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“All it takes is a few drum machines and synths”
Fetishisation of equipment is rife in electronic music, but Mathew Jonson is pragmatic in terms of his own choices for live performance: “All it takes really is a few drum machines and synths, a sampler or even a good MIDI controller integrated properly into the software to have the tools to be more involved and experiment a bit. In the end, it’s about utilising the best parts of the technology we have available to us. Computers are great for sequencing, sampling, multi-tracking and editing, for example, while synthesisers and drum machines are great for making new sounds.”
In the end, it’s about utilising the best parts of the technology we have available to us.
Generally a keen proponent of hardware over the years, Jonson has lots to say on the subject of digital versus analogue and thinks the gap between the two is ever decreasing. “Up until about the last year or so affordable digital technology has not been advanced enough to compete with analogue equipment so this is why I have worked this way in the studio and on stage. The sound quality is one thing but also the interface and response of the equipment is important.
“Computer latency always turned me away from working with plugin synths and MIDI controllers because they’re always milliseconds behind and that affects the groove in a negative way. With outboard equipment it’s still much more stable and responsive but I imagine that in the next years there won’t be much difference any more.”
“It’s more about what you’re saying”
But for all the questions of equipment, improvisation and ethos, there’s one crucial factor which can’t be forgotten: the music. There’s very little point playing a fully improvised set with banks of exotic hardware if the end result doesn’t come up to scratch. There are also obvious limits as to what any live techno act can play. For one, each will have their own stylistic preference, will have been booked to play as such and will have an expectant crowd who will have at least some vague expectations of what they came to hear. To go totally against those will likely never get you booked again, but neither will recreating the same set every time. Is there a solution?
“The set is never the same,” claim Skudge. “Firstly because of the live programming, but also because new songs get added to the set constantly and because we like to use different gear as often as possible. It all depends on our mood. We do play our songs, so if you don’t like Skudge, we can’t do too much about it. But more seriously, we can always extend a jam when we feel we hit some magic, and when the audience gives us cheers it always enhances that moment of performance. Specific sounds also have more impact on the crowd – such as the 909 kick drum – so that’s always data to take in account.”
Live shows, however good, bad, staid or freewheeling are unlikely to go away any time soon. Perhaps the point is that just because technology allows you to go on stage and make music without mixing records, it doesn’t mean that you should. As Disco Nihilist puts it, “right now it’s cool to be raw and hardware and have a table full of boxes and people think that’s more authentically live. To me it’s more about what you’re saying. I would rather see something interesting in Ableton than another boring and mediocre version of Larry Heard with a 707 on stage.”
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