This is Crackers, a brilliant and totally demented artist/musician/visionary in Hamilton, Ontario seen here playing my Casio AZ-1 that he bought off eBay a couple of years ago. Crackers makes great online comics, and he also once recorded an astonishing cover of ‘Hot Sauce’ sounding like it was played by a bunch of old codgers out in the Bayou. This shot is from a gig his band Science Ninja Big Ten played recently supporting A Flock Of Seagulls.
Archive for April, 2006
Hey, I’m thinking it might be nice to add an occasional vidblog/podcast to the site. I dashed this one off as a trial. It’s a clip from my song The Flat Earth at last February’s TED Conference (Technology, Entertainment and Design) and I’ve added a voiceover explaining what I’m doing–a bit like a ‘Director’s Cut.’
Download the clip. Try it on your computer. Try it on your video iPod if you have one. Let me know what you think. Is the quality good enough? Is the file size too big? Can you see my nose hairs?? etc etc. Click on the pic below to download the video clip. And thanks for being my guinea pig. It’s the only way to test how well our server holds up to multiple simultaneous 19.2mb downloads!
Seven shows down, seventeen to go. I have a few days at home before getting on a plane to New York for the next leg of the tour. I had forgotten how totally numb I feel when I get home. It’s wonderful to see my family, and sleep in my own bed. But it’s so hard to try to be a human being when your entire metabolism has shifted over to rock’n'roll time. Like some weird interplanetary jetlag!
I’m very pleased with the way it’s been going. The clubs have been packed and the audiences very receptive. My set list is working well. Even when I skipped the second song ‘Submarines’ the other day, and put it in as an encore instead. I managed to add one in on the fly, just working in soundchecks–’The Flat Earth’, which I use as a way to introduce my layering/sequencing technique. The audience can follow closely on the video screen and on my Mac screen as I build the part sup from scratch. The song’s intro lends itself very well, because there are several orthogonal percussion parts, an offbeat reggae guitar sample, a deep dub-like bass, and a lush piano and synth melody.
I hope to add more in this downtime. Only problem is, my gear is on a truck on its way across the USA! However I think I’m going to splash out for a brand new MacBook Pro, which in theory will have roughly similar performance to my G5 tower. I’ll have to restrict myself to Logic’s own plug-in set, as many of the 3rd party ones I use are not compatible with the Intel-based Macs yet; but I can at least map it all out, and move it over to the G5 in New York.
What does it take to add a new song to the set? (A new, ‘old’ song that is.)
Okay, let’s suppose I decide to add ‘Radio Silence’ at my next gig in New York. Here are the steps:
1. Close my eyes and listen hard to my imagination and hear how I would like it to sound. Like the original ‘electric guitar’ version? I could simulate some of that fuzz using plug-ins like Slayer 2. Or more like the Daniel Miller-coproduced single version, with Akiko Yano vocals? Her ‘doo-dop’ vocals might sound great using my own voice through a vocoder. And the original sequence, played on Daniel’s ARP sequencer where you had to tune the individual notes with knobs, would work well on my Doepfer box. Maybe a blend of the two versions?
2. Open a new Song in Logic Pro 7.2. Maybe there’s an existing song with approximately the same tempo and instrumentation? I could open that, save it as ‘Radio Silence’ and delete 95% of the notes but use the sounds and remainder of the notes as building blocks for the new song.
3. Get the basic groove going until I’m happy with it. Make a 4- or 8-bar cycle that loops endlessly. Pick a drum sound, bass sound, pads and melodies. Tweak them all in parallel, gradually refining the notes, dynamics, and sound timbres and envelopes until it’s truly cooking and I’m dancing around my shed in my bedroom slippers.
4. Build the structure of the song, stringing together intro, verses, choruses, bridges, solos, outro. If it feels right to extend certain sections, or change the original structure, that’s ok.
5. Figure out which parts of my new arrangement I want to play live, and a good ergonomic setup. For example if there are piano-type parts, I generally like them on my big CME keyboard right in front of me. There are enough octaves for me to put a bass part lower down. Samples and drums are best placed on my TriggerFinger pad, and lead parts I put on my Novation or my Virus. Each part has to be filtered in Max so that it’s playing the right MIDI channel, in the correct octave, with a certain dynamic (maybe limiting the maximum velocity to 90 not 127) and turning off controllers, pitchbend and so on. And this configuration may work for the intro, but not for the verses; so I build a second one, and find the right exact moment within my song sequence to send a signal to change it all around.
6. Learn to play the parts and sing at the same time! This is sometimes a lot like rubbing my tummy and patting my head. I’ll just go at it over and over again, sometimes stopping and practising one part slowed down until my muscles get it dialed in. If it doesn’t slot into place easily, I may need to re-think. I can never have fun performing the song if it’s like pulling teeth.
