Live shows are becoming ever more reliant on technology — and the skilled engineers who operate it. Laura Escudé explains how she has helped Kanye West, Jay‑Z and Herbie Hancock realise their live performances.
"I'd like to see the perception of what we do as playback engineers and live show designers change, because a lot of people think we are just pressing Play, and there's so much more to it than that," insists Laura Escudé, reflecting on the usual reaction she gets from people when she tells them what she does for a living. "It requires someone who is both creative and technical," continues Laura, "which is a rare skill set. A lot of people doing this work are musicians and artists too, so part of what I have been doing is building awareness of what our job entails."
Over the last 10 years, Laura has toured with some of the biggest names in the business, including Jay‑Z and Kanye West, but these days she prefers to delegate touring duties to the team of skilled technicians she employs through her LA-based business, Electronic Creatives.
"I started Electronic Creatives because I was getting a lot of work and I wanted to try and clone myself!" she laughs. "I do more studio‑based stuff than touring now and send shows out on the road, so I do a lot of pre-production. Before EC, I had company called Evotech Audio, which was more of an education‑based consultancy, but for the last six or seven years I've been training people to go on the road as playback engineers.
"We've got a lot of long-term clients, and if they have a tour, they ask us to find someone who is a good fit. Every artist is different, so personality is a very important part of this job. I feel like I have a knack for making good connections and good fits between people.
"Once the tour is over the artist might start doing one-off gigs, and sometimes they lose their playback engineer to another tour, so we provide playback engineers who are well versed in our systems. Otherwise it can be quite challenging to find someone who knows all the nuances and can jump straight in."
Although Laura has always been involved in making music in some form, she didn't start using technology and electronic equipment until she was already at college, where she was studying to be a classical violinist. "I discovered electronic music through a DJ," she recalls, "became fascinated with it and started playing violin over electronic music at events, raves and clubs. From there I decided to learn how to make this music so I could record myself and do it on my own. At the time I was promoting nights at a club hosted at my school and George Clinton's son's band came in to perform. They had a big studio nearby so I ended up going there and watching what they were doing."
After moving to LA in 2004, Laura found herself getting to know the M-Audio tech support team through the process of trying to get a broken keyboard fixed. From a chance meeting with one of the team at an electronic music event, she was offered the job that kick-started her career.
"I ended up working in M‑Audio tech support for a few years," Laura recalls, "and then did VIP artist relations for them. So the artists would call if they had issues and I would offer technical support over the phone, or go to their shows. At that time Ableton Live had the free Lite version distributed with every piece of M‑Audio gear, so we were getting a lot of calls from people who had no idea how to use it. I didn't have any idea how to use it either, because I was coming from a Pro Tools and Cubase background mostly, where it was a linear style of working, so Ableton looked very confusing to me.
"So I took it upon myself to learn how to use the software. After a while Ableton decided they wanted to do their own distribution, and I asked them if they would hire me. They checked that was OK with M‑Audio and I ended up working for them for a year. I was their first West Coast product specialist and then became the first certified Ableton trainer in 2008."
As an Ableton expert, Laura soon began meeting musicians who wanted to use the innovative software to improve their live shows, and it was a combination of meeting the right people and having the right expertise that eventually led to her going on tour with Kanye West, for whom she was handling aspects of the show design as well as performing music playback duties (see the 'Ableton & Up' box for the whole story).
For some shows, Laura's job title is 'show designer', but for others she acts more as a playback engineer. The extent of each job, and how the duties of each are defined, varies greatly and depends on the size and type of show and whether or not there is a musical director and other technical personnel involved.
"We get different titles depending on the project," confirms Laura. "A music playback engineer is someone who plays back the music at a live show, but it can also include music programming and even editing the music. Sometimes people are just music programmers. For instance, sometimes I will edit and program the show and get it ready to go, and then someone else will actually play the music and be more of a technical person on the show.
"People who are playback engineers aren't necessarily suited to the programming part if they're not so musical, so there's a range of hats people can wear, and some people wear all of them. I don't wear every hat but I have done playback and programming.
"I consider live show design to be working with an artist to help them set up their live show creatively, so I've done that for artists like Herbie Hancock and Porter Robinson, for example, who play the instruments and synths and operate the controllers themselves, whereas on a show by Kanye West or Jay‑Z, they are not controlling anything. Most of those artists don't really know what's happening under the hood, they just know that there is music being played back and they say what they want it to sound like. So that's the difference between those roles.
"We work with musical directors on some shows and the role that we play depends on what skill sets they have, and what they can bring to the table. But generally, on a bigger show, there is a musical director who works with the band and puts together the song arrangements. Sometimes they create the tracks and hand them to the playback engineer, but for most of the scenarios I've worked in, the musical director gets the vision of what the artist wants, they communicate that to me and then I create the edits, the music and the transitions for them. So you become an extension of the musical director's brain.
