Being a techno geek can pay off. So can being in the right place at the right time. For Toronto producer Jason Spanu, aka DJ Shine, years of “struggling-artist” woes ended when he landed the prime-programmer gig in Canadian-born Nelly Furtado's band on tour for her third album, Loose [Geffen, 2006]. From behind the sales counter at a local musical instrument shop to suddenly jetting around the world with the Grammy Award-winning starlet (who hosted and cleaned up this year at Canada's Grammy-equivalent Juno awards), Spanu is responsible for all the backing tracks, samples and effects — and is more than qualified for the job.
Since his teens, Spanu has constantly been involved in some level of electronic-music production. At ease behind racks of gear, multiple turntables and intricate interfaces, the 30-year-old has released numerous tracks and remixes, performed live P.A.s from Mexico City to Vienna and contributed to electronic performances from ambient to deep tech-house. He's also mastered the performance tool du jour, Ableton Live, which he uses to loop and jump to any part of Furtado's songs at her whim. If the hip-pop diva wants to sing a song slower or extend the refrain, especially on the fly, Spanu follows her lead, keeping the music to time and steering the entire stage production clear of what would be the equivalent to a DJ's train wreck.
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Also the DJ for Canadian hip-hop star Saukrates (who opens for Furtado) and the latest addition to Toronto electro band Fritz Helder & the Phantoms (as the programmer), Spanu has managed to keep up his production between gigs and complete his second artist album, Attention Deficit Disco [Nice+Smooth, 2007]. Back from touring in Europe, Spanu took time out to explain his good fortune with Remix. — Elizabeth Mitkos
My official job title is programmer. I am responsible for all of the band's samples and loops — the extra touch of production added to the show that allows me to sync with the lights and video to enhance the concert experience. I use Ableton Live to trigger various files such as extra drum tracks, string sections and some background vocal effects, as well as a click track for the drummer, MIDI Clock to the MPC4000 sequencer and a SMPTE track for triggering video loops and lighting cues. I also sync the audio files with the other band members onstage. Sometimes there are hardly any extra audio files being played — only a click to the drummer's earphones, so he can sync with the program. Other times there's a heavy drum loop and more of a sequence playing.
For each of Nelly's many songs, I'm also managing multiple versions of arrangements. Her songs are rich, vibrant, worldly productions with numerous kinds of instruments, so Live lets the band reproduce the intended concept of any of the songs in her repertoire as closely as possible. The beauty of the program is that it's a nonlinear environment to work in, which allows Nelly or any other performer to vibe with the samples and loop them with the band in a “loose” way instead of playing the same song the same way every time.
With Saukrates, I use Live totally differently. I'm running all of his tracks for his 20-minute performance through Live with no band. I'm also running Propellerhead Reason in the background, ReWired through Live on one MacBook Pro and scratching with Serato Scratch Live on my other MacBook Pro. While jumping and rapping onstage, Saukrates plays the violin and triggers sounds from Reason with a MIDI keyboard and an Akai MPC2000.
LANDING THE GIG
To try to make a long story short, I literally grew up in Toronto's rave scene and was always involved with some level of music production, promotion and performance, learning from everyone I met [like John Acquaviva in his early days]. I focused on teaching myself everything I could about everything I found interesting. In the mid-'90s, I joined a local ambient band called Automated Gardens with Keram Maliki-Sanchez and Joshua Joudrie and learned a lot from those two guys. In 1996, I began working with a young Toronto label called Nice+Smooth [home to his 2002 debut artist album Thinque] and became its resident programmer and engineer, working with artists like Kinder Atom, Suisse producer Stephane Vera (aka Teknostep) and DJ Freedom.
I set myself apart from everyone I knew, trying to stay a few steps ahead of the curve by constantly learning about new technologies and getting involved with various projects in different fields of entertainment. I began learning DMX programming and lighting design and tried my hand at very basic 3-D animation and its integration with MIDI-triggered VJ applications. In the early 2000s, I ran a DJ and music-production school for a few years, all while hosting and spinning on a handful of college and after-hours radio shows before eventually settling into a cushy retail job selling music equipment.
Then one day in early 2006, out of the blue, an acquaintance in the music industry named Dean Jarvis approached me about “that crazy program” Ableton Live. He happened to be Nelly Furtado's musical director and bass player looking for a dude like me working a program like Live. While my main goals were and still are producing and performing electronic music, I couldn't refuse the opportunity to tour the world and work with some of the best damn musicians in the biz.
Since being on the road, I have met programmers for Beyoncé, the Pussycat Dolls, Gwen Stefani and Hilary Duff, and was surprised at how we all work with almost exactly the same rigs — except that I'm the only one using Live as the sole music-playback engine. I mainly use the Mac towers with 8 GB of RAM because I like to know that I am horribly over-prepared. The laptops are there for quick edits and provide a more mobile solution for globetrotting, especially when the big Mac Pro towers are being shipped to one country, and I'm traveling to another country for a quick television-show performance — which is usually just one song, so I don't have to worry about quadruple the power I need to play my part in a full concert for thousands of people. For playback, I use the Evolution MIDI controllers to monitor the volume of certain tracks, while the USB MIDI converters allow me to sync with the MPC4000 drum machine that Saukrates uses onstage with Nelly [fittingly filling in for Loose producer Timbaland on the duo's chart-busting hit single, “Promiscuous”].
