Futuristic Sounds

Sonar prides itself on being world renowned as an event that brings together the finest in electronic music, media and art. Having just celebrated its sixteenth year and welcoming almost 75,000 visitors through its doors, <strong>Chris Duncan</strong> looks at what makes the event so popular.

Feature by Chris Duncan | 26 Jun 2009
  • Reactable

Sonar is, at its most basic level, a music festival. By day it takes place within the Centre de Cultura Contemporania de Barcelona (CCCB) and the Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA), spread across three stages and this year featuring artists such as Institut Fatima, The Wizard, La Roux, Bass Clef, XXXChange, Goldielocks and Ebony Bones.

Located within a striking bright and open courtyard is the Sonar Village, the busiest of the three stages, people gather to see artists or simply lounge around in the baking heat. But it's almost as though these three stages, with their diverse and memorable line up, are merely a support act for what is happening inside the CCCB and MACBA.

Sonar doesn't only attract music lovers with a bit of spare cash to spend on a Ryanair flight and a hostel, but a huge number of international journalists, music industry workers and the strangely mysterious group known simply as 'Sonar Pros'.

The latter seem to be emerging artists, audiophiles and early adopters of technology who orbit around Espai Demo, an indoor area where companies such as Native Instruments, Ableton, M-Audio and others present their latest products. Years ago Ableton showcased their Live software here, now in 2009 their program has become the industry standard, being used in music creation and live performance.

Another piece of software that has been well received is Traktor Scratch Pro. Developed by Native Instruments, the original Traktor software elevated digital DJing to the level it is at today. It allowed for up to four decks to be created on a computer screen so that DJs could manipulate and mix MP3s as though they were being used on turntables. Whilst the original program was praised for being innovative, many DJs stuck to their turntables, finding the jump from a mixer to a keyboard less than desirable. Native Instruments reacted by designing Traktor Scratch Pro and Scratch Duo, packages which are fast becoming a common sight in clubs across the world. Scratch Duo includes two specially designed records (or CDs, depending on your choice of decks) so that DJs can mix their MP3 libraries exactly as they would if they were using records. Scratch Pro and its rival Serato Scratch Live have been used by Ritchie Hawtin, Grandmaster Flash, DJ Craze and Klever and described as the way forward.

The display of Traktor Scratch Pro's abilities at Sonar draws a big crowd, as it seems many DJs, established or otherwise are considering switching to digital. Worries of response times between the turntables and the laptop are put to rest as DJ Turco mixes a set just as he would with records. Those in attendance who were sitting on the fence, seem to be convinced, but whilst this is clearly a valuable and intelligent piece of software there is an elephant in the room. If people who have stuck with vinyl over the years because they love the format and enjoy DJing with it now have the option of doing so without the expense of buying records or carrying record bags when touring, where does this leave the beloved format? The demise of the record has been written about a lot over the years and it has yet to happen, but with advances like this happening, how long can vinyl exist on love alone?

From industry standards to bold new ideas and niche markets now. Tucked away in a corner, between stall after stall of midi sequencers and USB controllers lies the Vinylrecorder T-560. For the king's ransom of €3200 you too can own a machine that cuts records. Enticing a massive crowd to its small corner, the proud creators place a blank piece of vinyl onto a special turntable with a customised heated diamond stylus. Connected to a the T-560, an MP3 file is played and the machine begins to cut the grooves into the record, allowing for any home music file to be preserved into vinyl. Staggering and far more coveted than anything else on display.

Except, perhaps, for the Reactable. Down in the basement, housing concept piece and artwork lies the machine that became famous after its appearance on Youtube. Bjork used one for her Volta tour and is currently the only artist to own one.

Without getting too lost in the technicalities of the machine, Reactable is a circular, translucent, back lit table that is operated by placing shapes upon its surface. These shapes are called 'tangibles' and operate a virtual modular synthesizer. Words cannot really do it justice, so seek out a video online and marvel at what is easily the most exciting musical instrument of modern times.

With the Reactable and Yuki Suzuki's The Physical Value Of Sound exhibiton (featuring a turntable with five tone arms so that the user can create new mixtures of sounds from a single record) it's no surprise that so many of Sonar's visitors shun the sunlight in exchange for the underground treasure chest of the CCCB.

Full coverage of Sonar by Night can be found on our website, including reviews of Grace Jones, Sebastian, Heartbreak and that performance by Crystal Castles.