7. Add backing vocals if needed. If this is via a vocoder, I have to split off my lead vocal part, feed it into Logic’s EVOC plug-in, route some MIDI there from one of the parts I’m playing, fiddle with the tone to get it just right, then write in mute/unmute points for the vocoder, possibly muting my lead vocal channel at the same time. Or maybe all that’s needed is a big echo and repeat on my main vocal, or some backwards reverb for the full-on stadium yob effect; but this too takes a lot of tweaking. My vocal EQ, compression and effects are all programmed for each section of the song.
8. Hope that inserting the new song into the set will not screw up any others. This is an ongoing process: so far, every new song has been two steps forward and one step back. I added ‘Flat Earth’ for my last show in Seattle, but in so doing I introduced a couple of new problems: there were samples missing in ‘Science’, and an entire verse’s worth of effects went AWOL in ‘Budapest’. I can’t tell you how stupid it feels when I go to play a fabulous sound on one of my keyboards, and nothing comes out. The cause is probably some stupid pilot error. But it will take me a fraught half hour on headphones prior to the New York gig just to fix the new problems.
So this process is a string of smaller decisions, hopefully united by a common vision. With all these little decisions I have to let go of my loyalty to the original recording, and allow the new version to take shape, reflecting who I am in 2006, and all the musical and cultural changes that have taken place since I recorded the song. And through the whole process, what I’ve got focussed in my mind is the moment when the spotlight’s on me and I play and sing the song in front of a club audience. I imagine I’m one of the punters, out there in the crowd: how should it sound, to blow me away?
And the final question is WHY. All this analysis and process is meaningless unless it connects emotionally. The essence of ‘Radio Silence’ is a feeling, not a bunch of numerals. I need to capture that essence and convey it to the audience. That’s the hardest part of all: letting go of the process itself, and allowing the feeling to come through and take over. If you ever took art for granted, and imagined the artist just woke up in the morning and exhaled, and great art or music came out, think again.
I love it when a photographer I don’t even know sends me great pics from one of my shows. These are from Misha Vladimirskiy. Click to expand!
The west leg of the Soul Inhabitant Tour came to a smashing end at the Fenix Underground in Seattle, WA on April 22nd. What a show! It was the first show where I could see both the stage and the video screens, but by the time Thomas took to the stage the room was SO packed that I could only choose to see him, or the screen between all the bodies lined up in front of my merchandising case. I opted for the screen, as I had not seen all the wonderful video magic worked by Johnny and content filmed by Brian. I didn’t even know there was a seperate small projector designed to throw video on Thomas himself!
It was obvious that this was one terrific show. The crowd was intense and very into hearing the music. There were several small scuffles near my merchandise display and the bar where fans chided others for talking to loud, sometimes politely, sometimes absolutely not. With a start time of 10:45, the crowd had plenty of time to enjoy drinks, which made for a rowdy atmosphere at times. But Thomas was clearly enjoying himself, skating around a glitch during “Submarines” by adding it to the encore later on. I nearly sold out of many sizes of shirts I had with me, and was kept on my feet all night talking to his fans who came by to see me and my wares.
We had a small decompression party back at the hotel, celebrating the end of the leg with a bottle of champagne provided by Johnny and his lovely girlfriend, who has been a great help to me behind the merch table when things get really hopping. They are now off on a cross country drive to New York, complete with some very much deserved vacation days along the way. The crew has started moving east as well, and I hope they get all the sleep they so richly deserve by not having to drive all day and THEN go to work on top of that for a show. Thomas is back home in California, and I am back in Oregon. It’s so quiet! I miss everyone already! But the cats are very happy to see me, and I will have a little time to catch up on errands, bills, my glass work, and sleep.
See you in NYC!
p.s. Happy Birthday, Johnny!
Johnny DeKam wrote up a bit of info about our video rig, capitalizing on some much needed downtime at the Jupiter Hotel in Portland, Oregon. Johnny designed the entire video production rig himself, and along with his partner Brian Ziffer (http://naoism.com) also designed all of the content for show, here is what he has to say:
Hello Dolby fans! As some of you have been very interested in the video production, I thought I would pass along the gory and geeky details of what’s going on ‘behind the scenes’ with video.
As a general note, the challenge of designing the rig was primarily the need for flexibility. Since we are playing many smaller venues, with a variety of layouts, we needed a rig that would gracefully adapt to these different situations. In addition, the show itself needs to be able adapt to what’s happening on stage, as Thomas can be full of surprises when he is up there. Needless to say, this makes my job very interesting day to day… and so far, no two shows have been the same, both in the overall set design and also what you see on the screens at any given point.
