Alain Macklovitch, better known as A-Trak, is a leader in mainstream DJ culture, an electronic music pioneer whose career spans 20 years so far. A-Trak is a powerful force behind the rising electronic music renaissance which, in the last decade, has landed him on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 50 most important people in EDM. The groundbreaking record selector was born and raised in Montréal, but now resides in L.A. He’s half of Grammy-nominated DJ duo Duck Sauce, and co-founder of the electronic/hip-hop label Fool’s Gold Records, whose roster of artists include Chromeo, Kid Cudi, and Run the Jewels, among many others. The champion turntablist and producer’s big break came as Kanye West’s tour DJ in 2004. Since then A-Trak has gone on to produce and remix tracks for Kid Cudi, Kimbra, and Jamie Lidell, among many others. After wrapping up an Australian tour in late 2016, A-Trak released his first-ever greatest hits album, In The Loop: A Decade of Remixes, which marked his life’s work as EDM’s most notable and charged electronic music-making machine. We caught up with A-Trak in early 2017, and talked with him about his evolving career and influence on worldwide electronic dance music culture.

Do you remember the first full-length album that you remixed?
Yeah, I do. It was for [Australian pop band] Architecture in Helsinki. Actually, I did one remix before that one, that I wasn’t able to fit on the compilation because of sample questions. I did some remix work for Bonde do Rolê, a Brazilian group on the Mad Decent label. I did the remix for them, then sampled… pretty heavily. So that one was never really “papered.”

Why didn’t it make the list?
Stylistically, that remix was more connected to my earlier style of production, where I would be doing purely turntable, and it was all very sample-based. When I started producing on the laptop, with more of a fusion of electronic sounds mixed with other kinds of sounds, I came to realize that “I’m a DJ,” and the music I’m playing in a set had been changing…

People from bands, and other DJs and producers, were [then] connecting around the world via MySpace. Remixing was a way to connect with people making cool music… When I got an e-mail from Architecture in Helsinki, I was familiar with them already, because I was playing one of their other remixes in my sets… I was just looking for ways to try to extend [my work] to production more, you know? I had ideas on what I wanted to do with tracks, but I certainly didn’t feel like I was comfortable enough in the production exercise to make full songs by myself yet.

At the time, I was very established as a DJ for 10 years, a World Champion, Kanye’s tour DJ, all this stuff.  But… as a producer, I saw myself as a novice. I had ideas and a certain understanding of how production was done. I had watched my [older] brother [David Macklovitch] produce for years, even before Chromeo, when he was just making hip-hop beats in Montréal. I knew the basics of producing and how certain things are done, but when it came down to just knocking out a track, I felt that doing remixes were an ideal way for me to just try stuff out.

The first one came from an e-mail. Most of them came from direct contact. Nowadays… there’s an infrastructure, right?… It’s an industry, a huge industry. So, things go through managers and, you know, sometimes label reps, and lawyers, and all this stuff… In those days it was like, “Hey my friend gave me your e-mail. Can I send you a download to the file? See what you can do with it.”

You started as a turntablist, with mostly a hip-hop kind of influence, and now here you are 10 years later celebrating remixes. Looking at you now, compared to 20 years ago, it’s a little bit different, right?
It happened progressively… Music evolves. I’d say around mid-2005 or so, I liked new music… I started discovering versions of electronic music that appealed to me, that appealed to my hip-hop ear. Prior to that I wasn’t that interested in electronic music, because a lot of it just felt too cold for me, but a fusion happened around that time where indie bands started making electronic music. And then this sound of like electro that had riffs, musical riffs, and distortion, and things like that. It was breaking rules between genres, and when I heard that, it was exciting to me.

Music evolves, and so did I as a DJ. I’m always gravitating toward new sounds that I find interesting, that catch my ear.

What advice would you give to a producer or DJ just starting out?
My favourite thing to tell people who are just getting started is to think about what it is that makes you, you. It’s important to identify what your sound is, and to focus on that as you do your work. There’s a gazillion mixers, and producers, and stuff out there. You almost need to give people a reason to come to you, and sometimes the pure quality is what gets them interested. If someone is just great, then they’re great. People will come, but, in a lot of cases, I think it’s important to be aware of your own identity and sound as you’re developing it. That becomes something that you can nurture and, inevitably, the result of that will be something that stands out. Standing out is probably the most important thing nowadays.

