Orchestra of Samples: How Addictive TV uses tech to bring world music supercuts to the stage

When British audio-visual electronic DJ duo Addictive TV begin touring their Orchestra of Samples project this week, 200 musicians from around the world will be joining them. But thanks to sophisticated technology – plus an astonishing ear for how hugely diverse genres could blend into perfect harmonies – they won’t need an enormous stage or a massive pizza delivery on their rider

Addictive TV are Graham Daniels and Mark Vidler, known for gigs where they splice together music, movies and videos, creating unique, immersive dance music. A typical Addictive TV set would consist of a mash-up of film supercuts and remixes with music videos. They’d take sounds like a car door slamming from Transformers or phaser fire from Star Trek and mix that into a rhythmic bass-line. Over the top would come unlikely musical pairings like Stevie Wonder with Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Rihanna and Blur, or Azalea Banks and The Clash.

The Guardian said of them: “Addictive TV continue to take hip-hop‘s scratch philosophy into the cyberpunk age”. Or as Grandmaster Flash put it: “next level shit”.

With a tour starting on 5th May and an album launch on 2nd June, their latest project, Orchestra of Samples, breaks new ground by sampling audiovisual content from global musicians and mixing it together in groundbreaking ways.

The five-year sample hunt

The pair first met when Vidler approached Daniels to make the video for a mash-up he’d created between Blondie and The Doors that was going to be released by EMI, back in the mid-noughties. Appropriately, when the two speak, it’s a seamless mix of them constantly interrupting and talking over each other, and finishing each other’s sentences.

We wanted to collaborate with as many people as we could and do more than the DJ or band thing where you fly in, do the gig and fly back out

According to Daniels, the idea for Orchestra of Samples came about because they wanted to do something that involved more people that just themselves.

“Because we were travelling a lot, we wanted to collaborate with as many people as we could and do more than the DJ or band thing where you fly in, do the gig and fly back out,” he says. “We found that pretty much everyone we were working with were more than happy to introduce us to musician friends of theirs. Then we’d build up a pool of musicians and an archive to sample from, and that became the project.”

Vidler adds: “Because our recording equipment was small enough fit into our hand luggage, it was a great way of capturing audio and video on the road and build up an orchestra from that in our spare time.”

The pair emphasise that the human aspect of Orchestra of Samples means they don’t use anonymous samples downloaded from YouTube. The samples took over five years to collect in person, and there’s a story behind every one. Surprisingly, the musicians are given no strict direction as to pitch and tempo; the magic happens in the mix.

Goat bagpipes and stone xylophones

To capture the tracks, Addictive TV used a palm-sized TASCAM DR-40 digital recorder stereo recorder with an SM57 microphone from Shure, which records onto a SD card together with an Apple Mac with some audio software in it. As a guide track they also recorded onto the camera with XLR camera microphone cables.

But perhaps the most surprising technology involved was the instruments some of the musicians used.

“What surprised me the most was the boudègue, a French bagpipe made form a whole goat,” says Daniels. “And in Mexico a guy who’s an expert in ancient pre-historical musical instruments thinks one of the earliest instruments humans would have made would have been a stone xylophone. He spent many years looking for naturally-tuned fragments of rock. He lays them out in a scale and hits them with another piece of rock.”

“The Circuit Bent made from children’s toys was good,” adds Vidler. “You could get quite musical, psychedelic sounds out of that. And our friends from Kazakhstan had a dombyra two-string guitar which they amplified to give a Jimi Hendrix effect.”

Given the raw material, it’s difficult to comprehend how these radically diverse sounds merge together harmoniously.

“There’s a little bit of maths involved,” says Vidler. “We get the tempo of the riffs and samples and find out the keys. But we never re-pitch the samples. If you start time-stretching and retuning things, you’re moving away from the natural origin of the sound and it’s very noticeable.

Image courtesy of Addictive TV / Joe Haydon. Featured image courtesy of Addictive TV / Alexis Maryon

“Some instruments, like the Hang [a UFO-shaped steel drum type instrument] are only in one key, you can’t retune them,” adds Daniels.

