“Man, I wish I could do these shows where I bring like half a studio’s worth of gear to play in a club setting”. Music-technology aficionados, such as we are, know this struggle well. But Joel Zimmerman knows it better than anyone – how would he possibly pack up his gargantuan modular rack, his jaw-dropping collection of vintage and modern synths, and his half-a-million-dollar Neve console?
He can’t. Instead, eight years ago, he began work on his own custom-made OSC-control app, now publicly available as OSC/Pilot. Deadmau5’s live performances revolve around OSC/Pilot, which not only controls individual elements of his tracks and different parameters in Ableton Live but also his entire show. “There are more than 800 tags of OSC data that are piping from me to front-of-house and back”, says Joel. “All the way from Cube rotations to light movement to the visuals being driven. It’s nuts”.
Though much of the music industry has come to a grinding halt due to the pandemic, Deadmau5 is still very much in demand. Armed with OSC/Pilot, his trademark ‘mau5head’ helmet and an impeccable light show, Zimmerman has performed live at drive-in concerts in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal. During the lockdown, he’s also released the track Pomegranate with Pharrell and Chad Hugo of The Neptunes. All of this beats on as he puts out new material with Steve Duda as BSOD, and performs live sets as Testpilot.
Of course, his OSC-packed Cube shows have all been delayed thanks to COVID-19. But Deadmau5 remains modest about the effect it’s had on him and acknowledges first that his team has been hit too. “I’m thinking of the position of the business before I’m like, ‘Me, me, me’,” he says. “Because everybody’s trying to find their place in 2020.” So how does a new music app come to fruition in such tumultuous times, then? And why does Deadmau5 even need his own custom-built control system when there are so many comprehensive ones on the market?
“There were a number of OSC products that came out, the first being the JazzMutant Lemur,” says Joel. “But the problem with that was the resolution and the tactile feedback – it was just a slow device. They had some cool ideas with the widgets and the editor and all that stuff. But then when Apple came out with the iPad, it just absolutely destroyed that in terms of portability. Back in the day, a Lemur was like four grand; iPads were about 800 bucks”.
Though the JazzMutant Lemur was discontinued, it was eventually revived by Liine and turned into an app for iOS and Android. These days, it costs about £24 – a lot less than its predecessor’s eye-watering price tag. TouchOSC is another popular OSC and MIDI control surface but Joel found that it, along with Lemur, lacks customisation options.
“I actually used TouchOSC for a little while – not for the live shows but more for my shows at clubs and throw-and-go festivals. But the problem I always ran into was that, at the time, it didn’t have native MIDI support. They added it later on and I was like, ‘Yeah, great’. But then the editor required you to edit it on macOS and then use IP protocol to basically send it to the iPad because there’s no native file format merge on an iPad. I was like, ‘Why couldn’t they just put the editor in the player?’”
Putting the editor in the player is precisely what Joel and the team at Toronto-based Derivative set out to achieve with the custom-built OSC/Pilot.
As soon as you open the app, you can pick and choose from a bank of widgets and define
the extent of their control. The onscreen two-octave piano can be extended to seven octaves in a flash, and the same flexible principles can be found right throughout its other features. Such pliability comes courtesy of one of the most prolific producers on the planet, whose creative needs are legion, and who carefully considered them over the course of eight years since the app’s inception.
“It was kind of like a purpose-built tool for myself,” says Joel. “It was never really polished and it wasn’t code-signed or anything fancy. It was just hacked together pretty quick, and it kind of stayed the way it was for years and years. Then I began working with Derivative and Malcolm Bechard – who was one of the developers there – and he loved the software. He said, ‘Hey, man, we should give this another go but build it properly’. So we were like, ‘Shit, alright.’”
Tailor-made for the Cube, the code-programmed production cockpit from which Deadmau5 performs, OSC/Pilot was never even supposed to land in the hands of other artists. But with its expansive feature set and extreme portability making it ideal for a vast number of industry pros, it seemed like a no-brainer.
It’s an invaluable tool to “throw in your backpack before a gig”, says Joel. Not only that, but as the respected artist traversed the plains of the digital world, he found that its OSC protocol can control a wider array of systems, including DMX512, the digital language used for light shows; the Unreal Engine, a creative tool used to control and render video; and the Vienna Development Method, among others. ”There’s a really big world out there that this protocol can tie into. Now, it’s not the most popular protocol but it does the trick until we get better.”
For the super-producer, the most impressive thing about his creation is its accessibility and versatility. “You can quickly whip up control surfaces for any given task, even if it’s not meant to be a permanent solution. If you’re just like, ‘I have five parameters and I need to control this from this computer on the same network,’ then boom – make five sliders, give them the right tags and send your data down the pipe”.
Although the elaborate and affordable software is currently only available for Windows, Apple users will be pleased to know that support for macOS and iOS is the number-one priority.
