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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