Beat-A-Maxx: A DJ Fusing Audio and Video Like No Other
While it’s often said that Betamax videos had a higher quality audio than VHS, the same cannot be said for the DJ: Beat-A-Maxx offers remarkably high levels in both audio and visual spec.
One of the rare breed of A/V DJs who live mixes both music and visuals on the fly, the flexibility and creative scope of his work has landed him an impressive range of bookings from playing Bestival mainstage to making award-winning mixes for BBC Radio 1 and Radio 1Xtra. Recently he even worked with a 60-piece orchestra and a musical director who’d previously directed the 2012 Olympics opening show.
Watch the UK turntablist’s recent video and you’ll understand why he’s got such broad appeal. Entitled Naughty Noughties, it’s an A/V hurricane that blasts your senses with an entire last decade of music, videos and cultural reference points from games to movies to TV shows at lightning speed.
Currently in the thick of one of his most interesting, diverse and exciting years since he started the Beat-A-Maxx project, we caught up with him to find out how it all works. Naturally the audio quality of the call was of a very high quality…
Let’s start with Naughty Noughties video. There must be so much prep work involved in a project like that!
There is! There’s all the music, sorting out the key and BPM, then sourcing the clips and getting them to fit in time takes ages. There’s a lot packed into that one, more than anything else I’ve done before.
Intense. You went through that decade with a fine-tooth comb. How long did it take?
They take a long time. When I do them, I work really intensely on them. I’m straight out of bed and onto the computer ploughing through it. I guess it took a couple of weeks of very long days.
I bet once you’ve done it you can’t watch it for a while. When can you start watching it without having nervous twitches?
Haha, that’s a good point! Once I’ve done it, I tend to walk away from it. The amount of times you hear all these bits and it drives you crazy. Getting the mixdown alone takes ages, getting it all to sound smooth and consistent on all platforms. I’ll listen on the laptop, on headphones, on speakers until all the channels that come in and out are level. That’s one of the most time-consuming parts because you’re dealing with 60/70 different clips.
That must be quite a challenge!
It’s a dual process. I do the audio in Ableton first. Then I sync all the audio with music videos to get them to match. Then that’s all is mixed down and the additional videos are drafted on that. Then there’ll be gaps for video clips and find things that work in that. It comes together as I’m working on it.
I guess it takes on a life of its own at that point?
It’s like a massive jigsaw puzzle. You’ve got all the parts in front of you. You know the tracks and clips you’ll use then it’s a case of experimenting and trying things out. You find happy accidents, you’ll find something in a clip will relate to the music for example. But a lot of it is on the fly. Sometimes you go down a blind alley and find it doesn’t work so you have to go back and take a different direction.
I guess these are a calling card for what you do. Not just technically, but also your reference points and your ability to join the dots. Essentially you have the musical tools to play in any environment from corporate to club…
This is true. And I’ve explored this range a lot more lately. A lot of my work was with student union club tours but much more is corporate now. Recently, for example, I did a university freshers tour but then in the midst of that I was doing a big high-brow corporate gig. But I enjoy that – it’s great variety and keeps it interesting and fun.
Can we ask about the corporate gig?
I can’t say who it’s for but it’s actually one of the most amazing gigs I’ve done! It was with a 60-piece orchestra playing through the decades. I was playing music from each decade and doing all the video scratching and worked with a very high profile musical director who’d worked some massive events like The 2012 Olympics and West End musicals.
Yeah it was cool to work with someone like that. He put together the 60s and 70s and I put the rest of the decades together. Then it got orchestrated and I had to put the videos together to scratch while the orchestra played with vocalists. I’d punctuate it with relevant clips from the decade so you you’d have these bizarre moments like scratching in a clip of Mr Blobby over the orchestra. But then you’d have these more thoughtful moments of news stories and more serious stuff being mixed in as well. Bits people remember from each decade, essentially.
