From Violins to Ableton

An interview with producer and Live expert Laura Escudé

Laura Escudé, who performs under the name "Alluxe," has built a successful and eclectic career in the music world as a producer, performer, and programmer. An expert in Ableton Live—she was Ableton’s first West Coast Product Specialist and one of the first Certified in the world. Escudé is frequently hired by touring musicians to design and program their touring systems, helping them with backing tracks, sample triggering, and musical direction.

Among the artists she’s worked with in this way are Kanye West, Jay-Z, Herbie Hancock, Bon Iver, Silversun Pickups and even Cirque de Soleil. As the artist Alluxe, her most recent release is the 2016 EP Contrast.

Sound Techniques : Laura Escudé
Escudé, who' started as a classical violinist, now uses those skills as part of her electronic music.

You started as a classical musician, right?

Yes. I was a violinist. I started playing when I was about six through my church.  I saw a little girl playing violin, and I decided that I wanted to be exactly like her. So I started taking lessons and did the whole classical music thing, played in orchestras all throughout my childhood. I went to many different summer camps including Interlochen, and then I went to school for violin performance.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up all over the US. My dad was in the Navy, so I was in Guam for a while, I was in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maryland. So, it was kind of all over. But I would say that my formative years were in the Northeast—Connecticut and Rhode Island.

When did you get into electronic music, college?

Yes. I went to Vanderbilt for a year in Nashville. I had good time but I wasn't really feeling the music scene there, and I wanted to branch out and go somewhere that was more diverse. So, I ended up transferring to Florida State for my sophomore year. At Florida State, I eventually got roped into going to some electronic music shows, through a friend's boyfriend, who was a DJ. And then I got into the music and the culture and started trying to play the violin over the music.

How did you get into using Live?

I moved to L.A. and I got a job doing tech support at M-Audio. And at that time, Ableton Live was being distributed by M-Audio. Back then, every piece of M-Audio gear came with a light version of Ableton. So, I started doing tech support for Ableton. People would call and say, "We've got this program and we have no idea to use it." So I was like, "I don't have any idea of how to use it either, so I guess I should figure it out.” [Laughs] So that was the catalyst and I was kind of forced to start learning how to use it. And once I got into it, I was like "Wow, this is a really cool application." I just fell in love with it and started taking it further and further.

Had you always been kind of techy?

Once I started playing violin for the electronic music producers, I started trying to learn what was going on in the software. And did a lot of teaching myself and having people show me things. And I started teaching Pro Tools and Reason and synthesis and stuff like that in Florida. And then I moved to L.A. and I got a job doing tech support. But prior to that time period, I didn’t consider myself techy, no.

You must have a natural aptitude for music software if you started teaching Pro Tools and Reason shortly after you started doing electronic music and then doing this. Does music software come easy for you?

At the time I didn't think so. I did a lot of reading manuals and teaching myself and just kind of getting one step ahead at that time. I just would accept any job or any challenge and say, "Yeah, I know how to do that," and then I'd read the manual and figure it out. I had that kind of attitude.

Living on the edge.

Oh yeah, definitely.

When did you become an officially certified Ableton trainer?

I worked at Ableton after M-Audio. I became their first West Coast product specialist in 2007. After a year, I became Certified and went out on my own and started my own company Electronic Creatives, and started touring with other artists, doing lots of different programming and designing and other stuff.

You have worked with Kanye West and Herbie Hancock and other big name people. What kinds of things were you doing for them? Were you onstage or off?

It was different for every artist. Herbie Hancock was unusual in that he was controlling his own stuff onstage. I brought him my Live set and said, "This is what I do, personally. How can we adapt this to what you do?" So we kind of just modified what I did, and he had a bunch of ideas and built upon the way he had done things. And he has different spaces on stage and he has his Vocoder stuff and his Keytar. Basically, I helped implement all of those different things into his live set, and we did looping and different effects and synth sounds and all that kind of stuff.

Herbie is always ahead of things technologically; I remember going to see him rehearsing for a show—I was going to interview Dave Hampton, his sound guy—and they had like a live surround sound P.A. on this one tour. I guess it must have been lots of fun working with someone like that, right?

