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U STI N STRAU S S lost in paradise - a remix pioneer
EXICO they’ve got their own thing going on down there
ORTEC COLLECTIVE and the Tijuana cultural groundswell
L A R O YA L E / M I J O the new sound of Mexican techno
A C K AT H O N S we’re proud to have some seasoned hackers in our midst
PI CTU R E B OAR D images from the front line
LAFUR ARNALDS there’s just one thing on this producer’s mind
Think of prolific US music remixers, and names like Sanchez, Van Helden and the dearly departed Knuckles spring to mind. Their place is forged in dance music history and their b-sides, re-rubs and dubs are coveted by vinyl collectors and CDJ types alike, and adored by club-goers. They got their start in the late ’80s when digital technology — specifically computer-based sequencing, MIDIenabled synchronisation, and the onset of digital audio workstations — was becoming commonplace. But five years before that — an eternity in music history — a select group of DJs-turned-recordproducers pioneered the new trend: remixing. Justin Strauss was one of these ground breakers, and his story starts at 17 years old, the son of a painting contractor from Long Island, NY; still in high school, a lover of the Beatles and glam-rock, David Bowie, and all things British. “I had met this girl and fell in love with her, and she knew the guys in this band, which was to become Milk ‘n’ Cookies, and we got friendly and we all liked the same kind of music.” The band made a handful of recordings in the basement of Justin’s family home with the plan to send the demo tape to some bands, notably Sparks, who the Milk ’n’ Cookies guys were really into. “Sparks’ manager was like ‘we love you!’. They played our tape to Muff Winwood, the head of A&R at Island Records in the UK and producer of Sparks’ Kimono My House, and they said that they want to meet us. So they all came to my parents’ house. They signed us on the spot.” Fast-forward a few years, in which Milk ‘n’ Cookies obtained a youthful following, and Justin had moved with the band to LA. “My old girlfriend, who had got me into Milk ‘n’ Cookies, told me that I had to come
back to New York because there was this place called the Mudd Club. She said ‘you should DJ at it’, but I was like ‘I’ve never DJed!’ She said ‘It doesn’t matter, you’ve got a lot of records!’” Justin landed back in New York at exactly the right time. It was 1979, and the New York scene was dominated by Studio 54, the glitzy uptown club that was disco’s ground zero earlier in the decade. But downtown’s feverishly growing artist population needed an alternative, and the Mudd Club offered this. “You had lots of different art forms meeting: punk rock, rap, hip hop and disco all coming together in New York. All these insane people doing really great things came together at one magic time.” Justin quickly established himself on the scene and met Francois Kevorkian, already a prolific DJ in clubs. “Then Francois took me to the Paradise Garage,” Justin recalls, “and it totally changed my life. When I heard Larry Levan play for the first time, I realised what it means to be a DJ, and what you should strive to achieve.” Through Francois, Justin and Larry became friends and bonded over their common interests. “I would just hang out in the booth at the Garage every Saturday night after I’d DJ’d, and I got an education in a lot of music and a lot of culture that I just fell in love with. It’s hard to describe it, it was like a family thing, you would see the same people every week. And it sounds corny and I hate saying it, but it was their church, and mine too.” So Justin started to inject some of what he experienced at Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage into his DJ sets, and was on to a good thing. He was offered a residency at The Ritz (now known as Webster Hall), which he accepted on the condition that he stopped playing at Mudd Club. “The Ritz was a new club where I could really do something
Francois K took me to the
from scratch. It became the venue that every band played at, from Kraftwerk to Sugar Hill Gang, to Tina Turner, to Human League, Depeche Mode… The list would blow your mind, and every night I would play, so I saw everybody and their mother play and got to open for incredible bands.” Justin was still very close with Francois K, who by that time was working for Prelude Records. Prelude had been at the forefront of the disco scene and went on to carry the ‘mastermix’ format, with producer Shep Pettibone exploring the new concept of re-mixing existing pop songs into club-friendly versions. “Francois would be giving me the Prelude records he was working on at the time, and I would mix them in with alternative and new-wave tracks at The Ritz. It would freak some people out, and some people loved it, and I just sort of carved my own sound. Labels would come to me with their acetates and test pressings and say ‘please play this’. That’s how records got broken. It was a very organic process.” So that’s how Justin became a DJ, and he went on to grace the turntables at now-legendary New York clubs including Danceteria, Palladium, Tunnel, Limelight, M.K., and eventually Area, about which we could write ad infinitum. Simply put, Justin became a serious fixture on the NY club scene; everybody knew him from the clubs. “I was really getting inspired by Larry’s productions and remixes, and those of Francois and Shep
