Performing live electronic music is a double edged sword. If all the conditions are right, a live set can feel like you're playing an awesome video game that you know for a fact you are going to win. However, things do sometimes go wrong and if you’re not prepared you might find yourself in a world of confusion and embarrassment.
I’ve had countless problems over my 10 years performing live with computers. From stages falling down to beer all over my gear, buff men on acid trying to tackle me to computers literally frying in the middle eastern sun - I reckon I’ve got some disaster notches on my belt.
In this article I’m going to address the main problem areas that you should be watching out for each time you go to perform live. Whether it’s in a club or a festival, stick to these simple rules and you’ll be prepared for almost anything.
This can be one of the most, if not the most scariest and confusing problem that can happen in the middle of a live set.
If you’re at a stage where you are performing with computers, you’re probably clued up enough to know about how they work and consequently problem solve when something goes wrong - but can you use your cunning logic when you’ve got hundreds of people staring at you, screaming and cheering for the problem to be fixed as fast as possible?. It’s not easy, and can be very intimidating - especially the first time.
Going from loud music to complete silence is a real shock to anyone, almost as much as suddenly hearing a loud noise when it’s quiet. The first time my computer crashed during a performance you could hear my heart drop in those few split seconds of no sound between my audio stopping and the crowd collectively going “ooooooohhhh…..”.
Some people work well under pressure, however I really think this sort of pressure has a category of it’s own.
The most difficult part can often be isolating the problem. You have to know what’s wrong in order to fix it. In a chaotic environment such as a nightclub or festival it can be dark, loud and hot. Here’s a flow chart I created on the thought process I personally go through when I am faced with the silent demon.
These days I am much more chilled about these situations, and almost (almost!) welcome them. If you can be calm and collected about the situation, you can turn things right around and make it into a feature of your set. Sounds strange right? I know, but it’s true.
When there’s silence people come out of their little caves, people to the sides come up and check out what’s happening… friends can talk to each other and locate each other… and to be brutally honest, the majority of them don’t give a shit if there’s a few moments of silence. They are having a great time.
Turning music back on after silence is quite a buzz as well. People know it’s coming, they are anticipating it, and when it finally comes back on you’ll get one of the biggest cheers of your life.
Protip: If you have the guts, try and get everyone singing. If the vibe is right, I have managed to get the crowd singing “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands”. More often than not, they have taken over the song on their own, leaving me to problem solve without everyone focusing on me.
I’m going to place stuttering under it’s own category here, because there are quite a number of things that can go wrong.
By stuttering, I mean regular or irregular short disturbances in the music, usually in the form of the audio skipping briefly for a microsecond, which unfortunately is enough to start ruining the flow of a set.
The key to finding out what is causing your stutter is to isolate the type of stuttering that is happening. In my experience these fall into one of three categories:
Constant, unlistenable stuttering that creates many little gaps per second.
- This is usually an issue between your computer or your soundcard.
- Check your soundcard settings in your DAW, make sure the latency is not to low. If your latency is too low, your soundcard can not keep up with the information it is being given, and can only play sound by cutting corners, often resulting in a constant skippy signal that often makes the music sound slower than it should be.
- If latency isn’t an issue, you may need to quickly shut down, unplug your soundcard and plug it back in again. This has happened to me numerous times and I can’t offer a full explanation however the majority of the time simply resetting the soundcard and picking up from where I left off resolves the problem.
Intermittent stuttering that creates a short time gap in the music, however the tempo of the music isn’t disrupted.
- This is usually due to a CPU power problem. Check your CPU meter in your DAW and see if it spikes or is at a high level (usually more than 50% is what I would consider unsafe).
- If your CPU use is high, you may need to disable some plugins.
- If you are using any ‘experimental’ plugins, such as some amateur Max for Live plugins (with Ableton Live), turn these off first as they can usually be the culprit.
Check to make sure nothing else on your computer is running that could take over CPU power.
- Virus scanners
- Virus updates
- Anything that could be constantly trying to access the internet to update (Twitter, Email etc)
- Automatic system updates
- Open the task manager (ctrl-alt-delete on PC, option-command-escape on Mac) and see if there is anything running in the background that shouldn’t be
- If all else fails, a restart might be necessary.
- I’ve heard of and experienced a strange stutter before in some of my older sets. Nobody could give me a reason why, but I found that it started happening after about 40 minutes of playing a set. The only option was to restart my DAW and pick up where I left off.
Intermittent stuttering that creates a short delay in the pulse of the music.