The pair labels every sample by country and instrument, with the key and tempo. The genius comes when they remember, say, the riff from the dombah in Kazakhstan was in the same key as the singer in Mexico. It may not work with the goat bagpipe, but it’s perfect with the mandolin. They then construct their own riffs using a few notes from each.

Some of the more surprising combinations they found were the Japanese Koto which worked really well with the Turkish/Iranian tanbur, and the Hang that sounded perfect with voices.

“One that worked well for me was the Cristal Baschet [an instrument played by stroking glass rods with wet fingers] and the viola-guitar, which gave a quite unique tuning that goes really well together,” says Vidler. “We gave it a more contemporary song arrangement; it was one of the first tracks we started and one of the last we finished.”

A borderless musical journey

Because of the way the samples are mixed live, if you go to see a show on the Orchestra of Samples tour you’ll be guaranteed a unique experience.

“There’s a base bed, because you have to have a foundation to build upon, but it’s highly portable,” explains Vidler. “We could be playing in Leeds and have a blues harmonica playing, or we could be travelling to Russia and invite balalaikas.”

During a show, the audio comes from one laptop and the video from another, but they are networked together and one is slaved to the other, to keep the music and video in sync.

“The software we’re using, Traktor and Arena, are commercially available. But we’ve got specialised versions that the manufacturers are allowing us to use,” says Daniels. “One is sending MIDI signals to the other, so the audio is triggering the video live. All the video is mute on one computer and all the audio WAVs are on another computer, so when you load an audio sample or bass track, it automatically triggers the corresponding video on the other laptop.”

This enables the audience to see where the samples come from and the artists behind it.

“Audiences can expect a musical journey without borders,” says Daniels. “One of the key components of the project is demonstrating how technology can be used to bring people together in new, artistic ways.”

The sound of tomorrow

Looking to the future, the Orchestra of Samples project will continue to grow as Addictive TV’s reputation spreads, and new technology will enhance the experience.

“We’re looking to use something called Stems that Native Instruments do,” says Daniels. “You can perform live with individual parts of different tracks. You could solo the trumpet, drums, or singer on a track, for example, effectively doing a live mix of the elements within a track. But there currently isn’t a visual version of that. We’re going to see the software developers about that next month.”

“It’d be great if they could, because on a night where we have live trumpets, we can mute the trumpet and bring up the bouzouki,” says Vidler. “It means you can build unique versions of a track on every performance.”

Given the combination of musicians who’d never normally perform together, and their instruments which wouldn’t normally be heard together, it’s fair to say Orchestra of Samples promises a unique technology-driven audio-visual experience.

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World-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking has died at the age of 76. When Hawking was diagnosed with motor neurone disease aged 22, doctors predicted he would live just a few more years. But in the ensuing 54 years he married, kept working and inspired millions of people around the world. In his last few years, Hawking was outspoken of the subject of AI, and Factor got the chance to hear him speak on the subject at Web Summit 2017…

Stephen Hawking was often described as being a vocal critic of AI. Headlines were filled with predictions of doom by from scientist, but the reality was more complex.

Hawking was not convinced that AI was to become the harbinger of the end of humanity, but instead was balanced about its risks and rewards, and at a compelling talk broadcast at Web Summit, he outlined his perspectives and what the tech world can do to ensure the end results are positive.

Stephen Hawking on the potential challenges and opportunities of AI

Beginning with the potential of artificial intelligence, Hawking highlighted the potential level of sophistication that the technology could reach.

“There are many challenges and opportunities facing us at this moment, and I believe that one of the biggest of these is the advent and impact of AI for humanity,” said Hawking in the talk. “As most of you may know, I am on record as saying that I believe there is no real difference between what can be achieved by a biological brain and what can be achieved by a computer.

“Of course, there is unlimited potential for what the human mind can learn and develop. So if my reasoning is correct, it also follows that computers can, in theory, emulate human intelligence and exceed it.”

Moving onto the potential impact, he began with an optimistic tone, identifying the technology as a possible tool for health, the environment and beyond.

“We cannot predict what we might achieve when our own minds are amplified by AI. Perhaps with the tools of this new technological revolution, we will be able to undo some of the damage done to the natural world by the last one: industrialisation,” he said.

