The Berlin based multi-media artist has been at the forefront of contemporary audio-visual media projects and works. He was one of the masterminds behind legendary imprint Raster-Noton (‘Raster’ and ‘Noton’ now existing as two separate identities), and recording as Alva Noto has continually pushed the envelope, by re-imagining sonic envelopes in tightly, defined minimalistic-melodies, composed in deeply textured mechanical worlds.
In the live arena, you are more likely to see him combining integrative visuals with dub techno rhythms, or fusing experimental electronics alongside the classical works of Ryuichi Sakamoto, which is why it’s always a pleasant surprise to see him operate as a DJ. In July this year, Nicolai was asked to curate and perform at Boiler Room’s Art Night at Village Underground, London, for which he performed using TRAKTOR DJ for the iPad. Native Instruments caught up with Nicolai to discuss his approach to DJing and sound, and why TRAKTOR DJ works for him as oppose to other mediums.
Your DJ gigs can be counted on the fingers of just one hand, but your Boiler Room set in July caused real excitement. You only used TRAKTOR DJ on your iPad for playing…
It is true, I rarely play gigs, I mostly do it for friends or at an event here and there. I didn’t really want to get into the DJ business. But after moving to Rome I have been repeatedly asked to play live. And because I can’t play the same live show in one city over and over again, playing gigs really became an alternative – an easy and playful approach. That is why I was looking for software to manage the set in a simpler way.
So right from the start you did not consider vinyl or CDs?
No, I have a high affinity for software. My libraries are almost completely digital, plus my unreleased tracks are also only digital, as are the pieces of other artists that I am either editing or using certain parts from. A little longer here, a littler shorter there, a few additional loops. These are tools that repeatedly pop up in sets like that. I find it very comfortable to work like that, and the iPad serves particularly well because of its portability. I am out and about a lot. I found TRAKTOR DJ more or less by coincidence, after I couldn’t find any good DJ software. I liked the app straight away – you also don’t need a lot of other equipment.
I often prepare a DJ set, create an archive on iTunes and consider in which direction the evening might be heading. The storage capacity of an iPad is no problem these days and TRAKTOR DJ also suggests tracks that go well with the actual tempo. This sometimes leads to spontaneous decisions moving the whole set into a completely different direction. I then think to myself: why not, this is a great track after all.
The recommended feature is often ridiculed…
I am a big fan. One example: I was playing at Berghain and Prince had died the day before. When I played the first track, Prince showed as recommended. I went with it, a little tribute, why not. I didn’t play the full song, just mixed in a nice, heavy beat. Without this feature the mix would not have happened.
Prince. At Berghain. From an iPad.
TRAKTOR DJ works in a completely new direction regarding operation.
And that is actually the most important part for me. Away from the mouse, multitasking and interface all in one. By now I even use the iPad when I play concerts, but in another setup, combined with Lemur. I then create my own surfaces for instruments. Specifically this means that the software is running in the background which samples the sound differently. TRAKTOR offers all of this in one. That is very pleasant.
It feels differently to playing live shows and sets… Can you compare it at all?
No, but there are many similarities. I did not have to get used to the iPad and I wasn’t afraid to use it, as I have been working with touchscreens and multi-touch for over ten years – since Lemur came out [on JazzMutant]. When the first iPad came out I thought I would not need Lemur anymore. That is why I was really happy when the first big iPad pro came on the market which had a display equal in size as Lemur. If I would have built my own controller back then – with buttons and faders – the transition to the iPad would not have been as easy for me. I now feel very flexible and can easily use two or three tablets for multiple editions of TRAKTOR and maybe an additional virtual instrument. You can expand the setup modularly, but it never gets out of hand into having a technical battle if you want to synchronize things with each other. Having said that: I am not really a fan of things being synchronized with each other all the time.
On your quest for the right software – did you also look at other solutions or did you look for something to use with your iPad from the beginning?
In general I look at everything. Often times you underestimate the available tools and solutions due to the simplicity of their concept. One example was the OP-1 by Teenage Engineering, which is first and foremost colourful. Really it is a great and complex tool. It is the same with software. You have got to take some time to try out everything, and at one point the flow and a certain routine arise. This is the critical moment. You notice you don’t have to think too much and can simply concentrate on the playful aspects more.
The strange thing is that during this period I started to play without headphones. A sin! (Laughs) I actually don’t perceive it like this. It can happen that I mix something and the transition does not work. But at least I can hear it like everybody else. This is also something I appreciate. I know the tracks I am playing very well; I know what part comes at what time. By previously editing the tracks I can tell by the waveform itself, so, I can tell when the strings come in, for example. I really have an eye for that now. When TRAKTOR DJ analyses the waveform I instantly see: ah, this is a break, this part is clean, there is no backing underneath, I can loop here. Without this sort of visualisation you would have to scrub the track for a pretty long time.