"So if the musical director is working with the band and they say, 'Let's transition from this song to this song, and we want it to be sloping down in bpm over four bars, and there needs to be a click in this section because we are not going to have any timing in the music, plus we want to add some effects here and a rise of some sort to come into the next section,' then we make that happen. On a lot of shows where there isn't a musical director, you have to make those decisions with the artist directly.
"In some shows, members of the band need MIDI patch changes for their keyboards or samplers, which we send to them from Ableton. And sometimes they are triggering sounds in Ableton with a MIDI controller, drum pad or keyboard. So it is also our job to make sure that those sounds load and change properly and sound exactly the way that they want them to with the right levels across all the songs."
Aside from interfacing with the band members and providing them with the correct sounds and patch changes, Laura also has to ensure that the monitoring engineer (responsible for delivering the monitor mix to the musicians) and front-of-house engineer (who creates the mix heard by the audience) both receive the signals that they require to do their job effectively.
"It's our job to make sure that the music is coming out of the correct outputs so that whoever is mixing the monitors and FOH has access to those different types of sound," continues Laura. "For instance, it's useful to have drums on one channel, bass on another and background vocals on another. Then the mixing engineer can bring those up and down depending on whether it is a big or small space, or on the preferences of the artist.
"So we interface very closely with the monitoring engineer and the monitor engineer relies on us having our tracks mixed properly and at the same level. Sometimes we are given backing tracks that were mixed by different people and the levels are all over the place, and we work with the monitor engineer to make sure that nothing jumps out at them, because mixing all of the backing tracks with the instruments is quite a big job. It makes their job a million times harder if they have to chase down some rogue sound that is not the same level as everything else.
"FOH gets the same channels that the monitor engineer does, and they have the ability to control all the different channels coming from playback, as well as all the instruments and mics on stage.
"Sometimes playback is on-stage, other times it is off. With Kanye, I was behind the scenes next to the monitor console, so all the gear lived off-stage. The musical director was on stage triggering the playback, so he had a controller with a cable that came over to my world and he would trigger the songs during the show. Then when I toured with Miguel during his Wildheart tour, all of the playback gear was on stage, and I performed with the band as a DJ and controllerist. So there's different setups and scenarios that can happen with this position."
These days, many shows incorporate video playback and spectacular lighting displays, both of which usually relate to the music and any choreographic performances that are taking place on stage. Naturally, on some occasions, these elements need to be synchronised with the music, but as Laura explains, synchronisation isn't always possible.
"A lot of shows aren't synchronised because the music is changing so quickly, and if you work with a really creative artist then the show can be different every night. When lighting or video is synchronised to timecode and you change the arrangement, they then have to change their programming, so sometimes it is best if they just manually control lighting and video at their end.
"But on a lot of bigger tours the shows tend to get to a point where everyone's in agreement, and they say, 'OK, this is how it is going to be for a while,' and it settles down. Or if things have been rehearsed before the show starts and everyone is agreed on how it's going to be, then timecode or MIDI can be used.
"So before the show, we send the lighting and video guys mixes with the timecode on the left channel and music on the right, so they can hear the music while they program to the timecode. If they want all the lights to come on and do different movements only in the chorus, then they can program that to the file that we have sent them. During the show we play the timecode file out of the Ableton Live rig alongside the music, using another channel, to either the lighting console, video, or both. It triggers their console and everything goes off at the right times. Their positions are at front of house, so there is a split that goes from our rig to them.
"We work quite closely with iConnectivity, who make really great MIDI interfaces, so everything is connected to the systems via MIDI and we just allocate different channels for different things. We just try to make sure that everything is running in its own lane, essentially. It can be as little as two tracks, or as many as 32, depending on what the show calls for."
The central control program for all of Laura's live work is Ableton Live, which she insists is the best thing for the job. Each show is based around one instance of the program, with everything running from within one Session. Understandably, a backup system runs in tandem with the main one, although it also doubles up as a handy way to insert last-minute changes into the set: "If anything were to happen or go down with the main system, it automatically switches to the backup, but the backup system also gets used for editing and programming during a tour. For example, sometimes an artist will get an idea and want to make a change, or a guest artist will show up right before the show, and we use the backup computer for the changes. When it comes to that moment where that new song needs to be played, I'll switch to the backup computer and play that song, then switch back to the main computer afterwards. So the backup computer gives you that flexibility when changes need to be made."
Clearly, playback engineers and show designers sometimes have to make edits with very little notice, so knowing the artists' material extremely well is essential, as is having a cool head and an expert knowledge of both Ableton and the hardware in the rig.
