Ableton Live Expert Laura Escudé on Being Behind the Sounds on Music's Biggest Tours
She will appear at the Nov. 9-11 Loop technology summit in Los Angeles.
You might not know Laura Escudé’s name, but there’s a good chance you’ve seen her work. As a live show programmer, she’s collaborated with Kanye West, JAY-Z, Logic and Charli XCX. She’s programmed music for Cirque du Soleil and American Idol. And through her company, Electronic Creatives, she manages an entire team of programmers and playback engineers that’s expanded her client base even further, to include such artists as Drake, The Weeknd, Pentatonix and Harry Styles.
As one of the pioneers in live show programming -- especially the use of Ableton Live software, now widely regarded as the industry standard -- Escudé has helped reshape how the concert industry uses electronic music and digital playback across virtually every genre of music. But even though live programmers are increasingly commonplace, the field is still widely misunderstood, even among other music professionals.
“People think, ‘Oh, you’re just pressing play,’” says Escudé, who as a solo artist has also opened for the likes of Miguel and done remixes for Poliça and M83. “And it’s really so much more than that.”
Escudé will appear this weekend at Loop, a three-day music technology summit hosted by Ableton and taking place Nov. 9-11 for the first time this year in Los Angeles, after three years in Ableton’s home city of Berlin. She will be speaking as both artist and programmer, discussing the pitfalls of her day job on a Saturday panel and then demonstrating her own live show in a “performative presentation” on Sunday.
So what exactly do live show programmers do? The job varies from tour to tour, but typically involves some combination of designing and programming backing tracks and effects in consultation with an artist before a tour starts, then acting as the playback engineer or DJ -- the person in charge of all the software that triggers those backing tracks and effects -- during each show. The level of responsibility, says Escudé, is often greater than people might think. “Sometimes the programmer is the musical director. You’re making decisions. On many tours, I’m working with the artist directly to create what they’re envisioning.”
Though most programming is mapped out in advance, some shows leave room for improvisation. “A big part of my role has been doing vocal effects, as well,” says Escudé. Through her work with West, in particular, starting with his 2011 festival shows in support of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, “We got known for Auto-Tune and delays and pitch-shifting and all that kind of stuff. So improvising with the artist in the moment and really having to be inside their head about what they want to do in that moment — making decisions almost before they do.”
A classically trained violinist, Escudé discovered electronic dance music while attending Tallahassee’s Florida State University, not far from where she grew up. After college, she moved to Los Angeles and in 2005 found work doing tech support for keyboard and MIDI controller makers M-Audio. “There was this little-known software program called Ableton at the time that was being distributed by M-Audio,” she recalls. “It was the free software that came with every piece of M-Audio gear. You bought a keyboard, you got a copy of Ableton Lite.”
Escudé's preferred digital audio workstations at the time were Pro Tools and Reason and she was skeptical of the new software at first. “But we got so many calls about it that I had to learn it," she says. "So I just taught myself how to use it and discovered that it was amazing.”
Within a year, she was doing VIP tech support for Ableton’s early adopters, who were mostly electronic music producers and film composers. Bassnectar was a frequent caller, as was filmmaker J.J. Abrams, who composes on the side. When Ableton began distributing independently, she went with it -- and when the company decided to create a certified trainer program for its increasingly popular Live software in 2008, it made Escudé its first instructor.
By then, Escudé had become an independent consultant for other electronic brands like Moog, Rob Papen and FXpansion through her newly founded company, Electronic Creatives. She had also landed her first gig as a live show programmer, for Cirque du Soleil’s Las Vegas show, Viva Elvis. When she got the call, she admits, “I had no idea that was even a thing,” but she quickly realized there was a burgeoning need for programmers and that the software platform on which she was an expert, Ableton Live, was capable of handling large, complex shows.
Ableton Live is a digital audio workstation, similar in concept and function to other DAWs like Pro Tools, Logic and FL Studio but designed to work both as a studio tool and as a live playback instrument. It was initially marketed mainly to DJs and electronic musicians, but its applications for live music of all types quickly became apparent to Escudé and other early proponents of the software.
“I think the potential was always there,” says Dennis DeSantis, Ableton’s head of documentation. “I don’t know if people thought it would become quite as ubiquitous, but it definitely has.”
Some of that ubiquity is no doubt down to Escudé, who estimates that she’s trained at least 25 people who now work as live programmers and playback engineers, both independently and as part of her growing staff (currently 15) at Electronic Creatives. Most recently, she launched a series of in-person two-week intensive courses called Mastertrack, “with the intention that if people do well, they’ll be hired by electronic creatives -- and I have hired several people that went through the program.”
Last year, she also organized the first Transmute Retreat, at which she took a more holistic approach to music education, training young artists and producers not only in the art of programming, but in health and wellness as well. “It was very intimate and very empowering for everyone to be able to come out the other side of it with more control and more ideas on how they can perform.” She hopes to host another retreat in 2019, but in the meantime, she’ll be launching an online version of the Transmute program in January; enrollment for the first eight-week session just opened this week.
Part of Escudé’s goal with Transmute is to make the art of live programming more accessible for musicians from all walks of life -- especially women, who remain underrepresented in the industry. “Women don’t see a lot of [other] women in this space, which can discourage them from pursuing work as a programmer,” she says. “This is one of the many reasons I have dedicated so much time to developing the Transmute course and to participating in mentoring programs at major universities and with platforms like Spotify and Red Bull. I hope that seeing a female who has achieved success as a programmer will encourage other women to pursue this line of work.”
As if all that weren’t enough, Escudé is also gearing up to release a new EP, also called Transmute, on Nov. 16. After releasing music and touring for several years under the alias Alluxe, it marks a return to using her own name on her artist projects.
“I almost felt like I had split personalities,” she says of her old Alluxe stage name. “Now I’m just in this phase of, I am who I am. I do all these things. And I realized that what I’ve been doing in the live show world is totally blurring the lines with what I’m doing as an artist.”