Taking back control
It’s no secret that Deadmau5 isn’t so hot on traditional DJ’ing. He harbours a particular disdain for DJs that overwork the mix for the sake of it. “As a musician”, he says, ”I put out music the way I’d like it to be heard. When I see DJs hovering over 3-band EQ on my shit, I’m like, ‘What are you doing?’. But, if they didn’t, what are they gonna do between mixes?”
Could OSC/Pilot be a useful tool for the modern digital DJ, then? With an unprecedented amount of control over track elements and effects, it may encourage a new generation of performers to go above and beyond what we know as DJ’ing. That said, Joel’s ambition isn’t to change the face of DJ’ing. As far as he’s concerned, it’s to be used just as an extra layer of protocol. “You’re always gonna have your turntables or your Ableton Live laptop but sometimes you get guys who show up with an MPC,” he says. “And then they’re like, ‘Fuck, man. I wish I had a grid that’s 32 by 16. I want to put my slider over here instead of this.”
Still, budding producers and performers are sure to take note of OSC/Pilot, particularly once they know that it was created and road-tested by such a world-straddling artist. Don’t be surprised to see it built into many setups over the coming years.
Despite an apparent lack of enthusiasm for two-deck DJ’ing, Deadmau5 still partakes in the craft and respects the scenes built around mixing and the work that goes into becoming a professional DJ. He’s been showcasing his own talents via livestreaming for years now, often using Richie Hawtin’s Model 1 mixer as the centrepiece, with a tablet running OSC/Pilot or TouchOSC to act as a record crate and track cue. The six-channel Model 1 is an important part of Joel’s live shows too, thanks to its high-quality analogue circuitry. “We use it live because the signal path in the live show is just so pure that it’d be a damn shame not to put it at the end of it”, he says.
“You play Pharrell the track, get a head nod and he’s in the booth two minutes later”
Deadmau5’s recent series of drive-in shows across his native Canada have been based on a similar setup, with OSC/Pilot controlling Ableton Live. These have been less extravagant than his usual Cube shows, for several reasons. The most obvious is the costs that come with setting up a stage of such calibre. Plus, the Cube stage is currently inaccessible, sat in a Chicago warehouse collecting dust. It sounds, however, like the mau5 might just have a plan up his sleeve. “I am remedying that situation with a certain project that shall not be mentioned,” he says. “We’re looking at a soft launch in November.”
Since this interview was conducted, Deadmau5 has unveiled the beta version of mau5trap.tv, his own video-streaming service. The service went live on 4 September with a two-hour livestreamed set from Zimmerman’s techno alias Testpilot.
When’s the drop?
Should we expect a surprise new album before 2020 comes to a close? Or at least some more singles from an upcoming body of work? Joel’s first response is blunt: nope. But thankfully he dims the awkwardness with a bit of a tease. “I have a collection of tracks that I could very easily call an album,” he says. “There is lots of new stuff but I’m just kind of slow-playing it while everyone’s figuring out their position in this current situation”.
“It’s auto-tune this, auto-tune that. I’m like, ‘Can anyone fucking sing anymore?’
Having collaborated with Rob Swire of Pendulum, Imogen Heap, Gerard Way and Cypress Hill among others, Deadmau5’s talents are spread across a sea of contrasting genres. Even still, the upbeat, soulful and rather commercial-sounding Neptunes featured on Pomegranate comes as a surprise. Deadmau5 met up with Pharrell and Chad Hugo at Winter Music Conference in Miami just before the pandemic broke out. Joel showed them an old demo titled Rupert, and the revered R&B duo knew exactly what to do.
“It was cool, man”, says Joel. “Really cool just to get in the same room with like-minded people who don’t really give a shit about the talk, and stay in their lane and do the thing that they love to do. You play Pharrell the track, get a fucking head nod and then he’s in the booth two minutes later, kind of lyric-vomiting melodies and stuff. I was like, ‘Well, fuck. Alright, make it rhyme and we’re good.’
Pharrell is really a natural talent. I was kind of taken aback by that, because I hear a lot of acts that shall not be named all over pop radio and it’s auto-tune this, auto-tune that and I’m like, ‘Holy shit, can anyone fucking sing anymore?’ In the back of my mind, I figured there would be a small version of auto-tune on Pomegranate but no. He’s just a natural talent. He just goes in and fucking crushes it, drops the mic and says,‘Alright, I’m going for lunch. Later.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, thanks!’”
As Joel works almost exclusively with electronic instruments, we’re intrigued as to how the single’s groovy bassline was recorded. “I got Les Claypool up in the studio and he brought his Jazz Bass and…” Joel laughs off the rest of the sentence. “Nah, man.” The bassline is made in the same way a lot of Joel’s instrumentation is made: meticulous programming. “It’s Kontakt, bro. Kontakt, piano roll and a lot of little note shifting, velocity editing but it sounds good. It sounds real!” Beyond Kontakt and his devastatingly enviable collection of hardware instruments and effects, Universal Audio’s basic UAD plug-ins are go-to tools for Deadmau5, taking a more utilitarian approach than a creative one.
