With Model 1.4 out now, and an extensive collaboration with well-being app Endel, Richie Hawtin has been busy during the lockdown. Ben Start caught up with Plastikman to hear how this change of lifestyle has shaped his perspective and how he’s now more in touch with “techy Hawtin than touring Hawtin”.
Re-energised and reconnected with the “tech side of Hawtin,” spring sees Richie Hawtin focusing his creative energies on two fronts. One explores electronic music’s fascination with the future, the other challenges the DJ community’s conservative streak.
Familiar zoom issues had already delayed the meeting, ironic given artificial intelligence was on the agenda. Sadly, talk of sake or the recent Plastikman collaboration with Prada was timed out. The model we did discuss was the Model 1.4, a new four-channel, analogue mixer incorporating many of the key features of the successful Model One, which launched in 2016.
As we moved on to the Plastikman collaboration with AI-driven, well-being app Endel, Hawtin gave fascinating insights into where he is, where he is going, and why we should trust his instincts.
First though, with the adopted Berliner’s home city, the hedonistic tech hub, the city that never slept, in a seemingly endless lockdown, it felt appropriate to check in first; “I’m fine (laughs), we were all very gung-ho here with how well we were dealing with things in Berlin, now we’re eating our own words. Like everyone, I’ve had ups and downs but I have found productivity.”
There has been a change in Hawtin’s public persona during the pandemic. His social media presents the breezy vigour of a tech-innovator rather than icey techno icon tied to the road: “I have to be authentic. I’m happy I didn’t go into a club for a year. You have to give 110% of your energy to nightlife and I feel I’ve been good at that for 30 years. I’m more connected now with the techy Hawtin of my younger days than the touring Hawtin. Music and tech have always been my escape from the real world. Sometimes you have to be shoved away from the things you love to reconnect with what makes them special.”
Techno has spent the last year wandering the wilderness, cut off from its lifeblood of live shows. While many DJs just want to plug back into the circuit, some intend to build back better. Fueled by boundless curiosity and a natural need to connect, Hawtin falls into the latter group. The next evolution in his Model range of mixers, the 1.4, is manifest in this, a challenge to DJs and clubs to raise their game.
The Model has been slowly accepted by the DJ community; “it’s not an easy piece to master,” Hawtin admits; “Some DJs really like the sound but they’ve not had a chance to change years of their own habits to use the Model. I remember the first ten shows I did with it were a disaster. At gig 10 it clicked.”
The concept and design are the result of over 15-years partnership between Hawtin and engineer Andy Rigby-Jones, over many dinners and presumably sake. Ricardo Villalobos was also influential; “Back in 04/05 we’d play 14hr sets, we wanted a dual cue system so we could play b2b. That’s where that feature comes from.”
Minus a crossfader, Model 1.4 is suited to long, considered blends. Although its sound output is overall lower than its competition, the rounded, analogue warmth it brings will bolster basement sound systems to festival rigs, however, it is the hybrid filter/swept bell EQs that sets it apart.
Hawtin says; “In the first demos at Hardwax we really had to think about the EQing. Half the room wanted a standard low/mid/hi, half wanted something more innovative. We were 100K of our own money in and thought fuck it, let’s keep what’s different. The EQ’s were the heart of what made it different. That was our best and worst decision but puts the Model in a very special place.”
[quote align=right text=”Back in 04/05 we’d play 14hr sets, we wanted a dual cue system so we could play b2b. That’s where that feature comes from”]
The Model is more expensive than its competition and carries a comparable range of features. The extra value for DJs however comes from allying with Hawtin’s conviction that investing in The Model will push them to new levels.
I venture that technology effectively freed DJs from the need to beat match over a decade ago, shouldn’t DJs have been demanding more from club set ups sooner? “The DJ world is very conservative so it doesn’t surprise me that we’ve gone backwards. It would be great if there was more individuality.”
It’s clear Hawtin feels the culture must innovate; “The kids coming now are going to demand something else. Clubs that merge reality and nonreality and how artists connect with their audience.” Few have such an intrinsic understanding of the intersection between music and technology.
I mention the groundbreaking DE9 Closer To The Edit, released two decades ago. The mix CD harnessed fresh technology such as Final Scratch to deconstruct tracks and work the mix to new levels. It was seminal in a movement that turned the seepage of slower, sexier, backroom sounds onto the main stage into a deluge.
The control freak approach of the mix contrasts markedly to the recently launched Plastikman collaboration with Endel, an AI-driven mental health app that generates expansive soundscapes unique to the user’s mood and physical state. Intriguingly, the sounds are entirely his own but the final mix is composed by AI.
I ask how it feels to relinquish control; “I am for sure a control freak (laughs)! There are two things that drive Hawtin; the drive to use technology to be in control and the love of investigating new technology.”
[quote align=right text=”The music I make at the moment has a lot of randomization and generative LFO’s making things happen. This is an extension of that, allowing the final decisions to be made by the AI”]
The temptation to investigate the possibilities of generative AI was too strong for Hawtin yet not an unnatural step; “The music I make at the moment has a lot of randomization and generative LFO’s making things happen. This is an extension of that, allowing the final decisions to be made by the AI. I knew what textures and modulations I could bake into the samples. I had to know exactly where I could give up control.”
Although Endel is not a club tool it opens up many exciting performance possibilities. But is Hawtin comfortable with technology that could ultimately make his role redundant? “The Endel collab is like a first date with AI You’re feeling each other out but not getting too intimate, over time you feel how deep that can go. Endel surprised me in terms of which samples it mixed together. I would start to check it for 5 minutes and 25 minutes later it’s still got me engrossed. Then I realized it was something special. I didn’t know where it was going. It is close to being able to see myself perform.”
No chance you’ll let it loose in the club? “Why not, I’ve been at after parties when I would have loved to play but maybe not been in the right state and could plug it in! I think I could collaborate live with the AI Maybe there will be a more collaborative aspect in the next stage of the courting!”
And the potential of AI? No hesitation; “Limitless. You have human and AI interaction then you have the interaction of AI and AI, there are unlimited permutations that can come out. It’s exciting and scary at the same time. We’re heading towards augmented reality and real-time simulations where we can live in a world where experiences just unfold in front of us. This can’t be done by humans alone, the collaboration between man and machine could bring us into a whole new world of clubs.”
Hawtin has never shied from backing himself. In doing so he has shaped the industry from the inside. With Model 1.4 and collaboration with Endel, his influence is infiltrating two very different functions of the electronic music world.
Whether it’s surrendering the essence of Plastikman to AI, or updating DJ booths to cajole DJs gently out of their conservatism, Hawtin’s conviction is that this pair of tools can fortify their users for an increasingly tech-driven future. To say he has been ahead of the curve at every inflection of electronic music may be unfair. So often it is the curve that follows him.
Ben Start is a journalist and booking agent based in Berlin. Follow him on Instagram.
Find Richie Hawtin on Instagram.