Pettibone. Shep was probably the most famous and influential remixer of the time, he produced ‘Vogue’ for Madonna. I had already, through Milk ‘n’ Cookies, become comfortable in a recording studio and I wanted to get into remixing and production. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but there’s no better way to do it than try and learn, so I used being in the right place at the right time — as a DJ in the biggest clubs in New York — to get my foot in the door.” In 1984, the typical recording studio was a daunting place, and the process of making a remix was very complicated. “This was the wild west, basically,” says Justin. “You didn’t just sit down with a computer with a bunch of stems and just load it up. You’re working with tapes that, for the most part, weren’t recorded to a click track. You had either live drums or early drum machine stuff, which was mostly out of time or sync. We would get the 24-track master tape, and the first thing we did was to make a copy of that on to another two-inch tape, which we would work from. Then we’d have another 24-track tape that we’d record overdubs on to. So it was a 48-channel environment, with two 24-track machines running in sync with each other. We’d take the SMPTE from the tape and send it to this box called the SBX80, which converted the code into a rough click track. Just getting a click track to work could literally take a day. We would be in a production studio that had keyboards and drum machines, and we would start to do overdubs, stripping away some things, adding our own parts. I had an SP12, which had a short sample memory. I still have it and love using it. But there were things that I couldn’t do, and I wanted
to find a keyboard player that wasn’t playing on anyone else’s records — I wanted us to have our own sound — so my girlfriend at the time said she knew this guy who played keyboards. His name was Eric Kupper, and he had an Ensoniq keyboard with a little sequencer in it, and we hooked that up to the SBX80 so we could run sequences.” Justin got into the groove of remixing, and soon scored credits with Debbie Harry, Duran Duran, Skinny Puppy, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, and Sinead O’Connor. With each remix, he was pushing the envelope, trying new techniques. “We would work with these tape editors, in particular these guys Chep Nunez and Tuta Aquino. They’d do these insane tape edits, where they would copy parts of your passes to a quarterinch tape machine, and then cut it up and put the
Th is bu si ne ss is ab ou t
song together and do these incredible breaks. It was an incredible process to witness; it was just razor-blade cutting, before digital editing was a thing.” I remember when we had done a remix of a Debbie Harry record, which we turned into this latin freestyle track, and it had this little melodica intro, which Louie [Vega — grand master of house music and one half of production dream-team Masters At Work] was playing in the club over other records.
Words & Pictures: Chris Mayes-Wright
re in v e n ti n g y o u rs e lf , w he th er s u b c o n s c io u s ly or c o n s c io u s ly , & I s ta rt e d to d o th a t.
By the time he actually played the track, the whole place exploded and it was one of the biggest tracks in the club.” Justin had established his own trademark sound, which was identifiably ‘New York’: as diverse and eclectic as the city. His remixes set the benchmark for the next generation of house producers and remixers to reach: the likes of Frankie Knuckles, David Morales and Masters At Work. At this point, in the late-’90s Justin took a break, to focus on family after a hectic period that had seen him notch up over 200 remixes. But by the late 2000s, musical trends were beginning to lean back towards electronica.
Words & Pictures: Chris Mayes-Wright
“All of a sudden there was interesting dance music again, all this cool stuff coming out of England, and DFA records in New York making records influenced by the types of records I had played and made. I was totally inspired, so I started making records again. This business is sort of about reinventing yourself, whether subconsciously or consciously, and I started to do that. People started hearing me again and liked it, a lot of young kids seemed to be inspired by what I was doing, and I was inspired by them, and I started finding projects to get involved in. I was throwing myself back into it.” A few years down the line, in present day Brooklyn, and Justin is again embedded in the dance music scene. His first new partnership with Bryan Mette as Whatever/Whatever gives him an outlet to make music again.
