On pressing "Play"

Revisiting a familiar struggle from another angle with some slightly better insight.

I’m working on a medley album, a continuous set of songs that go together in a certain order to be presented as a single piece.

I started it a couple years ago, when I bought my Model:Cycles. It was originally meant to be a bunch of practice patterns. It grew into something with an identity…a typical progression.

I performed that set of patterns a few times, and generally got a good reception, especially the first couple of times when it got everybody dancing. We were doing open mics in a parking lot - I have some really good memories from that. I think by the 3rd or 4th time people were expecting it to be more fleshed out and the response was polite. It didn’t have the same impact with the same people and I really didn’t know where else it could be appreciated so I haven’t performed it anywhere else yet. Still trying to figure out what it means and what it is, but that’s a different problem.

So, sure, I decided it needed to be finished and released. I’m fleshing it out finally. I have plans to add vocals to some of the songs, I added a nice finisher, and I have a general idea of how to extend many of the patterns into the intended 2-3 minute sections. The times when FILL mode is going to be activated, when I’m going to mute and unmute what, when I’m going to use CONTROL ALL for transitions and so on.

It quickly dawns on me: I’m doing a computer’s job. There is nothing about this that remotely resembles human expression. Perhaps in parts where I twiddle knobs or diddle on a keyboard. I certainly can’t break away from the script much on this one, not just because I’ve figured out what the “best” script is, but it’s just not that kind of set of patterns where pretty much any combination of tracks sound good. I also definitely am going to want to break out of the 6 tracks and it’s not clear if after I get the tracks into the DAW, if I’ll layer stuff over with the Cycles or use my other synths. Well it doesn’t matter in the studio, right? OK fine, it’ll be a great listening experience.

But what is it that I’m recording? Certainly not something I’ll be able to recreate live in any sense that is meaningful. Sure I can figure out something arbitrary to do along with the backing track, but there’s that nagging feeling again. It doesn’t feel authentic, true.

I’m sure lots of people on here know what I’m talking about. Why perform live at all when you can sequence and record the whole thing down to audio? This simulation of things that can’t happen - or rather, don’t need to happen, not in real life - it goes from idea to remnant with no relevant intermediate step. They don’t need an origin in the real world, except for the moment I thought of it and set it in digital stone. How you get it into the box; that doesn’t matter. I’ve always reserved a distaste for this idea. I compartmentalize these aspects using thoughts like “a computer is best suited for this part” and “I’m doing this solo so it needs some kind of accompaniment.” But what is the central part that it is accompanying me for?

I suppose this reveals my traditionalist bent, despite my focus on electronic instruments. (Though I do plan to properly learn the guitar very soon.) To me, music is performed by humans - even when we press “Play” - and we record that down to a medium so that we can re-live that performance whenever we wish.

My roommate has no such romantic views. They perform a lot of indie rock in their band, and do experimental live stuff from time to time, but they also make a lot of electronic music and it’s always a studio affair, carefully and happily crafted without a hint of existential concern. Well, I want my music to “feel” like it happened, or that it could happen, or that I could make it happen, in the real world. I’m never going to concede this, to do so for me would be the ultimate submission to musical disillusionment. But I’m also a pragmatist … so I pocket the idea and try to slowly bridge this chasm created by people like my roommate. After all, once the audio experience is created, that’s what matters right? That’s the thing you can transmit, sell, manipulate. You can make up whatever origin you want. This worrying truth goes against every fiber of my being.

My roommate has said they admire my adherence to my philosophy. But they don’t envy the obstacles placed by the landscape of gear that I have to deal with every step of the way. It seems that in following the idea that the computer can take over some duties we give up some amount of control (in my view, way too much) so that the less talented of us can just hit a button and perfection streams out of a box. That precision becomes a genre and performance skill is replaced by a sort of director’s skill. Like out-sourcing manufacture overseas. We conjure the blueprint, and sit back while a slave computer makes it happen.

It should be obvious now why I gravitated to Elektron products. They represent a desire to seize back control, to be “hands on”.

