The Physical Reality of the Crossfader and Its Influence on Film Sound.

Lecture/screening by Simon Maidment, 2001

The crossfader[1] occupies a particular place in the world of sound and music. The advents of turntablism, a seamless night’s entertainment at a club, and sampledelica may not have been dependant on its development, but they certainly owe a lot. Respect.

Respect though, is something Hollywood has a tendency to leave behind in its rush to represent, colonise and absorb the hip new thang of the day, the signifying sight and sound of a subculture that can be packaged for their niche marketing. There have been many films depicting images of hip hop, techno-rave, and nightclub ‘subcultures’ and many using the music that helps define these movements. But whether the film is cashing in on, or giving back to, these communities is often in dispute, how accurately the filmmakers combine the music and fashion into street cred on celluloid. The strength of the audio-visual contract, however, is unavoidably pervaded by the experiences of those producing (and post-producing) the film itself.

Much is made of the ‘multiplicity’ of elements used in hip hop, techno and more broadly ‘electronic’ music. I believe there is a psychology imparted by the very physical act of bringing these elements together, particularly in a performance situation, with a common technology used in all these ‘subcultures’, its interface not virtual, rendered in coloured blocks buried inside a cathode ray tube, but a friction based, solid object; the crossfader endowed mixer[2]. One side of this psychology has been explored by cultural critics who analyse hip hop production methods, citing sampling, remixing, juxtaposition, and pastiche. Terms like “ninja aesthetics”, “on-the-fly tactics”, and many others are used, often more related to graffiti artists than to music composition. You only have to witness a turntablist ‘battle’ (a direct lineage from Jamaican sound-system battles), like the commercially successful DMC World Championship variety, to realise the DJ persona is much more one of studied nonchalance, and of well practised, attention grabbing, flourishes.

Little has been written about the psychology of the crossfader and its users, although Rob Young, in an article on Autechre[3], writes “On this array of electronic components the pair recorded their fourth album, Chiastic Slide, the title a cryptic reference to the mercurial qualities of the crossfader. On the DJ panel or the mixing board, this little slider acts as the magician’s curtain, swishing from side to side to reveal marvels previously hidden.”[4] In my research I have attempted to uncover some aspects of sound and music in film that show signs of being influenced by this ‘chiastic slide’, some obvious and some obscure.

In the first segment on the VHS, DJ Noise demonstrates the use of the crossfader for cutting between two different tracks. “How Can I” on one piece of vinyl is cut together with “Move the Crowd” from another. A coherent rhythm and text is formed. Noise uses his technique to talk about his technique and draw attention not only to his role at that point in time (as DJ, as entertainer, as performer, as maestro) but also to the preparation, conceptual and physical, required to perform his role. The main thing to note from his performance is his relationship to the physical act of working the mixer, there is no hesitation, every touch is a fluid and decisive one. And it is this that typifies a mixer or DJ whose approach is borne out of the hip hop tradition. On careful listening and viewing, one may note that these crossfader movements are not simply a cut from one track to the other, there are many times when we can hear both playing concurrently, at equal power, with Noise setting up the mix, and swiftly positioning the crossfader in the centre momentarily, before cutting completely to one side.

“Requiem For A Dream”, Darren Aronofsky’s second feature, was the first film to really draw my attention to the influence of the crossfader. The film is mixed by Ken Ishii, without a doubt Japan’s most well known techno producer and DJ internationally. There are many elements that hint towards an experience of sound as through a crossfader. In the first clip, the opening of the film, we are introduced to the mother and son main characters in split screen; a duplicity of imagery, two sides going on at the same time, related to each other but not dependent. What is particularly interesting sonically is the hard pan of dialogue to match, reminiscent of the reality of two turntables, with which the DJ works.

“Beat Street” is one of the few films dealing directly with the seminal time of the development into a unified subculture of the elements of graffiti, break dancing and hip hop music (specifically electro),[5] elements that developed separately. While much of the film is heavy handed in its use of sound, perhaps in keeping with its heavy handed narrative, there is an interesting use of a sound of a spray can being shaken. It is used in much the same way as a sample might be dropped in by a DJ while another track is playing. The sound doesn’t emanate from within the frame itself, but is wholly concerned with what is going on within it (and the artificial reverb on the sound is supposed to evoke some kind of ‘echo from the past’ effect).