So, I started… on some tracks that were more electronic, but that I felt I could fit into my new set somehow. And I remember at first I felt like I needed to literally connect them to the hip-hop in my set, so I started making mash-ups, which were a big thing… [I’d] put a rap vocal over an electronic track to make it fit into my set better. And when I had enough of those, and accumulated a certain amount, I made a mix tape out of them called Dirty South Dance that came out in 2006, with the help of the clothing brand OBEY…

Two months later, I started the Fool’s Gold label, and I was producing Kid Sister. We signed Kid Cudi and got some remixes for him, and the fusion of electronic music and hip-hop was just beginning before us. And this time I no longer felt the need to put rap vocals over everything I was playing, and I started having sets that included more and more house music, and electro, and this and that… Then I started Duck Sauce with Armand Van Helden, which makes a very sample-based version of house, in some ways…

And I remember when I started implementing more and more electronic selections in my sets. I was taking a bit of a leap, in that some of my prior peers – the people who were doing DJ battles and stuff alongside me – weren’t really jumping for that sound yet. And I remember I was playing to a new kind of audience, and there was a bit of a separation happening, but I was reassured two years later when a lot of those DJs, who used to only play hip-hop, followed suit and started mixing genres in their sets, too…  It’s just that music evolves, and so did I as a DJ. I’m always gravitating toward new sounds that I find interesting, that catch my ear, and then I figure out how to put them in context with everything else that I do musically.

Music creators often refer to a melody, or a lyric, or a certain sound, as starting point for creating a song. From a DJ or producer perspective, how do you create new music? Where does it start for you?
If I’m sitting down in the studio we’re at the starting point to create a track… I don’t have a method… I think if I was predominantly or only a producer, and making beats every day, I’m sure I would have a method that would emerge naturally. But I’m jumping around between DJ-ing, touring, running Fool’s Gold, working on artwork collaborations, and producing and remixing. So because it’s one of many things I do, I always kind of have one foot in it, one foot out. And what I like about that is that every time I make a track, I try something new, and I think you can hear that on the compilation; each track had an idea, each one was like: “This is the one where I’m going to try X, Y, Z…”

With production, I like the idea of not fully knowing where I’m going with it, because I think that happy accidents are behind some of the most graphic songs of all time, and I like that. So as far as “how do I start” a track, it varies. I always have something in my head, and sometimes it could be a remix where I’ve isolated the part I want to use, or it can be an idea for a drum part. Sometimes it’s literally just about finding a sound… It really, really, varies.

Does it change at all when you’re producing a remix?
I’m always very conscious of the idea that the original version of a track achieved one thing, and my remix is supposed to take it to a different place. So, I’ll take into consideration the production style and even the tempo of the song. A lot of my remixes are kind of house[-music] tempo, but if someone asks me to remix their house song, then chances are I’m not going to want to keep it at that tempo. I’m going to think of how I could take this tempo and take it somewhere else. Or if I keep it in tempo, then what am I going to change about the production style to really change the identity of it? So, a lot of times I’ll start by thinking of what the intention is… Once I have the intention, then… I’ll use a few of the parts that I want to, and build it from there… If you’re grabbing something from a song that exists, and is done, and enough people liked it, you’ve got a starting point that you can trust. Part of the biggest challenges for us, I think, is that trusting moment, where you decide to dive in; where you think, “Okay, this starting point is good enough for me to build on top of it.” So, it helps you conquer that first step.

As a remixer and producer, do you find that you have a lot of creative freedom?
It’s great that there’s an element of trust that comes with remixing that’s really cool, it’s kind of sacred. It’s another artist or their label, someone reaching out to you and saying, “I trust that you would do with these parts, just do your thing with it.” And then it’s exciting.

The digital revolution has brought pain and promise to the music industry. Now, artificial intelligence (AI) looms on the technological horizon as the next great disruptor.

Machines that write songs? Software that scores music for film and corporate videos? They’re not some distant sci-fi novelty, they’re already here, assisting human composers – but also threatening to replace some of the work previously done exclusively by humans.

Last year, researchers at Sony Computer Science Laboratories released a song in the style of the Beatles, called “Daddy’s Car,” created by the AI application Flow Machines (a research project funded by the European Research Council, and co-ordinated by Sony CSL Paris).

