A few months ago we had the opportunity to team up with Dan the Automator to realize a project that he had been thinking about for a while; a realtime multitrack playback system, a way to play and mix the stems of the many many records he has produced over the course of his career. The resulting project we completed doesn’t have a name, but at the heart of the system is a K-Mix to run all the audio. A touchscreen and the insides of a Mac Mini run Logic and arcade-style buttons trigger and mute clips; all of it housed in a sleek case reminiscent of an old computer console or arcade game for retrofuturistic flair. We also had the opportunity to check out the soundcheck at the sold out Dr. Octagon show in San Francisco and to sit down with Dan and DJ Hard Rich to talk about the K-Mix project and the return of Dr. Octagon.
Interview with Dan the Automator
You and Keith go way back, when did you first meet up?
The whole Dr. Octagon thing with Kool Keith started when we met at a show in San Francisco for a zine called Bomb Hip-Hop. Keith, who was with a group called Ultramagnetic MCs at the time. We met at the show. This guy named Dave Paul used to throw those shows.
So now it’s 20something years later, what gave you the idea to bring the project back?
The reason we brought back the Octagon project was because we felt like doing it. We have been in touch over the years many times and thought about doing it- we had never done shows before. This last March 6th and 7th were the first shows that Dr. Octagon had ever done and we had just decided- actually a couple years ago, not as recently- that we would try to do something together. It took a little while. I was on tour with another band called Deltron 3030 and had a couple other things going, and Keith had a few things going, so we just got to a point where we could do the show and get ready and practice to do it and that’s why it took a little while to happen after we decided we were gonna do it.
And QBert was there too…
QBert is a part of Dr. Octagon, he’s the DJ. I’ve know Q since we were in high school and he’s a part of the project, so when we were gonna do this obviously he’s going to be part of the show.
And I saw Juan Alderete was playing too, was Juan on the original album?
Juan Alderete, he’s one of my bass players I’ve used over the years and actually he does play bass on the Dr. Octagon record. He plays on a song called “I’m Destructive.” So it was nice to bring him back around. And actually, he was in the first incarnation of the Dr. Octagon band that never came out when the first record came out. he was playing bass then as well along with the Skratch Piklz, which Q is one of them.
How did Dr. Octagonecologyst come about?
The first Dr. Octagon record was made because it was a point of, well, we had different reasons why we were doing it. What happened was Keith had a record deal with Capitol records and it wasn’t going very well and I was mixing that record, partially involved with that record in terms of the mix side. He came up with this character, Dr. Octagon, and I heard it and I was like I want to do a record with this and so I put the music together and brought QBert in and we did the record. It had a lot to do with, you know, freedom I guess. Not worrying about what a record label was going to tell us to do, not worrying about what a record is supposed to sound like at a given time and just doing it because it felt good or I wanted to push certain boundaries and try certain things at the time and I didn’t need someone telling me what I could or couldn’t do. Being independent in that way allowed that to happen.
Where did you record it?
I recorded it at my studio, it’s called The Glue Factory. It was basically a room in my parents basement and did the record there. Actually, several records were made there: [Blackalicious’ debut EP] Melodica, Preemptive Strike for DJ Shadow, Entroducing, Latyrx. We did a few records there, a couple good records.
I love Endtroducing.
Can you tell me about how you use the K-Mix?
For the Dr. Octagon shows we decided to debut this thing we were working on, which is a multitrack DJ mixer. Essentially it involves a K-Mix and a bunch of custom wiring and buttons and a computer [built] into a machine, like an arcade kind of machine, where we can work it all from the front panels and use whatever DAW we want, but control it through all sorts of different sides. So the K-Mix play the hub because it has the audio ins- and outs and we run our in-ear monitors through there and a bunch of other things. We run video through some computers and we have a whole bunch of custom mappings and buttons and everything to run the thing and in the end what this machine is designed to do is- well, it can do live shows like Dr. Octagon, but it’s also designed to do like live multitrack mixing and to be able to break things down to the element and play multitracks in a way that you’ve never heard them before.
Where did that idea come from?
The reason I had this machine put together and made was because I felt like i wanted to be able to take- i have a really large library of records and multitracks of albums and things that I’ve worked on over the years that I wanted to find a way to actually mix multitracks into other multitracks and be able to break them down to the various elements. And not like you hear about these little stem projects that have like 4 stems or whatever, this is like full multitrack mixing into full multitrack mixing with the power to also maniputlate and effect and do a whole bunch of things to the tracks as Im playing live and control it all through like various i guess they’re like arcade buttons and eventually, in the end, it’s going to be joysticks as well so we can just be able to manipulate the sounds and work with what would generally be the raw source material of a record and use it live.
