Using a Laptop Onstage: Do’s and Don’ts of Digital Integration for Live Shows

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Are you an electronic musician/producer who needs to translate your studio swag to a stage setting? Are you a band attempting to use a laptop on stage in lieu of human bodies playing instruments? Are you a DJ who just joined a band and are trying to find your lane? If the answer to any of the above is yes-to-maybe, this article is for you.

Getting your laptop into your live setup can pay off -- the rig of NYC artist I Am Snow Angel.

Getting your laptop into your live setup can pay off — the rig of NYC artist I Am Snow Angel.

I have been there, done that, pressed all those buttons and wasted tons of time and money attempting to do all of the above. Use my tips, tricks, and learn from my mistakes (and of some of my clients’).

Short of being able to tell you how to look and sound cool, this article should help you start out on the right foot.

Know who you are – Know where you’re going

Here’s another survey question: Are you an EDM producer or beat maker who is trying to breathe life into a stage show, or are you a live band who needs a computer to play a much needed sonic role?

These are obviously two very different things, and understanding where you’re coming from will really help you get to where you need to go, so be honest with yourself and know who you are.

Bands who have never opened an .als session who think they’re going to be the next CHVRCHES… they’re wrong.

The idea isn’t to re-invent yourself (unless that’s your goal), it’s to use digital technologies to elevate and alleviate but more importantly help communicate your music to an audience.

By clearly identifying what you’re trying to accomplish you will be 100% more likely to get there.

Visual Cues

In regards to laptops/controllers, generally there is a pretty large disconnect between what an audience member perceives as happening onstage and what any given band member may actually be doing.

For example; despite what looks like feverish knob twisting and epic beat dropping, for all anyone knows DeadMau5 may be pulling a Robert Palmer on everyone and just pressing play on a five-hour long MP3. Although this is highly unlikely, it serves as a solid theoretical to roll around.

If you want the audience to visually and aurally perceive something as truly happening live on stage you need to make it pretty clear via button pushing, arm gestures, body movement etc…

Conversely, if you don’t want people to know your drummer is triggering keyboard parts because you couldn’t afford to get that person to come on tour with you, as long you don’t draw attention to it, very few people will be the wiser. Make a decision as to what you want your listener to know and also what you don’t.

Important Areas to Educate Yourself On

Choosing a DAW

The most ubiquitous software you see on stage these days is hands-down Ableton Live. If you’re serious about this stuff I strongly suggest you join the herd.

That being said, MainStage is at a much lower price point and if all you’re trying to do is play along to pre-recorded tracks, which will never change form, I give it my seal of approval.

All that aside, if you’re a keyboard player who’s using your laptop to access soft synths via a MIDI controller – do whatever works best for you. There’s literally dozens of options for you including VST’s you can run through your DAW of choice or standalone programs. In this case, I still default to Ableton if only for the plethora of other tools and options it provides.

Who’s in charge of the laptop?

Choose your digital division of labor carefully -- another angle on I Am Snow Angel.

Choose your digital division of labor carefully — another angle on I Am Snow Angel.

In any live band setting someone is going to need to not only own a laptop and be responsible for it, but also run it onstage. If the choice isn’t already obvious, choose said person wisely based on these factors

–       Most responsible

–       Person most likely to keep calm in the face of technical difficulties

–       Tech savvy individual

–       Depending if sections or clips need to be triggered mid-song, you’ll need someone who either has their hands/feet free to do that or has the ability to multitask while performing.

–       Positioned onstage dependent on whether or not you want people to be aware of the computers role.

Outputting

This is important because not all options are created equal. There are two or three main options you have depending on how you look at it:

–       Interface – this is what you’ll want to use if you’re running multiple inputs through the computer; and/or wanting to send separate outputs, cues or sends while also bypassing your computer’s internal soundcard.

–       1/8” Built in Output – This option would be for people who want to carry around the least amount of stuff and only output one stereo signal. The shortcoming of this option is that you can’t separate anything (including the click)… but if this is really what you want to do I also suggest considering the next option, which is

–       Portable DAC (Digital Audio Converter) – Your computer has an internal DAC, which wasn’t built with optimal audio performance in mind. You can bypass your laptop’s sound card by using a portable USB DAC, which will immediately make things sound better.

 This option would be best for Producer/DJ’s who spent loads of time mixing everything in the box and have everything dialed in and ready to output to channels “1” and “2,” doesn’t want to bother with an interface, and really cares about how things sound. Here’s a useful article in MacWorld if you’re interesting in learning more.

Cueing

Sending/receiving the click is a vital piece of the puzzle. The computer is going to do what you tell it, which includes sending the click to those who need to have it in their ears (drummer?) and not sending it to those that don’t (audience).

In the end you have to get all the human bodies and the computer in synch with where the downbeats are. I have seen so many interpretations of this that run the gamut from very organic to god-awful.

Best case scenario – in any live band setting which has a percussive element or drum kit, I suggest sending them the click, making sure everyone can hear them, and simply follow that person.

Executed correctly, this option is the most organic and will allow the drummer to keep time, which is ultimately his or her job. This doesn’t mean they also have to be the one running the computer, it only means everyone needs to be able to hear each other, which I like to think goes without saying.

Worst case scenario – I once saw a band playing along to tracks which were being sent off of someone’s cell phone straight to the PA. Each song included two bars of the click before the start, which was all anybody got.

Seemingly, they prayed to the rock gods to keep everyone lined up with each other and the cell phone solely based off of what they could hear in their monitors.

Not only did it look really amateur — having someone press play on an MP3 before each song — but it was a total train wreck because they played louder than the tracks, would get off beat and then struggle to find it again. Don’t let this be you!!!

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  • Jwarv

    Good stuff. Been there, done that with the sequencer/programmer. Scary if you haven’t rehearsed properly. Nice to see some advice on the issue. Thanks.

  • RayRay Risin

    I’m not sure what of this I’m supposed to do. My band is (currently) just myself, the vocalist, and a bassist. We’re capable of playing the other instruments, but we can’t play multiple instruments at the same time. As we can’t find any other musicians willing to join a band with a woman in it (especially if that woman is fronting it, like with mine), we’re gonna have to play the rest via prerecorded tracks on a laptop (that I will be controlling), unless I can somehow put the tracks on my keyboard to play that way. What do you recommend?

  • Erin Barra

    It’s start by learning how to use Ableton and create your own path. People who won’t join your band because your a woman are terrible people so you don’t want them anyway. Keep looking – there are plenty of people out there to collaborate with, you just have to be open to them. You can put this together a bunch of different ways, it’s just requires that you sort of dig in and see how the technology can best support you

  • RayRay Risin

    I had meant in terms of equipment, not programs XD I tried Ableton before, it was just too complicated for me to figure out, and the tutorials they have just made it worse ^^;