A Macro Overview of a Playback System

December 18, 2016

A functional playback system consists of multiple layers of interaction. The first interaction layer occurs between the operator and the control interface. The second layer occurs between the control interface and the playback software (Ableton Live). Lastly, the playback software talks with a hardware device for audio output.

The Control Interface

An intuitive control interface is integral to the performance of a playback system. Live performance is often a high stress situation, and system operator (often the music director) should never have to make guesses.
In other words, the operator should not have to look at this.

Ableton Live in Session View.
Ableton Live’s Session View resembles a spreadsheet. Color-coordinated spreadsheets are beautiful and fun to look at, but they reveal almost no useful information in performance situations.
This is much nicer to look at.

The Playback Software

A stable playback software will make or break a performance. There are many options out there, but I’ll be focusing on Ableton Live in this series.
Ableton Live is a popular software solution for DJs and producers, but it’s also used for music playback on some of the largest productions in the world.
Ableton Live’s Session View was designed for playback, and it’s unmatched in terms of organizational capability. You’ll soon realize the importance of staying organized when dealing with thousands of audio clips.
The relationship and interactions between the control interface and Ableton Live is MIDI-based. This MIDI connection can be either a virtual software one or a physical hardware patch.
MacOS ships with a built-in virtual MIDI bus called the IAC driver. On the Windows side, loopMIDI by Tobias Erichsen serves the same function. If you prefer hardware MIDI devices, just route a physical loop with something like the iConnectivity mio10.

The Audio Output Device

The audio output device is the final component of a playback system. This device can be the headphone jack on a MacBook Pro, a RME MADIface XT sending 196 channels of audio, and everything in between.
Smaller productions with lower channel count requirements will often use audio interfaces that convert the digital data coming from Ableton Live into an analog voltage signal to be amplified for speaker output.
On larger productions, you’ll often find digital audio interfaces that use technologies like MADI or Dante. These digital protocols enable high channel count transmission over a single cable

Send 198 channels of digital audio with the RME MADIface XT.


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