I’m not sure where this is going. Part of it is that I’m not that skilled in performing things live with the Cycles or Machinedrum. Especially with the Cycles and its reluctant pads and crap-shoot knobs. They’re definitely designed to be instruments but they’re not as easily expressive as what I’d expect an instrument to be. I like aftertouch, mod wheels, faders, things that have a direct physicality. With Elektron devices it can feel like I’m one step removed and should make friends with a certain degree of unpredictability. So I opt to record bits into a DAW track by track, mostly sequencing notes, automating parameters where needed, because as far as I’m concerned it isn’t possible to do what I hear in my head in a totally live context.

There’s more, but I think I’ll leave it there for now and see what discussion it sparks. I’ll continue the train of thought to see where it leads.


I can’t speak to how you feel as a performer, but as an audience member, I want the live show to be at least somewhat different from the recording. Simply recreating the recording live is also a form of pressing play to me. Conversely, I like when a recording has ornaments that would be difficult to present live. I feel like I am being rewarded for careful listening (which is more difficult to do live).

I agree it’s hard to get the easy expression controls of a guitar or saxophone on the Elektron boxes (or at least the Models). Have you considered creating bare bones versions of your Cycles patterns and leaving a track or two empty to improvise new parts? It’s not the same as being able, for example, to hit the notes harder for emphasis, but it might give you some spontaneity back


It’s nice to hear that; gives me something to anchor myself. The thing is, I actually am more interested in someone performing the song pretty much as it was written, with more explicit deviations in the “solo” sections or impromptu flourishes here and there. After all, you could easily “fake” a different version for the live set by programming in randomness, different LFO’s, different sequences etc. And just pretend you’re doing something. It’s that connection between the audience and the performer, that faith and trust that what is happening is coming from a sentient organic being, that they’re not simply cranking a musicbox. Even if it sounds pretty much exactly the same as the album version, to know and behold them performing it, that’s literally everything to me. (Something about the inherent loneliness of being an individual in an indifferent universe.)

The more I use these devices the more I realize how much work and practice I need to be doing to master these things and once I’m good enough I might start seeing things differently. Then again, the difficulty of changing tracks on Model:Cycles with my double-jointed fingers feeling like rubber chickens being smashed against a brick wall limits my enthusiasm. And sure you can hook up an external controller but I consider MIDI controllers to be more of a studio tool, because I think if you’re going to be bringing all your gear to a set only to not touch them, you might as well be controlling plugins and the MIDI controller + laptop combo is your instrument. I’m not into the idea of a network of gear being my instrument, even a relatively simple one. Hard to transport hard to maintain. But I don’t know, maybe it’s an idea I should embrace, because I sure prefer using the controls on my MPK249 to the ones on the Model:Cycles.

I’ve tried it and the usual outcome is new patterns, because the controls are … clumsy. I don’t know how some people get so good at it. (Speaking of the Cycles alone here.) Another problem is having dozens of patterns and they don’t all adhere to my standard track layout, and worse that layout is based on the type of sound and that doesn’t always match up with what I want to play. And Cycles doesn’t have a swap track function. So I have to remember which track is my performance track on every pattern? It’s not happening. That’s 1 or 2 pattern cycles of me watching the lights to sus it out. Of course I have other synths…

Maybe I should start thinking about my songs as multiple device affairs, to avoid computers. Problem: the album version needs to be “ported back” to the hardware as it always goes through a transformational process during recording, I don’t limit myself to what the hardware can do. It’s probably not even technically possible in most cases. Just have to bring the laptop to sets. That means laptop, flight case containing interfaces and Machinedrum, and the necessary cables at a minimum. What other hardware am I treating as my “core rig”? I’m not trying to bring my whole studio to the venue. The question is so complicated it makes you question the whole enterprise. You acquire gear to fill gaps and then realize what a bear it is. At one point when people considered me a “DJ” I was doing four hours total of teardown, transport, setup, and repeat.

I just want one or two instruments to be my core compositional and performance instruments. But every piece I have has tradeoffs and I don’t know what the core of it all is.