Absolutely. I’ve done some amazing things, I’ve done the main stage at Bestival and a lot of great gigs, and they’re always incredible. But something like this was another level. Everyone they employed was at the top of their game.
That qualifies the relatively new VJ artform in a way…
It’s weird about it being new. For me it all kicked off with the video stuff about 10 years ago. A lot of the video DJs who came through have stopped now, but I’ve tried to take it to the next level. I’ve got cameras to show what I’m doing on the screens and can adapt my sets to any scenario. For example, if I do corporate gigs then I can be creative and unique to their event by mixing in the company branding (logos) and also scratch in images of staff members, company directors or even the boring corporate videos they give me. I think a lot of video DJs went back to just doing audio because I don’t see that many people doing this at the moment.
Yeah there are a lot of A/V sets with a visual artist who works with the DJ
That’s right. So, I see myself as a DJ first and foremost. That’s what I’ve been doing all my adult life and the visual aspect has been developed to enhance that. I’d say in the last three or four years it’s really shaped into the set-up I use today.
Denon DJ Prime and Resolume are in your set-up, right?
Yeah in a pretty unconventional way due to my set-up being unique. I don’t use it as much as I’d like. I geek out on this stuff and spend days researching software and work out how I can used things. I quite often use the [Denon DJ] Prime gear to link up the BPM to a second laptop for my LED mask. So I sync the Prime to Resolume and that can sync with another Resolume set up on another computer which is sync’d with my LED mask.
Behind the Mask
Yeah that looks pretty mad! How long have you incorporated that into your performances?
In the last year. There’s nothing like it on the market so I had the mask made by an industrial designer. It’s a bit temperamental, but when it’s working it’s amazing.
Is it hard to mix while wearing it?
It’s tricky doing the set in it. It gets hot and cumbersome. But I can do it. It depends on the gig. Corporates don’t demand it but it’s great for a Uni gig or a stage show as an extra element.
Just to make it even trickier! You’re a busy man with the visuals and audio as it is…
I want to be. I don’t feel like I’m doing my job unless I’ve got things to do. I like to have a heavy workload and that’s where I get the adrenalin going. I don’t like songs playing too long and I’ll quite often scratch over them to keep the set moving and keep myself busy.
Getting your foot in the door is part of it but building your reputation is just as important.
Successes Secret Sauce
You’ve got such a wide range of types of show you’re booked for, how do you get most of your work?
It helps having an agent. I started off doing lots of turntablism contests and that’s why video lent itself so well to what I do. I had the technical skills but not the selling skills to get my foot in the door. So my agents (Coalition) are amazing at doing that. But then, I’ve found that once I’m there and I do a good show then I’ll get booked again. Plus if you impress people, they talk. Everyone seems to know each other in the club and DJ world. With corporate gigs it’s a bit more fragmented and has taken a lot longer to build up regular clients but it’s been worth it. They don’t sound very glamorous but you work with some top high-end kit – 8k LED screens and no expense spared!
Yeah that’s where the money is. This can be fun to watch too, I imagine? All the staff letting their hair down a bit…
They really do go for it these days! Probably because they’re all the rave generation now so they’re happy to have the chance for a cheeky party. But yeah these gigs have become much more part of my schedule and I’m finding I’m being rebooked for them now. Getting your foot in the door is part of it but building your reputation is just as important.
What are you working on next? Have you started another big project like the Naughty Noughties one, or is your schedule too busy?
It’s been a very busy few months. I’d done lots of touring and very intense orchestra practice which had a lot of rehearsals and meetings. Now there’s another exciting gig on the horizon which I can’t mention due to a lot of NDAs but there’s a lot of prep work for that. I’m also off to Australia so I won’t be starting another project for a while. I know what I want to do when I do it. I’m going to do one for each decade. I did that before but they’re quite old and dated. I want to do ones for 70s, 80s and 90s. That’s the plan anyway but it might take a little time for them to see the light of day. I’ll keep you posted!