When it comes to live performance, this might be the year of living dangerously.

There’s not one answer to the question of how to play live, but as we consider the possibilities – and the risks of playing live – Mouse on Mars is one terrific case study. Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma are joined by drummer/vocalist Dodo Nkishi. Since part of their setup is playing live as in Ableton Live, Ableton shot a video mini-documentary of their performance rig earlier this year. It’s an intensive setup, but you might just glean some ideas for how you play live.

What these three artists do is to go from just playing a setup on a laptop to forming an electronic band. It’s not a traditional band: there are still electronic and production elements that are pre-recorded, so unlike an acoustic trio, not every sound is played. I’d describe it as an “augmented band.”

Augmented as it is, it remains a live performance, with the same potential for uncertainty as people play that you’d have with acoustic instruments. Whereas deadmau5 talked about reliability, Mouse on Mars champion just the opposite. This rig is “a dangerous setup,” says Andi, and “things can go wrong, but this is a good thing.”

The production work they’ve done in the studio is still there: while chopped into small pieces, the “backing” track content is available. But adding live performance elements, and the ability to reshape and manipulate tracks, means that you aren’t hearing what was produced in the studio. Instead, the trio playing live is “a cover band of our songs,” Andi says, keeping performances “as free as possible.” It’s “jazz” on some level, in Dodo’s description.

“A good live set begins when we forget about caring about anything,” adds Jan.

The elements:

  • Three laptops, each with identical, MIDI-synced sets (though viewed differently and with some understood division of labor)
  • Andi as “mixer” and sequencer
  • Jan as synth player (see also some hardware synth action in his rig)
  • Dodo as vocalist and percussionist, both playing live acoustic drums and routing those sounds for further computer processing, but also triggering sounds electronically
  • Some level of duplication between all three, since they all have access to the same set

Got questions about the specifics of how Jan, Dodo, and Andi play together? I’ll be talking to them, so I’m happy to pass those questions on.

And how do you play live – or does this inspire some new ideas to try out? We’d love to hear from you, ladies and gentlemen.

I’ll add this mini-editorial, too, perhaps to be covered in detail at some point: I’d like to know why developers don’t think about live performance. Not everything needs to look like Ableton’s Session View, because not everyone wants that onstage. But there’s been a real failure from other music software developers to even attempt to approach live performance in their designs head-on. Why aren’t more instruments and DAWs geared with specific facilities for use onstage and out of the studio? (Alternatively, care to disagree and explain to me why your software is set up that way? I’m all ears.)


We visited Mouse on Mars earlier this year, as they talked about other elements of their music – their approach to listening, and life in the studio.
Mouse on Mars: In the Studio, and Reflecting on Performance, Listening, and Melody
Mouse on Mars Release “Parastrophics” LP; Tech Talk Video in Studio, Listening

  • slabman

    Next up – Kraftwerk live, unplugged. Snare, upright bass, ukulele and accordion.

     Now that, I’d pay good money to see!

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1543525531 Paul Rose

      before they went digital in the 80s, Kraftwerk played live. even the drummer drummed. check out the videos. they actually manually play lots of stuff everyone would sequence nowadays.

    • slabman

      Yep. In fact, before they went electronic in the 70s, they played flute, hawaiian guitar, etc.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=627606282 Tom Todia

    Mouse on Mars is an amazing group, and I love what they are doing in the face of so many “Just push play and turn knobs” sets. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/estrombone Elburz Sorkhabi

    No offence to anyone intended, but this seems like an extremely reliable and conservative Live setup. Three laptops midi synced, each with a couple controllers and FX units, spells out reliable setup in my mind. Especially since Dodo mentioned that he can tell where he is in a track by keeping his live session in the Arrangement view, which to me seems like there are some things that are already pre-programmed. I dont think there’s anything wrong with any of these things, because it looks like a great and exciting show.

    From my perspective, most of the people voicing their opinions on programmed vs fully improvised sets (which is who Joel (deadmau5) was originally writing his article to), are the people who’ve never worked on shows with high production values. The way it stands, technology just isn’t capable of following the fleeting whims of an artist on stage. I think we’re slowly getting to a point where technology is catching up (with softwares like Touch Designer + Ableton sync, pd/Max, etc, gaining a lot of momentum) to a point where artists like Richie Hawtin do have some room for improvisation during their highly produced performances, but the amount of time it takes to create a live system that allows for improvisation is exponentially proportional to the amount of improvisational space the artist wants (i.e. Richie could have made at least 5 COMPLETELY different choreographed shows per city Plastikman has ever been to with the time it took to make 1 show that can react to improvisation in any way).

    That’s my 2 cents, after having spent the past year working on some shows that do have high production values, and very small margin’s of error.

