On guitar, Mr Sinclair Spectrum. On drums, Epson Printer. And let’s not forget the legendary HP Scanjet on bass. We interview student James Houston, whose brilliant Radiohead video has been causing quite a stir…
James Houston is about to graduate from the Glasgow School of Art’s graphic design course. The above video is his final project, brought to our attention by Zip Design’s David Bowden (many thanks David).
Houston posted the video up just under a week ago. He’s since had thousands of emails, an offer of a record deal and Radiohead have even put the video up on their own site. “This was a wee video for Uni that I edited in my bedroom with my dog at my feet and now it’s grown out of control,” says Houston. He explains the project to CR:
“I made the video as a final piece for my degree show. It’d been an idea which was burning for a while, so the actual execution of it only took around a week, although there were a few all-nighters. It was such a tight deadline, as I also had the rest of my degree show to finish in that time too.”
“When In Rainbows was released, the song Nude brought back this recurring idea of mine, as it was a perfect fit. Luckily, a few weeks later Radiohead launched the radiohead remix contest, which supplied each of the elements (bass, vocals, drums etc) of Nude, as separate unmixed audio files to play around with. I couldn’t believe my luck and started getting to work.
“Remixing Nude is actually quite a tricky task as the track is in 6/8 time, at 63bpm. Most music that’s played in clubs is around 120bpm and usually 4/4 time. It’s pretty difficult to seamlessly mix a waltz beat into a 4/4 DJ set. Apparently, there were loads of generic entries to the competition consisting of a typical 4/4 beat, but with arbitrary clips from “Nude” thrown in so that they qualified for the contest.
“Thom Yorke even joked at the ridiculousness of it in an interview for NPR radio, hinting that they set the competition to find out how people would approach such a challenging task.
“Based on the lyric (and alternate title) “Big Ideas: Don’t get any” I grouped together a collection of old redundant hardware, and placed the equipment in a situation where they’re trying their best to do something that they’re not exactly designed to do, and not quite getting there.
“It doesn’t sound great, as it’s not supposed to. And I missed the contest deadline, hence posting it up online.”
Equipment used to make the remix:
Sinclair ZX Spectrum – Guitars (rhythm & lead)
Epson LX-81 Dot Matrix Printer – Drums
HP Scanjet 3c – Bass Guitar
Hard Drive array – Act as a collection of bad speakers – Vocals & FX
“I knew that it was all going to work when I piped Thom Yorke’s vocals through the Hard Drive speakers on my initial test,” continues Houston. “Basically, I found out that there’s a voice coil inside every non-solid state hard drive. I recognised this name (you also get voice coils in speakers) and investigated it a bit further. If you take an audio source (in this case, Thom Yorke’s vocal for Nude), instead of using proper speakers, you can hook your speaker wire up to two solder points on the hard drive. Those solder points vary from model to model. So the audible sound is nothing more than the seek head of the hard drive vibrating against the disk. I just upped this a bit, and created a board with 10 Hard Drivess on it so that it was a bit louder. I also used this amount to get a fuller sound, as I noticed that each HD had it’s own frequency it liked to produce, so by using 10 I got a sound which was quite rich. The haunting sound produced fit perfectly, and I knew I had to work out how to properly represent the rest of the track’s components. In terms of equipment, I was kindly donated an oscilloscope by my friend Daniel Glennie. It doesn’t actually make any music, it just looks nice. More of a Bez figure – as my tutor Emma would say. I was also given a replacement spectrum by Steven Hunter, and the dot matrix printer by Andrew Bruin. All of whom are big Radiohead fans as well.”
“The scanner in the video is playing the bassline. I found out that a series of HP ScanJet scanners had the ability to play music coded into them by Hewlett Packard themselves. This was a test routine to test the stepper motor, and also for the sheer hilarity of it. You can see a factory-default scanner here:
“Dr. Rowland Shregle from GanjaTron.net discovered a way to re-program these stock audio files that were stored inside the scanners. Which I was then able to do, with his help, although I encountered loads of tedious problems on the way. It behaved for a bit, but then started going out of sync really badly so I had to fix it in post. I’m glad it’s over.
“A printer provides the drum beat. No programming here, I just improvised and made it produce the beat.
“As for the guitars, they’re done by a Zx Spectrum. I’m pleased that Colin & Jonny Greenwood got a kick out of the Spectrum, as I’d read that they share a similar childhood attachment to the machines as I do. The band also featured a Sinclair ZX spectrum at the end of ‘Let Down’ on OK Computer, so it seemed appropriate to use one. In some ways, this was the easy bit as I found an amazing command-line utility which would transfer any .midi file into an .ay sound file. So I bought the sheet music for Nude, and transcribed it note by note into my computer, then fiddled with it quite a bit until it was in a format that the spectrum could understand. The high pitched noise at the start of the video is the sound of the spectrum loading (they loaded via audio tapes).
“You can load the beeping file into your spectrum at home just by playing the start of the video through it. That is, if you’re that way inclined.
“For the most part, what you see is what you hear on the video. I had some timing issues with instruments going out of sync which I needed to adjust in post. It only took around nine takes to get the footage needed to make it look good on film. I also used a slightly different model of Spectrum for the audio you hear. Someone actually spotted this and grilled me about it. He could tell the difference in the beeps.
“I actually read about a Commodore 64 disk drive that was easy to adapt to play music, although the C64 was the rival for the ZX spectrum, and I’m quite loyal to the Spectrum. As are Radiohead. Also, while it might sound great, the C64 disk drive doesn’t have the ‘visual’ element of playing music. It’d just be a closed box with noise coming out of it.
“The viewer wouldn’t be able to see the music happening. This was also the reason that I included the oscilloscope (so that the viewer had visual feedback from the Spectrum) Everything else worked both audibly & visually at the same time.
“I’m a video maker, and not a musician. To be honest, I’ve been completely overwhelmed by the huge response. As I said, this was a wee video for Uni that I edited in my bedroom with my dog at my feet and now it’s grown out of control. I’ve had over 2,000 really lovely emails from people all around the world, been offered a record deal (I’m not even a musician!), and been asked to get involved in loads of other amazing projects. It all came to a climax when I noticed that Colin Greenwood had posted the video on radiohead.com. I’ve been a huge fan for years, and seeing the blog post touched me in a way that I can’t quite articulate.
“The GSA Visual Communication degree show is in the Foulis building of the art school. Everybody else’s work looks great. It’ll be a fantastic show.”
GSA Degree Show will be open from 14-21 June.
Visit the site for full details: gsa.ac.uk/