Oh yeah, it was incredible. He was showing me stuff. I think we started trying to arrange "Rockit" and I was trying to get it on the timeline in Live to loop some parts or different things, and I was like, "What tempo is this?" And he said, "Well, it was about this, but it was all hand played." And I said "What?" [Laughs] This day and age a lot of things are built from drum machines or locked to a tempo, so, that was cool to see how he'd done things and how things had evolved. So, yeah, he was endlessly curious and just so on top of things, it was just great to work with him. And it was more like a partnership, and we bounced ideas off one another. So that was a different scenario from a lot of the other artists I've worked with—they don't care how I do it or what I'm doing, they just want it to happen. They're not controlling anything onstage, I'm the one controlling it. They'll just come up with some ideas, "Oh, I want this sound," or "that sound" or just a transition or whatever. And it's my job to make it happen or some kind of vocal effect or drum sound.

And you're triggering it, as well, usually?

Sometimes someone else triggers it and I just do the edits and make it sound good, make it sound the way that they want it. And other times I'm triggering it, DJing on stage for an artist. Like I toured with Miguel for a while, last year, and I deejayed with him and was doing all the programming and edits and all that kind of stuff. It really depends on the artist, what their creative vision is, how much they want your input and what you can bring to the table.

Do you ever get nervous with a computer-based system onstage, in terms of it crashing or just not working? We all know how much time is involved with troubleshooting in the studio. Have you ever had crazy things onstage where stuff just stopped working?

Alluxe (cr. Suzanne Strong) cropped
Escudé uses several different Ableton Live controllers. [photo by Suzanne Strong

That's why we have redundant systems. We have two computer systems, onstage or offstage, depending. And oftentimes, that's why there is a dedicated person like me or someone from my team, so we can monitor the system. We have auto switch so if one system goes down it will just immediately transfer over to the backup system.

Cool.

But that barely happens. It's not too big of a deal. With the bigger shows, we're not trying to push the envelope as far as crazy plug-ins and stuff like that, it's generally just the music. If we do have crazy plug-ins and instruments and stuff, I separate those from the main playback system, so, at the very least, if some soft synth or effect or something like that crashes, it doesn't bring down the whole show. The backing tracks are still playing. The band can still play to the backing tracks and hear the click and all that kind of stuff. And, so I kind of tend to separate those things as much as possible.

Anyone who was watching TV on New Year's Eve knows that things can go wrong with electronic playback in live shows. The Mariah Carey thing was brutal. Although I guess that was more of a monitoring issue.

I don't know exactly what happened there, but scenarios like that remind me why it is important to have rehearsals and to have your team there who knows what you want, as much as you can. It depends on the scenario, but in general, if you have your tight team and you rehearse, hopefully, that type of thing won’t happen. That said, I've seen some crazy things where it's just out of your control and technical stuff happens.

What's the worst technical glitch you've had to deal with?

I was in Australia with Kanye, and we were at a festival, the Big Day Out festival, and it started pouring down rain, right before our show.

Was the stage covered?

A lot of it was, but then the monitor console wasn't completely covered, and it just got water all in it, and it wasn't working right, and it was very hectic. But my stuff was all connected to the monitor console, and we had to like change everything and recheck it. It ended up being okay, but it was very stressful. But in general, I've worked with the best people and most professional people in this industry. I've been lucky that most everything has gone well.

Let’s talk about your own music. On your new EP Contrast, you programmed and played all the instruments, I assume?

Yes.

So you play keyboards, too.

Yes.

When did Contrast come out?

The EP came out in November. I'm working on another EP now. I did a tour in Europe in November and did some speaking engagements and performances. And I'm doing more of that in March in New York and Boston. I'm doing some performances in New York, and I’m doing some speaking for the students at Berklee School of Music in Boston for their Career Jam day.

Let's talk the production of your song, "On my Own." 

"On My Own" started as a remix for the pop artist Fergie. It was a completely different vibe, and Interscope decided that they weren't going to use it. I ended up taking all the vocals out and changing some of the stuff and then re-recording it with this artist Tatiana.

She did the vocals?

Yeah. She came over to my studio, we had a session and just thought of some ideas, and she ended up recording a bunch of scratch vocals. She's also an engineer and a producer. She went home and then we kind of refined it a little more and then she recorded them again and sent them back over. I played with some effects on her vocals. I used a lot of Native Instruments Guitar Rig and some pitch shifting stuff to create some of the weirder sounds with her vocals. It's a pretty simple song. I think I used Serum and Native Instruments Reaktor for the synths. And it just came together. She was really easy to work with. She does a lot of songwriting, which is not my forté, I'm better at producing and doing music stuff, and she actually writes lyrics, so it was cool to be able to collaborate with someone that has other strengths.