To answer your question though: I did have a look at other solutions for DJs, also for the laptop. It is striking though that analyzing the waveform on the iPad is much quicker and more precise, which makes it much easier to spontaneously mix a track into a set.
But potentially with a laptop there are more opportunities.
True. There are more opportunities, for example I could integrate MASCHINE as well. But playing live is such a relaxed business for me now. DJ sets are for dancing. And my sets are explicitly for dancing. Well, at least a bit. In any case they are not as complex as my live shows. Those are a little rhythmical as well, but they are not club sets. I like this kind of simplicity.
Back to the Boiler Room. How did you prepare for this set?
By choosing tracks, contemplating a certain order while considering that the tracks also have to fit tonally. I prefer to play music where melodies don’t matter so much; it’s mainly about the rhythm. But you also have to keep an eye on the basslines. This is the foundation; I like to use it for other tracks that do not really show in the techno context, like sounds and atmospheric textures. I also experiment with extreme pitchings, which works surprisingly well.
So you are using iTunes playlists.
Exactly. Normally I finalize them shortly before the set and transfer them. That is enough for approximately ten hours of music.
Your iPad must have a lot of storage room.
Yes, it makes sense if you want to use it like I do. And it has a fast processor, which specifically shows when you are analyzing tracks. In the past it took a while to start an eight-minute track. These days you can watch it happen in real time.
You used another tool at your set in the Boiler Room, some sort of XY-controller. What is that about?
Actually that is a sort of modular system, where very different modules are interconnected and the parameters are then used via multitouch. Effects in particular. The whole thing is an app with its own channel on the mixer. There are these certain “DJ rituals”: bass off, on, drum roll, so there is a constant change about every two minutes. I am really more interested in some sort of a constant flow. When I meet my limits here, I start to use the effects on the DJ mixer. You find the ones from Pioneer everywhere.
Two more players.
That means four decks?
That would be great, but I imagine it would be hard to present design wise, on small tablets in particular.
So then two iPads in parallel?
That would work as well, yes. I sometimes get to the point where two tracks are just not enough and I would like to play a third one on top. Much better processors would be needed to perform that with one device. I would also really like to have more ports available, so I sincerely hope that Apple is not going to pare down the last one as well. It is really fiddly. I am constantly taping, just as a safety precaution.
Speaking of safety: touchscreens don’t like sweaty fingers… and there is a lot of sweating in clubs.
That is a problem, yes. If you start sweating you then need dry fingers again very fast. It doesn’t happen that often during a live performance, especially in the club. I have gotten used to it though. After using touchscreens for such a long time I can really handle it.
You could also use a controller.
I tried the KONTROL Z1 once, I quite liked it, although we then used it for something completely different. I have to admit that controllers are just too big. I really do not want to cart them along. I only have one set of arms and ten fingers that already keep me quite busy on the iPad.
Currently there is growing talk about integrating streaming services like Spotify into DJ apps. What do you think about that?
I don’t like this idea. First of all because Spotify has a lousy sound. Why would you use that to play? But I do not like cloud services in general. It is a real American idea to be online everywhere. At one point you will find yourself noticing: oh wait – I am offline – and there is nothing I can do! Ultimately it cuts down my freedom and my decision-making ability. I would like to always have all the tracks with me in the best possible resolution. I just don’t trust the compression that happens through streaming. You may not notice it in everyday life – or just barely – but you have to take a closer look. The digital is also very fragile. Anyone who changes their computer frequently and copies libraries back and forth knows how many files can actually break. Well – working with broken files is one of my creative key features…
I was just going to say: this kind of fits!
… but I like to decide for myself if something is broken – or when it has to break.
Didn’t you create a whole project coming using this principle?
True, but that happened rather coincidentally. I had done a whole string of recordings that my software was not able to import correctly and practically remixed them straight away. For example the pitch. It sounded magnificent! I was in the Japanese countryside, and ambient music was playing in the background of the hotel, and in addition to that there were the sounds in the lobby. I opened those files and realized: great, but that’s not what I had actually recorded. A problem of conversion. I rebuilt this principle as software. You download a loop and copy it over and over again – you can even set up the resolution individually for each copy process.
At one point the material will collapse due to the the continuous converting with high pace and interpolation. That is exciting, because every software interpolates a little differently, always depending on the algorithm of the programmer. I am fascinated by the idea of such a copy machine. You have to imagine it like photoshop, when you try to edit a JPG that is way too small and try to refurbish it. The algorithms that analyze this picture and add on missing pixels are really very good now. I grew up in the GDR with the idea of copying and reprography. Duplicating things was not easy and also not very well received. It’s a cultural achievement that is almost forgotten today. To me it was extremely formative. Copying things – xerox – putting them on the photocopier and changing them. This still has an impact on my work today.