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The Laptop as an Instrument? 99

An anonymous reader wonders: "As music production tools, computers are everywhere from recording and mixing to publishing. What about computers as the sole musical instrument? DJing or just playing mp3s aside, we have improvisers and orchestras that treat a laptop as a full-flavored instrument. What's the most interesting laptop-only live act you have seen/heard?"
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The Laptop as an Instrument?

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  • by TodMinuit ( 1026042 ) <.todminuit. .at.> on Wednesday May 02, 2007 @09:48AM (#18955981)

    What's the most interesting laptop-only live act you have seen/heard?

    A well-played Unreal Tournament match.

    "HAT TRICK!"
    [Gun fire]
    "5... 4... 3... 2... 1!"
    [Gun fire; Explosions; Crazy]

    And so on.
  • Several years ago I read an article on about a guy producing music and playing it live, using Buzz among others as tracker.
    • Ohhh,

      I was trying to imagine new media pundit Jeff Jarvis covering electronic music, and it gave me cognitive dissonance.
  • What's the most interesting laptop-only live act you have seen/heard?
    None? There's probably great sound editing and mixing software available nowadays, but since when are we considering anything with an audio out plug an instrument? And why focus on laptops? I know that there are guys on the 'net who remix C64/Amiga machine beeps into songs - but we don't consider them instruments. Oh, and one of the links is from 2003.
    • i somewhat agree.

      in the late nineties, my high school had a battle of the bands sorta thing. one guy hooked up his laptop to the speakers and just hit play on a techno song he wrote. that i had a problem with. it's not live, like all the bands where, it's just playing a recording.

      but the more the person has to do in real-time that will affect the sound (changing notes, putting in beats, etc), the more it blurs the line between a recording and a live performance. at some point there's not going to be any log
      • Well, in the same way that most people don't consider turntables/DJ equipment as musical instruments, I think the same could be said for laptops/PCs.
        • if they're only using the laptop for something similar to what you'd do with a turntable, then i'd agree. but it is possible to have a simulated instrument on the laptop. a MIDI keyboard for example. i'm pretty sure there's some software that emulates a keyboard on the laptop. that i would consider an instrument, because you're still playing a keyboard, just not using the standard interface.
      • by dintech ( 998802 )
        I did something very similar at my high school. I used something called fasttracker 2 which played the majority of the sound and I overlayed samples and beats by pressing stuff on a MIDI keyboard. There was also a drummer, MC and someone scratching to fill out the sound (and stage) a bit. It was good fun although completely unrehearsed and a bit of an abomination. The highlights being the MC slagging the teachers of the school. It exists on tape to this day somewhere... :P
      • I've performed on both laptop and turntables, and the visual effect is what makes all the difference.

        I once did a DJ set on a laptop, and hardly anyone realized I was even even doing anything related to the music coming out of the speakers.

        When people see someone on turntables, they automatically make the connection. They need the visual cue to go with the music. Even though I could DJ with just my laptop, and it would be a lot easier than lugging turntables and extra hardware, I stick with turntables

    • by MrHanky ( 141717 )
      The Amiga music of old was scripted in trackers, which are nearly useless for improvising and making live music. The noise scene, however, is very much into improvisation, and also very much into laptops. Merzbow [] makes all his music on laptops these days. It's certainly not everyone's cup of tea, many people would even refuse calling it music, but there's no doubt that he uses his laptop as a sound instrument. Check out Ikue Mori for something slightly more pleasant. There are loads of proper laptop musicia
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by statusbar ( 314703 )
      Back in 1986 I wrote the Pro MIDI Player [] which was a live performance oriented MIDI sequencer. It allowed you to control the sequence in a live sort of way. I originally wrote it because my band was performing at Expo '86 in Vancouver and we needed some parts sequenced but wanted to be able to repeat parts at our whim during the song. It also controlled lights and flashpots via the parallel port via midi messages in the sequence!

      It turned into a product for a while. The old atari-st 'typeset' manual i

  • XP (Score:2, Funny)

    Does the windows startup sound count?
  • What Open source programs are available to create music?, What open source software would you use to achieve what the original poster asked?