“We will aim to finally eradicate disease and poverty; every aspect of our lives will be transformed.”

However, he also acknowledged the negatives of the technology, from warfare to economic destruction.

“In short, success in creating effective AI could be the biggest event in the history of our civilisation, or the worst. We just don’t know. So we cannot know if we will be infinitely helped by AI, or ignored by it and sidelined or conceivably destroyed by it,” he said.

“Unless we learn how to prepare for – and avoid – the potential risks, AI could be the worst event in the history of our civilisation. It brings dangers like powerful autonomous weapons or new ways for the few to oppress the many. It could bring great disruption to our economy.

“Already we have concerns that clever machines will be increasingly capable of undertaking work currently done by humans, and swiftly destroy millions of jobs. AI could develop a will of its own, a will that is in conflict with ours and which could destroy us.

“In short, the rise of powerful AI will be either the best or the worst thing ever to happen to humanity.”

In the vanguard of AI development

In 2014, Hawking and several other scientists and experts called for increased levels of research to be undertaken in the field of AI, which he acknowledged has begun to happen.

“I am very glad that someone was listening to me,” he said.

However, he argued that there is there is much to be done if we are to ensure the technology doesn’t pose a significant threat.

“To control AI and make it work for us and eliminate – as far as possible – its very real dangers, we need to employ best practice and effective management in all areas of its development,” he said. “That goes without saying, of course, that this is what every sector of the economy should incorporate into its ethos and vision, but with artificial intelligence this is vital.”

Addressing a thousands-strong crowd of tech-savvy attendees at the event, he urged them to think beyond the immediate business potential of the technology.

“Perhaps we should all stop for a moment and focus our thinking not only on making AI more capable and successful, but on maximising its societal benefit”

“Everyone here today is in the vanguard of AI development. We are the scientists. We develop an idea. But you are also the influencers: you need to make it work. Perhaps we should all stop for a moment and focus our thinking not only on making AI more capable and successful, but on maximising its societal benefit,” he said. “Our AI systems must do what we want them to do, for the benefit of humanity.”

In particular he raised the importance of working across different fields.

“Interdisciplinary research can be a way forward, ranging from economics and law to computer security, formal methods and, of course, various branches of AI itself,” he said.

“Such considerations motivated the American Association for Artificial Intelligence Presidential Panel on Long-Term AI Futures, which up until recently had focused largely on techniques that are neutral with respect to purpose.”

He also gave the example of calls at the start of 2017 by Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) the introduction of liability rules around AI and robotics.

“MEPs called for more comprehensive robot rules in a new draft report concerning the rules on robotics, and citing the development of AI as one of the most prominent technological trends of our century,” he summarised.

“The report calls for a set of core fundamental values, an urgent regulation on the recent developments to govern the use and creation of robots and AI. [It] acknowledges the possibility that within the space of a few decades, AI could surpass human intellectual capacity and challenge the human-robot relationship.

“Finally, the report calls for the creation of a European agency for robotics and AI that can provide technical, ethical and regulatory expertise. If MEPs vote in favour of legislation, the report will go to the European Commission, which will decide what legislative steps it will take.”

Creating artificial intelligence for the world

No one can say for certain whether AI will truly be a force for positive or negative change, but – despite the headlines – Hawking was positive about the future.

“I am an optimist and I believe that we can create AI for the world that can work in harmony with us. We simply need to be aware of the dangers, identify them, employ the best possible practice and management and prepare for its consequences well in advance,” he said. “Perhaps some of you listening today will already have solutions or answers to the many questions AI poses.”

You all have the potential to push the boundaries of what is accepted or expected, and to think big

However, he stressed that everyone has a part to play in ensuring AI is ultimately a benefit to humanity.

“We all have a role to play in making sure that we, and the next generation, have not just the opportunity but the determination to engage fully with the study of science at an early level, so that we can go on to fulfill our potential and create a better world for the whole human race,” he said.

“We need to take learning beyond a theoretical discussion of how AI should be, and take action to make sure we plan for how it can be. You all have the potential to push the boundaries of what is accepted or expected, and to think big.

“We stand on the threshold of a brave new world. It is an exciting – if precarious – place to be and you are the pioneers. I wish you well.”