X-Altera: Not Faking The Funk
From the off-kilter beats of Dabrye to the gnarled 4/4 of JTC, Tadd Mullinix has displayed a keen instinct for many different styles of electronic music through the course of his career. Rather than studiously emulating any one of his spheres of interest, the Ann Arbor-based producer injects his preferred genres with personality and unpredictability. His latest project, X-Altera, is different in that it fuses a broad spectrum of influences and distills them into a unique hybrid sound as indebted to mid-90s techno as it is to early jungle.
Over the years, there have been two distinct strains to Mullinix’s sound – the linear, groove-oriented hardware jams of his house, techno and acid tracks, and the heady, sample-loaded arrangements of his hip hop and jungle-related output. While these practices are rarely mutually exclusive, X-Altera represents the most fluid merging of these strains in line with his discovery of Live as his newest production tool of choice. Before he started exploring the world of hardware devices in the studio, Mullinix initially produced his music using tracker software. Tracker software sequences music (primarily WAV files) via a vertical timeline, using hexadecimal coding to control parameters including pitch, modulation and filter. While early incarnations for Amiga, Atari, Commodore and PC were primitive compared to the complexity of modern day DAWs, tracker software has a cult following to this day through modern applications such as Renoise.
“Back in the 90s I learned how to make hip hop, drum & bass and techno sequencing WAV files using FastTracker, Ultra Tracker and All Sound Tracker,” says Mullinix. “If you wanted to make acid with it you would have to fake the funk, sample a square wave and try to make it sound like a 303 by programming the cutoff filter and the resonance – whatever you could do to get all the accents sounding right.”
It’s remarkable what Mullinix was able to achieve with these limited means. The early Dabrye albums, released around 2001-2002, set a new precedent for experimental hip hop production, giving rise to the much maligned genre tag ‘glitch hop’ and paving the way for the likes of Flying Lotus and the mammoth wave of producers orbiting the loosely defined ‘beat scene.’ As well as Dabrye, Mullinix was also applying his sample science to the cult ragga jungle revivalist sound of Rewind Records under the alias SK-1. Largely produced alongside long time friend and collaborator Todd Osborn (who adopted the wholly appropriate alias Soundmurderer), the Rewind Records sound was wild and aggressive, firing off classic tropes mined from the history of roughneck UK and Jamaican soundsystem culture.
Jungle, hardcore and drum & bass loom large in the vocabulary of X-Altera too, but the mood is entirely separate from the rowdiness of ragga jungle, instead looking to a specific niche at the more introspective end of the early 90s that took as many cues from Detroit as it did London.
“[X-Altera] seems to be a window in the later hardcore, jungle, proto drum & bass era of Reinforced Records,” Mullinix explains, referring to the seminal label helmed by Marc Mac and Dego of 4 Hero. “There was a certain crudeness to the music... it was calculated but it wasn't too polished. A lot of the sound design in today's drum & bass can be very Hollywood; extremely wide stereo fields and compression, stuff like that.”
As well as helping define the sound of hardcore and jungle as 4 Hero, Marc Mac in particular embodied the mutual appreciation between the emergent UK sounds and Detroit techno via the Nu Era alias. As a Michigan native, this connection between jungle and techno is equally important to Mullinix, and he namechecks the likes of Anthony ‘Shake’ Shakir and Claude Young as looming influences on the sound of X-Altera.
The X-Altera album, released on Ghostly International, certainly feels like a jungle-rooted album with its clattering rhythms, ample sub bass and familiar tropes. Mullinix has a meticulous knowledge of the production techniques employed in the music that inspires him, such as the ‘shoom’ sound, which takes the ‘What The?’ preset from the Roland Alpha Juno 2 (made famous in Joey Beltram’s epochal “Mentasm”) and runs it backwards through a phaser and delay. It was a technique pioneered by 4 Hero and championed by Goldie. What’s striking about X-Altera though is that the fundamental building blocks of jungle – breakbeats – are not the common ‘Amen’ ‘Think,’ ‘Apache,’ and so forth that you would expect to find plastered across the record.
“I only used maybe one break on the whole album,” says Mullinix. “Everything else I made myself by sampling percussion sections of electronica records or making my own and mixing them together and making a blend, like a hybrid kit, and then re-sampling it in Live, making mixdowns of mixdowns and putting slow modulation effects over them.”