    I am really interesting in this kind of stuff. I know there is a specific Linux distro for media but I do not know if the open source software available is mature enough for to perform live performances (i.e. not prone to crash in the middle of the show).
    • by delire ( 809063 )
      I've performed with Pure Data [] on tour and it stood up well on my Debian laptop. At the time I was either using a gamepad or midi-slider interface to drive the instruments I made with this tool, some of which were multichannel. A friend and I have had several hundred people play with our audiovisual instrument Fijuu2 [] day in day out for a week. This setup runs on Ubuntu and uses PD as a sound server. Several other friends perform with Supercollider []on their Linux laptops .

      Where sequencing is concerned I've h
      • Hey buddy, just in case you know. I really enjoyed Hydrogen last time I played with it, a few days ago, but once I'd made a beat, how do I get it into another application where I'd add bass notes and all those instrumental melodies to it? Do you know?
    • by afidel ( 530433 )
      Not sure about Linux/OSS for realtime performances but there's Rosegarden as an OSS band-in-a-box. The program I have personally seen used live is Propellerhead's Reason []. Even with Reason you will generally want a MIDI controller keyboard as the PC keyboard makes a fairly poor input for music. I like to use my PC as a performance instrument, but of a different kind. I use Winamp with Milkdrop to do live VJ performances in accompaniment with live DJ's. I use my own mixer coming off the main mixer so I can ad
    • by Eideewt ( 603267 )
      You also want to look into LADSPA effects. Ardour is the program for recording what you come up with (and thanks to jack, there's no reason you couldn't record your live sets without extra work) and playing back any background sound you might want. Hydrogen is a great drum machine. Thanks to jack, you can make several programs play along together (e.g. backing tracks) as well as doing whatever it is you do.
  • My interest in using a computer as a musical instrument went away quickly after my first chance of getting my hands on a PC; it was not hard to realize that there is much more to a computer than a keyboard. This is similar to looking at a computer as something more than a typewriter.

    There are two aspects of using computers as tools: one is about *people working* on a computer (we can call it "Windows-style use"), the other is about a *computer doing work* ("Unix").

    I have been always fascinated by the possib
  • What's the most interesting laptop-only live act you have seen/heard?"

    jerking off in bed with a laptop watching porno

  • Mashups! (Score:2, Interesting)

    by mathletics ( 1033070 )
    The best laptop performance I've ever seen is a guy called Girl Talk []. He makes whole songs out of pieces of pop songs. A lot of work goes into editing the pieces to make them fit, but they are still comprised of almost no original content. If you can find the song "smash your head," it's an excellent introduction. The other killer act I've seen is Dev/Null []. His music is completely original, but I wouldn't be surprised if I get a few "this is not music" replies. Check out "bolt thrower in a chinese restaur
  • As much as I love electronic, industrial, experimental music...

    "You and your laptop are not a live act!"

    Sure, they are useful tools, but standing behind a laptop looks really stupid on stage. Dance. Sing. Play some other instrument as well. Anything. Just don't stand behind you laptop looking like an idiot. If that's all your music is, press it to CD and give it to a DJ to play. That can be good too... but Live Music requires doing something Live that is visible to the audience!

    End Industrial Karaoke now!
    • by iseth ( 258694 ) *
      I've seen BT [] do a "Laptop Symphony" (I think is what he called it), at Summerfest a couple years back, and it was quite the kickass show. That link has some photos of similar performances. He definitely gets into it. At the time, I think he was running off a Powerbook.
      • by Endymion ( 12816 )
        I'm not sure about that concert, but from what I've seen of BT, he puts a bunch more into his concerts than just the laptop. He usually has other equipment (and does in those pics, from what I can tell), a light show, etc.

        That makes it somewhat borderline... but I'm more talking about how you shouldn't be this idiocy [] (note the lack of a power cable on the keyboard ). That idiot couldn't even tap his foot in time with his own music, and just hit play on the laptop and faked it the whole time.
    • "You and your piano are not a live act!" Sure, they are useful tools, but standing behind a piano looks really stupid on stage. Dance. Sing. Play some other instrument as well. Anything. Just don't stand behind you piano looking like an idiot. If that's all your music is, press it to CD and give it to a DJ to play. That can be good too... but Live Music requires doing something Live that is visible to the audience!
    • by Benwick ( 203287 )
      You And Your Laptop Are Not A Live Act!