To help achieve this flexibility, we are using what we call in the video biz ‘Fast Fold’ screens from DaLite. We have two sizes: a smallish 6′x8′ and a much larger 10′x14′. Both screens can be freestanding or hanging, and both can be front or rear projected. Depending on the stage, I can put a screen centered and over Thomas’ head, other times it is lower with Thomas off to the side of the screen. In a few cases we may utilize the venue’s house screen (like at the Key Club for example).
The main projector we use is a Panasonic PT-5500U, which is 5000 lumens, and has swappable lenses (we use both a short-throw or mid-throw lens). In addition the projector has optical lens shift on both the horizontal and vertical, which allows the projector to be placed up to 30 degrees off-axis in any direction for maximum flexibility in setup. This is a fantastic projector typically used in permanent installations such as retail spaces or theaters, but makes an excellent concert projector too. I am very pleased with its performance thus far.
I also carry an inexpensive and lightweight NEC VT35, (2000 lumens) which is used as a ‘video lighting’ projector. I had a custom mic stand mount fabricated, and place it directly on stage in close proximity to Thomas. The idea is to project an independent video channel directly onto the music rig and therefore his body as well as a special effect.
Now, on to the content playback system, or what you might call the ‘VJ’ rig. I have a long history as a video performer and software designer, and one of my claims to fame is that I design my own software. I wanted to write something extra special for Thomas, so the software I am using is all custom designed for this tour, and is really the heart of the system. It is written in an environment called MAX (http://cycling74.com) and runs on a Dual 2.5 G5 AGP with 4 gig RAM and 4 FW800 drives. It also has a Miglia Alchemy video input card, and a (non stock) ATI X800 video card (the fastest you can get for this machine).
The software allows me to composite up to 4 layers of video at once, 3 full resolution movies plus the live video input. I can also apply various realtime effects. The movies are triggered and mixed via MIDI using 2 M-AUDIO Axiom 25 keyboards. Incidentally, M-AUDIO has made me their first ‘Sponsored VJ Artist’ for this tour, which you will see a story on their site about this soon (Thanks for the free gear M-AUDIO!) The software has an extra special feature, which is that all the video is ‘mapped’ onto a 3D model of a vintage television screen. This gives the very subtle illusion that the video is not flat, but rather ‘warped’ onto the glass of an old TV – it is one of my favorite aspects of the system. An innovative technology used in the software is that all the compositing and effects are performed on the GPU (graphics card) rather than on the CPU. This is done using OpenGL Shader language programming – by doing so I can harness much more power, more effects, more channels and higher resolution.
Brian Ziffer and I spent 3 months collaborating with Thomas on making the video clips for the show. They were created using many sources and techniques, including archival film footage (kindly provided by Paul Lisy at eFootgage.com), samples from his old videos, things we shot, and a few other ‘secret’ techniques
It is important to note that I do not ‘press play’ at all for this show – the entire show is PERFORMED, much in the same way Thomas is performing his music. I call this ‘video instumentalism’ or in some circles we call it ‘live cinema’. Generally I dislike the term ‘VJ’ as it is often associated with acid-style rave eyecandy visuals in clubs – this is not what I do.
An important element of the show for Thomas was that the audience get an enhanced view of the action on stage, revealing his processes and expressions in performance. For this we decided that multiple ‘bullet’ cameras on stage would be very effective, including one mounted directly to his cool vintage headset, giving his POV (point of view). The cameras we use are high quality ‘VIOTAC’ cameras, which are the same used by the FBI and SWAT teams around the country. We also have a vintage tube camera circa 1978 mounted on stage which gives a different kind of look from the modern tactical cameras. The cam feeds come into my rig where I can ‘premix’ them with a Korg Kross Four video mixer before they go into the G5 for further compositing. I also take a copy of the K-4 output into a second video mixer, a MIDI controllable Edirol V-4. The V-4 is the final stage before sending to the projector, I can mix ‘wet and dry’ feeds from the computer or the cameras and apply other effects.
Finally, I also carry a Powerbook G4, running various custom software, some written in MAX, some written in Quartz Composer, and also one of my favorite softwares called VIDVOX GRID. The Powerbook’s roll in the rig is as an AUX effects processor, as well as driving the ‘video lighting’ projection.
Well friends, that is a pretty detailed synopsis of the video rig, now its time for me to get ready for tonight’s show – hope to see you soon!
– Johnny DeKam
posted by: lunesse
We got our posters in yesterday. They were delivered by a large national carrier. We have been waiting for them eagerly.
When we arrived at the hotel, this is what we found:
Luckily, many of them are in good shape in the box that is to the right. Still, this was horribly disappointing. We have enough to make it until we get some more fresh ones, hopefully boxed much more professionally! but you can see the one poster taped to the front of the box…it really is beautiful!
