All illustrations by Ethan Tennier-Stuart
Provoked by the mainstreaming of North American music festivals in the early 2000s—and the big budget EDM boom shortly thereafter—the last decade of live electronic music has been something of an arms race. No longer was it simply enough to just show up and play a few songs, fans demanded lasers, confetti cannons, colossal smoke machines, and cakes to the face.
Working with top production companies around the world, artists have built spectacle-creating custom rigs utilizing the latest light and sound technologies, including 3D mapping, LED helmets, touchscreen controllers, and more. While occasionally some of the more ambitious acts have lost money in the process—Eric Prydz revealed in a 2013 Billboard interview that throwing his state-of-the-art EPIC shows over the years has cost him thousands of dollars—it's all worth it to deliver fans a one-of-a-kind live experience.
In tribute to that legacy, we decided to dive deep into six of our favourite setups and the stories behind them, from Daft Punk's iconic pyramid to deadmau5's ever-evolving cube.
First Debuted: Coachella 2006
Created By: Bionic League
Features: 24-foot-tall pyramid covered with LED beams and screens.
What They've Said: "At Coachella, we still may have been five years ahead of people, but the connection was happening at that moment. It was the most synched-up we ever felt." - Thomas Bangalter (Pitchfork interview, 2013)
Why It's Cool: You can't talk about elaborate live setups without mentioning Daft Punk's pyramid, which simultaneously blew the crowd away at Coachella 2006 and set the bar for future rigs by electronic acts. Not surprisingly, LA Weekly named the show as the best Coachella set of all-time in 2016, with it inspiring a generation of artists (including none other than Skrillex). While last year's tour rumours have yet to materialize into anything concrete, here's hoping they trot out something like the pyramid again for their just-announced Grammys performance with the Weeknd.
First Debuted: Coachella 2010
Features: The original cube was composed of 75 LED RGB panels with a resolution of 1600 x 1200 pixels. Cube 2.1 is 15-feet tall and 16-feet wide and features internal robots that push the sides of the cube—consisting of state-of-the-art LED panels—up and around while projecting new graphics.
Why It's Cool: Lesser DJs have tried and failed to copy the mouse-headed Canadian producer's instantly recognizable setup, which is a constant work-in-progress. Unlike artists who prefer to keep their designs under wraps until tour time, Joel Zimmerman shares plenty of behind-the-scenes photos and footage of the process on social media. In December, he dropped a music video for the Grabbitz-assisted single "Let Go," which gives a sneak peak at what fans can expect from his upcoming tour.
First Debuted: 2010
What He's Said: "We built the stage like me being in the studio, locked away from everybody. [I] thought it was important to finally come out [at the end of the set] and take a step back to the beginning—me and one drum machine, playing around and tweaking something magical out of that. [The show] ended where it all began." (Derivative, 2010)
Why It's Cool: Since introducing his Plastikman alter-ego in 1993, Richie Hawtin has released numerous records under the moniker, which shows off his more introverted and experimental side. Used during a 2010 world tour, the rig features a circular veil that acts like a wall, separating him from the audience. No wonder Resident Advisor named Hawtin the top live act of the year.
First Debuted: 2011. Promo for the latest version, EPIC 5.0, was revealed in November 2016.
Created By: Realtime Environment Systems Ltd. (RES)
Features: Massive LED panels and digital screens "bigger than a jumbo jet," light-up cube choreographed to the music. Past editions have featured 3D holograms and video art, and EPIC 5.0 is set to be part of a "superstructure" called the Steel Yard, including the largest-ever hologram used for a live performance.
What He's Said: "I could go out on a limb and say it's the best-looking, by far, dance music live show ever. Ever, ever, ever." (Billboard interview, 2016)
Why It's Cool: The veteran Swedish DJ and producer has played sold-out shows and festivals worldwide for over a decade now and his rig has always been synonymous with his music—and has grown with him. Collaborating with London-based technical solutions company RES—who also worked on the London 2012 Olympics and Sochi 2014 Olympics ceremonies—each new version of Prydz's EPIC has been bigger and more elaborate. The new show will debut at London's Creamfields in May 2017 and you can watch a preview video here.
First Debuted: 2012
Features: Two pods, 3D mapping, and a touchscreen setup for controlling music and visuals.
What They've Said: "The 3D mapping is incredible and seeing it live you get the full visual effect. You can watch the videos online and on YouTube, but it's nothing like seeing us live and seeing the visual production." - Infected Mushroom's Amit Duvdevani (Your EDM interview, 2013)
Why It's Cool: The drama of the Israeli trance duo's music can make you feel like you're ascending to another plane of consciousness, so it's only fitting the feeling is reflected in their live setup. The duo sit in separate pods in front of a massive screen which displays trippy imagery of fungi forests and jellyfish to match their psychedelic m.o.
First Debuted: 2012
Created By: V Squared Labs
Features: 3D animation and projection mapping.
What He's Said: "It's not necessarily the shape of the cone is what makes it cool, it's more about what's projected onto that shape and each time we do a new rendition of the Vortex we try to soup it out and amp it up in some way and just try and make it more and more intricate and different and we try and switch it up to further the sickness of the Vortex." (EDMtunes interview, 2015)
Why It's Cool: Boosted by 150,000 watts of bass to give audience members the ultimate ear-thumping experience, the idea comes from the Canadian EDM producer himself. Using impressive 3D technology, the lights rotate along a massive ring that houses Datsik right in the centre, giving the effect of a funnel-shaped wormhole.
First Debuted: Coachella 2014
Created By: Production Club
Features: Lights, video, special effects, and pyrotechnics. So big that it needs approximately eight 53-foot-long trailers to transport it.
What He's Said: "You know when you're at the best party and you're like, 'This vibe is so dope?' I want it to be like that." (Let's Make a Spaceship documentary, 2014)
Why It's Cool: With his background in post-hardcore, playing in Vans Warped Tour mainstays From First to Last, Skrillex knows how to push buttons (figuratively and literally). He's has pissed off plenty of dance music purists over the years, but there's no denying his spiky Blade Runner-inspired ship (which was operated by a six-person crew) turned heads, much like the producer's boundary-pushing tunes.
Sofie Mikhaylova is on Twitter.