How Your Laptop Can Liven Up Your Live Show

By Emile Menasché  •  August 25, 2013

There's no doubt that computer software has blurred the lines between writing music and producing it. We use sounds to inspire parts, build backing tracks before we create melodies, and cull upon a myriad of eff ects to give our songs a "sound"—often long before they're completed.

But what happens to that sound when you showcase the song live? You have a few options. You could sing and play along to a static backing track (though many people feel that's like doing Karaoke).

You could rearrange the song and use whatever live instruments you have available to get close to the original. But there's a middle ground: integrating some of your computer tracks and eff ects into your show in a way that you can interact with during your performance.

The "interactive" part is the key, says indie artist Greg Friedman (who has used computers in both solo shows and with his band, Montalban Quintet. "A real danger with playing against a pre-recorded track is that you're now locked into the structure of the song as it was recorded," he explains. "You're at the mercy of the computer rather than reacting to the vibe and the emotion of the crowd. A big part of the magic of live performance is the spontaneity, the improvisation, the ‘mistakes' that actually end up taking the song in really interesting directions, that make every performance unique."

There are several ways to produce studio tracks onstage. Keyboard players probably have it the easiest: A sampling workstation can store a lot of instrument patches, and many have enough memory to let you load in loops, which you can then trigger live. Or, you could opt for a standalone loop player/phrase sampler. In both cases, you'll need to preload your device with the parts you want to bring onstage and make sure that you've got the right patches active for every song.

Thanks to their versatility and storage capacity, laptops are becoming increasingly popular onstage. With a laptop, you can bring the software you actually use for production and integrate it into your performance. And with a good interface and the right controller, you can take advantage of its sonic power while maintaining the energy of a live performance. If you don't want to bring your laptop to a gig, you can do many of the same things with a mobile device.

Whether you're using a computer, tablet, or smartphone, the way you plug in to the sound system matters. So while you could feed the built-in outputs from your device to an amplifi er or mixer input, you'll probably get better performance from an outboard interface, especially one that has balanced line outputs and some onboard mixing controls.

If you're using a laptop, portable USB or FireWire bus-powered interfaces (which get power from the computer's USB or FireWire port) are ideal—as long as you're careful to keep the connections intact while you're performing. You can fi nd compact models from PreSonus, Avid, M-Audio, Line 6, Roland, Native Instruments, Alesis, and others. If you plan to do all your mixing inside the computer, a 2-in/2-out device will do. But some options, like the Presonus FireStudio Mobile, offer more channels if you need them.

Many of these have MIDI ins and outs, along with zero-latency audio monitoring that lets you mix sound from the inputs with sound playing back on the computer—in essence, letting you use the computer as a personal mixer.

If you're planning to use your computer as an effects device, you've got two options: go through the PA, or plug into an amp. The interface's line out should work well feeding a PA, keyboard amp, or power amplifier. But if you want to integrate it into a guitar set up, you may need to add a buffer between the computer and the amp's input. A ReAmp or similar widget can convert the output from your interface into an amp-friendly level and impedance control.

For more control—and to integrate your device with other effects—a loop switcher like Radial Engineering's BigShot Mix (one of several signal switchers the company makes) can work well. You can use it to switch the computer in and out of your signal chain (which also acts as a safeguard if your software crashes) and mix the computer's sound with the direct guitar signal going to the amp and preserve that elusive "feel" that comes when the guitar and amp are connected. For a more complex rig, you might add Radial's LoopBone, which adds a second loop (but no mix control), boost, and the ability to serve as a remote footswitch.

The Pigtronix Keymaster also provides two loops and reamping, as well as the ability to integrate XLR connections. "If you plan to add backing tracks with the guitar sound you might want to split the sounds," says Michael Ross, author and editor/publisher of the blog, guitarmoderne. com. "Send the computer to the PA and your basic guitar signal to an amp."

Like computers, the built-in audio connections on mobile devices aren't designed for live performance. You can use external hardware to make the built-in audio jack compatible with mic and instrument cables. IK Multimedia's iRig Stomp, for example, let's you use an iPad or iPhone as a "stompbox" and plug it into an amp.

You can also find interfaces and docks that connect to a mobile device's USB or 30-pin connector, and these can deliver sound that's on par with their computer counterparts. Docks like Akai's Synthstation keyboard and Digitech's PB10 pedalboard make mobile devices performance-ready.

The Apogee One is especially versatile because it can work with both mobile devices and Mac computers. It's small enough to fit on a mic stand and has a good sounding built-in microphone of its own. It also lets you connect external mics, instruments, and headphones/speakers— and can run off USB power from the computer, batteries, or the included power-supply (which charges your iPad).

Once you've plugged in, you've got a number of options for triggering sounds. Keyboardists, of course, will have a controller at their fingertips. But what if you play something else? You could simply start the computer and play along, but then you're back to the Karaoke problem.

Foot controllers and percussion pads let you trigger parts in full view of the audience, which lets them see the backing material as part of the performance. "For my solo project, I would often play organ pedals with my feet to do synth parts or trigger samples while playing guitar," Feidman says. "But the audience could see me playing those parts and so they believed in it."

Keith McMillen 12-step USB foot controller

Keith McMillen 12-step USB foot controller

Keith McMillen makes a range of controllers, from keyboards to nontraditional pads. The company's 12-Step and Soft Step foot controllers—which connect to the computer via USB or to MIDI instruments through an optional expander—can trigger single notes, chords, loops, and send controller messages. If you really want to break tradition, check out the Ableton Push. Its grid-like layout is designed to adapt to diff erent situations, and can be used to play software synths as well as trigger loops.

Whether you plan to trigger loops, play instruments, or add eff ects, taking your "studio" onstage works best when the technology can do its part without getting in the way of your main reason for being up there in the fi rst place: to connect with the audience and get your songs across.

"The goal is not to give the audience exactly what they can hear on the record," Friedman concludes. "It is to give them something greater than that, something that can only happen with real people in a room reacting to the present moment."

Ableton Push

Ableton Push

Latency is the delay caused as the audio goes into the computer, through the software, and back out again. Keeping it to a minimum is especially important when using a laptop as a software instrument or live effects processor: You don't want any lag or delay to interfere with your performance. At the same time, you don't want the software locking up in the middle of a song. Your audio software's buffer settings, along with your interface's audio driver, play a role in controlling latency. The lower the buffer size, the lower the lag: In Ableton Live, for example, a buffer set 128 samples will produce a 5.80 millisecond delay through an Apogee One USB interface and 7.28 ms through my MacBook Pro's built-in inputs. In either case, you can barely hear or feel the lag. But raise the buffer to 512 samples, and you're up over 24 ms, which may still be okay playing along with loops, but not great if you're triggering software instruments or realtime effects. To set the latency, run through the most processor- hungry tracks, instruments, and effects you plan to use. If the computer locks up or produces unwanted audio artifacts, raise the sample buffer.