Live, Pt. 4: The Instruments

Welcome back, I say to you but mostly to myself, to a series of posts on how I use Ableton Live. I started these posts back in 2015, a year where I was a lot more optimistic about what I could accomplish in my free time. A lot has changed since then—Wits, the show I was using as my example scenario, is no more; I’ve experimented with and evolved my Live workflow a bit; American democracy is collapsing with the election of a narcissistic tyrant by a gullibl…actually, can we forget that last one, just for today?

Anyway, where were we? Ah, yes, Live. It turns out that Live is pretty aptly named; it’s arguably more well-known as a programming tool but it’s also a powerful and versatile source of instrument sounds that you can play in real-time.

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Every Little Bit

I am what people call a “professional musician,” which is to say I make my living by playing music, drums mostly, for other people who pay me money in exchange. For years I’ve joked that my job isn’t real (it’s not, really) or is a selfish way to make a living (it is, mostly). This isn’t to say it doesn’t require ridiculous amounts of dedication and sacrifice—it does—it’s just that in the greater schemes of the universe it’s easy for me to see how I’m not exactly first in line for the group they’re gonna line up to populate the new Earth.

It is insane times at the moment. Out of many of the issues we’re facing, this new wave of insularity and nationalism is crushing me, and I wish there were more I could do. I can’t lie and say I don’t struggle with the fact that this job I pour so much time into does little-to-nothing for the greater good.

In related news, the Twilight Hours, the passion project of Matt Wilson, John Munson, and other fine men of much musical caliber, are playing a show at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis on March 25. We’ve been rehearsing, many times even, focusing on minutiae and trying our best to arrange a show we’ll be proud to perform and you will enjoy listening to. It is a lot of hard work and my calendar has a remarkable amount of things that start with “TTH” scribbled in it, but if the show is a success it’ll all be worth it.

All of this being said, I’m really happy to say we’re donating a portion of the show’s proceeds to the Minnesota chapter of CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations. It is a tiny way to support just one organization working to promote social justice and mutual understanding. It is a small way to say “thank you” to a community we welcome and feel welcomed by.

And doing something, anything, helps me sleep just a tiny little bit better at night. If you’re around the Minneapolis area, I hope to see you there.

It’s crazy times in the world. One of the ways I’m staying sane is to spend a little more time in the drum room. Here’s a quick video from a few weeks ago, revisiting some old concepts—namely, running the drums through my friend Ableton Live for on-the-fly drum effects and looping. I’ve been experimenting with this over the years, but the biggest breakthroughs/challenges have been centered around hiding the laptop and executing ideas organically. I am still terrible at this but it is fun.

4th of July

One of my favorite music-related memories is when Teddy Morgan and I asked our new friend Carl Broemel if he wanted to “winthorp” with us. (For those of you not hip to this, it’s our side project of getting together to record hours of improvised space jams for almost no one’s enjoyment but our own.) The conversation after we explained it:

“Sounds cool! I’ll bring my pedal steel!”

“Oh, you know how to play pedal steel?”



Carl is one of a rare group of fearless musicians. He approaches an unfamiliar musical territory with respect and patience, and it’s not long before these lands seem like nothing more than an extension of himself. 4th of July, his new record, is a beautiful showcase of this.

Listening to these songs makes me smile so, so much—they are so well-crafted, the production is near-perfect, the experience of recording them was so fun, the players—holy moses, can I talk about the players for a bit? Jordan Caress of Ponychase, Tom Blankenship and Bo Koster, his bandmates in My Morning Jacket…seriously, there were times I finished a take and thought, “I am the luckiest guy in the world,” and, “why am I here, this must be a mistake,” at the same time. Neko Case sang on the title track and even though that was an overdub without me I’m still going to tell everyone I’m on a record with her.

Anyway! The point I am trying to make is I think this is a great record, and I’d love it if everyone in the world would take a moment to listen.

Hello, it's Spring

Spring in Minneapolis is your free-spirited ex-girlfriend who just moved back into town. “You’re back!” you say, breathless. “I missed you,” she whispers, sliding into your arms as if nothing had ever changed. Later that night, as you drift off to sleep in a post-coital bliss, you dream of how this time will be different, somehow your happiness will convince her to stay. But you wake up to find she’s gone, again, chasing dreams in a warmer climate while you lie stubbornly to anyone who will listen. Her absence doesn’t bother you. She’ll be back in a few weeks. You hope.

In honor of another (admittedly very mild, thanks El Niño and climate change) Minneapolis winter on her way out the door, here are a few things I’ve been working on, presented in meaningless order:

My friend Carl Broemel’s new record has just been mastered and will soon be released to the wild. Like his last record, it was recorded off-and-on over a few years, and like his last record it’s a heart-breakingly beautiful piece of work. I had the huge pleasure of playing with some incredible musicians on this, and can’t wait for you to hear it.