Lot to think about here but from a cursory read through, it sounds like you haven’t found the right tools for you yet. I do believe it’s possible play “live” electronic music and for it to be way more about just pressing play. It sounds like you want to be playing on instruments that are bigger and more tactile. I also think there’s no harm in deciding what elements are going to be live and have the rest be played back in static form, either via laptop or Octa or BB or whatever.

Hope that gives you some food for thought!


I think about it in terms of risk. The thrill of live performance comes from the risk of fucking it up. If you know there’s no risk, it won’t thrill you. So you need to figure out a balance where you’ll be at the edge of your ability to control things but have a safety net to avoid it being complete shit.


That is an opinion that you are welcome to have, but there is a lot of room to argue both ways.

That’s cool. I respect your artistic vision and the challenges you set up for yourself.

I’d urge you to take a step back and consider both the somewhat toxic attitude you have here and it’s impact on you and your well being.

Your roommates are out making and performing music in a variety of genres, including experimental electronic music. They pragmatically use the studio and are perfectly happy to press play if it entertains their audience. Meanwhile, you are sitting home pursuing some sort of highly specified but ultimately ill defined vision to prove to yourself that you are sufficiently talented.

Go write some bad poetry and recite it at an open mic night. Or run a Monotron Delay into another Monotron Delay and play a 30 minute live set with just those two. The skill of performance and the skill of composition are different skills. To improvise live requires both.

This is totally fine, and allows you to define a reference point to show how close you came to achieving your vision. Next time, try to get a little bit closer. Continuous improvement is the way to go.

There is a whole genre of urban tales where a technician is brought in to fix a misbehaving engine. The technician listens carefully, then gently taps the engine with a small hammer. The problem goes away. A few days later, the client complaints to the technician: “this bill is for $10,000 dollars, but all you did was tap the engine with a tiny hammer. Anyone could do that!” The technician replies with a new bill: “$1 - for the hammer tap, $9999 for knowing exactly where to apply it”

Sometimes it takes a great deal of skill to press play at exactly the right time, with exactly the right stage presence. My objection to pressing play is that I’ll never have the stage presence to successfully pull off a press play performance. I can do awkward nerd playing dual monotron delays though.

TL;DR: I respect your vision, but suspect you are being too hard on yourself. Don’t force yourself to accomplish an impossible mission. Instead, focus on realizing as much of it as you possibly can today, and make small improvements to it every day.


I use the (Elektron) computer to do things I can’t do with my hands, like p-locks and perfect quantization, fast pattern switching and instant preset recall. My performances are a dialog between those elements and what I play live with my hands. They feed into each other; for example: I might let a melody run on a sequencer for part of the song, then later play that pattern live on the keyboard, but in a way that contrasts with the sequencer part.


A pretty dense read, not sure I understood everything but here are my two cents: I think you’re overthinking this whole thing. Just make music that pleases you and if it pleases others it’s even better.
But put yourself in the audience shoes for a minute: people in the crowd are here to enjoy the moment, that’s just it. Unless you play in front of a 100% synth/gear hardcore nerds crowd, people don’t really care about how it is done. Rules rules rules… They’re meant to be broken in my opinion.
Now for the “performance” aspect I can understand where you’re coming from, being a “traditional” musician myself before diving in the electronic cauldron. I would suggest to actually go for it, I mean pick up an instrument you like (you mentionned you like the guitar), learn it and play it. Takes time and dedication though.


Well said.

As far as worry about whether a PC could be doing the arranging instead, just assess if you are having fun performing.

For example; in cases where I have a string of patterns or parts all lined up and sequenced and all I’m doing is queuing the next part, I get bored. Even though I wrote the pattern.
But if I have a rough idea and bust it out live it is so much more enjoyable. A live/motion recorded change, a quick adjustment to the percussions, throwing in some more swing, whatever.

Keeping things evolving is the point where I have the most fun, I mean to say. And it’s hard to get it exactly the same doing it live, and I love that. Makes it interesting. More play as much as performance, and that’s the point I think.