      And neither is a tuba player, who just sits there blowing out of his mouth and moving his fingers like all the other brass players in the orchestra. They barely even move their feet!!
      • by Endymion ( 12816 )

        and if that is all the "concert" is, the it's be... rather stupid.

        Most of the time you have a tuba, though, it's with a much larger band. The ensemble makes it worthwhile.

        The problem here is laptops tend to bring out the "I'll just hit play in the sequencer" attitude in people. I've seen too many "shows" where they just stood there and pretended to poke at the laptop, and/or just messed with levels or something. This is a DJ act. Which is fine, but don't pretend it's a "Live Show" at the same level as h
    • Sure, they are useful tools, but standing behind a laptop looks really stupid on stage. Dance. Sing. Play some other instrument as well. Anything. Just don't stand behind you laptop looking like an idiot. If that's all your music is, press it to CD and give it to a DJ to play. That can be good too... but Live Music requires doing something Live that is visible to the audience!

      I agree whole heartedly. I am an electronic musician but I hate standing on stage bobbing my head infront of a laptop. I AT LEAST bring my Oxygen8 to shows so I can AT LEAST play lead melodies and tweak knobs live. I've played the piano for years and years so that helps as well.

      I've seen a lot of electronic acts and the ones that impressed me the most were the least pre programmed sets. Infected Mushroom, a trance act, is a very live act. They jam hard on their nordleads and junos. Squarepusher has a

  • Once upon a time, the pianoforte was the most useful tool any working musician must have. As a working musician, the laptop I have recently acquired (after decades of desktops) has rapidly shown me that things have changed. With me everywhere I go, this little blue-gray tool contains all of my full scores and I can work on my music with ease.. if I am at a gig and want to record, it is at hand to not only record but to burn copies for other people immediately. If I need to make a multi-track recording, I ba
  • Laptop artists (Score:2, Informative)

    I've seen live sets from greg davis [] and Keith Fullerton Whitman [] (aka Hrvatski) that were pretty amazing. What made greg davis's performance more dynamic than one might expect out of a laptop musician is that he was also playing found natural instruments (rocks, sand, water, sticks, etc.) and feeding the sound into his Mac, which processed and amplified them back out. Definitely not for everyone, but I found it riveting.
  • Comment removed (Score:3, Interesting)

    by account_deleted ( 4530225 ) on Wednesday May 02, 2007 @10:54AM (#18956911)
    Comment removed based on user account deletion
    • This post should be up at the top.

      Ableton has been allowing musicians to use their laptops as instruments for years now. If you google around, you'll find whole bands of 4 or 5 people on stage jamming with Live.

      It's a great product, there's a free demo, so check it out.

    • by gusset ( 1096959 )
      Interestingly Ableton and Cycling '74 (who publish MAX/MSP) are now working together []. "Ableton and Cycling '74 have entered into a strategic partnership, forging a "unique alliance between these dynamic and innovative audio/video software companies". The two will join forces to create new software products for the creative community, leveraging their skills, technologies and combined thirty years of experience."
  • I used to live near a cheap motel that had a bar. I started seeing a sign that said "This Friday: Jack Schitt". So I gathered some friends and we went. It was a total dive, but they actually had some decent beer. Jack was playing guitar but I noticed that all of his accompaniment was a Toshiba laptop. He had drums, bass, rhythm guitar and even backing vocals where necessary. The music wasn't my favorite (basically covers of southern rock and 70s stuff like Styx, ELO, etc...), but he was pretty good an
  • Tim Exile (Score:2, Informative)

    As opposed to just playback from a laptop with little to no real-time modulation... ile_us&flash=0 [] "Tim has spent the last year creating and perfecting a radical tool for live performance. Based entirely around Reaktor 5 and a set of customised faders and controllers, it allows him to manipulate samples and his own voice in real time. The unique Exile setup has been showcased at raves and gigs all over the UK and Europe. Native Instruments talked to T
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by soliptic ( 665417 )
      Yeah, I was gonna mention Tim Exile too, although I would do, cos I know him :)

      I've actually had a play on the system he built (well, I had a play about 3-4 years ago, I dare say he's changed it a lot since then. A constant work in progress as far as I could tell...). It's a lot of fun.

