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Hard-disk jockey turns electricity into music

In the early morning hours at a crowded dance club, a high-tech DJ creates a one-man symphony on his computer. Photos: High-tech DJ works the hard drive

SAN FRANCISCO--It's the wee hours on an unseasonably balmy November morning.

Inside the DNA Lounge in the hip South of Market neighborhood, the festively attired crowd attending the annual Scorpio Ball is bouncing and gyrating to thick bass beats. In front of the sweaty bodies and bathed in the bright stage lights is Bassnectar--otherwise known as Lorin Ashton or, perhaps most commonly, just plain Lorin--twisting knobs, pushing buttons and moving sliders to pump out a synthetic symphony.

It's another long session on the stage for a disc jockey pushing the boundaries on computer technology and music composition. In his studio, Lorin--who tours full-time as a DJ and composes, produces and remixes music under the Bassnectar alias--works with specialized software that enables him to replicate any musical instrument, use special effects on voices and modulate and filter sounds beyond recognition.

Like more than a few DJs in the increasingly mainstream techno music scene, Lorin channels his creativity through a computer to create a mishmash of sounds. Just a few years ago, it would have been near-impossible for just one person to do what he's doing in this hot club. But improved computing power and increasingly sophisticated software lets Lorin "cut through" the technology to focus on his music, and to do it without spending tens of thousands of dollars on equipment.

If he were still alive, big band maestro Duke Ellington would no doubt be surprised to see what the young DJ can do with nothing but a computer.

Displayed on Lorin's monitor is music production software called Reason, a virtual studio that lets a composer create a software replica of the kind of hardware that's used for composing: mixers, synthesizers, samplers, drum machines, effects processors and other gear. As Lorin uses his mouse and keyboard, the "knobs" and "buttons" on his virtual gear turn and move. He hits a button and the backside of the virtual units, stacked one on top of the other in an array of "patch bays," shows interlocking colored cable, just like the real cables that connect hardware in physical studios. He can use his mouse to connect and disconnect components.

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He puts a vocal track through the system, and an oscillator shows waves representing the sound. He copies, cuts and pastes to create repeating patterns. In another window, he shortens and elongates a series of different colored blocks on a grid to create tracks, much as a conductor instructs different sections of an orchestra to play and stop.

The software lets Lorin automate a historically manual process. "I can have 500 automations happening simultaneously if I want to," he said.

"The technology completely facilitates my creativity," Lorin said. "When I have a sound (in my head) and want to create that, I just make that sound (with the software). I'm able to cut through all the (hassles) and the delays and streamline my creative vision."

He uses Reason like a sketch pad to make an arrangement or sequence and uses Cubase music production software for mixing the music, determining how loud the drums will be, for instance.

"The reason this (composing) is a revolution, musically speaking, is that in the past you had to rent these studios by the hour, or spend tens of thousands of dollars to build your own studio," he said.

"But with Reason you have a veritably unlimited amount of equipment that can be imported into each unique song file, kind of like a virtual shopping spree for virtual gear....Each of these virtual instruments would run anywhere from $200 to $1,000 a piece. This synthesizer, with all the features it has, would be about $1,200," he said. Now "if I want to make a new one, say I want to make a synthesizer, I go to 'create' and click on it and boom, it pops up."

His hardware consists of a Dell 2.6 gigahertz Pentium 4 computer with one gigabyte of memory, five Maxtor 300GB hard drives, Mackie H24 speakers, a Yamaha 01V digital mixer, Technics CD turntables, CDJ-100S Pioneer record turntables, an M-Audio MIDI controller keyboard and an M-Audio Delta 1010 sound card. He also works on a laptop when he's on the road.

"I couldn't make rock 'n' roll without guitars, and I couldn't produce music without at least synthesizers and samplers. But to be as prolific and detailed as I am I must have computers, smoking fast computers," Lorin said. "Yes, I sample humans, like the guy beat-boxing or the vocalist. But all the beats, all the bass, and a huge majority of the sounds are synthesized, even if they sound like an electric guitar or a cello or a violin or a flute....It's all on my computer."

At the University of California, Santa Cruz, Lorin received dual minors in electronic music and education, and majored in community studies, for which he started a music therapy program at a juvenile detention center.

Though he has concentrated on electronic music for the last 10 years, Lorin's influences run the gamut from heavy metal and rock to hip-hop and classical. At the impressionable age of 16, he was banging heads and moshing to "churning" death metal at private parties in the basement of a public library in San Jose, Calif., where he grew up. At 27 years old, that intensity is reflected in his current music, albeit in a more sophisticated way.

"I got attracted to electronic music because it is so much more inherently positive than death metal....And it is grinding and it is sexy. That's the bass," he said. "Nothing sounds fatter than electronically produced beats and bass. No drum set or bass guitar is going to make that perfect blended sound."

"I'm creating songs that mesmerize me....I'm playing music that twists me into a dervish."

Twist he does, and not just his knobs. He bobs in full-body moves and chops the air with his hand to the beat, his long dark hair flying around him like a fine silk scarf.

In Lorin's world, no sound goes unnoticed--including birds chirping in his Berkeley, Calif., neighborhood, a cash register and wind chimes down the street--which makes for music that is multitextured, or "omnitempo maximalism," as he puts it.

Though he doesn't create his music live in performances as some musicians do, Lorin works live with customized songs and mixes them in a fluid way for a spontaneous show that some feel is much more involved and engaging than what typical DJs do.

"DJing inevitably is becoming obsolete, partly because of oversaturation," he said. "It was impressive in the early '90s, but now it's like 'big deal. He's playing two records.' I think a lot of people are concerned more with how to be a DJ than with how to make music and that, I think, is a problem."