Justin’s fondness for hardware follows him still. Although he and his collaborators use Ableton Live, Pro Tools and Logic in the studio, he’s still got his SP12 and Juno 60 and loves to send sound through hardware processors. When working on another of his current projects called A/JUS/TED — a partnership with producer Teddy Stuart (aka Eddie Mars) — they use Teddy’s Otari quarter-inch tape machine “we’ll record bass and drums to the tape machine to dirty the sound, then record it back to the computer. It adds a whole other layer of stuff to what we’re working on”. Justin also has a desire for analogue synths, and remembers using the original Novation Bass Station, during the early ’90s. “Everyone was into new toys back then and I remember the early Novation stuff. We would just experiment with it in the studio; the low end was just great.” So it’s no surprise that the Bass Station II is put to good use in the studio these days. “We have a lot of vintage synths and gear in our studio and the Bass Station II is a great modernsounding keyboard that mixes well with what we are doing with our productions. Especially when we are looking for a nice sub bass.” Looking back on his journey through dance music, Justin reflects on the advancement of technology and the relative ease of working on music. “I’m grateful to have learned and to be forced to have some rules as when when you’ve finished. But the possibilities now are just insane and some music could never have been made if it weren’t for technology. New genres of music have opened up and it’s an exciting time. I feel lucky to have found two super talented production partners in Bryan and Teddy. And I’m fortunate because I’m still in tune with the technology but I also have this history of what it was all about back then, which I can bring to music. If there’s anything that makes what I do unique, its that. I’m not stuck in sounding like something I did in the 1980s, but I have that in me and I can bring that to now, and make it relevant.”
E X IC O
The beat of Mexican dance music: new & old People had been telling us about the buzz in Mexico for ages.
Theyâ€™ve got their own thing going on down there they s aid,
you have to check it out.
So we headed south of the border to make some friends.
Tijuana is the Mexican border city that’s squashed between the Pacific Ocean and the majestically oppressive US border fence. ‘TJ’, as it’s commonly called, has long been known as a party town, thanks to its proximity to the American metropolises of Los Angeles and San Diego and its more lenient attitude towards late-night and under-age drinking. But look through its dubious reputation, and you’ll see Tijuana as a beautifully vibrant and bubbling melting pot of different cultures, which has spawned some unique styles in everything from art to food — TJ tacos are to die for — and of course, music.
Words & Pictures: Chris Mayes-Wright
Key players in the Tijuana cultural groundswell are Nortec Collective, a crew of local electronic music artists who joined forces in May 1999. They rose to prominence though their pioneering way of blending traditional norteño and tambora samples mixed with the musical aesthetics of techno (hence nor-tec). It all started when Pepe Mogt (Fussible) got the idea of mixing these elements and prepared a library of sounds made up of samples taken from multitrack recording sessions of the most popular norteño recording studio at the time, using these sounds members of the collective started experimenting in search of a new movement. Soon after, Ramon Amezcua (Bostich) amazed everyone with his track ‘Polaris’, credited with defining the nortec sound.
in their sound, adding elements of Italo Disco, mid-80s English electro-pop and krautrock mixed with a norteño sound that becomes more organic with the addition of live instrumentation. Their second album Bulevar 2000, also received a Latin Grammy nomination, and represents the second chapter of the electronic music production duo’s musical trilogy that comes to an end with 2014’s Motel Baja. Described as ¨the end of the nortec sound¨ by Pepe and Ramon, the album combines elements of the Collective’s initial sounds, heavier use of analogue synths and drum machines, and special collaborations including Wolfgang Flür (Kraftwerk), Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz (Talking Heads, Tom Club), and Uwe Schmidt, aka Atom™, Señor Coconut.
look through its dubious reputation, and you’ll see
Tijuana as a beautifully vibrant and bubbling melting pot of different cultures,
Words & Pictures: Chris Mayes-Wright
which has spawned some unique styles The collective soon realised they had something special going on, and through their wider membership of designers, video makers, writers, and artists, who provided an immersive backdrop to the nortec sound, they transformed themselves into an authentic cultural movement and also the figureheads of the first original electronic music scene from Mexico and Latin America to reach international success. In 2008 Nortec Collective disbanded and separated into different projects. Founding members Pepe Mogt and Ramon Amezcua continued as Nortec Collective Presents: Bostich + Fussible, and have been touring and playing in the biggest stages all over the world ever since. The duo’s Grammy-nominated debut album Tijuana Sound Machine shows an evolution
Novation synths have played a part of the Nortec Collective sound for many years. From the original Bass Station Rack to the Supernova, the Novation sound has appeared time and again. Bostich proudly jams with his Bass Station Rack, a Roland TR606 and an Electro-Harmonix Memory Man. 2015 saw Bostich + Fussible return to Coachella, 14 years after performing at the festival for the first time, and also headlining Vive Latino, one of the biggest music festivals in Mexico. A farewell tour to mark the release of Motel Baja and 15 years of the Nortec sound will close out the year for Pepe and Ramon, in venues around the world.
