In this video, "controllerist" Moldover shows how his performance system of a modified Novation ReMote 25SL, Ableton Live and NI Reaktor works.
You're going to look back at the early 21st century and see a defining point that divided DJs into two distinct groups. You could call it the digital divide, but it will not be a question of who uses digital or not. That result is already clear: Go digital or find yourself with the dinosaurs. The digital divide will be between those who were and those who will be. First, you have the old vanguard that is adapting techniques and styles into the digital realm via digital training wheels courtesy of Serato Scratch and others. Then you have the new camp, which — with no emotional ties to a particular DJing paradigm — is literally throwing away the rulebook and reinventing the wheel. DJ Moldover falls squarely in the new camp by default and by choice, but he still wants to pay homage to the old-school world of turntablism — without turntables. Fortunately, he has come up with a term that seems to explain this in a way that people can understand and — hold your breath — even respect. Introducing…“controllerism.”
WHAT IS CONTROLLERISM?
“Controllerism borrows its name from turntablism,” Moldover explains. “These terms are essentially the same idea, but they revolve around different instruments. DJs who emphasize performance and approach their tools as musical instruments needed a way to differentiate themselves from DJs who just play records. In the same way, performers who use computer technologies as musical instruments needed a way to differentiate themselves from people who ‘check their e-mail.’ Controllerism is the art of manipulating sounds and creating music live, using computer controllers and software. Simple as that. But besides all this fancy definition, calling myself a controllerist makes my life a whole lot easier. When people ask, ‘What do you do?’ or ‘What is that thing?’ I just say, ‘I'm a controllerist, and that's my controller; I use it to manipulate sounds on my computer, just like someone playing a musical instrument.’”
So if controllerism is the modern turntablism, then what has replaced the turntable as the DJ musical instrument of today? Therein lies the rub. With no defined instrument standard, many people have created, modified or repurposed MIDI controllers to make their own. Moldover wins my personal award for most creative mod with his heavily restructured Novation ReMote 25SL. This Frankenstein experiment in DJ wizardry attempts to replicate turntablist techniques by replacing common control concepts with unconventional ones. “I'm basically robbing turntable technique to do more with more decks,” Moldover says.
For example, what's better than one crossfader? How about five that you can play all at once? Easy if you lose the slider concept and instead use five adjacent keys to punch in five decks. Moldover took it to the next level by gluing five pieces of thick plastic on each black key, creating a larger playing surface and edges that can be crab scratched just like a crossfader but with more precision.
Another example is how DJ Moldover abandoned the platter and re-created scratching with keys. He replaced two white keys with blacks ones, creating a tight grouping of five black keys bordered by two white ones. The white keys drop a scratch point, and each black key moves the point forward a progressively longer distance, which — when used in combination — creates a remarkably expressive scratch. Want to “grab” the record? Press both white keys with one hand, and the track is silenced but is still scratchable with the black keys. You're probably thinking, “You can do that with Ableton!” Well, not exactly. Moldover does enlist a lot of help from Native Instruments Reaktor. In this case, a Reaktor plug-in written by Chris List sits on the Ableton Live master channel, recording all the audio in 4-bar loops for wild real-time manipulation. The good news is you can download this patch yourself. (Frankenstein Novation SL not included.)
MASH IT UP
Moldover's live sets have been described as live re-mashing because they effortlessly create an endless blend of unconventional musical combinations. Countless hours of advance preparation and the power of Ableton Live solve the problem of keeping all those beats in time, but what about the music? How does Moldover know if two songs are going to work together harmonically? Well, although Moldover spent four years studying at the renowned Berklee School of Music, you won't need a degree to understand his methodology. He applied that music background to his live-music strategy by using a logical color-coding system to avoid ugly mixes when mashing random tracks. To keep things simple, Moldover first reduced the potential variables: “Basically, I narrowed it down to seven keys, so if something is in Eb I will pitch it up to E, and if something is in F#, I will pitch it down to F so I only have songs in A, B, C, D, E, F and G.” Moldover then applies a little color theory to the mix so he can easily recognize potentially pleasing mixes.
“Some keys sound good together and some keys don't,” he says. “Adjacent keys like B and C are going to clash, so I made B yellow and D grey because the colors, to me, visually clash. However, yellow and red are B and E, which have a lot of tones in common and are almost next to each other on the rainbow.” This basic rainbow layout was effective enough that without knowing his system, I was able to easily pick out harmonic combinations based on colors alone.
As manufacturers catch up with the rapidly exploding world of digital DJing and performance, we will look toward artists such as Moldover to provide inspiration for what is possible onstage. Hopefully, the big DJ brands will start to incorporate next-level performance concepts into tools that everyone can try.
Watch a video of Moldover's controllerism technique atremixmag.com.