Spontaneous performances are my favourite too. Too much pressing Play in the world.


This is something that has plagued me over the past 20 years or so that I’ve been playing electronic music in a live situation.

Warning: big story ahead.

My first live show consisted of pre-rendered tracks playing from Winamp that I played along to on guitar, while my friend played keys. After that, I ditched the guitar and just played tracks from Winamp. At the time, this was perfectly acceptable, as most other people in the IDM/breakcore scene at the time were doing the same thing, mostly because we were all poor and didn’t have computers that were good enough to play our tracks live without glitches.

I eventually got a PC that was good enough to run my software live, which I’d lug to gigs with a controller and/or guitar and either play along to my tracks or adjust some things like filters etc. This wasn’t too bad, except for the whole lugging a PC tower and CRT to a gig thing.

Once I started making some disposable income, I experimented with fully improvised, loop pedal performances using guitar and toy keyboards, and honestly, this was probably the most fun for me to play. However, it greatly restricted the kinds of shows I could play, and would often result in me being put on first at a show where other people played more intense, or dancefloor-friendly music.

So I started learning how to play the solos from my prog synthwave tracks on guitar. This went pretty well, and I kept it up for years, but the nature of the tracks, as well as having to focus on guitar, meant that I was once again playing to pre-rendered backing tracks, which ran from a pre-compiled Reaper sequence. Coupled with me getting burned out on writing in that style, it meant that I had only a limited repertoire of tracks, and thus I got sick of playing very similar sets all the time. And I still wasn’t getting the cool late bangers slots that I wanted :stuck_out_tongue:

Playing gigs in the chip scene rubbed off on me, so I purchased a copy of Nanoloop 2 for GBA, and started writing more pattern-based, yet modular music, which meant things could be shifted around on the fly, and different tracks could be combined with each other. This was actually pretty fun and I still play sets from Nanoloop; nothing else has the ability to casually flick through patterns as quickly. Plus, it was a bit more dancefloor friendly, allowing me to play minimal techno sets without feeling like I was going to get bored onstage. Still, I wanted more..

Of course, as my synth nerdery exploded I bought a bunch of synths and grooveboxes. I’ve still only played a handful of gigs from my Elektrons, mostly because I still haven’t quite found my groove with them in terms of doing things live. That said, my Model:Cycles streams were fun, even though I wouldn’t be able to pull off the same long-form track builds in front of a live audience when I only have 30 minutes to play. Playing back patterns is fine but I still feel like I need to be doing more adjustment, and since Elektron boxes don’t allow for individual tracks to change patterns, transitions need a bit more work.

Something interesting happened last year though, at one gig. I was originally planning to play yet another minimal footwork/dnb set from Nanoloop 2, but at some point I decided to transcribe some of my older tracks to M8. Tracks that I’ve never been able to play in a live setting because they were written during the time when I played guitar along to my sets, but didn’t fit in with that style. So I basically played the gig pressing play in M8 and loading one song file after another, just letting them play and occasionally adjusting some parameters. Coupled with playing a later slot in the lineup, and also me being a bit tipsy so I could get a bit more loose with the stage banter, the audience fkn loved it, despite me barely interacting with the music at all. I had fun too.

Then, the next week, I played a very minimal set from a TR-06 and TB-03, no builds, no drops, no defined tracks, just subtle changes on the fly. Still went down well, though it was more backgroundy than the previous set. I didn’t like it as much as playing my pre-sequenced tracks in front of an appreciative audience.

So, to my point, I think the level of interaction you have with the music really depends on the context. Are you playing to other music nerds or people who want to dance? Are you playing an experimental night where noodling will be appreciated, or a club night where there is an expected flow of energy? What’s the expected attention level—are your pre-sequenced tracks interesting or entertaining enough that the audience doesn’t care if they’re being presented with music they could hear the same way on your Bandcamp page; are you doing something interesting visually to accompany the set*? Or is it a quiet event where people sitting on bean bags aren’t really required to focus their attention on the stage, and you can get away with playing things live?