“It's sort of a breaks philosophy,” he adds, “but you're using different genres – instead of a soul break I could use a Latin freestyle break, which usually is an 808, but the important thing is you're getting those artifacts that you get in a break, like a musician saying 'yeah!' in the background or something.”
There’s a lot of sonic information to take in throughout X-Altera, not least in terms of percussion. Beyond the homemade breaks there are continuous appearances of bongo loops, synth stabs and zippy effects that hark back to the breakout years of UK dance music, many of which Mullinix credits with sourcing from the notorious Zero G Datafile sample CDs widely used by producers in the 90s. Much of the Datafile series’ infamy comes from their rampant use of unlicensed samples – breaks, one shots, snippets of dialogue and more. Although copyright infringement via sampling was already being clamped down on in the late 80s, sampling was still an emergent art form in the 90s and the legal implications seemed less imposing than they do these days.
“I have a lot of ideas for sampling, but I have to be careful because the modern era is very hostile towards it,” explains Mullinix. “Instead of sampling something I've always wanted to sample, I would make something, like a jazz track, in the studio, and sample that instead.”
Mullinix doesn’t consider himself a musician in the traditional sense. He was classically trained as a cellist for many years and tried his hand at “every instrument just a little bit,” but defines himself as a more proficient producer and engineer. To achieve the sample material he wanted, he would consider his desired sample source and try to emulate the feeling of a particular phrase, often slowing the sequencer down to make it easier to play the required instrumentation by hand. While it meant a lot of time spent editing and re-recording takes, it was also equally important to apply the right EQ and saturation to achieve the overall sonic quality that appealed to him in the original sample recording.
As well as building his own sample material for X-Altera, he used the approach extensively across Three/Three, the long-awaited Dabrye album that arrived in early 2018 after a 12-year hiatus since its predecessor. Ghostly International had informed Mullinix they would try to clear any samples used, but rather than risk having key components of his tracks pulled out over legal wranglings he preferred to avoid the issue altogether where possible. The lilting strings that adorn “Fightscene,” for example, were originally lifted from a gospel record, but after failing to get clearance Mullinix rebuilt the parts himself. In the end, there were only eight samples used and cleared on Three/Three.
Considering that in the years between Dabrye albums Mullinix released upwards of nine albums and 30 EPs, it’s surprising to hear him talking about writers block, but it was lingering behind the delay in Three/Three finally arriving.
“For a long time I sort of resented the idea of glitch hop,” he reveals, “and I blamed myself to a certain degree because I was doing these triplet tricks with the beats and I didn't want it to become a gimmick, and it's been said that if you emphasise one character too much you become a parody of yourself…”
While searching for a path down which to continue the project (and round off the trilogy of LPs started with One/Three and Two/Three), an opportunity arose to guest lecture students at Tumo, a creative digital arts learning centre in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan. With a family connection to Armenia and the chance to experience tutoring young students, Mullinix took on the task although he recognised his experience in tracker software and hardware may not translate to a new generation of would-be producers.
“I had to work out how to teach something relevant to kids now,” he explains. “That's when Live came to mind immediately, because I knew a lot of people who used it and talked about its ease, so before I even bought the program I learned how to use it with tutorials and demo versions just so I could do this Tumo workshop.”
“At this point I was still affected by writers block for Dabrye,” he continues. “I was thinking about how I was going to teach the kids, about my roots and what I look for in making beats, how I give a beat feeling and all of these questions. I was going through all the basics again and revitalising my interest in making this stuff. Between Live and Tumo, that's the reason Dabrye got done and X-Altera got started.”
The templates Mullinix was building for the students became the foundations of new Dabrye productions. After years of the painstaking trial and error process with tracker software, the impulsive drag and drop nature of producing in Live opened up Mullinix’s expansive archive of loops, beats and sounds he had been amassing over the years.
“I find a lot of really happy accidents,” he explains, “like sometimes I'll actually grab the wrong file and drop it in there and it'll fit musically, whereas when I was using trackers it was a lot more time consuming trial and error.”
