning hardware and diving deeper with software. what’s been working best for me has been sticking with two minimal, open controllers.

I’ve been incorporating acoustic live sampling (some grid+arc action in that one) into all of my sets too, but the results of that have been mixed for me to be honest. @Rodrigo is someone who has really mastered that process.

the combination of input and customization has been a focus. I map every part of my controllers, and I don’t put anything in my patch that isn’t mapped (I work in max). In theory, pagination can let you get more out of less controllers, but I’ve found that even when implementing that well, It’s more useful to have immediate access to every control. I had a cool system that paginated an arc from a grid but ultimately I ended up replacing the arc with simple midi ccs.

the key for me to get more out of less controllers is constant redefinition. for the most part I’m working to change my patch every time I make music, similar to modular (@dan_derks is a master of redefining his small systems - I’m also really attracted to the design patterns behind Serge). given the unintuitive nature of max, the aspect of redefinition has resulted in a whole journey on it’s own, and a huge evolving API project.


My sets are mostly improvised, usually with just a plan of how to start the set, which I come up with while practicing. I usually practice a few times before a set, but my best one is always the real thing, which is handy. thinking about tracks seems kind of arbitrary for me when I’m just improvising, but sometimes I run into silent bits so maybe that’s similar.


pre-recorded material is something I want to engage with much more. I started live sampling cause samples in an ambient context seemed like cheating to me, but I’m starting to realize the advantages of that process compared to live sampling. so far I’ve really just kept a field recording looping in my sets as something to react to a bit. want to expand there probably.

Ironically I’ve only ever played house shows and used my own studio monitors for playback, so haven’t had any bad PA encounters


that about sums up my experience so far, down to answer more q’s !

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My small live rig isn’t either modular, nor monome based, but I hope the ideas are useful:

The mechanics of the gear are straight forward:
The%20live%20rig

  • Audio from the two main sources: Digitakt for sampled percussion, and bass and bell lines, and mangling field recordings. MicroMonsta for pads, chords, fill, and sometimes lead. These are mixed, passed to the PiSound where the RaspberryPi runs SuperCollider and runs a range of master bus effects over them: reverbs, delays, filters, etc…

  • Control from Launchpad Pro and UC44 runs to RaspberryPi where in SuperCollider the control can be very flexibly routed on the fly: Notes on the LP grid to Digitakt or MicroMonsta. Some faders to Digitakt for track volumes; encoders (banked) and faders to RPi for controlling the effects; buttons on both devices to control routings

  • The RaspberryPi also serves as master clock, Ableton Link node, WiFi hotspot (for connecting other musicians), and a master recorder, recording everything I send to house.

I sometimes substitute a different synth, or a different keyboard controller. And I’ve started exploring how to incorporate both a KMI BopPad and a Jambé.

Over the last few years, I developed some guiding principles for the rig:

  • Should be able to get it from my car to where I’m playing in one trip.
  • Should be self-contained: I bring my own table, 2’ x 2’ at the standing height - and everything fits on it.
  • No screen between me and the audience.
  • I should know the instrument well enough to play it without labels on controls.
  • Rather than bring “infinite possibility” with me, I want a clear instrument - even if that instrument is awash with timbral options.

Musically, what I do live depends a lot on the context of the performance:

  • Open Mic style show: If I’m on a bill with many others, playing a short set (15 ~ 20 min.) - I’ll do a total improv. set. This is usually a continuation of my Infinite Set, where I start with just the last pattern of the last set, and a selection of about 100 samples. Then I go from there. I’ll usually plan a mood before the show, and do 2 or 3 practice sessions. These are never repeated after the performance.

  • Longer solo set: For shows 30min. or longer, I’ll prepare a selection of parts that flow into each other. Some of these segments will be composed, some will be improv over a basic idea, with perhaps sounds preselected, and an aim for hitting the next transition. The composed works are generally composed in structure, timing, timbre, and key - exact notes are left to performance. These shows are heavily rehearsed, mostly so that I can execute the transitions. They are repeatable in that I’m playing the same music each night. But not in the sense of down to every note.