“Ghost Dog”, directed by Jim Jarmusch, has as sound designer the same Chic Ciccolino III who worked on the “Beat Street” sound design. Famed hip hop producer the RZA wrote the original score to “Ghost Dog”, chosen for the association with martial arts, supposedly ‘ninja’ sensibilities, and ‘tribal brotherhood’, he has forged within his collective, the Wu Tang Clan. The sound design has a quietness and simplicity to it, which reflects the subject matter of the film in terms of Ghost Dog’s samurai way (based from the Hagakure text he carries). It is a  contemplative, measured way. Much of the sound design is actually very quiet, the gunshot in this sequence is the only part that really comes close to the volume of sonic events and design in most modern films, and the current practise to have non-diagetic music is quite shunned in favour of a more restrained use of RZA’s music, helping to fuse the audio-visual relationship.

Jarmusch has said regarding the score, “RZA didn’t write specific cues for specific moments in the movie; he brought his reaction to the film from his soul rather than a more mechanical procedure. We both believe that good film music is part of the fabric of the film, rather than another element slapped onto it from the outside.”[6]

In the second passage of “Requiem For A Dream” we can not only hear clearly the influence of hip hop and club DJs cutting between tracks in the quick cuts and chopped up sound effects, but we see the tools of the trade as well. Jared Leto’s character Harold leans down to his Technics 1200 turntables and physically imposes himself on to the record, rupturing the sonic reality.

“Belly” remains Hype Williams only feature film. Williams made a name for himself as a director of visually arresting video clips for hip hop and R&B groups. His close working relationship with this music is evident throughout his feature, with the imagery and editing dependent on music, seemingly generated by it. In this musically focussed opening scene, the diagetic sound comes in with the sounds of the gun (live by the gun, die by the gun, hear by the gun), and the actions usher in the sounds of them happening. Moreover, the editing and dramatic envelope are matched to the text of the music, not to lyrics but to the energy. The song is a restrained “remix”, it is an a cappella version of Soul2Soul’s “Back To Life”, and while the divas’ vocal hooks are immediately recognisable to anyone who has heard the original (and with this track that’s everyone involved in the hip hop and R&B scenes), there is a tension subtly built from the expectancy for the hooks to run into one another, for the beat to be formed and for the track to ‘bump’ like it’s meant to. It’s when this does that the scene itself collapses into real time and our crossfader is centred –  diagetic sounds mixed in with the music cue.

“Romeo Must Die”, despite Timbaland’s involvement, has exactly the opposite effect. There is very much a ‘pasted-on’ feel to the music. In this clip the energy, timing and textural content of the first music cue bares no relation to what we are witnessing in terms of editing or narrative. The sound designer seemingly has no choice but to match the fade to black with a fade down of the music. When the score music rises, it completely mimics the actions of the characters; their appearance on screen, their motivations. This is the first time we see ‘real’ emotion from Issiac (Washington) and thus cue the strings… Things go from bad to tragic when halfway through the scene we cut to ‘the bad guy’ and the orchestration takes a sinister tone. I give it no stars. “Romeo Must Die” is a clear example of film makers botching up by pursuing a niche market outside their experience.

