BRINGING RECORDS TO LIVE - AudioTechnology
In 2008, Laura Escudé became one of the first Ableton Certified Trainers. It wasn’t by accident that Escudé began proselytising on behalf of the progressive software. She’s an early adopter who has made a business of putting the ‘live’ into Ableton Live. Electronic Creatives, Escudé’s music technology consultancy, employs six people that design, build and operate custom live show solutions for a client list that includes Kanye West, Herbie Hancock, Garbage, Bon Iver and Cirque Du Soleil — the kind of clientele with large demands and no room for compromise. Suffice to say, she’s a doyen of her craft.
Laura is a performer herself. As a violinist — her main instrument — she writes and performs cinematic, textural music, as heard on her 2010 album Pororoca. She also leant her violin to Kanye West and Jay-Z’s album Watch The Throne, and played live on West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy tour. Escudé, the producer, remixes artists like M83. And, performing as Alluxe, crafts uptempo hip-hop with EDM-influenced music. It doubles as a technical testbed for her day job — using Ableton Live and a range of controllers and triggers to loop, treat and tweak live violin, samples and synths, combined with video and lasers controlled via Ableton. Then, of course, there’s that day job — CEO and Creative Director of a consultancy that implements the newest technologies and techniques in electronic music performance for premier artists. Escudé has a lot of strings to her bow.
KEEPING ON TOP
Escudé’s hatful of roles keep her away from her native L.A. much of the year. When I catch her, she’s in New York working on her new live show and PR schedule for Alluxe’s upcoming EP and music video. The video was filmed in Prague, with art direction and choreography by Czech-born Yemi A.D. She and Yemi met working on Kanye West’s live show, which Yemi choreographed, along with Kanye’s video for Runaway. In an artistic quid pro quo, the two are trading expertise: “I produced Yemi’s EP,” explained Laura. “So he choreographed and art directed my music video. We had an amazing time in Prague breaking into some abandoned warehouses and buildings. The landscape is very beautiful. I think people will be very surprised but engaged because this video has amazing dancing and aesthetics. It’s an innovative piece of art.”
The theatricality of the video plays on Escudé’s mind as she dreams up yet more technical solutions to creative problems. She’s already working towards running video from Ableton, and controlling lighting and lasers from her Ableton Live Sets, and she’s always thinking of ways to expand: “DMX conversion is on the top of my list of things I want to accomplish in the next couple of months,” she says.
Artistic goals and physical practicalities both influence Alluxe’s current live rig. Livid Instruments gear features heavily in the mix, including an OhmRGB controller customised by Electronic Creatives collaborator Henry Strange. “Henry is a genius and he is always coming up with these ideas for cool controllers,” said Laura. “He had the idea to incorporate coloured LED strips in the sides of the OhmRGB, then he upgraded it and made them addressable. So I now have MIDI clips in Ableton Live that are triggering the lights around it.”
Laura has incorporated a lot of dummy clips for control of internal and external devices into her Live Sets. “I have a million different MIDI clips in my Live set that look really strange,” she said. “For example, note-in velocities correlate to either the colour or the position of the LEDs around the OhmRGB. If you want them to change really fast, you have a lot of notes dialled into one lane and have that looping, morphing and changing.”
Livid Instruments Base is also making regular appearances on Laura’s stage. It’s a 32-pad, nine touch-sensitive slider, eight-button controller with extensive control over its internal coloured LEDs. “It has pressure sensitivity and I can do some really cool programming with it for the lights. It’s got those great slider strips, which look and feel fun live because you can bring up five faders with one hand. I’m a big fan of all the Livid Instruments gear.”
FEET COME IN HANDY
Playing violin, however, takes both hands, so Laura has employed a couple of different options for foot control. The Pok foot controller by X-Tempo Designs is wireless, keyboard mappable and runs on batteries. “It’s like having a qwerty keyboard for your feet — it’s a great controller,” enthused Laura. “I’ve recommended it to many people. I worked with Herbie Hancock last year and now he’s using a Pok and an OhmRGB.” Laura has also used the SoftStep from Keith McMillen Instruments. It’s USB-powered, weighs just 1.3 pounds [just over half a kilogram – Ed], and has 10 pressure- and touch-sensitive buttons that can send out either MIDI or OSC. The buttons don’t provide the reassuring ‘clunk’ that other pedals do, but it’s loosely the equivalent of having the more well-known QuNeo at your feet.
The practicalities of airline travel have also weighed in on Laura’s rig: “As a travelling musician I’m always trying to keep my baggage weight under 50 pounds [22kg], so I’ve given up my foot controller when I’m travelling. I have a custom script on the OhmRGB that changes button colour according to the Ableton Looper state. If I’m in Record mode the button turns red, if I’m in Overdub it turns orange and if I’m in Playback it turns green.”
The artistic possibilities created by the tech of Laura’s live performances has captured the attention of a broad range of artists. As more of them sought her advice and knowledge to enhance their own shows, the Electronic Creatives consultancy was born. Based out of L.A, the team’s six programmers, producers, engineers and all-round creative geniuses, including Laura, are bringing the new generation of performance possibilities to major tours and cutting-edge cult artists alike. Laura is passionate and articulate in her vision for the new artistic possibilities afforded by programs such as Ableton Live.
