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.

Advances in genetic technologies mean that it could soon be possible to de-extinct our closest relative. But even if we can, does that mean we should? We investigate

45,000 years ago our species was not alone on this planet. Alongside us, Homo sapiens, was a second member of our genus, Homo neanderthalensis, with its own tools, society and cultural practices.

At one time it is thought that there were around 70,000 Neanderthals living on Earth, mainly in what we now know as Europe and southwest and central Asia. How much our species interacted with this sapient cousin is not fully known, but there was certainly some interbreeding: while Neanderthals are long deceased, their DNA lives on in many Europeans and Asians.

But now, with the advances of genetic technologies, Neanderthals could return. Recent advances of gene editing tools such as CRISPR, as well as the sequencing of DNA taken from the bone of a female Neanderthal who is thought to have walked the Earth some 50,000-100,000 years ago, mean that what was once pure science fiction could soon become a reality.

Legendary geneticist George Church, the Robert Winthrop Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School who is currently spearheading the project to de-extinct the woolly mammoth, has said that he thinks the de-extinction of Neanderthals will occur in his lifetime.

“The reason I would consider it a possibility is that a bunch of technologies are developing faster than ever before,” he told Spiegel Online in 2013. “In particular, reading and writing DNA is now about a million times faster than seven or eight years ago. Another technology that the de-extinction of a Neanderthal would require is human cloning.

“We can clone all kinds of mammals, so it’s very likely that we could clone a human. Why shouldn’t we be able to do so?”

Bringing Neanderthals back from the dead

When we consider de-extincting Neanderthals, it is important to note that we would not be bringing back a precise, perfect copy of the Neanderthals that lived on Earth up until their extinction some 40,000 years ago.

As Douglas McCauley, assistant professor in the University of California Santa Barbara’s Department of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology, explains, the question of whether we can bring Neanderthals back from extinction “depends upon how much of a purist you are about the definition of Neanderthal”.

I expect we will be more interested in engineering bigger brains than bigger brow ridges

In the simplest terms, any scientists who set out to de-extinct Neanderthals will do so by cobbling together modern human and extinct Neanderthal DNA.

“The technique that many de-extinction scientists are now using to bring back extinct species is to sequence the genome of the dead species – line it up next to the genome of the nearest living relative – then use CRISPR gene editing techniques to modify elements of the genome of the living relative to approximate elements of the genome of the dead species,” explains McCauley.

This is the approach being taken by the Harvard team currently attempting to de-extinct the woolly mammoth.

“Here they are using the genome of the extinct woolly mammoth and the genome of a living Asian elephant. The goal, however, isn’t to bring back a perfect replica of the woolly mammoth. A success would be to genetically engineer a hairy, cold-tolerant Asian elephant.

“This would also remain the same strategy for any group attempting to bring back a Neanderthal. Again, this would be more like engineering increased Neanderthal-ness into the human genome – not like cranking out a carbon copy of a Neanderthal.”

This approach should be technically possible for Neanderthals in the near future. But, as McCauley explains, that doesn’t mean it will actually happen.

“Technically engineering more Neanderthal into the human genome will indeed be possible very soon,” he says. “Practically, I don’t really see this happening. People will most certainly use CRISPR and next-generation gene editing techniques to edit the human genome – but I think this is much more likely to be tuning humans up, rather than tuning down.

“I expect we will be more interested in engineering bigger brains than bigger brow ridges.”

Criteria for de-extinction

De-extinction is, in general, a topic that is set to be the subject of ever-greater discussion in the coming years, as hypothetical concepts become scientific reality.

“It is on the precipice of moving from a crazy idea we once mused about over coffee, to a real possibility we can actually make happen in the lab. From science fiction to real science,” summarises McCauley.

However, with such abilities come significant moral questions. De-extinction could be a vital tool for conservation, but it could also be used to produce creatures that are more reminiscent of science fiction horror stories than of scientific value.

As a result, efforts are already being made to build a moral framework within which de-extinction scientists can work. As part of this, McCauley authored a paper along with several colleagues that recommended using three specific criteria for the selection of candidates for the de-extinction process.

“I am a conservation biologist and an ecologist. The three criteria we issued were created from that vantage point: what species would we bring back if we genuinely wanted de-extinction to combat the ecological crisis being created by the ongoing human-driven mass extinction?” he explains.

“We suggested recovering species that: 1) performed ecological jobs that were highly unique and were not replicated by other surviving species; 2) recent extinctions for which the technological and ecological barriers for recovery and restoration were lower; and 3) species that we could meaningfully recover to historic levels of abundance.”

If following this approach, scientists would therefore favour species to de-extinct that could not only fulfil a role in the ecosystem that another species had not taken over, but were likely made extinct fairly recently and would survive and flourish in the current environment. And under these criteria, Neanderthals would be a poor choice.

“Neanderthals most importantly fail the first test,” explains McCauley. “Their ecology is very similar to another species that survived and thrived – our own.

“To put it bluntly, from a conversation biologists point of view: the last thing our planet needs right now is more hungry Hominids.”

Neanderthal revival: the moral issue

This is not to say, as some have suggested, that Neanderthals would pose any particular threat to modern humans.

“Quite the opposite,” argues McCauley. “The greatest challenge would be keeping de-extincted Neanderthals alive and safe from us, not worrying about them taking over.”

As these newly engineered Neanderthals would not be true replicas of their past equivalents, they would be likely to suffer from genetic issues, as well as being potentially highly ill-suited to the human-occupied modern world.

There are likely to be a host of developmental issues associated with looking after imperfectly genetically re-engineered Neanderthals

“There are likely to be a host of developmental issues associated with looking after imperfectly genetically re-engineered Neanderthals (e.g. birth defects), they are likely to be quite susceptible to modern disease, and it is unclear what habitats they would slot back into,” he adds. “Our species has taken over all of the once prime habitat of Neanderthals.”

Then there is the matter of Neanderthals’ original demise; something that could easily play out again if we were to bring back a group of the species. It’s hard to see the scientific value of de-extincting a species that would be at high risk of quickly becoming extinct again.

“It is important to remember that we likely played an important role in the original extinction of Neanderthals,” explains McCauley. “We competed heavily with them for food and homes and we may have given them lethal diseases. Reviving Neanderthals might simply be an act of recreating history.”

Value in de-extinction

For McCauley, there is currently no circumstance under which bringing back Neanderthals would be a good idea. But that does not mean that de-extinction as a wider practice does not have value – in fact, it could offer significant benefits, provided we select the right species to focus on.

“There is a very long list of other species that I think would be smarter to bring back before we started in on Neanderthals,” he says.

“As an ecologist that looks out at a world with species being driven extinct in all directions around us, I am all ears for smart new conservation tools.

“The challenge here will be carefully selecting targets that meaningfully help the planet, not using this new-found power to create oddities for zoos or bio-bazaar.”

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Source: The Verge

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Source: Quartz

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Source: BBC

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Source: Bloomberg

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Source: The Guardian