On stage with St. Vincent at Seattle’s Moore Theater, Daniel Mintseris stands calm and stoic in a white suit and his trademark Fedora hat. He presides over a single MIDI keyboard and laptop, with a foot controller, a handful of pedals, and a duplicate laptop on the floor below him.
Mintseris begins the show by playing the bumping, bit-reduced ostinato intro of St. Vincent album opener “Rattlesnake”. With his right hand, he thumps out the rhythm like a percussionist on a hand drum, the rest of his body barely moving.
Frontwoman Annie Clark starts to sing, and her guitar part squawks along with her, mimicking the “wah-ah-ah”-ing of her voice. But Clark isn’t even wearing her guitar yet; Mintseris is playing samples of it with his left hand while he continues the ostinato with his right.
As sparse as it is, Mintseris’ setup doesn’t lack for power or diversity of sound. Throughout the show, he jumps from samples of horns and of Clark’s guitar, to synth choirs and washy strings, to aggressive leads, often within a single song. Yet, his hands rarely seem to leave the keys.
Synthesizer technology has come a long way since the days of a caped Rick Wakeman and his fortress of synths, or Japan’s Yellow Magic Orchestra and their huge Moog towers, resembling telephone switchboards of the 1950s. Still, Daniel Mintseris’ ability to do more with less is due as much to his own ingenuity as it is to software.
The Evolution of “The Brain”
The Lithuanian born-and-raised Mintseris began studying classical piano at age 7. Computers and technology were always secondary interests, although not far behind.
“I was never a real programmer, but back in Lithuania I went to school for math and computer science for a year,” he tells me at a small café close to The Moore Theater, an hour before show time. “I’ve always had that interest and aptitude with computers so I thought I would combine my interests and see how far I could get with synthesized and sampled sound.”
Mintseris moved to the US in 1993, landing in Philadelphia and eventually making his way to New York in 1998. For years, he used software like MOTU’s Digital Performer in live settings, working within its limitations, as well as the limitations of computers that had yet to become the processing powerhouses they are today.
By the time a friend recommended him to Annie Clark for her 2012 Strange Mercy tour, Mintseris had “developed a little bit of a reputation on the New York scene as the guy who didn’t mind sitting in front of the computer for hours and hours on end.”
Strange Mercy marked a seismic shift in St. Vincent’s sound. Gone were the acoustic strings, horns, and woodwinds of 2009’s Actor, replaced by biting synths, samples, and electronic drums. Clark needed a live band that could keep up with the change.
“The first email she wrote me said she was looking for a keyboard player/ programmer who would be the center of operations, kind of the brain of the band. This was just a vision in her mind. I don’t think she had worked with anyone like that before, but she knew this was possible.”
Being the “brain” of the band means more than just doing the heavy lifting when it comes to synths. In addition to controlling his own patches and effects, Mintseris pre-programs and automates the switching of Clark’s guitar effects for each song, so that she can focus on singing and playing.
Drummer Matt Johnson’s acoustic drum triggers and electronic pads are also fed into Mintseris’ setup. They act as midi controllers, triggering sounds from the same program Mintseris uses for his synths. And just for good measure, when synth bass player Toko Yasuda momentarily steps away from her Moog to play guitar, Mintseris picks up the low end.
“We run click specifically for automation because I only have a limited number of limbs and a limited number of brain cells. I try to switch my own keyboard patches as much as possible.”
With a click track and automation already in place, pre-recorded parts are an option — just not one the band considers.
“We run no playback. It’s a conscious decision, not technologically dictated, but philosophically dictated. We want to make the music live, because we believe that’s what the people came to see.”
Under the Hood
Listening to the sonically dense albums Strange Mercy and St. Vincent, for which Mintseris has been a part of the touring band, it’s easy to imagine the difficulty in translating these sounds into a live setting. Mintseris gives much of the credit to Ableton Live, which he began using from its first version.
“In my experience, Ableton has made everything pretty seamless and stable since day one. The only time anything has ever gone wrong is from human error.”
In Ableton, Mintseris loads several racks of virtual instruments, including Arturia MiniMoog, GForce Virtual String Machine, and a newer analog modeled synth called Diva by U-He. He also adds a rack of Reason synths, and sounds he has sampled with Ableton, like Clark’s guitar.
By creating an individual Ableton “set” for each song, he can group the sounds he needs and assign them to different octaves of his keyboard controller however he sees fit. “I just try to figure out which limb is most available and go from there,” he says.
Mintseris also wrote a script for Ableton that enables it to change the set of instruments and effects when the song is done, without him having to touch the computer. During each song, he’ll switch his synth effects and patches manually, or rely on pre-programmed automation within Ableton when he doesn’t have the human bandwidth to do it all. If the band feels like extending a section of a song, Mintseris can loop the automation with his pedals, keeping the current effects going.
Mintseris’ biggest investment is his computer, which he seems to upgrade once about every three years. He almost never uses the second laptop we see on the floor during the show; it’s an emergency backup that his keyboard controller will immediately switch to, should anything go wrong with his main machine. Mintseris sees preventing such catastrophe as part of his job:
“Technology is a complicated mistress. Things can go wrong, but you have to find ways to guard against it. If the software is well-written and you’re willing to spend the time to learn what makes it tick, the amount of things that can go wrong should be reduced to a bare minimum.”
The Man Behind the Machine
In a 2013 article he contributed to Keyboard Magazine, “Hand Independence for Synth Players”, Mintseris wrote briefly about how he arranges and plays some of the live keyboard parts for St. Vincent:
“To achieve three-part harmony with portamento-infused monophonic synths, I created three instances of Arturia Minimoog V in Ableton Live and set up each note of the scale in the top voice to be sent to all three synths, with the second and third voice transposed down accordingly. I then used a slightly modified Ableton Operator sound in an upper split zone to play the right hand line. Notice that clefs and notated octave placement are somewhat arbitrary in cases like this. I’ll often have a higher-pitched sound in the left hand (or vice versa) just because I like how a particular part feels there.”