/ inside Mexico City’s beating heart This story starts in the sprawling suburbs south of Mexico City — far from the flocks of tourists and the mariachis that follow them — with a young Alec Sander transitioning from a video-game habit to playing in rock bands.
“It wasn’t so safe as a kid to be out on the streets, so we would just find things to do like skateboard or paint walls. Then I got into music and started playing in punk rock bands. I was a singer and guitarist, but I started getting kicked out of every
/ band that I joined because my singing sucked, so I started doing music on my own.” Electronic music was an obvious choice for Alec because, as he explains: “I didn’t need a band, I didn’t have to do band practice or have to call everybody for rehearsals. I found myself replacing guitars with synths, and I realised that there was a bigger range of sounds that I was capable of producing.”
At the moment my whole attention is focused in finding the new sound of Mexican techno
Alec had found his calling, and began to put all his time into experimenting with electronic music production. Rather than copying current trends in dance music, he took inspiration from the very roots of dance music: the likes of Kraftwerk and Depeche Mode, the original Detroit techno scene, and the minimal sound of Berlin. This was a conscious decision and one he made through a responsibility he has to represent the Mexican identity inside dance music. He calls this ‘Malichismo’, “the automatic love of stuff that comes from outside Mexico, and the failure to realise that a lot of interesting things are happening inside our country.” The European dance music sound had already been defined, recalls Alec. “It was very mathematical, a perfectionist sound. So in Mexico, we wanted to come out with a sound that would be unique to us. Little by little, a Mexican identity started to grow. We introduced vocals in Spanish, then the crude, dirty basslines came out. That was the rise of the Latin American sound inside the techno scene.”
Naturally, technology is important, and Alec is keen on using gear he can touch. His studio comprises of an Ableton laptop setup and a selection of analogue synths, including an original MS20 and a Juno 106. His centrepiece is the Novation Bass Station II, which Alec says he gravitated towards as soon as he saw it. “I immediately fell in love with the way it looked because of all the knobs. You can touch it, you can move it, and that is very important for me. There’s a lot of companies that ignore the importance of having lots of knobs and faders.”
from the suburbs had placed himself at the heart of the new movement: his sound typified the style that was quintessentially Mexican, producing music under the names La Royale, and Yesco. “All of a sudden, my friends from Italy and England would tell me, ‘hey, that sounds so Mexican’ or ‘that bass line sounds like Mexico’. That’s when we realised that we were creating a new sound.” The next phase was creating an outlet for this music, but not knowing anyone in the techno scene, Alec decided to start his own record label, Electrique Music. “We had to do this because we didn’t have a place to publish our own music,” “We didn’t know who to talk to, who to play with or where. So we decided that we would make our own label and we would publish our own work online. All of a sudden people from around the world responded to the distinctive sound. Emails started coming in, phone calls, questions and comments of people saying that this was something new, something they hadn’t heard before.” Still just 25 years old, Alec is working on a new project, Mijo. “This is a new phase that I’m on. For a while I’ve had a strong desire to make Mexican techno. I also had other projects that were a little softer, they were a little more disco and pop. I am a music lover and I have many phases in wish I like to work on, but at the moment my whole attention is focused in finding the new sound of Mexican techno.”