Deadmau5’s discography is peppered with elements of live recording, with the most distinctive release being 2018’s cheekily titled Where’s the Drop?. The album is a collection of orchestral reimaginings of some of his finest work, from the piano-led one-off EP 7 to the fan-favourite Strobe. For the album, Joel came up with MIDI arrangements and worked alongside award-winning French composer and producer Gregory Reveret to transcribe them into a score fit for 72 classically trained musicians. Something that took Joel by surprise was the skill boasted by the hired musicians. “It’s insane,” he says. “They’d never heard it. They’d never played it. They didn’t practise. They just got the instructions in front of them, and the conductor said, ‘Okay, we’ll just do this one as a warm-up,’ and they played it perfectly the first time. I was like, ‘Did you guys record that? Because that was the take,’ and he said, ‘No, they’ll do it again’. Seven songs back to back and they crushed it. We recorded the whole album in two sessions over two days”.
Zimmerman’s mind-blowing studio lies within his Ontario castle and is rife with new and retro synths, Eurorack modules and hardware effects. But it’s the Rupert Neve 5088 mixing console that steals the show. He acquired it shortly after completing Where’s the Drop?, and it gets used on almost everything he produces.
“It sounds great,” he says. “With analogue, even though you’re going over the red, you’re still not peaking. That just means you’re driving it, you’re giving it a certain tone. Proper distortion, not digital bullshit. That has a role, so if you’re redlining a Neve, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s good to avoid it when need be but it depends on what you’re doing. Honestly, it’s application-dependent.”
Despite its unmatched sound, the 5088 does come with its grievances – just like most analogue equipment. “Because it’s so transistor driven”, says Joel, “some of the op-amps sometimes bleed out and start to go. I actually have a little baggie of new op-amps that the guys at Burl sent me. So I have to open up the unit. Neve didn’t solder it, thank god. They actually ZIF-socketed the op-amps. If they were soldered, the unit would be no good and I’d have to send it out to get serviced.
But honestly, the reward… Without the Neve, it’d be virtually impossible to come up with what I would call a really abrasive mix – and that’s all EDM is. It’s digital abrasion to me, and it gives me fatigue after five minutes, you know? As if it wasn’t bad enough that the idea was stupid, it’s the actual sound of it. It just gives me a headache. I can’t deal with it. But that’s the nature of the beast when you’re working with Sausage Fattener all day”.
Don’t fear the reaper
For average producers who aren’t surrounded by racks of gear, it’s easy to rely on a set of go-to instruments and tools to help shape your signature sound. But when you’re in Mau5trap Studios, the freedom of choice makes us wonder how Deadmau5 avoids choice paralysis.
“You don’t,” he says. “You tend to stumble upon work routines when you’re making new ideas, and then you develop a system and tend to do that over and over and over again, even though the songs are completely different. You get stuck in those routines from time to time. Sometimes you just have to punch yourself in the back of the head and try something new. Come up with this crazy synth lead and have that maximised out and only focus on that one little bit, then start working things around it. Try using a different DAW. ‘Fuck it, I’ll try REAPER today.’”
“Sometimes you just have to punch yourself in the head and try something new”
Mau5trap Studios was one of the first studios to be equipped with a Dolby Atmos system, which Joel made use of while scoring 2019 Netflix movie Polar. Joel jokes that since then it’s become a novelty for dinner guests. But is there scope for an immersive audio project later down the line?
“Maybe,” he says. “When the time, the technology and the venues are right. Without those three things working in conjunction, it’s like, ‘What are you doing?’ Ministry of Sound tried to do it. They had the right idea but it was the wrong place in the wrong format. I don’t think anyone’s going to be appreciating the spatialisation of audio at 120dB.”
When the time, the tech and the venues align to allow Deadmau5 to launch his own immersive audio experience, we have no doubts that he’ll be ready.
Joel has come a long way since Deadmau5’s 2005 debut album Get Scraped. He has since released seven studio albums, plus dozens of singles and EPs of not just his own work but other artists’ work on his Mau5trap label. He’s also continuing to retune the concept of live electronic music with the OSC/Pilot. He remains quiet about the prospect of a new album – and about the mysterious plans he has in store for November.
So what else is upcoming for Deadmau5? Could we finally see that long-teased collaboration with Jean-Michel Jarre? “We’re like passing ships in the night,” says Joel. “I would love to but it always turns into one email and another email, and then we’re like, ‘Oh shit, I gotta go on tour and do this thing,’ you know? But I’m not opposed to it at all. It’d pretty fucking cool, dude.”
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