Four Tet at work. Photo (CC-BY-ND) Jonathan Fisher/fishplums.

Four Tet at work. Photo (CC-BY-ND) Jonathan Fisher/fishplums.

Playing with laptops can become performative in conventional ways, just by adding instruments – voice, guitar, live drums, ukelele, or whatever it is you play. But it becomes more mysterious in the hybrid performance media that emerge from “playing” the arrangement directly, manipulating the larger bits of a track in the form of stems and samples. That can be really boring – the “press play” approach – or it can begin to embody an artist’s musical imagination. They can improvise with the composition.

You’ll want to make sure you don’t tune out early in this video with Four Tet, shot recently at Red Bull Music Academy in New York, or you’ll miss the good stuff. The UK artist begins in a conventional-enough way: he has his pre-made tracks divided into stems and triggers them in Ableton Live. If you’re a singer or instrumentalist, that would work fine as backing tracks; it’s when it becomes of a way of playing tracks back verbatim with nothing else that the “live set” can become bland.

But then things get a lot more interesting. Using some simple techniques for sampling loops, Four Tet uses external hardware to extend and transform the arrangement as it plays. There’s an unusual little loop sampler: a Cycloops / Red Sound C-Looper He makes heavy use of a BOSS Dr. Sample SP-303 (not the newer Roland SP-404 that I mistakenly saw originally. The SP-303 sees a button creatively misused as a gate. And finally, he also spends tome clicking around the UI with an old Windows laptop running CoolEdit. Nothing is terribly complicated, but these simple techniques make all the sounds more malleable, and it’s the way Four Tet plays them that makes them distinctively his.

If you keep watching, what may make Four Tet fans crack a smile is that the results become almost magically the sound of his productions – only improvised in live form.

A little secret, Mr. Tet: no, there isn’t actually this stuff hidden deep in Ableton Live, even when you do know how to use it. So, there’s no need to apologize for not looking deeper into Live. Yes, you could make something with Max for Live and the like, and actually, I imagine some Max patchers may be inspired by this setup. I’m not certain that matters either way, though; what does matter a lot is being able to have physical controls that externalize each of these techniques, whether that’s in the form of a controller or a netbook or a stomp pedal or a patch running on a Raspberry Pi.

But I imagine a lot of people will be inspired watching this video to try their own experimentation. And toward the end, he gets to why this matters: he needs this flexibility to respond to a crowd. That detail is what will always make performance human, whether they respond as a DJ, as a traditional musician, or as the new hybrids of composer, conductor, DJ, remix artist, and performer that computers can allow.


More sounds from Four Tet:

  • Antonio
  • cooptrol

    That’s an SP-303!! A very fine piece of hardware, very advanced for it’s time. Really good FX and features.

  • Ed

    Really enjoyed this, mainly because he’s such an affable chap, but his setup’s really interesting as well. It’s rare to find such a well-considered balance between doing things fluidly and with an element of risk, but in a way that also sidesteps the need for traditional musical showmanship or dexterity.

    I’ve been struggling for a while to find a gap for laptop performance between “just pressing play” and a more performative approach (monome button-mangling, live instrument looping etc, all of which I find a bit uncomfortable). This offers a really neat middle way, I think.

  • super lario

    Those QTs.

  • coolout

    Funny…I owned both a SP-303 and cycloops looper almost 10 years ago. Quickly sold them both when I found better solutions by keeping it in-the-box. Of course one could probably duplicate this exact setup with just an apc-40 and Ableton, but it does seem more quirky and cooler to use a bunch of different desperate little boxes. One good thing is there’s a fair amount of redundancy built-in to his approach, in case one thing goes down.

  • white__noise_bleed

    sound forge 5 was awesome for live looping clicking madness after that version it turned out slower and all the fun was lost. it´s awesome to see how he kinf a way to keep glitch in his setup the most organic part

  • neurogami

    CoolEdit! You can’t even get that any more. It’s one of the first things I install o a new Windows box. I’ve been careful not to lose the serial number or whatever for my copy.

    I really like the quasi low-tech approach. Lots of stuff that interact in interesting ways, with a good chance of serendipity that’s hard to get when you have a monolithic tool controlling everything.

  • enparticular

    Lots of people are still using those Sp-303. Panda Bear plays his shows with two of them. Really nice, little and practical phrase samplers. They do what you can do with ableton live, basically, if you use it only for playing loops and procesing them.

    • LeRabot

      Panda hasn’t been using 303 for a bit now. He’s more likely gonna use 555 or 404.

      But he toured with animal collective and solo with dual 303 for couple of years!


    There go the prices of Sp303’s…and Sp404’s…I gave away my Sp202 the other day. Fuddy duddy Boss samplers to me. Four Tet is an amazing songwriter…doesn’t need all those tools and gizmos. I’m calling it right now…Four Tet conducting the LA Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl.

    • Brent Meyer

      I would fly from wherever I am in the world at that moment to see that.

  • R__W

    I saw him play the bowery ballroom in 2003 with Prefuse 73 and Manitoba.
    His live setup at the time was two Windows laptops and an Evolution fader box.
    He almost got booed off the stage because his live technique at the time was to simply butcher his recognizable songs. Good to see he’s fixed this over the past 10 years.