From experience, you can’t really have the best of both worlds with solo electronic shows unless you really know your gear, and have a natural confidence that allows you to casually improvise while maintaining song structure. The shows where I’ve danced the most have been where the performer is basically DJing their own tracks, mostly from vintage hardware that basically plays back pre-sequenced tracks, with the performer only doing minor things like highpass filter sweeps, mutes, or kaoss-pad glitching. The shows where I’ve paid most attention to the performer playing have been where they’ve done almost everything live, and it’s in a situation where it makes sense to pay attention to that, e.g. a seated gig where the performer is playing clearly visible instruments. The only way I can see a fusion of both happening is in a band situation, even just two people, with highly memorised or at least very well improvised songs.

Anyway, maybe what I wrote doesn’t quite apply, but it documents a similar struggle I’ve had, where I want to improvise, but also want to have occasional super structured moments, but can’t find a balance. There just kinda isn’t one, for me at least. So I’ll continue to alternate between the two forever :stuck_out_tongue:

* - as an aside, I’ll point to one of the best sets I’ve been involved with, where we did nothing live, and everything was baked into a pre-rendered video file that played while we danced around on stage like idiots, throwing things into the crowd and “playing” controllers that weren’t even plugged in. Despite the completely pre-sequenced aspect, it remains one of the most talked about sets in the festival, and people still lose it when I drop a 'donix track in my sets.


So much to respond to. I’ll get to it tomorrow.

I figured out my answer. For each album (equivalent to a “set”) there’s a small core rig, a pair of devices maybe three. I guess this is actually how most Elektronauts do things (though usually on a song-by-song basis). I mean I literally just woke up to it. Even though I’ve seen huge rigs too… and yeah, that’s just not for me. The most complicated setup I’ll have is an integrated flight case centered around a Machinedrum, plus my MPK249. My recent EP Sweet Release is performed with a phone and a microphone. The Boss Rush album (the one I mentioned in the OP) is centered around M:C and MPK249 (or DNK). I’ve committed to making it performable within that framework. The recording process will no doubt be handy for playing around with structure. I played around with some performance ideas and I think with pattern chaining and the MPK I have a shot at it. I’m a keys player. No poly playing this time but Chord machine is fun. Wish M:C had initial mute states, cut down on the number of patterns.

Mine is a modular studio. I remembered that that’s how I set things up on purpose. It’s all connected into a central flight case that can be left out. I think I was stuck on wrapping my head around the idea that even though I have abundant gear (to me), limitations are to be embraced. Reasons:

  1. They’re necessary. I don’t have tons of resources, time or money. Also my energy level is notoriously unpredictable.

  2. I love minimalist music. Maybe it’s a subconscious thing. An acquired taste for simplicity, space for reflection. The world is a mess, at least we should have a space that’s discernable and makes some sense.

  3. Without defined boundaries and limits I’d never finish anything.

Going to bed now.

1 Like

You can play other peoples music live too, with your own. A lot of elektron gear can store and mangle loops, why not just play bits of some songs you like also, and make them your own. Map controls to effects, resequence other peoples loops.

Most electronic music is too complex to be produced live without editing. Most of electronic music is heavily edited. This is why DJing will remain the number one way electronic music is performed. It’s an art form too.


It was the tools for extending patterns into songs on grooveboxes (that lack song mode) I meant here. I.e. FILL LATCH and PATTERN CHAIN. Not knob turning etc! If that’s what you thought. It’s those pattern extending tools I consider their equivalent to a crank. That busywork that I wish I didn’t have to manage. Same with muting tracks on the pattern switch when I know which tracks I’d like to have muted, but the feature isn’t supported so we need either skill or cleared tracks (wasting patterns and resetting sounds). But it’s a skill like anything else … maybe something I could master, this time I think I’m going to really try.

