deadmau5 Keeping Em Guessing

April 1, 2010

The first time Joel Zimmerman donned his light-pulsing mouse head, who knew it would become every bit as iconic as Kiss’ makeup or Daft Punk’s helmets? Still, that pales to the success of his music. Deadmau5 has become one of the world’s most influential electronic musicians, earning countless accolades including a Juno Award, a number one hit on Billboard’s dance chart, and a Grammy nomination. The most ironic of these is last year’s rise to number six in DJ magazine’s authoritative “Top 100 DJs” poll — because though he does play sets for oceans of undulating fans, he has more in common with electronic music pioneers like Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk than with most of the people on that list. Just before San Francisco’s mecca dance music event, LoveParade, deadmau5 and I had a great chat about modular synths, electronica stereotypes, tools and techniques, and why he is and isn’t a DJ.

Full audio podcast of executive editor Stephen Fortner's conversation with deadmau5. (Warning: Occasional adult language.)

Part 1      Part 2

Visit deadmau5 at

What was the first time that you heard a synthesizer and said, “I want to make that sound”?

Tears For Fears — that whole album with “Shout” on it, or maybe it was a greatest hits album. My dad had the Columbia House deal where you buy 20 CDs for a penny. So we fell for that whole scam and that was one of the CDs in the lot. I kind of switched on when I heard that single.

What was your first synth?

A Casio SK-1.

Did you use the sampling feature on it?

Yeah, a little bit — just farting around, with no intention of making a record or anything like that. My second one after that was a Korg Polysix. It was a little bit meatier!

Listening to For Lack of a Better Name, one thing that’s different from a lot of dance music is that the sounds aren’t drenched in washy effects. They’re warm, thick analog sounds that are right in your face.

I like to stay away from effects. I’ll use them sparingly, but the highest I’ll go is usually a 10% wet/dry mix. I do tend to use a lot of delays, but out of sync by just a bpm or two. When you’re using a virtual instrument — well, it depends on the quality, I guess — it’s playing out a certain waveform. Nowadays, you’re so used to putting in these temposynced delays that are just bang-on. You keep adding delay, and you’re not really adding any character other than turning the gain up. That’s because the computational delay and the computational waveform line up, sample-accurate. My advice is to set your delay times manually to get a delay to do what a delay is supposed to do.

I’m guessing you prefer hardware delays, then. . . .

A lot of times I’ll just go in through a Moogerfooger. You’ll never get it perfect with an analog delay. That’s what it adds — if you look at [the recording] on a wave editor, you’ll see all these little characteristics to a very simple sound.

The same goes for synth waveforms themselves.

Yeah. If it’s an analog saw from a hardware synth, that saw will have different characteristics than what a saw “should” have. It’ll have these little peaks and valleys that don’t look very saw-like, but sound it.

Is there a track on For Lack of a Better Name that’s a good example of that?

The title track — that stabby synth lead is a MacBeth oscillator. I’m really big on modular stuff, so I just buy all these oscillators and filters and put them into A-100 racks. More often than not, any modular oscillator will have a scale tune and a fine tune, and you’ll never get it spot-on. I like to run a very simple VSTi that produces A440, guessing by ear where [the oscillator tuning] should be. Analog control voltage is imperfect at best at octave mapping. Over three octaves, it’s out almost half a semitone. So you get it close and it sounds good, but mathematically it’s way out there, which gives it an atonality. I like that characteristic. People might not know they’re hearing it, but they are.

I think people don’t know what they’re hearing, but they’re feeling something different. It’s the tonality of analog oscillators.

Yeah. It’s a little bit of a subconscious trip, no doubt. I can spot fakes a mile away from those beautifully crafted digital things that are just designed to hit a certain frequency when you hit a certain note — it’s so easy to pick out when you hear it in relation to an octave.

Do you think using analog gear instead of, say, a plug-in, makes a difference by the time something is datacompressed down to the typical format in which people download music?

A lot of the analog stuff can be done programatically. There are some soft synths I almost swear by, especially those coded by a friend, Andrew Simper. He works for FXpansion and he’s got his own company, Cytomic. The way he codes things is he’ll start by getting out those two little probes and taking readings of capacitors. He’ll program what a capacitor should do before going into the big picture of “I want a synth that does this.” It’s analog modeling. He programs in these . . . f***-ups. That’s what gives his synths and processors that warmer sound.

