Friday, 12 June 2009

Getting digitized?



As I’ve clearly stated in the past: I’m a vinyl junkie. An analogue dinosaur. In the field of dance music we have often been the very first genre to embrace new technology. Indeed, more than any other musical variety, dance music and audio technology are intertwined. I have watched all this change and although it interests me a lot, when it comes to performance I am an absolute Luddite. Turning up at clubs to watch my dancefloor heroes play on CD decks makes me want to send the sparkling lights and fancy buttons hurling to the ground. Like a nineteenth century cotton mill, the pioneer CDJs 1000, lying in bits would bring a smile of satisfaction to my face. I’m told they’re sexy. I just feel that CD DJing is cheating – not so much the technology aspect, as in principal it is the same technique as vinyl DJing, but that the audience is cheated. I watch with horror as my favourite record shops close down as everyone turns to the cheaper alternative… Anyway – I have stuck to my guns regarding CDs and remain a vinylist.

However, it’s not just CDs that have changed the face of DJing. One of my favourite DJs is Sasha. I remember reading several years ago how he was embracing Ableton for production. I remember picking up a (vinyl) copy of Involver in 2004 and being blown away by the ‘new’ sound. The thick bass, the really electronic feel, floor-friendly loops, perfectly cut vocals… It is an ambition to produce music and I’ve always liked the sound of Ableton. I dabbled with Cubase a few years ago but Ableton seems to be the software daddy. Shock horror – I realised that Ableton could be used for DJing. I was at a gig at the Q bar, Cardiff, and the DJ had a laptop and a complex looking MIDI controller. He was playing an Ableton Live DJ set… I trainspotted for a bit, to check how it all works… DJs are anoraks at heart and get a high watching others at work. It is the quickest way to improve your style, by studying others in action. I started to interrupt the guy by bombarding him with questions. It all looked posh and he seemed a bit snobbish, with all his fancy equipment… He was very vague and seemed to be avoiding my answers. I didn’t appear to be spending much time at all cueing… OK – fair enough… Some DJs don’t need to cue much. I’ve seen Norman Jay cue a record, when someone dropped a glass from the balcony onto the decks at Ministry of Sound, in literally under 2 seconds, without a glitch in the music. Jeff Mills is notorious for spinning about 5 records every minute throughout the duration of a DJ set, bunging the vinyl over his shoulder as he slams in dub plate after dub plate of the most experimental techno. Thing is – as I soon learnt. You DON’T beat match with Ableton. It is all automatic. How can this be DJing? I felt properly cheated. It’s like losing your lifesavings in Las Vegas then realising you have been playing with a marked deck.

It put me off Ableton. I’m a DJ, not a jukebox. However, I continued reading and reading about the program and it seems that virtually all of my production heroes are ranting religiously about its power. I knew that at some stage I would be on board. I’d have to be, if I want to actually make some decent tunes, realise the dream…

I picked up a book and got studying. Ableton 6 landed on my lap and I churned out a couple of tunes. Very basic, very nasty really, but an attempt nonetheless. It is a powerful program, for sure, it just gets very confusing. I let it fester on my PC for a while and decided to wait for a bit of inspiration. The social side of DJing is important. Swapping label notes in a grotty record shop, booth banter, interacting with off-their-face clubbers. I think that the growth of social networks has helped the whole dancefloor community. I have a DJ category for friends on facebook and there are over 200 people in there. I was a self-taught vinyl DJ but always absorbed advice from my peers which proved fundamental. I decided to invest in a bit of MIDI equipment for potential use with Ableton and through a mutual friend, managed to find the local Ableton guru. I needed to get sweaty in the studio with someone, and get shown how it all operates. A few tips wouldn’t go amiss. As boring as DJing may appear to non-musos, it really is an exciting subject and digesting books and technical manuals just isn’t the done thing.

So, I loaded up on tinnies and made my way out to visit Dave Wired, techno legend extraordinaire. When I was a teenager, I used to get off my box at the Muts Nuts @ The White Lion, Chepstow, where Dave usually hammered out the last set of Techno every Saturday night. The White Lion music agenda was very underground and for a sleepy Welsh village to host one of the cutting edge forums for Goa trance, minimal techno and esoteric electronic, was quite a blessing. Dave’s style influenced me in the first place so it was important that he would be my teacher.

DJ Wired’s style can be described, if I had to tag it, as ‘nosebleed techno’ which is pretty far removed from my 130 bpm progressive house or ‘handbag’ as my mates in the pub refer to it. 180bpm beats; four top the floor with some occasional breaks. It is fast stuff and not for the feint-hearted. I don’t play this music, or indeed listen to it much, but I do appreciate it. Dave stopped DJing two years ago. Hung up the headphones. He gigs all over the world – from Europe to South America. It’s all a LIVE Ableton set these days. Not DJing, but playing his own productions. Live manipulation of his own tracks in a set that smashes hell out of global festival audiences in the tens of thousands. To hear him talk, as a sceptic of the digital revolution, I was initially unimpressed. I still cannot get my head around the idea of a DJ not using vinyl. After a few beers, we headed into the studio. This is where I truly began to realise the power of Ableton. As I said, I’ve had a dabble. But – Dave loaded up a live set which was MASSIVE. He started it rolling and I was entranced as I witnessed what could only be described as a high voltage electric storm on his laptop screen. Beats, bass and the odd vocal, all dynamically shifting. It’s hard to keep track with your eyes what’s happening. The bass bins do the talking though. The music comes slamming out and sounds shit hot. Everything is done on the fly. You prepare each individual sound in the studio, load up a host of audio clips and mash them all up. Mixing, although everything is beat synched, takes on a whole new phenomenon. You can start the next track my clipping out, say, for example the hi-hats of the track playing, add in the hats from the next track, and start looping some vocal from your sample library. Ableton has a massive host of plugins and effects which makes the most expensive Allen&Heath mixer look primitive. Autopan the kicks of one track mirroring the one you’re mixing in, flange up the mids and whack in a few breaks to liven it up. Glitch a few beats, reverse them on the fly and some of the most amazingly complex mixes can be made. To be fair – there is no time for cueing up beats. As a DJ I often cite myself as an original artist for blending two tracks together, ‘in the mix’ to create something new. Very often though, I hardly even change the EQs. Seeming tracks together in an Ableton becomes a whole new mixing experience. It provides an endless challenge and the possibilities are infinite.

I am happy in a way as I try to learn this new technology. It will consume my entire life. I can see why Ableton can be classified as a religion and I am still a new convert. The sacrament may be sample editors and MIDI manuals but I think that the future of dance music really does lie with Ableton. I won’t be hanging up my headphones just yet, but the appeal of becoming a producer means that the digital lure is starting to bite. In a world of hypocrites I am just following nature’s path. If you are interested in electronic music then Ableton is the new drug of choice.

No comments: