Mopho DJ

Here is an innovative project presented by Stanford Ph.D. candidate Nick Bryan. Hat tip to my friend Simfonik for informing about this. The project, dubbed Mopho DJ, uses iPods to transmit their location, velocity and direction while rotating on a turntable. This data is then used to manipulate an mp3. There is a software application that decodes the transmitted data. In essence, the iPod takes the place of time coded vinyl as used in digital solutions like Traktor and Serato. I think it’s a very cool idea with a lot of potential. My only concern would be the uneven weight, the iPods add to turntables and one obviously has to make sure they are solidly secured. But kudos to Mr. Bryan for an idea with a lot of potential.

Mojo’s beatseqr test drive

I finally got a chance to demo the beatseqr, which my friend Steve was kind enough to loan me. Steve custom builds these little boxes of MIDI joy. Here’s some video I shot giving a brief overview of the features, some info on using it in a Windows environment, and a little old school jungle/drum & bass beat progression I made using the beatseqr.

The Great Vinyl Debate

As you approach your destination, you begin to hear the sounds that have become the soundtrack of your soul. Booms, squelches, bleeps. You walk through the door, the sounds coalescing into that track you heard last night. Whatever the hell that track is, you’ve got to have it! Half running towards the DJ spinning this madness on the turntable, you try to get a peek at the label. As you get closer, you recognize the cat on the decks is the guy who hooked you up with some wicked new breaks last week. He catches your eye, recognizing the shared appreciation, and hands you this musical delicacy right off the platter, before gesturing towards the new release wall where there’s bound to be a dozen or more musical gems waiting. Grabbing a stack off the wall and making your way to one of the listening stations (at least they’re not crammed today); you rub a record edge on your pant leg to crack open the shrink-wrap and gingerly place the record on the platter. After listening to your stack, you’ve found a number of cool pieces. Probably more than you can afford to take home – begging the question, do I really need to eat today?
A similar story can be told at the used record shop you’ve recently found across town. Based on the amount of vinyl gold you’ve found here the past few weeks, it doesn’t seem like many others know about it. And for now, you intend to keep it that way. On bended knee, you dig through dusty crates of yesteryear’s classics. Making your way past a run of old Carpenter’s LPs, there’s a Coltrane… tempting, but you need something you can play tonight. And there it is. A record sleeve featuring a logo you recognize. Copyright says 1991; this is bound to be good. Of course you won’t know until you get it home; this place has no fancy listening stations. But at 99 cents, what have you got to lose? The owner of this place is some old beatnik dude who only listens to jazz. He hasn’t got a clue what’s buried between the Pat Benatar and the “Living Stereo” classics. While it’ll take you several cramped hours to make your way through it all, finding even only two or three pieces here today will make it all worthwhile.
At the end of a long day, as you prepare to enjoy the fruits of today’s haul on your 1200’s, your second wind kicks in as the beats begin to pulse. There were no Monster drinks back in the day. You’re ready to kick off a three hour mixing session, fueled by the excitement of what you came up on today. Then, it’s off to your gig.
Many of today’s up and coming DJs aren’t familiar with these experiences. I share them, not just to nostalgically reminisce about the “good old days,” but also to share my perspective on a debate currently being waged. A debate that pits vinyl against digital mixing platforms. I too have engaged in this debate… with myself. I see the virtues and the pitfalls of both, and as such, I think I can offer an objective opinion that respects and appreciates where we’ve come from, but also acknowledges some of the benefits of where we seem to be headed. There are impassioned and entrenched positions on both sides, and I respect and understand where each are coming from. I hope by offering a balanced point of view, mutual understanding can be achieved.
In the interest of full disclosure, let me state that I come from a completely vinyl background. I started spinning in 1992, when all we had was vinyl. I have a decent-size vinyl collection that I treasure probably more than any other material thing I own, and I continue to add to it when opportunities present themselves. I cringe when I hear friends talk about digitizing and selling their collections (unless they’re gonna give me first crack at it). Having said all that, I share one other main passion besides music and that is technology. I enjoy gadgets and geeky tech things. I like keeping up on the new “toys.” I have reviewed or demo’d several of the new mixing environments on my blog. And yes, I have even done some development in the area of digital music interfaces myself, and this is an area I hope to continue to explore. Some may see a contradiction in my simultaneous love for vinyl and open-mindedness towards new platforms. I see it as a natural progression.
