Electronic music pioneers and Ninja Tune founders Coldcut celebrate their 30th anniversary this year. Here, one half of the duo, Matt Black, tells Audio Media International about their anniversary AV show and their Ableton Live plugin MidiVolve…
After making music for 30 years, influencing countless artists and producers and earning iconic status amongst peers and fans alike, some might expect your average veteran act to be content with just reissuing a deluxe version of their debut record to celebrate three decades in the music business.
But Coldcut are not your average artists.
The legendary British production duo (Matt Black, pictured, right and Jonathan More, pictured, left) have celebrated their 30th birthday year in typical Coldcut style, demonstrating an unrivalled work ethic that has seen them release Abelton’s best-selling plugin of 2017, two albums (one as Coldcut and one as Bogus Order) as well as embarking on a European anniversary tour, in which they’ve been performing their new AV show.
The two albums released this year include Coldcut’s Outside The Echo Chamber and Bogus Order ‘s Zen Brakes Vol.2. The former was made with producer Adrian Sherwood and features tracks such as Vitals with Roots Munuva and Make Up Your Mind with Ce’Cile and Toddla T. The latter is the sequel to Zen Brakes Vol. 1, the very first release on the label they started 27 years ago.
Ninja Tune has since become one of the most respected independent music companies in the world, boasting 5.5 million followers on SoundCloud alone and artists signed to it, and its subsidiary labels, ranging from Bonobo to Roots Munuva, Wiley, Kate Tempest and 2014 Mercury Prize winners Young Fathers.
Coldcut have been at the forefront of electronic music production and sampling culture since their debut release Say Kids - What Time Is It? in 1987.
The word ‘pioneering’ is often thrown around to describe artists or producers who reach a certain milestone in their career, but Coldcut’s use of sampling in the ‘80s without the use of the pro audio hardware and software now available to bedroom producers was the epitome of the word.
Say Kids - What Time Is It? was the first Coldcut 12” white label and is credited as one of the first tracks ever to be made completely using samples. They can also claim to have had one of the first commercially successful remixes, with their 1988, Seven Minutes of Madness remix of Eric B. & Rakim’s Paid In Full, which achieved chart success in several countries.
We were always trying to do something hard, because it's healthy
“In that time there were quite some limits with what we could do with the existing technology,” says Coldcut’s Matt Black, over Skype from Ninja Tune’s HQ in south London the evening before the duo set off for the Swiss leg of their tour.
“In the late ‘80s and ‘90s, particularly working with sound was demanding and working with visuals was [also] demanding,” he continues. “It takes ten, to a hundred times more resources to work with visuals and [the equipment] didn’t exist that could do it and if it did it was limited. So we took it and adapted it and built extra bits on so that we could fulfil our vision of audio-visual hip hop.”
There were of course samplers available at that time, with the likes of the Fairlight CMI having been launched by its creators in 1979, but as pointed out by Black, their several-thousand-pound price tag meant that they were reserved for somewhat more established producers.
“There was a big barrier to people like us being able to use them,” he adds. “You had to borrow a lot of money to do that or go into partnership with a bigger company or something. When technology made those things cheaper it democratised that process of making music.
“We were doing stuff when not many other people were doing it because it was hard. That was good, because we got a bit of a name for it and established it and kept our interest going. We were always trying to do something hard, because its healthy.”
Sights and Sounds
Experts at marrying audio, visual, music, art and technology, Coldcut have released music making apps like Ninja Jamm, a track (Robbery, with Rholin X) from Outside The Echo Chamber in the form of a 3D virtual ‘surreality’ game and a free app called Pixi Player (released alongside Zen Brakes Vol 2), which they use live to automatically make abstract art whilst they play.
The anniversary concerts have also seen Coldcut launch new AI technology called Style Transfer, which has arisen from a collaboration with the Deepart team from the University of Tubingen. It utilises AI to interpose the visual tone of one image over another and this was the official launch of this AI tech in a live environment.
“Audio and video, like our ears and our eyes, are separate but they join up in the brain,” says Black. “When we do an audio visual show, it’s about audio and visual, two separate things, but then we connect them by various ways. There’s many ways we can do that, so in a way we’ve been investigating that relationship or those sets of relationships.”
Coldcut are using Jamm Pro, an updated beta version of their Ninja Jamm app in their live shows. “It sends MIDI triggers to a programme called Resolume, which has a set of clips that match up with the audio clips from Ninja Jamm or Jamm Pro,” he explains. “Each audio clip is assigned a visual clip, which makes sense with it. I like to say that VJing is the art of making pictures dance, so in a way that’s what we are trying to do.”
This year has also seen Coldcut launch MidiVolve, a Max For Live Ableton plugin inspired by Music for 18 Musicians by US composer Steve Reich. The pack (Abeleton’s best-selling one in 2017 at the time of writing) is a riff generator and pattern sequencer that automatically ‘evolves’ live or imported MIDI patterns into new “riffs, melodies and grooves”.
“I’m pleased to say that it’s become my first software invention to actually make any money,” jokes Black. “I think that’s probably down to having Ableton as a partner who are an established business in this area.”
Black is keen to emphasise that Coldcut have also been involved in the devlopment of various other bits of software since the ‘80s and ‘90s. “We developed our own software in the ‘90s to do digital loop manipulation. It was called DJamm, but we didn’t have the resources to finish it. Then Ableton came out so we jumped onto that,” he says.
Having used Ableton since it was first launched, Black says that he “always wanted to do something with the company,” and when they had the idea for MidiVolve, they realised that it could “actually be a commercial product”.
“With all our software, we are never quite sure whether it’s research and development for ourselves for fun, something we are just going to give away, or something we are going to make into a commercial product,” he explains.
“I used it in a jam session the other day with Martin ‘Youth’ Glover from Killing Joke, Nik Turner from Hawkwind and East Bay Ray from the Dead Kennedys and a bunch of other people at Youth’s [Space Mountain] festival in Spain. I pulled out MidiVolve and did some fucked up rhythms on that, which everyone seemed to like. It’s a good improvisation tool.”