What does live music mean in the laptop era?

This weekend my electronica band Revival Revival is doing some shows for the first time in many months. We’ll be doing a lot of what my non-electronic-musician friends consider to be cheating. The lead vocals and guitar will be live, as will some of the synths. Everything else will be canned, recordings played back from a laptop. Here’s the setup:

From left to right, you’re seeing an Mbox, the audio interface that goes with Pro Tools. We plug the vocal mic into it so that the computer can perform its magic, like Auto-tune and compression. Next is a little mixer sitting on top of a headphone amp. Then there’s Babsy’s laptop running one of our Pro Tools files, showing some of the backing vocals she’ll be singing over. On the right is a Line 6 Pod, a guitar effects unit and amp modeler. It’s a lot easier to carry to gigs than a real amp. Using a fake amp modeler isn’t very rock and roll but it fits perfectly with the spirit of electronica. For the show we’re going to use two computers, Barbara’s to run Pro Tools, and mine for Reason synths and playback of ordinary audio files.

Using canned tracks causes me some residual philosophical angst. It lacks the risk-taking that jazz-trained cats like me associate with a good live performance. But sonically, accompanying ourselves with stuff we prerecorded and sequenced is a no-brainer. We want the tracks to sound a certain way. Doing our synth and sample-based sounds completely live would be either difficult or impossible. So our show is taking on the aspect of a highly skilled karaoke experience. This runs directly against the spirit of rock, jazz, country and most of the other music I’m trained in. But it fits in well with the music I’ve become most interested in lately, hip-hop, contemporary R&B and electronica. All of these styles use recordings in live performance heavily.

I’ve had a few different bands with Barbara at this point. We started out doing live techno remixes of pop and rock songs, mostly using preprogrammed beats. Then we entered our free improv period, combining a groovebox and live instrumentation to do a more electronic version of seventies Miles Davis. Now we’re back to pop, using very tightly structured songs with meticulous arrangements. We still use loose improvisation as a way to write during the recording process, but the finished product gets heavily edited, and most of the improv winds up on the metaphorical cutting room floor. I love improvising without a net in front of an audience, but the supply and demand equation for that kind of music isn’t too favorable. That’s as it should be. Unstructured jamming is more fun for the performers than the listeners, and our focus now is on making sure the audience has a good time. If you’re in NYC this Saturday night, come on down! We promise it’ll be fun on wheels.