  • Ensemble sets: I did a fair bit of work with two keyboardists. For these sets (between 20 min. and an hour) - we played totally improv… but found that playing as tracks worked best, rather than trying to be continuous. We’d play tracks between 7 and 15 min. long each, agreeing on stage to a tempo and feel - and going from there. These are rehearsed by simply playing together in a rehearsal studio every week. If we are playing sets within a few days we tended to repeat the basic feel of the tracks, and reuse patches and samples.

I hope next year to be able to pull together a longer format show: a full two hours or more. This will be like the longer solo set above, but probably with a more extended set of composed pieces, and of course more thoroughly rehearsed. This will let me play some of the more complex musical ideas that I currently only ever explore in the context of studio compositions.

I do use samples - esp. field recordings from around the world. I almost always chop these, stretch them, and mangle them a fair bit. I don’t use music clips or samples, nor do I pre-record or pre-sequence any of my music. This is just personal preference: I find using pre-recorded clips take me out of the head space of instrumentalist.


Venues have a strong effect on my performance. Here’s some things I’ve learned along the way so far:

  • In cafes, people like breaks so they don’t feel awkward getting up and moving, ordering more coffee, etc. They also talk and move around in bars and clubs, but somehow the darker environment, they don’t feel awkward and do so even if you don’t give them breaks.

  • If it is a more formal space: folks are sitting in chairs, they introduce you, dim the lights… Then I try to present more of a story: The audience is hanging on you more, and they want to anticipate the cadence that leads to the end (even if you give them a few false starts). In this context I think of the whole performance more as theater.

  • If it is a less formal environment: a gallery opening, say, or music at a BBQ (yes I’ve done this), then I can do more ambient, more texture based work.

As for sound in venues: Be Prepared!

I’m always sure to know what the PA situation is in detail. One too many times arriving to find I’m playing through a single bass amp! If I can, I’ll even go to the venue in advance to see and hear the system. For smaller venues this is crucial, as the person booking you often has no idea what they have or can’t describe it correctly.

I do have a set of moderate PA speakers (ZLX-12Ps) which can power a cafe, gallery, or odd space up to about 200 people. I’ll use these if the venue doesn’t have decent sound. Pro tip: buy long (25’ or longer) power cords (14AWG or heavier) and long balanced audio cables. I also have a two extra mixers (8ch and 16ch), which I sometimes need to bring. If I’m driving to the venue, I’ll put a crate of cables, adapters, and one of the extra mixers in the trunk of my car… just in case!

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This thread is golden! Coming back to read, and to post a long post!

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There’s been times when I’ve pared my live setup down to this:

  • Laptop [running Ableton 9]
  • Novation Launchpad Mini
  • Table [optional - depends on the state of the floor :wink: ]

A lot of spaces I play are small so there’s size restrictions, and being solo, I don’t feel like carrying a bunch of gear in and out - particularly if I’m not playing a long set. Also, the more gear you have, the more chances there are of tech issues!

Some of the venues I’ve played have had great PAs, some don’t have a PA at all [DIY everything], some have bad PAs…I’ve learnt not to be fazed by whatever happens, but I always make sure I’m prepared [in terms of powerboards, cables, etc.]. It’s live, it’s not meant to be pitch perfect and most of the time audience won’t know :slight_smile:

Length can vary depending on the setting. Anything from 10mins to an hour, although most shows here let you go for about 30mins. I usually play the full length of the set, so long-form.

I largely improvise when playing live. I prepare in the sense I think of a theme I want to explore - for instance, with one show I wanted to think about the changes in the seasons, and another show I was thinking about ‘the insect apocalypse’ [aka the reduction in insect numbers in large parts of the world]. I also prepare in the sense of working out timing and transitions.

My work is heavily field-recording based, and pre-processed - I’d record and prep the sound samples beforehand. So I guess my work live is less about ‘playing’ an instrument but more about mixing in sounds to create a soundscape and taking listeners on a journey. I do have a synth dialed in as well so I play some ambient notes in the background now and again for contrast / ambiance.

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My main setup these days is just Digitakt and Digitone. With these two, I can basically swing a whole set. Sometimes I add a K-Mix to have a more flexible EQ with me and not have to rely on what mixer is present at the venue. But I don’t use the K-Mix to actually mix stuff.

