Home Recording

How To Perform Electronic Music Live - Take to the Stage with Confidence

We’re at a point in the musical landscape where the biggest music festivals and events – even those which are traditionally band and rock-heavy – will have lots of electronic, rap and pop artists on their lineups. The days where a live music performance exclusively meant rock, jazz or classical are now firmly behind us. Electronic music has infiltrated almost every genre, meaning a huge swathe of concerts see artists performing using MIDI controllers and keyboards, laptops, and more.

If you’re an electronic artist, or your music has a significant electronic element to it, perhaps you’ve wondered how on Earth to take your music productions from your DAW to the stage. You may have seen performances where a table is stacked with controllers, synths, interfaces and more, so it can be overwhelming at first. But here’s the good news: live electronic music is something you can ease yourself into and simplify, gradually adding to the complexity of your set-up once you feel confident.

The controversy: EDM artists admitting they don’t perform live

Canadian producer superstar Deadmau5 caused quite a stir in the EDM community back in 2012 with a Tumblr post titled ‘We all hit play’. In essence, Deadmau5 was, albeit massively generalising, stating that many of the superstar EDM names of the time were miming along to their pre-recorded dance music sets. He pointed out that, ironically, the more major the festival and slot, the less they’d be doing live — as the MIDI and playback were hooked into the elaborate visual and light shows, the DJs were rendered unable to chop and change things live as this would mess up the lighting.

So take this as you will. If you’re anxious at the thought of how to take all of the parts, instruments, samples etc from your DAW session to a live audience, perhaps take comfort from the fact that Deadmau5 owned up to the fact that he quite literally didn’t. With refreshing honesty, he admitted that he’d hit play, and then all the fader and knob editing he does on stage is just for show.

Does this mean all electronic artists are just dancing around while pretending to do live edits? Absolutely not — many acts take great pride in how live their sets are. Some have more live aspects to their performances than others, which we’ll get into below and help decide what feels right for you depending on where you are.

How do we define live music anyway?

This is where things get very subjective, and is a great subject for a nerdy argument on the nuts and bolts of music and performance. For example, a classical or jazz purist might hold the notion of live music being musicians playing instruments (mostly acoustic) without any technological assistance. They may baulk at triggering beats, and samples live while playing a synth part, being considered a live performance.

Technically it is, in electronic music terms — as the aforementioned music producer is triggering the parts live instead of relying on playback. On the other side of the spectrum, electronic music fans love seeing what their favourite artists do live, often discussing it in music forums afterwards.

Bands such as Radiohead, who insist on performing everything live with no backing tracks whatsoever, are something of a rare breed these days. With the rise in genres like pop, rap, and dance crossing over into almost all mainstream festivals (to think that Glastonbury and Reading Festivals were almost exclusively for bands in years gone by), many artists will use varying levels of pre-recorded playback. Many bands do also — Bring Me The Horizon, having recently parted ways with Jordan Fish, their keyboard player, used a lot of playback for their recent tour, while the vocals, guitars and drums were played live.

Only you can decide how ‘live’ your performances will be

Hopefully you can now see there is a big spectrum for this — from Radiohead's purity of everything being live, all the way to Deadmau5 hitting play and letting the recordings do the rest.

Let’s say, for example, you make a heavily electronic genre of music like techno or house. It’s very important to note that it would be nigh impossible to perform such songs completely live. Unless you bring forward an entire team of people on stage with you to trigger every drumline, synth, bass, while attempting to perform some of the melodies and percussive fills live, or grow several extra limbs to do so, you’re going to have a difficult time on stage.

That is to say, you should not feel any shame in using at least some playback for your live set. The truth is, as long as the audience can see that you are playing some of the melodies yourself, doing some live mixing and filtering, maybe even a bit of finger drumming, it’s unlikely anyone is going to be offended by a bit of playback, or even be able to pinpoint it.

