Monday, September 28, 2009



I love me a traditional DJ set, beatmatched and played in real time -- hand-mixed, as it were. But for a while now I've had a hankering to try something different, utilizing software (Ableton, in my case) to create something that's more like a collage, layering multiple pieces, pitch-shifting, reversing, cutting and editing, and generally exploring ideas that aren't possible using just the 1s and 2s. As much remix as mix. When Mat Schulz and Michal Brzozowski (aka Warsaw's DJ bshosa) invited me to submit a podcast highlighting the lineup of this year's Unsound Festival, I figured this was as good a time as any to test out the strategy, given that the roster is all over the place, in the best way: evenly distributed between ambient and contemporary classical, house and techno, dubstep, metal, and folk.

To help focus the project, I set myself a couple of rules. I was determined to use as many artists from the lineup as I possibly could. There's only one -- Pavel Ambiont -- from whom I couldn't find music that would sit neatly in the set, but that's in part because I only started looking into his music late in the process, and by that time, switching up the tracklisting was all but impossible. Pavel (who has various MP3s downloadable for free from his website): I'm sorry for excluding you! The DJs Eltron John and Spinoza also went unrepresented. And in just one case, I used an alias different from the artist's Unsound billing: Sebastian Meissner appears as Klimek.

Though I felt free to edit at my heart's content -- and indeed, I include only brief, one- or two- or three-minute portions of some songs -- I was determined to use only one track from each artist, and only original tracks. (I cheated there, using a 2562 remix of a Marco Bernardi track off Clone, which simply worked better than the other 2562 material I had to work with.) Believe me, it would have been much easier to include multiples from certain artists: slotting in more Marcel Dettmann would have let me extend the techno portion, and I agonized over whether to use Shed in the techno or dubstep section (in the end, I stuck to an ambient cut of his that I simply couldn't leave out). Having to settle upon just one Omar-S tune was probably the most fraught decision of the whole mix. "Always There," "Day," "Child Run Away," "Morning Drive," "Motor City Jackpot" and especially "J-A-i-P-U-R" -- I wanted to use it all, especially the latter song. I feel a little bad, actually, about having resorted to what's probably his best-known track, "Psychotic Photosynthesis," but in the end it played a critical role in getting out of the Mountain People. (Mountain People being by far the housiest act of the whole festival, slotting them in convincingly amidst so much murkier, darker material damn near did my head in.)

Despite the fact that I wanted to work in a more collage-oriented style, in Ableton, I was determined to hand-mix the beatmatched portions. That was partially out of laziness: warping all the techno and dubstep tracks in Ableton seemed like a chore. More importantly, I was also leery of having everything locked into a digitally clocked tempo. Maybe it's my imagination, but I've always felt like records mixed in real time have a far more dynamic feel than sets tracked in Ableton. Ableton sets always seem a little leaden to me, even if it's only a subconscious sensation. Mixing by hand, even the tightest mixes are bound to have a little flux in them. (Mine generally have more than I'd like.) I'm convinced that even if you can't hear it, you can feel it: the subliminal friction of two tunes cycling each other ever so slightly out of time. It's that differential that makes your stomach woozy, makes the hairs on your neck stand up. That's my theory, anyway. But it was very important to me that the tempos flow -- I didn't want to just bring in a 4/4 track with a crescendo out of something ambient, and then switch back to beatlessness again. The shape of the whole thing had to make sense, even though the pacing would ultimately be a result of composition rather than spontaneity.

In the end, I probably put about 30 or 40 hours into it. The toughest thing was figuring out the tracklisting and sequencing. I began in iTunes, gathering tracks from all the artists I wanted to include and creating playlists according to style and tempo. I listened while I worked on other things, whittled down, added more. The bulk of the music I already had on my hard drive or my record shelves; the rest I got off Beatport and eMusic. (Normally, I wouldn't play out an MP3 under 320kbps, but I figured I could get away with it on a podcast.) By the end I had six or seven playlists in iTunes going, multiple Word documents, several perpetually shuffled stacks of records. In Ableton, I began dragging and dropping the tunes that wouldn't be played off Traktor and turntables -- testing out overlaps, fades and harmonic combinations, whittling down cuts that had a passage perfect for the mood I had in mind, but that veered too far afield as they developed. (Nico Muhly, I'm looking at you.) As the sequence began coming together, I started making practice mixes of the beatmatched portions, recording into a basic audio editor, Amadeus Pro. I don't know how many gigabytes of test runs I have. Too many. Getting those parts right almost killed me -- the run from Kadebostan through Next Life, Robert Henke (the crazy, plinkety piano track that enters around 30:00) and Marcel Dettmann (the thundering steelworks) seriously tested my dexterity. I owe my girlfriend a huge debt of gratitude for dragging me out of the house on a Sunday afternoon, on what I had hoped would be my last day of work on this, to eat a Greek salad and drink retsina at a café near our house. If I hadn't taken a break then, my laptop and this session both might be lying at the bottom of the canal. (I finished the next day.)

