IRON CHEF OF MUSIC: Kracfive's sample-chopping, beat-dicing "producer battle"

iron_chef.jpgThe people behind Kracfive have come up with an innovative music-composition contest / event loosely based upon the televised “Iron Chef” competition: The Iron Chef of Music.

Both a global and local “competition,” the source sample is released upon the world at the same time and participants are given a set amount of time to produce their creations. Contributors from all over the world, either working alone or in composing-cells like the one I attended, use the allotted time to produce a new work using only the given sample for material.

I showed up at Heaven around 5:30pm and arrived at a locked door, wondering if I had inverted the date or marked the wrong day in my calendar, but knocking brought forth Joe aka Protman–a resident of the gallery who opened the door and welcomed me, and Roger, another local musician. These two where the main forces behind the Chicago enclave of Iron Chef-fers.

After asking if there was a set direction to face or an area to be in to connect to a house mixer (“No, just make yourself comfortable and find an outlet,” Roger instructed me), I staked out a spot among the scattered mismatched tables and askew upholstered couches and chairs with six other competitors. I chose a door-and-audience-facing, mildly-rusty silver folding table that looked much nicer that it was once I realized the thin steel top was warped, creating a garbage-day metallic popping noise and creating a trampoline effect if certain keyboard keys were pressed with a high enough velocity.

After a bit of chit-chat with the other competitors about which power strips were functional, and the obligatory software / hardware conversations that are common to most laptop-producer meetings, we all gradually began focusing on our own laptops as we copied the source sample onto our drives from the black CD-R that was being passed around.

At 6pm we got the go-ahead to begin working. The sample was about a minute and a half long and contained a clip from the movie, The Lost Boys. I spend the first 45 minutes working in the freeware wave-editor, Audacity, dredging the file for useful bits–a “snare-ish” sound here, another one that could act as a hi-hat, another that I could potentially loop as a melodic element, and so on–and arranged the renamed sounds into a directory for easy access.

Then I opened up Fruity Loops and loaded in my “drum” samples into its integrated sampler channels. I spent another 15 minutes trying to tweak my kick sample into something that sounded more aggressive and thumpy, but eventually had to abandon it and focus on the rest of the track, lest I run out of time.

I came up with a drum pattern in three variations: one for the refrain, chorus, and the bridge / outtro. I then played at creating an instrument from one of the samples that had a near-seamless loop point (the start and end of the sample meeting at the center of the wave), which I looped and effected. I then did a refrain, chorus, and outtro melody and put those in their respective patterns. I had twenty minutes left at this point, so I started meshing the parts together, creating builds and cut-outs to signal changes within the parts. Then I tweaked the mix to the best of my ability, although I knew that my Sony MDR-700s didn’t have a flat frequency response and that I’d surely be in for a surprise when I heard it on the house speakers.

At 8pm we had to toss our compositions on a jump drive that was passed around. Five or seven spectators had wandered in during the last half hour of production to hear the final results (though, as it had been with me, the perpetually locking door might have been a factor for the low turnout). My boyfriend Scott was one of them who took a seat next to me at the last minute and politely enquired to where he might procure a beer. I, having thought ahead, had filled a Nalgene bottle with a lovely California Chardonnay that held about half a bottle–perfect composition fuel. Joe was nice enough to supply Scott with a beer and then the exciting moment of track unveiling was upon us. Unfortunately the works were presented on small, temporary speakers without subwoofers or correct placement and all of the tracks tended to sound a bit compressed, or as if they were played over a portable stereo in a commercial kitchen filled with stainless steel and tile.

The compositions presented were a fairly representative cross-section of contemporary electronic music production. The guy behind me chose a booty bass / hip-hop approach at around 2 minutes, while the guy next to me opted for an abstract noise exploration. Brian “The Machinist” whom I’ve played on a bill with before took a novel approach and focused on creating an ambient track solely from the background noise of the sample. So, clinks and reverberation in the cave-like atmosphere were given center stage and arranged to explore the differing atmospheres created by layering and chopping those sounds. Joe “Protman” Hahn focused on creating an abstract-yet-aggressive soundscape that wowed with both the quality and range of sound and contrast between high fidelity extended glitchiness and lo-fi sample detritus. Roger’s track, was similar to Protman’s in that it pushed the sonic boundaries, magnifying tiny sample bits into large, effected presences, but unlike Protman’s, retained a solid footing and consistent melody and structure.

Mine just sounded like unrelenting gunfire that paused once every while. Damn those headphones.

From one nearly two minute, non-musical sample came seven different approaches to music that twisted, chopped, and mangled a limited source file into a sonic work touched by each author’s particular talent and taste. While a “winner” was not voted on nor announced, it was clear that each author’s approach to computer-aided sample-wrangling was reveled in for its few short moments of fame.

Here’s a link to past (as in–they haven’t updated their archive since May 2006) contributions: [Iron Chef Archive].

Here’s my submission that was created in the battle on the 14th for which I showed up at Heaven in Chicago: [quantazelle-iron_chef-01-07]