On the surface, there are few forms of musical expression more monotonous than Electronic Dance Music (EDM), as club music is known these days. Out on the floor, dancers immerse themselves in the beat. But for anyone watching, the only spectacle aside from writhing bodies is a DJ behind his deck, blandly working his discs and software.
Shannon Ellinas decided to change all this by invoking the future. With a passion for percussion and a degree in music production, he quickly spotted the missing link.
“I found if you look at any type of music, each has an instrument that is known for that music. But with EDM, you can only think of a DJ, and it doesn’t showcase the music. The audience doesn’t see a performance, but rather a guy playing music.
“So I wanted to create a DJ that an audience could both dance to and watch. Something that would be an EDM performance. I thought, what if you could have a screen that the audience can see through to what the DJ is doing, and see on the screen, and that’s where the hologram idea came in.”
The science fiction movie Minority Report, set in 2054, galvanized Ellinas. He realised that what Tom Cruise’s character was doing with holograms in accessing and manipulating data could be done on a transparent acrylic screen. And so Drum Machine was born, and it’s been called “an unprecedented, technological music phenomenon”.
The one-man act revolves around what Ellinas calls “a one-of-a-kind 55-inch transparent Holoscreen”, accompanied by 13 “light drums” and cymbals, with LED lighting that responds to sound.
On stage, behind his screen, surrounded by pulsating instruments, Ellinas is transformed into a spectacle that could have been brought back from 2054 in a time machine.
Sipping fruit juice on the sidewalk at the Odd Cafe in Greenside, Johannesburg, Ellinas radiates energy as he describes the astonishing array of sources that went into his set-up.
“The drums were custom-built for me by a furniture company that does acrylic objects. A company in Japan gave me the LEDs and sound-to-light box, so that the drums change colour and flash to my rhythms. The highest tech part is my Holoscreen, which was also custom-designed for me, and measured out to my arms length. It’s made out of full acrylic, see-through, with touch screens that create manipulative projection to allow me to DJ all my tracks on the Holoscreen.”
The screen operates with touch sensors that send a signal to his Apple Mac computer, which “reads” what he’s doing, and projects a picture of what his hands are doing, onto the screen.
“It’s like a cycle: the touch sensor on the screen sends the signal to the Mac, and the Mac sends the picture to the projection, which shows both myself and the audience what I’m doing. I’m seeing the touch-DJ music programme on the screen and the audience is seeing the deck and my movements,” explains Ellinas.
“I saw Minority Report and thought, imagine if you could deejay like that? Ideas also came from Avatar and CSI Miami. A lot of people see it in those movies and can’t believe its real.”
The centre of this tech borrowed from the future is a round table called a Reactable, on which Ellinas manipulates electronic glass cubes that are twisted or dropped to create samples and effects.
“The cubes have all my samples programmed into them. I can send a sound from my Holoscreen into the Reactable, and then manipulate them with effects and drop samples. Every corner of the cube is programmed with a different sample. It took me about two months to learn and practice six minutes of sound,” says Ellinas.
“The worst part is there’s no one to teach me this stuff or help. It’s custom-ordered from Europe, so you have to improvise as you go along.”
The initial set-up, built over time, cost Ellinas about R350 000. But he’s not going to stop there.
“I’ve just done the final payment on a brand new instrument that arrives next week from New York. It’s a sphere sampler, the first one in South Africa. Imagine taking a piano and wrapping it around a ball, and then using it as a sampler. But I don’t really know what I’m talking about until I’ve played with it!”
It doesn’t stop there, either. Ellinas is working on a wrist-controller for light and sound, building a double-story rig, and designing “a new kind of drum that is cut at a 45 degree angle, like a cylinder, which will look like pistons instead of drums”.
With his gaze disappearing into a future most of us can’t imagine, Ellinas dreams: “This one is going to be my masterpiece”.
Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za.