There are a few levels you can opt for. If you plan to sing or play an instrument such as guitar over your songs, it is pretty commonplace to bounce the entire song minus the vocals, guitar and whatever you perform live. Others love to link their stems to a MIDI controller to trigger themselves. In layman’s terms, this is when, for example, an artist hits a pad on their MIDI controller and then the kick drum comes in.

If having all the backing instruments as separate tracks does sound too stressful, at least initially, another option is to combine them all into one single audio file, which you can still apply live effects to such as delay and filters, for that extra live touch. Again, just remember to not include the parts you intend to perform yourself live.

If you aren’t going to be singing or playing an instrument, and don’t fancy putting on a miming act for 30-50 minutes, then let’s dive into all the options below.

The essential gear: from minimal setups to more complex


In the present day, laptops have become the hub of both at-home/studio music production and live performance. In other words, this step is pretty unavoidable. It’s technically not entirely unavoidable, as there is the option of going ‘DAWless’. This entails eschewing a computer and DAW entirely and building a full setup of hardware gear: synthesizers, drum machines, a mixer, and likely an array of effects pedals. It’s a much more complex approach that will provide many headaches, and it’s unavoidably more expensive. That said, there’s no denying its charm, and it’s something that really attracts lovers of analogue gear. Check out artists like Ela Minus who have a completely laptop-free setup.

Back to the attractiveness of having a laptop — technically, your whole setup could be just a laptop and a MIDI controller. In fact, you could just rock up with a laptop and nothing else, but be wary that it will just look like you’re checking your emails rather than performing music and it won’t be an engaging experience for the audience.

Besides being the physical hub for all your live gear, i.e. audio interface, synths, mics etc, your laptop and DAW can house all your instrument parts, digital effects, samples, and the rest.

iPad or other tablet

With that said regarding laptops, some people do happily and successfully use a tablet, most commonly an iPad, in lieu of a laptop. Note that several DAWs, especially some of the biggest names, are not tablet-compatible, as their demands require a laptop. With this in mind, whether you opt for the convenience of an iPad will depend on whether you mostly need a little hub for backing tracks, or if you are performing a more complex electronic set. If the latter, a tablet likely won’t cut it; the worst-case scenario is that the tablet buffers or even crashes mid-set.

Which DAW for electronic live performance?

This one’s pretty easy, as there is a DAW that was created and optimised with live electronic music firmly in mind: Ableton Live. Many artists espouse Ableton with religious fervour, including some of the biggest names who play EDM live: Skrillex, Daft Punk, and Disclosure. On the more indie side of the spectrum are famous users including Tame Impala and Mac De Marco. There are dozens of courses on how to use Ableton and get the most out of it, many of which are even accredited by Ableton themselves.

Ableton Live prides itself on all its live music features, allowing you to go so far as to remix your tracks live. Live, unlike many of the biggest name DAWs, allows you to set up an entire live set in one session, so you’re not awkwardly clicking and opening a new project file while the audience stands waiting for the music to start again. You can set up the BPM and other parameters as needed for each song and have it all run seamlessly. Many people produce their music in their studio in a different DAW and then import the music into Ableton for the live set.

There are other contenders, however. Apple has its own sibling to Logic which is tailored to live performance, Apple MainStage. PreSonus Studio One is also a solid option for the live context.

Do you need an audio interface for live electronic performance?

Another way to phrase this question: do you want to risk it? An audio interface, including inexpensive ones such as the Focusrite Scarlett (if you do go for a budget option, be sure to go for a trusted name such as Focusrite), ensures your audio will sound professional and prevent any embarrassing lagging or crashes mid-set, thanks to preamps, high audio resolution, and modern features such as phantom power. You can also plug instruments such as synths, drum machines, guitars, and microphones into your interface and have them run smoothly.

