Five things I've learned about using computers onstage

March 27, 2015
Over my 15-year career as a performer and musician, I’ve always looked for ways to bring the studio experience to the stage. This pursuit inevitably led me to using a computer as the heart of my live setup. Integrating a laptop seamlessly into your gig is a daunting challenge, with a steep learning curve and thousands of opportunities for system failure. For each potential programming pitfall, there’s a practical real world problem in waiting, especially when setting up your rig in a rush. Here are five things I’ve learned from the cold, hard experience of working with computers on stage.

1. Simpler Equals Better. As we try to recreate the experience of a record for a live show, it’s easy to get carried away using load heavy sample banks, complicated triggers for backing tracks, and involved techniques like live looping. Always remember that it’s the audience’s experience and our ability to connect with them on stage that makes a show great. No matter how cool or tricky the thing is you’re doing, if the audience doesn’t perceive it, it’s useless. Add to that the risk of failure and whatever the effect is, it ultimately isn’t worth its toll on your concentration and confidence. The simpler and safer musical solution is always your best option. 

2. Bring a Snake. If you’re using more than two outputs (i.e. stereo L/R), come to the gig with a snake (XLR or whatever connections are appropriate) that is labeled. Unless you have your own soundman that’s familiar with your setup, you can’t expect an engineer to instantly understand your show. By routing outputs like keyboards, synth bass, backing tracks, and an FX send separately, you give the engineer more control to mix your gig. Also a balanced XLR snake can eliminate the need for multiple DI’s, a piece of gear many venues have been known to skimp on.
 
3. Power Your Interface. A fair share of USB and FireWire interfaces are bus powered these days, but this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bring a separate power supply for yours. By drawing power from the computer, you’re taxing its resources unnecessarily. I’ve found that things run a lot smoother when your interface draws its power separately.
 

4. Secure Your Connections. Your entire gig is riding on the cable that connects your computer to your interface, so secure and guard it with your life. If the connection between your computer and interface is faulty, not only can it result in distortion and failure, it can cause the cardinal sin of performing with computers, rebooting. Remember that if a musician can trip on something, he or she will. So keep this cable clear from all foot traffic.

5. Map Your Controller. This one sounds simple, but the ramifications are endless. There is nothing more distracting to an audience than a musician fiddling with his computer during a show. It’s important to run your set at home and predict any adjustments, switches, or triggers you will need to make. You won’t have the time, presence of mind, or skill with a track pad to adjust software faders mid-gig. Always anticipate your performance needs by mapping your controller beforehand.
 
Singer, songwriter, keyboardist, and educator Julian Velard has made a name for himself both in the US and abroad. He recently released a concept album about his hometown of New York City entitled If You Don’t Like It You Can Leave, and he has also penned songs for artists as diverse as Olly Murs and the New York Knicks. Find-out more at www.julianvelard.com.
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