To Cool to Be Just Music

ShiftControl by AudioRom

Interactive Music CD-ROM Review

If the West Coast of the USA is known for venture capitalists and huge Operating Systems, Japan for microelectronics and Bulgaria for virus writing, what is Britain's quintessential contribution to global computer culture? While the UK's hacker groups and games have an honourable reputation, of all the products of the digital age there's nothing so typically British as a mixing toy. It shouldn't be so surprising. The combination of dance music, cool graphic design and new technology appeals to the archetypal obsessions of that newest of British clichés, the London New Media Kid. These little packages of electronic music, graphic design and cute interface ideas are fast-becoming the nineties equivalent of bowler hats or roast beef.

Typical Audiorom User-Interface

Over the last few years small (mostly London-based) companies like Antirom, Modified, Audiorom, Tui, Hex and Sunbather have pretty much created a genre from scratch. The aesthetic is simple. Take some audio electronica, disassemble it into loops, lines, individual instrument parts or small phrases. Assign these audio-fragments to visual objects, or give them a particular spatial or temporal relationship to each other. Design an interface which allows a user to manipulate the sounds, and finally cloak the whole thing in stylish visuals.

Rather than creating enormous applications, the proponents of the mixing toy genre tend to aim towards smallness and simplicity, building electronic haikus which question the all-too-common idea that the interest of a piece of interactivity is in proportion to the volume of its code. At one point Antirom, acknowledged masters of the mixing toy, were restricting themselves to electronic doodles which took up less than 50k, smaller than the average web-page GIF.

The best mixing toys are beautiful abstractions which allow the user to explore rhythm, tone and image in a way impossible to achieve outside multimedia. By doing this they validate it as an artform, and cock a snook at the Hollywoodisation of interactivity, the process by which budgets, timescales and marketing hype are pumped up, bringing high-profile products (games mostly) into the same frame as mainstream cinema - with all the excesses and creative restrictions that brings. The worst mixers draw metaphors from the past, presenting themselves as inferior "virtual" versions of something the user already knows - mixing desks, instruments, turntables, jukeboxes.

By and large this use of conventional metaphor is to be found on record-company-financed products, often from the US. The smell of boardroom compromise clings to these sad little Roms like last night's cigarette smoke. A picture of a Technics SL1200 turntable on a screen has none of the tactile pleasure, the analogue buck and hum of the real thing. This metaphorics, designed to reassure the user with familiarity, ends up instilling only a sense of disappointment, nostalgia for the real.

Besides CD-ROMs Audiorom are also creating interactive installations. Here members of Audiorom are testing light-based interactivity, a piece called "Trigger Happy".

Audiorom, whose second CD has just been released, are among the best producers in the genre. The new release, simply titled "ShiftControl" is, at its best, firmly in the best abstract mode, suggesting new connections and intriguing possibilities. It also represents an end rather than a beginning, sticking to the established mixing-toy blueprint so closely that it suggests the genre is in need of another evolutionary step.

16 different sound-toys can be accessed from the opening screen. Some of the most innovative interfaces make music out of words, (an excitement to a writer) so as the user creates poetry or taps on a keyboard, one is also generating sounds or triggering loops. Others are more conventional, based closely on the grid of professional music software like CuBase, or types of movement and control familar from previous work.

A typical toy is one in which sounds become stately, moving balls that the user can trap or deflect using items on the onscreen 'scenery'. It's a direct descendent of Japanese artist Toshio Iwai's well-known "Music Insects", an early-nineties multimedia piece which seems to have influenced a lot of people's thinking about how to design musical interactivity.

Audiorom's version is atmospheric, an effect which relies mainly on their excellent (home-produced) audio. Breakbeats, dub effects and at one point (in another section) a wonderful bebop trumpet solo, painstakingly disassembled and assigned to QWERTY keys, all make an appearance.

The audio is stronger than the graphics. A pallette of smudged greens and blues is used for all the backgrounds, with foreground stuff appearing as outlined objects reminiscent of blueprints or technical drawings. This one look begins to wear a little thin after an hour or so in the Rom, and you begin to long for the humour and the catholic visual taste of the best work from Antirom.

There is also little thought given to waiting time, with long blank pauses while new sections load up, though to be fair my Power PC machine seemed to be running like a snail, so definitively blaming the programmers for this may be unfair. Despite these gripes there is much pleasure and interest in Audiorom, and its inventiveness deserves a wide audience worldwide.

The CD ShiftControl by AudioRom Interactive music costs 16.99 uk pounds. It has 7 audio tracks aprox 40 mins of music and 16 interactive music interfaces for both MAC and PC.

You can order the CDROM via email to or there is a form on the audiorom website.

Hari Kunzru was editor of WIRED UK, is editor of the music section of Mute Magazine, writes for the Daily Telegraph and other UK media and works on a book project. (Hari Kunzru)