I THINK THAT NOVATION HAS THAT VISION TO FOLLOW THROUGH WITH THAT OLD SCHOOL PHILOSOPHY OF KEEPING THINGS TOUCHABLE, NOT JUST WITH SCREENS AND BUTTONS, MORE SO IN A WAY THAT YOU CAN TOUCH THE SYNTH AND REALLY DISCOVER
a Hacker’s Dream
Here at Novation, we’re proud to have some seasoned hackers in our midst. They’re the ones who spend their time coding, programming and debugging, and creating new ways of doing things which, eventually, helps to shape the way you make music. Novation’s Hacker-in-Chief (Head of Product Innovation) Dave Hodder explains the often-intimidating world of Hackathons and how spending a day locked in a room of fellow ‘hax0rs’ can lead to concepts such as the open-source functionality of the new Launchpad Pro.
For me, the scene is exemplified by Poem to a Horse by Farbrausch. You can watch it on YouTube, but for true geek points, track down the original demo (Windows only) and think about how they generate over six minutes of eye-popping video, music and text from just 64kB. In parallel to the demoparty scene, LAN parties grew and overlapped. Increasingly accessible, and increasingly socially acceptable, groups of gamers and coders gathered and did their favourite things into the small hours. Collaboration and competition flourished together, both in multiplayer FPS games and in coding. In the wider world of software development, the tools were getting simpler and more accessible. Frameworks and languages exploded, and a generation of children raised on cracked ZX Spectrum software got into programming. Perhaps the hacker manifestos were right.
To the best of my knowledge, it all began with those hackers that we used to be scared of. The kind of people who played War Games, who cracked and distributed software, p33ple wH0 L0veD 2 rit3 liKe th15. And a few who wrote elaborate manifestos about how “information wants to be free”. Which, of course, justified breaking the copy protection on a ZX Spectrum game made by a couple of teenagers in their bedroom. Behind the high-minded screeds, it was really all about a competition to be the best. Be the fastest, most artful, most ‘3l33t’ at cracking games. One group would attempt to outdo the others by being first, by creating the best ASCII art, and then by adding increasingly complex ‘demos’ to the loading screens of the games they cracked. They loved the intellectual challenge of building incredible graphics and sound into the minuscule memories of the hardware of the day. Some lost interest in cracking, maybe they even grew up and got day jobs making software. And they had parties. A roomful of PCs, pizzas and the rest: entire weekends spent with bleary eyes, creating increasingly beautiful electronic art.
Facebook made the hackathon famous, as depicted in The Social Network. In this case, a high pressure job interview epitomising Mark Zuckerberg’s movefast-and-break-things philosophy; the Like button even originated at an internal hackathon. Other companies saw the potential, and started organising hackathons for various reasons: internally, to foster innovation and teamwork; externally, to promote customisable products, to engage with customers, to recruit, or to improve security. Now, every online service company has an API (Application Programming Interface) and encourages people to use it. Music Hackday is a great example; at a typical MHD, hacks will combine Spotify, Soundcloud, Musixmatch and more to deliver interesting web applications and amusing concept art. Often at the same time! Then Arduino (and it’s many siblings) came along and opened up the world of hardware hacking, which until that point had tapped into existing computing devices, be they PCs, games consoles or other existing hardware platforms. Arduino is an open-source development platform for embedded projects — things that live away from your computer — which can easily connect to other things, such as switches, lights, computers and so on. And, whilst circuit bending had always been moderately accessible to those with minimal electronics skills, the open source, low-cost ARM module made creating unique hardware hacks dramatically easier.
: a Hacker’s Dream These days, hackdays like MIDI HACK — a large hackathon that has taken place twice, in Stockholm and Berlin — are as much about hardware as they are software. Imaginative combinations of junk hardware and modern prototyping kit integrate with the software equivalent of Arduino: Pure Data / Processing / Max MSP. These visual development tools make programming intuitive to those who already understand signal flow in a DAW or studio. Suddenly, custom MIDI > Audio > Video applications can be built in a similar fashion to the construction of a complex Ableton Live set!
disclosure: Focusrite & Novation sponsor Beat Camp. If you can get to London, come along!) So how does a typical hackathon run? Usually over a weekend, they begin with presentations from the sponsors, who have technology to pitch to hackers. “Here’s our new API, see what you can build with it…” They will often offer prizes, ranging from software licenses to hardware, and even cash! Sometimes there’s an opportunity for teams to form, by pitching ideas for hacks and asking for help. Then there’s usually 24 hours of hacking, punctuated by food, coffee, occasional sleep and downtime.
p33ple wH0 L0veD 2 rit3 liKe th15
But don’t expect a hassle-free hangout at a hackathon: at some point in the evening, work will need to be torn up and began again. Equipment will fail. Good ideas turn to dust. But that’s all part of the fun! The trick is catching yourself before the despair sets in, salvaging the seed of an idea that makes sense, and getting back to work. The bliss of knowing exactly what you need to do and having the tools and support to do it makes it all worth while.
