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Toy Story | Deadmau5

December 1, 2008
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Deadmau5

Deadmau5
Photo: Chris Davison

What constitutes true “you have arrived” status in the DJ dance-music market? If you are Joel Zimmerman, aka Deadmau5, your very own giant-eyes-strobing Mau5head is just one sign of your increasing popularity and power. The 28-year-old Toronto native wields the Mau5head like some Daft Punk genetic mutation, but his music is anything but derivative. Deadmau5's second artist release, Random Album Title (Ultra, 2008), confirms Zimmerman's growing rep (as if his numerous Top-10 singles and globe-hopping club schedule didn't) as a shape-shifter of enormous melodic progressive trance skill.

Humble, carefree, possibly bored, Zimmerman is a big gear head who matches analog synths with an array of recording platforms — it's all part of his need for change. But this mouse refuses to be trapped. He defends soft synths while adhering to Moog machinery. He prefers tactile knobs and switches to drawing with a mouse. He likes “mystery tin pedals” and PC computers, but his collaboration with Steve Duda, Tommy Lee and DJ Aero as WTF? is cutting edge. In apparent tribute to his namesake dead mouse (discovered inside his PC one smelly day), Zimmerman talks the talk and walks the walk.

Random Album Title (which includes the hits “Not Exactly”; “Faxing Berlin”; the Deadmau5/Kaskade collaboration, “I Remember”; and new material) surrounds your brain with unexpected surprises and pleasures. More likely to praise Squarepusher and Aphex Twin than some slick superstar DJ, Random Album Title sounds typical at first, then its Mau5-marks appear: massive filter sweeps that morph before your ears; melodic phrases comprising odd note groupings; breakdowns where the beat disappears and the synths turn into sonic jelly; unerring, ethereal melody and a continents-spanning groove. This versatile template is derived partially from Deadmau5's old-school technology fixation.

MYSTERY ACHIEVEMENTS

“I am big fan of mystery pedals,” Zimmerman says from a San Francisco hotel at the start his latest world tour. “I like those gray tin boxes with knobs, and you don't know who made it or where it came from. I find them in these shops in Toronto where they sell these strange pedals. You just feed something in, and it comes out sounding a lot different.”

Soft synths be damned, Zimmer-man uses a combination of Minimoog Voyager, Moog Little Phatty, Minimoog, Roland Juno-106 (“the chorus is crazy”), Sequential Circuits Prophet T8 and “a cool German one called ‘MSB synth.''”

“I am hard-pressed to listen to any piece of music and know exactly what they are using unless it is obvious presets, which does happen a lot in electronic music,” Zimmerman muses. “But the whole thing with analog versus soft synth sounds: You can totally synthesize everything and have it sound different depending on how you process it. I've spent money getting a sound that was probably very achievable by doing something else, but I like a knob in my hand. Not so much the mouse and drawing. The filter sweeps and the crazy synth rises in my music — it's all handcrafted. I turn the knob. You can hear the mistakes. They're not mistakes, but you will hear it dip and rise accidentally if I wiggle my hand.”

Those wiggles can be heard in “Sometimes Things Get, Whatever.” After a breakdown, an ugly Moog Voyager line rises like a grinning, ghoulish monster. “You can't get that by drawing a line from zero to 127 in Ableton,” Zimmerman declares. “It'll just be perfect. I like using hardware and mystery pedals and crazy LFOs that aren't bang-on synced with the application. A lot of my LFOs I guessed at or got it as close as I could and cut it later.”

THE MAU5 & THE MOOGERFOOGER

Moogerfoogers — all of them — figure prominently in the Deadmau5 aesthetic. As with his Moogs, Mau5head and Monome 256, Deadmau5 refuses to leave anything alone, befitting his early years as a programmer.

“I have three MF-107 FreqBoxes and doubles of other Moogerfoogers for stereo,” Zimmerman says. “The 107 is an FM modulator that takes in a carrier or outputs an oscillator. It's really neat. The idea with the Moogerfoogers was to build a modular system, so you could spend two hours wiring to get one sound, but you can never get it back. The only way to save a preset is take a photo. But it is nice to make one feature sound for the whole track. The sound in ‘Hi Friend'' is that, a chirp, or noise on every upbeat. That was the result of me mucking around with the Moogerfooger and running an oscillator through another synth through it. It's a great sound.”

Deadmau5 uses multiple sequencers, including Ableton Live, Propellerhead Reason, Steinberg Cubase and FL Studio. DIY seems to be the Mau5-mantra, using whatever works to make his music unique. “I use Fruity Loops 'cause it's really quick for some things,” he explains. “The piano roll is so fast, and drawing in notes in Ableton or Cubase seems like such a chore by comparison to FL Studio. I use Reason for its effects and embedded instruments because they don't support VST, but I ReWire it if I want to use the Thor or Subtractor synths. They're just extra toys to throw in the mix and make little clips that you can add to your production.”

DEADMAU5 LIVE

Speaking of toys, the Mau5head is yet another element in the Deadmau5 arsenal; it lets the naturally shy Zimmerman hide out incognito. Of course, the Mau5head's strobing eyes are the result of tinkering.

