Monday, 21 March 2011

Sound-A-Day 18.03.2011

Unfortunately, there is no sound for today..

Spent the entire day trying to piece together a set at the last minute. Some friends where organising an event and found themselves a slot short for their line up.

With perhaps a slight amount of sarcasm, Henry suggested that we put together a four man live PA. A friend of ours was down visiting for a couple days, and another friend was passing through on his way to a gig in Bristol the following night.

I love playing with other people, rehearsed or improvised, it's always fun! Was a real honour to get to play with these guys. Thom Hoonboy has been a long time friend and his live sets are always quite spectacular, Henry Shitmat is the consummate entertainer and getting a crowd going is in his blood, and Ed Duran Duran Duran is by far and away one of the most talented producers around, his tracks are unreal! Was absolutely stoked to get to play with these guys!

None the less, as I'm sure you'll know if you've ever tried, syncing laptops for a jam is a technical minefield. When time is short, headaches are pretty much guarantied!

So this got me thinking (and I guess this is the real subject of today's post) about what could be done to improve this situation, and what it could mean for the general idea of "a laptop musician"

I am certain that a lot of people do not view laptop performance and musicianship as comparable to that of a guitarist/pianist/vocalist etc, and just speculating, but perhaps this is something to do with the "pick up and play" element of more traditional musical tools. No doubt anyone who can play an instrument has had the joy of playing with others, and the immediacy of it is such a buzz. Just pick up an instrument and join in. No need to worry about midi channels, clock routing, mixers, sync issues, latency differences, tempo drifts an so on.

Laptops offer a world of opportunities in terms of what sound can be made, and how it can be played.  But as everyone knows, sometimes a lack of limitations can be the most destructive thing, in terms of immediacy at least. You see software and hardware developers creating new and exciting ways for computer users to interact with their equipment in more immediate and intuitive ways, but I would dearly love to see steps in developing ways for computer users to interact with each other and all types of musicians too!

I think if a laptop setup could be designed in such a way that it could be integrated into a jam as quickly as any other convectional instrument, then perhaps it would be received in the same way too.

I've a few ideas for some things to try, but I hope that somewhere there are some super clever people who have the technical know how to really make something good. Its becoming increasingly apparent that product developers do pay attention to current trends in the music world (as well as vica versa) so fingers crossed that some day an engineer will pick up on the perfect way to implement such integration. What would be great if it could become as universally accepted as midi has.

There are a few small things that help with multiple laptop jams. If trying to keep everyone in sync, you get far better results having one bit of kit dedicated to running a clock signal to everything else. Something like a drum machine with a clear tempo control and a midi output. You'll also need a midi splitting box in order to send the signal midi out to several people.

This helps because it means all laptops are receiving clock events simultaneously, as opposed to one laptop generating them for itself before sending it to the others, which results in a slight but noticeable delay. Similarly it's important to ensure that every laptop has the same size latency.

Another thing that can be really helpful is a small external mixer for everyone to plug in to. DJ mixers are OK for the job, but nearly always have a limited number of channels, and many many features which are surplus to requirement. The same goes for most studio mixers too, and besides, how many people would be happy to remove their mixer from their studio and take it to a club? 

I would love to have a small box, about the size of a sound card with about 6 stereo inputs with level control, and a stereo pair of outputs. It should also be able to generate midi clock, with a big "stop/start" button on top and a large dial and LED display for tempo.. and nothing else!!! If such a thing exists, link it and I'd buy one tomorrow!!

As it stands, people still raise an eyebrow and seems bit surprised at the idea of several people using laptops to jam together. It would be great to see it become a more regular occurrence!

Incidentally, the show went really well. Unfortunately due to a few bits of kit failing on us we couldn't all sync together. Tom and I manged to stay in sync with midi, while Henry and Ed Punched in with the space bar, like a conventional DJ would, using the Cross fader on a DJ mixer to build things up. In spite of some very sketchy sections and occasionally messy transitions the crowd really seemed to enjoy it. I think people really picked up on the live and in the moment nature of it which really made me smile. After all that is what LIVE music should be all about!!


  1. Decent sound cards have the numbers of ins/outs that you need, but how many channels do you really need? Isn't it just one each?

    One of the nice things when I do this is that we mix via virtual DJ, which has a wireless sync function. So anyone running an instance of the program can bpm sync with the host instance. Doesn't help with your abletoning though (although I believe it can be loaded in rewire).

    Possibly the other thing would be to have one laptop with multiple midi controllers? This would require tedious prep as you'd have to remap all your controllers, but would save on your sync issues.

  2. oh and btw, it was a GREAT set :D