I have always loved Madeon’s Pop Culture.
It is a simple idea. Madeon took 39 other songs and… mashed them together. Often taking no more than a soundbite or a snare hit from any one song, and the result is something where you recognize a bunch of elements and yet it sounds unlike any of the originals.
If you haven’t heard it, I will link it here:
Most of the songs Madeon uses are not songs I would care to listen to outside of this mashup. Individually, none of them get regular play for me. But I have watched this YouTube video so, so many times. It is something entirely unique, assembled exclusively of things that already existed. (okay, except the solo, Madeon is riffing there).
And it is no secret that I love sample-based music. Den
Sorte Skole’s Lektion III is one of my top 5 albums of all time. I cannot
listen to the original Megalovania without rather wanting to listen to the
mashup with Justice’s Waters of Nazereth instead.
But I’m not here to talk about existing mashups. I’m here to talk about Fuser.
Because Fuser is a slight piece of magic in the world,
because it allows me to, well…
make... something like Pop Culture for myself.
What Is Fuser?
Fuser is, if you don’t know, a game about being a DJ. It works like this:
You get handed a bunch of songs, split into 4 stems of (typically) the drums, a bass, a melody/harmony, and the vocal/lead. You can take any of these four stems and mix and match with any other stem from any other song in Fuser’s library, and it’ll play them together, live.
So you can take Amy Winehouse, Rihanna, Queen, Daft Punk, Kate Bush, Billie Eilish, and Skrillex and toss them all together in a single song.
Will that sound good? Let's hear it:
I'll let you decide!
In any case, anything you throw together will at at least not sound awful, because the technical magic of Fuser is that it is key-matching, pitch-shifting, and fixing the tempo so the songs you are mixing will at least function harmonically together.
It still might not be great but it should at least sound acceptable. But that is where the magic comes in.
For a while, right when Fuser came out, most of the
talk about it was about this “fun” idea: Take a song you know, mash it together
with another song: Isn’t that crazy?! Just listen to how silly this sounds!
This shouldn’t work but it does!!
…And that is part of the fun of Fuser. And I’ll admit I’ve also described it like that.
But the reason I am still playing it is
not because of that.
That level of fun is very temporary: It is as fleeting as Fuser was for many. It is hilarious for a little bit, and then you have kind of seen it. And without effort, you kind of cannot do more with the game.
So I think we need to re-appraise what Fuser is truly doing, because when it works it is more than just a way to laugh a little at a fun idea.
How I Play Fuser
To understand what I mean, I will delve into how I play Fuser. Because I play Fuser differently than intended. For shareability, Fuser’s online interaction is designed around these 1:30 minute clips of tightly edited, thematic mixes. And that’s all well and good, but it is not the most fun to me. That way of playing Fuser is a lot of constant trial and error until you get the perfect combination of inputs. And while that can be fun I do not find it as fulfilling as just exploring. When I play Fuser, I open up Freeplay, which is just an endless playground without goals or restrictions, open Audacity and set it to record my computer audio, and… jam. For around 30 minutes, typically. And I get a lot of average, middling mixes that don’t work. I get some crap too. But then, I also hit gold. I run through combinations so quick that in 30 minutes there's bound to be something incredible.
This is importantly all recorded live. I don’t stop the recording and try again when I fuck up. I just keep going. Most of the time I go in with very few concrete ideas of what I want to make and so it is mostly a 30-minute live improvisation piece. And so I have ended up with this increasing library of 20-30 minute fuser mixes of various quality that is just an interesting trove to dig into. And I don’t really know what to do with it. But I… occasionally listen to them. I find it fun background music. It's not really my music, as every part of it is other songs, but it is also something unlike anything I can hear anything else, fit exactly to what I want. I find it fun to revisit what worked and what did not. Fuser mixes have a certain sound that I enjoy and not a lot of people are making them how I want them to sound. So, I make ‘em myself.
And they get to this exact quality I like about mashups and
mixes. Most of the songs in Fuser I would not listen to on their own. But in Fuser, I get to pick and choose the exact right parts of those
songs that I do like and make them work for me. I can make the songs into something that I want.
I can turn any vocal into an instrument at my whim, because when you do not listen to the full song, the meaning of lyrics become entirely different. I can mess with them, turn them upside down, loop them, put a stutter on them, flip between different lyrics and have them interplay on each other. And that is the most powerful thing.
I also truly enjoy pacing and structure and transitions. I love the details of songs. The specifics of a drum-fill. The little sample added in in the chorus. And believe me, when you nail a good transition in Fuser, where you get the build-up just right and introduce a new drum just in time, as the vocal just rises perfectly… there’s nothing quite like it. When you swap in 2 new elements and it feels like that's where the song was always meant to go. Brilliant. When you find the perfect loop and layer it up further and further... It is just phenomenal. When you nail the exact fill, when you slot in a little vocal chop and it just hits???
My favourite part of Madeon’s Pop Culture is not the solo or
the songs. It’s the details. The stop at 0:35. The vocal sample just before the
solo at 2:23.
