La Leif is the current project of electronic producer Francine Perry: Goldsmiths-educated sound engineer, endlessly curious field recording collector, and a founding member of the brilliant Omnii collective, who are busy levelling the music production playing field for women and non-binary folk.
At her live shows, Fran uses analogue methods to create driving, gritty, industrial dance music that nevertheless flashes emotive moments amongst the intense noise and texture. She wants her audience to feel they’ve been on a journey; that they’ve been engaged from the first second to the last. She wants it to be clear that the show is heavily improvised, that field recordings make up the tapestry of sound, that you’re witnessing something unique in the making.
All this was apparent at her EP launch at SET last month, where she played tracks from her addictive Violet EP. Following on from my last post, where I argued for the need to demystify electronic music performance, I wondered if Fran could help me out. The next week I was lucky enough to be invited to her south London flat to share an excellent margarita pizza, and then get under the bonnet of her live setup. In this post, we take a close look at the gear she’s using right now to achieve her live performance, and what other aspiring live performers can do to get started themselves. This article is written assuming a bit of existing knowledge of electronic instruments – get in touch if you’d like anything explained at a different level of detail.
So, let’s dive in. Here’s what Fran’s current live setup looks like.
And here’s a diagram breaking all that down: (this is shemakessounds, not shemakesart…)
Let’s take a closer look at each of those four main elements.
You could say this is the heart of the operation. Its hard drive contains the key elements of Fran’s songs, broken down into individual audio tracks: a track could be a vocal melody, a bass line, a percussion loop, a synth line. Each track is held within a bank. There are eight banks which can hold eight audio tracks each (starting to get a sense of the Octatrack name?). So at any time you can go into a bank to trigger a particular track, and layer tracks on top of one another.
Then you have patterns – a pre-saved combination of tracks that make up, say, the intro of a song, or a build up, or a main refrain, or even a transition pattern containing tracks from two different songs. Triggering these patterns in sequence gives the set its overall backbone. Yet Fran can still improvise by bringing tracks in and out as she chooses, and by using the Octatrack’s many manipulation options to mangle the sounds that are playing.
As well as storing and recalling audio files, the Octatrack stores MIDI information, which can then be sent into a synthesiser to produce a sound; in Fran’s case, she sends the MIDI data to the Mother32, which we’ll come to shortly.
Finally, in this set-up the Octatrack controls the tempo; it sends this information to the Mother32 and the Analog Rytm, enabling the all the devices to stay in time.
Recap: The Octatrack holds the key elements of Fran’s songs, and using it Fran can recall the elements she wants, layer them up, and manipulate them. A lot.
Starter alternatives: It’s most common to start off by loading samples into Ableton Live computer software, and using a controller of some kind to trigger them.
The Analog Rytm is the where the beat of Fran’s set lives. Whilst the Octatrack gives her the ability to trigger and loop pre-recorded percussion recordings, with the Rytm Fran has a analogue drum synthesiser that can actually produce every individual beat, clap and tap that you hear. As with the Octatrack, it’s possible to set up particular patterns in advance so that she doesn’t have to build up every song’s beat from scratch. Once it’s going, Fran can add and take away beats from the pattern, as well as alter the sound’s quality as she goes – changing the pitch, the EQ, the attack and release… all the controls you would expect to find on a synthesiser.
Recap: An analogue drum machine and sampler. This allows Fran to play rhythms live and manipulate them in real time. The beats could be synthesised by the machine itself, or be sound samples Fran has found or created herself.
This is a semi-modular synthesiser produced by the iconic manufacturer, Moog. Fran argues that the sound produced by the Moog far surpasses anything that comes out of a laptop or sampler in terms of richness, impact and rawness. Even listening through headphones during our session, that much is clear – in a live venue, the difference is stark.
The Mother32 is beautiful in its simplicity: it produces one single monophonic sound, which Fran would use for bass or lead roles in the music. It’s possible to programme a 32 note sequence directly into the Mother32, or it can be linked up to a different MIDI input; in Fran’s case, she tends to send MIDI information from the Octatrack, and then dedicate her performance time to manipulating the sound, in particular using the cutoff and the Tempo/Gate length knobs.
Recap: A synthesiser which produces analogue sound; enables Fran to produce improvised sounds and sequences live, and injects sonic depth to the whole performance.
Starter alternatives: The Microkorg is a great starter synth. It’s easy to navigate, with lots of live performance options thanks to its sequencer, its arpeggiator and – if you dare – its vocoder.
The mixer is where all the different streams of sound are brought together, before heading out into the audience’s ears. The Octatrack, the Analog Rytm and the Mother32 each feed into their own channel, where Fran can then apply classic DJ-style effects to each of them. For example, she might add reverb to the synth, or take the higher frequencies out of the drum machine. She also has control of the volume of each component relative to the others, and can alter this over the course of the set to ensure she always gets the balance she wants.
Recap: The mixer, unsurprisingly, mixes the different sources of sound into one coherent end product.
Starter alternatives: Behringer produce good mixers at the less pricey end of the spectrum. It’s also theoretically possible just to link each instrument directly into the venue’s sound system, but then your sound balance is at the mercy of the sound engineer.
Suffice to say, Fran is busy on stage. She maintains the momentum of the set by triggering underpinning patterns on the Octatrack and Rytm that shift the structure forward. With every performance, she finds original ways to mangle samples and field recordings, original ways to manipulate rhythmic ideas; all of which casts her recorded material in a new light. She creates tension and release through deft manipulation of effects across the different machines, and she finds melodic interest and depth with the Mother 32. All the while, her ear is tuned into the overall balance of sound, ready to make adjustments as needed on the mixer.
Increasingly, Fran is combining forces with Chloe Owen on violin and Nick Powell on guitar, who share Fran’s commitment to improvisation and spontaneous manipulation of raw sound. This live arrangement is set to evolve further and further – so don’t expect to see the setup described here to remain in its current form. Do expect it continue to surprise and captivate. And do be inspired – as I was – to explore a live music setup for yourself.