Techno titan Richie Hawtin has always been able to tweak existing ideas in a way that completely upends them. This time, it’s concert video. CLOSER is Hawtin’s app 10 years in the making. It’s an interactive audiovisual “experiment” that lets users deconstruct Hawtin’s creative process while performing. “Concert videos have been done,” Hawtin tells The Verge. “So part of my challenge is to have some transparency and give people a little bit of a connection or an idea of what I’m doing up there, and to understand that there’s a lot of things going on.”
Hawtin is right — concert videos have been done for ages — and companies keep trying to figure out how to make them more interactive. Rhapsody, Wave, Oculus VR, and a multitude of other companies have tried their hand at it, including recently shuttered WAV (the app Kanye used to live stream Ye). But all focus on the live aspect, not toying with prerecorded material.
This is where interactivity comes into play. Inside the app, you can flip layers of audio on and off to hear individual elements, while switching between a multitude of camera angles to see how it all comes together. For any given performance, two people could see and hear entirely different things.
A few other things make CLOSER stand apart from a normal concert video. First, the app has three vertically stacked screens that are all interactive in some form. The top panel can swipe between the audience view and the show’s visuals. The center is a static, overhead shot of Hawtin that lets you control audio and turn the decks, synths, effects, and drums on and off. The bottom panel can swipe between various equipment close-ups.
It’s mesmerizing to watch Hawtin’s hands dance across a custom-made Model One mixer with 10 channels, or toy with the sliders on a Malekko Voltage Block to create quick sequences on the fly. He’s constantly moving, with layers of sounds undulating as he flicks switches or drags down on knobs.
Choosing what camera angles and sounds to focus on lets every user hone in on what grabs their attention. Interested in the Eurorack modules he’s tweaking midway through? Or how he’s mixing different tracks together on the Model One? You can isolate that layer of sound and flip to a screen that shows exactly what he’s doing.
The effect is two-fold. Hawtin wants to push the idea of what a concert is, and inspire others to creatively use technology. Most people watching a DJ don’t know how the equipment works or can even see what’s going on. Gear is normally flat on a table, and actions that create drastic changes in sound don’t require flamboyant movements. Hawtin hopes that peering inside will let people get more insight to what is happening and give a greater sense of how much is going on at once. “DJing is more popular than ever before,” he says, “but there’s less of an understanding of what a DJ is than ever before.”
Hawtin started thinking about creating an interactive app over a decade ago. He wanted a way to share his multi-layered DJing approach on his compilation album series DE9, which used two turntables, an effects box, and a Roland TR-909 drum machine. Early versions of the app were much more simple and literal in approach, but stumped by technical limitations. “It was basically like a photo or an image of my DJ mixer,” says Hawtin, “and you could actually click on each channel and solo things. You could actually deconstruct more because we had twelve or sixteen different channels.”
He had a hard time getting it to run on phones. There were just too many channels. The files were huge. The phones got hot. And, the experience felt incomplete. “The people who were purely into techno and electro music, they loved it… but it was missing a visual element.”
In 2017, Hawtin debuted his audiovisual show CLOSE at Coachella, and the remaining element fell into place. In CLOSE, Hawtin stands flanked by two tables stocked with gear, and cameras are perched overhead. Using video mapping technology, visual effects are created from his actual movements on stage interacting with the gear. With cameras an essential focus of the CLOSE performances, it all clicked. “Okay,” he said, “now we’ve got it. We can put this into an engaging app.”
But even with tech advances over the years, Hawtin faced intense challenges trying to bring the app to market. Keeping multiple audio and visual files in sync when you’re turning things on and off and flip-flopping between camera angles is daunting. Making sure things remain in time and you see and hear what you’re supposed to see and hear is not as easy as it sounds. But he got there. “This app was extremely challenging,” says Hawtin. “There were a couple times over the past eight months where we really thought we’d have to cancel the whole thing.”
CLOSER lives up to the name. It feels intimate, and a voyeuristic way to interact with the performances. I found myself poking around reactively. When the crowd erupted in cheers or I heard a particularly grabby sound, I started toggling audio on and off to find the source, and switching between cameras to see what Hawtin’s got his hands on.
There were a few things I pined for. For example, it would be valuable to know the names of the individual Eurorack modules as Hawtin is using them. But ultimately CLOSER sparked my curiosity and had me digging in. This is exactly what he intended. “If you just watch it, you don’t see everything,” Hawtin says. “It really forces you to switch and swipe back and forth between the different views and explore for yourself.”
The downside to juggling all this crisp video and audio with no delays is that you have to download each show. And having to download massive files is a pain. Hawtin chuckles when I mention this and admits, “It’s an ask.”
The app is available to download for iOS and Android, but it’s still very much a work in progress. A live stream element will be available for select shows in the future, and Hawtin would like to add additional audio channels so people have even more control over how they interact with the shows. He ruminates on other ideas, too. “Imagine,” he says, “later iterations of the app might allow you to manipulate some of the channels and you can deconstruct or reconstruct the mix and be able to record your version of what happened or is happening.”
Hawtin’s CLOSER app brings together multiple trends into one ambitious idea about the new ways people can interplay with prerecorded music or even a live performance.
“The more transparent we are with what’s happening on stage, the more things can be remixed in real time and re-appropriated or reimagined. That adventure and exploration still has me by the gut.”