Try to travel light
Being surrounded by the entire familiar setup of your studio when on stage can be a great comfort, but it does of course entail physically transporting your entire gear list from gig to gig. One you’ve done a few gigs, you’ll soon discover that the main pitfall of playing live is carrying stuff, lots of it, so unless you can afford roadies, keep your onstage kit list down to the basics and essentials. This may even involve buying some new gear that will perform the work of several other bits of kit.
Get a specific live-gear list
It’s a great idea to have a separate set of gear just for playing live, as you’ll keep your studio setup safe and well for production. However, it’s obviously also an expensive option. Instead, then, carefully choose some key elements and keep them as your dedicated live rig. Your controller keyboard, for example, could be cheap and rugged – nothing too fancy, as long as it cuts it live. Your computer? Obviously, a laptop is a good live option, so consider one that mirrors your desktop studio model.
Check and check again
You can’t check your gear is working enough before a gig, so make sure everything is powered, playing and up to scratch pre-gig. Check the leads, check the plugs, check, check, check! It’s not a bad idea to have backups of your most important items – a spare hard drive here and there, perhaps. And talking of backups…
And have a backup plan
And in case anything does break down, make sure you have a backup plan. In our recent Howard Jones interview, the synth-pop legend revealed he can pretty much wing it playing the piano when his live tech falls over, but he can play and sing sans technology – so make sure you have something you can do to keep people entertained when the inevitable crash occurs (even if it’s just switching to backing tapes, telling some jokes, or doing a bit of magic!).
There’s nothing more tragic than looking at someone staring at their laptop, switching clips in and out on stage – it’s almost as bad as watching DJs flick rotaries on their gear pretending it’s doing something. However, launching clips or muting and unmuting tracks is going to be part of your set, so to distract your huge audience, consider some kind of visuals. There are loads of cheap or free visual and VJ software apps out there that you can pre-program, or that can react to MIDI and sound, or are completely generative, including Milkdrop, Magic, Synesthesia, Resolume and Remixvideo.
Don’t try and be too tech clever
Technology is great when it comes to music creation in the studio, but when playing out live, it’s often advisable to keep things simple. Using loads of plug-ins live, for example, is going to put strain on your computer and who knows how it will act when on stage? Consider, then, stripping back the technology, lessening the load and keeping everything streamlined and sensible. Have the bulk of your tracks ripped to audio, or even consider backing tracks until you get confident that your technology can handle stage action.
Practice – it’s obvious!
Sometimes, the best tips are the most obvious and if you are going to take your music out live, you are putting on a show that people are (hopefully!) paying to see, so make sure you have it completely under control. That means not only playing the right notes in the right order, but getting everything mixed well – music and visuals. And make sure you get at least some time running through part of your set at the venue, so you can check the gear (again) and also the impact of some of those great live moves you have planned. Talking of which…
Plan a performance
You’re there to entertain people at the end of the day, so that might not mean opening with your 25-minute opus of a song about motorways (unless you’re Kraftwerk). You want to keep people interested so if you really must throw in an ambient masterpiece at some point, then consider lifting the mood with something a bit more beat-laden afterwards. And if you are an established act who wants to play ‘something from the new album’, then don’t worry. People always need downtime to queue at the bar.
Keep it flexible
Tip 8 means you have that set planned out to the last detail, but do try and keep some flexibility in there, as you’ll want some way to react to what your crowd is doing. If they are dancing, the chances are they want to keep dancing so consider looping your best bits. Conversely, if they are chucking bottles at you, consider jumping to something a bit more interesting in that set plan. Anything can happen when playing live and if that crowd is shouting for more, then try and ensure that you have something to give them.
And something to sell them, too. Unless you are already enjoying Platinum sales, there’s very little chance you’ll be paid more than a pie and a pint for your first live efforts, so do make sure that you have at least some merchandise on sale at the venue so you can reap some cash back, even if it’s just a CD. People will part with cash if they enjoyed your gig, so consider anything you can sell – T-shirts, mugs, USB drives, anything – to get your brand out there. Yes, we did just use the ‘b’ word. Sorry…