Just because you're faking it doesn't mean you have to sound fake...
by Craig Anderton
I travel, so I stay in a lot of hotels. This means that in the last decade, I’ve seen 9,562 musicians singing/playing to a drum machine, and 3,885 synth duos where a couple of musicians play along with a sequencer or sampler. I’ve even been in that position myself a few times.
Audiences have come to accept drum machines, but one person on stage being backed up by strings, horns, pianos, and ethereal choirs rings false, and the crowd knows it. Yet you don’t want to lose the audience due to monotony. Unless you’re a spellbinding performer, hearing the same voice and guitar or keyboard for an entire evening can wear out your welcome.
In the process of playing live, I’ve learned a bit about what does — and doesn’t — work when doing a MIDI-based act. Hopefully some of the following ideas will apply to your situation too.
SEQUENCERS: NOT JUST NOTES
One way to avoid resorting to “fake” sounds is to maximize the “real” sounds you already have. As a guitar player, that involves processing my guitar sound. Switching between a variety of timbres helps keep interest up without having to introduce new instruments.
However, this creates a problem: using footswitches and pedals to change sounds diverts your attention from your playing, since you now have to worry about hitting the right button at the right time. For me, the solution is using amp sims that can accept MIDI continuous controllers to change several parameters independently. This is where a sequencer really shines — in addition to driving instrument parts, it can generate MIDI messages that change your sound automatically, with no pedal-pushing required. Amp sims running on a laptop are often ideal for this application because they tend to have very complete MIDI implementations, but many processors (Fig. 1) also accept continuous controller commands. If not, they will likely be able to handle program changes, which can still be useful.
Fig. 1: Line 6’s POD HD500 can accept MIDI continuous controller commands that change selected parameters in real time.
For example, on one of my tunes the sequencer sends continuous controller data to a single program to vary delay feedback, delay mix, distortion drive, distortion output, and upper midrange EQ. As the song progresses, the various settings “morph” from one setting to another — rhythm guitar with no delay, low distortion drive, and flat EQ all the way to lead guitar with delay, lots of distortion, and a slight upper midrange boost. Within the main guitar solo itself, the delay feedback increases until the solo’s last note, at which point it goes to maximum so the echo “spills” over into the following rhythm part. Not only does this sound cool, it adds an interactive element. It’s not human beings, but still, I can play off some changes. What’s more, it doesn’t seem fake to the audience because all the sounds have a direct correlation to what’s being played.
It’s true that using a sequencer ties you to a set arrangement, with very few exceptions. However, although sections of the song are limited to a certain number of measures, you can nonetheless play whatever you want within those measures, so solos can still be different each time you play them.
THE VOCAL ANGLE
I really like the DigiTech and TC-Helicon series of processors for live vocals. Being able to generate harmonies is cool enough, but there’s a lot of MIDI power in some of these boxes (Fig. 2), and you can do the same type of MIDI program or continuous controller tricks as those mentioned above for guitar.
Fig. 2: DigiTech’s Vocalist Live Pro can use MIDI continuous controller and program changes to alter a wide range of parameters.
Once again, even though you’re generating a big sound it’s all derived from your voice, so the audience can correlate what it hears to what’s seen on stage.
THE SAMPLER CONNECTION
A decent sampler (or workstation with sampling capabilities; see Fig. 3) that includes a built-in MIDI sequencer is ideal as a live music backup companion. It can hold any kind of drum sounds, hook up to external storage for fast loading and saving of sounds and songs, and generate the continuous controller data needed to control signal processors with its sequencer.
Fig. 3: Yamaha’s Motif XF isn’t just a fine synthesizer/workstation, but includes flash memory for storing and playing back custom samples.
Samplers are also great because you can toss in some crowd-pleasing samples when the natives get restless. A few notes from a TV theme song, a politician making a fool of himself, a bit from a 50s movie — they’re all fun. And to conserve memory you can usually get away with sampling them at a pretty low sampling frequency.
When sampling bass parts for live use, it’s often best to avoid tones that draw a lot of attention to themselves, like highly resonant synth bass or slap bass. A round, full line humming along in the background fills the space just fine.
PLAYING WITH MYSELF
When I switch over to playing a lead after playing rhythm guitar, it leaves a pretty big hole. To fill the space without resorting to sequencing other instruments, I sample some power chords and rhythm licks from my guitar, and sequence them behind solos. This doesn’t sound too fake because the audience has already heard these sounds, so they just blend right in. Furthermore, the background sounds don’t have to be mixed very high. Adding just a bit creates a texture that fills out the sound nicely.