What kind of studio setup do you have? Is it laptop based or more full blown?

It's laptop based. I have a few different controllers. I have streamlined it quite a bit since I do travel and bring a couple of things with me. I have my Ableton Push controller, I have my Native Instruments Komplete controller. I just got a Roli Seaboard, which I love.

Those are kind of hybrid controllers, right?

Yeah. They basically have all different types of touch that you can map to. So, it's not just like a regular keyboard. They have pressure sensitivity, and all that kind of stuff. It's more expressive, and you can map it to more things. In the movie La La Land, there's a point in the movie where the guy does a solo on the keyboard, and I was like "Oh my God, that's amazing, I know that thing." So, the Roli Seaboard, and I've got the Roland AIRA System 1, the TR8 and the TR3. And I've got the Arturia MicroBrute. I use a MOTU Ultralite, that's my go-to interface because of all the inputs and outputs and it's so small. We use it a lot on tour. In the studio, I use the Universal Audio Apollo, which I love. I have the Twin, but then I got a Focusrite OctoPre and connected it via LightPipe. I have all of my Roland and hardware stuff running through that into the Apollo.

Do you use a lot of software synths?

Yeah. I love Omnisphere. Serum is also one of my go-to's right now. I use the Arturia bundle for different things, and Rob Papen’s stuff. There are just so many of them that I love. And then, of course, Native Instruments Reaktor is my main go-to, because there are so many cool sounds and instruments.

Do you ever do anything in Max MSP?

I use some Max for Live stuff. A couple of years back I started to learn how to program, and then I decided, you know what, I'd rather make music and not spend five hours trying to learn how to make a sine wave. [laughs] I'll leave that to the professionals.

Do you mix your own stuff?

I used to mix all my stuff and now I mix it to a certain point, and I have certain people that I work with who'll help finish the mix. I just like having a second set of ears on it. And they always come up with some cool idea. And it also helps me to move on more quickly. I say, "Hey, I have this song, when can you work on it?" And they'll say, "OK, I have this window of time here," and then basically I have a deadline to get it over to them. 

Which is good, we all know how it's possible to obsess over a mix.

Absolutely.

I saw on one of your videos that you were doing some looping with your violin in a live situation. Do you work the violin into your live show much?

Yeah. I do. I do live looping. I've got different foot controllers that I use. I use the Pok, which is a wireless foot controller. I also use the IK Multimedia iRig BlueBoard

Let's talk about Ableton Live. What do you think makes it such a good program? Is it having the clip launching abilities that really sets it apart?

It's the flexibility. The fact that you can do things on the fly and drag things in while the session is moving. And sometimes you have to do stuff like that. Just being able to work very quickly and being able to have the flexibility to make something happen that anyone thinks of. Also, it's very stable.

Do you find that you use the Session or Arrangement window more?

I start over in the clip view, the Session view, and I end up in the Arrangement view when I produce. Just to sort of get some product in the timeline. But for my live show, I just do the clips.

But when you're writing, you use the clips for inspiration?

Yeah, or I build things and make some loops and see how they work together, and once I get to a certain point then I'll move over to the arrangement view.

Do you have a good Ableton tip to share?

One thing that I like to do, which some people might not know, is to press the record button on the top when you're in the Session view, and just record yourself jamming and trying different loops and putting things together. You can do filters and delays and all your effects, and use your knobs. And once you're done recording, if you tab over to the Arrangement view side, then basically everything that you just did will be recorded over there.

On separate tracks.

Yeah, all separate tracks. Then you can go in and clean up what you just performed. And it's a lot more fun, I think, than regular arranging, because you get to jam on the parts and experiment more than if you're just writing a track, and you feel like, "OK, I need to do this structure." There's a lot more pressure that way. I like to do that, and then clean up my performance and make it into a song.

What was the story with that Papaya Films video where you're in the desert with the car?

That was a short film that Director Elias Ressegatti asked me if I wanted to do. That was super fun to make, and it was a great promo for my song "On My Own." 

It looked like it was very nicely shot.

Yeah, they had a drone and it was the first time I had ever worked with one! They did a really good job. 

Thanks for your time.

You’re welcome!

[DJ photo in article preview by Candice Rukes]