“There is a guy named Bert Schiettecatte who founded Percussa, a music hardware and software company whose first product is AudioCubes,” he explains. “The cubes by themselves interact with each other and trigger different clips or patterns via proximity or color, and there are a couple of LEDs inside. I had the wiseass idea to buy a couple cubes, rip them apart and use the LEDs in the chipset and put them in the eyes of the Mau5head. My head is USB powered, which is perfect. I do light sequences that are in time with the music. They are controllable through MIDI, so I just chose different sequences from the [JazzMutant] Lemur to tell Live to send MIDI to the AudioCubes that light up in my head. They match the music; I write little clips that match the song.”

In similar deconstruction fashion, Deadmau5 uses a Monome 256 as a controller to do everything from creating beats to executing manic melodies. The Monome 256 ships sans manual, diagram or instructions of any sort — all the better for the enterprising Mau5 among us.

“You have to make it work for you,” Zimmerman says. “You can't just take it out of the box and go to town on presets. But you treat it like any other device that triggers another application. Basically, you freestyle and hammer away at any of the 256 buttons to trigger a sound like a drum kit into Ableton Live. But for the techno, you will want to have that sequence in a way that things get quantized and maybe have an LED row scroll back and forth and do a certain sequence of sounds, perhaps over a bar in a loop, and you want to be able to use other keys to modify that loop to have it play in reverse order or random order or whatever. It all comes with the development of custom VST software that communicates to the device before the device communicates to Ableton Live to trigger these sounds. So my partner in crime, Steve Duda, has come up with Molar; it's a VST port of a Max/MSP replacement for the Monome 256 for Ableton Live. It lets you re-chop, re-sequence, re-slice a wave loop or trigger one-shots or send MIDI notes. You would never rig it up the same way twice, which is fun.”

RANDOM ALBUM IDs

The album's bookend tracks, “Sometimes Things Get, Whatever” and “So There I Was” feature a bass drum that sucks the air out of the room. As if in a vacuum, it moves through the mix like an alien vessel laying waste to all.

“I layer my kicks with a sine wave that is tuned with the bass line,” Zimmerman reveals. “You have to be careful with that because you can run into serious phase problems. But if you put the phase offset 180 degrees, it will make the most monstrous kick possible. You have a perfect inverted phase kick. The top end is what gives it the punch. You don't need much of that; the rest is all a pure sine with a bit of a volume envelope.”

As the mix moves along, “Slip” brings the Mau5 mood down a bit, inserting what sounds like tiddlywinks in place of a standard melody. Half rhythmic, half robotic, the boing-ing melody/rhythm dances over the song's beat in a series of odd-grouped phrases, adding to the sense of dislocation.

“The main theme is from a Clavia Nord Lead 3,” Zimmerman explains, “just using some sine waves, and in one of the oscillators the key track is turned off so it plays the same note no matter what other notes you hit in correlation with it. As far as those odd-numbered melodic phrases that float over the bar line, anything I can do to get away from that regimented house sound, like polyrhythms, keeps it interesting for me. If you took the bass drum out, you would get lost in the rhythm. And it's funny, when I play these tracks live, I do remove the kick drum and people clap, but they lose it as soon as I drop the bass drum. By the time I punch it back in they must think, ‘We're all idiots!''”

The beat-defying melodic phrases continue in “Brazil,” further warped by delays and knob twiddling. “I used two 104 Moogerfoogers and manually timed the delay,” Zimmerman explains. “I slowly adjust the delay time backward and forward so it modulates a bit. By the time the delay bounces back around, it has been delayed slightly out of time but still pretty close. When you layer it on top of something else, it gives it a fuller sound.”

THE MAU5 MUSES

Where does a successful Mau5 go from here? Zimmerman has plans to further alter his live DJ experience, and his ongoing collaborations with WTF? and BSOD (with Steve Duda) keep his head spinning. Otherwise, Zimmerman's diet of Coke Classic (one case per track) should keep him energized enough to do battle with any DJ foe or Energizer Bunny.

“I've got the world's only MIDI-controllable mouse head, so that's cool,” he says with a laugh. “I want to start including more cool gear that interacts with the sound and the audience. But as far as defining my sound or popularity, maybe it's the head. I don't know what it is. I don't want to look a gift mouse in the mouth.”

RANDOM ALBUM GEAR

Computers, DAW/recording software

Ableton Live software

(2) Apple MacBook Pro

Custom PC: Quad Core 3.2 gig Intel CPU, Alesis motherboard, 5 TB hard drive

FL Studio software

Steinberg Cubase software

Synths, software, plug-ins

Moog Little Phatty, Minimoog and Minimoog Voyager synths

Native Instruments Reaktor, Kontakt, Battery and Traktor software

Propellerhead Reason Thor and Subtractor soft synths

Roland Juno-106 synth

Sequential Circuits Prophet T8 synth

Effects

Moog Moogerfoogers: MF-101 Low Pass Filter, MF-102 Ring Modulator, MF-103 12-Stage Phaser, MF-104Z Analog Delay, MF-105 MuRF, MF-107 FreqBox, CP-251 Control Processor

Controllers, DJ mixer

Allen & Heath Xone: 4D DJ Mixer and Controller

JazzMutant Lemur

Monome 256

Percussa AudioCubes

Pioneer DJM-800 DJ mixer

Monitors

Genelec 8050As

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