Concert Designer Laura Escudé

by Corey O'Flanagan

Ever wonder how those props, video monitors, vocal effects, light cues and other enhancements come together at a concert, all synced to the music? Laura Escudé has the answers.

Escudé has done design, programming and playback for some very big names: Herbie Hancock, Garbage, Miguel, Demi Lovato. But one name stands out among her clients as an unpredictable genius with a keen eye for visual design and a very complex sonic palette: Kanye West. It's telling that Escudé has worked with Kanye for many years, including on his Watch The Throne tour with Jay-Z. He's not the kind of guy who will stick to a script, so Escudé often had to improvise.

Escudé is one of more artistic techies we've encountered. She'll nerd out (her term) as an Ableton instructor, but also plays classical violin so well that Kanye put her on the Watch The Throne track "Made In America."

Today on the Songfacts Podcast, Escudé explains how the concert magic happens and how one might break into this field.


Upbringing

I was born in Pensacola, but I didn't live there very long. I was there for the first few years of my life, but then I came back for college and went to Florida State, which is also not that far. I was in Tallahassee.

When I first moved to LA in 2004 I went to film-scoring school at a UCLA extension, so I did have a little training and I did go to music school.


Creating The Concert Experience

I do wear a lot of hats. People are like, "What exactly do you do?" Well, I'm all things music. I'm an artist, I create music, I work with other artists, so in a nutshell when I'm working with other artists on their shows, I'm helping to create the music and edit the music for a live performance. Essentially it's producing music for a live experience - taking all of the stems of the music they created in the studio and then turning it into a live performance.

So that involves messing with all the different layers of the music. Taking certain things in or out, taking lead vocals out if there is a singer and they are singing that live. Maybe you're taking background vocals out because there are background vocals on stage, maybe taking the bass out if there is a bass player on stage. So just tailoring every performance to taste depending on who is on stage, what's needed, what's being performed "in the box" - which is in the computer - and what's being performed live.

Also, any different vocal effects like Auto-Tune, that kind of stuff that goes on behind the scenes. Making remixes of songs. Sometimes artists get tired of hearing the same song year after year. It's their big hit and they want to hear a reggae version of it or a rock version of it, so I get to do that. Sometimes they decide that they want to add some sound effects - animal sounds or airplane sounds - and they want it to go around the audience's heads in a weird way. Anything that the artist or the musical director dreams up I basically make happen.


What's Pre-Planned and What's Improvised?

It's a combination, but mostly the backing tracks are pre-planned because it's really hard to edit those right in the middle of the show. We edit those before the show and I'll decide on the arrangement and how it's going to sound, and then play it back during the show.

Now, there are things that are more improvisational during the show. It can be things like vocal effects, keyboard sounds, drum sounds. Different people on stage triggering different sounds. Or like when the artist is singing, sometimes artists like to do looping or improv stuff in the moment, and that can be deviating from the norm, but most everything is pre-planned hopefully. There are some artists that I've worked with that don't like to pre-plan much, so that's a whole other story.


Jam Bands

I think there is a place for music playback or live show design for jam bands as well because when you get to a certain level, the band probably wants to stay in time with one another and maybe there is lighting and projections that need to be synced, so that's part of my job to make sure all of that is synced up by setting up something that's called timecode1 to the lighting and video people. So, it just really depends. Some bands just like to play and they don't care about a click and they don't care about playing to a timeline and that's great. But fancier shows nowadays, you go to a show and the chorus comes in and the video is the same every night, and that has to be synced up. That comes from my system essentially.


What Was Laura's Most Challenging Live Show Design Project?

Probably when I worked with Herbie Hancock. I worked with Herbie a few years back when he was doing a solo electronic show. Of course, he is an amazing musician. I got to work with him in his studio every day and we meditated together - he took me to his meditation group.

We became really close, and that was fun. He has been doing this for so long and his ideas are so innovative and out there, and also he didn't come from playing to a click or playing to a specific time as a lot of people do now - he is more freeform. So, harnessing that and making it conform to more of a grid so that he could do things like live looping was really fascinating for me.

Looking at certain songs like "Rockit," I was like, "What tempo is this?" and he's like, "Well, it wasn't recorded to a specific tempo." I was like, "Woooow." It sounds like it was, but it's not.