Speaking of incredible musicians, last month I joined Brandy Zdan for a duo show on her way through Minneapolis. I met Brandy last year while in Nashville; we recorded a few songs together in what turned out to be one of the most emotionally exhausting and creatively rewarding moments in my musical timeline. I haven’t written much about it—one of those cases where words are a letdown in comparison—but suffice to say playing those songs again was a joy. One of the most fun aspects of the show was taking on a challenge of performing multiple instruments—playing a keyboard to my left while playing drums; firing loops and samples while playing Moog and Omnichord parts; walking over to my bari sax for a solo through a multitude of delays. Special thanks goes out to my Macbook Pro for not melting into a puddle of silicon.

I’ve also stumbled into a few new projects; one that I’ve truly been enjoying is joining John Munson, Matt Wilson, and friends in the The Twilight Hours. The band is sort of a linear extension of their time together as Trip Shakespeare; the songs share a similar fearless, quirky, pop sensibility. They have a new record coming out very soon and some ambitious ideas planted—I’m excited to see what blossoms this summer.

Ableton Live and Akai’s Endless Encoders

Have you bought an Akai MPK225, or something similar, and plugged it into Ableton Live only to be stumped because its "endless" rotary encoders are mapped to a device as absolute encoders by default? No? Well, sorry—you've picked a bad time to casually browse through my website, because I'm about to get technical.

On the other hand, if you answered "yes”—you are not alone.

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I had a such a great time last week at the Friendly Forest (Creative Workshop Studio in Nashville, TN). Made some new friends, hugged some old friends, spent equal time in space exploration and playing respectable music which may actually end up on an album one day.

I also hopped around like a kid at Christmas between these two kits, and if you thought this post was just an excuse to be a drum geek for a sec, then you are RIGHT.

On the left is my 1970s 3-ply maple Ludwig; on the right is Teddy Morgan’s new sweet “Questlove” kit. The Questlove is so, so tiny but sounds surprisingly punchy under a set of mics. The rebound off of these little drums is way different than what I’m used to and it made it a joy to play. There are lots of vintage Zildjians and new Istanbuls and goat hooves and metal bits and spurs and blades and chains and shakers sprinkled about, too.


When I was kid, I only knew B.B. King as a caricature of himself. He was a large, round man, always smiling, played old-time music on a big black guitar worn high on his belly.

I first gave the man some serious thought while watching an episode of The Cosby Show; I still didn’t know much about him but I knew that guest stars on the show were usually legendary in some way, and so I paid attention. I thought he was entertaining and fun, nothing I hadn’t heard before, somewhere, but that piercing mellow guitar tone instantly made his music a signature.

Fast forward several years…

I had learned to play a decent blues shuffle over the years but never really studied it; it was something I did as an afterthought, da da, da da, da da. My friend Teddy Morgan decided that had gone on for far too long and popped a CD in the van, and it was there, on some anonymous stretch of Midwest interstate, that I was introduced to the music of B.B. King for the first time.

This music was alive; it was a living, breathing soul brought to life by a ferocious but restrained rhythm section and a powerful voice punctuated by a sharp, quick guitar. It was the sound of generations of music that came before it and hints of the directions it would take in the future.

It’s no surprise that a young me would dismiss B.B. King as something vaguely familiar, because he was familiar; I was born into a world whose music had already been shaped by him. His contributions are almost swept away by the sea of people he inspired.

B.B. King is blues music, one of those delicate genres whose relevancy today is maintained mostly by its legacy. But, oh, what a legacy.

Live: A Few Questions

So I’ve gotten a few questions about my Ableton Live “series,” some of which I’ll answer eventually but here are a few I probably should have touched on:

Will my [so-and-so] computer work for this?

Chances are—yes? Currently I use a 2011 Macbook Pro, with a quad-core i7 and 16GB of RAM. It’s getting a little wheezy now, but at the time it was hot potatoes and I’ve never had an issue with my Live setup. For years before that I used a 2006 Macbook with a duo core and 4GB and never had any issues, either. If you’re having CPU issues, there are a bunch of things you can try to reduce the load.

I’ve got a [so-and-so] interface, will that work?

Chances are—yes? My opinion on interfaces is that they all sound good these days. I mean, it’s really hard to buy a bad sounding interface. If you’ve got something that’s working for you and sounds good and gets along with your computer, by all means stick with it. It’s easy to buy a crappy interface with bad drivers, though, so if you don’t own anything yet it’s worth researching reviews from people with the same computer you have.

Why aren’t you using USB MIDI?

USB MIDI is pretty awesome, really; MIDI isn’t that resource heavy and a USB bus is more than enough for it. (And you get bus power too!) The main reasons I shy away from it are:

  1. I use the Roland SPD-SX as my primary MIDI controller, and at the time I bought it the USB drivers were a little screwy. I’ve used its USB bus since then but I stick with MIDI, just in case.
  2. I need more than one input, so to have enough ports I’d need to run a USB hub, which is more tiny little cables with delicate connectors than I feel like dealing with.
  3. USB spec only allows for runs of ten feet, anything longer than that needs a powered repeater cable or a powered hub in between.

Basically, it’s mostly a matter of personal convenience, and a little peace of mind. If you’ve only got one or two controllers and they’re all fairly close to you, or if your interface doesn’t have standard MIDI ports, USB is the way to go.