Backstage areas really vary. Last nightâ€™s venue Portland Alladin is a cosy little theater, with some history to it. The backstage is like a 40â€™s apartment, with actual dressing room facilities, unlike some of the venues Iâ€™ve been playing. The Agoura Canyon Club for example used to be a supermarket. I was shown to a little space that was partitioned off from Colin Hayâ€™s by a wall that didnâ€™t go right to the ceiling, so I could hear his bandâ€™s conversations, and they were forced to listen to my horrific vocal warmup excercises. It had no towels or hangers or fridge and certainly no food and drink. I went in search of a staff person responsible for the dressing rooms, and in the kitchens I found her, a dizzy blonde called Michelle. â€˜Oh, is there a support band?â€™ she twittered. ‘What are you guys called?â€™
Now. Iâ€™m not a pissy artist type. Iâ€™m not the kind to scream at the top of my lungs ‘Get my agent on the phone! I want a full deli tray and three bottles of Shiraz in my dressing room in two minutes or I WALK!â€™ (although it would be fun as hell to do that one time, just for a goof.) Some venues we arrive mid afternoon for soundcheck and thereâ€™s a fabulous spread, fresh bread rolls and a tray of meats and cheeses and white wine chilling in a silver bucket. And often at the end of the night itâ€™s barely been touched, because thereâ€™s only 1 guy in the band, I donâ€™t invite a lot of folks backstage, and my crew seem reluctant to help themselves to my stuff. [Mental note: tell crew to chow down!]
That said, Iâ€™m often hungry after the show. I never have much of an appetite beforehand, so by 11pm or so Iâ€™m thirsty and ravenous. And end up swilling a Heineken and stuffing myself with salami and Swiss and M+Mâ€™s (not the blue ones, naturally.) Then I get to the hotel and pass out. Not very healthy. We try to book hotels with a gym so we can work it off in the morning, but the best intentions always seem to fizzle by the second or third week of a tour.
Ah, the joys of the deli tray. Square bread. Green olives, some with the little guys in, but some of them… Hello?
Through all of it, I never let it affect my performance. Oh and while weâ€™re on the Tap references, hereâ€™s an email I got from sweet Kathleen this morning:
I just found your driver’s license, your Visa card, your LTP/Thomas Dobly Amex card, and a pile of cash in a pair of sweats on the floor behind our bathroom door.
This is true. I realized the moment she dropped me off at SFO yesterday that Iâ€™d left that stuff in my sweats. I am rapidly devolving into brain-dead musician mode. But it didnâ€™t matter as I have my Resident Alien card for photo ID, and I had â€˜per diemsâ€™ due to me in cash in Portland.
Here are some more pics from last nightâ€™s show; thanks to John Lehmkuhl, a former Korg progammer and evidently ace photog.
Yesterday an LA label Immortal Records called and asked me to contribute to an ‘unplugged’-type compilation they’re putting out. Like a mad fool I agreed! That meant spending about 18 hours today recording a new version of the song. It needed a guitarist, so I called up Eli Nelson from Notorious, the band I played with at the Red Devil Lounge a few weeks back. He and his roommate Erik Schramm have a studio in their house in the Haight, so I drove up here early evening and we put down acoustic and electric guitar and vocals. It’s now 1.30am, the track is finished and I’m waiting for it to be burned to disk. Tomorrow I have to be at the airport at 7.30am to get on a plane to Portland. I will leave the finished masters with Kathleen to be FedExed to LA so they can have them in hand Friday morning.
I don’t usually work this fast! It’s not like me to let something go out unless I’ve sweated over for weeks or months. But it was either that, or turn down the project altogether. I think I like the results. It’s a bit like doing a BBC session in the old days. They were rough around the edges, but they had a certain vibe that got lost when we chose to spend months in the studio. I still treasure a cassette of Siouxsie And The Banshees on the Beeb, circa 1979. I don’t think they ever improved on it on their albums.
My keyboards etc… L to R: M-Audio TriggerFinger, CME 7 MIDI keyboard, 7″ VGA touchscreen, Novation SL 25 MIDI keyboard; on electric keyboard stand.
Approved Signal Generator retrofitted for MIDI
Virus TI Polar and 1947 (?) USAF signal generator retrofitted for MIDI.
My rack: Nord 3 Rack, Shure P4M keyboard mixer, ART DTS II mic preamp, ProSonus Firepod, MOTU Express 128 MIDI interface, Roland JV-1080 synth, Muse Receptor, QSC 400×400 amp, Juice Goose power conditioner, APC uninterruptable power supply.
Johnny Dekam’s video rig. I don’t know a thing about it really other than he has a Mac G5 that’s MORE POWERFUL than mine, grr. I must remember have Johnny to explain his setup in a future blog.