You mentioned FXpansion. We reviewed DCAM Synth Squad in November ’09, and it just might be the most “analog” soft synth to come out in a long time.

Yeah. It’s blessed with Andy Simper’s amazing talents for modeling analog. As far as my ears can tell, it’s the best digitally-modeled analog thing.

Is the name of the track “Strobe” connected to the FXpansion synth of the same name?

That is the synth the whole way through the track! I must’ve had eight instances of it running.

On “Strobe,” there’s the downtempo bit in the beginning, then a syoncpated synth line that comes in over that, but until the kick slams, you’re really not sure where the “one” is. Did you do anything with multiple time signatures, even for just a measure or two?

For a lot of it, actually. The whole beginning was actually a separate track I was just toying around with that had a downbeat — a moody chillout track. Then, I had this old idea for the main lead in the dancey part, then by chance I just put two and two together and went, “It’s in the same key.” I wanted to make it an advance track, so I thought, “Why not just start out downtempo, then turn it into a mainstream track?”

That intro struck me — and I hope this is a compliment — as what Tangerine Dream or Jean Michel Jarre might be doing if they were creating new music today.

That’s the über-compliment! It’s just some kind of big thing to de-formalize dance music. Again, and I’m taking a bit of pride doing this, I’m inserting time signatures and other components you wouldn’t traditionally find in dance music but would find in other types of music. Maybe it’s just to let people in on my [upcoming] artist album, which will be a little less “kicks and snares.”

On the opening track, “FML,” what inspired you to do a triplet bass, suggesting a 6/8 feel?

It’s not a first. I’ve definitely heard it in a lot of techno, but not in commercially viable dance music. The triplet feel — it’s a breath of fresh air and I like opening up with something a little different, but not too different. If it were actually 3/4 and I’ve got this 4/4 track with a hi-hat on every beat, that’d just be a bloody train wreck. The drums in “FML” were penciled in [FXpansion] BFD, in some ungodly, like, 13/8 time signature. It’s looping to a degree, but it’s a bit of a refresher. It’s got a bit of an edgy rock feel, then it slams back into techno. The kids are happy, people who like music are happy, everybody’s happy. [Laughs.]

You have the kick on the downbeat of every triplet throughout the tune, anyway.

I like little head-f***s like that. I like screwing with DJs. I’ve been meaning to do a really evil thing. I want to make a track called something hilarious like “Train Wreck,” and try to engineer it so it’s insanely hard to mix with anything else, but sounds fine on the surface. Maybe drop the tempo to 129 bpm, then back up to 130.

I gather you like to set yourself apart from the title “DJ.”

Definitely — show me a disc, and I’ll show you a DJ! [Laughs.] I don’t want to be looked at as an iPod kind of thing. I’m in a real tough place for being in electronic music, because one of the stigmas of electronic music is being a DJ, with all due respect to that. It’s hard to set yourself apart as a producer without being conceived as a DJ. A gripe I hear a lot is, “I like deadmau5’ set, I’m going to go watch deadmau5 DJ, but he only plays his own stuff.” From my point of view, I don’t go to a Megadeth concert to listen to Jethro Tull’s latest. I almost have to force myself to throw in other tracks I like that can fit in with what I’m doing. But that’s just to up the DJ game.

So why do people see you as a DJ as opposed to, say, an electronic musician doing really cool stuff that just happens to be danceable?

It’s like, “The guy’s got a laptop up there and a DJ type of act.” Not too much live gear, no massive production, any of that. Therefore, they can only say I’m a DJ, and that’s fair play, because that’s almost what it is. I do a show every other day, so I can’t be running around with 18 trailers full of live gear and just constant nightmares. To produce and present electronic music is to be a “DJ” as far as the world knows. So I’m going with it — rubbing shoulders with other DJs, doing the DJ circuits, playing the DJ parties, sometimes breaking out and doing our own shows, but that doesn’t stray too much from a DJ format.

How did you get into making electronic music?

I love chip tunes. I love IDM. I listen to Boards of Canada. I love music, music, music, and I like technology applied to music . . . ergo, I like electronic music, but not in the sense where a lot of people just go [imitating a four-on-the-floor kick and hi-hat] “Unh-ss, unh-ss, unh-ss.” If we’re talking about music derived from electronics, we’re opening a pretty big door — I mean, hip-hop is electronic music at the end of the day, so you have to be more specific, hence the album title For Lack of a Better Name. People ask me, “What style is it? Trance? Progressive?” Well, for lack of a better name, it’s electronic music.

