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How To Prepare For Problems When Performing Live Music Through A Computer

Apr 15 • Articles • 18620 Views • 12 Comments on How To Prepare For Problems When Performing Live Music Through A Computer

We found this extremely helpful article from Ableton guru – Tom Cosm. It’s a guide to prepare you for all the problems you may face when you perform music live, through a computer. We’ve taken a few extracts from the entire article to focus on the ‘technical’ issues more.

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Performing live electronic music is a double edged sword. If all the conditions are right, a live set can feel like you’re playing an awesome video game that you know for a fact you are going to win. However, things do sometimes go wrong and if you’re not prepared you might find yourself in a world of confusion and embarrassment. I’ve had countless problems over my 10 years performing live with computers. From stages falling down to beer all over my gear, buff men on acid trying to tackle me to computers literally frying in the middle eastern sun – I reckon I’ve got some disaster notches on my belt. In this article I’m going to address the main problem areas that you should be watching out for each time you go to perform live. Whether it’s in a club or a festival, stick to these simple rules and you’ll be prepared for almost anything.

Software Malfunction

This can be one of the most, if not the most scariest and confusing problem that can happen in the middle of a live set. If you’re at a stage where you are performing with computers, you’re probably clued up enough to know about how they work and consequently problem solve when something goes wrong – but can you use your cunning logic when you’ve got hundreds of people staring at you, screaming and cheering for the problem to be fixed as fast as possible?. It’s not easy, and can be very intimidating – especially the first time. Going from loud music to complete silence is a real shock to anyone, almost as much as suddenly hearing a loud noise when it’s quiet. The first time my computer crashed during a performance you could hear my heart drop in those few split seconds of no sound between my audio stopping and the crowd collectively going “ooooooohhhh…..”. Some people work well under pressure, however I really think this sort of pressure has a category of it’s own. The most difficult part can often be isolating the problem. You have to know what’s wrong in order to fix it. In a chaotic environment such as a nightclub or festival it can be dark, loud and hot. Here’s a flow chart I created on the thought process I personally go through when I am faced with the silent demon.

Tom Cosm - Computer Crash Live - Flowchart

These days I am much more chilled about these situations, and almost (almost!) welcome them. If you can be calm and collected about the situation, you can turn things right around and make it into a feature of your set. Sounds strange right? I know, but it’s true. When there’s silence people come out of their little caves, people to the sides come up and check out what’s happening… friends can talk to each other and locate each other… and to be brutally honest, the majority of them don’t give a shit if there’s a few moments of silence. They are having a great time. Turning music back on after silence is quite a buzz as well. People know it’s coming, they are anticipating it, and when it finally comes back on you’ll get one of the biggest cheers of your life.

Stuttering

I’m going to place stuttering under it’s own category here, because there are quite a number of things that can go wrong. By stuttering, I mean regular or irregular short disturbances in the music, usually in the form of the audio skipping briefly for a microsecond, which unfortunately is enough to start ruining the flow of a set. The key to finding out what is causing your stutter is to isolate the type of stuttering that is happening. In my experience these fall into one of three categories:

Constant, unlistenable stuttering that creates many little gaps per second.

» This is usually an issue between your computer or your soundcard.
» Check your soundcard settings in your DAW, make sure the latency is not to low. If your latency is too low, your soundcard can not keep up with the information it is being given, and can only play sound by cutting corners, often resulting in a constant skippy signal that often makes the music sound slower than it should be
» If latency isn’t an issue, you may need to quickly shut down, unplug your soundcard and plug it back in again. This has happened to me numerous times and I can’t offer a full explanation however the majority of the time simply resetting the soundcard and picking up from where I left off resolves the problem.

Intermittent stuttering that creates a short time gap in the music, however the tempo of the music isn’t disrupted.

» This is usually due to a CPU power problem. Check your CPU meter in your DAW and see if it spikes or is at a high level (usually more than 50% is what I would consider unsafe).
» If your CPU use is high, you may need to disable some plugins.
» If you are using any ‘experimental’ plugins, such as some amateur Max for Live plugins (with Ableton Live), turn these off first as they can usually be the culprit.
» Check to make sure nothing else on your computer is running that could take over CPU power.
¤ Virus scanners
¤ Virus updates
¤ Anything that could be constantly trying to access the internet to update (Twitter, Email etc)
¤ Automatic system updates
» Open the task manager (ctrl-alt-delete on PC, option-command-escape on Mac) and see if there is anything running in the background that shouldn’t be
» If all else fails, a restart might be necessary.
» I’ve heard of and experienced a strange stutter before in some of my older sets. Nobody could give me a reason why, but I found that it started happening after about 40 minutes of playing a set. The only option was to restart my DAW and pick up where I left off.

Intermittent stuttering that creates a short delay in the pulse of the music.

» This type of stuttering is usually caused because your hard drive is not fast enough to read the information you are trying to stream properly.
» If you are playing several WAF or AIFF files all at once, you need to be sure your hard drive can actually feed all these at once.
» Sometimes I run up to 16 WAVs at once, and I found a 5200rpm hard drive (which is the standard for most laptops) couldn’t not keep up. I upgraded to a 7200rpm hard drive and problems stopped.
» Consider getting a solid state hard drive. These have no moving parts and can feed files exceptionally faster than normal hard drives.

Have a Back Up

» This one goes without saying, but so many people do not do this.
» A backup can be as simple as a couple of CDs with your music so if worst comes to worse, you can at least do a DJ set.
» I always carry a 32gig USB key with my set loaded, and an installation of my DAW (Ableton Live). This means that even if my computer completely fries itself, I may be able to use someone elses computer as I have everything I need to get quickly set up and running.

Feel free to read the entire article here.

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As always, there are a lot more that you need look at when performing live (not a DJ set), as everything that’s a foundation should be well prepared and stable while the performance part should be the only variable that changes. As Tom mentioned, a back-up is crucial as that could be your saving grace. All in all, have a great time & do the nervous ‘technical’ thinking before you go up on stage.

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