Laptop Battles

When I first started Vox Pop, (paying) client work was a rare thing. I was in the typical catch-22 that many first-time freelancers find themselves in: in order to get work you need to have a portfolio, but it is had to build a portfolio without work. To solve that problem I created a number of sites, including a music community called mutednoise, where I could explore topics while practicing web skills. A common feature was interviews with interesting people doing interesting things.

As Moore's law marches onward, laptops have grown in stature as much as they have slimmed in sized. They can dish out multimedia mastery with the best of their studio computer cousins. This has lead to the laptop becoming a powerful weapon in a performing artist?s arsenal. mutednoise interviews Zach Huntting (Zapan), contact for, for insights on a new series of musical competitions that pit man and portable machine against one another.


  1. Gear for making incredible music in real time exists and the setup is no more complex than an average laptop.
  2. The Laptop Battle competitions take a 'punk rock' approach to traditional 'glossy' electronic production and performance.
  3. If the ambitious artists, like Zapan, have their way, look for Laptop Battle Superstars on a cereal box near you soon.
  4. </p>

    How did you get started using technology for music? Was it with more traditional gear (synths, grooveboxes, etc) or a computer based rig?

    I began as a dj and stumbled onto computer-based recording/sequencing (digital performer) as a way to 'perfect' my mixtapes. After a brief hiatus, I began using a turntable, groovebox, dr. sample and tape recorder/microphone setup to branch out into more individual productions. It wasn't long before a good friend of mine (Cory Heindel) sent me a copy of Reason and asked me what I could do with it. I made my first completely original 74 minutes of music with reason and Cool Edit 96.

    How did you become involved with participating and promoting laptop battles?

    I'm part of an artist collective / record label / etc called fourthcity, and, among other things, we put on a Monday-night multimedia event called 'the weekly'. I was talking with Kris Moon, who has been doing music and events in Seattle for like forever, and Bobby Karate (a.k.a. bruno pronsato), who is one of Seattle's few true electronic music idols, about doing a different type of event. We decided on some sort of collaborative 'laptop circle', where we would each send different, minimal contributions to the group signal. A week or two before the event Bobby Karate suggested Kris and I take a look at Chicago's intermittently-held 'laptronica' event. After which we decided to do something along the lines of an 'everybody plays separately' type thing. Nobody really knew what was supposed to happen outside of a few people, so the night was extremely unorganized. Bobby Karate succeeded in exploding the native subwoofer though. Since more than a few of Seattle's tight-knit'scenesters' were in the audience the event was followed by quite a bit of email/bulletin-board discussion. After that, we proposed the idea of a bigger (and costlier) show to the fourthcity board, who approved it, and the biggest all-local electronic music event in Seattle's history was born.

    I had only been using my laptop as a performance instrument since 2002, and had already noticed the obvious lack of visual stimulation that overshadowed most laptop-music performances. Show-goers don't want a guy hunched over a laptop programming sequences (unless it's Luke Vibert). They want action. We made all the battle performances three minutes long, and the participating musicians, for the most part, have all pushed the arts of performance and on-the-spot composition forward. I love the laptop battle!

    What are the specs on your performance machine? What software are you running, what sound card do you use, etc? Are there any limitations you find yourself with?

    Currently I use Ableton Live, Digital Performer, and Reaktor on my Apple Powerbook (1gig memory, 1gig ram, but still lots of limitations). I also use a Novation K-Station [highly recommended], a couple cheap Casio synths, and pretty much every sample/recording/conversation I can get my hands on. I don't really use a [separate external] soundcard when performing, but probably would if I wasn't so damned lazy. My computer runs really slow, especially when I use Reaktor and Digital Performer together, but it does an okay job on stage.

    Why laptops? What's possible with a laptop that can or can't be done with a live band or DJ vinyl?

    There's a lot of stuff that's possible with a laptop that isn't available anywhere else. Computers have revolutionized music! I've taken samples from almost every instrument I've heard of, mapped them to software samplers, and stored them on something that weighs less than ten pounds. I can compose on the plane, fix wrong notes with one click-and-drag motion, and edit compositions to my heart's content. One of the biggest advantages to using a computer for songwriting is that you can be the whole band, which obviously reduces the number of times you have to change your band-name cuz of someone else's ego. seems to resonate a type of 21st century punk attitude to music making: damn the polish of more conventional studio productions and embrace the excitement of making something in the moment on what's available. Do you think that is an accurate observation? Are we about to see the same artistic liberation as we did twenty-some years ago when working-class English teens started banging on guitars? Or am I just reading way too much into friends having weekend fun with their iMacs?

    Definitely. It seems like every year computer-based music is becoming more and more paint-by-numbers, more calculated, which often translates to 'too sterile'. Our crew is really diverse, so just as often as I play all-laptop shows, I?ll be jamming between a drummer, a turntablist and a guy on a keyboard. Being exposed to as many different types of music as possible is a very under-emphasized necessity for modern composers. I think it's impossible not to see the impending musical revolution - we'll be hearing soon from people we've never heard from, those who weren't able to communicate their vision to the other members of the band, people who don't leave their rooms. it's very exciting. Big up cojilabs for the site!

    You already have a couple of music software companies sponsoring these events. Can you see a time when laptop manufacturers jump on the bandwagon and start sponsoring individuals or groups? If so, how far away is the laptop battle community from having one of its own do a Nike-like endorsement with an Alienware or Dell?

    In less than a week, laptop musicians will be sponsored like pro skateboarders. Software companies will use their sponsorships to promote upgrading in a timely fashion. Sponsored laptop producers will give on-site demos at the neighborhood computer retail outlets. This month's Transworld Laptopper will feature your favorite producers layin' it down on their electronic notebooks in sequenced step-by-step glossy color photographs for the bedroom heads to emulate. In the advertising section of the same magazine you will be able to order a custom laptop designed by your favorite superstar. Finally, rules will be set by the Fourthcity International Laptop Battle Association regulating the size and placement of sponsor logos worn by producers engaging in official FILBA competitions. Several companies already have 'artist pages' where artists who use their software/hardware are promoted in exchange for 'testimonials'.

    How long till MTV picks up on this and ruins it?

    Well, we've already got our fair share of weird investor dudes trying to poach on our domain name... However, one of our specific goals for this project is to unite genres that are often, especially in larger cities, distant or completely separated. Although everyone makes different sound/art from one-another, they make sound/art in a similar manner and with similar instruments. We can only benefit from a little intermingling (hey idm-ers: the hardcore and junglist crowds still have 'fun' at shows!). I don't subscribe to the theory that the popularization of something hurts it irreparably. The laptop battle phenomenon isn't going to be popular forever, but if it's success continues for long enough, someone with money who thinks it could help them do whatever it is they want to do is gonna take it out in the open. If, because of that, it becomes too silly or 'played' for the underground, then the people who actually know how to do it right will have to decide whether to continue battling or find something else. In any case, computers don't yet enjoy as much respect as a musical performance with instruments. MTV could help that out a lot.

    What advice would you give someone who has just read this and wants to give it a shot?

    Take lots of vitamins, don't smoke cigarettes and enjoy the world's most rewarding hobby! Remember, the easiest road to 'success' is to do what everyone else is doing!

    Originally published on, April 9th, 2004.