This is the one thing I wrote that I regret! The wording made it sound like I look down on lack of talent in specific areas. That’s not the case, I see the value in all forms of talent. In my defense, in a later paragraph I said that I think pressing Play is music too! What I meant was, for whatever talent any of us lack, or aren’t interested in developing, someone has invented a digital surrogate. And we like what comes out; it’s not a bad thing. The only problem I see is, that the philosophy of “computerized music” permeates the gear so much that it’s easy for people like me who were looking for a more organic sound to get lost in the sauce.

I think my struggle has centered around finding a balance, for me it’s like with weed, it’s not quite addictive or destructive … and usually enjoyable … but a little kind of goes a long way, or at least, a longer way than the world would have you think. Or maybe I just see it that way because either I have poor self control or simply haven’t followed through on my adventurous spirit as much as I wanted/should have. Or maybe it’s not entirely my fault. The gear market doesn’t make it easy to settle and commit. It’s a lot to sift through…products and features. My GAS days are over though.

Ill-defined, yes, well, formerly. It’s a guiding star… and though I wasted a LOT of time when I started this trying to make “the perfect performance/production rig” I’ve already started making music in a similar methodology to the roomie. I just … have these nagging thoughts and frustrations. This isn’t about solving a specific problem but untangling some knots so I can get to the next stage.

Talking it out has helped me get the perspective to define what it’s going to look like. Also if I’d have mentioned something you might have given me a little more slack… they’ve been a serious musician for 10+ years and played in multiple bands, while I’ve been calling myself an electronic musician for around 4 with way less band experience. Swimming around the ocean looking for a suitable island, but also switching to other hobbies from time to time. They’ve found their groove already and inspired me.

So yeah I pretty much agree with everything you said and take it for the supportive response it is. Just thought I’d clarify my view.

1 Like

pressing :stop_button: is way more difficult than pressing :arrow_forward:


Your first post made it sound like you were frustrated by a grand vision that may have been too complex to successfully execute. Now it seems that you found a technical solution to your problem and can move on. I’m glad to hear you got unstuck, and agree that it seems we largely agree.

This is a much better framing! Before it seemed like you were setting impossibly high standards for yourself. I do that myself sometimes, and it can be a powerful motivator. But sometimes it’s important to be kind to yourself and back off :slight_smile:

Key distinction! Often a critical step to solving a big problem is just sorting things out in a sensible way, which you seem to be doing.

My intent was to encourage you to give yourself some more slack :slight_smile:

I got seriously into computer programming in the early '90s because I was interested in generative visual art - fractals and the like. I had nearly the polar opposite view to yours - everything should be automated and nothing should be done manually. Human input should only occur at the planning/coding stage, and the art should unfold on its own like a flower or the JWST. Given the limits of technology back then and my own limitations, that side-tracked me into an IT career involving the internet. Along the way, I shifted my artistic outlet first to painting and now music. I have a much deeper appreciation now of what computers “can” do and “should” do as well as what humans “can” do and “should” do. There is room for many perspectives, but not all perspectives can be realized practically.

Anyway, my only point was to encourage you to be more kind to yourself in hopes that you would realize that many possible solutions exist. I’m happy to continue to discuss Philosophy Of Art with you or anyone else who is interested, but that could be counterproductive to Making Art :joy: :beers:

1 Like

I’ll almost certainly be in the minority here but OP’s problem is why I’m glad I know how to mix records. Sometimes you want to play the studio versions of your tracks–knowing how to DJ is a simple solution to that. Additionally, it gives you the ability to change things up and play other people’s music–you can blend your polished studio track with someone else’s and make something entirely new, in the moment, for the audience. Hell if you really want to go for it have your live setup plugged into the DJ mixer too.

1 Like

Reminded me of this:

1 Like

I think I’m gonna have to learn how to do this properly. A friend of mine has started putting on parties at his warehouse and I’ve been asked to play at almost every one. While it’s fun to take my gear and play a loose live set, I’d love to have a go at playing other people’s music too. Maybe I can dust off the ol’ OT and finally figure out how to DJ with it.


I know I’ve heard people chat online about using the OT that way, I don’t really know any details on it though. Might have to have a search myself just out of curiosity.