This broadened creative perspective can be felt across Three/Three, where classic boom bap hip hop approaches sit next to bugged out synth experiments strapped to staggered grooves around the 90 BPM mark. The latter, on “Culture Shuffle” in particular, is another example of Mullinix sampling himself, in this case jamming on a modular synthesizer as though he were reaching for the likes Raymond Scott as a source (something he and peers like Madlib and J Dilla were doing back in the day).
Taking it to the stage
Mullinix most explicitly uses modular synthesisers on the few albums released under his own name, the most recent being Skein. In approaching performing the X-Altera material live, he found that incorporating a modular synthesizer into the workflow enabled him to bring a more ‘live’ aspect to his set. One of the challenges of bringing X-Altera to the stage is the complexity of the arrangements, harking back to the non-linear suite-like compositions of early jungle. When we speak, it’s mid-June and Mullinix is fresh from debuting X-Altera live at Detroit’s Movement Festival.
“Right now the live set has a lot of prepared tracks that I can cue up,” he explains, “so I'm not really using the clip view so much. I'd like to do that a little bit more, to make it a little more improvised, but since the style of the music is so structured, it's gonna take some figuring out.”
For the debut performance Mullinix mixed these prepared pieces live as a DJ would, using Live’s native effects to embellish the transitions where required. Alongside the set pieces he sent MIDI messages to a Make Noise Shared System, giving him the means to design sounds on the fly on the all-in-one modular skiff.
“I think that's a good way to do it in terms of having repetitive sounds you can tweak as a reference to techno music,” he says, “because that's still an important part of the X-Altera sound.”
JTC and hardware ubiquity
Although he started out on trackers and is now being reinvigorated by DAW based production, Mullinix has also devoted a lot of time, energy and studio space to outboard hardware. Since realizing his dream to own a TB-303, his set up has expanded to encompass most of the classic machines you’d care to mention (TR-808, TR-909 etc). It speaks volumes that collaborators including Todd Osborn, D’Marc Cantu and Melvin Oliphant (aka Traxx) never need to bring any gear over when they come round to jam.
Initially as James T. Cotton, and later as JTC, Mullinix immersed himself in the sound of classically-executed jack tracks. When the project first emerged, it was at the height of mid-00s minimal techno, and a brief spell in Berlin found his taste for rugged Chicago acid house going against the grain of the dominant sounds. Nowadays, live, hardware-driven house and techno are much-explored genres and in his inclination to stand apart from the crowd, it’s moved Mullinix’s interests elsewhere.
“Once I started buying hardware I really was focusing on trying to go all hardware,” he admits, “and eventually that came into fashion again, like not having a PC in the studio or on the stage. Then I thought well, everybody's doing this live hardware thing, and a lot of the music is kinda getting a little bit samey because of it. It made me think about drum & bass again because it's not necessarily that groove oriented, especially the type of drum & bass I'm referencing with X-Altera.”
As well as the structural differences in the music Mullinix nods to on X-Altera, he found the sample-focused, DAW-based process lent itself to more involved, experimental sound design compared to jamming on hardware. He talks with enthusiasm about a technique 4 Hero and Goldie used regularly, where they would sample a new age record or a big synth pad, apply a slow modulation effect such as a chorus or flange, re-sample the sound and transpose it.
“You would get all these non-harmonic artifacts,” he enthuses, “the way the flange is transposed along with the melody. It has sort of a dissonance and a really rough edge. It's something that really fascinated me after working on hardware oriented groove music for a long time. I wanted to go back to the era where it was a sample-based art, the fun of, ‘where'd that sample come from and what happens when you transpose the sample like crazy?’”
The most exciting quality in X-Altera for Mullinix though is the open-ended nature of it. Where his previous aliases were quite clearly defined, the broad sweep of influences and the unique character of X-Altera leaves the creative possibilities more open for the future.
“I feel like X-Altera could go more jazzy, for example,” he says. “It's something I've been thinking about for the next album... Like something Fabio might play at the end of his show. Or it could go more like “Bug In The Bassbin,” It could go more IDM, more electronica, it could go more proto-braindance... I don't know! That's what I like about the project, and that's why I feel like I’m turning a page, because it's a little bit more open and original than some of the other things I've done.”
Photos courtesy of Nayiri Mullinix