This core setup can then be enhanced by some more loose things like a (very) small modular system, a cassette player or Cocoquantus - although I have yet to use Coco in a live context. But I’m sure I will at some point.

The extra gear is routed back into the Digitone for delay and reverb. And that’s it.

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I had performed with this setup for certain times. Every time had slightly adjustments depending on what I wanted to do, but more or less the setup contains several types of instruments:

Morfbeats Strips and/ or some Latin percussive instruments and/ or found objects
Effect pedals
Analog mixer or multitrack cassette recorder
Mic

My approach was to capture the sound live (live sampling), and store to the pedals, many of my pedals are in sampler/ looper category. For choosing between analog mixer or multitrack is the most difficult struggle to me, because they have both pros and cons, and I think it is interesting to share to people who interested in these kind of setup. Noted that this is only a side by side comparison by my own perspective:

Analog mixer

Pro:
Cleaner sound
Better control of your sound (precise EQ and leveling)
More signal routing option
Phantom power for mics

Multitrack Cassette Recorder

Pro:
Characteristic sound
Tape loop and sample player are built in (so it save me an extra looper and playback device)

Cons:
Smaller headroom
No phantom power, it limits my choice of mics
Not ideal for direct mic in, I need a transformer to match the input impedance
Routing is relatively lesser option

I think for the next performance I will bring a smaller analog mixer with a smaller multitrack so I can have the best of both world, still experiment with all possible setups since I already got all the gears I need.

For the effect pedals, I must say I heavily rely on Count To Five, Tensor and Lo-Fi Loop Junkies. If needed I would also bring one more looper too. I have got a Gamechanger Plus pedal if I want to sustain the sound from the Morfbeats strips. For reverb part I mainly use Bit Quest or Météore.

I don’t have many instrument mics, and in fact I think mic is not that important in my setup, I usually perform in small venues, feedback is one of my big enemy. If the room is treated good I would bring my SM81 instead of RE20.

Before this kind of setup I was a full modular person. If compare to modular, this setup is more inconvenience, but after all both make different sounds.

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Nice arrows. Omnigraffle?

Yes, Omnigraffle, on OSX.

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@andrew, your performance 102818, is really beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

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I’ve been doing live solo electronic sets for a few years now and I like to mix things up every so often depending on the context. For the last year I would do shows with just a Korg Electribe 2, because it’s easy to carry, I can improvise/rearrange songs, or I can predicably play a cohesive set. This is for more groove-based music. Kind of chiptune-inspired chillwave I guess. I’d occasionally bring a Volca or Pocket Piano, but typically forget to grab a midi cable or sometime.

Before I got the E2 I would use something like this:

I would usually switch things around every show, but the idea was the same. Improv with a few “composed” songs. Usually I’d bring this to noise shows, even though I play ambient music and don’t consider myself much of a noise connoisseur. I guess it fits the atmosphere and I can appreciate some well-done noise.

I’m going to be playing a modular show next month and I haven’t decided on my approach yet. I’ll likely set up a fairly predictable three-voice patch with some wildcard modulation tossed in somewhere. I need to rehearse more to decide if I’ll take only the rack, or bring a Keystep and improvise, or rearrange some of my other music to be performed with three mono voices instead of having (up to) six different VAs on my E2.

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It’s me again, I did a live performance with this setup last Saturday. Compare with my former similar shows I did the following changes:

Replace several pedals with norns as a sample/re-sampler
Replace analog mixer (Mackie) with Mixpre-6
No reverb on the modular

I am satisfied with the result! But guess I might carry a reverb pedal, and setup a send/return routing on the Mixpre for the next time.

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What’s the role of the mixpre 6?

It acts as a 4-channel mixer (with limiter function).
I think I will add a nanokontrol 2 with it next time.

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I love your set - beautiful. Nice work. Is the rack you’ve shown here the rack you performed with in the Lowtide set (aside from the laptop interlude in the middle)?

If so, I’m really impressed that you got such a nice variety of textures with such a small set of modules. Are you using only the Mangrove as a VCO, or are you using JF as a VCO, too?

:sunglasses: :partying_face:

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I used this for an ambient set a few years back. Mainly running scenes on the Launchoad app but through lots of pedals

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