I recently watched and re-watched a wonderful video in which Kieran Hebden (aka Four Tet) remixes Michael Jackson’s Thriller as part of the “Beat This” series. The challenge is to make a remix in ten minutes. The catch is that Hebden can only use sounds from Thriller. What makes the video wonderful–even a little thrilling–is seeing and hearing a producer work in real time. The time constraint is actually useful, because it serves to compress a series of steps and decisions Hebden must take and make in order to whip something up. What we’re left with is the essence of transforming one work of music into another.
With the clock ticking, Hebden begins. For the first thirty seconds, he skips the stylus around side one of Jackson’s 1982 record, sampling a few bars from a few songs. He wastes no time, taking bits from the openings of “Beat It”, “Billy Jean”, “Human Nature”, and “P.YT.” Satisfied he has enough material to work with (clock is ticking!), he turns off the record player and turns to his laptop. Next, he loads the Thriller samples into a Drum Rack in Ableton. The Drum Rack simulates the series of rubber drum pads that one might find on hardware drum machine, each pad assigned to a sound sample. With the sounds loaded in, Hebden can move around their waveforms, listening for interesting bits.
At 8:19, Hebden isolates the kick drum from the “Billy Jean” beat, and draws in a four-on-the-floor MIDI pattern that triggers the kick. He also quickly EQs it to bring up its bass frequencies. With the repeating kick as an anchor, he isolates the snare drum sound from the same song, putting it on every fourth beat, and the hi hat sound from “P.Y.T”, putting it on every 8th note offbeat. By 6:35 he has a dance music rhythm going. At 6:00, Hebden has found a small bit from “P.Y.T.” and re-pitched it. He keeps wandering about the “P.Y.T.” sample, only to return to the bit he likes around 5:25. Next, around 5:00, he draws in a three-note MIDI rhythm, and uses this rhythm to trigger the opening sound of “Beat It.” (How did Jackson make that sound, by the way?) By 3:30, Hebden is working on the Arrangement page, organizing his repeating parts into a larger structure. At 1:19 you can hear how ominous one of his re-pitched voice samples has become. In fact, for me, this background ambiance is now the hook of the remix.
Finally, the ten minutes are up and Hebden has something. When asked by one of the cameramen if he likes the piece, Hebden says he does, joking that he’ll play the remix exactly as is at a club in London that coming weekend.
In sum, the video offers us a few lessons. First, even a very short window of time is enough time in which to make something–or start something. Hebden, ever skilled with his software and experienced ear, managed to create a tight arrangement in a few minutes. Second, we see a musician working with a limited set of materials–brief samples from four songs–to make something new. But the materials aren’t really that limited. Notice, for instance, the thirty seconds during which Hebden scrolls back and forth along a sample, listening to it at various points (6:00-5:25). He chose just one loop that sounded good, but there were probably dozens of others that were just as interesting. Third, the video offers a case study in decision-making. With the 10-minute clock ticking down, Hebden has to decide which sounds he likes. There’s no time to waste: if something catches his attention, he goes with it. Those dozens of other loop candidates will have to wait for another day (or forever). Fourth, the video shows Hebden working with a very simple studio: a turntable, a computer, an audio interface (to get the turntable sound into the computer), software (Ableton Live), and two speakers. Given all the gear available these days, this set up is beautiful bare bones, and more than enough to work with. Finally, and this surprised me, watch Hebden’s eyes and hands. His eyes dart back and forth, tracking things on his screen, registering tiny details his ears have noticed. Meanwhile, his hands move the mouse and tap keyboard shortcuts–moving, dragging, cutting, and pasting musical material about the virtual environment of the software. This is the electronic musician’s body, engaged in concentration for ten minutes.