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Revenge Of The Nerd: Deadmau5 On Modular Minutiae, Odd Meters, and Oscillator Obsessions

December 1, 2009
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0.0websterhall 046When Deadmau5, a.k.a. Joel Zimmerman, returns to his native Toronto after a tour of time-zone juggling, he often has to start from scratch. For this 29-year-old DJ/producer, whose popularity is surging, as are the questions about his ubiquitous mousehead mask, mystery is a good way to keep the creative juices flowing.

“Before I get home from the road, my assistant Jesse usually cleans my studio,” Zimmerman explains from L.A., “and she often unplugs my modular gear and neatly stacks all the cables. So I have to rewire and reset everything and basically rebuild my studio, which may be a good thing. I have to relearn how to do things sometimes.”

One example is his recently acquired MOTU Volta. “Every time I plug it in, I have to figure it out,” he admits. “Volta is MOTU’s solution for the modular guy who wants to sequence in Ableton Live. It lets you output DC voltage from your MOTU card so you can make gates, pitches, and controllers via MIDI in Ableton with automation through a software wrapper and output that right to your VST synths so that it’s all synced and ready to go.”

SOFTWARE SIMPLICATION

For Lack of a Better Name picks up where 2008’s Random Album Title left off, Deadmau5 expanding on his now trademark Pink Floyd–meets-Underworld progressive trance sound, with a few distinct changes. Where RAT was of a single color stylistically, For Lack of. . . is more diverse, from inventive dance tracks (“FLM”) to blatant commercialism (“Ghosts ‘n’ Stuff”) to experimental fury (“Strobe,” “Bot”). It’s all a warm up for his next artist album, the first of a threerecord deal with EMI Virgin.

Zimmerman digs deep with his modular gear (Cwejman, Analogue Systems, Livewire Electronics) and hard synths (Moog Moogerfoogers, Little Phatty, Minimoog, and Minimoog Voyager). But forever looking to broaden his compositional palette, he now works exclusively in Ableton Live instead of his former practice of patching various software platforms.

“It’s so much faster to get things done as opposed to setting up all these crazy routing schemes in different software suites like I did before,” he says. “They all have their strengths, but I have been more keen to power up Ableton before anything else unless I absolutely have to do some niche thing. The more I use Ableton in the studio, the easier it is to cross it over to the live show.”

Zimmerman uses a JazzMutant Lemur as touch screen controller for Ableton, along with his favorite synth hardware, effects, drum machines, soft synths from FXpansion’s DCAM: Synth Squad, and Xfer Records Nerve software (created with partner Steve Duda). But his favorite toys are what he calls his “mystery pedals.”

MYSTERY PEDALS, MODULAR MESS

“My place is so retardedly strewn with mystery modular stuff I got from Analogue Haven in L.A.,” he says with a laugh. “I just bought a Macbeth Studio Systems X-Series Dual Oscillator. The oscillator generates; then I run it through a Cwejman ADSR-VC2 and various filters. In my modular system, I have six different types of oscillators that just output sine waves, but each one has its own characteristic.

“I will take my oscillator output after it’s been MIDI’d, then run it through pedals such as Mid-Fi Electronics Pitch Pirate. It has an analog buffer like the Moog MF-104Z Analog Delay. Like an LFO, it slowly detunes whatever signal is coming in, slows down the rate and speeds it up again. It is noticeable, but it’s not warping it beyond recognition.”

Over time, Zimmerman has come to appreciate soft synths (especially Synth Squad’s Cypher and Native Instruments Kore 2), but he’s still an analog man at heart. “When I say I prefer analog,” he says, “I’m not talking about a certain sound but analog in terms of control, like where if you want a filter sweep, you have to do it with your hand. A software user would probably draw that kind of envelope with his mouse. I like those little screw-ups that the analog process can give. Like detuning and tuning an oscillator with your hand on a germanium resistor, you’ll get every little nuance. Software can’t do that. It could if you program a billion algorithms to consider dust in the resistor, or the glide motion from A to B. But analog is live sound.”

NOT YOUR STANDARD 4/4

What sounds live but is not are For Lack of . . .’s opening pounder, “FML,” with its barrage of snare drums and 7/4 meter funk beats, and “Bot,” a vibrating world of nervous cowbell rhythms, pingponging melody and forlorn solo notes.

“A lot of my tracks, like ‘Bot,’ start with percussion,” he says. “When I reach something over the top I’ll start breaking it down into little stems, then write the melody underneath that so as to not disconnect from the percussion too much. Generally, I just sit in front of my monitor with an Access Virus TI as a MIDI controller out to some kind of synth, then start playing on the low keys and work from there. The lead melody on ‘Bot’ is a Doepfer A-189-1 VBM, a voltage-controlled bit modifier. There are a couple knobs on it. I slowly turn one and it miraculously changes the sound.”

“FML” is a full-on Deadmau5 epic, coupling humongous trance sonics with unusually long silences and startling drumming that at times recalls fusion master drummer Billy Cobham.

“That opening snare drum cadence is FXpansion’s BFD,” Zimmerman reveals. “It’s only really two layers of velocity with a little variation between the two, as BFD has a humanize element you can adjust. If I hit a snare drum in BFD at the highest velocity and then somewhere in between, I can take that in-between velocity and move it up and down. When you hit a snare, there is a scale of 24 different velocities that will allow for variance. BFD is convincing enough to make it sound like the different dynamic levels of a real snare drum or whatever you apply it to.”

Deadmau5’s fondness for odd metered rhythms deepens the essence of “FML.” “I like 3/4 time,’ he admits. “The problem is that 4/4 dominates in club music. They train wreck if you mix the meters. The idea was to start ‘FML’ in 3/4. If you are starting from silence, people get it. Then the 3/4 drum set break turned into a 7/4- groove breakdown. Rock drummers get off on that; they don’t want the normal ‘boom-bap.’ ”

Over the 4/4 poundage that eventually ensues, Deadmau5 further spices up “FML” by adding a hi-hat rhythm that creates a three-over-two feel, or hemiola, which can easily disorient the initiated. It’s a subtle but effective sonic illusion.

“I drew the hi-hat in on the downbeat so you know where to bounce your head,” Zimmerman says. “Some of that stuff can be confusing timingwise, especially when you’re doing it live and you want to punch things in and out. So I threw the hi-hats on the downbeat so I know when it’s coming. There’s a Cwejman S1-MK2 for that big square bass line with a bit of pulse width modulation, so it’s not too square. And I just drew in a timpani roll from the [IK Multimedia] Miroslav Philharmonik Workstation.”

Zimmerman balances his skill at pleasing the public while yearning for something beyond simple constructions. “‘FML’ could have been a big anti-dance piece,” he says. “It’s something I want to throw down in a festival and watch people go apeshit. It’s not something you can do with an allexperimental track. I had to keep the vibe pumping throughout.”

Perhaps his deal with EMI Virgin will unleash the beast within the mouse. Until then, Zimmerman’s ceaseless touring and recording schedule continues to balance the analog mouse with the digital mousetrap.

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