12 live performance tips
Playing live is a weird mix of science and art, just like with other fields of music. This means you’re swimming in a lot of preconceptions, personal experience and ambition, and absolute rights and wrongs. Bearing that in mind, here are some tips to get your through your first gigs.
Don’t change your setup
In the week (or two) before your gig, it’s advisable to not change your setup. If your hardware is working perfectly, don’t change anything, not even a cable or plug. If your computer is fine as it is, then no more software updates until after the gig… and turn off automatic updates (that is not a musician-friendly feature!) We know how tempting it is to keep tinkering, change your routings, try a different software synth, whatever it might be, but it’s just asking for trouble. Instead of rebuilding, spend that time practising your set.
Do change your setup
Ooh, controversial! Yes, this advice is the complete opposite to the advice we’ve already given you. What we’d say here is that for higher profile gigs, certainly follow that original advice. Yet for smaller gigs, where it’s less formal and maybe more of a jam, it’s a fantastic opportunity to try new gear and new material and new working methods in the real world. It often takes us two gigs in a row at best before it’s time to start ripping everything up – that goes for the hardware setup, Ableton Live projects and the actual musical content, too.
Preparing for a gig and then playing it, is a perfect excuse to get in the zone and stay there. Indulge your inner control freak and focus – you can schmooze your friends later. Micro-manage. Obsess. Spend way too much time over-thinking the details, such as deciding which side of the computer you like your controller to be on. Even during and after the soundcheck, keep tinkering, checking. All of the invested advance time pays off once your set starts – you’ll feel ready and prepared and all the technical stuff goes away and it’s purely about the playing and the sound.
Record your sets
This is something this writer avoided for years. Once, a promoter recorded one of my sets and I made him delete it; I didn’t want to listen to it afterwards and to hear all my mistakes and pick it all apart. You might feel that knowing you’re being recorded might affect the way you play. But from an artist/brand-building point of view, it’s always good to have a stock of recorded performances in the can for your social channels. We often simply use a field recorder to record our performances.
Manage your levels
If you want to sound good – that is, if you want to sound like you have half a clue what you’re doing live – then manage your volume levels. We’re using a lot of distortions and bitcrushers and filters in our live sets, and there are times when the bass in particular can really jump out, so we tend to have limiters on every track. It’s good to be able to control it and go from super clean to filthy noise and back, on demand. It can take some doing, but it’s worth it. A loud, controlled, sound is the best sound.
Be a social animal
Another benefit of playing live gigs is that you get to meet all kinds of people – not only your audience (if you have one) and the people at the venue, but also the other artists on the line-up. What better way to make connections, get more gigs or to find somebody to play the recorder on your next release? Make the most of these ‘meatspace’ opportunities – it’s way more effective than social media.
One eye on the goods
Much as we’d wholeheartedly encourage you to embrace the sociability and networking opportunities at gigs, It’s also worth a note of caution to keep an eye on your stuff, especially in that time between soundcheck and live set, where it’s set up and laid out for all to see. Security issues are really dependent on the venue and type of audience, but you should always know where your stuff is. And get insurance.
Feed the Insta
Like you haven’t got enough to deal with, every performing artist must now be a social-marketing whiz as well. Promoting the gig in advance is one thing, but post-gig is equally important – it’s all about looking busy. Record your audio and get a friend to shoot some video. Phone quality will do, it’s going to be ancient history in a couple of days, anyway.
Tell the venue what you want
Any well-organised promoter will be in touch before the gig to ask you for your tech specs. This is your opportunity to make yourself look like a pro, by giving them a realistic and clear breakdown of what you need to make your gig happen. Whether you need to talk about microphones, DI boxes, power outlets or video adaptors, this is the time to put it all in writing.
Hardware control can make your live performances more fun and entertaining and preparing for that is easy thanks to MIDI learn, where you quickly assign any knob, fader, or button on your controller to a suitable software function. Ableton Live also does this with QWERTY keyboards, which can be really useful.
The ticking of the clock
If you’re using more than one electronic instrument, whether hardware or software, you’ll likely want to sync them. You can use MIDI clock – nearly every bit of music gear works with that – or Ableton Link (usually wireless but also via ethernet), or even plain old tap tempo, if absolutely necessary!
DIY with iOS
Although it might seem limiting, you can perform live with nothing more than iOS devices. Sometimes, it seems the iOS music scene hasn’t really reached its full potential but there are some great apps, whether you want to trigger sounds or sequences, or send control messages to your favourite DAW.
For more tips and tricks, check out our essential guides.