Before I move any further, I want to make one thing absolutely clear, and that is that I consider auto synch features an abomination and an insult to DJs everywhere. I understand the marketing gimmick that makes these features desirable, but I really wish the software development firms would just remove them completely. Now sure, there have been a variety of auto synch functions out on the market for years, from BPM counters to mixers that would flash LEDs in time with the tempo, but, beat matching is at the heart of being a DJ. At its core, this is the primary, fundamental aspect of what makes a DJ, a DJ. Even if you have no notion of key, can’t juggle or scratch, have never laid a hand on the EQ, can’t read a crowd, and have crappy taste in music, at least if you could match beats, you had a place to start. How anyone could think that cheating with auto synch can make them a DJ is beyond me. The obvious truth is that anyone can auto synch, you cheapen the craft and all those involved when you resort to this. Besides, while beat matching takes some longer to learn than others, it’s a skill that, like riding a bike, will be with you for the rest of your life. The only time I could possibly accept the use of autosynch is if an established, accomplished DJ used it as a means to pull off some really mind-blowing, crazy magic. And even then, it’s questionable, because any established DJ should be able to match a beat within a few seconds. So, to reiterate, regardless of which platform you choose to become a DJ, learn to beat match. Period.
So what is it about vinyl? I love the feel of vinyl. I love the record sleeves and the artwork that is common on many sleeves and labels. It’s easy to organize in a crate or a bag. And there’s no question that when it comes to tactile feedback, it is superior to anything else out there. The scratching on some of the new platforms is pretty close, but there is always that hint of latency that seems to keep it from feeling exactly like vinyl. It provides visual feedback and you can mark your records and personalize them. Some whine about how heavy crates are. I always enjoyed walking into an event with a crate. It was an announcement. People immediately knew what you were there for. And let’s face it, for the time being at least, vinyl holds its value. Actually, depending on the record in question, vinyl potentially increases its value. This brings me to another, more esoteric point. Vinyl, as opposed to today’s digital media, had intrinsic value. That value was built on two key aspects – 1. Vinyl was considerably more expensive than today’s digital tracks, and 2. Vinyl was a limited resource. The cost of a record, at $10.00 minimum for an import, or even $5.00 or $6.00 for a domestic, meant that you had to be extra picky every time you went shopping. Looking back, the cost of the records, as much as it hurt financially sometimes, acted like a quality control filter. I’m not saying I’ve never bought a crappy $10 record, but generally, you could afford fewer “misses” at $10, then you can at 99 cents, or free. The only way one was fortunate enough to get free music back then was to become known enough to get some promos.
Then there’s the limited quantity issue. A first run pressing might have as few as 1,000 copies distributed worldwide. Some stores only picked up two or three copies of a given piece, meaning you had to be lucky enough to have it get past the DJs who worked there, who always had first dibs. This is why so many of us took low paying record store jobs. And if you didn’t work at the record shop, you made friends with the guys who did, or you got to know the shipment schedule real well. So now you’ve got a record in your hands that maybe only one or two guys in your town have. Having several records that were associated with you – your songs, if you will – was a badge of honor back in the day. If you heard a record that you liked, at a club or on a mix tape, you had to work to research what the track was and where you could find a copy of it. The infinite number of copies of an easily available digital track removes this dynamic completely. I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing. At its heart, DJing is and always will be about sharing music with others. But the value built into a vinyl record was built on many more factors than the song itself. It represented the work, and occasional luck, you put in to come by that record, in an age when there were no wikis, youtubes, discogs, ebays or message forums.
So, there’s my defense of vinyl. It may, at least in part, explain the impassioned hold vinyl has on so many. However, we are many years removed from those glory days. Solid digital platforms in one form or another have been on the market for quite some time now. CDJs, virtual vinyl, midi controllers, mixing software, even iPad apps. The technical improvements have brought many of them to functional equivalence with turntables, some would argue that they are superior to the turntable… although I say, let’s not get carried away. There are clearly some additional features available – effects, sorting, looping, graphical representations of a song’s waveform makes it a lot easier to find a breakdown in a dark room. These are all cool features that, in the hands of a skilled artist, should definitely add to the toolbox and enhance the performance. At the end of the day, it’s what a performer can do with a set of tools, not the tools themselves, that defines their skill.
