Showmanship in the Controller Age

Showmanship in the Controller Age

23rd December 2010, in Highlights, News/Blog ( Comments)

(This lengthy article skews more towards the philosophical than the technical.)

If this were a custom Guitar or Bass shop, an article on showmanship would be unnecessary. Traditional instruments are hundreds of years old, and concepts of showmanship & virtuosity have been ingrained in the popular culture.

But 60 Works makes controllers, and a controller can do much more than play notes and chords. It is this limitless possibility that attracts people to use them in performance. This flexibility has drawbacks. One drawback addressed here is the lack of standardization.


Standards? Aren’t those arbitrary rules that limit creativity? Yes. But they’re also infinitely useful. Musical notation is a standard, and so is the alphabet. Standards tell us there’s a “right” way to play the guitar. That standard allows people to be impressed by skilled guitar playing, or to be blown away by guitar playing that breaks the rules (think: Hendrix + teeth).

Controllers have no standard practice. There’s no right or wrong way to use them. With no foundation to work from, artists are left to discover their own performance styles. This variety makes it difficult to create an experience that will impress an audience.

A term that has risen in popularity is “Controllerism” (Youtube link, see you back in 4 hours). Coined by Moldover, Controllerism is defined as “the art of manipulating sounds and creating music live using computer controllers and software.” Controllerism is a popular movement, but it doesn’t establish any standards. Standard practices are impossible to define with such a broad definition.


So, what are we left to do? Here’s one incredibly dorky solution: take an inventory of existing musical acts, categorize them along a spectrum of showmanship, then determine where to sit on that spectrum. Since this is 60 Works we’ll also discuss how each category affects controller usage.


Here’s the spectrum, with a few recognizable data points.

Showmanship Chart


Category One: I don’t care if you watch me perform.

The DJ and the avant-garde musician tend to fall into this category. In the DJ’s case, it’s because they’ve been assigned to create a soundtrack to complement the existing atmosphere of the night. Some DJs desperately want to be in Category Two, but are ignored due to club architecture that impedes the audience’s view of the DJ, or due to a lack of popularity or showmanship. But many DJs thrive in this category, fully embodying the often-heard quote: “it’s all about the music, nothing else.”

The avant-garde musican falls into this category because “fuck the audience, that’s why. I do this for myself.”


Do you fall into this category? Do you want to fall into this category? Is it perfectly alright if someone thinks you’re checking your email behind that laptop? If so, you’re in luck, as you’ll be able to develop any control scheme you wish. What you lose in charisma, you gain in flexibility. You’ll be allowed to dig deep into your performance without worrying about how it appears to an outside observer. You should occassionally check out the crowd to ensure things are going well, but other than that, the sky’s the limit!


Category Two: Watch me perform.

Traditional bands and scratch DJs fall into this category. For both, the reason is clear: watching the artist play the instrument is a key part of the performance. Showmanship becomes evident in technical mastery of the instrument.

Do you want to fall into this category? Do you perform primarily with controllers? Then here’s where things get interesting. Returning to the introduction, you’re going to have to invent your own performance style.

Some advice:

  • First, a difficult question, paraphrased from a panel discussion with Deadbeat: Do you believe your performance will be an improvement over the music you made alone in the studio? Is there something so compelling about your performance that it will be more stimulating than simply playing back studio tracks in front of a crowd? (Yes? Then please continue.)
  • What do you want to control, and what do you want to leave alone? You can’t control everything. (Well, maybe you could, but then you’d fall squarely into Category One due to sheer busy-ness.)
  • What do you want the audience to see you control? What’s the most compelling part of your music and your performance? If you’re a keyboard virtuoso, the audience probably doesn’t care about your EQ manipulation skills. But if you’re a DJ, maybe they do…
  • Can a random observer 100 feet away connect your controller movements to a change in the sound? Are those knobs doing enough to the music that they’re worth manipulating in front of an audience?
  • How safe do you want to play? Do you want to create a situation where a mistake could mean a clash of musical keys, earsplitting treble, or an end to the music altogether?
  • Have you created a performance scheme so difficult that you won’t have a moment’s breath?

