Ten Ways to Avoid Live Laptop Disasters

December 1, 2009

REPLACING A STACK O’ GEAR WITH A LAPTOP running amp and effects simulation software is appealing, but it’s more complicated than just plugging in an amp. Here are the top ten tips for having a sweet relationship with your liveperformance laptop.

Avoid onboard audio. A separate USB or FireWire audio interface offers better audio quality and more durable connectors. Disable the onboard audio so it doesn’t interfere.

Physically secure your laptop. If someone trips over the power chord, expect a crash to the floor. I mounted the laptop that handles my Digital Les Paul hex outs in a pedalboard that sits on the floor (Figs. 1 and 2). Once it’s set up, I don’t need to adjust much, as it handles bass and rhythm. (Bonus: The pedalboard is the ultimate hardshell case.) For leads, the Digital Les Paul’s standard magnetic pickups feed a DigiTech GNX3000, whose sound I can change with footswitches.

Don’t run on battery power. When using batteries, laptops often reduce performance automatically to extend battery life. You need the highest possible performance for real-time guitar playing.

Redundancy is good. If you can’t carry a backup laptop, have backups of your data and programs. One reason I use Ableton Live for performing is because you can download a fully-functional demo that does everything except Save. If my laptop dies, I can get another computer, download Live, load my data, and be up and running.

With Windows, turn off unneeded services. Run the msconfig utility to disable unneeded startup programs, and also turn off system restore, indexing, automatic updates—anything that reduces performance. And with all computers, disable any network or internal Wi-Fi card as these can mess with audio performance.

Mac vs. Windows.Windows laptops are easier to replace or repair on the road, but Macs are easier to configure for audio. I’ve used both, but if you go for Windows, seek out a company that specializes in integrating laptops for audio (such as PC Audio Labs, Rain, ADK, etc.). It’s well worth the few extra bucks.

No on-the-job training! Never use new hardware or software (including updates) onstage before testing everything under real-world conditions.

Carry a spare hard drive. Laptop hard drives are more delicate than desktop drives. Fortunately, they’re usually easy to replace. So if you don’t have a second computer, carry a second hard drive that “mirrors” the one you use (Norton Ghost is good for mirroring), along with any tools needed to install it.

Don’t plug USB memory sticks or copy protection dongles directly into the computer. Use a USB extension cord to prevent the USB device from breaking off at the base if pressure is put on it (this might also damage your motherboard, meaning a big buck repair).

Laptops are easy to steal. Bring a backpack to the gig, and as soon as you’re done, stash the laptop in the backpack and wear it.

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