Usually things will finish with announcement of winners and prize giving by the sponsors, and hopefully a great closing party. Not much beats Music Hackday Barcelona, as it’s the SONAR festival!
An interesting twist on the hackathon approach is Beat Camp, which is essentially a hackathon for music makers. Exactly the same principles apply: collaboration, timeboxing and the unexpected results they engender. The Beat Camp team try to make the event as smooth as possible, by vetting applicants and matchmaking before the day. (Full
There is a darker side to the hackathon. Competing for prizes doesn’t necessarily encourage collaboration, or risk taking. The macho ‘stay up all night hacking’ mentality alienates some, and as a result, hackathons are still primarily attended by young men. Some sponsors attempt to claim ownership of intellectual property, whilst hackers are often blissfully unaware of the value of their work. In my experience, the best hackathons
Picture: Sebastian Höglund
At the end, it’s the demo session, where many hacks have to be shown off in a short time. Demos are hard, especially if you’re using the internet or new technology, or if your hack is complex.
unite people from around the world, sharing the joy of building cool stuff. We programmer types are often introverts, at least until someone gets us talking about the Web MIDI API or Angular.js, then our eyes light up. Small prizes show that sponsors value our work, without dividing loyalties. Codes of conduct reinforce decent behaviour by all. If 24 hours of hacking puts you off, there’s also the Hackspace: regular local meetups organised with a similar mentality, but without the pressure to complete to a deadline (and often, without the corporate sponsorship). A bit of Googling will almost certainly turn up something near you, and if you arrive eager to learn you’ll find a warm welcome. I mentioned Novation’s involvement in Beat Camp, the music-making hackday in London, but hacking concepts are also at the heart of our new innovations at the company. Hacking, in the original computer-nerd sense of the word, means making a system do something it was never intended to do, and some of the most fun you can have at hackathons is by customising things to do something unexpected. When we were designing Launchpad Pro, we wanted to let people do exactly this, after our experience with the original Launchpad community, who had embraced custom setups with gusto. The original Launchpad lends
itself nicely to hacking, as you can do whatever you like by writing apps for the host computer or mobile device (as it only ever works when connected in this way). The simplicity of the device, and the clarity of the programmer’s reference made it a great platform to build on. However, Launchpad Pro can run as a MIDI controller without a host computer, so to customise its behaviour in this mode requires being able to modify the firmware! (Open firmware has been our parking lot for all the fantastic ideas the development team have come up with since we first started the project. The stuff that we knew would be awesome, but we couldn’t justify for the majority of customers.) At the most recent MIDI HACK, which took place at Ableton HQ, Berlin in May 2015, we realised just how much fun you could have with a standalone Launchpad Pro and a Meeblip Anode, and we were desperate to get some sequencing functionality working. However, seeing all the talented hackers around us, it was clear that the best thing to do would be to enable them to do it. Since then, we’ve put most of our efforts into making the learning curve as simple as possible. Minimal tools to install, no additional hardware to buy, keeping low-level complexity hidden away, writing good documentation, and so on. Hopefully this will be a useful starting point, allowing people to make sequencers and chorders, make custom controllers for MIDI hardware, and... well, hack with it and do things we haven’t even thought of!
Picture: Sebastian Höglund
My dream is to be part of a community of people creating Launchpad Pro ‘apps’, each doing something interesting and unique. It’s possible that someone could build a platform on top of the open firmware, perhaps even including a desktop editor for customising it...
