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A day with deadmau5: LEDs, Super Mario, and techno

A day with deadmau5: LEDs, Super Mario, and techno
Jacob Schulman
Jacob Schulman|March 29, 2011 1:30 PM
Deadmau5 (also known as Joel Zimmerman) is one of the largest names in the electronic and house music scene -- and he also happens to be a major tech head. Recently, the Canadian producer added some impressive new gear to his productions, in the form of a massive LED-covered cube and signature mau5head (that's pronounced "mouse-head" in case you couldn't guess). Read along after the break for an exclusive look at exactly what's going on inside the mind of deadmau5 -- both literally and figuratively.

The first thing we asked Joel was what came first: the tech or the music? He told us that they both kind of came together, but that he was first a techie. He started producing chiptune tracks at age fifteen (which happens to be a genre quite familiar to a certain unnamed podcast), and served as the technical person at a dance radio station in Canada in his late teens. Thus, it makes sense that his productions are technologically advanced, and that's most certainly the case of the most recent edition. The main setup consists of the LED cube and helmet, which are both linked together on one main server via Ethernet.


The larger piece of kit in the production is the huge cube that also serves as a platform and DJ booth. The cube has 36 tiles, and amounts to over 2800 individual F11 LEDs in all. It has a 1600 x 1200 native resolution, and can display virtually any color imaginable. Continuing with the techie theme, the opening motion-graphics sequence is an old-school simulation of Super Mario, albeit with a deadmau5 character trying to beat Mario to the castle. It's entertaining, and mirrors Joel's own affinity for gaming. He also hosts a personal Minecraft server called -- what else -- Mau5ville that he allows fans to join.


The other half of the luminous pair takes the form of the artist's trademark logo: his head. There are actually two different versions -- one completely covered with LEDs, and another simpler one with neon-lined edges. We got to check out the neon one, which weighs in at over eleven pounds. Though both are essentially the same, the LED model weighs almost three times as much. On both, there's a camera up front that shows a view of what's going on outside, since the entire helmet is completely solid and there aren't any eye holes. There's a set of color video goggles on the inside that displays whatever the camera sees, so all interaction with knobs and sliders has to be dealt with in a different perspective. Essentially, he appears to be looking straight outward, but sees what's going on below him. There are also eight fans around back to keep cool while spinning tracks. (The LED one has six on the rear and two in the neck area to stimulate air-circulation.) We were also told the LED helmet sports over 1,000 individual diodes alone. We tried multiple times to get our paws on the LED head, but it wasn't at the venue during sound check and had to be shipped back to Toronto immediately following his set.


The central server outputs signals to another box loaded up with Pixel Mad, a piece of software designed for digital signage. Pixel Mad controls all the LEDs for a given track -- and there's a hefty number of those to keep track of. Data then flows through a router that further breaks the content into separate windows for each tile. We were told that each track has around 15-16 levels of video for motion graphics, so there's a huge amount of data continuously moving from the booth to the stage. The system is controlled by one man in the front of house responsible for linking the graphics to whatever track is currently playing. Interestingly, the entire production was designed by Martin Phillips, who is also responsible for creating the visuals and effects in many a Daft Punk production.

Beyond the current gear in use, we asked Joel about his thoughts on other trends in tech and the music world. First off, Joel is a BlackBerry user, and he cites the physical keyboard as the main reason for sticking with it. He told us that he's interested in other devices, but that the tactile feedback is irreplaceable. One other device he can't live without is an external USB charger to keep his phone charged up all the time. "I can't have my phone dying on me" he explained. We asked about current touchscreen producing and mixing products, and while he believes certain parts of the experience could benefit from the addition, most of it would detract from the performing experience. He likened performing with that to be "more hunched over like checking an email... you have to pay attention to it and only it."

Joel also let us know that he's involved with a new app based on the TouchOSC open sound controller app, and that he won't stop using gadgets in his performances any time soon. Beyond the music, his gear makes up another sizable portion of the deadmau5 experience and the helmet has become a major symbol in electronic music culture. Obviously, we're looking forward to version 2.0 and to whatever other tricks the mau5 has in store.

And no, you can't buy the helmet.