So that was just really cool. It really stretched me creatively because he was like, "What if I had an instrument here but I also had a wireless keytar over here..." He was pushing the boundaries of what we could achieve and that was super fun. That's what I live for, you know. If my brain isn't hurting I'm like, what's going on?


Ableton

Escudé was the first Ableton Certified Trainer.

Have you heard of Pro Tools? Well, Ableton Live is a software program similar to Pro Tools or Logic but it's made specifically for a live performance and it's really the only software out there for live performance. People use it because it's really versatile - you can trigger different clips and loop things and jam with it a bit more, whereas Pro Tools is a really great software program for recording in the studio, recording with bands.

People have used Pro Tools in the past for live performance, but a lot of people, especially in more recent years, have been moving over to using Ableton Live. When I moved to LA in 2005 and got a job at this company called M-Audio - they make speakers and keyboards and MIDI controllers and all that kind of stuff - they were distributing Ableton at the time and I ended up working at Ableton a few years later and becoming the first West Coast Product Specialist for them, and then the first Ableton Certified Trainer. That was in 2008 before it was really, really popular. As it started to gain traction and become more robust, people started catching on. As the software became more popular, the demand for its use in live performances became more popular and that's how I got to start working on all these shows. Plus, at the time, there weren't a lot of experts in it.

I was doing tech support at M-Audio, so I would be on the other end of the line where people call or email saying, "I have this MIDI keyboard and it's not working," and I'd be like, "Well, have you tried the on/off switch?" We had a blast just talking to people because nine times out of 10 it was user error. But people would call and say, "I've got this program called Abelertron," which is what they would call it. I thought I should figure out how to use it, and once I started using it I just fell in love with it. I started using it for my own live performances and built from there.

I have this really great working relationship with them and get privy to all the pre-releases and things like that, so, I'm always sending suggestions.

How Violin Training Impacts Her Show Design Work

It really goes hand-in-hand. I mentioned working with Herbie. I showed Herbie, "Hey this is how I perform my set. This is what I do with my violin," and he said, "OK, let's adapt this and some of the ideas and some of the things that I do on stage." He was like, "That's interesting to me, I want to do that too."

So, literally, everything that I'm developing for myself I bring into a situation with another artist. It is different for every artist. For instance, I toured with Kanye for many years, and Kanye is not messing around with synths and controllers on stage - he is rapping. He's not like Herbie who really wants to mess around with the stuff and be innovative and whatnot. So, it really depends on the artist and what their skill sets are.

But a controllerist is a person that rocks a MIDI controller, and yeah I've got a lot of MIDI controllers, but especially over the past 10 years or so, it has become very popular for people to be able to trigger their own sounds and manipulate their own vocal effects. I have a program called Transmute, which goes over how to do all this stuff, and it's been a passion of mine to help independent artists as well to learn how to use technology because I realized that all of these big artists can afford to hire someone like me to be on tour, but who is helping all the independent artists with their craft? They're only a one-person show. So, that was exciting to me.

Everything controllerism I nerd out on. New technology I nerd out on - it's super fun.


Touring With Kanye West

I started touring with him in 2011 as his playback engineer and live vocal effects person, so I was doing all of his Auto-Tune and I was manipulating his vocals live. I would do delays and pitch-shifting and these different effects live, during his shows, as well as edit all the tracks and get the tracks together for the shows. So that was my primary job, and one of the first shows that I did was Coachella in 2011. It was the Dark Fantasy tour, which started with Coachella that year.

When Watch The Throne came around, which was later that year, they tapped me to play the violin on the song "Made In America." We went on tour again, this time with Jay-Z, so I did all of Kanye's and Jay-Z's songs the whole tour, which was really long - sometimes they played the song "Paris" up to 13 times... they played the same song for up to an hour long.

And I had heard the song "H.A.M." by Kanye and Jay-Z when Watch The Throne had just come out, so I did some string arrangements for it. They ended up using it for the intro of that whole tour, and I continued on touring with Kanye for many years after that.


Her EP Enoughness

The last year and a half has been wild, and I took it as a time for extreme self-exploration and healing. I live alone, and during the first part I just wasn't feeling like creating. I was just like, "What is going on in the world?" and trying to keep my head above water. Then something started to shift and it was like, "OK, I'm starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel." I saw things getting better, and I had just done a lot of processing and a lot of healing in myself and that's when the music started to flow.