MIDI controllers and keyboards

As touched on earlier, if you only bring your laptop to perform on, people will feel like they’re at a TED talk rather than a gig. One of the most common pieces of kit that make a live electronic performance feel authentically live is a MIDI controller. The two most common instruments of this ilk are MIDI controllers with pads for triggering parts and finger drumming, and MIDI keyboards. There are also now plenty of products that combine the two. If you want traditional black and white keys to perform your melodies, be sure to go for the latter, whereas many live electronic acts simply don’t use keys so can forego them with a MIDI pad controller.

If you are an Ableton user or plan on becoming one, it’s worth noting that Ableton has its own range of MIDI controllers to sync up with its flagship DAW, its Ableton Push line of MIDI hardware. That said, many other brands such as Native Instruments, Novation, Nektar, and M-Audio have ensured their controllers sync up really well with the leading live DAW also. 

A word on finger drumming

On the note of MIDI pads, a fantastic performance option to consider is finger drumming. The name is about as literal as it can be: rather than traditional drumming in which you play a drum kit or percussion instruments with sticks, you are playing a beat live on a pad controller. You don’t just trigger a kick drum part, for example, but perform it in real-time. Finger drumming came into being in tandem with the emergence of Akai’s MPC drum machines and controllers. It has come back into vogue recently, particularly with British dance artist Fred Again going viral with his virtuosic finger drumming as seen in his Glastonbury and Boiler Room sets.

You can employ the technique on MIDI pad controllers and drum machines. Yamaha, always clever at picking up on a trend, recently released two drum instruments specifically for finger drumming: the FGDP-50 and the more affordable FGDP-30.

Other gear: beyond the essentials

The gear mentioned above is pretty essential, so now we get into things that are nice to have and can take your live electronic shows to the next level. If you love your hardware gear rather than just being locked into a screen, then there are a few options to give yourself something physical to play on and ground your performance.

We’ll of course start with synthesizers, one of the ultimate instruments when it comes to electronic music. These differ to MIDI keyboards as synths have their own built in sound/presets independently of a DAW, although many can also double up as a MIDI controller.

A laptop-oriented performance will likely be using a lot of digital sounds, so bringing in an analogue synthesizer can add some real grit and warmth to the sound of your live electronic music. That said, there are many digital hardware synths that sound brilliant and truly do rival their analogue counterparts — it’s ultimately a matter of taste.

Venturing into much more advanced territory, but modular synths could be another option to aim to bring in one day — modular can really lend an exciting unpredictability and spontaneity to your live electronic sets while wielding that wobbly analogue goodness.

Many electronic artists also love to bring along a hardware drum machine to proceedings, preferring the drum machine sound to what’s on offer in their DAW. This, again, gives you the option of going analogue or digital.

Then there are fun instruments you can bring along, a popular one being Korg’s KAOSS Pad, with high profile fans including Brian Eno and Radiohead. It’s a very physical instrument, allowing you to trigger sound effects, filters, loops, distortion, delay and other digital effects with a touch screen interface — it’s a lot of fun to use and brings an extra physical and sonic dimension to your live electronic music.

Lastly, an option that is perhaps a little underrated in this area. If you are a pianist/keyboardist, keyboard workstations are instruments you might look into. Coming with hundreds of preset sounds, many of these sync well with DAWs, and some of the most expensive instruments come close to replacing a DAW entirely. They aren’t just about the piano sounds: the Roland Fantom and the Korg Nautilus have excellent synth and drum sounds also.


One final idea — why not bring in an extra musician or two to really make your live electronic music special? Perhaps a friend who is up for collaborating, or paying a session musician if your budget goes that far. This could be anything from singers, guitarists, drummers or percussionists, string players, brass players, whatever might suit your music.

Hopefully all this has helped demystify the world of performing live electronic music, and you are now feeling emboldened to give it a go. Remember, there’s no need to go crazy and spend loads of money at first, it’s all about getting to grips with the basics and going from there. Be sure to experiment and get fully practised before stepping onto stage. It may sound cheesy, but here is the most important tip of all: have fun.