- This type of stuttering is usually caused because your hard drive is not fast enough to read the information you are trying to stream properly.
- If you are playing several WAF or AIFF files all at once, you need to be sure your hard drive can actually feed all these at once.
- Sometimes I run up to 16 WAVs at once, and I found a 5200rpm hard drive (which is the standard for most laptops) couldn’t not keep up. I upgraded to a 7200rpm hard drive and problems stopped.
- Consider getting a solid state hard drive. These have no moving parts and can feed files exceptionally faster than normal hard drives.
Have a Back Up
This one goes without saying, but so many people do not do this.
A backup can be as simple as a couple of CDs with your music so if worst comes to worse, you can at least do a DJ set.
I always carry a 32gig USB key with my set loaded, and an installation of my DAW (Ableton Live). This means that even if my computer completely fries itself, I may be able to use someone elses computer as I have everything I need to get quickly set up and running.
Everyone gets nervous, especially when they are starting out. I still get really nervous sometimes, often when I am playing after someone who I know will leave the dancefloor packed and buzzing.
This is a very personal thing to each individual, but here are a few little tips I’ve found over the years that help me.
- Think of everybody naked. Yep - it does work! Try to find the funniest looking person and imagine them dancing naked, flopping around everywhere. Anything you can do that makes you giggle, even on the inside, gives you a great confidence boost.
- Chew some gum! It might sound strange, but chewing gives a natural signal to your brain that you are calm and collected enough to focus on chewing and eating. Try it!
- Think about something you’ve done in the past that was really brave. I stumbled across this by accident once. A girl approached me at a gig and we had a conversation, then when it was just time for me to play I said something pretty direct and cheeky to her before leaving straight away. The whole set I had this constant smile on my face about how much I pushed the limit (just don’t go out and do anything creepy or hurt someone!)
- Turn your fear into courage! The process your body and mind goes through when it is faced with fear is very similar to that of when you are about to do something courageous. Micro manage your thoughts into tiny little areas that might be causing these feelings, and shape them in a way that is preparing you to do something awesome and exciting rather than something you would rather not do. Deep breaths, and face it like the champion you are!
- Make your first 15 minutes (or two tracks) really easy. Have them so they flow seamlessly and make it very very hard to screw up the transition/improvisation you need to do. I’ve found that once I get about 15 minutes into a set without any problems, I go into a full confidence mode. If you know nothing is going to be terribly hard for the first 15 minutes, you can usually get over any fear before you start ripping shit up.
- Have a drink :) a few drinks are fine before a set - just don’t get too drunk. Being drunk and problem solving technology is a pain in the ass and makes you look like a fool.
- Is there someone on the dancefloor who is totally rocking out? Focus on them! Each time you look up, look at them first. Build a connection with them, don’t focus on anyone else. Make it their special set.
- Find the person who can’t dance in time. There is always one person who is somehow so far out of rhythm, but still totally enjoying the music. I find this both hilarious and interesting, you can’t but help feel warm when you see this.
Train Wrecking live is an interesting circumstance to happen. I think it’s a lot more noticeable with a DJ set, because having two tracks playing out of time just screams YUCK.
Train Wrecking live usually means there isn’t anything out of time, as most DAWs these days ensure that things are all quantized and matched up - so it’s usually a matter of some sound out of place, or something way too loud.. or even accidentally triggering a clip that wasn’t part of that track.
To be honest, this usually screams “hey, I’m actually doing something LIVE here, not just hitting a few buttons” which people respect. Unless you totally rip their eardrums up or something (and you should have some sort of limiter on your master out incase of this), most people will respect you are actually doing something up there.
Take it with a smile, look a bit shocked but laugh it off. Look out into the crowd, there’s probably someone there who caught it and is giving you a laugh, make eye contact with them and share the joke.
My Dancefloor is Empty
AWESOME! This means you get the rare and unique opportunity to experiment and do things you wouldn’t usually do on a huge sound system. Go totally mental and try things you’ve always wanted to try live.
Walk out and stand in the middle of the sweet spot by yourself and listen to your creations like you’ve never heard them before.
If you’ve been booked for a set that you consider is the totally wrong timeslot, it’s not your problem, it’s the promoters problem. Play your set as you intended, and the promoter will know when to put you that’s more appropriate next time.
Other Traps to Watch Out For
Watch Your Ears
Your ears are everything. If you lose your ability to hear, your career as a musician goes out the door.