I really created the EP as healing music for myself and hopefully other people if they resonate with it, and about how we are almost trained to feel like we're not enough from an early age. A lot of us, I feel like it's in our subconscious that we're not good enough, so I made it my mission to start undoing all of these stories and these tapes that I've been playing in my head for all of these years. I've been working on that for several years now, but really in earnest over the past year.

I just wanted to speak from my heart and create music that reminds me about the place that I was in over the past year. It reminds me of all of the work and growth and healing that I've done to get to where I am now.


The Transmute Retreat

In 2016 I did three shows with three artists in a span of a couple of days. I did a show in San Francisco, then I flew to New York and did a show with Kanye at Madison Square Garden, then the very next night I did a show with Miguel in LA.

This was an especially crazy week. Usually if an artist is on tour it's just working with that artist. It's like Groundhog Day, just doing the same thing every day. But when artists are doing what we call "one-offs" which is that they are not on a tour cycle or they're not on an album cycle, they could get invited to do a show and it's a lot of money, so they take it and they have to assemble their team. Their team might not be available, so it can be hectic.

I remember coming back to LA and going out with some friends and just wanting to blow off some steam. I remember eating and drinking a lot of different stuff that night. I think it was this raw egg drink that I had - if anyone ever offers you a raw egg drink, do not take it!

But the next day, I woke up and my stomach was hurting and I started to be in a lot of pain. I ended up going to the hospital and was in and out of the hospital for a while, then ended up in total being in the hospital for 21 days. It was really an awful time for me because the doctors didn't know what was wrong. They were like, "You ate or drank something that really shut down your intestines." It was just awful. I couldn't eat anything, I couldn't even drink any water for all this time and I just became really weak. I was despondent and really depressed, and then for months after that I was still weak and not happy.

I knew that something had to change. That was life's way of saying, "Hey, let's take a look at the way you're living your life and let's change this." So, I did, and I got really into my health and wellness journey. I started treating myself better and started doing more productive things like meditating rather than partying, and I decided to create the Transmute retreat as a way for artists to explore their own self-growth and healing and self-care as well as learn things like Ableton. That morphed into the Transmute Accelerator, which is my online course for artists to learn how to design their own live show. So all of the work that I've done with the Herbies and all these different artists, I translated that into an online course so people can just take all the 20 years of knowledge that I've gained, and I just pulled it down into an 8-week course that's super fun. So now I have a whole online platform and it brings together my love of music and technology and health and wellness and self-actualization, essentially into one place.

Transformation

I was like, "Why am I living life like this? Why am I saying yes to everything and not yes to myself?" I took a big step back from working with all the artists. I enjoyed that work, but I also really enjoy my own personal work and my music and Transmute. I was also really burned out from touring - I had been doing it for many years and hadn't been at home in LA that much. My friends never called me anymore because they just assumed I was out of town - the typical musician touring kind of lifestyle. So it was a catalyst for me to take a deeper look at what I really, truly wanted and just to realign myself on that path.

I'm 42 now. When I started five years ago I was 37 and as I started approaching my 40s I'm like, "Ok, I've been touring for the last 10 years and it's been great but I really want to have roots and be in one place and be able to get up every day and do the same thing." I think that if you don't make the choices, life kind of makes them for you.

I actually have a two-month trip coming up. It's not working with artists but it's for my own music and I'm playing and doing some music projects with people in different cities and going down to Costa Rica for a bit and playing some music down there, so I'm excited.


Transmute Academy

At the Transmute Academy, it's actually free to join for anyone who wants to jump into some of my work on the Ableton side and learn about designing live shows and programming live shows - we've got a bunch of free courses in there. And we just had our Transmute Festival - it's an online festival where all the artists in my program perform and show what they've learned. We do that periodically throughout the year. I'm always performing on my Instagram and YouTube and different festivals, and hopefully again in person some time soon as well.

I'd just like to inspire folks who are music producers or make music who don't know that this is even a job. This is something that they can do, and I think it's really fun for musicians to get into that live atmosphere.

August 4, 2021

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More at lauraescude.com

Footnotes:

  • 1] "Timecode" is an industry term that refers to attaching a continuous time stamp to a piece of media. It's standard practice in TV, where every camera shooting a scene will have the same timecode [often time of day] that matches the media, which makes editing a lot easier - that's what you see in those rectangular black boxes that sometimes show up in behind-the-scenes footage. For a live event, this means syncing timecode to every camera, audio source, lighting element, and anything else that needs to trigger at a specific time or be edited later. (back)

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