Escudé: “There’s been a ProTools-style playback operator on a lot of major tours for the last 20 years. It’s a left-to-right style of playback with backing tracks being played and not much else. Now, with the advent of Ableton Live and more ‘on-the-fly’ types of technology, I’m trying to show different artists in the touring industry what can be done. It doesn’t have to be the way it was before. You can do it — you can loop your vocals, you can tweak a filter and change audio effects in real time. It’s my mission with the company to bring a more creative live show to the touring industry.”
Electronic Creatives has worked with the world’s biggest touring acts, Lady Gaga and Jay-Z are also clients. Able to understand music, tech, performance and operation, the crew offer a personal service far beyond ‘playback technician’ and almost become an extension of the artist themselves.
VOX FX IN A BOX
Real-time vocal effects control is one of Laura’s specialities, which she often carries out with a Wii remote connected to an Ableton signal chain. How does this fit in with a traditional live vocal signal chain? “Typically, the signal comes to me, then goes to the monitor console and then to FOH,” Laura elaborated. “The idea behind what I’m doing is to get the sound the artist wants into their ears. It’s taking a bit of control away from FOH and monitors, but it helps everyone because I’m paying attention to details they might not have time for while they’re mixing. To be there and manipulate things in real time adds a very cool element to the show.”
There are a variety of effects that Laura will apply to an artist’s vocal, sometimes replicating an effect from an album and often developed closely with the artist for the show. “Sometimes I’ll use AutoTune, sometimes delay, distortion, pitch shifting or slapback. I’ll do delays on a certain syllable or improvise with the artist a little bit.”
HANDING HERBIE A HAND POK
It’s not just the over-the-top arena spectaculars of a Kanye or a Gaga that benefit from this kind of technology. Laura has had the pleasure of working with living legend and 14-time Grammy winner Herbie Hancock. How did she approach working with the maestro? “I showed him my live set to begin with — violin and live looping. He got some ideas from that based on my techniques. So we built on what I do, ideas that he had previously and the controllers that he already owned. I then introduced him to the Ohm and the Pok. He’s so open to technology. He’s very hip to everything that’s going on now.”
Laura went on to help Herbie build a new setup for his dynamic live shows: “He moves around a lot during his shows, so he has two stations. He has a keytar, he’s doing live vocoding, he’s doing looping; there’s so many different elements. He also likes to change keys in the middle of a song sometimes. We went with one setup front and centre of the stage and another further back. It was challenging to program but very cool — wherever he was on stage, everything was always synced, even if there were different controllers being used. Wherever Herbie went on stage, he immediately knew where he was in the Ableton Live Set.”
Outside of the realm of straight concert performance, global circus phenomenon Cirque Du Soliel brought Laura to Las Vegas for tech design and music programming on Viva Elvis and Iris. Cirque playback engineer Mike Atwood had developed a simplified graphic interface for Ableton called ‘Mat4Live’, intended to provide a straightforward overview of a whole show for musical directors.
“In the kind of massive Live Sets that Cirque Du Soliel run, there can be 64 tracks, all these transitions, fade outs, and a lot of different things that need to be programmed in case something happens in the show,” said Laura. “There are a lot of elements you’re worried about — if something doesn’t move in time or a performer doesn’t make their trick. You need to be able to hold and loop what’s happening in the music.”
Mat4Live translates all of the in-depth programming that’s happening in an Ableton set of this complexity and condenses it into a simple user-defined graphic that displays the name of the song, and different parts of the song as specified. Control of each song and section can be mapped to a MIDI keyboard note or any other MIDI controller. Laura: “This is great for any musical director new to Ableton Live. And even if they aren’t, it’s a great way to deal with a show. You can be looking at just the song or section name and control it via your interface without seeing all the craziness that goes on in the background.”
BACKGROUND IN CHECK
‘Craziness in the background’ has become Laura and Electronic Creatives’ speciality. This summer touring season in the US, Laura and her team have been doing shows with Solange, Kanye, The Weekend and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Not to rest on their laurels, Laura is constantly drumming up new business: “I’m pitching designs to different tours. I’m really looking for artists and organisations that want to do something different. It’s happening with the smaller, more experimental artists but I feel like at a very high level these big tours aren’t hip yet to what can be done. Some of them want to do regular playback and that’s fine, but my passion is the more experimental side of things. I want to work with artists to create something that’s more interesting and engaging on stage.”
Electronic Creatives also builds shows that don’t need its specialised talents to operate. Justin Vernon’s Bon Iver, known for his achingly beautiful acoustic ballads, doesn’t come to mind when you think of electronic music. Laura helped Justin and his live band build an Ableton Set that incorporated their keyboard patches to be played via MIDI controller, and song-by-song vocal effects for Justin’s voice. The rig went out designed to be operated by a crew member pressing a single button at the start of each song, changing both vocal and synth presets.
Similarly Garbage, which counts production heavyweight Butch Vig in its number, employed Laura to help translate their detailed album work to the live arena. “I set up different MIDI program changes in Ableton Live so all their Line6 guitar processors would change settings in different parts of the song, which they thought was really cool. I ended up opening for a couple of their shows in L.A.” The band took the setup out on the road, operated and maintained by their crew.
Being an expert in the program, it seemed timely to asks her impression of the new features in Ableton Live 9. “I love the audio-to-MIDI conversion, but the Glue compressor is my favourite,” she said. The community of Max For Live developers releasing patches has also become a treasure trove for her experimentations: “A lot of the Max For Live effects and instruments people are coming up with are brilliant. I’m getting more and more into digging for that stuff on the internet. There’s a lot there; it’s a great program.”
Alluxe’s new EP is due out August 8: