Jump to music examples
It's fair to say that the further ahead of their time inventors are, the less money their ideas bring them. That's often true for music software pioneers as well, and has applied more than once to producer, musician, DJ, and programmer Josh Gabriel. But things are different now.
"Back then it was always about creating a solution for a problem that didn't yet exist," says Gabriel on the phone from San Francisco. "It was always about, 'Wow, wouldn't this be cool if . . . .' But something I'm working on this year is solving problems that already exist."
"Back then" in the mid-1980s, Josh was inventing light-beam machines and dual joystick interfaces that remixed electronic dance music—ten years before "remix" entered the lexicon. His unique methods of triggering quantized samples of other people's instrumental and voice tracks led in 1993 to the creation of Mixman Technologies and the Mixman DM2 (pronounced dee-em-squared), the company's dual mini-turntable controller and PC loop software package.
PCs in 1995 were dreadfully inept for music applications, though Mixman was a blast to perform. Truth be told, it was Mixman's trailblazing efforts that ultimately opened the doors for today's top remix, editing, and live-performance software tools: Sony Acid, Ableton Live, Propellerhead Reason and ReBirth, and others that Gabriel—one of the fathers of remixing—fittingly uses every day today.
Gabriel, still a consultant with Mixman, stepped out of the music hardware/software publishing world in 2001—"computers are a horrible place to do business"—to focus again on making his own music. Since then Gabriel & Dresden (his DJ duo with Dave Dresden) have toured the world extensively, charted over a dozen no. 1 Billboard dance remixes, and released their original tracks on their own Organized Nature label.
But Josh can't resist spinning again the inventor's wheel. We can't yet publish the details of his new internet-based invention, but suffice it to say it will be something every reader interested in delivering audio and songs will soon use. That is, if his idea isn't too far ahead of its time.
If Mixman served more to open music technology doors for others than to reap huge profits, at least you're reaping the benefits now 20 years later in your own music with Ableton Live 5 and other programs.
That's true. I think Dave [Dresden] and I are using Live and Apple Logic Pro these days in some interesting ways. The biggest new feature for us in Live 5 is the new time-stretch algorithm. As DJs, we're often using full-length pieces of song audio, and the new algorithm is just so much better at changing the tempo of a song. That means we can now play things live with Live that we wouldn't normally be able to play, which is big for us. For instance, if a five-minute song is at 124 bpm and we're playing it at 134, it still works. That feature alone greatly expands the types of music and audio files we can play live.
To me, Logic has ended up being more of a "synthesizer" than a DAW. I rarely use Logic's ESX-24 sampler or other software samplers. And I run—at most—one or two virtual synth instruments per song. Ninety-nine percent of what I do in Logic is put audio tracks up on the screen and open up tons of audio plugins. A lot of the "synths" in our music are actually samples that have been heavily processed with plugins. We'll put the first file of a song up on the screen and add lots and lots of effects to it, with tons of automation moves, to create our soundscapes. It sounds like musical elements, but it's coming entirely from signal processors.
What is "a lot of plugins" for you?
On a dual two-gigabyte Apple G5 with Logic—wow, it's just amazing what you can do. It's common for us to have 150 to 200 plug-ins going at a time on 30-plus tracks of audio.
Describe your early days developing what was to become the Mixman DM2 package.
In 1988, for my final year at California Institute of the Arts, I moved to Den Haag [Holland]. I was an exchange student there at the Institute of Sonology, in a one-year program concerning the science of sound: psychoacoustics, digital signal processing, sound synthesis, and programming. They had the Forth and LISP languages, and I chose LISP. I had a year in Den Haag to design and program something as a performance final, a sort of thesis.
What were you programming with in those days?
I was using the Atari 1040ST [one of the only computers to have built-in MIDI ports]. But the MIDI In was busted on their LISP I was using, so I looked around for another controller to drive the MIDI, and the easiest thing to find was a joystick. It was this big, fat, eight-direction joystick with a button—this was long before PlayStation. I ended up taking sound loops and chopping them up into 16th-notes with the program I created and then triggering those loops with the joystick. That eventually, in the mid-'90s, evolved to the early version of Mixman DM2.
A joystick music controller?
Actually, there were two joysticks. I could do pitch-shifting and other signal processing moves with one while performing the piece with the other. It looked like I was driving a tank around the stage. [Laughs.] There were eight loops per joystick, so each direction on the joystick was triggering a loop.
I was working with a real genius electrical engineer guy [Karlheinz Stockhausen's tech man Jan Pannis] who helped me change from the joystick to a much cooler thing. We built something with eight light beams and light-sensing resistors: Whenever I would break a beam with my body on stage, it was the same thing as moving the joystick in one direction or another. Above and below me were light beams that I triggered with my hands at dance club performances in 1988. That was right in the middle of the whole acid house time in Amsterdam which, to be honest, I didn't quite understand. I didn't really appreciate where I was at the time because I was so much into what I was doing with the joysticks and light beams at the Institute.
Were your early joystick beta versions toy-like?