      See [] for more info and (I expect) tunes / vids etc. Oh, there's also a mass technical interview / Q&A with him here [].

      Right, I'm getting back to work before I read the usual surprisingly stone-age slas
      • Nifty!
        Don't suppose you've got any errr... neato Reaktor 5 ensembles you're interested in sharing (yeah I've played with the one that's already out there). :)

        Speaking of non-traditional music making, been appreciating some righteous work has been done years back in the BBC radiophonic workshop.

        • Hehe, nah, sorry. Actually, at the time I played with it, it was back on Reaktor 4 I think; well before he gave away that cut down version for NI anyway.

          Anyway, the reason he deserves special mention in this article (I was too rushed to say this earlier), is because he is firmly improvisational. If you understand this -- and grasp/literally see how the movements and combinations of the sliders under his control correspond, real-time, to the changes in the resulting output -- I think you see he makes a m
  • Animusic [] is the only one I've seen/heard that is 100% computer-generated audio and video. Saw it on PBS a couple months ago, told my brother about it and he went and bought the 2 DVDs; I've only borrowed the 2nd DVD from him so far. Pretty cool stuff in there actually. It'd be cool to see someone actually BUILD some of those setups too. (like Resonant Chamber from the 2nd disk)
  • I've seen a number of laptop-only acts and let me tell you, they are BORING AS HELL. I'd rather be tied to a chair watching fifth grade Green Day cover bands than go to another boring laptop gig. At least the fifth graders jump around and try to rock out. Your typical laptop DJ stares at the screen, brow furrowed, attempting to divine the next loop to mix in. His idea of rocking out is leaning back in his chair and smiling. You know, that's great and all, but when you pay $10, $20, even $30 to go to the roc
    • While a laptop can make a decent synthetizer, sequencer, recorder, metronome, cue carder, etc., it should definitely be coupled with a more appropriate input device.
      I've seen some cool virtual instruments that are played with a laptop touchpad, but I doubt I could woo an audience with my elite ~5 cm finger movements.
      A midi keyboard would be the traditional choice, but using, say, a wiimote or a DDR pad could work out. And of course, all hail the mighty Power Glove. This thing [] should provide for some decent
    • The laptop can make an interesting percussion instrument, but unfortunately not for very long...
  • by Half a dent ( 952274 ) on Wednesday May 02, 2007 @11:02AM (#18957023)
    ...of torture.

    Supporting certain sales laptops seems like that anyway!
  • I've not gone to a lot of concerts in my life, but one of my favorite bands, Meat Beat Manifesto, came to a local venue last year so I went to see this band I've been listening to for years. If you're not familiar with it, it's triphop/jungle/drum 'n' bass/whatever genre cliche you want to call it, electronica basically, but a very underrated band I've always thought. Jack Dangers, the frontman, is apparently a hoarder of old/obscure media and samples a lot of bizarre stuff like old television and movies an
    • Actually, the mariah carey video sample was EBN (emergency broadcast network)'s original idea, in the mid 90's. Meat Beat Manifesto is quite amazing. I saw them in 1992 with 808 State and have been a huge fan ever since. Their recent tour (the one you're referring to) was also excellent; though I wouldn't by any stretch call that a laptop show - they had piles of gear; video samplers, laptops, keyboards, triggers...
    • by br0d ( 765028 )
      I've seen meat beat about 4 times since the mid 90s, Jack has a sense for not only innovation but entertainment, even when the tools may be potentially uninteresting. He did a show on the Actual Sounds tour with the band playing behind a screen, and the live performance was interspersed with all sorts of video footage which was obviously from the video vault he'd compiled over the years (since many of the songs samples came from these clips.) I found the performance interesting in a creative way but somewha
      • by gusset ( 1096959 )
        I've seen MBM a couple of times. Always with a lot of kit. The London show in 2005 [] looked like it was mostly just laptop controlled. Jack Dangers and Ben Stokes with five laptops, a couple of controller keyboards, a drum pad, mic, video camera etc. A great show but not strictly a laptop only performance.
  • by IV-Swamp ( 744272 ) on Wednesday May 02, 2007 @11:19AM (#18957291) Homepage
    I have been composing and performing with midi for about 15 years and using computers live for about 10 years. I usually use a rack mounted standard PC for all of my VST instruments via V-Stack. I may start using Kore but I just started messing with it.