Don’t be afraid of turning the monitors down, that’s the killer. Sometimes I have gotten so involved with my set that I don’t notice how loud the monitors are on the stage.
Get some custom earplugs, they aren’t that expensive these days and they bring ALL the levels down equally so there’s no fear of dulling down just the highs and not being able to hear things properly.
That ringing in your ears you get after a gig is your ears dying and screaming for help. The hairs in your inner ear that translate frequency to emotions in your brain are permanently damaged, and you have forever lost frequencies you could hear before. Don’t let this happen, ever.
Request a Sober Stage Manager
This should be a given right, but some circumstances can result in the person in charge not being straight. You need to have this, especially for safety and comfort.
I had the misfortune of having a tripper come up on stage (who was a very buff strong dude) and mess with my shit in front of thousands of people. There was no way I could take him on, and unfortunately the stage managers (and security!) were in the middle of a switch, so there was absolutely no one around to help me. It was intimidating and hard to deal with. Fortunately some people up the front saw what was going on, jumped up and dragged the guy away.
It’s your right to have someone there if something goes wrong. Put this on your rider, anyone who refuses is not worth playing for.
This is something that can be overlooked in the craziness and fast paced moments while you are setting up. Usually you are so focused on getting your gear setup than you can miss a problem within your environment that should be resolved. Here are some I’ve come across:
- I’ve had a table completely fall down into the crowd off the stage before. I just didn’t check it’s stability before I set up, and with all the motion, bass and jumping around - it fell and fell hard. Fortunately all the music kept going!(?) and people handed my gear back up, but it could have been much more disastrous. Always check this, especially if it’s a smaller makeshift gig.
- Playing outside and it might rain? Check to make sure there’s sufficient cover. The last thing you want to do is suddenly try to stop a stream of water coming down all over your gear.
- If it’s outside, windy and rainy, make sure any coverings (tarps etc) aren’t going to blow in your direction. A few times I’ve had a tarp blow from behind me and constantly connect with my body, giving the water a direct path to me. It’s hard to stop and gets you very wet very quickly.
- No drinks near your gear! If you wanna drink while you play, put the drinks on the ground or behind you somewhere. That goes for other people too - don’t let people up the front put drinks anywhere they could be accidentally spilled, because they will. Drunk people are great to play music too, but they suck for being conscious of the fact you are actually working.
- I had to forfeit a set once (or postpone it for several hours) because a really good friend I hadn’t seen in a long time came and gave me a hug, but knocked a full beer all over my sound card, which killed it. Such a shitty situation to deal with, you can’t be angry at someone for giving you a hug, even if it kills your stuff.
- Don’t put up with dodgy electrics. You should always request exactly how many power points you need on your rider, and ideally have them separated from the power circuit the lighting is connected too (it can create some nasty ground loops and hums).
- It’s also really annoying to push around the previous artist while they are playing if you have to crawl under things and plug stuff in, or unplug stuff! Make sure this is requested well before the gig.
Stuff You Should Always Have
Finally, here’s a list of things that I always have in my bag before a gig.
- Spare cables - I always try to have two of every cable. USB cables and audio cables.
- Adapters - specifically the small to big adapter for headphones, and an 3.5 jack to RCA convertor (You can always unplug a CDJs RCA cables and plug that into your computer soundcard if you really need to).
- Duct tape - Something not stable? Tape it down! Cables getting messy? Tape it down! Duct tape is amazing and can come in so helpful when you least expect it.
A copy of your rider - it doesn’t matter how established you are as a live performer, having a rider is something that is to be expected. At least list down:
- How much space you need.
- How many power points you need.
- What type of output you will be providing to the sound person.
- Backup - a USB key with a copy of your set and installation file of your software (and plugins if needed).
- A small towel - you might sweat a lot, you might have to deal with a spillage. It’s handy to have a towel.
- Backup CDs - for the worst case scenario that you have to move to a DJ set because your gear has gone kaput.
- An exit strategy - don’t wait to think about this until you need it. What happens if the cops turn up and there’s a riot/shut down? What happens if a monsoon hits and the stage starts collapsing? I’ve had cops turn up to a warehouse party in full riot gear before, I could see them coming before any of the punters could. The first thing they go for is the source of the sound, so get that laptop unplugged in a bag, and leave. The rest of the gear you can get later.
Shit happens, but with the right mental mind-set you can turn this into something comical and fun. It takes time, but I promise you one day you will be completely prepared for any circumstance.
Just remember, with disaster, opportunity follows - you just have to look for where it’s hiding.