Ditch the laptop: How to make music with a multitrack looper and the Akai MPC Live

Ever considered getting out there and gigging your studio projects without a laptop? There are several advantages to this approach to live performance, not least the elimination of potential computer stability issues, and a far more visual experience for the audience.

Using a multitrack looper such as the Boss RC-505 gives a solid backbone to any DAW-less live setup. The beauty is that it can be used in many different ways to augment your live performance in real time. For example, you can pre-prepare WAV files of stereo stems from your studio projects and load them into the looper and/or the Akai MPC Live to use as backing tracks, which will enable you to directly recreate the sound of your tracks in a live setting.

You can then use any remaining tracks in the looper alongside MPC tracks to layer up live instrumentation, beats or live vocals plugged into the looper, then bring these parts in and out and process them with effects using the volume faders for each track. If you come up with something great during the gig (which, no doubt, you will!), you can also quickly save the setup and loops for recall later without having to deal with the vagaries of your Mac or PC.

Here we’re using the MPC Live as our master MIDI clock, and for dedicated ‘one-shot’ beat making and/or adding stems. This particular MPC allows you to easily manipulate samples/audio in real time, using its XY screen for filtering and effecting (much like a Kaoss pad), alongside the Q-link dials assigned to any other parameters you like. The RC-505 receives MIDI clock from the MPC so that everything stays in sync during the performance: hit play on the MPC and the looper will receive start/stop messages and tempo info, so you don’t have to worry about the timing falling apart.

Make beats on your MPC in real time or play back and manipulate pre-produced ones live – whichever works best for you.

Making it work

So how does this setup work in a live context? Well, for example, you could start the performance by pressing play on the MPC Live, with all elements of your pre-prepared beat starting muted (the looper will follow the MPC’s clock). Then plug in a synth for your bass, and start by playing atmospheric pads to build tension.

Once you hit a sweet spot, record these elements to separate tracks in your looper. Now bring in some lighter percussive elements on the MPC such as hi-hats, cymbals, swooshes, washes, etc, and play with the filtering or beat repeat effects on the MPC Live’s XY pad to add drama. Then add in your kick drum, jam along a bassline using the Nord’s bass sound, and when you hit upon a great loop, record it onto another track in the looper, and so on. Next, bring in the snare on the MPC to add further drive and energy. 

Once you have all your live elements recorded into the loop, you can process them using the loopers’ realtime output effects. Do the same with your beats in the MPC using the XY effects to build tension and drama, make drops and builds, and generally fire up your audience.

At that point, you can seamlessly transition to your next tune and start building again! Muting and soloing parts is certainly an easy way to make sweeping or subtle changes to a track in the moment, and this feature can be quickly accessed by hitting the MPC Live’s Main button twice, or navigating to the Track Mute screen via the Menu button.

Another thing to note is that the MPC Live also features a simple looper of its own, so you could quite feasibly ditch the RC-505 if you need to keep your setup more compact.

The pros and cons

This setup gives you a lot of flexibility, both sonically and feature-wise, which is the main draw. It’s easy to set up and quickly get hands on with your beats and stems using the MPC’s XY effects and Q-link dials to tweak any parameter you desire.

Another big positive is that this system works well not only on its own but also with a band/instrumentalists/vocalists around it - you can easily send a click to the drummer from the MPC or RC-505, too.

Further to that, on the pros list, you can send individual sounds and tracks via the individual outs and process them on stage (or send them out front), and also sequence any MIDI gear from the MPC. 

The cons are minimal, the main ones being that if you are going to use stems or beats, you’ll need to prepare them carefully in advance and load them onto an SD card or USB drive.

Alternatively, you can just put together some basic/startup song templates and create everything in real time from scratch!

For more on performing live without a laptop, pick up the August 2018 edition of Future Music.

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