Speaking of all the categories and sub-categories of styles under the umbrella “electronica,” does anyone really understand . . .

What any of it is? [Laughs.] Yeah, I’d love to have been at the board meeting where all that was discussed, because I completely missed the memo! Take “minimal.” To me, something that has, like, one note, one kick, and maybe a snare, sounds minimal. But to say Dubfire is minimal is the biggest crock of s*** I’ve ever heard, because this guy’s all over the place with his stuff. Yes, it’s a driving sound, but it’s all very textured. There’s a lot going on. It’s maximal, if you want to call it something. But, you know, let people do it. You want to call it techno, electronic, trance — whatever. It’s like the Dewey decimal system: totally outdated.

Part of your live rig is Native Instruments Maschine. What do you use it for, and what do you like and not like about it?

Actually there’s not a lot I don’t like about it. I’m surprised. It’s the second longest running piece of kit in my setup. I just load up the top four banks, [each of which] has 16 kinds of sounds, then I load little percussive bits, filler percussion kind of stuff. I don’t do any sequence data. Well, I do a little bit of sequencing to start me out and, then I build it up and layer it on top of tracks. I can still play the productions in their entirety over multitrack [in Ableton Live] and you’re not missing anything, but it’s fun to be able to pull something out of the track and add my own little custom ditty-do.

How do you sync it up with the rest of your rig?

You just plop it in as a virtual instrument. The clock’s already with you — Ableton Live’s clock in my case. I’ve incorporated a modular synth into the live set now, too, which is kind of scary. I’ve only done it once because I’m really careful about my gear. It can just get trashed. It gets beer on it. But I have two Buchla 200E [modular synths] that I’m really excited to bust out onstage as well. So it’s just going to be this big synth thing, though those gigs will be under controlled circumstances.

What are those sounds that are halfway between a pipe organ and a synth, on “Ghosts N Stuff” and “Moar Ghosts N Stuff”?

That’s Native Instruments B4, just a little bit modified. Look, you can do this in your home studio. Buy guitar pedals — cheap little f***ers, little processors, garage-sale reverbs. Take your soft synth from an output [on your audio interface], then go through the pedal, then back in. It’s almost as good as analog because the pedal “character-izes” the synth in ways digital effects can’t. Make a little effects rack, and don’t be shy. My first “modular synth” was a truckload of Moogerfoogers: the phaser, the delay, the MuRF

I was just about to ask you if you use the MuRF.

From time to time. It did the patterned bass on “Catbread.” It’s limited to eight steps, but it gets really different characteristics from samey-sounding s***. I love Native Instruments and this is not to bash them at all, but if I hear another Massive preset in an electro dance release, I’m going to shoot myself in the face. It’s a beautiful synth, really, but a lot of people just scroll through presets and that’s it. Process that stuff — make it your own. You’ll keep people guessing, and get the attention of seasoned producers and people that have been around the block.

Well, one of the core values of electronic music, from guys like John Cage through what you’re doing, is that sonic originality is as important as the musical kind.

Honestly, you’re not going to impress me with the greatest melody ever written if it’s played on something I’ve heard a million times. I don’t know how Bach didn’t go crazy and say, “F*** this piano sound — it’s always the same!” My ears perk up when I can’t figure something out. People start asking, “How do you get that sound?” Then, [Internet forums] will go crazy, there’ll be a 32-page thread with 30 different ways people think you did it, and none of them will even be close to right. That’s when you know you’ve got something original. As soon as people start guessing at what you’re doing, you know you’re doing it right.


“I have a beast of a modular now,” says deadmau5. “I must have over 50 modules, and I still can’t get my head around doing a polyphonic patch.” You can see some of those modules in the Doepfer A-100 rack in deadmau5’ studio, just to the left of an Access Virus TI Polar and just in front of a Nord Lead 3 rack synth. Due in part to deadmau5’ popularity, the dance music scene is ushering in something of a modular synth renaissance. “There’s a surprising amount of new modular stuff coming out — Cwejman, LiveWire, MacBeth, all that,” he continues. “I jumped in just over two years ago, and I used to think ‘modular’ meant stuff from the ’60s.” In the left foreground is his latest pride and joy, a Buchla 200E. “All of Don Buchla’s stuff is just bonkers, which is why I like it. The guy is weird, in a good way. If he was my age, he’d be into glitch music and chip tunes.”
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