Laptop DJs: replaced by cubes of light?

By terry church

The whole music world pretty much agrees that laptop performances are, well frankly, boring as hell to watch. How many times have clubbers and gig goers wisecracked “Is he checking his emails up there?,” “Hey, that dude looks like he’s watching porn,” or “He’s blatantly playing poker.” The list goes on.

The punchline is always different, the meaning is always the same. We don’t have a clue what on Earth the laptop musician or computer-based DJ is actually doing on stage.

There is no correlation between what’s coming out of the speakers, and the click of the mouse.

The problem is live dance music is a lie. It’s impossible to play a complete electronic music track in a live environment – there are too many sounds and too many variable factors for one producer, or even 10 pairs of hands to control.

“It’s simply impossible to recreate a dance track from scratch in a live environment,” says Guy Hatfield, aka DJ Hyper (check out his tunes in the player below).

After wrestling with the thought of performing his breakbeat music live, the British DJ and producer opted for a full rock band set-up, guitars, live drums and live vocals. The works.

“For instance electronic bass can’t be played live – it has to be pre-programmed because too many delicate variables control bass, like compression,” he says.

“Live dance music is sometimes a con – there may be 10,000 synths on stage but how much of it are they actually controlling?”

French house duo Daft Punk [a] are in the middle of a major US tour which has almost all sold out.

Whilst Daft Punk’s light and sound spectacle has blown away festival and stadium audiences around the world, one can’t help but feel the lasers, strobe lights, robot suits and big triangle of light thingy is just a diversion.

Behind the fanfare, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo are controlling very little.

“I’m probably going to get crucified for saying it, but when I saw Daft Punk play live at Wireless Festival in Hyde Park in London in June, I didn’t have a clue what they were doing,” says Fab, from tech house and electronica duo Ortzroka.

“Don’t get me wrong, it was a great live show but I wasn’t sure what they were playing because you couldn’t see them doing anything except standing there.”

This year a flood of new MIDI controllers and musical instruments have arrived, each of them promising to redress the broken link between a electronic musician’s movement and sound.

It seems the fashion for this new type of music technology is vicariously visual – the opposite of a laptop performance.

Take Percussa’s AudioCubes, which are stunning cubes of light that DJs and musicians can use to control MIDI (pictured above).

Percussa AudioCubes video demo

Percussa’s AudioCubes can be used to control popular DJ program Ableton Live.

By MIDI-mapping the cubes to Ableton, a musician can fire loops and control FX simply by moving a cube.

Even a child could understand the simple correlation between movement and sound.

The AudioCubes are retailing for $469 US (349 Euros).

Then there’s the Reactable, a light-based musical instrument that Björk has been using as part of her live set-up.

The Reactable is a multi-user electronic musical instrument with a tabletop tangible user interface.

Several performers can simultaneously control sounds by moving physical objects on a luminous table surface.

Björk is already using it for her gigs.

And then this summer Yamaha unveiled a working prototype of its new Tenori-On 16×16 LED MIDI controller.

It’s clear Yamaha developed the Tenori-On as the missing link between a electronic musician’s movement and sound.

“One remarkable effect of this sound and light synergy is that people seem to quickly understand the relationship between the sounds and switches such that even non musicians can enjoy improvising and even composing almost immediately,” Yamaha said on its Tenori-On website.

Kraftwerk, Matthew Herbert and Yellow Magic Orchestra are using the Tenori-On already.

There’s also the Monome MIDI controller. No doubt other visually stunning controllers and instruments will arrive soon.

Let’s hope that in the future, at least one of these new pretty bits of kit will lead onto the development of new, more interactive technology that can offer a complete solution for the laptop DJ.

But for now we’re just going to have to put up with that bloke checking his emails.