The Jazz Fan Who Invented A Machine To Make His Own Mashups

Originally published on May 5, 2011 11:17 am

There are at least four things to note about this live remix/mashup of "Acknowledgement," aka part one of John Coltrane's A Love Supreme.

The first thing is that it's actually pretty cool. There's some electronic music out there which sounds like "jazzy," lounge-y wallpaper — which takes, say, a Sarah Vaughan sample and layers it over a plodding beat. This is, at least in my estimation, a good deal more creative than that.

The second thing is that it's a live remix. The dude with that knobby box has programmed a whole bunch of samples into his computer, which he triggers with said knobby box. His sharp ear identifies little bits of songs which would work well — in this case, music from folks like John Scofield, Karsh Kale and even The Police. (Complete sample list at the YouTube page.) He tweaks them to align properly, develops a game plan, and deploys and modulates his samples, all in rhythm and in real time.

(It is pretty much what acts like Gold Panda or Mount Kimbie are currently doing with live sample-based music. Those are some of the electronic artists that the kids like these days.)

At this point, you might be wondering: Who is this guy?

His name is Nick Francis, which is the third thing I'd point out. Nick Francis is the music director at KPLU/Jazz24, the jazz radio station/webstream in the Seattle area which partners with NPR Music. Basically, he knows jazz.

Perhaps owing to a career in audio production, he's also (obviously) an amateur electronic musician who does a lot of remixes and such in his home studio. I e-mailed Francis about his inspirations, and he wrote me: "Mocean Worker (aka Adam Dorn); Four Tet; Moldover; DJ Shadow, Fatboy Slim, RJD2, DJ Earworm, Steinski, Girl Talk ... and of course, [Brian] Eno."

Here's another mashup he put together, combining four different versions of "Honeysuckle Rose" (Fats Waller, Pearl Django, Benny Carter and Thelonious Monk, if you must know, with a backbeat from Steely Dan.)

Francis calls the MIDI controller in his lap "the Choppertone," which brings us to a fourth point: He built this thing himself. He explained in an e-mail to me, which I've added links to.

Recently, I was inspired to do a DIY electronics project. I built my own MIDI controller; one which I designed to be able to perform and remix/mashup music on the fly, using a piece of software called LIVE, made by a German company called Ableton.

I finished the project in February and was really proud of the work. I posted the whole build process on the forum at DJ TechTools, a website dedicated to DJs and other EDM [electronic dance music] enthusiasts. I then did a video demonstration of the controller, mashing up a bunch of different versions of Fats Waller's "Honeysuckle Rose." The post got the attention of the website editor, who featured my controller (which I call the "Choppertone"). It got amazing response and the video got some traction, so much so that about a week later I got an email from the Berlin offices of Ableton, who wanted to feature my work on their site.

Out of pretty much nothing, the video is close to 20,000 views on YouTube within about 6 weeks.

Francis later mentioned that he was able to do all this with the help of Livid Instruments in Austin, Texas. Livid makes things like MIDI controllers, and also makes its own "Builder" kit for do-it-yourselfers, complete with how-to videos. "So their influence on this project was crucial," Francis wrote me. "It wouldn't have happened without them."

If there are fifth and sixth things to note, they might be in this blog post from KPLU, which includes an interview with Francis. Or, the photos are worth a thousand words.

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