Check out my development blog here: http://launchpadfirmware.tumblr.com
Novation Tweakeasy, Bossa Nova Civic Club, Brooklyn, USA Impromptu improvisations by Teddy Stuart & Peter Fonda
Sonar Festival, Barcelona, Spain Kiasmos in the smoke
Movement Festival, Detroit, USA Mark Taylor (Model 500 Live with Juan Atkins, Mike Banks & DJ Skurge)
Sonar Festival, Barcelona, Spain Novation Synth Museum at Sonar Pro
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Words & Pictures: Chris Mayes-Wright
From grand pianos and string quartets to synthesisers, there’s just one thing on this producer’s mind. Ólafur Arnalds admits that, at age 10, he didn’t know what a producer was, but it’s all he ever wanted to be. “The guy behind the scenes, who does everything but doesn’t need to get his face on the front cover,” recalls Ólafur, who at a young age would scour album sleeves to discover which producers worked on which records. “I would always see the same producers working with different bands. They each had their own sound, and for me that was really interesting.”
lafur began his musical career as a drummer, playing in several Icelandic metal bands. “I was very involved with the hardcore punk scene in Iceland and I recorded a lot of the now legendary punk albums of that time.” His first proper recording system was a computer with one of the first versions of Cubase, hooked up to a small mixer and a simple sound card. Ólafur used this, and a handful of SM57s, to hone his recording skills, and made a name for himself. But the piano had consistently been an influence in his life. “There was always a piano at my house and I had been playing that since I was very young. In my early teens I started getting into film scores and soundtracks, and I discovered this totally emotional aspect of music that I hadn’t found before. I remember films that had a big impact on me, like The Green Mile, A Beautiful Mind, and Requiem For A Dream, and I started experimenting with classical instruments in some of my initial compositions.”
Ólafur continued his explorations in arrangement and composition, and in 2007 released his debut studio album, Eulogy For Evolution. Here, he blended hauntingly beautiful piano and strings with epic synths and rock-inspired drums. In doing so, like the producers he idolised as a kid, he cemented a sonic identity that can be heard in all his work, from his soundtrack to the TV show Broadchurch, to his techno project Kiasmos. During these formative years, Ólafur not only established his trademark sound, but also forged a certain formality in songwriting. “I find that I cannot write a piece without knowing what it’s going to sound like first. So for example, if I sit down at an upright piano I’m going to write a totally different piece than if I sit down at a Steinway grand, because the sound of that piano is a part of the composition. It’s a totally different response, a totally different clarity and it’ll do different things. So sound comes first for me: there is no piece without the final sound; a piece is not only a combination of notes, it’s not only chord progressions, it’s how it sounds.”
a piece is not only a combination of notes, it’s not only chord progressions, it’s how it sounds
He tours with three analogue synthesisers, each of which has a specific use. Together with keys player Bergur Þórisson, Ólafur has fought against practicality pressures, and opted to keep what he describes as the “certain unpredictability in analogue machines which is what gives them their character.” They use the Novation Bass Station II to provide rich, deep bass tones to complement the live instrumentation on stage. Ólafur adds, “it stays really on point and in tune, and it doesn’t give us any troubles. Very often when you work with these really deep frequencies you get a lot of mud and stuff, but for this scenario we want something really clear and sharp.” With Kiasmos, his minimal techno project with Faroese producer Janus Rasmussen, Ólafur sends audio through the Bass Station II’s filter, and also uses the synth as a MIDI controller to play various software instruments. Novation’s Launchpad Mini and Launch Control XL also play a role in the live setup, as Ólafur explains: “We’re travelling to lots of festivals in the summer with a more compact setup where the Novation controllers have really come in handy. We want to have real stuff with real buttons that you can touch, but at the same time stuff that doesn’t get destroyed when you go on a flight, and we’ve found that it’s just really well-built stuff that we know isn’t going to break.” t Novation, we’re incredibly proud to be working with Ólafur, a figurehead in the new breed of multi-instrumentalist songwriter/producers whose work is inspiring an entire musical genre. If this is your first encounter with him or his music, and you want to explore more, head to his website (http://olafurarnalds.com), where you will find his back catalogue. The TV show Broadchurch, scored by Ólafur and a close group of collaborators — which is on Netflix in several countries — is made magical by its dramatic combination of visuals and music, and is definitely worth a watch. If you’re into the deeper, techno-tinged side of music, the eponymous 2014 Kiasmos album is something you’ll want to check out.
Thanks to Ramon Amezuca, Ólafur Arnalds, Sven Hasenjäger, Dave Hodder, Sebastian Höglund, Jose Izabal, Lloydski, Pepe Mogt, Paul Raffaele, Alec Sander, Justin Strauss.