  • Aaron Zilch

    Frankly there are a lot of people who need to appologize for not looking deeper into Live. The ignorance is so widespread that I was actually surprised when some studio technique videos with Dada Life showed appreciation for Racks and Macros ( a key killer feature that puts Live above the rest IMHO ).

    All of this could be done in the box, but the redundancy and limiting of options ( not to mention visual aspect of more machinces and flashing lights ) definitely have their place.

    And I’ll be laughing my butt off if a bunch of little hipsters who can’t be bothered to read a manual ( or spend some time thinking and tinkering ) drive up the prices of an old sampler because a “name” uses it solely for an effect that can be accomplished with a simple mapping in Ableton.

    • Øivind Idsø

      I disagree. There is no obligation to look deeper into all the software you buy. You could, if you want, but use it as you please, and if the output is good enough for you and an audience, that is good enough.

    • B.C. Thunderthud

      If only this Four Tet guy would get serious and study his Live manual he might actually make something of himself and become a household name like Aaron Zilch. No way he’s ever going to succeed in the music game with this half-assed approach.

    • Aaron Zilch

      I’m not dogging on Four-Tet. I have mad respect for anyone out there doing it, and he at least admits he could be more on top of his Ableton game. That’s the whole point, he at least knows his shortcummings. Dunning Krueger it.

      There is a crazy amount of skill sets involved in electronic music: sound design, songwriting, live performance/musicianship, mixing, mastering. It would take a lifetime to master them all. And that doesn’t even take into account all the auxilery skills like business and marketing that go into a successful career. There is only so much time in the day and you have to get out and experience some life for inspiration on top of it. But at the end of the day your main songwriting tool, be it a DAW or an MPC or whatever, is your bread and butter and if you don’t take the minimal time to get to know it on the most basic level ( and the Live manual is pretty basic ) you are just being lazy, or maybe you should look into another route to being a “household name” you are better suited for. If that’s your definition of “success”, fame is WAY overrated and destroys way more people than it fulfills.

      Put down the video game controller, tell your friends your skipping the club tonight, and put in some Work. Toss out your bank of Massive presets and your Vengeance samples. Load up some “Init” presets and really learn your craft and develop your own “voice”. Do you really think that Taco Bell tastes better than your grandma’s made from scratch meals?

    • Peter Kirn

      Right, but I think this is the nature of the tool. I do know Ableton pretty well, and I’m not sure on this case he would benefit from that added functionality. Because DAWs bundle together a lot of different functionality, because they’re multipurpose, sometimes you may actually benefit from working with 10% of what they do rather than 100%. And there isn’t actually something as simple or direct as the external gear here, either – and as he says, some of the quirks of the external gadgets are musically useful.

      So I don’t get ignorant, I get strategic. That’s not something special about Four Tet; I think it’s fairly common, which is part of why I thought it was relevant. And by the time you’re building a Max for Live gadget to do these things, you’re not doing something fundamentally different from using these boxes, anyway. (Albeit you’re the one engineering them)

    • tosque

      People who know music software in and out usually end up giving product demos and not making any actual music. Go to NAMM or your local Guitar Center to see exactly what I’m talking about.

      So if you want to become a certified Ableton instructor and teach ‘lazy people’ how to make dubstep at dubspot go right ahead! I’ll keep on listening to lazy musicians who actually manage to squeeze soul out of their gear without knowing what every single button does.

    • Aaron Zilch

      You’ve got some good points there. I don’t think everyone needs to know it as well as myself or Jon Margulies, but I guess I just came up in a different time. When scrimping and saving for hardware it was a matter of value to dig into the manual and find every bit of value in the pieces you earned, the crazy sounds undiscovered. I’ve seen the phenomena you describe. I’ve also seen people pine for some piece of gear or plug in to provide functionality they can already achieve with a little research, their thinking cap, or time with an expert. I’m all about squeezing soul out of the machines, that’s the purpose of the hidden gems I focus on when I am training people ( yeah Certified Trainer, and possibly certifiable, but that’s another topic ;o) ). Things like dummy clips, macros, the groove pool, and really getting the most out of session view are the keys to putting your ghost in the machine, in my opinion. I don’t think you necessarily need to know about building in Max from scratch or Python scripting, and I love hitting external gear for those musical and unpredictable quirks and different angles on workflow. I’m just saying maybe some time digging in is more valuable than rushing the next track onto Soundcloud as fast as you can. My 2 cents, but I’m guessing Dada Life will have more longevity than Skrillex. Time will tell :)

    • tosque

      I was a Final Cut Pro trainer for over six years and I never did any video editing of my won throughout that time! I agree with most of what you are saying, but not with your tone.

  • Øivind Idsø

    What a nice guy! Never been much of a fan of his music, but I really admire anyone who’s found a setup they are completely comfortable with, and then stick with it through “thick and thin”. I am way too restless, I’ve got way too many applications on my Macbook, and I really think I need to limit myself in some way or another – simply to Get Things Done. If nothing else, this was certainly an inspiration for that.

  • Tom

    Big up Cool Edit! Wish they’d bring Cool Edit 2000 to the Mac, it’s the one thing I miss. Audition = bloatware!

  • Tom Maisey

    Awesome, thanks for bringing this to my attention, Four Tet’s one of my favourites.