No, not at all. If you think of a mixing console with eight faders, and of a joystick with eight directions, that's the comparison. It's far easier to get muscle memory of the direction you want music to go with a joystick or breaking a light beam than by reaching for a mixing board. For instance, if I say to you, "Channel 5!" you actually have to look down at the mixer, count over five channels, and then pull up the fader for channel 5. If I tell you, "5-2-8-3!" really fast, as in a song with a fast tempo, you couldn't follow me on the mixer. But, with a joystick, if I say "up" or "down-left" or such at any speed and repetition, you don't look down and to the left to trigger the sound: You just push the stick up or over and you're there.
What kinds of sound loops were you creating and triggering in those early days?
I always had the hi-hat loop up, snare rolls down, drum beats left and right, bass line down-left, and melody up-right. I became very used to where each was by second nature. Remember here, it's only 1989, and the concept of remixing other people's music was not even close to a mainstream thing at all, let alone remixing in real time with a pair of joysticks.
What did your early betas look like?
My idea was that you'd have songs on memory cards you put into boom boxes with joysticks on them! You'd have the boom box, of course, but then you could also remix those memory card songs on it with the joysticks.
The idea went nowhere with Sony because the PlayStation was in development, so about that time I met my eventual Mixman partner, Eric Almgren, and we took the concept from there ourselves. The reason we called it "Mixman" was because of the Walkman and Discman, so the Mixman was "the next evolution in portable audio players."
At the time our idea was not at all about making computer software, which eventually came out of the LISP program I wrote just to prepare the audio loops. We actually first had a hardware device about the size of a small paperback book that read a small song cartridge you put in with enough memory on it to remix a couple of songs.
Eight years after the DM2 launch and since your leaving to do music, what's up with Mixman Technologies these days?
Our expertise and ideas are still here, and there's much more to come—just not in the same shape or form it was in with the original DJ Mixman. Mixman is in a process of redefining itself, probably going more toward a web-based thing with ringtones and Yahoo MySpace and like that, and less about remixing other people's music. That is so well handled now by programs like Live, Reason, and all the others. Those tools have become so good at allowing inexperienced people to get good quickly that it doesn't feel like there's a market for something as basic and simple as Mixman now.
But the DM2 controller is just so tactile.
Yeah, who knows—there's more to come for Mixman.
Let's talk again about your current digital audio tools. What else are you into these days?
I started with [MOTU] Digital Performer and [Opcode] Vision years ago, and I've been a Logic user now for about five years. I've been using Live 5 a lot lately to DJ and do the time-stretching things, but I plan to start recording in it as well. I'm also delving into Csound, and I've also been thinking about taking the time hit to get really deep into [Native Instruments] Reaktor.
Reaktor does seem quite deep.
Oh yes, and that's exactly why I haven't gotten into it that much yet. There are many people I know who only work in Reaktor, it's that deep. But I know myself enough to know Reaktor is the type of thing I'm going to love, and that's the only reason thus far I haven't wanted to commit that much time just yet to learning and creating with it. For the first month after I get it [laughs], I just know I won't be recording any music, that is for sure.
Your new "killer app" sounds amazing, Josh. But, looking back to your previous ahead-of-the-curve inventor days, haven't you've been here before?
[Laughs.] Yeah, maybe I shouldn't pursue this one as a business venture, after all! I've learned that much. But at least this invention is a solution addressing a real existing problem.
"Every program has things it can do easily that are a pain in others," says Josh Gabriel. "In Live 5, for instance, that special feature for me is using envelopes to take almost any sound and turn it into music. Start by bringing a loop into an audio track and, while it's playing, click the envelope button. That reveals the controls for the pitch and volume envelopes. Make sure Volume is selected, then use the pencil to draw your volume envelope. It's like digging away at a sound. Sometimes I'll just leave a small snippet of sound so the original source is hidden.
"Next, select Pitch. Using the pencil again, draw in a melody. (The height of the line represents the note.) Once you get the hang of it, you can get amazing results. As an experiment, try using tape hiss or room noise as an audio source. Compress it until it gets loud, then apply volume and pitch envelopes."
A common problem in making dance music is creating space in the mix for the kick drum. The bass is usually the guilty party, stealing energy from the kick. Here's how Gabriel brings it into line in Ableton Live. "Set up a kick drum at quarter-note intervals," he advises. "Now, put in a sustained low bass note. Notice how the bass and kick interact and clash.
"Next, open a tremolo plugin on the bass track. Set the rate to quarter-notes, the symmetry to 99%, the smoothing to 98%, and stereo phase to 0. Now, while listening, raise the tremolo depth slowly until the bass ducks away under the kick and the two feel good together."
This is a low-res preview of the first single from Gabriel & Dresden's upcoming album, tentatively titled At the Same Time. The single will be available for digital download December 22, 2005, at beatport.com and soon afterward on the iTunes Music Store. The vinyl version comes out February 1, 2006, and the album hits on April 28, 2006. For more information, visit GabrielAndDresden.com.
You can also audition every track on Gabriel & Dresden's first CD, Bloom, at Amazon.
Randy Alberts is an author, musician, and photographer who lives on Lummi Island, Washington.
Return to digitalmedia.oreilly.com
Copyright © 2009 O'Reilly Media, Inc.