As an early adopter of new technology, Richie Hawtin has always had the latest gear running to take his live shows in futuristic directions. Armed with Ableton Live and Touch software alongside Serato Scratch LIVE and a custom Allen & Heath mixer, Hawtin has created a multimedia show with a high level of hands-on involvement. His recordings are released under many monikers, most notoriously as Plastikman and F.U.S.E., and he has created, remixed and spun minimal techno heavily influenced by Detroit techno with a touch of Chicago acid. Hawtin took time to talk to Ableton about his inventive Live sets, innovative DJ technology and the future of music.
When did you start using Live?
I think probably in 2001. I finished my last Decks FX 9 album Re-edit, and the whole idea of the album was that, in the future, people would be cutting all the tracks down into loops and recreating them and building them into new compositions. I think two months later a program called Ableton Live came out. I was probably one of the first beta testers to get onboard, having known some of the guys at Ableton, and I got straight into it. I didn't start using it immediately on the road or anything, but I was definitely just experimenting with it and seeing what kind of power it had.
How do you use it nowadays?
It's kind of progressed over the last two or three years. When the first version came out, I was doing this Decks, Efx & 909 show; I was carting around some external effects boxes and effects pedals and using them to add in different effects over my DJ mixes. My first use of Live was just as an external signal processor where I would load different plug-ins and route different things from my DJ mixer into Live and back out, setting it up in such a way that I could set up feedback loops and do some interesting things. It was basically just a more efficient and more flexible way to carry effects possibilities rather than just carry, say, a Lexicon or Yamaha effects box.
The last few years it progressed into adding a couple of sound effect clips to add things on the top, and then in the last year or so, really building up my Live Sets into full-on DJ type sets. I turned to it [Live] a lot last year because I was doing the Plastikman live show. We were able to have Ableton do some customization and build a special version, which did special MIDI functionality, sending out MIDI triggers when audio clips were triggered and changed. A lot of that was implemented in Live 4. And so for the Plastikman show I had the ability to play, and I think there were about twenty-six Plastikman tracks along with external boxes and some 303s. Now on my DJ sets for the DE9: Transitions tour, I'm using Ableton as both an external effects box, routing things in and out of it again, and also for basic tracks and sound sources. So I have five or six hundred tracks in Ableton — full compositions, not just loops — full tracks that can be mixed and edited and manipulated.
Are you using it as a composition tool in the studio?
On one level, on the new DE9: Transitions album, Ableton was used in the basic arrangement. For that project, I went out and licensed 550 different tracks for the remix compilation, and used Ableton to lock up all the tempos. In the beginning of this year, I was out on the road playing with Ableton, and during my DJ set I was going back and forth between Ableton and records, Final Scratch and samples, testing the possibilities of how and what I was going to use in the mix album, what tracks worked together, what parts worked together. Once I got into the studio, a lot of that creation or creative process had begun in the live setting. So I used Ableton then to fully structure and lay out a basic rough version of the mix in the Arrangement View, and once the basic structure was done, I piped it via ReWire into Pro Tools for final adjustments. The big reason that had to be done was because the original mix album was created as a 5.1 Surround version, so it had to be piped into Pro Tools for surround placement.
Do you see a need for a new way to release singles, with individual elements, instruments or a cappellas separated into stems?
I'm hoping toward a future when there is a continuity between programs, where everyone is using some kind of new format like Wave, Aiff or MP3, but that has more parts and elements that are available to DJ, listener or remixer, that are available in that delivery method. Instead of an Aiff file, there would be an encapsulated file that would contain the samples, sounds and MIDI structure. The playback device would play it back as the composer or producer had envisioned, but if you wanted, all the components would be there for you to remix and manipulate on the fly. Each song would be an encapsulated Ableton file, or an encapsulated file that gave you all the bits and pieces created, so you could freely move around. That would be the future of singles. The idea of releasing an album or a single, and releasing it in a format that is indestructible other than for sampling purposes, is a little bit archaic. I think these things should be much more free, and open to reinterpretation and remixing.
Like Live Clips?
It's not totally there, but I think if I want to remix someone--I know as a DJ if I want to take a song that's really big and do some changes to it, I have to use an Aiff file. I have to bring it into Live where I can chop it up, but I have to do a lot of work before I can actually do anything. To actually have encapsulated files, just the file how the artist wanted, but for another person, all the extra bits and pieces are there and they can be broken down to a state that is user definable, then each person can rebuild those components on the fly. That's what a great DJ or performer does, whether you're playing your own music back or you're playing someone else's prerecorded music back, you're trying to play in a way that is different than the song was prerecorded or previously heard. You're trying to add your own personal ideas, your personality to make it something special. That's why DJs are so big these days, electronic artists, because they re-appropriate sounds and make something special for that moment, at the club, on the CD, at the festival. The further information we receive as DJs or producers, the further components that we have for every track, the further we can push the whole genre of electronic music.
You're triggering video as well.
Well, right now you can't do video with Live, not in its own situation. For the Plastikman live show, we used a program called Touch by Derivative Incorporation that does very high definition, real-time video. And with the use of a customized version of Live we had then, it would send MIDI triggers back and forth between the programs, so when I triggered audio samples in Live, it would also trigger video and animation samples in the Touch program. So, in theory, Live was controlling both the audio and visual aspects of the Plastikman show. I hope to do more things like that in the future, I hope Live starts to add more and more automation and MIDI and even video and animation loop ideas.
Have you been using Operator?
The whole Plastikman album was fully produced with MIDI and audio together. I haven't been back in the studio to record much with MIDI since, but I'm actually going back to the studio this evening to start a remix, which will probably be my first remix in Live, so maybe ask me that question in two weeks.
I just finished a project for the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics. It's a 9:30 piece in the heart of the opening ceremonies, which is in Torino, Italy. That piece was also arranged and organized first in Live, and then piped into Pro Tools. I find Live to be for me at the moment, because I'm not doing much MIDI stuff, just in the Arrangement View, Live is a great way for me to quickly put together my ideas very efficiently and stay much longer in the creative process than usual, compared to using other programs.
You've had a good relationship with many of the people at Ableton too.
Since the early days I was probably one of the first people to call and go over and say "I have to have a copy of this program," especially after the release of DE9: Closer to the Edit. Live was really a program that would have helped cut down the amount of time taken to produce that album, probably by a year. It was such a long process of cutting everything up and putting it together by myself. So I quickly became friends with Robert [Henke] and Gerhard [Behles], and they've been very supportive. We especially had a very close relationship when we were working on the specialized version of the program for the Plastikman live shows. It's a great program and it's great for my performances and my studio work.
Thanks a lot Richie.
OK, thanks man.