I first bought Traktor Scratch abut two years ago. I bought it because I wanted easy, inexpensive access to new music to mix with. Let’s face it, it’s a hell of a lot more convenient to shop for tracks in the comfort of your own home. You miss out on the social aspects of record shopping, which were always part of the fun, but you can quickly and easily browse through a boatload of tunes at your own pace. It also offered me opportunities to get my hands on music on my want list that is very difficult or expensive to find. Further, I could more easily explore other genres without having to make a big upfront financial commitment. I use it with the virtual time-coded vinyls, which, from an operational perspective, makes it nearly identical to what I do with vinyl. I can even use it with my existing vinyl collection. So for me, it was the best of both worlds.
Now, I’ve read some of the rants against digital platforms, and I agree to the extent that if someone shows up for a performance with a pre-configured, auto synched set, that is an insult and a load of bullshit. Having said that, I use Traktor exactly like I use my traditional vinyl. I am still beat matching, riding the beat, and am actively involved in the mix. I can’t say I would prefer to take my setup to a gig… there are too many variables for my comfort. But if a Traktor/Serato virtual vinyl configuration was already set up at the location, I think I could roll with this. CDJs have been in place at many venues for several years now.
One thing I think we can all agree on is that technology has played an important role in the DJ arena. The Technics turntable itself was a technological advancement. I can’t imagine what it would be like trying to mix on a pair of 8-tracks. The music most DJs mix is also heavily dependent on technology. From hip-hop and sampling to the more obvious role of technology in electronic music of all forms, technology represents not only how the music was produced, but quite often is associated with the identity of the music itself. Sure, some of the hardware involved, the 808s, 909s, 303s, Moogs, etc. are actually decades old, but producers are always gravitating to new sounds, even if not to new hardware. New patches and new effects are a fundamental aspect of electronic music, regardless of sub-genre. Is it a little odd that a DJ who’s involved with production will embrace the new effects box, the new synth, the new sequencer, but diss a new mixing platform?
I am curious to see what lies ahead and remain open towards new products and environments. My main concern is that the DJ craft does not get watered down along the way. I share this concern with the strident vinyl die-hards. The bottom line is that while everyone may want to be a DJ, it is only those who put in the time, dedication, work and paying of dues that deserve recognition. In a world of “DJ Hero” and other insta-DJ gimmicks, it is easy to become cynical. I believe if DJ Hero opens up a kid’s mind towards wanting to learn more about the actual DJ craft, then that’s not a bad thing. But if DJ Hero becomes some sort of replacement for the actual art of Ding, then that’s a big problem. Stick with Halo, kid.
I’ve read a number of great threads, posts and opinions from advocates on both sides of the issue. Sometimes the discussion devolves into nothing more than a bitter flame war. People on both sides hold pretty strong viewpoints. So much so, I was a bit hesitant to even write on this topic. The last thing I want to do is alienate anyone. I have friends and associates on both sides of the issue, some even financially invested on one side or the other. People I’ve worked with and people I have a great deal of respect and admiration for. And because I’m presenting the middle path, I could potentially piss off both sides. I heard once, that if you lie in the middle of the road, you are bound to get run over. Yet, as the publisher of this little blog on music and technology, I felt bound to weigh in on the issue and share my perspective. I don’t intend to change anyone’s mind, but I hope I can facilitate acceptance and ease judgments.
Looking back, there have been times I’ve viewed the current environment with a bit of envy. How much easier would it have been to identify and track down certain songs if I had the tools that are available now, back then? How much money could I have saved that could have gone into other investments or even could have made the struggle a little bit more comfortable? How much easier would it have been to promote myself and my mixes with today’s social media? And then I realize that the experiences I went through, the struggles I endured, and the work I put it in, were just as important as any achievements I enjoyed. As this unknown quote states – “Too often we are so preoccupied with the destination, we forget the journey.” When it comes to the great vinyl debate, I am reminded of another great quote from Jane’s Addiction – “Everybody has their own opinions.”