    Some food for thought as well, I know most people always compare electronic musicians to guitarists and other virtuoso instrumentalists, but would these things even be up for discussion if we were compared to orchestral conductors instead? I’ve never heard of an orchestral conductor getting flak for not playing each of the individual instruments in Mahler 8 in real time.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Agree completely with your analysis. And yes, this can be reliable. I wasn’t intending to play up the “living dangerously” angle too much here. I think they mean more in the creative / performative set. Remove the click from the drums, and give everyone freedom to trigger any part of the set, and you create an environment in which a performer can bring everything down.

      But, anyway, even that to me wasn’t the point – it was that they enjoyed uncertainty. I think a lot of laptop-based artists are shying away from the thing that makes playing … you know, fun.

    • Tom T

      It was not at all the point of the article, if you read it and follow this group. Mouse on Mars is and has been amazing in their writing style for a serious length of time. They play their tracks, but improv them live “We are a cover band of our own music” and the best can easily go off track with two people tweaking real time delays and a live drummer. Please keep doing everything exactly as you are fellas! 

      Any Mouse on Mars fan would much prefer watch you play live then care about the ramblings of people who can’t do what you do, regardless of what setup they use. That is a cold hard fact! 

    • R333333333tic

       Anyone who thinks MIDI sync is “reliable” has obviously never used MIDI sync before :]

    • gbsr

      anyone who has synced up two or more laptops via midi with live is begging for syncing issues. live has the worst sync of them all.

    • http://www.facebook.com/estrombone Elburz Sorkhabi

      Lol, I’ve used MIDI sync tons of times without issue. Hopefully Live 9 will be 64 bit AND accept OSC directly, but I’ve rarely had issues with MIDI. 

      @peterkirn:disqus : Totally understand what you mean, and agree with your thoughts on laptop-based artists shying away from danger generally. I’ve done many shows where I feel less like I’m doing musical things, and more-so just waiting around to mitigate any potential disasters, which as you said, isn’t fun.

  • mbm

    Meat Beat Manifesto did this sort of setup better and with more hardware back in 2005!

    Just sayin….

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      It’s definitely not a new rig – agreed. But that makes me hopeful more people will try it. (I don’t know if “more hardware” necessarily earns you more points – nice, but that’s more weight to carry around! Brutal airplane fees…)

    • slabman

      In that case, I’m gonna claim props for gigging with Apple IIs, floppy drives, Roland Compumusic, etc before midi was even invented. 

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Absolutely! (Did you, really? Nice!)

      I don’t think sync is strictly necessary in these sorts of sets – in some cases, even any intercommunication at all may not be.

  • http://MarkTheis.dk Mark Theis

    In my 4 person band we do it almost the same way as here.

    1 laptop, 4 midi keyboards, 1 mic to the soundcard, and 1 guitar to the soundcard.

    I make electronic music at home and when we play live I make instruments in ableton live for every person. It’s usually done with simpler or a drum rack. With some clever automation in ableton we aim multiple tracks with one click and start playback tracks at the same time. This way we can have it all ready for every track. As the song progresses we can automatically change instruments within a track in the instrument rack. We use the session view and it’s not that improvised though.

    Here is a shot of our set.

  • http://www.facebook.com/maurice.rickard Maurice Rickard

    It depends on the kind of performance.  With Pure Data, I’m usually fading in and fading out oscillators (my work as snwv).  For a lot of other work in Live, I usually have several rhythm patterns that are mutually compatible partial-rhythms of different drum or drum machine single-hit samples.  During the performance I play them in combinations that I’ll choose in the moment.  Then, over that, I’ll play whatever live instrument that I’ve chosen to work with (quad oscillator, nebulophone, guitar, uke, etc.), sub loop fragments of what I’ve just played, manipulate the sub loops, and change the rhythm combination.  So there’s an element of pressing play, but it’s a set of experiments and decisions in real time.  

  • The Landwhale

    I am currently working on putting my live show together and am trying to do a similar setup to this, but as a solo performer. I’d like it to be as live as possible, focusing on playing and having fun instead of fretting about technical issues.

    I’m currently using Ableton with Touch OSC, V drums, and an Emu Xboard 25. My audio interface is an Apogee Duet (1st gen). I’ve got a good setup going that’s allowing me to do a lot of live instrumentation, looping and triggering/manipulation but I am very intrigued by one aspect in particular about this video.

    In the video, Dodo says that they are not playing to a click, that they just have to react. If this is true, does those mean every song has to start with something pre-recorded and percussive enough to be able to keep all 3 members in time with each other? What about sections of songs that have little or no percussive instruments? It seems they could easily lose time with Ableton’s clock during sections like this if there is no click track or guide of any sort. I would love to know how they handle this if there is truly no click in their monitors.

    Thanks in advance for any insight on this.

