Singer-songwriter Erin Barra's career had reached a breaking point a year and a half ago. After steadily gaining notoriety while playing around the New York City club scene, she caught the touring bug and realized it was time to step outside of town. But while fronting a five-piece band at home is relatively easy, costs can pile up while out on the road. Her solution? A software program optimized for live performance.
"When the need to tour became necessary, I tried to streamline my set by experimenting with these new technologies," explains Barra. "I was basically trying to cut my overhead costs, and it just blossomed into something much larger than I had anticipated."
Barra began using Ableton Live, a looping program that allows artists to add in new sounds, instruments and effects in real time throughout their show. "Ableton Live can be 'played' and offers the flexibility to improvise," said Tony McCall, Ableton's U.S. marketing manager, in an email. "Rather than replacing the artist's instrument, on stage Ableton becomes an extension of it."
For an artist like Barra, that means being able to slim an entire band down to a "one woman army." "I went from having a five-piece down to just me, and I was running my entire set on a laptop and from keyboards and Midi controllers," she says. "Now I have a trio, so I'm running Ableton, I play bass with my left hand and keys with my right, and I'm singing. So it's just like playing three instruments at a time instead of two."
But cutting costs was not the only benefit. With the new technology at her fingertips, Barra was able to reinvent her music and rearrange her live set, leading to a more electronica-leaning sound. "I found it to be kind of refreshing to be in a position where I had to reinterpret my songs," she says. "It's not just a way to save time and money anymore. Now it's another tool or word in my vocabulary that I can use to express myself."
Ableton's software allows Barra to look further ahead in her songwriting, allowing for reverb or delay touches unavailable to her before, and enhancing the mood or feel of a particular song with electronic effects. In the process, her music has bent decidedly away from the traditional singer-songwriter mold. "I was originally recording these very analog and very organic albums," she says. "So I'm very thankful for so many of my fans following me to the brink of electronica."
Ableton Live is one of a number of programs geared toward production or live looping, such as FL Studios or even the studio software ProTools. Barra has been doing workshops for Ableton since picking up the program, and is joined in using the software by such artists as Daft Punk, Pete Townshend and Hot Chip.
Yet programs and technologies such as these provide even more than just new gadgets and toys to play around with - to forward-thinking artists, they expand the sonic limits. "As a performer you have a certain number of moves, but now you can do so much more, you really can," says Barra. "It's just a matter of your imagination now, your effort." And with their use growing amongst artists across all musical styles, these programs are changing the landscape of what is possible in a given genre. "As long as new tools and instruments are made available, artists will continue to reinvent themselves," says McCall. "It's what they do."