    The main problem with laptops is most come with less than stellar sound devices. Some come with 24-bit spdif outs but still suffer from noticeable latency which makes live performance difficult at best. There are a good number of external sound devices available for laptops out now but I have yet to see one that has made me confident enough to move away from my road case rack. Plus it looks cool to show up at a gig with a road case full of esoteric lights and whistles.

    Now if someone would just write a VST interpreter that will run in Gentoo I will be pooping with joy.

    My keyboard rig:
    Old ass Kawai K-4 as controller (Per note aftertouch)
    P4 3GHz with Delta 1010 for sound device
    Tascam TMD-1000 mixer for external effects
  • The Princeton Sound Lab [] has created a bunch of tools for just this. You can "bow" the touchpad, for instance. There's a Mac-laptop exclusive utility that generates sounds based on the motion of the laptop (using the internal gyros or accelerometers or whatever).
  • and practically every other ebm/synth/industrial band. i just saw vnv nation and they had ibooks onstage.
    • That's not the same at all. Having a computer to do some sample work or whatever has been standard practice for years. VNV Nation just played here in Atlanta, and you'll note that while they had their iBooks, they also had a drummer, a keyboardist, and Ronan himself didn't just sit there staring into a laptop -- he was bouncing around and singing and so on.

      We're talking here about live shows that are exclusively done with laptops and nothing else.
  • Alex Callier of the Belgian band Hooverphonic uses a guitar with built-in laptop. It's a Fender Telecaster with a laptop built in, and allows for more flexibility in sound effects and between concerts he can use it to surf the web.

    There are many results on Google, but almost all of them in Dutch apparently. Here's the only English result I found: [] (see section 'Hooverphonic on tour with one of a kind Intel Guitar'). Ah, Intel has a page about it too, but withou
  • 6/nov/30/gallery-174998/home/photok-5006698 [] That was a pretty cool night - some of the acts really got into the feel of it.
    • by gusset ( 1096959 )
      My normal live setup includes a bit more extra kit but I did strip it down to a laptop and a MIDI controller only to compete in Laptop Battle III at the same venue. However, I was rubbish and went out in the first round so I'm not the best example there.
  • Using a laptop as a source of one or more virtual synths = OK

    Using the laptop itself to play the music live? Well, if I want to actually *play*, I would at least get an external MIDI controller (knobs and keyboards) as it is much easier to handle than a qwerty keyboard - most decent music apps can accept midi inputs and playing notes via a device made for performing is a bit more intuitive than trying to set your keyboard up to do it (IMNSHO, that is, i imagine *some* people are perhaps completely comfor
  • Morton Subotnick [] played on an electronic music concert at the university I attend. They literally wheeled out a laptop (some variety of Mac) on a cart, and he sat down at the laptop as though he was sitting at a piano. I don't recall what he played, but he is considered a pioneer in electronic music.

  • I saw Sonic Boom (aka Pete Kember) open up for the Flaming Lips years ago where he had 6-8 hacked Speak & Spell toys on stage. He would trigger sounds through each one for his full concert.

