Mike McMorris' laptop holds an arsenal of musical possibilities.
Through his computer and synth setup, McMorris can play drums, bass, guitar and keys, sing and create an endless number of sounds - some he's heard before, and others entirely new. On Saturday, McMorris and the handful of other computer musicians who form the group VALIS (short for Vast Active Laptop Intelligence System), will plug into a P.A. upstairs at the Ottobar and deliver a few hours of live, improvised drum and bass.
"It's just so amazing what you can do and the fact that you can stay on beat, have a huge section of all kinds of instruments playing along with you," said McMorris, aka Utenzil. "It's really cool."
While some local DJs spin and scratch exclusively through their laptops, few use computers to compose live improvisational electronica as the members of VALIS do. A 49-year-old who lives in Dickerson, McMorris played guitar and keys in bands before switching to mostly electronica in 2004. He started experimenting with this kind of music when he learned of Ableton Live, a computer program created about five years ago.
Ableton Live lets users run, loop and overdub multiple inputs from other digital instruments and computers. Through it, McMorris can play a riff on an instrument such as a two-neck MIDI guitar into the computer. From there, he can use Ableton to loop it, so it plays over and over as long as he wants while he changes a number of sound qualities.
"It just becomes like a wonderful puzzle you're putting together," McMorris said. "At the same time you're really building something interesting to listen to. You can transpose anything, and you can change the tempo of anything and keep it in pitch."
Recently, McMorris joined a forum on Ableton Live's Web site, where he met other Ableton Live users in the Mid-Atlantic region. A half-dozen of them scheduled a show at the Ottobar this spring where they played overlapping sets of live electronica. Earlier this month, they reunited and tried all playing at once.
"It turned out better than I think anyone could have expected it to, considering we had never tried it before, we had never played with each other before and we were just making it up," said Will Doane, aka Pulsoc, another VALIS member.
Doane, a 34-year-old bassist who lives in the city, started messing around with music programs on computers about five years ago. For the past year or so, he's focused primarily on electronica.
During the evening, VALIS members traded instrumental roles, hopping from bass to drums and so forth. Since they play drum and bass, the beats come fast - about 185 beats per minute, McMorris said. At the beginning of each song, they set a tempo, picked a key and began.
"Everyone seemed to pretty quickly figure out what sort of spaces in the music needed to be filled and filled it," Doane said. "Not all of it was great by any stretch of the imagination, but it was really cool and it evolved, which was what was most interesting to me. When you think about computer music or DJing or at least when I do it, it's all this stuff that's pre-programmed. But this came together and took on a life of its own, and I really enjoyed that."
Ableton also lets users drop prerecorded segments into the mix and tinker with them live. Doane said he's preparing a few riffs to experiment with Saturday.
Doane and McMorris are excited about the music they created at the last VALIS show, and both are looking forward to making more this weekend.
"If you can listen to a half hour of just a complete thing and how it's moving, I don't know if it's art, but it's kind of cool," Doane said. "It took on a life of its own, and that's what really surprised me and pleased me about it."
VALIS performs 7 p.m.-10 p.m. Saturday and every first Saturday upstairs at the Ottobar, 2549 N. Howard St. Admission is $2. Call 410-662-0069 or visit theottobar. com. For more information about the group, visit myspace.com/valismusic.