"Computers were never designed in the first place to become musical instruments," Daft Punk's Thomas Bangalter recently told the New York Times, explaining the philosophy that led the duo to work with session musicians for Random Access Memories. "Within a computer, everything is sterile — there’s no sound, there’s no air. It’s totally code. Like with computer-generated effects in movies, you can create wonders. But it’s really hard to create emotion."
Hard, maybe, but certainly not impossible: That much is clear from a video of Four Tet's recent lecture at the Red Bull Music Academy in New York, in which the British producer walks students through his live setup. Granted, Four Tet (Kieran Hebden) uses very little in the way of computer-generated sound, and he doesn't limit himself to just a laptop and MIDI controller, like so many "live" electronic acts do. One laptop, running Ableton Live, features his songs broken down into short fragments, along with supplementary drum patterns and sound effects, like the whirring of a film projector, that he can use as a "bed of sound." A Monome controller allows him to loop and trigger sounds and patterns at will, while a SoundBITE Auto-Loop Module, routed through a separate channel on his Pioneer DJ mixer (itself armed with its own battery of effects), adds a sense of rhythmic slippage. "You can see [the loops are] phasing a little bit," he explains, "which is actually a beautiful thing about it. It's not perfect. It gives the whole thing a sense of movement. All these things make it feel a little more live."
The final piece of the puzzle is a separate laptop running Cool Edit, which he deems "one of the greatest pieces of software ever made." The way he uses it may surprise you: He simply highlights short sections of audio files and clicks away on them, generating choppy bursts of tone which he then runs through a humble Boss Dr. Sample SP202 groovebox, which he uses essentially as a mute/unmute button. It's a brilliantly low-tech means of achieving a high-concept sound. As he explains: "You get all that kind of, like, Fennesz/Mego Records type of wicked, like, kind of electronic stuff, without running any Max patch or shit like that. You're just clicking as fast as you possibly can on the screen." (This being a roomful of clued-up RBMA students, that gets a big laugh.)
As it turns out, it isn't rocket science — but it goes way beyond simply pressing play.