PREPPING FOR PERFORMANCE
I have access to the stem files from all of Nelly's albums. Her music director sits with me, and we strip away all the files from the samples and loops that will be played live onstage through Live. Some of the studio tracks have high track counts, so we trim them down to a couple of stereo files per song. I place them in Live in the same session file and tempo-map them according to their original tempo. Once the tracks are on the grid, I program markers on the timeline and keymap the “>” and “” keys on the computer keyboard as my “jump to” controller keys, making it easy to loop back to the previous marker or skip ahead until I hit the desired section of the song. Some of the songs had some issues with slightly wandering tempos, either from live performance or through the wonderful world of MIDI, so I had to time-stretch some elements. Once all my prep work is done, it's quick and easy to alter the arrangement or volumes of the tracks.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
When I got the job in February 2006, the band was just gearing up to begin promotional-only performances for Loose. We spent just over a month of 12-hour days jamming and carefully going over all of her songs in a downtown Toronto rehearsal space. Programming-wise, that was the real crunch time for me, but it allowed me to lay down the foundation of a mega Live file with all of Nelly's songs ready to play and mash up, DJ-style.
By the time we got down to actually rehearsing the concert around January 2007, after a year around much of the world, we needed only a few weeks to smooth out the technical aspect of the concert. What's great is that Live allows the band to create different versions of songs or create new versions during a soundcheck to play that night. Any kid with a tape deck could do that, but Live is so quick and easy that we can add new ideas or rearrange existing ones without the stress of slow or incompetent software. We have a lot of fun with it, especially in syncing it with some of the video elements of the show [whose palm trees, neon lights and white backdrop are inspired by Miami, where Furtado recorded most of the album].
My worst fear on tour is that all my gear will cease to function, get lost or mashed in shipping or damaged by fire, water or hurricane! Other than that, having either the computer or the program glitch out or crash is a worry. It's one thing to blow a tube on a guitar amp or bust a snare, but when computers are involved, and they don't reboot after crashing, it's far more complicated than just changing a guitar string.
At the start of this gig, I had the chance to experiment with the best possible combinations of hardware to meet the current and future demands of the shows, which range from 45 to 90 minutes. Because I'm dealing with about 7 GB of audio files — spanning about 40 songs plus their multiple arrangements and remixes — I wanted to be able to open all the files at once, like having all your records easily accessible in one crate. I started off with my lonely Compaq 1.7 GHz PC laptop with 1 GB of RAM and a MOTU 828 FireWire soundcard. I programmed some shows that way at first, but the files were pushing the system to its limits. For a quick fix, I batch converted the WAV files down from 24-bit to 16-bit, but everyone around me kept softly chanting “Mac, Mac, Mac.”
Conveniently, at that same time, the new MacBook Pro came out, and I jumped on the wagon. After some trials, I confidently decided to go with the current system [see the sidebar] and have been very happy with it. Now if anything goes wrong, both my laptop and tower systems run through the audio switcher unit, which has a big “Oh shit!” red button on the front panel that when pushed allows me to instantly switch all the output tracks from one computer to the other should one system suddenly crash.
I have never had any major showstopping issues. Even if my computers were run over by an out-of-control bull, the band is still rocking happily ever after. Only once or twice I have had some power issues. At a gig in Paris, I actually had to push the “Oh shit!” button when a power spike crashed one of the computers. Besides that, once I figured out how to best streamline the files to fit both computers' and soundcards' performance parameters, things have run smoothly.
LIFE ON TOUR
In a nutshell, I usually wake up around noon and roll out of my bunk on the tour bus or shuffle out of my hotel room, head to the venue and find my gear. I don't really have much set up, other than hooking up screens and plugging in the audio connections to the switcher unit. We do our soundcheck for Nelly, and then I prep for Saukrates' rocking opening performance. Then I eat, shower, play the show and get on a bus or plane and drive or fly to the next gig. Repeat for as long as we're on tour.
Ableton Live software
Akai MPC2000, MPC4000 sampling workstations
(2) Apple 20-inch Cinema Displays
(2) Apple MacBook Pro 2.33 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo laptops with 2 GB RAM each
(2) Apple Mac Pro 2 GHz Xeon quad core towers with 8 GB RAM each
(2) Evolution UC-33 USB MIDI controllers
(2) M-Audio MIDI Sport 1×1 USB MIDI converters
(2) MOTU Travelite 8-channel FireWire soundcards
(2) MOTU 24/IO 24-channel PCI-Express soundcards
Paul J. Cox Systems custom-made audio switcher unit
Propellerhead Reason software
(4) Radial Pro DI8 direct input boxes