First, I had to decide which tools I needed to bring the live aspect to the performance, bearing in mind I don’t play keyboards. I then spent weeks recreating each part for every track in my studio, literally looping up bars of material from the originals and transcribing by ear. Of course, it wasn’t just the notes that needed recreating – each sound needed to be patched up, too.
My original drum machines were the Roland TR-909, TR-808 and R-8. The new Roland TR-8 was therefore a no-brainer, but the R-8 was the most prevalent drum machine in those early tracks and I managed to locate an R-8 sample library. I needed a sampler for this library and immediately thought of the MASCHINE JAM.
It was a godsend. Being a heavy MASCHINE user for several years now, I had always planned to have it take care of drum and miscellaneous sample triggering duties in the live setup; but rather than play drums live, it gave me the possibility to use the MASCHINE interface as another clip launching tool alongside Ableton. Playing drums in live would always be an option, but more appealing to me was the idea of triggering various patterns within MASCHINE groups. The addition of the performance touchstrips to add on-the-fly effects chains to these patterns immediately brought the ‘live performance’ dimension I was determined to maintain.
Having DJ’ed with Ableton Live since the early 2000s, it made sense to have my live performance centrally sequenced with a laptop. It quickly became evident that these tracks, containing lengthy chord progressions with moving basslines and tricky melodies, would be almost impossible without the visual guide of a laptop. But I was also aware of the mundane nature of an ‘all-laptop’ set and I was determined to use as much hardware manipulation in conjunction with Ableton as possible. This hybrid approach seemed the sensible way to ensure the tracks could retain the essence of their original arrangements, but with the freedom to improvise, rearrange and extend them off-the-cuff to add that true ‘live’ component.
Fortunately, Roland had recently released their first batch of Boutique synthesizers, and the SH-01A and JX-03 were sonically perfect matches for that early 90s techno palette. They’re also incredibly useful for live performance, with a small footprint, and eminently tweakable with easy patch recall via MIDI program change.
MASCHINE JAM immediately gave me another eight channels in addition to the Ableton tracks. Many of the tracks had up to twenty elements, so at least now I just had to break each one down into sixteen component parts. It was at this point that the whole concept came together. Panic and problem solving became less, and excitement and inspiration took over.
MASCHINE JAM also solved another issue of ‘live performance integrity’ for me. I wanted to have instant access to every element within each track, with visibility for instant feedback throughout the set. Using a single Akai APC40 controller with Ableton limited me to just eight tracks, unless I daisy chained multiple controllers, which would involve some screen scrolling, which I absolutely wanted to avoid. I wanted the laptop simply as a visual guide, set to the side of the equipment, with everything performed on the hardware. It also solved my ultimate concerns. This was a specific type of live show – it wasn’t an unplanned improvisational performance or a pre-planned laptop set of launched clips. It was more akin to a band performing a specific playlist of recognizable songs, and it demanded a hybrid setup with elements of freestyle improvisation extending off a basic foundation of an arrangement.
Every element of every track was underneath my fingers for manipulation, as MIDI files triggering hardware synth patches. Original drum patterns were available within MASCHINE JAM. Another problem I was determined to avoid was having to load anything up mid-set. I wanted every track to flow into the next with no pauses. The entire performance would be contained within one giant project.
The TR-8 also synced alongside the MASCHINE JAM drums and other sampled patterns, each track used only half of the sixteen slots assignable within each MASCHINE Group. This made it possible to have all of the MASCHINE content contained within the eight Groups, so it wasn’t necessary to load another project mid-set. The more difficult limitation was the MIDI program change limit of 128 slots.
The MIDI program change approach was key to MASCHINE JAM’s role in the live performance. In hindsight, I had made a rod for my own back, but I was determined to have as many of the sections in the original compositions as possible available for re-arranging on-the-fly. I could have broken each track down to just four or five patterns, but they each ended up having twelve or more different sections, and I needed a MIDI program change slot for each of them.
In the end, I did run out of MIDI program change slots, which meant I would need to load up a new MASCHINE project if I wanted to perform all of the songs planned for the show. I rejected this, started over from scratch and was more ruthless in the number of sections I had for each song. I eventually managed to get it down to exactly 127 patterns.
The MIDI program change feature in MASCHINE is not obvious or well-known. It’s accessed in the top bar of the software and needs to be set up prior to any session. Once MASCHINE is set up to receive MIDI program changes, patterns can then be changed from clips within Ableton. So a single program change can change the sequences containing all the patterns for the sixteen slots in each group. With the MASCHINE JAM hardware, each sequence is then freely available on the pad grid, and different sequences of patterns can be triggered independently of the MIDI Program Change. This gives a true improvisational element to triggering the different sequences while the MIDI clips within Ableton continue as normal. This can continue until the launching of another MIDI program change clip brings everything back together again.
Even with these solutions, it was obvious one pair of hands was not going to be capable of launching clips in both Ableton and MASCHINE JAM, using the performance effect strips on MASCHINE JAM in real time, muting and altering TR-8 drum patterns on-the-fly, adding effects such as delay and reverb, tweaking the Roland Boutiques, etc. A decision was made to bring my partner, Catherine [Siofra Prendergast], on board. With her experience as a drum and bass DJ and intimate knowledge of my music, the two of us would perform as AS ONE.
photo credits: Tom Doms