French startup Aiva (Artificial Intelligence Virtual Artist) is an AI composing app rooted in classical music and aimed at the synch market.

According to Aiva’s creators, “We have taught a deep neural network to understand the art of music composition by reading through a large database of classical partitions written by the most famous composers (Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, etc.). Aiva is capable of capturing concepts of music theory just by doing this acquisition of existing musical works.”

Aiva’s first album, Genesis, is available on Soundcloud. And this year Aiva became the first composing app to do a deal with a performing rights organization; all music composed by Aiva is automatically registered with SACEM.

And while smaller AI music startups are sprouting like dandelions in spring – witness some of the ingenious applications on show at the Techstars Music Accelerator in Los Angeles – Google, Microsoft, IBM, Apple, and Amazon, are all investing heavily to stay at the forefront of the AI revolution.

Last year, Google launched Magenta, a research project aimed at pushing the limits of what AI can do in the arts. This is done using artificial neural networks – computer systems inspired by the neural networks of the human brain.

“The deep-learning revolution comes courtesy of the computer-game industry,” writes Larry Hardesty, in MIT News. “The complex imagery and rapid pace of today’s video games require hardware that can keep up, and the result has been the graphics processing unit (GPU), which packs thousands of relatively simple processing cores on a single chip. It didn’t take long for researchers to realize that the architecture of a GPU is remarkably like that of a neural net.”

Arne Eigenfeldt sees AI as a creativity booster, rather than a replacement for human creation.

IBM is exploring a range of music-related AI applications, including Watson Beat. Explains IBM researcher Kelly Shi, “Watson Beat composes music by ‘listening’ to at least 20 seconds of music, and then creates new tracks of melodies, ambient sounds, and beats based on what it learned from the original sample – whether the user wrote it, or is using other samples and songs.”

Jeff King, SOCAN

Jeff King, COO of SOCAN

SOCAN is working with IBM Watson and Canada’s leading AI labs to utilize the technology on behalf of songwriters and music publishers. “SOCAN is very committed to artificial intelligence,” says SOCAN Chief Operating Officer Jeff King. “We want to be a global leader in this area.”

King says AI is particularly useful in music identification. “Watson can look at 700,000 web pages per second,” he explains. “We’ve applied the power of Watson to YouTube and user-generated content. Initially we focused on lyrics: Watson would learn a song then go looking for matches. We had good success. Then we went looking at the music, melodic patterns and so forth, and Watson did reasonably well. But when you combine the two functions, examining [both] lyrics and melody, then the probabilities were much higher. So we’re seeing AI as a really interesting opportunity to license and monetize cover versions in a smart, non-manual way. Using AI like this could really transform the industry.”

King adds that AI has other positive applications for SOCAN. “We can use the processing power and learned logic to identify when someone is starting to break out,” explains King. “For instance, in our Watson experiment, we discovered that when an artist is mentioned on social media outside their postal code, they’re likely on the verge of doing something. We’re using things like that to help our recruitment activities, to identify people who should be part of the SOCAN universe.”

Vancouver-based composer and Simon Fraser University professor Arne Eigenfeldt, is dedicated to exploring metacreation (imbuing computers with creative behavior); Eigenfeldt is an expert on the subject of musebots, which are virtual musical agents that make music together.

Says Eigenfeldt, “Most of my music in the last 10 years has used AI in some capacity, and I’m definitely part of the worldwide computational creativity, as well as the musical metacreation, community. Both are concerned with automating the creative process through computation, i.e., ‘using AI to make art.’ Or ‘artificial creativity.’ Or ‘machine creativity.’”

Arne Eigenfeldt, Simon Fraser University

Simon Fraser University professor Arne Eigenfeldt

Eigenfeldt sees AI as a creativity booster, rather than a replacement for human creation.

“Computers are tools for artists, and allow us to do things much more easily than before,” he said in an e-mail. “More powerful software on these computers will allow us to accomplish things in much shorter time, but also in new ways. Prior to my exploration of AI in music-making, I felt I was in a creative rut, relying upon the same ways of working that I had for years. Now, my software is a creative partner that allows me to think about musical creation in ways I never would have imagined.”

There’s no question that AI will have a profound impact on the landscape of music creation. But AI is also being used to discover and recommend new music, an important influence in a streaming world with millions of songs to choose from.

