Taking your music to the stage? Our live performance product guide compiles some of the key pieces of hardware and software that will make it reality. Make sure to read the full From Studio To Stage feature.
There’s a lot of talk about Ableton Live here, and that’s as it should be, because no other software works in so many performance situations. Live’s on stage with electronic artists, rock bands, country, hip-hop, jazz, pop – running backing tracks, corralling hardware inputs, hosting plug-ins and effects, triggering MIDI and samples, or sometimes all of those at once.
Live can be controlled by MIDI, or even computer-keyboard assignments and by the dedicated Push hardware controller. It has an arrangement timeline of course, but also the unique Session View, which is most likely where you’ll be working in a live situation.
If you’re more focused on keyboard performances rather than requiring full workstation functionality, then check out Native Instruments Kontakt. It’s a mature sample-based platform and the onboard library includes over 1,000 presets with 43GB-plus of content. Kontakt runs standalone or as a plug-in and integrates with NI’s Komplete Kontrol S-Series keyboard controllers.
You can buy Kontakt separately, or it’s included in the monstrous Komplete software bundles. Also available is the free Kontakt Player, which doesn’t include the library content but enables you to play instruments from NI or third-party developers.
Currently the ultimate expression of hardware dedicated to one music application, Push is developed for Live by Ableton itself, so integration is as tight as can be. It features 64 velocity-sensitive backlit pads, assorted knobs and buttons and a colour display which can show anything from instrument or effect parameters to mixer levels and content browsing.
The pads can be used to launch clips – one-shot or looping audio or MIDI parts – but also to program beats and to play keyboard parts, with configurable scale modes. Push is a superb Live control surface; it’s matured greatly since its release.
There are two Arturia ‘step’ devices – the BeatStep Pro and the KeyStep. The BeatStep Pro has pads, knobs and a simple LCD display and you can use it to play notes from the pads and send CCs from the knobs, but it also functions at a much more interesting level – with two independent melodic sequencers and a 16-track drum sequencer.
Add to this a neat touch strip, a randomiser and swing settings and this is a versatile controller that’ll work with your computer, iOS device, or standalone hardware, including USB, MIDI, and CV/Gate connections. The KeyStep is a more compact keyboard-based device which still includes a polyphonic sequencer.
Guitarists have as many options as keyboard players now; there are hardware amp-modelling products, including amps themselves, which digitally emulate the behaviour of many different amps/cabinets and effects. Then there are guitar-amp plug-ins which do away with hardware altogether, (though you’ll still need an interface to plug in your guitar).
A recent addition to the guitar plug-in world is Line 6’s Helix, which is noteworthy because it’s a plug-in version of its highly rated Helix hardware, modelling amplifiers, cabinets, and effects – usefully, the presets are cross-compatible between hardware and software.
Effects processing is often the limiting factor when it comes to avoiding software in live setups. When it comes to effect processing, we turn to guitar pedals, which work great. Now we have Analog Heat, which is becoming popular as a stereo distortion/compressor/filter/EQ for live shows. It can be deployed as a destructive distortion or a subtle enhancement.
It’s MIDI controllable, so you can load one of the 128 presets, automate parameter changes, or adjust them remotely from a hardware controller. It’s also a USB stereo audio interface with two inputs and has MIDI In/Out/Thru, CV, and DIN Sync Out.
Following on from, or maybe pairing up with, the Analog Heat, is the Eventide H9, another guitar/stereo tabletop/stompbox device. This will provide high-quality delay, EQ, reverb, harmonisers, compressor, noise gate, fuzz, etc. Most of the presets apply just one effect at a time, so this isn’t really a true multi-effect unit, but a few multi-effect presets have been introduced, including the fantastic CrushStation with fuzz/EQ/octaver/compression.
The top-level controls are sparse, but the extensive MIDI functionality and the ability to control via the H9 Control app on computer or iOS should get you over that. A versatile and great-sounding device.