One of my favorite solo acts is a multi-instrumentalist in Vancouver named Tim Brecht who plays guitar, keyboards, drums, flute, and several percussion instruments during the course of his act (he also does some interesting things with hand puppets, but that’s another story). So when the sequenced drums play, people can accept it because they know he can play drums. Similarly, on some songs I’ll play a keyboard part instead of guitar. This not only provids a welcome break, but when I sequence the same keyboard sound as a background part later on, it’s no big deal because the audience has already been exposed to it and seen me play it.
FOR BETTER DRUMS, USE A DRUMMER
Okay, maybe you can’t convince your favorite drummer friend to come along to the gig. But if can have a real drummer program your drum sequences, it really does make a difference.
I’m seeing more people using MIDI guitar live (Fig. 4), but not in heavy-metal or techno bands: these are typically solo acts in places like restaurants.
Fig. 4: Fishman's TriplePlay retrofits existing guitars for MIDI, and transmits the signals wirelessly to a computer.
They use MIDI guitar because again, it reduces the fake factor. Even if you’re playing other instrument sounds, people can see that what you’re playing is creating the sound. Some changes can be more subtle, like triggering a sampler with a variety of different guitar samples so you can go from acoustic, to electric, to 12-string, just by calling up different patches. Being able to layer straight guitar and synthesized sounds is a real bonus, as it reinforces the fact that the synth sounds relate to the guitar.
IT’S THE MUSIC THAT MATTERS
All of these tips have one goal: to make it easier to play live (in spite of the technology!), and to avoid sounding overly fake. People want to see you jumping around and having a good time, not loading sequences and fiddling with buttons. The less equipment you have to lug around, the better — both for reliability and minimal setup hassles.
When MIDI came out, it changed my performance habits forever. If nothing else, I haven’t done a footswitch tap dance while balancing on a volume pedal in years — and I hope never to do one again!
Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.
This was wonderful to read. Thanks Craig. I'll have to assume that most or all of these techniques and tips apply to live performances. One or maybe two man-bands. MIDI and live performances as opposed to recording. Leave it to Craig to tackle this issue. I want to hear more from Craig and might have something of my oun to add.
Getting MIDI to sound live is no easy task especially where floor real estate in a cub environment or any other pubic venue is concerned. A MIDI brass section, string section, percussive section and a grand piano can involve acres of room real state to give your audience that live ballroom flavor you know they deserve. Oh.. What to do......
My principals don't allow my music to come off "fake" when my audience's feelings and emotions are in the palm of my hand. Personally, I would do without MIDI instruments whatever if I can't get them to sound authentic to my audience. But then, I don't do weddings where the music is usually incidental either, and MIDI brass, guitars, pianos, strings and drum machines are probably expected. Along with your typical DJ, radio host announcer front man vocalist.
What separates the pros from the amateurs is authenticity plain and simple. All the beeps and whistles MIDI CC's are great for FX. But when substituting acoustic instruments for MIDI, in a live venue where room ambiance is as much a part of the performance as the musician and his/her instrument, you'll probably need up to three times the floor space and room size for one, and three to four times the speaker/amplifier system to help reproduce the authenticity a real string and brass section would produce. Otherwise, Keep it simple and pure and cut the MIDI instruments from the act.
That said, I'm all for recording and manipulation great samples from S.O.T A. Samples libraries. Where you should keep MIDI instruments where they belong. In the recording environment.
Good article Craig. I have a question on MIDI vocal harmonizers.
About 20 years ago I bought a Digitech Studio Vocalist and never really used it as planned. How does this unit compare to today's hardware hamonizer technology? Does it still stand up? If I do need a unit to harmonize in a live setting, what else might be recommended?
Thanks. Jim G
Thank you for the tips. I have been soloing for quite a while as a Christian music artist and I have participated for years in SSS. I have linked to a video of live in studio performance so you can see what I do in concert playing along with a Korg Kross built-in sequencer. Just after I recorded this video, I got a left handed 2013 Gibson Studio wine red with min-ETune. It blows the doors off the Washburn Buzz Feiten guitar I use in the video. What an incredible instument the Gibson is. I never would have believed that a guitar could be so versitile. I love the robot tuning feature which is a great time saver. I was concerned that the tuner would not work with a lefty guitar, but Gibson made a left handed version, bless their hearts! Please accept my belated congratulations for your position at Gibson.
I was wondering if you could give me some advice about my music presentation if you have the time. I know that you are busy, but any suggestions would be appreciated. The link is:
aka KB Gunn