Performing Live With a Laptop

The primary concern of a laptop musician when performing live is reliability. Your hardware simply has to be able to deliver rock-solid performance, time after time, so that you can concentrate on your set and not worry about catastrophic crash scenarios. This is one reason why so many performers like dedicated outboard hardware – it just doesn’t crash. However, the amazing power, convenience and malleability of software emulation is really hard to beat once you get it right.

The first choice is whether to go Mac or PC. This will probably be determined by which you are most used to. Macs have a reputation for being more reliable, but they can (and do) crash. You still have to be careful about how you implement your software and settings.

Here are some things to consider when purchasing a PC laptop to take you through the toughest of club nights:

  • Battery life: make sure it’s long enough – laptops can generate a ground loop buzz when powered from the mains.
  • Chipset: research the chipset/motherboard for features and reliability – try to get one with a Texas Instruments Firewire controller if you plan on using Firewire equipment.
  • Memory: at least 1GB, preferably 2GB – and FSB speed is important too, the higher the better.
  • Cache: bigger cache is better, especially if you use a lot of memory-intensive material (large audio samples or streaming).
  • Hard disk: 7200rpm SATA will do nicely, the larger the better – if you can get a second hard drive in there, then do (very good if you use a lot of audio, not important if you only use MIDI).
  • Processor: at the moment, Intel Core 2 Duo is the way to go. AMD still offer excellent price/performance, but the performance crown has now├é been wrested away from them by Intel’s latest dual-core offering. Get the 4MB cache version if you can.
  • Graphics: avoid shared/integrated graphics solutions if possible – get a dedicated video card that has its own memory, so that it doesn’t take some of your RAM.
  • Sound: laptops have poor sound, so you’ll be using an external sound card anyway, either USB or Firewire.

This is a very broad outline of what you need to look out for, and i’ll be posting a more detailed analysis in the Podcomplex PC Guide section soon. In the meantime, you can check out Tom’s Hardware or Sound on Sound for good equipment reviews.

Regarding the gig I played last night, I feel it was certainly a worthwhile ‘experiment’ – however, the first thing I would change was the fact that I didn’t have a microphone. Even if you have no intention of singing, it can make a huge difference to a performance (particularly in a more intimate venue) if you can talk to the audience, and maybe tell them a bit about what you’re doing. This is important when you are playing a guitar that is making noises like a bag of rastafarian pandas being run over by a herd of tin elephants, rather than the usual plucked string sounds that people are generally used to.


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