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Laura Escude Is Oz Behind the Curtain 

The music programmer makes blockbuster tours pop

Thursday, Jan 31 2013
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Maybe you Watched The Throne, Jay-Z and Kanye West's emperor-rap extravaganza, which descended on Staples Center last year. It redefined concert spectacle for the Instagram age with leather kilts, oversized American flags, giant projections of swimming sharks and 20,000 enraptured fans. There was a live band, a DJ and a then-record number (10) of encores of "Niggas in Paris."

Behind the Throne was Laura Escude, who was responsible for music programming and editing for both artists, including live vocal effects, Auto-Tune and delays. If someone wanted to remove a verse, alter the chorus or add sound effects, the execution fell to Escude.

It was even her job to count how many times Jay-Z and West performed their hit single about the best Parisian vacation ever.

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"I'm somewhere between the band and the crew. I roll with the crew because I have to set up everything, but I want to be in the band," Escude says with a laugh, in the living room of her tangerine Glendale townhouse on a recent sunny Friday. "One of my goals for 2013 is to change the way the live industry is doing things."

This isn't idle ambition. After being hired by West and Jay-Z, Escude quickly revealed that her skill set went beyond technological mastery. Not only does she produce and DJ under the alias Alluxe, she's a virtuosic violinist who played strings on the Frank Ocean–featured "Made in America," from Jay-Z and West's Watch the Throne album.

So impressive were her contributions that Hit Boy, the producer of "Niggas in Paris," asked her to play violin on his debut mixtape.

The balance between tech guru and artist is an uncommon but natural combination for Escude, the child of a naval officer who grew up in Guam and Pensacola, Fla. In high school, she was the captain of the track team, concertmaster in the orchestra and a straight-A math student. She received a violin scholarship to Vanderbilt and later FSU.

Listening to her lucidly explain the quirks of music production, electronic frequency signals and how to turn your Nintendo Wii into a sonic conduit will quickly make you recall why you got a C in high school trig.

During her third year of college, a rave converted her to the liturgy of electronic music. She soon started attempting to fuse her classical training with the cinematic and glitchy beat canvasses released on seminal English imprints Warp and Ninja Tune.

"I figured out that, instead of playing violin for producers, I could just be a producer myself," the blond, blue-eyed Escude says, sipping a cup of tea. "I got into very weird and obscure [intelligent dance music] and started learning to make beats at George Clinton's studio."

Her living room in Glendale doubles as an improvised home studio. Controllers light up in rainbow colors depending on the note. There are keyboards, samplers, a big-screen Mac and Escude's violin. Kendrick Lamar's "Money Trees" is playing, and a book of sheet music is open to Bach's sonatas.

This is a rare moment at home for Escude, who spent a good portion of the last 18 months traveling Europe and America with Jay-Z and West's royal caravan. After the summer tour ended, she split the rest of the season among London, Berlin and Prague. The itinerary included her own solo shows, a festival in London with Jay-Z, finger-drumming lessons, workshops at Ableton headquarters and the shoot for an upcoming video for one of her own songs, directed by Nika Offenbac.

A week after this interview, she'll be handling music programming and editing for West's performance at the Hurricane Sandy fundraiser in Madison Square Garden.

It caps a dizzying three years since Escude founded her company, Electronic Creatives.

"At first, I was doing workshops, private lessons and consulting for smaller companies who wanted help showcasing their products," Escude says, wearing a blue T-shirt with the printed logo of her former employer, Ableton. While working there in 2007-08, Escude became the first certified trainer in the music-production computer program and even helped devise the company's certification program. Simultaneously, she played violin and orchestrated music production for the electronic world music group Niyaz.

"I was on tour with Niyaz and got a call from Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas," Escude says. "They were looking for someone who could read and play music in addition to the technology stuff. Ever since then, I've been juggling that and my own music."

Despite being primarily employed by Jay-Z and West, Escude has collaborated on the live sets of Garbage, Herbie Hancock and M83. The latter even commissioned an official Alluxe remix of his hit "Steve McQueen."

"I always want to be surprised by a remix, and [Escude] brought originality and novelty to my song," M83 says via email. (If that compliment sounds at all lukewarm, it is not; chalk it up to the artist's first language being French.)

Electronic Creatives has become so in-demand that Escude created the music programming and tech design arrangements for recent treks from The Weeknd, Childish Gambino and Sleigh Bells and sent out artists from her company to implement the system on the road.

"There had previously been a guy on stage with ProTools who pressed play — it was linear, stagnant and took time to load," Escude says. "But if bands want to change a song in a set list, they want to do it on a dime. I help artists control their vocal effects in real time and be more precise with them."

During rare downtime, Escude channels the right side of her brain into the Alluxe project. Last year, she opened up for Garbage, spent time in the lab with Kid Cudi's producer Dot Da Genius, and performed at celebrated beat-scene hub Low End Theory. Video from that evening shows her blending violin jags with bone-bristling beats halfway between hip-hop and electronic dance music.

She expects to release her first Alluxe album in early spring.

But her goals exceed recorded music. She wants to revolutionize the way large-scale tours can be done, with a holistic integration of vocal effects, lighting and visual projections. At the moment, few if any companies are operating in this space, and with her unique combination of artistic and technical ability, Escude's Electronic Creatives has essentially built a throne of its own.

"I've been learning what goes into a show for years, and I see where I can bring it. I want people to know they can come to my company and get artistic, creative programmers," Escude says. "There are so many people designing big tours from the very first day, and I want to be there with the designer, brainstorming about how the light show, sound, controllers and visuals can all interact with each other. I'm trying to push this in a new direction."

Reach the writer at passionweiss@gmail.com

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