So then the Octagon record is a great case study for that…
Yeah, the Dr. Octagon record was a great way to start with this machine becase I have all the pieces to do it. In the show we bring out keybaord, bass, drums, guitars and all this other things alng with live guitars, live keyboards, live bass, live turntables and it’s just a mixture of all the elements coming in and out as I see fit, meaning that I actually get to control what’s happening from where I’m standing at that moment.
The two shows- the show in San Francisco and the show in LA- the sold out and were amazingly successful shows, was this like a test run of sorts?
The reason we started with two shows in relatively small venues was because we hadn’t played before, we didn’t know what would happen. We knew they would do okay, but we weren’t sure if people were really wanting to see them or kinda wanting to see them or whatever happened, so we picked relatively conservative venues- six or seven hundred people, i think- and the thing is we didn’t even advertise. We had 1 instagram post and they both sold out within 3 hours, so we realized that the scale could probably be a little bit bigger, but it also showed that we could do it, so we’re starting to do another little run followed by hopefully a few more runs, but we’re starting out in the later part of May at SoundSet in Minneapolis and we’re going to do a little run through the east coast and then hopefully we’ll do runs all over the place after that or at least little concentrated runs.
What does the future hold for Dr. Octagon?
The Dr. Octagon project is coming along nicely, we’re trying to get these shows really honed in right now. It’s a work-in-progress at this point in the sense that we’re figuring out how to do things that have never been done before. There’s never really been a show that I’ve been to where the real multitrack is interacting with the band. Also we’re doing full video to go with everything including we actually bring a video person along with us because we’re doing actual video mixing live to go with it. Not that that hasn’t been done before, but the combinations and all the bigger scale process in terms of like from point A where we are right now to point Z where we’re going to end up. Through all that we’re doing things and we’re bringing out little new nuggets of stuff that people can get into and hear things that they havn’t heard before and in that way it’s an evolving project that’s pushing things forward. We’re trying to push technology to the front end of what you can do live and we’re combining it with video, which has probably been done on a scale as big as this, but combining them all and pushing it to the furthest place that we can go with it at this time.
Interview with DJ Hard Rich
I’m Hard Rich, the lead developer at The Glue Factory and Thud Rumble. I hack on all kinds of weird audio/visual stuff professionally.
How would you describe your role at Thud Rumble?
My role at Thud Rumble is to help with both the design and the development of all the hardware. Sort of like Q from the James Bond movies. QBert and I get to sit and argue over what features are going to make the mixer and we really sat down and designed the Invader mixer together over the course of 4 days in Paris. And then I went back to the states and did the firmware and built the device to spec.
How did you meet up with Dan?
I met up with Dan through QBert. The Automator was working on some stuff and needed Q to scratch on it and actually came to the office and Q showed him some of the stuff that we were working on then. We were developing apps at the time, we hadn’t even gotten into making the hardware mixer yet. Dan and I hit it off and we’ve been working on stuff ever since.
Can you tell me about the K-Mix multitrack playback box?
We made a custom multitrack mixer using a K-Mix and basically a 10 point multi-touch touch screen with a Mac mini’s guts stripped out and mounted inside of it. It runs Logic Pro. For Dan’s setup for the Octagon shows it’s only 8 tracks but we’ve tested it for his solo DJ set and some of his tracks go up to 32 tracks for just one song that he’s mixing into the next. And Logic could handle all that and the K-Mix was great, flawless. It was really handy for the Octagon show because we multed the K-Mix out using the submixes in hardware and ran a seperate mix for the in-ear monitors, for the monitor wedges, and for the stage all off the same unit. It was great.
What’s your role in the Octagon show?
My role in the Dr. Octagon shows is to both be the audio tech with the custom multitrack mixer and to also handle the live video component where we’re patching basically a digital equivalent to something like an LZX modular system for video and I’m tweaking things in realtime, sometimes taking an audio feed and using that to manipulate as well. A lot of times I’m just paying attention to what’s going on and flipping knobs in time with the music, making sure stuff doesn’t catch fire on stage and behind the guys on stage .
Tell me about your plans to integrate video with the multitrack mixer
Yeah, I’m working on some stuff with more interactive audio visual installations based on what’s going on with the audio out of the K-Mix. We’ve got a machine where we’ve looked at running both Logic and Resolume on the same host machine and having K-Mix control both so that whenever Dan mutes something out that there’s, say he’s got drums, scratches, bass and a sample up and decides to mute 3 of them, then you’d see the icon for the one track that’s up and as he brings them back in then the icon and video pops back up for each of them and manipulates the visual based on the audio frequency- all Quartz composer stuff.
Cool! Thanks Rich!