How I use my laptop for live music production

A brief history of my musical life

My family had a console piano that I learned to play on growing up. The “nice” keyboards and synthesizers were not new technology but were still expensive. I had a Yamaha PSR-6 keyboard that opened up an entirely new realm of musical possibilities to me. With onboard rhythms and an assortment of various sounds, I began to write basic 4-chord songs that I thought were pretty good at the time.

I started experimenting seriously with computer-based music production in 1995 when I bought a Sound Blaster AWE32, a sound card for my PC that had several megabytes of onboard samples rather than sounds synthesized by an FM chip. With Cakewalk Professional on Windows 95 I wrote many songs, from basic piano pieces to techno with the emulated TR808 drumkit. I would always be looking for new MIDI files to download from the internet to see how well they sounded on my new Sound Blaster card.

In 2002 I purchased a Korg Triton Studio, a 76-key music production synthesizer. It was by far the best sounding keyboard I had ever owned. The Triton is still a top-notch keyboard today. But I ended up selling it several years later because of the advantages I saw in using software over a hardware solution.

While working for a large tech company in 2004, I purchased my first Mac laptop. It wasn’t until moving to Kansas City in late 2004 that I began to experiment with live production on a laptop. After purchasing Ableton Live and Propellerhead Reason in late 2004, I began to use it on stage for my sets for the versatility of its sound and portability of the entire rig (over a massive keyboard).

What do you use on stage for your sets today?


The hardware I am currently using is an Apple MacBook Pro with 4GB of RAM and an upgraded 7200 RPM hard drive. I’ve found that the 7200 RPM drive is very helpful in providing faster loading time of samples, especially when I have a lot of sound already playing back. I use a MOTU Ultralite firewire audio interface to connect the Mac to the sound system. I also have a Akai APC40 MIDI controller to control Ableton Live in realtime so I don’t have to use the Mac’s trackpad or a mouse to control instrument parameters.

Software

Ableton Live

I currently use Ableton Live 8 as my main DAW on stage. In addition to being suited specifically for live performance in looping and mixing audio clips, Live can host virtual instruments and has a plethora of effects and presets.

Screenshot of audio tracks and loop setup

Each track is set up to use a specific instrument, and I load all of the instruments I commonly use in sets to be able to access them quickly. I’ll often add tracks or just replace an instrument on a track if I want something different that I haven’t already loaded. I’ll just use the track’s “arm” button to switch between instruments as I’m playing.

As you can see, I have many pre-recorded loops (that I make ahead of time) that I can recall at a moment’s notice depending upon where we go musically in our set. I’ve taken the “one large Live set” approach as opposed to “multiple small sets” simply because I can’t quit Live and load a new set in the middle of a spontaneous musical time.

Check out Ableton’s site for more information, tutorials, and tips for using Live.

Recommended Ableton Live training books and media:
Ableton Live 8 Power!: The Comprehensive Guide
Ableton Live 8 and Suite 8: Create, Produce, Perform

Ableton Essential Instruments Collection 2

An addon specifically bundled and constructed for Live, the EIC2 adds a great sounding, not-so-resource-intensive grand piano sample that I use extensively. I also use some of the EP and organ sounds from EIC2, but a majority of the sounds I use on sets come from the extremely powerful Spectrasonics Omnisphere.

Check out EIC2 here.

Spectrasonics Omnisphere

Although I use more in the studio, Omnisphere is the backbone of the sonic possibilities with my live rig. From traditional pads, strings, and synth instruments to more exotic samples like ethnic instruments and voices. I don’t want to give an entire tutorial of Omnisphere here, but suffice it to say that it’s totally worth the money!

Some of my favorite stock patches that I use live:
Plucking the Piano Harp
Brutal Megalomaniac
Adagio Transparent Strings
Big Green Strings (originally from Atmosphere, Omnisphere’s predecessor)
Glorious Guitars

I also have many many custom made patches that make up my sound collection that I use often. I’ll let you try to figure those out yourself.

Check out Omnisphere here.

Quantum Leap Ra

Quantum Leap Ra is a plugin that provides me with lots of ethnic instruments, from Middle Eastern strings to the Bongos, Bansuri, and Banjo. I’ll use these instruments sparingly so that when I do use them they really add a unique sound to the band.

Find more info on Quantum Leap Ra here.

Propellerhead Reason

I no longer use Reason as part of my live rig, but I figured it was worth mentioning. I used to run Reason rewired to Live, having a MIDI track for each instrument I wanted to play in the Reason rack, and one Audio track set to receive audio from Reason through rewire. The downside of this setup was that I had to map individual faders on my controller to Reason’s mixer, and I couldn’t control the volume of each instrument directly from Live without having a separate audio track for each corresponding MIDI track.


Demo video

Here is a little video I made back in 2010 demonstrating the power of Ableton Live in a worship meeting with only a worship leader and myself.

If the video fails to display, you can view it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E2X2JA47dhc


Where can I buy the gear you have?

MacBook Pro
Laptop:
Apple MacBook Pro
Find the best laptop for you

MOTU Ultralite
Audio interface:
MOTU Ultralite
See other audio interfaces

APC40
Surface controller:
Akai APC40
See other MIDI controllers

Ableton Live
DAW software:
Ableton Live 8
See other DAWs

Spectrasonics Omnisphere
Virtual instruments:
Spectrasonics Omnisphere and Quantum Leap RA
See other virtual instruments


Questions?

I don’t have time to give you lessons on how to use all these programs over email, but I can try to answer any specific questions about my setup you may have. Just contact me.

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