"The first job of working with any artist is to learn every piece of their music and every nuance of every song," insists Laura. "I tell everyone who works in my company that the first thing is to just listen. Listen to every piece of music, learn every nuance and every transition. That comes in very handy when you are editing because you can go right to the point that they mention.
"Typical changes that get made are not playing a particular song any more, skipping a section of a song, or playing a different version of a song. Or a guest artist might arrive to perform on the song, so their vocals will need to be taken out of the backing. All sorts of things can change!
"Ableton offers a flexibility that is unique, especially in live performances. There are so many options to not have a song play through the same way every time, or to perform with additional clips, sounds and effects, and to improvise in real time. It all ties together really seamlessly and can be done with a twist of a knob or push of a button. You can see the reaction in the moment. That makes Ableton the best program for performing live with.
"I'm talking about the Session View of Ableton Live here, rather than the Arrangement View. Both are very valid for different reasons, and Pro Tools and software like that is very valid for different reasons.
"It is a different way of thinking about working, and I found that once I'd embraced it and wrapped my head around what it meant to work in a non-linear way, it opened up a lot of doors for me, both creatively and with the work that I was doing in the live show production world. I wouldn't say it is easy to do, but it is easier with Ableton Live than with other software. At times I've made changes and brought in clips or bits of audio while the session has been running during the show. If you're careful, you can do a lot while the show is running, so it is fairly flexible.
"The thing that is more challenging is keeping your cool and being calm during those scenarios, because it can be very intense and nerve-racking when something needs to change in the moment. A lot of people aren't equipped for that level of stress."
Some of the artists that Laura works with have invested in their own equipment rigs, and in those instances, Laura uses what is provided. Her preference, however, is to use the Electronic Creative rigs, because they are a known quantity to her and her team.
"We're taking our own equipment out more and more because we've vetted it and worked on it and we know that the software and hardware has been updated," she says. "We prefer to do that rather than walk into a situation where the gear might not have been kept up the same way that we have done it.
"We have different configurations of gear that we rent out and bring out to different shows, but the standard rig that we've been using for a long time, and a lot of people use in this world, are the MOTU Ultralites. They are half‑rack and very lightweight — weight is definitely a concern when you're flying a lot. They offer 10 analogue outputs then expand with digital to 14. Moving up, we use the Universal Audio Apollo 16s and RME MADIface for digital. Which rig we use depends on the show and what kind of budget they have. We also use Radial SW8 automatic switchers, or for MADI systems, the DirectOut Technologies Exbox.BLDS."
Vocal effects are typically handled by a separate rig running from its own instance of Ableton. This also has its own backup system, so altogether the usual touring setup comprises two rigs and four laptops. In most situations, the effects rig is synchronised to the playback rig using an iConnectivity iConnect MIDI4+ interface; however, when an artist requires a degree of freedom to improvise, the systems are left un‑synchronised.
"We usually do all of the vocal effects in Ableton Live," says Laura. "Auto‑Tune comes from the UAD in real-time. We use an Ableton Live delay and we just try to keep reverb use low on the CPU. But sometimes artists want a really specific effect that was used on an album, like a distortion or a pitch shifter, or something like that, and we try to make that happen as much as possible. So we'll work with the studio engineer to try to recreate the sounds that they made in the studio.
"We might use SoundToys Little AlterBoy or some of the iZotope stuff like VocalSynth, but if it is too CPU-intensive we will find another option. Any buffer size over 64 is too latent for anyone on stage to really perform with, especially if they are a rapper, because they are moving really quickly and can feel the latency, so we use whatever we can while keeping a buffer size of 64 or smaller. We do a lot of latency shoot‑outs with plug-ins, singing through the rig and seeing what we can get away with safely."
One of the most important aspects of a sizeable live show is the communication network used by the members of the crew, which has to be invisible to the audience, but available at all times. At present, Laura uses a mix of wired and wireless equipment for the network.
"Generally, the talkback microphones are wired Shure SM58s, but we use wireless in-ear packs," she explains. "We have different lines of talkback that the monitor engineer can turn on and off, but usually the artist isn't on talkback. Occasionally they are, and I have been responsible for talking to artists and telling them what's going on, but generally we leave the artist out of it so they can focus on their show. Most of the time the band, musical director, monitor engineer, and playback are on the same channel. Also, the band and musical director want to hear a click in their in-ears most of the time, and they sometimes want to hear cues and count-ins for choruses, or sections or songs, so they know exactly where they are.
"I think the technology has come a long way in a very short time, but I would like to see wireless and Bluetooth stuff get better, with longer ranges, because once you start adding many wireless devices it sort of stops working! Being able to use strange MIDI controllers on stage that are wireless is definitely something that I like to do, but at the moment that stuff doesn't translate for a bigger audience because you get a lot of trouble with the frequencies and wireless connections."