AirDeck mentioned in Electronic Gaming Monthly!

My AirDeck virtual theremin application was recently mentioned in Electronic Gaming Monthly and I was briefly quoted. Here is the excerpt from the article:

I am also posting a couple of photos that I sent to EGM to use in the article. EGM did not end up using them, but they are really great shots taken by my friend Omar Ramirez of Public Works Collective from my sit-down with them last year. Public Works Collective is a group putting together a film documentary chronicling the history of the Los Angeles electronic dance music scene. Here are the shots:

Kinect Theremin!

Ken Moore has been working on theremin emulation for some time now. He developed a Wii remote based theremin, and was quite helpful to me as I was developing my AirDeck project, which was also a Wii based theremin emulation application. Now Ken has done it again. This time, with the Kinect motion detection device that is used with the Xbox 360. Perhaps, if I can find the time, I can work on something similar with the PlayStation Move, which I have, and then we will have effectively converted all three motion based video game systems into theremins. Check this out:

The Most Commonly Sampled Breakbeats – Techno Edition (Part 3)

My first post here in 2011 is a continuation of something I started late last year, which is a list of breakbeats commonly used in classic techno songs. Sorry for the delay, between the holidays and working on some music, this was the first opening I had to finish this. Hope the wait was worth it!

These last four breaks may not have been used as much as the first seven that were documented in part 1 and part 2, however they each deserve recognition in that they were used in several songs that were in heavy rotation during the golden era of oldskool techno. They are also all very distinguishable breaks; easy to spot once heard.

The Klymaxx Good Love Break

All girl 80s dance/R&B band Klymaxx brings us this funky break from their tune Good Love:

http://www.youtube.com/v/a2xWXYfvDWg

This loop was also used in a remix of Kariya – Let Me Love You For Tonight, but Klymaxx predates the Kariya track and so this is very likely the original source. This break is very distinctive and was featured in one of the most well-known techno classics of all time… Bombscare by 2 Bad Mice:

http://www.youtube.com/v/iQVv40_9NSo

You can also hear this beat in DJ Phantasy and DJ Gemini – Never Try the Hippodrome:

http://www.youtube.com/v/kkmqyItSXU4

As well as is in this rare, well sought white label by Schedule 3:

http://www.youtube.com/v/0Z-HpbtUDOM

The Apache Break

This version of Apache is actually a cover recorded by Michael Viner’s Incredible Bongo Band, released in 1974 without much acclaim. In terms of hip hop and drum & bass, this epic break ranks up there with the Amen, the Funky Drummer and the Think break. I cannot mention this break without featuring this historic clip of Grandmaster Flash cutting up Apache on the wheels of steel:

http://www.youtube.com/v/C9aG3xc9IZw

Like many popular hip hop breaks, it also found its way into several popular techno and acid house songs. It is very easy to recognize due to the powerful reverbed congas. Here it is in The Break Boys (aka Frankie Bones and Tommy Musto) – And the Break Goes On:

http://www.youtube.com/v/uit8WhT0XVM

As well as Panic – Voices Of Energy:

http://www.youtube.com/v/_6G9vQKdmNw

Listen to the little breakdown at (:57) of Todd Terry’s Just Wanna Dance. There is the Apache in all its glory.

Run’s House Break

This drumbreak is a hybrid creation of two other well-known breaks, with some additional flair such as a booming sub-bass and was featured in the song Run’s House off RUN DMC’s Tougher Than Leather album:

http://www.youtube.com/v/0xMJZHrG_94

The two breaks in question include James’ Brown’s Funky Drummer, which rivals the Amen break in terms of overall usage in hip hop, drum & bass and techno tunes:

http://www.youtube.com/v/dNP8tbDMZNE

The second break is from the song Ashley’s Roach Clip by funk group Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers:

http://www.youtube.com/v/ZfymVPOdMwk

Ashley’s Roach Clip is yet another very recognizable and well known loop that has been used in countless hip hop and even mainstream songs, probably most famously in Eric B. and Rakim’s Paid In Full.

The Criminal Minds used the Run’s House break in the 1992 ragga techno hit Baptised By Dub:

http://www.youtube.com/v/v84mJACUmu8

It is also featured in Urban Shakedown’s Some Justice:

http://www.youtube.com/v/e3x0BMNy99c

And again in Naz AKA Naz’s dark proto-jungle work Organized Crime:

http://www.youtube.com/v/nOKlm95G5nM

Get Into Something Break

Last but not least, there is this funky little break from the Isley Brother’s Get Into Something:

http://www.youtube.com/v/092WyVP4cv0

The break is somewhat similar to the Think breaks with the background voices, tambourine and snappy snares. We hear it on one of the very big tunes of the day, 4 Hero’s Mr. Kirk:

http://www.youtube.com/v/THCj2AJuNVE

It can also be found on Nation 12’s Electrofear(unfortunately, no YouTube clip of this version of the song is available).