Back to the introduction: the lack of standardization has saddled YOU with the responsibility of creating a performance environment where showmanship can be perceived and appreciated. It’s not easy, but who said being a star was going to be easy?


Controllers for members of Category Two should focus on simplicity and ease of use. Certain luxuries of the studio are going to detract from your performance, so you must streamline for sake of the audience.


Category Three: Watch two performances.

This category represents the inclusion of an additional performance layer over your music. Think: Daft Punk’s Pyramid, U2′s audiovisual extravaganza and KISS’s fireworks. Some people consider these to be cheap gimmicks, while others consider them the creation of a holistic entertainment experience. The same people tend to think these added performances either distract the audience from bad music, or augment already-great music. Pick your poison.

In either case, members of Category Three are enhancing the musical side of their performance through additional means – usually visual stimulation. With the eyes entertained, the artist can return to a Category One-like performance (Daft Punk) or they can augment with a Category Two performance (U2, KISS). Creating such an experience usually requires you to control the venue, or to have enough clout to make changes to the venue.


As this category can represent members of both Category One and Two, controllers will vary.



We’re going to close by repeating this: Do you believe your performance will be an improvement over the music you made alone in the studio? Is there something so compelling about your performance that it will be more stimulating than simply playing back studio tracks in front of a crowd? If you want to entertain an audience with more than your music, make sure your performance pleases them as much as it indulges you.


Final Note: While the information here was written by the owner, it would not have been possible without the collective insights of Moldover, Deadbeat, John Margulies of Hobotech, and Monolake.


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8 Comments

January 7, 2011 10:35 am

Open Thread: What is Virtuosity on a Drum Machine?

[...] seeing Dave Cross’ post on showmanship, I will editorialize just in regards to the [...]

January 7, 2011 11:40 am

Tom Cosm kicks it off for the n00bs « Denver Ableton User Group

[...] Showmanship in the Controller Age – hmm…great discussion. [...]

January 10, 2011 2:56 pm

nbvehmasala

many Dj’s are real posers, they LOVE when people watch them, and strangely, people love watch the DJ’s…so it is very surprising for me that you put DJ(read-’pop/club star-wannabe’) in the first category.Same with avant-garde performers, i mean, there’s as much approaches to performance as artists, for some visual channel is essential part of establishing connection to a public. well, i didn’t continue to read this meaningless text, so have nothing to say about other ‘categories’, except that you’d better rethink your ‘classification’ maybe…

January 10, 2011 3:26 pm

Dave Cross (@http://twitter.com/60works)

Thanks for taking the time to post. Clearly we disagree but I didn’t want to censor you. I’d suggest reading Peter Kirn’s thread on Createdigitalmusic (three posts above) for an in-depth conversation on the topic.

January 11, 2011 11:44 am

leMel (@Twitter ID)

This is easily one of the most insightful posts I’ve read on this topic.

I, too, take issue with some of your classification. For example, Laurie Anderson would be an avant garde custom-controllerist in my scheme: her electronic instruments were always designed with performance affordances as a primary feature. But of course her shows had complete control of the venue, as you mentioned for cat 3′s.

Really I think you’ve hit the nail on the head on so many key points. How do you think the presence/absence of live vocals fits into this mix?

January 11 2011 12:55 pm

Dave Cross

Cramming the entirety of music performance into one of three buckets is a theory begging for criticism!

I think it's easy to find an artist who breaks the mold, and thus breaks this classification. Take for example DJ Colette or Rithma - they incorporate live vocals into a DJ set. Should we try to watch them in a cramped DJ booth, or consider them part of a stage performance?

My goal was to turn the argument on its head, and to serve performers with a framework to think about. The framework isn't perfect and won't encompass each case, but it may provide some food for thought.

Regarding avant garde musicians - isn't it too varied a group of individuals to fit in ANY category? I was mostly poking fun by putting them in there in the first place.

February 11, 2011 11:18 am

Careful Considerations for any Controller Purchase | 60 Works

[...] Showmanship in the Controller Age [...]

February 18, 2011 6:10 am

Sixty Works « designingmusic

[...] highly recommend checking out their website and read some of the articles, especially this one on showmanship in the ever-changing world of music controllers. If ordering a custom controller [...]

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