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Nerd Gone Wild

December 1, 2006
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It seems that a little phallic symbolism goes a long way in performances. Guitars, mic stands and microphones abound in bands, but what about the DJs? Don't worry folks: Tim Exile has it covered. At a recent Berlin club appearance, I was lucky enough to catch Exile's “DJ” set. More accurately, his aural cluster bomb was loaded with everything but the kitchen sink. To kick things off, he deftly sprang on top of the DJ booth armed with a Madonna-style cordless microphone. Inviting the audience to join in the show, Exile whipped out his massive…joystick.

With his Logitech Extreme 3-D game controller in hand (he converted the controller commands into MIDI using a shareware program he downloaded), Exile radically transformed his voice into deep growls, giant reverb builds and sonic decimation with each jerk, twist and pull. And that was just the intro. Exile's performances should be equipped with a warning waiver: “This show is not for those over 40 or musically inclined toward anything mainstream.” Granted, he did play “Toxic” by Britney Spears, but it was rapidly deconstructed into an unrecognizable gyration of glitch, pop and splutter. How does Tim achieve this level of hands-on performance and complete aural destruction? More specifically, how can you?

MAN OF INVENTIONS

Exile's current performance style was born out of boredom with traditional DJing. “I quit because there just wasn't enough you could perform with while DJing,” he says. “I wanted direct access to the tracks, to be able to change elements, do real-time edits, et cetera, et cetera. Being into cut-up beats, I wanted to be able to perform these kinds of edits in real time — resample stuff, effect it, then edit that and so on.”

Exile began to explore other performance options but found them falling short of his vision. “When I was first developing my live show, I bought Ableton Live, but at the time [version 2], it just wasn't as free and live as I wanted it to be. So I decided to develop my own. It started life as a wigged-out DJing rig with just two channels. It's now pretty much entirely ditched its roots and is a 4-channel improvisation machine with sample mashers, synths, drum machines and live-input sampling, as well as all the quasi-DJ and sample-mashing stuff.”

THE MASHING

This DJ “machine” Exile speaks of is actually a custom patch inside of Native Instrument Reaktor. Tim uses a few standard patches, but most of it is customized to fit his needs. “I use the [Reaktor] Flatblaster multidynamics to process the mic, which is more of a mixing tool, really,” Exile says. “And the master compressor for the whole mix was out of the box. They are mainly for keeping the levels under control. [Flatblaster] does its best to turn a shitty mic signal into something that sounds relatively beefy. Other than that, it's all home cooking.”

One of the most interesting and effective tricks is the way Exile morphs his voice in really dramatic ways with a variety of plug-ins. “There are distortions, EQs, filters, multiband dynamics, delay lines, frequency-modulated delay lines, hacked reverb/phaser hybrid algorithms, octave doublers and this weird thing that's somewhere between a sampler, scratcher and granular mangler.”

THE MANGLING

Real-time looped recordings, samples and songs go through significant processing in a Tim Exile set. “In addition to key editing, they will go through gaters, choppers, get reversed, resampled, repitched and aggregated until their very DNA is destroyed.”

Needless to say, with all these effects, it could be easy to turn the entire mix into mush and lose all timing. To combat this, Tim built in a simple solution [in Reaktor] similar to Live but more idiot-proof. “Everything is stuck to a loop of defined bars and beats so you don't have to worry about triggering it on the right beat,” Exile says. “You can drop any sample or track into one of the four channels, and they will instantly be in phase with the loop. Then you can edit and mash it up with the keys. There are eight different edit keys that do different things for skipping about in the loop. Some of them are absolute, and some of them are relative to where in the loop you are when the key is pressed. When you let go of the key, it goes right back to where the loop would have been if you hadn't pressed anything — locked right back into the groove. There are also eight cue-point keys that allow you to skip to different points in a track or sample, which you can set beforehand.”

In addition to locked-in timing, Exile relies on a large array of outboard MIDI gear to keep everything manageable: “It's important that all of this is controlled by masses of MIDI control interfaces, which are hard-wired into controls [meaning, you don't ever have to make selections or reset the values of controllers]. It really behaves like an instrument with the same kind of spontaneous control that you get over a turntable.”

While the concept of setting up all of this yourself might be a little overwhelming, Exile offers hope due to the fact that he's had to rebuild his setup from scratch after it mysteriously vanished. “I once lost my entire live setup, complete with controllers, laptop, soundcard, my Reaktor patch and full instructions on how to perform a Tim Exile set in a weatherproof container somewhere in the middle of the countryside near Newcastle. It's probably still there, but I can't remember where it was. If you can find it, you can have it.”

Seriously though, since Exile first touched Live, it has developed significantly and is now in a realm where you could create something similar to his custom Reaktor patch. So if you don't have lots of patience and an intimate understanding of Reaktor, don't fret. Ableton Live 6 was just released (see page 74), and in the next two columns, I will go over how to start exploring it as a DJ tool. Stay tuned!

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