Icarus > Fake Fish Distribution – An Album in 1,000 Variations

Icarus (Ollie Bown and Sam Britton) have been making electronic music together since 1997. Although starting out producing studio albums, the band has become increasingly involved in live improvised laptop performance and their recent recorded output has been predominantly based on live work.

In an attempt to return to studio production but also to draw upon the live and generative aspect of their work, Icarus set themselves the goal of making an album that was different every time you bought it. Some other factors conspired to make this an appealing idea:

–> Discretion; was the reason nobody ever managed to make a successful generative album because they were trying to make infinite variation when in fact finite, managed variation would do a better job?

–> Fragmentation; the changing face of the music industry means people now buy bits (if they buy anything at all), the bits have no uniqueness and are infinitely costlessly reproducible. By selling a unique variation could it also be possible to sell the unique rights to something (the recording rights). Does this make for something special?

–> Multiplicity; when an album finds its way onto bit-torrent sites, how engaging would it be if there were still unique variations of that album that remained off the radar?

–> Innovation; the tools now exist to allow scriptable control of studio production software, so why not try it?

The goal of making 1,000 variations was settled upon: more than any sane person would care to listen to, but not so many that the rendering time, the size of the resulting data, and vastness of the output would be unmanageable. The aim of the project was to create tracks, each of which existed in one of 1,000 variations, where each variation was a known, managed entity.

The project came to STEIM’s Studio 2 for 3 weeks of intensive R&D following an application by Ollie and Sam late last year. This was Icarus’ first project at STEIM and although Icarus’ approach to performance and music production is in many ways an un-STEIM way of doing things, there was no lack of stimulating interaction and exchange with STEIM personnel and fellow residents.

Icarus’ project exploited the creative possibilities of Max For Live (M4L), the new interface between Ableton’s Live digital production and performance software, and MaxMSP, Cycling ’74′s do-it-yourself algorithmic music software. The band benefitted from STEIM’s close contact with the M4L team and their hosted M4L user-group meetings. The bulk of the software was developed at STEIM using M4L and some example music was made, although the real composition is the band’s job back at home in London throughout March.


The rig: no hardware controllers, but lots of computers rendering different versions of albums.


Editing breakpoint functions, which are used to manipulate audio data and then interpolated to achieve variations. The master dial (indicated by birdie) which controls which of the 1,000 variations is being played at any point in time. This is integrated into Live as a master controller.


A Schroeder quadratic residue diffuser, which is part of the acoustic treatment in STEIM’s studio 2, also provided some inspiration for us for number sequences that would have interesting generative and variable properties.


A number of variations from a test run. Same same but different.

Icarus gratefully acknowledges the support of the PRS For Music Foundation.

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