The breakbeat is, and continues to be, a powerful weapon in the arsenal of dance music producers worldwide. While these samples have powered the energy behind many hip hop, drum & bass and techno tracks, it is also important to recognize and acknowledge the incredible drummers who were the original sources of these loops. I believe it is also interesting and worthwhile to listen to these loops in the context of their original songs. There is a wonderful history that flows from these rhythmic interludes. Thanks for allowing me to share at least a little bit of this history with you. I also hope that this will broaden people’s musical tastes into some wonderful work that, while clearly stylistic departures from the tunes which sampled them, are incredible gems that deserve to be enjoyed in their original glory.

The Most Commonly Sampled Breakbeats – Techno Edition (Part 2)

Before we dig deeper into the breakbeat vaults, first… a quick correction on Part 1. The break used in Isotonik – Different Strokes, Bass Construction – Dance With Power, Blow – Cutter (Acid Mix), Rabbit City #1 – Cutter Mix and Smart Systems’ The Tingler (State Side Swamp Mix), actually comes from a breakbeat loop record released by Warrior Records. Warrior released a series of loop compilations beginning in 1989, credited to The Original Unknown DJ’s. The break in question can be found on their 1991 Warrior Sampler E.P. I believe it is a modified Think break, but this Warrior Records series appears to be the source of this particular loop. You can hear it much more clearly in Quadrophonia’s The Man With the Master Plan:

http://www.youtube.com/v/Y6vsy1lRJgw

Continuing on with our exploration of breaks used in classic techno tracks, here are four beats which were also featured frequently during the oldskool heyday between 1990 and 1992.

The Let It Go Break

Let It Go (Part II) is a song by disco funk legends KC and the Sunshine Band. Their second, self-titled studio album, which is known for classic hits That’s The Way (I Like It), Get Down Tonight and Boogie Shoes closes out with Let It Go (Part II):

http://www.youtube.com/v/IKJBhNTwMQo

You can hear this break in the song Lock Up by Zero B:

http://www.youtube.com/v/h4UCsVGAl0g

Other songs that use this break include: DMS – Vengeance, The Scientist – The Exorcist and Fierce Ruling Diva – Rub It In. This is one of two funky breaks used in DJ Mink’s Hey! Hey! Can you Relate?

The Funky Nassau Break

The Beginning of the End is a band consisting of three brothers and a bassist hailing from Nassau, Bahamas. The 1971 track Funky Nassau (Part I) became a hit in the U.S. reaching #15 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart and #7 on the Billboard Black Singles Chart. The tune also hit #31 on the UK Singles Chart in 1974. This particular break is literally a funk monstrosity which is easily spotted due to the clanging ride cymbals and booming kick drum.

DJ Mink’s Hey! Hey! Can You Relate? uses the the Let It Go break along with the Funky Nassau, as heard here:

http://www.youtube.com/v/dm9eODlT_EY

Other tunes featuring Funky Nassau are: Sonz of a Loop Da Loop Era – Far Out and Nebula II – Flatliner.

The I’m Gonna Love You Break

This powerful break, which is pitched up for techno tempos, comes to us courtesy of soul icon Barry White from his 1973 single, I’m Gonna Love You Just A Little More Baby. The song is a great exemplification of Mr. White’s smooth vocal stylings. Amazing to think that such a rough break evolved from this mellow and shall we say “intimate” work.

http://www.youtube.com/v/np5VvHx-1T4

Check out the I’m Gonna Love You Break as used by Rhythm Section in the 1992 classic Comin’ On Strong:

http://www.youtube.com/v/aiiHaexxK_I

This break can also be found on Rabbit City #3, TronikHouse – Uptempo and Is That It? – ICTOT.

The Go! Break

This break may be a bit more controversial. I did quite a bit of research and it appears as if Moby is the creator of this particular beat. If anyone can verify or correct this, it would be greatly appreciated. For now, it appears as if Moby, himself an immensely important member of the techno pantheon, deserves credit for crafting this incredible beat. Here it is in Moby’s Go!:

http://www.youtube.com/v/-3725vlV0nw

Moby and Jam & Spoon collaborated and remixed each other’s work, which may explain the use of the Go! break in Jam & Spoon’s immortal masterpiece Stella:

http://www.youtube.com/v/vZpkhpfecwg

A more innovative use of the Go! break is exemplified here by Acen, who cut it up to great effect in their massive hit Close Your Eyes:

http://www.youtube.com/v/L2eko6Ix-Sc

Finally, this break is also used in Rabbit City #1 – Beyond Control and M D Emm – Get Down.

There are several more influential break loops put to dynamic effect during the oldskool era that we will look at in Part 3 to close out this discussion.