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An Interesting Email…

Hello Troubadourians! This month I was going to continue our discussion on amplifiers that began back in the September issue, but I received a rather interesting email from a reader named Scott. He asked; “Have you ever discussed how performers can best use technology at a performance? I am not yet a performer, but I often see iPads or laptops being used for backing tracks, lyrics, effects, looping, etc. Everyone seems to have a different approach. If you have written on this—can you share any of the past articles? Or perhaps, this could be a topic for a new one? I would love to learn more on this topic.” After thinking about it I decided that while I’m hardly an expert on using iPads, laptops, loopers, and other such electronic marvels on stage in a live performance, I do have some perspective on said devices so I thought I’d share what I know, what I think, and resolve to do some further research into all of this both in the coming months and especially at the upcoming NAMM Show in January of 2019. My letter to Scott follows below:

Hi Scott! Thank you for your support! I’m glad that you enjoy the column. I am intrigued by your question. No, I haven’t written about this in any past articles and to be honest it hasn’t been asked about nor have I thought about it before. The reason is simple; I really don’t know much about using computers in a performance situation. My performance sensibility—the way I approach performing—is decidedly “old school” where we memorized everything. When I started out, it was totally uncool to use charts or to have a music stand onstage. Definitely not rock ‘n’ roll approved! If you couldn’t play it live, you didn’t play it, and I’ve kept to that ethos for everything I’ve done. In the “old days” we considered it cheating to play to tracks or to use any pre-recorded enhancements. (Caveat: It was well known that Prog-Rock bands regularly “played to tracks” in concert but that was somehow deemed acceptable for that genre.) That said, I’ve seen the changes in attitude and in technology both on professional concert stages as well as in more amateur settings. The pros often use well-hidden teleprompters for lyrics and many bands often use backing tracks to reproduce studio parts that are either too difficult to perform live or require more musicians to reproduce than the band can afford to tour with. On a more local scale, many performers are using iPads to display lyrics and chord charts onstage. It seems that an iPad is infinitely cooler that a traditional music stand and a ream of paper charts. As for looping/effects, again that is a technology that I’ve never experimented with but I can see where it can enhance a solo performance beyond the basic guitar/voice scenario.

I have seen brilliant performances from performers using loopers and pre-recorded tracks. Locally, Michael Tiernan and Joe Rathburn come to mind as premier purveyors of the potential of this technology. They are able to make you forget that it’s just them performing and you start to believe you are listening to a really tight—and invisible—band. On the other hand, I’ve also seen many really dreadful performances where a musician attempted to use looping in a live context and they were definitely deeply over their head in the attempt. Either they were woefully unfamiliar with the technology or they simply neglected to practice with it sufficiently to master the device. And it goes beyond simply using the gear correctly, you need to use it musically as well. Otherwise, its just more noise cluttering your performance.

Using computers on stage was once the exclusive domain of keyboard players but now there are applications that are tailored for every conceivable instrument as well as voice. It’s kind of a “chicken and egg” thing as to whether the technology drove changes in music or if the changing musical landscape drove the development of the applications. Either way it has become acceptable to enhance—or even create—your music using computers, loopers, and other electronic devices. As you’ve noticed, everyone seems to have a different approach, which is to be expected, as there isn’t “just one way” to make music. Musicians utilize the technology as it best fits their specific situation just as they might select a particular guitar that best fits their style. I recommend that you check out Craig Anderton’s website (http://www.craiganderton.com/) for more information on using computers and electronics live or in the studio, as he has been in the forefront of using electronics to enhance live performance since before it was a “thing” and he is guitar-centric for the most part. There are other musicians—KT Tunstall comes to mind—who are masters at using looping in a very musical context to enhance their performances. KT usually builds loops by layering them one at a time until the entire backing track is set. Check out this video on YouTube to watch how she does it; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ulyoxdhHrIs. Another player with a different approach to looping is Johnny A. He doesn’t stack the parts one at a time, rather he takes a more “play as you go” approach, which comes off rather organic and musical but requires a mastery of instrument, arrangement, and equipment that is far beyond simple looping. Check out this example, again on YouTube; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IetveK6Zepo.

You could probably spend a few weeks looking up all of the current (and past) musicians who utilize some form of computer, looper, or other electronics to either enhance or create their sound. But remember… there are no electronics or computers that can take the place of musicianship or good old-fashioned practice. If you choose to make these devices a part of your sound, you have to take the time to master them the same as you would your instrument. You can get a simple looper for about $100 and that’s a good place to start. But, just like fine instruments, you will get the highest quality sounds, the most versatility, and the most musical performances from high-end gear which is going to be expensive. And, just as you wouldn’t step on stage unprepared to play your guitar, you shouldn’t step on stage unprepared to use your electronics. Proper usage of electronics can exponentially enhance your performance but improper usage of electronics can exponentially screw up your performance—and in a real hurry… Good luck!

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (ask.charlie@hotmail.com)

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