    – LW

    • Hello

      Working on some material like that last year, it just means a lot of band practice. You rehearse the material until you pre-hear the rhythm that will be there later, in your head. 1, 2, 3 and …
      You might be out of sync when the machines start, but well arranged music will ease that pattern in, so you have time to compensate by sliding into time. It might be out for a while, but it will be OK. Live doesn’t mean perfect.

    • The Landwhale

      Very cool. For a live band that is probably the most fun route to go.. It’s a little more nerve wracking trying this approach as a solo artist, only because from my perspective it feels like if you get off time from the computer it conjurs up a “bad lip syncing” vibe. Ot course I think performers are probably far more worried about it than any audience member would be. Definitely going to try this out and see how it works for me. Thanks :)

  • http://www.suecae.com/ Robert Halvarsson

    Very, very cool. 

  • samsam

    would that make james blake and augmented band?

  • http://twitter.com/grindFish Kane Allan

    I love the mention of what they are doing as being “dangerous” because anything can happen in such an unprepared performance (unprepared isnt the right word but you get what i mean compared to most edm). This is exactly the element that has drawn me to music and performance, the beautiful mistakes. Ive always considered music an accident and all the great movements in music are just that, accidents. Meticulous programing and preparation have always stagnated me with music and although i need to find a balance with my own as i run into problems with live performance as i stand i much prefer the danger of having to invent on the spot. All my best performances or recordings have stemmed from a peculiar accident that just worked beautifully.

  • Hans

    compared to the dead mouse (deadmau5) we have some real talents on the mars here
    performing on our earth

  • Franz

    yes thats right deadmau5 is just a little button compared to the real knobs out there

  • Tim

    Man I would give anything to see Kraftwerk play as they used to on Moog & Arps & tin-foil drum pads!

    • Hello

      By the 1981 world tour, Kraftwerk were using a backing tape on open reel. It even had the little errors pre-recorded. The big pile of equipment was hollow and packed flat into road cases. I know this having shared the same stage PA manager.

  • ghost dog

    Just read about 1 live Mouse and 1 deadmouse

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Philippe-Pascal/100003217824975 Philippe Pascal

    About the last part of your article, to me there are only two full live DAWs :
    Ableton Live
    Sensomusic Usine
    All others miss something very important to me.

    Those two provide arrangement choice on the fly, custom GUI (integrated with Usine), a lot of integrated tools (CPU and stability), modular environment (if you take M4L with Live), scripts…
    The biggest point is FLEXIBILITY (yes, big word :D).
    A live DAW is supposed to be customized to the extreme, from hardware integration to GUI.
    You can even see the main Ableton limitation is GUI wise, and you need a third party interface to touch control it (until you use a 1 meter screen).
    Usine don’t need it…it can even be the Ableton touch GUI with OSC 😀

    That’s why i consider Usine as the next step for live DAWs : everything is customizable and automated…even the GUI itself.
    And modular environment is integrated by conception (like Bidule), no even third party like M4L.

    It all depends on the interaction level : Madonna touring was Logic based to playback different parts, sync with lights and she wanted some parts looping to taste when she wanted it.
    Very simple set, with just live loop/no loop choice and lights sync.

    You can add manual modulations, parts re arrangement, recording on the fly…and much more.
    You can be the conductor (like Elburz Sorkhabi said), a musician, a producer…even VJ.
    With electro music, you can take the way you want…and even all the ways at the same time 😀

    You will just realize soon you got only two hands and one brain.
    This is probably the only limiting factor, but you can still use your feet, use motion sensors…or plug an external brain 😉

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      I think Apple deserves some credit for effort on MainStage. It’s a separate program, but it speaks to wat I was suggesting here – they thought through the notion that people might work outside a studio.

    • Jeff Cross

      MainStage opens the sounds (channel strip settings) from Logic projects and makes it easy to perform with them live. Its also a solid host for 3rd party Audio Unit plug-ins. Its focus and strength is more on musicians performing live with keyboard/guitar/vocals.

  • http://www.jpcarrascal.com/ JP

    This article is very interesting as a starting point for discussion. Personally, I was aware of the lack of performance-oriented software in the pre-Live era, since I used Cakewalk (before it changed it’s name to Sonar) or Cubase for live sequences for the performances of a couple of electronic rock bands I used to perform with since 2000. Without doubt, things have improved.

    We were not DJ’s or producers using software as heavily as “EDM” (if I may use the term) artists. We were a rock band, with an electronic-based sound and production chain. We relied heavily on synths and pre-programmed sequences (after some time our drummer left and we decided not to search for another one), which were modified during performance by me with the help of a mixer. Also, besides music, we used to have live video. Although it was not interactive or VJ-controlled, it had to be in sync with the music.
     We tested a good number of different configurations, ranging from an “electronic power trio” to a full electronic band plus a string quartet. We played with computers ranging from a desktop clone with Cakewalk and a CRT monitor to a Macbook pro. We sync’ed audio and video devices such as a DVD player and hard-disk recorders.

