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Mix It Yourself

By Dave Davis · November 8th, 2006 · Distribution Revolution
Oliver Meinerding

Last month, EMI Chief Executive Alain Levy said that the CD was "dead" (note the quotes). While this made for great headlines, it required a fair degree of selective listening (and quoting!) to transmit the message we all received. What he actually said: "The CD as it is right now is dead." (The emphasis is mine.) He clarified that "by the beginning of next year, none of our content will come without any additional material."

Levy's just saying what we've been telling you. The Revolution starts now. Popster Duncan Sheik's January release, White Limousine (on Rounder Records' Zoe label) is what he's talking about. We know Sheik through his late '90s song, "Barely Breathing," a dreamy Top 40 hit. Priced and packaged like a CD, White Limousine is a CD/DVD combo wearing an attractive tri-fold "digi-pak." When you lay it open, the CD on the left is titled "Mine," the DVD on the right, "Yours." It's packed with value: infinite remixes in the form of a set of "mix it yourself" tracks. One might expect that a set like this would hook me like crack. And indeed I do love that stuff. But at its heart, music has to touch us. It's not a popularity contest, per se, but we all recognize great artists' voices, regardless of our preferences and prejudices. A record has to play and sound good out of the box. That's a tall order for a pile of unmixed tracks on the DVD! And, unfortunately, this one's a swing and a miss.

The problem isn't the value added, but the values ignored. We value nice packaging and extra features, but we value the music most. No doubt, there's a place for lush, melodic, down-tempo songs. Beck's been there twice, with Mutations and Sea Change. But Beck's lyrics trigger our curiosity and stir emotions. Sheik's songs range from the obvious to the inscrutable, but I found that I rarely care about his subjects. Take the title track. (Please!) It's a uni-dimensional, fashionably anti-Republican musing. Something that usually gets a smile out of me leaves me flat here because it's entirely on the surface, the metaphors easy and obvious. Just like the rest of the tracks. Don't get me wrong: Sheik's voice is great and the performances are solid throughout. My problem is the songs themselves.

This problem becomes more apparent on the DVD. Sheik is far from the first artist to invite fans to participate in (re)mixing his record. Nine Inch Nails and David Bowie have done this before, using Web-based loops and tools, as well as on-disc tracks. The Flaming Lips released a four-disc set, Zaireeka, which required listeners to interact with the music to hear the songs. These attempts were more interesting, fun and ultimately more valuable than this far more comprehensive set of tracks. What made the earlier attempts better isn't just the music, but the presentation. White Limousine starts with the assumption that fans want to mix their favorite songs and have much more than a clue about how to get it done. If you put the DVD into a player, nothing happens since there's no DVD content. Put it in a computer, and you find folders full of individual tracks, with a text file pointing at Ableton Live 5's Web site for a demo program to mix with. So the DVD is at best ignored by most fans, and at worst a big disappointment.

In some respects it subtracts more value than it adds. Ableton Live is a great program that works on nearly any computer, but like most applications, there's a learning curve. Sheik includes a "lesson" consisting of a few text files and pictures, but by lashing the project to this (not-included) application, the concept begins to flounder. The most motivated and likely people to try this out often use something else, like Acid, Cubase or GarageBand. Not to be discouraged, I dragged and dropped the tracks into my workstation and hit play, expecting to hear something like the song I'd chosen. And ... it sort of worked! The selection of "splits" (which instruments and effects go where) was well considered and logical. But the song structures and arrangements really don't lend themselves to remixing and loop-based composition, and the user has no clues to help find the "hooks" and parts that can be easily re-positioned and adjusted. Stereo guitar and vocal tracks are a nice touch, but since effects are printed, the remixer has just one direction to go with new effects and panning: over the top!

So the problem here is execution. Both the DVD spec and Flash can deliver "applets" to make this easier, if not more fun. The included track-piles could have been a fun exploration of the music, the role of mixing, or even an opportunity to mash these tracks into something more interesting than the original album. More successful approaches, like Bowie's, have offered more organized loops and even libraries beyond the source tracks. In Bowie's case there was even a "mash-up" contest, getting fans to submit and ultimately release their creations to others.

The tighter loops and elements make remixing easier, even if the results are less diverse and eclectic. Unfortunately the added value here is so half-assed and weak it's rarely mentioned in review. And did I miss all the hot Duncan Sheik remixes and mash-ups this thing spawned? Uh, unfortunately, no.

DAVE DAVIS makes records and designs new media at Sound Images.


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