Avoiding the “Fake Factor” in MIDI-Based Solo Acts
By Anderton |
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.