In an effort to 'clone' herself so that Electronic Creatives can provide artists with playback engineers who are au fait with the company's standard equipment and working practices, Laura has developed a training course she calls Mastertrack, which she began running at the start of 2018. "It's for people who want to be playback engineers," says Laura. "Before that I'd trained people one-on-one, but I decided to train more people at once. EC have hired quite a few people from Mastertrack and they have gone on to tour with artists like Ariana Grande, Maria Carey and Big Sean, so it has been quite fruitful."
In contrast, Transmute is a course Laura has developed specifically for artists who want to be in control of their own live playback. "Transmute is my program for artists that want to take their live performances to the next level on their own," she explains. "It is a little bit of a different model from Mastertrack because it is less technical and more creative. It helps artists to level up their live performance using technology and incorporate things like music playback into their live shows. It's for artists who want to press the button for the next song, do their own vocal effects and trigger their own keyboard sounds.
"A lot of DJs and singers don't have a lot of control over what they are doing on stage, over when the next song is being played or when their vocal effect turns on, because they are using a technician who does that for them. So it's about empowering the artist to take control of their own show and giving them the tools for making their own on-stage decisions.
"I provide them with some frameworks and build out from there, so it is similar to what I've done with solo artists like Herbie Hancock or Porter Robinson. Porter comes from the DJ world and Herbie plays a lot of instruments. And recently I've been working with a UK vocalist called Aluna Francis from AlunaGeorge, who has a new tour coming up, where she is going to be triggering and playing things live on stage.
"I call that live show design because it's more than programming: it's conceptualising. It's like being the artist's coach and holding their hand throughout the process."
For Laura, it seems, tools like Ableton provide a way for artists to take control, so that rather than being a slave to the technology they use in their shows, they become the master, thereby extending their creative potential.
"Being in control is really good for both budgetary reasons and helping the artist push themselves beyond what they thought that they could do as a live performer," she concludes. "And for me, it is exciting to work with artists that understand and appreciate what we do."
When Laura began doing tech support for Ableton, she couldn't have guessed where it would lead, but the suitability of the software for live work meant that her skills were soon very much sought after by artists who were keen to develop their stage shows.
"I started the first version of my company when I became an Ableton trainer," explains Laura. "At that point I was doing a lot of consulting for brands like Ableton, FXpansion, Moog Music and Rob Papen, where I would do demos and presentations and help them spread awareness of their products. I also did a lot of consultancy for composers, artists and musicians in LA who wanted to learn Ableton Live. Then in 2009 I started touring with a band called Niyaz as their Ableton Live programmer. I was setting up the tracks, playing violin and doing a bit of touring, so I was getting a little bit of experience in live situations. Soon after that I got a call from Cirque du Soleil. I'd recently finished a training certification program for Ableton where I'd trained someone from Cirque du Soleil, so they asked me if I wanted to move to Vegas to work on a show called Viva Elvis. I didn't realise the magnitude of the job but I ended up moving to Vegas for four months and working on the show's pre-production. That was my introduction into that bigger world.
"When I got back to LA I was putting on some Ableton Live workshop weekends, and having people come and learn, and I met one of Kanye West's engineers through a sales rep at a store in LA. He said, 'We are working on this new show and we'd love you to help us learn how to use Ableton Live.' That morphed into me just doing it. They were more studio engineers than live engineers and the whole live world is a completely different beast, so I ended up taking that over and going on tour.
"The first Kanye West gig I did was at the SXSW festival in 2011. That wasn't a huge show but it was definitely a whole other thing from sitting in a theatre for months on end working on the same production. You are picking up and moving every day and setting it all up over again, so it was definitely a learning curve for what it is like to be on tour. There are so many things that I picked up. It was vocal effects as well as music playback, so I was wearing different hats and bouncing between the different sides of my brain, keeping up with the changes and all that kind of stuff. But I found that I was suited to it and I liked being in that situation because it was very exciting and very different from the kind of stability that I had had before."
When she isn't working on other artists' shows, Laura creates her own music, which she performs live using many of the skills and techniques she teaches to other people. Naturally, working with major artists on large stages has helped her develop her own artistry and build confidence.
"Being in these huge scenarios with thousands of people has given me a lot more confidence in my own performances," she acknowledges. "My own shows are at a smaller scale but I have experience at those higher levels and I definitely bring my own show to a very high level because of working with these artists, both in terms of the equipment that I am using, and all of the performance elements that I use.
"For both lighting and video I am controlling everything on my own, for example, so I've taken all that I have learned from working with these big artists and put it back into my own performances. It is really gratifying to have all that control and be able to do it all on my own."