Under the bonnet with Vicky O’Neon

Vicky O’Neon is a one-of-a-kind musician. If you live in North London, it’s probable that you’ve seen her around; her neon dreads and illustrated car make her hard to miss against London’s dreary backdrop. She’s a drummer – or in her words, a rhythm warrior – at her core, but really she engages with any instrument you throw within her reach, to make endlessly creative live performances.

She’s currently performing a piece named ‘Go Wild’, commissioned by Witcih (Women In Technology Creative Industries Hub). It’s an hour-long, deeply personal yet universal exploration of each individual’s biggest questions – where am I going? How can I overcome my fears? What do I really want? The result is an invigorating statement of positivity and individual potential – in particular for women – created through a pulsating blend of spoken word, rhythm, singing and multiple musical layers.

I saw her perform ‘Go Wild’ at ROLI’s Women In Tech event back in October, and was really interested by how Vicky uses tech to empower herself as a solo live performer – how it allows her show to become bigger, more expressive, more spontaneous. I counted around 10 different musical instruments and tools, and was curious to know how they were working together, and how Vicky arrived at this setup. 

In this feature, we’ll delve into the technicalities of Vicky’s show – just like we did with La Leif back in September. Before reading further, it’s definitely worth exploring some instagram clips of her Go Wild performance to get an idea of what she’s creating.

A headline of Vicky’s technical setup is that her solutions are ‘born out of necessity’. She asks ‘how can I use what I already have?’ and so performs with an eclectic set of instruments she’s built up over the years. She asks ‘how can I keep this one-person show portable?’ and so performs sitting down – that means no stands to carry. I like her philosophy and honesty here, and I like the unique result even more. 

Vicky also spends a lot of time collaborating with emerging instrument and tech creators, trying out their prototypes and giving feedback. This works on lots of levels for Vicky. It brings something unique and cutting edge to her show, often she’ll get the prototypes for free or reduced cost, and she can also influence the evolution of these instruments so that they suit her needs better and better.

Here’s Vicky’s live set up in action.

And here’s all that in handy diagram form.

On a first glance it looks pretty complicated. The colour coding is there as a guide: the amber outlined items at the bottom are instruments which Vicky uses to create live sounds. The red outlined items to the right are tools which Vicky uses to process and manipulate those sounds. And the purple outlined items on the top-left form the control centre that brings everything together. A good way to get under the surface of Vicky’s set up is by starting with her live instruments – before then looking at the purple and red sections to understand how tech is used to combine everything together.

Vicky’s live instruments

Vicky moves around a lot during her performance, whether that’s to play drums, wander amongst the audience or simply to incorporate movement and dance into the show. A standard mic would restrict her ability to do this, so she’s opted for a headset mic and Shure BLX4 wireless receiver. The headset transmits a signal to the receiver, which in turn feeds into Vicky’s wider control centre (we go into that later), and also into the main desk controlled by the sound engineer, so that her voice is always present during the performance.

Next, Vicky uses a Microkorg synthesiser. As mentioned in the feature with La Leif, this little synth is a great starter synth if you’re looking for a versatile range of sounds and lots of intuitive ways to manipulate them. Vicky uses the microkorg to create bold melodies, baselines and pads – and as we’ll see shortly – then loops them using Ableton Push.

The aFrame by ATV is one of the coolest new instruments I’ve seen in a while, created by the runaway son of synth manufacturer Roland’s founder when he felt the father company was playing it too safe. The uber-responsive canvas stretched across the wooden frame reacts to all kinds of touch: tapping, pressing, patting, hitting, scratching, and the sounds range from purely percussive to more tuned, synthy pads. With Vicky’s drumming background, she’s able to create captivating live performances with it.

Whilst Vicky uses the headset mic for her own vocals, she uses a Shure SM58 mic to amplify the sounds of any purely acoustic instruments – such as a shaker, or her Aquadrum! This is a small, steel drum-esque instrument with a peaceful sound. As per Vicky’s use what I have philosophy, when she received a set of aquadrums as a gift, she found a way to incorporate their sound into her live show.

The control centre

The next step is to hook up all these live instruments into a place where Vicky can control them and build them up. Here’s how.

Vicky connects all the above instruments to a Komplete Audio 6 soundcard, using either XLR leads or jack-to-jack leads. The soundcard is then connected to Vicky’s MacBook using a USB connection, where she has Ableton Live loaded. It’s also connected to the sound desk – that’s how all the sound gets to the speakers – and connected to a pair of headphones, so that Vicky can do a mini soundcheck of her own before sending the audio out to the main desk.

Ableton Live is a DAW (digital audio workstation) which is popular for its live capabilities (clue’s in the name). Its ‘session’ view takes a grid shape, where each column (‘track’) represents an instrument, and each row (‘scene’) represents a section of a song, such as the intro, verse or chorus. It’s possible to leave a scene looping as long as you want or need, which fits the improvised nature of Vicky’s live show perfectly.

It would technically be possible for Vicky to carry out all her manipulation using Ableton on her laptop – but a mouse and a screen of tiny buttons is horrendously fiddly to manipulate live, and not the most interesting thing to watch. So, Vicky has a range of performance controllers which enable her to manipulate Ableton.

Performance controls

Vicky primarily uses Ableton Push to build up her live set. It’s a physical controller with a grid that maps exactly to the ‘tracks’ and ‘scenes’ of Ableton Live software. So rather than clicking a tiny play icon on a computer screen to trigger a song section, you have something much more concrete to interact with.

Each of the live instruments is set up on its own audio track, and by ‘record arming’ a track, Vicky can switch on the sound of any of the instruments mentioned above. Vicky also has some audio tracks full of pre-recorded sounds that she wouldn’t be able to recreate live (such as vocal samples or field recordings), and some MIDI tracks containing software instruments – for example a drum machine, or a software synth. In all cases, it’s possible to manipulate the sounds in real time – for example, altering the cutoff, reverb or delay.
Perhaps most excitingly of all, Ableton Push allows Vicky to create loops on the spot, by selecting an empty cell on the grid, pressing the ‘record’ button, playing the selected instrument, and then pressing the record button again to finish. When a drum machine software synth is selected, the grid can also transform itself into a drum machine interface, allowing her to build up rhythms from scratch in front of her audience. When we met, I had a go at looping myself, and whilst I was nowhere near as quick or practiced as Vicky, it was a really simple process to get the hang of.

When it comes to melodic software instruments, such as bass or synth pad sounds, a lot of people feel most comfortable creating the sounds using a keyboard-style controller. Vicky is no different, and is currently using the seaboard block of the ROLI songmaker kit as a MIDI keyboard controller. Used in conjunction with ROLI-compatible software synths, such as Equator, it’s possible to take advantage of the seaboard’s ‘5D’ technology, which responds to 5 different types of touch

Finally, when Vicky is playing drums, the Ableton Push controller is out of reach. There are points where she still wants to trigger a particular scene or sound, and her solution for this is using the Roland SPD-SX drum pad, which she’s set up so that each pad corresponds to a particular action in Ableton, such as ‘Start the first scene’, or ‘End the first scene’. I imagined that configuring this would be horribly complicated, but again Vicky showed me, and it was all very intuitive – if this is something you ever want to do, Vicky will be really happy to help you out.

With me so far? For sure, it’s a lot to take in at once. And it would be for Vicky too – it’s worth remembering that she’s been building this set-up over years, figuring out solutions to her needs as they arise, and incorporating new ideas and tools as she discovers them. And the set-up will no doubt continue to evolve, especially as Vicky heads off to travel the world in the coming months. I’m excited to follow her journey, and I hope you now are too.

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