Some aspects to be aware of when entering into more complex hybrid setups include issues with latency from overloading your CPU and slowing it down, which can happen from running too many inserts or devices, and the occasional compatibility issue between various devices from different manufacturers – for instance, the compatibility of assorted components with a particular module. There’s also a lot more to keep track of, so documentation is important, or at the very least a consistent file-management approach that makes sense to you. If you’re going to get as involved as Krieger’s hybrid, you’ll need to take the time to create everything and set it all up and map it out too – so you need to have a plan.
To help keep things running smoothly and efficiently, Krieger recommends running all the audio on Firewire rather than using a USB port. Firewire’s architecture tends to facilitate faster data-transfer speeds while USB’s master-slave system relies on the CPU to dictate various functions, which can slow things down a bit. MIDI, he says, is fine to run either via USB or via Firewire. He uses the USB ports on his computer to hook up his MIDI interface and his auxiliary M-Audio MIDI controller while he uses the Firewire port to chain his audio interface and his external hard drive (Fig 2).
There are many software options out there for recording your tracks and samples, and there are a number of loop-based programs that you can use in live performance. One of the most intuitive and stable live-performance software programs available is Ableton Live, which can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. One of the cool things about the program is its flexibility: It allows you to improvise in real time within the structure of a tune.
It has its own sampler, effects processor plug-ins, and virtual instruments, but it can be used with other plug-ins, software samplers, and sound libraries. It’s easy to load in your own sounds and pre-created loops and sequences by simply dragging and dropping them into clips, or you can create them in the Arrangement View in the software just like with any other linear DAW program.
Once you have your plan together and have amassed the sounds, sequences, and loops you want to use, the basic workflow is comprised of putting together the desired “clips” for each tune – a clip will contain a particular audio file. This can be done in the Session View, which is basically a grid that consists of rows of clips that create scenes – one might call them “patches” (Fig. 3). Once the clips have been loaded in and the scenes established, then you must assign the pads and/or other hardware controller features to the desired control functions, such as turning on and off a loop or getting a particular sample to fire off.
Assigning MIDI commands to pads, triggers, or other hardware controls is simple with the MIDI LEARN function. MIDI notes are programmed in your controller, so you don’t have to memorize a bunch of stuff or refer to manuals and tables. In Ableton, all you have to do is go into MIDI-mapping mode in the software, select the parameter on the screen (i.e., a transport control, a clip, or a scene), hit a pad or touch a control on the hardware, and the hardware control value will be automatically assigned so that the next time you hit that pad or twiddle that knob or fader it will control that parameter in the software, be it starting a particular loop, selecting a scene, or controlling the effects return on an insert.
To help keep everything sorted out between the software and the hardware controller aspects, Krieger made up layout templates of the SPD-S control surface and transcribed the duties performed by each pad (See sidebar). He did a similar arrangement with his auxiliary MIDI controller, labeling each function as it related to control of various effect parameters. With so much going on, it is necessary to spend a bit of time getting completely familiar with one’s own design, and documentation and labeling can facilitate that.
After all of this “sky is the limit” stuff, it should be comforting to know that all you really need is a MIDI controller to operate the performance software without having to touch a mouse. I mean, eek, right? If you’re trying to save some cash, a super affordable option is the Alesis ControlPad, which doesn’t have onboard sounds, but it has eight separate pads in addition to a selection of trigger ports and can control software via its USB connectivity. An interesting alternative is Synesthesia’s Mandala, which comes with its own software, but can be used to control other programs. It is unusual because a single pad can have up to seven assignable concentric zones, so it’s almost like having multiple pads in one.
Percussion pads with internal sounds have the bonus of self-contained action while still having the capabilities to work as controllers via their MIDI-out jack or, if provided, USB connectivity to the host computer. If you already have a drum module with MIDI out and triggers or pads, adding a laptop and software is a logical step to expanding your options. There are also trigger-to-MIDI interfaces such as the Alesis Trigger I/O or Roland’s TMC-6. These units provide inputs for triggers and pads and output MIDI to allow access to control both hardware and software sound modules and loop-based software.
Remember that you will need an audio interface when using software so that you can get sounds in and out of your computer for playback during live performance. Using the outputs on the audio interface, you can send a mix to the front-of-house P.A. system and/or your own monitoring system, be it a keyboard amp or headphones.
In the end, the simplest approach is to get a self-contained unit with onboard sounds and plug and play. But if you’re looking for flexibility and expansion, a MIDI controller, a laptop, and some good looping and sequencing software will let you get as convoluted as you want to get. If you like to haul around gear and deal with lots of interconnecting cables, adding different hardware samplers and sound modules to the mix along with a MIDI interface can take you even further and give you that old-school feeling. It’s up to you to decide which setup best suits your needs and your vision. Have fun exploring the hybrid frontier astride your own bionic drum kit!