VJ dvdan On Creating The Visual Element For The Finest Detroit Techno

BMG and Derek Plaslaiko’s new track “Is Your Mother Home” is a low-down techno track in the distinct tradition of dirty Detroit club music. The creep factor is at a high, with distorted vocal accompaniment of a man picking up a girl who is almost definitely too young for him. But if dance music isn’t dirty, what good is it to any of us?

Had the music video for this track been a direct interpretation of its lyrics, it just might have been too much for anyone to handle. Instead, the producers entrusted the visual aspect to dvdan. A veteran of the ’90s Detroit techno scene, dvdan had his hands in the first video for Richie Hawtin, and rose in the scene alongside heavyweights like Hawtin and Carl Craig.

dvdan’s method for creating this video is a little like Beeple‘s thesis of matching all the sounds with corresponding visual elements. The difference here is that Beeple spent a year of his free time constructing his synced audiovisual project, whereas dvdan is more accustomed to creating this effect on the fly. Here’s the description:

This video was produced with a new methodology based on techniques used to produce music, and was recorded in a single take. The method involves real-time, analog and digital sound-driven animation using discrete systems for each instrument. Rather than attempting to create a traditional visual narrative, each part of the visual directly relates to the sounds within the song.

That sounded crazy enough to us that we had to find out more from dvdan himself. Turns out the process is deeper than we could have guessed.

The Creators Project: Aside from live visuals, what was the first song you did a music video for? How did you make it?
dvdan: In 1994 I had started an electronic art collective in Detroit and we made Richie Hawtin’s first music video. For four weeks, three of us took shifts working with a morphing tool (Elastic Reality), a 3D animation package (3D Studio Max, I think), and a compositor (After Effects) on a Mac with a 0.033 GHz CPU and a 0.540 GB hard disk. That machine was about 400 times slower than a first-generation iPhone, and had about 50 times less storage. Rendering simple animations took minutes per frame, so out of those four weeks far more time was spent rendering than composing. With that process, trying to make video sync with music was a lost cause—like trying to bowl blindfolded.

Years later I met the producer of the electronic music show Amp and he told me MTV nearly refused to air it. The track was strong, so it ended up getting aired all over the world anyway. From that experience I developed a certain amount of loathing of digital computers in the service of art. For the next decade I stuck with analog techniques, because the results were instantaneous and easier to synchronize with audio.

How has creating visuals for techno music changed since the early Detroit days? Technoloy-wise? Process-wise?
Back then, there was very little you could do with a computer in “real time,” so you could pretty much forget about synchronizing video to music in any meaningful way. It would be like a DJ who couldn’t match beats. To make an interesting visual show, I preferred to use analog techniques, which I later learned had been around for decades—visualizing audio waveforms with oscilloscopes (used for visualizing music by Mary Ellen Bute in the ’40s), sound-modulated video feedback (used for visualizing Hendrix by Stephen Beck in the ’60s), and cathode ray tubes with the deflection beams modulated by audio amplifiers instead of an NTSC sweep generator (done by Nam Jun Paik in the ’70s). The only “new” element I brought to visual music at the time was a 2-bus digital video mixer from Panasonic, which had a simple sound-triggered digital effect. This allowed for interesting combinations of the old techniques and new kinds of feedback looks between the processes.

Just as the analog synths used prominently in Detroit techno sound “fat” and “warm” compared to later digital synths and samplers, the analog video processes we used back then looked more “natural” and “organic” compared to video produced using digital computers. I think it’s actually harder for VJ’s working today with laptop computers to get the same kind of immediate, direct connection between image and sound. It’s certainly a lot easier to carry a laptop to a gig though and high power projectors are cheap now so live visuals at shows are now much more common to see.

Another theme of live visuals in Detroit in the ‘90s was the idea of integrating the images in space in interesting ways. One night I used mirrors to project on the ceiling of the old Packard automobile plant, so it looked like the entire party was under an enormous purple jellyfish. Another night I snagged a trick from the opera and projected the waveform from Carl Craig’s 808 kick on a scrim so it hung in space in front of him as he performed.

Today, instead of mirrors there’s projection mapping (which came out of San Francisco in the ’00s), which allows a visual artist to use almost anything as a screen. At a future Creators Project event, someone should project visual music on large public infrastructure like the Brooklyn Bridge or the hideous window-less Verizon facility in lower manhattan and simulcast the soundtrack on radio and the Internet so the whole city can “tune in.”

In your perception, what is the function of live or other visuals being coupled with techno music? How does it augment the experience? What are you trying to show people?
The visual experience of someone performing electronic music is usually about as interesting as watching someone program in C. There’s only so far a performer can go with a cool haircut and making a fuss of turning knobs.

In 1996 I saw Richard James do an Aphex Twin show laying down on a big comfy sofa with his face hidden behind a laptop screen. He started each track by leaning forward to hit the space bar and then sank back into the sofa. I thought it was brilliant—like he was saying “you didn’t come here to look at me, you came here for my music. Listen to it.”

What I try to do is give an audience something to look at, which connects them even more directly with music, by passing the same rhythms and waveforms from the music through their eyes, in perfect synchrony with their ears. Rhythm is connected with motion, timbre is connected with form, and tone is connected with color. The same waves, forms, and rhythms all end up in the same place—the brain—but in this case, they come through multiple senses concurrently. Just as people are more inclined to dance at a live event when music is loud enough that they can actually feel it, I think listening to music is a richer experience when you can see it. When you get all three of these senses going in a live context (sight, sound, touch), it’s hard not to be engaged by the experience.

I’d say my visual music techniques I am working with are still very much a work in progress. Earlier takes of this piece made people who watched it nauseous, so I had to tweak it quite a bit. I only tested the finished piece on a few people, so I don’t really know how it will be received. I take NO responsibility for any psychological damage, persistent auditory or visual hallucinations, or memory loss which may occur from repeated viewing. If it helps anyone yield increased cognitive function, evolve spiritually, or have whiter teeth, I’ll happily accept responsibility for that.

For “Is Your Mother Home” how did you go about corresponding visual elements to each sound? How did you want it to look upon conceiving that idea?
What I am shooting for is a living visual translation of music, which is as beautiful, complex, and harmonious as a painting by Kandinsky. I’m not there yet, but happy I’m getting a bit closer each decade I work on it.

In this piece, the 808 kick drum is coupled to the pulsation of a large deep blue circular form, and the cymbals are a bright gold which sort of showers over the canvas. The lead synth shape is run through an analog tube process, which does the same thing a tube amp does to the an electric guitar—it makes it warm and fuzzy.

What software did you use? Can you describe your process?
This video is a multi-channel visual composition which was composed in real time, much the same way music is made. When composing music, a musician today takes for granted inexpensive tools to layer many instruments simultaneously. Each instrument can be independently positioned left and right, colored with EQ, mixed up and down with a fader, and stacked 32 or even 96 channels deep on even a basic laptop. With video you’re lucky to do this with one or two tracks in realtime.

To get the same level of control over composition that musicians enjoy with video, I actually had to come up with a completely new process for “multitracking” video. Some of the “instruments” are made with software, some are made with hardware. The process involves lots and lots of hardware, enough that the air conditioning in my studio was only powerful enough to cool everything running during the winter time. Now that it’s warming up I am going to need to bring in another cooling unit but I’m worried I’m going to start blowing fuses!

And finally, “Is Your Mother Home”?
OK, this interview is over.