Most of my own favorite moments in the mix are pure chance, really. Of course, my whole point was to make things flow, but there were plenty of things I didn't fully grasp until the pieces were more or less in place -- like the heartbreaking collision of the Sunn 0))) and Stars of the Lid tracks, for instance, or the uncanny way the Next Life track seems to unfold out of the close of the Kadebostan. (Not to gush, but I fucking
love that passage.) There was plenty of finessing involved there, of course: I edited the Kadebostan in Ableton in order to add an ambient outro after its 4/4 section. And the Next Life tune is actually sped up to 45 and then pitch-shifted down to the same key as the Kadebostan. You can hear a little telltale warble from the pitch-shifting, unfortunately, but I doubt anyone who doesn't know the original would suspect that the track -- the very Baroque-sounding synthesizer fugue -- is playing 33% faster than it was intended to; it sounds incredibly natural to my ears, with some really lovely bass tones that don't come out at all the same in the original. And despite a teensy discrepancy in pitch that I couldn't correct for, the Next Life perfectly set up the Henke track, which works like player-piano Scriabin compared to Next Life's synthesized Bach. Likewise, I got lucky that the Zomby tune (which I actually forgot to include in the dubstep portion, necessitating a last-minute cut-and-paste job) was harmonically similar to the Omar-S, and I got lucky with Soap&Skin, James Blackshaw and Samamidon, all of whom were artists I began really exploring only in the last days of the project. (There were a dozen Klimek tracks I wanted to use, but "Ruined in a Day" turned out to be an indispensable segue into the final, guitar-led passage.)

More luck: early in the process, I simply laid the Jacaszek and Johan Johannssen tracks in parallel in Ableton and played them simultaneously, and damned if their bell tones didn't sound like a single piece of music. (Granted, it took a little finessing to get it right, editing the Johannssen down to just one short passage, and then sequencing the bells to strike in time with Jacaszek's.) The Vladimir Sigurðsson fell into place with something like inevitability, and the Nico Muhly, literally the last piece I placed, seemed almost uncanny, once a bit of pitch-shifting set it in the proper key. The introduction is one of the only places in the mix, in fact, where three tracks play simultaneously.

My only gripe: I wish the transition from 2562 into Eagle Twin, the metal band that initiates the final section, weren't quite so jarring. (I actually tried any number of editing tricks to make the segue smoother, but in the end I went with a basic old fade, plus some backmasked guitars and a little bit of reverb on the final notes of the 2562.) But I finally decided to approach the project less as a "DJ mix" than like some left-of-the-dial radio broadcast you might stumble upon late at night while driving, far from any city you've ever visited, in that peculiar groggywired state where the more jarring a transition is, the more sense it makes. I decided to roll with it. Besides, slotting Eagle Twin alongside Sunn 0))), the other metal band, would have been too predictable.

I can't count the number of possible mixes that never happened, over the course of putting this together. There are some (to me) stunning segues that had to be left on the cutting room floor, when I opted to use different tracks from certain artists, or shift around the pacing. But DJing is always about making choices. If it weren't, it'd be too easy. In the end, this was the mix that presented itself.

I don't want to sound too mystical or misty-eyed, but in some sense I believe that this is basically the mix that was out there, waiting to be made whole. I didn't do nearly the amount of editing and rearranging that I had intended to, but that was because any further intervention seemed like overkill. The music suggested its own form. It's a cliché, but I felt like just a conduit on this one. (Nevertheless, I'll take full responsibility for any leaky pipes.)

By now you may well have had the opportunity to hear the whole thing in its entirety. It wasn't my intention to go on at such length, and I'm leery of coming across as tooting my own horn. Still, it was important for me to document the process, if for no other reason than that it presented such a curious tension between subjective intent and something far more… is "passive" the word? In a garden of forking paths, I took one that, in retrospect, was the only possible one. Or rather, it took me. And that, I think, is the dream of any DJ, any musician: to tap into something bigger than your consciousness or your ego, to assist -- dare I say it? -- in a kind of revelation, a laying bare. Of what, I can't really say. But it's been a pleasure to serve.

Many, many thanks to Mat Schulz, Michal Brzozowski and Rayna deNiord. And especially to Lucia, for bearing with me through the whole process.

philip sherburne - process part 163 (unsound podcast 03) by modyfier

01. Nico Muhly, Mothertongue Pt. 1: Archive

02. Valgeir Sigurðsson, Equilibrium Is Restored
03. Jacaszek, IV
04. Johan Johannssen, Part II
05. Grouper, Disengaged
06. Sunn 0))), Alice

07. Stars of the Lid, The Evil That Never Arrived

08. Biosphere, Trasparenza

09. Shed, Ostrich-Mountain-Square

10. Ben Frost, Carpathians

11. Kadebostan, Endroduncing Kadebostan

12. Next Life, Underwater

13. Robert Henke, [shift_register]

14. Marcel Dettmann, Lattice

15. The Mountain People, Mountain008.1

16. Omar-S, Psychotic Photosynthesis

17. Zomby, Expert Tuition
18. Kode9 and the Spaceape, Sine
19. Martyn, Mega Drive Generation

20. Untold, I Can't Stop this Feeling

21. konika, Please
22. Marco Bernardi, Mystery of Nazarus (2562 Remix)
23. Eagle Twin, Murder Of…

24. Soap&Skin, Spiracle

25. Klimek, Ruined in a Day – Buenos Aires
26. James Blackshaw, Bled
27. Samamidon, Wild Bill Jones


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Blogger saintplacid said...

very delightful. that was worth the painstaking process, dear mr Sherburne.
wish i could realise such precise mixing architecture, but listening to yours (and reading its making) was definitely of great inspiration.
deep thx

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