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Concerts 2.0: The M Machine Revamps the Visual Experience

Kristin Houser Writer & Editor, LA Music Blog

From NFC-connected festival wristbands to 3D stage projections, the live music sphere is full of high-tech offerings. One band stands above the rest, however, when it comes to using technology to transcend the typical concert experience: The M Machine.

Since 2011, this electronic music trio from San Francisco has been winning over music fans with their genre-defying blend of dance and indie music, all backed live by cinematic visuals. Unlike many “just-push-play” electronic dance music acts whose neon lasers and bright lights can begin to feel monotonous by the end of a set, The M Machine’s visuals are manipulated in real time by band member Andy Coenen, which means each performance by the trio is unique and tailored to suit the energy of the crowd.

Created using Ableton Live, Max/MSP, Resolume Avenue and TouchDesigner, these visuals have wowed audiences at some of the nation’s biggest music fests, including Electric Daisy Carnival, Ultra Music Festival and South by Southwest. The group recently unveiled their latest live show centerpiece, the virtual “M,” which Andy created using TouchDesigner, a real-time, node-based 3D and visual composition software. Unlike the group’s previous centerpiece, the LED “M,” which could only display sequenced light patterns, the virtual “M” can display video as well, adding an entirely new dimension to The M Machine’s live show.

I had a chance to ask Coenen about the creation of the virtual “M,” the process of collaborating with his partners in the band and the artists whose live shows inspire him to keep pushing The M Machine’s performance visuals to the next level. Find out what he had to say.

How long did it take to bring the virtual “M” from concept to show-ready? Did the final product meet the band’s expectations?

When we started The M Machine in 2011, one of the central ideas was to create a live show that placed a heavy emphasis on visuals. We wanted to create a musical journey for the audience that mirrored our music: a blend of heavy and light, hard and soft, aggressive and cinematic. Perfectly synced visuals really help put an emphasis on the different styles of music in our show, and they help pull the audience into the “worlds” we’re trying to create with our music — so the long answer is that it’s been in development from the beginning of the band.

As you may know, we originally toured with a physical LED “M” stage piece that I designed, built and programmed. It took me about a year to make the physical “M,” and we toured with it for our first two years, including The Language Tour with Porter Robinson. It certainly saw a lot of action, but in the end it was a bit limiting, both practically and creatively. We couldn’t bring it to a lot of shows because of logistical problems, and after a few years of programming and performing with it, I began to run out of new ideas.

So we decided to create an all-video show centered around a 3D, virtual version of our “M” light wall. It can do all the same tricks as well as display sequenced video, so creatively it’s worlds more expressive. Since it’s all video, we can take it to nearly any stage we want to, so it’s enabled us to reach many more fans with our live show than we would have been able to otherwise.

It took me about two months to program and create video content for the virtual “M” before it debuted at Ultra Music Festival last year. It was by far the hardest two months I’ve ever worked, and we were still tweaking parts of it right up to showtime in Miami!

Any hiccups in early debuts of the virtual “M”?

As far as hiccups go, we’ve probably seen them all, but it’s been a really great endeavor for us because it’s allowed us to share our live show with so many more fans than we would have otherwise, including our tour with Markus Schulz last summer and our upcoming tour with The Glitch Mob.

I know you’re primarily responsible for programming The M Machine’s show visuals, so how do the three of you come to terms on what the show is going to look like? Do you each bring ideas to the table at the beginning, or do you present something and then the other members give you input?

Honestly, I pretty much handle every aspect of the live show’s visual content. It’s funny, since we’ve worked together for so long, we’ve developed a bit of a strange vocabulary that we use to describe sounds and musical attitudes that’s pretty unique to us. It’s probably a consequence of being in the same room together for so many hours that we see and describe sounds in pretty much the exact same way — so nine times out of ten, we’re on the same page with what a given song’s visual attitude ought to be without even bringing it up. Of course, Eric [Luttrell] and Swardy [Ben Swardlick] have brought a bunch of great ideas to the table for visuals, but the process of making them is so specific that it usually works best if I just run with it.

Are The M Machine’s visuals finalized before the band goes on stage or are they improvised?

Both. I typically create a number of video clips to match the audio clips in our live show. Each song has a palette of separate video clips that I can then jam along with, but the visuals remain synchronized since everything that can happen on the audio computer has a corresponding sequence on the video computer. It’s a little less free form than how a VJ performs during a DJ set — since we’re playing all of our own music — but the idea is similar.

Who are some artists you think are pushing live show boundaries right now? Are you inspired by any other artists’ live show visuals?

There’s been such a heavy emphasis on live visuals in the last few years that there’s been an amazing influx of creativity. Artists who really care about the fan experience seem to be in a bit of an arms race to showcase the coolest, freshest and most forward-thinking live experience. Deadmau5 and Skrillex come to mind first as some of the most forward-thinking and interesting in terms of live show experience, and the people they bring onto their teams are some of the brightest and most creative people you’ll ever meet.

I think that as video screens get bigger, brighter and wilder with their content, people will begin to crave a return to a bit more “analog” setup: traditional lights, lasers, stage effects … hell, dancers! I’m really inspired by the live shows that artists like Vitalic, Empire of the SunEtienne de Crécy and Justice have been doing — many more lights and less video — although I suppose it’s just because you always want what you don’t have!

What do you hope fans take away from The M Machine shows? How do you want them to feel when they leave the venue?

We’ve always wanted to take our fans on a journey during our live set. We want the audience to come away feeling like they’ve experienced a wide range of emotions and have been to a lot of places — musically, energetically and emotionally. We want the visuals to guide people through the trip. Most importantly, we want people to leave feeling like they’ve heard and seen something they’ve never experienced before.

Predict the future for me: what will The M Machine show look/sound like in 10 years?

Well, 10 years ago, only a few years after Daft Punk toured their pyramid, I don’t think anybody could have predicted how amazing the technology and creativity involved in live concerts has become. I think we’ll always exist to push the boundaries on what you can do artistically and technologically with live show production, and hopefully we’ll have opportunities to keep on the bleeding edge of what we do.

But I do think there’s value in the physical — tangible stage pieces working with the virtual content to make both more interesting. I think we’d love to do something where the boundaries between what’s real and what’s not become so blurred that everybody in the audience can become completely lost in the worlds we’re presenting through our art and music.

Images courtesy of AM Only.

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