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Tim Exile Remixes Live Orchestra With Homegrown Software

Tim Exile turns the live orchestral sounds of strings, woodwind, and brass into 0s and 1s, transforming classical melodies into banging electronic beats.
11 September 2013, 6:00pm

Tim Exile. Photo: Sam Clements

Tim Exile hovers over his laptop keyboard and frantically taps buttons and dials, head bobbing, he remixes the live sounds of the 28-piece Heritage Orchestra into real-time waves of electronica.

As one half of a duet in last Thursday night's Blank Canvas experimental music night in London, Exile (real name Tim Shaw) twisted, slid and finger punched a sea of controls on his musical workstation as if he was excitedly commandeering the Starship Enterprise. Heritage Orchestra conductor, Tom Trapp, was delivering the live orchestral sounds of strings, woodwind, and brass for Exile to chop into 0s and 1s, and transform classical melodies into banging electronic beats right before the crowd’s eyes. “It’s based around a looper—that’s kind of the centre of the whole thing and any sound source can be looped”, he explained to me. “So I can take incoming audio from a microphone, or in this case I’m taking the whole orchestra—they’re coming in live, and I can loop them, I can sample them, I can then put the loops through different effects and I can chop them up, process them, filter them, and then make new loops out of those loops.”

Photo: Howard Melnyczuk

Not just a renowned artist, Exile is a software developer too, and uses a music application he wrote himself to process this live-remixing mayhem, which has been in the making for around five years. With no academic background in programming, he taught himself all the computing necessities required to create his custom-made music software, which he refers to simply as ‘my instrument’.

Teaming up with the Heritage Orchestra, Exile aimed to “reimagine the orchestra as an instrument and to reimagine performance and spontaneity” through his on-the-go audio manipulation. If all the cutting and looping of layers sounds a little bit like musical Photoshop, that’s precisely how Exile describes it. But unlike loop music that simply builds layers upon layers of sound, Exile’s orchestra mashup was a much more complex procedure, and the live nature of the performance gave it a heightened, raw atmosphere.

Photo: Howard Melnyczuk

“So the instrument that I’ve made you can also subtract, you can work into those individual layers. So let’s say I’ve looped the orchestra and the orchestra’s going round as a sample, I can then filter them and cut and sculpt the sound,” he told me. “So you’re taking that layer and Photoshopping it, so it’s got a lot more evolving—it grows and then it shrinks and then it morphs, then it goes somewhere else.”

With his computer, miniature keyboard and a range of consoles, Exile manipulated the orchestra into a huge array of sounds by rearranging and reprocessing it live, as well as adding the all-important beats. Sometimes he quietly accompanied the orchestra, sometimes they were both playing in unison, and other times he was waging outright carnage all on his own. Unsurprisingly, at times the orchestra looked almost helpless at the perils of their conductor, who with only a series of nods and eye rolls, was able to communicate with Exile through the noise.

Photo: Howard Melnyczuk

With only a matter of hours of pre-performance rehearsal time with the Heritage Orchestra, improvisation played a big part in the set. Although Exile had already organised a loose structure of the performance beforehand, and scored some cells of music that he knew the orchestra were going play, the performance ran through a kind of improvised duet within predetermined parameters.

“If you imagine it as a to do list, your to do list doesn’t say do this then, you’ve just got a list of things to do and you crunch through them, so that’s what we’re doing—we’re going through things in an order but some of those might happen out of order or some bits might take a bit longer, or something unexpected might happen and we can just go off beat.”

Photo: Howard Melnyczuk

Throughout his set, I noticed Exile’s sleight of hand over the controls—his arms and fingers moved at rapid speed and not a moment passed without several controls being vigorously worked by both hands. Exile admitted that the pressure of live mixing is a pure rush that keeps him wired throughout his performances. Of course, there’s a degree of risk that comes with live improvisation that could see it all go horribly wrong, but upbeat Exile always sees opportunity in the moments that don’t always go to plan.

“[The performance] kind of exists right on the precipice. I feel I’m standing on the end of Beachy Head through the whole thing. And it’s this kind of teetering on the balance, you know, sometimes it goes over. For me just on the neurological level, I get some kind of kick out of being right on the border of control,” he told me.

“There’s plenty of room to fuck up and capitalise on fucking up. For me, that’s what the thrill’s about—when it goes over the head of Beachy Head.”

Check out a video of the performance below...