You’ve finished a record and you’re ready to play some shows, but the songs weren’t created with live performance in mind. Learn essential tips in this adaptation process to make your shows entertaining and sound great.
By Charles Hoffman
You might be at the point in your music career where you’re ready to start playing shows and touring, but your songs may not have been created with live performance in mind. When adapting your songs for live performance, you need to create a focused plan of attack and follow it through. The important thing to remember is that on stage, you’re an entertainer, and your show should look and sound interesting.
While almost anything is possible when creating within a DAW, live performances require skill, specific equipment and inventive thinking. If you’re planning to incorporate samples or audio triggered by a computer, I highly recommend you make use of Ableton Live. Not every tip in this guide requires you to use Ableton Live, but it’s by far the best DAW for live performances; it’s called Ableton Live for a reason. By triggering scenes and clips in Session View at various points in time, you can play and manipulate your live performances on-the-fly.
1. Decide on a style of live performance
When you imagine playing your songs live, how does that look? Do you have a band backing you, or are you a one-person show? Do you want to play everything acoustically, or turn the show into a DJ set?
The benefit of performing with a band is that you can execute extremely complex arrangements by assigning certain tasks to different musicians; think of an orchestra. Each musician is responsible for their own part and together, they’re capable of a lot.
One of the biggest downsides to playing with a band is the logistics. You need to coordinate various peoples’ schedules for practice, deal with reliability, personal issues, etc. You also need to consider whether or not the people you bring on board are technically proficient enough to play your music. As a one-person show, you eliminate many of these issues. You have full creative control over your live performance, and you’re limited only by your own technical abilities.
Solo acts are not without their hurdles either. If the music you write isn’t acoustic by nature, you’re going to have to find creative ways to perform your pieces live. For example, how are you going to play drums, bass, guitar and sing all at the same time? The truth is that you probably aren’t, but that doesn’t mean you can’t deliver a live show that’s both entertaining and true to the original songs you’ve produced.
2. Don’t try to play every part of your song
Trying to play and manually trigger every part of an EDM song with 100+ tracks is going to be physically impossible, so you can scrap that idea right now. Instead, try selecting one instrument you want to play in each section of the song you’re adapting for live performance, and turn the parts you aren’t playing into a backing track.
Backing tracks are perfectly acceptable, and plenty of major artists use them. If you have a tool that will enhance the sound of your live performances, you’re doing your audience a disservice by not taking advantage of it.
You may be able to get away with playing multiple instruments at once if you’re using a keyboard, and you take advantage of Ableton Live’s Key Zones. Using Ableton’s Key Zone Editor, you can assign each chain within an Instrument Rack to different note ranges on your MIDI keyboard.
3. Perform FX, and automate parts that aren’t playable
For the parts of your song that you won’t be able to perform in their entirety, such as synths with multiple parameters modulating to give them movement, consider applying automation to them ahead of time and just focus on playing back the melody or harmony.
Alternatively, mapping the dry/wet value of a reverb like H-Reverb Hybrid Reverb to a wheel on your MIDI controller and the dry/wet value of a delay like H-Delay Hybrid Delay to the wheel beside it can allow you to create large reverberant tails and rhythmic delays as you play.
Don’t stop there. If your MIDI controller allows for it, map knobs on it to control creative effects like Brauer Motion, MetaFilter and MondoMod. Using effects during your live performance can spice up the show and provide a fun way for you to interact with your audience.
When creating your live performances, start with what you’d ideally like to be playing live, and offload the excess weight until you’re left with a performance that falls within your range of abilities. Ask yourself whether the lemon is worth the squeeze. If you’re struggling to pull off a performance because you can’t manage a handful of effects that could otherwise be automated, simplify things to put less strain on yourself.
4. Don’t worry about making the live version as polished as the original
Your live performances aren’t going to be as neatly polished as the songs you release online, and that’s okay. It’s fine if your live vocals sound more dynamic than they do on the record, or if the timing of your drums isn’t perfectly quantized. The risk involved in playing a show live gets the audience excited, and minor imperfections help remind them that what they’re hearing is being created right in front of them.
You should, of course, try your best to make your live performances as listenable as possible. Tools like Waves Tune Real-Time can help with real-time pitch correction, and Vocal Rider, as well as the CLA-76 Compressor / Limiter, will allow you to achieve dynamically tight and forward-sounding vocals live.
One of the great things about adapting a song for live performance is that you probably already have the processing chains dialed in for your different instruments. In many situations you’ll be able to use these processing chains as they are, including sidechain signal routings.
5. Group similar instruments together
If you do play with a band, grouping together similar instruments will allow your band members to play multiple parts more easily. For example, you can have a keys player take control of multiple synths, pads and pianos in your song, while someone else looks after the percussion and one-shot effects.
When grouping track elements together, make sure to apply bus processing in a way that adds glue to the sound. A bus compressor like the SSL G-Master Buss Compressor will provide you with tight compression. An attack time of around 10-30 ms and a release time around 0.1-0.3s should do the trick.
Another interesting technique you can experiment with is bus limiting using a limiter like the L2 Ultramaximizer, preventing individual elements from sticking out in the live mix. To do this, set the L2’s threshold so that it’s just brushing the peaks of your bus signal.
The artist Lights has a phenomenal live show that incorporates Ableton Live, multiple bandmates and backing tracks:
Lights is singing, there’s a drummer, a guitarist, and someone playing keys who also seems to be in control of Ableton. A setup like this isn’t actually that hard to pull off, and it’s a good model to use if you’re trying to create something similar.
On the more extreme end of the spectrum, you have bands like Destroid that have taken the concept of live performance to the next level. They’re each playing their own respective instrument while controlling Ableton simultaneously. Even their voices are being processed in real-time through Ableton using creative FX chains.
6. For acoustic adaptations, rebuild the song from its core elements
A song is only as impactful as the idea driving it. You can change many aspects of a song while keeping it recognizable, especially if the track is propelled by a memorable melody.
Creating acoustic adaptations of your songs may be as simple as transposing the core musical ideas into the optimal range of the instrument you’re using, and ditching the rest.
Vocal-driven songs have a tremendous amount of wiggle room in the sense that they remain recognizable regardless of what you do to them. You can do things like transpose the song from a major key to a minor key or vice versa, and even do cool things like create acapella arrangements.
As soon as someone starts singing “White lips, pale face, breathing in snowflakes,” you’re going to know it’s ‘The A Team’ by Ed Sheeran; the lyrics are so memorable that you don’t need to rely on a harmony to instantly recognize the song.
For songs with an instrumental as the intro or songs that are entirely instrumentals, consider refraining from modifying the arrangement too heavily. You don’t have the same type of leeway here as you do with vocals.
Regardless of the direction you decide to take your live performances in, you can use the tips mentioned in this guide to enhance the quality of your live sets and deliver more entertaining shows. At the end of the day, your audience just wants to hear you play your music and see a captivating performance; if you can deliver on both these fronts, they’ll be thrilled.
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