“La Haine”  is interesting to look at in the context of the crossfader, partly because of the appearance of France’s preeminent turntablist DJ Cut Killer. Moreover, it could be argued that his mixing style has had an effect on the overall sound design within which we encounter his skills, that the mode of the sound, whether it be considered diagetic  or non-diagetic, is apt to change within a scene as easily as fading between them, sometimes a hard cut and sometimes a smooth slide. The featured scene starts with Hubert cutting up dope. The Issac Hayes music cuts quickly from diagetic to non-diagetic, with a slight change in frequency to alert us to the switch. The track is a constant, not matching the disruption of time that the edits cause (cutting dope, rolling, smoking). Because of this we understand the music has become a soundtrack, a music cue, designed to be layed on top of the image, and not emanating from the reality the character is immersed in. However, this is duly broken when Hubert hears a call from Vince outside. With the next cut of vision the music changes in frequency or amplitude, which creates the necessary psycho-acoustic rendering of the sound to indicate its coming from within the frame in realtime. The click of the button on the radio, and subsequent absence of music, has a puncturing (punctum) effect. We then have what we understand to be a non point-of-view, an ‘objective’, shot flying over the yard, with sound that seems to follow this shot as if we experience the reality below as the camera, until we arrive in DJ Cut Killer’s room. The music here most definitely emanates from his reality, through his own fingers and their use of his crossfader. When he then turns on his PA and performs his music out into the block, we move out with it, banking away from his window, into the air and fly over the projects, the music ever-present. It is transformed, seamlessly, as if performed with a crossfader, into a soundtrack, and yet subtly develops reverberation and delay characteristics as if bouncing off the enclosing buildings. It is a smooth move from one mode of sound, diagetic, of the reality of these people, to the non-diagetic, cinematic mode of music in film, and perhaps at some point exists as both at once. This state is broken when we hard cut to Vince and Said. Sonically there is an instant change in the frequencial range and amplitude of the music, psycho-acoustically giving the sense of the music coming from further away, and in a much more diffuse space. There is a change in presence of the music, although it continues from the same point. Within cinematic conventions we understand the music now to be occurring within the space occupied by the actors. Perhaps this is the equivalent of a DJ in a club cutting out one of the two tracks they have had playing concurrently, instantly breaking back into two distinct parts music the audience has perceived to be a seamless whole.

In the last included section of “Requiem For A Dream”, sounds are foregrounded, like Grand Master Flash foregrounded the “Fresh” sample in his work. There is a repetition of sound events in this sequence, themselves conceptual renditions of what we are seeing on screen (swords swooshing though the air, and ringing as if being drawn from a hilt or belt). They combine as a pastiche of different sonic textures to create melody and rhythm, reminiscent of electronic music, with a vocal sample “Naturally”…”Naturally”, ‘dropped’ into the mix not particularly fitting to the content of what we see, but chosen for its sonic characteristics. Here sound designer and film mixer have combined to produce a mix of music, sound and vocal that takes a recognisable form.

My last clip is one from “Ghost Dog” which nicely sums up, in the language of Jarmusch, the idea of two tracks that continue separately, and their occasional fusion; the reality of DJ rather than film-sound mixing. Translated text from The Hagakure crossfades into images of Ghost Dog and the ‘Camouflage Samurai’ (played by the RZA) pacing down the street. They pause to acknowledge one another; “Always see everything.” “Positive embrace,” replies Ghost Dog, before they continue on their focused ways. There is then a long crossfade between the music and the diagetic sound; traffic, announcements in French, people’s movements, from this singular moment, back to the reality of the street.

If there is an imparted sensibility from interfacing with the crossfader, or deeply with the subcultures built around it, then it seems to me to be one of a readiness to experiment with shifting modes, and with the result of multiple realities contaminating one another. This sensibility can extend beyond music, to sound more generally, and into assembly of imagery in film.

Simon Maidment 2001.

[1] Crossfade: Within the audio industry, a term most often associated with dj mixers. DJ mixers usually feature a crossfader slide-type potentiometer control. This control allows the dj to transition from one stereo program source (located at one travel extreme) to another stereo program source (located at the other travel extreme). It is the crossfader that becomes the main remix tool for turntablists. Published at the technical pages at www.rane.com

[2] This is quite different from a mixing desk traditionally found in a sound studio, which consists of many inputs with dedicated faders. The DJ mixer consists at its most basic of two stereo inputs, a dedicated fader for each input channel, and a crossfader to mix the two channels together seamlessly.

[3] “Transformed By Sound”, Rob Young, The Wire, Issue 156, May 1997.

[4] Chiasmus: (noun) inversion in the second of two parallel phrases of the order followed in the first (e.g. to stop too fearful and too faint to go).

Derivative; chiastic: (adj) [mod.L f. Gk khiasmos crosswise arrangement f. khiazo mark with letter chi]

The Oxford English Reference Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 1996.

[5] “KRS-One [a rap artist] was commissioned by Harvard University to determine the specific “elements of hiphop,” he concluded that above the usual four (breakdancing, graffiti, scratching, rapping) were five more (hustling, clothes, economics, politics, street smarts).”

“BLACK NOISE – Hiphop Is the Most Beautiful Music in the World”, Charles Mudede , published at www.thestranger.com

[6] In an interview with Gregory Baird, published at www.APBnews.com

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