    From an article [] about it:

    Of the recent explorations of circuit-bending, Sonic Boom's Data Rape, recorded under the "Experimental Audio Research" ("EAR") banner and available through Space Age Recordings, stands out as the most distinctive. The entire LP was recorded using modified Texas Instruments Speak & Spell

  • Those of you around Quebec should check out C.O.M.A. [], Montreal's yearly electro-noise festival. Last month was 4th edition. 35 live acts spread over 3 days. All music done live with laptops, midi controllers (kaospads, trigger fingers) and a few electronic drums and vintage analog equipment. Big names of the genre are currently Mlada Fronta, Scrap:edx, Liar's Rosebush, Memmaker, Iszoloscope, Ah Cama-Sotz, Vromb, Enduser, Hocico and many others. Relatively small scene but quite
  • Autechre do occasional sets with nothing but a pair of laptops. And are very good.
    • Blah... I am a big fan of Autechre, but I have seen their laptop performances twice, and they are BORING... They didn't have any sort of midi controllers or anything, they were just standing there fiddling with the mouse.

      Definitly not worth the price of admission (ok, one of the concerts was free... that was worth the price of addmission).

      I have seen some live footage of them in the early 90s with hardware, and it is way more exciting and perfomance oriented.
  • The Cruxshadows [] use a pair of Mac laptops for sequencing and sampling (I think) on stage. Operation: Reinformation [] use computers extensively in their act (the last time I saw them, they used a Commodore-64 as their MIDI sequencer, and a second C-64 with a joystick as one of their synthesizers instead of a keyboard). There is also a horror-pop act out of Pittsburgh called Nyarlathotep who jam in realtime on laptops during their shows.
  • Todd Rundgren did a tour back in 1990ish in which he used a Mac (li'l desktop, not a laptop of course) as a musical instrument. I distinctly remember him grooving on-stage playing the, um, keyboard.
  • What's the most interesting laptop-only live act you have seen/heard?"

    It's not laptop-only, but a local Denver band, Mr. Pacman [], uses a Commodore SX-64 on stage. It's a portable version of the Commodore 64 (a "laptop", for sufficiently large values of "lap", I suppose.) Talk about old-school! :)

  • laptops? too easy! []

    "ZX Spectrum Orchestra have been locked away in the lab writing code. They use no midi, no samplers, in fact, no instruments other than Sinclair hardware and peripheral devices. For instance, vocals on tracks are supplied by the Currah Speech. An early speech synthesizer built for the ZX Spectrum, it explores the found poetry of basic keyboard commands."
  • Chevron, Milanese, Shitmat, I could have sworn i saw Plaid do a laptop set, Kid606, and loads of other people go to any evening of 'underground' electronica and you'll see tonnes of it. Tim Exile is the god of performing live with a laptop though, he's not quite a laptop only chap mind, the last time I saw him he had a luminous green/yellow leotard on and a joystick that he wiggled to control all his noises attached where his todger should have been.
  • Back when AOTS [] was still watchable, they had on a beatboxer/live mixer called Kid Beyond. [] I was quite impressed, but I've never seen him live or really do much else outside that quick set. There's some videos of him over at Youtube [] if you're WMV-Impared and cant's check out his website.
  • Does anyone have good recs for free (or low cost) sheet music editors?
  • The best band I have seen doing this. They actually have written their own custom software and mashup samples of audio and video creating their music and performing. Just two guys, two laptops and a ton of projectors! []
    • Caught them almost a year ago in Gateshead, UK. Wasn't certain what to expect but it turned out to be a cracking night. VJamming wins HARD.

      There's plenty of clips out there on YouTube of their performances

  • Richard D James famously had a concert where he pressed play on a DAT tape and then proceeded to play Sonic the Hedgehog for the remainder of the show.

    Does that count?
  • Luke Vibert - holy shit. Saw him at RX in SF, at first I didn't realize he wasn't using any controllers.

    If you know the original tracks that he's dropping, you will be flabbergasted. He fucks up, too :)

    the videos kinda suck, but that's the difference between live and youtube :) [] [] []

    kid606 uses controllers, but it's closer to the "instrument" that you're talking about, but not using normal
  • I saw Nickel Creek in Santa Rosa last spring. They usually throw a few songs from the greater pop/rock genre into their sets to mix things up a little (I've seen them do Dylan, Radiohead, Beck, and Randy Newman), and on that tour they were covering Britney Spears' "Toxic". They were playing the cover using their regular (acoustic) instruments and hamming it up, and in the middle of the song, someone from their crew ran onto the stage, flipped open a laptop that was sitting there, played a three second break

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