    My point here is that most of the times, for electronic music, the direction of the live show setup process seems to be from the computer/studio to the stage, adding and adapting musicians to what’s already recorded. But sometimes you are a *band*, so instruments are played by real people from the beginning, and you have to adapt your hardware/software to people.

    In my opinion, that means interesting challenges (monitoring, syncing, human factors, amongst others) which are worth to be considered.

    Thanks for the post.


  • metrosonus

    Ican’t beleive that after nearly 20 years of being involved with music 

  • /////

    MoM…as it should be!   

  • Jordan Colburn

    Great article. I love this idea and have been experimenting with how to use computers and loops to augment performance while still playing “live”.  My typical setup is using Ableton to only have the drums prerecorded and have most of the base patches and fx for a song setup, while having a few tracks open for experimentation live.  

    The main problem with this is having to reply parts over and over again (i.e. play intro pad, bass, guitar parts, then lay down the same tracks for the verse, chorus, and outros….it can get long tedious to listen to a buildup for every new section).  This is why many people with hardware loopers use it to just lay down rhythm/FX or play songs with only one chord progression.  

    I’ve tried experimenting with custom pd loopers working with multiple pedals to layer more naturally, but the only workable solution I’ve found is to really have the basic boring stuff like bass and drums prerecorded and play the most technical and interesting parts live.  Any body found better solutions for a solo musician?

    • The Landwhale

      I’m doing essentially the same kind of thing, but using Ableton’s looper, not anything custom. Without adding more musicians into your performance, you can only realistic create so much “from scratch”. I am most interested in being able to lose being tied to any kind of click track while still using pre-recorded audio/midi, that’s what is intriguing about Dodo’s comment that they “don’t use a click” yet it certainly looks and sounds like they have some pre-recorded audio loops going in addition to the live playing. It would be crazy fun to be able to play live instruments completely naturally with/without other musicians and not have to slave at all to the tempo of the computer. I haven’t tried it yet but there is this. http://www.circular-logic.com/products.html

    • The Landwhale

      Actually now that I just downloaded I remember I had tried it before, and I still can’t get it to sync properly with Ableton. I may just be too dumb though :/

  • http://www.facebook.com/ghmetcalfe Graham Metcalfe

    I think saying a controllerist or DJ is acting as a “conductor” isn’t really very accurate. A conductor works with an orchestra made up of live performers not a bunch of prerecorded loops and hits. So there isn’t REALLY a corollary between a conductor in an orchestral performance with all those live musicians working in concert (one of the most fantastic visual and musical experiences for an audience), and a single DJ controlling a Live rig.

    I definitely don’t have a problem with the latter, but it’s just NOT the same thing as a conductor with an orchestra, so I wish people would stop using that to validate an EDM performance using Live (which doesn’t really need to be validated anyway). Go to an orchestral performace of The Rite of Spring and see for yourself.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      It’s the conductor’s dream – conducting with no orchestra.

      Actually, sometimes the orchestra’s dream, too – the conductor’s in another place entirely. 😉

    • http://www.facebook.com/ghmetcalfe Graham Metcalfe

       The conductor’s dream is everyone BUT the Concert Master showing up.

  • The Landwhale

    Sorry to ask again, but I would really like to know how they handle the “no click” monitoring situation on stage that I asked about in my previous comment.

  • Stefan Smulovitz

    My interest has been exploring how one can use the computer as an instrument – not just a drum machine or sequencer. You can see completely improvised performances with animator Pierre Hebert – http://youtu.be/VzEc7KP8qlM and another improvisation with dance and VJ – http://youtu.be/V2ht0Koqphk .

    Production values can still be high if all of the elements are performed. Its just a different beast – with the excitement of highs not possible with everything scripted and lows and crashes that you are protected from with a hit play approach.



  • Regend

    the section on the video where the drummer is playing and the laptop is wobbling makes me NERVOUS. for 8 years the band i played in transformed from piezo’s triggering a rack sampler, live synth playing, and live guitar playing to triggering Ableton Live by everyone in the band with laptop. we had more trouble using laptops than using actual hardware because of the ergonomics of using a laptop. our next goal was finding the right controller for the laptop. i  argue it is because the DESIGN of computer music devices just wasn’t suitable for live playing and touring. i applauded the efforts of rack devices that loaded VST’s but it seems like now we’re moving towards using tablets instead and there are tablet stands and holders that seem to work better than laptop stands.

  • AlexP.

    Peter, like everytime you ask why other developers don’t tackle the live performance issue, I feel obliged to remind you that our company is entirely focused on it.

    Rack Peformer has just reached version 0.98 and I invite everybody to give it a try while it’s still free.

    see: http://www.livefactory.com/