Fuser is magic to me because it allows me to create a tapestry of those same kinds of details. It is a playground wherein I get to toy around with as many of those details as I want.
I think I, as a person, perhaps am much more interested in the details that make up songs than the songs themselves. Fuser is not a game about making music. It is a game of details, that you can pull apart, reassemble, create new bricolages, cut it all up and tape it back together. But it is also not a game about destroying music, the way it is so easy to assume if you only go the one layer of “haha funny Smash Mouth and Linkin Park memes”.
It is about taking parts of music and repurposing them with other parts. It is about creating new out of the old, about hearing the details in the clutter. It is about experimentation and failure. It is about listening to a specific drum loop and thinking how well it would work on top of a vocal from a completely different genre. It is about trying that out and rolling with the surprises. It is about thinking what parts of music do, what purpose they serve, and how you can support it with other elements to achieve a new effect. “Oh, this kind of bass works great for a powerful drop because it drops down and adds body right there. And then this vocal aligns with it because it goes high just in that beat.”
After you have played with the songs in Fuser for a while,
you get to this fairly intimate knowledge of each sample. You know exactly when
the “ooWA-AH-AH-AH” from Down with the Sickness hits. And you know exactly how
to fit it in with Eye of the Tiger.
The magic doesn’t come from the fact that you “can” do that.
The magic comes in when you do it just right.
The "End" of Fuser? Custom Songs!
Fuser, unfortunately, is in a weird state right now. Harmonix, the developer, has had to give up on it.
It just did not sell well enough. It was just not as obvious a sell as
Guitar Hero/Rock Band was before
it. It is more a tool, a playground that requries more skill investment
than Guitar Hero. It also cannot easily be played in groups other than
passing the turn. It is easy to make something alright in Fuser, but
that quickly wears out its welcome, as mentioned, and so only a dedicated few has stuck with it (And I have seen people who are good at this game and it is a different level---some of them are professional DJs, too, which helps). And so it did not pan out, except for with a very small and
dedicated community. And for a while, it seemed like the game would die a slow death. But the community, as it does, wanted otherwise.
Earlier this year, the community have found out how to import new songs and stems into the game. And now the community is creating and importing a ton of new songs every month, as community members are doing a wonderful job to make or reconfigure stems from existing songs so they can be added into Fuser. Most of the songs I played in the example above where imported by the community. And it is beautiful (and of dubious legality, but hey, who’s asking).
The custom songs has breathed new life into the game for me. Suddenly, there is a new influx of songs every month to try out, and every new song adds combinations with the previous, expanding the possible soundscapes exponentially. Ever since I discovered it a few months ago I've been digging into the game regularly and loving it all over again.
Like all modding, the custom songs vary more in quality. Sometimes they don't pitch-shift correctly so voices become chipmunks, or you can hear the drums in the bass track, etc. But a surprising amount of them feel up to par with the quality that is in the regular game, and it is just spectacular how much new variety this has added.
The Fuser community is still tiny, and most people have abandoned it. But for those of us still there (even though I am mostly just a consumer of what the community produces), it is a little piece of magic in a game that otherwise would have suffered a sad fate. Now, for the first time since launch, the future for Fuser looks exciting, even if it stays so for just a tiny number of people. I am one of them, and I am happy to be here.
Let's Hear Some Music
So I'll end with some music, as is appropriate. If you know me, you may have seen me share some of these around. But some of them I have also never shared.
The DJ Made Us Ironic and Numb (March 17th, 2021)
This was my first "perfect mix", where I managed a full 10 minutes of mistake-free mixing that all just flowed incredibly. If you only listen to one thing, listen to this.
Yet, the first couple minutes are not as good as it gets, so you can skip forwards (around 3:00 is where it gets solid). It also has one of my absolute favoouurite drops and uses of stutter I've ever done. (around 5:24, the hanging vocals that turn into a beat, just... stellar).
Stronger Than the Eye of Monody (September 21st, 2022)
A much later one, using custom songs. Almost 26 minutes of mistake-free mixing, and a lotta fun stuff in there. It mixes Stronger (Daft Punk) with Stronger (Kanye West) with Stronger (Kelly Clarkson), which was an idea I had to try haha (and Kanye samples Daft Punk too, which makes it even more confusing).
This might be my best mix, and also the most recent. Waters of Nazareth was added to the custom song pool so I was able to recreate my favourite mashup (Waters of Megalovania, recreated around min 7:30 onwards). Also it is Halloween themed so expect Spooky Scary Skeletons (and other creatures of the night), but every minute of this is a banger.
I Wanna Dance With A Bad Guy And Not Go To Rehab (January 6th, 2021)
An oldie, all the way back from January 2021. It is a bit shakier than the others because of this but it was the first mix I was proud enough of to upload and share. I can definitely tell a lot of the seedlings to techniques I later got much better at. And it was also where I discovered the fun of putting 80s song lyrics on top of modern dance music.