Earlier this year, Spotify acquired AI music startup Niland in a bid to improve music discovery and its music recommendation back-end. Leading music data identification company Gracenote has also invested in AI in an effort to better classify mood and emotion in songs.

And AI’s application may help to usher in a new era of data analysis resulting in improved royalty tracking and payment for all music rights owners. It could revolutionize the way we monitor billions of small transactions and data exchanges in the digital world.

As promising as these developments are, AI is merely the tip of the technological iceberg portending further upheaval and creative gains in the years ahead. Says Eigenfeldt, “Our notions of creativity may evolve because of these new tools, but if we evolve as well, so will our art.”

People who didn’t watch the talent contest La Voix [the Québec-base franchise of U.S. nationally televised singing contest The Voice] in 2016 have probably never heard of Ryan Kennedy. They haven’t heard his stripped-down versions of Bruce Springsteen’s I’m on Fire, Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Cars” or Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone.” But most of all, what they haven’t heard is his soft, reassuring voice, one that weaves its way down to the bottom of our hearts.

Ryan Kennedy“I learned to sing louder than the crowd in bars so that they would hear me, it’s part of my journey”, says Kennedy. At 30, he’s just launched his second album, Love is Gold. His first album, the Neil Young-esque Home Fires was released in 2015. Both were self-produced.

Love is Gold was recorded by guitarist Dimitri Lebel-Alexandre with invaluable help from keyboard wizard François Lafontaine (Karkwa, Galaxie, Marie-Pierre Arthur, etc.), who handled arrangements and orchestrations. “I was very fortunate to work with him, he definitely left his mark on the album,” says Kennedy. Marc Hébert, Patrice Michaud’s bass player, also collaborated on the album.

“I played Father John Misty, The Nationals, Bon Iver and Beck to Dimitri so he’d get an idea of where I wanted to go,” says Kennedy. “And the record reflects that; guitars are neglected a little for the benefit of atmosphere, and keyboards that we can hear better. The overall musical colour that was our guiding light, our inspiration.”

When one Googles Ryan Kennedy, another one comes up first – a Christian rock artist. Ironically, religion has also played a major role in this Ryan Kennedy’s life, having been a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses until he was 21, when he left the group. “They’re a sect that made me live full speed ahead, but I left and I can now enjoy life much, much more,” he says. “I want to turn the negativity into positivity. I don’t like to talk about it, but let’s just say there was only one line of conduct. When I decided to go into music, I was told I couldn’t, so I left. And when you leave, you lose your family and your friends.”

“I’m one of those artists who write songs in parallel to therapy; my songs are entirely autobiographical.”

He no longer had any contact with his loved ones; that was the price he had to pay for a better life in pursuit of his dreams and aspirations. Music was his redemption. One almost hears the REM song “Losing My Religion.” “I’m one of those artists who write songs in parallel to therapy,” says Kennedy. “My songs are entirely autobiographical.

“When I was writing the song ‘Sanctuary,’ I was thinking of my little corner of the world, the place I can go, in the mountains, and be at peace with my past, to avoid allowing all that to re-surface,” he says. “Morin-Heights,” adapted in French by Benoit Pinette, aka Tire le Coyote, is one of the two Francophone songs on Love is Gold, alongside “Je cours toujours.” (“I’m Always Running”)

It goes:
L’histoire se termine là où elle commence
Dans les cendres blanches du silence
Et les plus beaux lendemains
N’y changeront rien

[The story ends where it began
In the white ashes of silence
And brighter tomorrows
Will change nothing]

Just as on “Whiskey Bar,” – a song about alcohol, and learning to cope with vice – “Love is Gold” is about being away on a never-ending tour, and the joy of coming home. “That’s pretty much my inspiration,” says Kennedy. “Ultimately, love is the theme that recurs the most, even when it has a bitter taste, like on ‘When You’re Sleeping.’ When a relationship ends, there’s always some apprehension that the other person will meet someone else and re-build their lives. That’s basically what I’m saying: I don’t care to know where you’re sleeping.” That’s a reference to his first wife, Tracy.

“‘Borderline’ says a lot about my condition and what goes on in the mind of the people who suffer from that disorder,” he says. [Borderline personality disorder, or BPD, is a complex psychiatric disorder with extremely varied symptoms.] “I am indeed very intense. The goal is to find a balance. On this record, I really laid my soul bare. It did me good.”