The Journey From Mix-Tapes To Touch Screens – An Interview w/ SmithsonMartin Inc’s Alan Smithson

*written by A’Damaged Pro for Electronica Life
alan-smithson
Music has the power to reach us all in very different ways. It can open our hearts to new ideas. It can permanently forge a bond with a stranger. It can transport you. It can move you. For some, that are seeking an unforeseen opportunity, it can inspire you to find the light on an otherwise dark path. I caught up with Alan Smithson, of SmithsonMartin Inc, to discuss his foray into the Toronto EDM scene, when music took over his life, and the creation of one of the most advanced DJ systems the planet has ever seen.

A’Damaged Pro – Where did you grow up?

Alan Smithson – Born and raised in Toronto – 3rd Generation Canadian.

A’Damaged Pro – What were your earliest musical influences?

Alan Smithson – My first record was Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” I had a “Twisted Sister” record, but my mom broke it and told me it was the devil’s music lol.

A’Damaged Pro – What’s your fondest musical memory from growing up?

Alan Smithson – My favourite memories are dancing and singing with my mom to old Motown records. We still dance around the house to the oldies and now I get to dance and sing with my two daughters, Holly and Abi, who are both DJ’s.

A’Damaged Pro – How did you first get introduced to the electronic scene?

Alan Smithson – My first exposure to the scene was when I was 17. My friends took me to a proper warehouse rave. In retrospect, that night changed my life forever. I still have the mixtape I bought. It was a mix by Kenny Glasgow from “Art Department.” I used to stay up on Friday nights and record Chris Sheppard’s Pirate Radio Sessions on CFNY 102.1 Toronto. Right after that show was “Deadly Headly Jones.” I would then take the recordings and make mixtapes of the tracks I loved the best. My friends were always asking me for these exclusive “Star Productions” mixes.

A’Damaged Pro – How has the scene changed from when you were first introduced?

Alan Smithson – When I started going out, you had the mainstream clubs and then you had special nights that played the underground music. I really tried my best to find those places where I knew the music would be proper house and not whigfield (not that there is anything wrong with that). I remember going to a club called “Industry” in Toronto. Now, it’s a “Shopper’s Drug Mart (I guess not much has changed lol).”

Old school “raves” were awesome…You would get a flyer and the graphics were incredible. You would have parties like “Milk,” “Orbital,” “Revolution,” and “Blackout.” You would have to call a phone number and the message would be awesome music with some mc saying “This Friday, Toronto’s #1 Party Promoters, with the biggest sound system the city has ever seen in an absolutely new venue, with four rooms and twelve DJs” You would show up at a designated location, get on a bus with blacked out windows and end up at some seedy warehouse. Then when you went in, you would be blown away by a thousand of the most amazing people dancing to all sorts of music. Jungle, hard core, house, techno…it was all awesome, but by no means safe.

Now, you buy tickets on Ticketmaster and go to a festival with police and paramedics and water stations to see DJs that get paid 100k per night, on stages that make rock concerts look obsolets. Kids, today, have a much better show, but I think the vibe is totally different. Then again, I’m not 19 anymore so maybe it’s me who’s different.

A’Damaged Pro – When do you decide to take the leap from “listener” to “creator?”

Alan Smithson – I was always making mix tapes and I went to a party once where they had turntables and the only song I can remember from that party was “3am Eternal” by KLF. I Played that and the party went nuts. It was at that moment, I knew that I wanted to be a DJ.

 A’Damaged Pro – What did you notice was lacking from contemporary equipment that inspired the “Emulator?”

Alan Smithson – To be honest, I have always had the absolute newest gear. I had just received the first DJM 2000 Mixer in Canada when I saw the first video of Emulator (http://youtu.be/vaiRLpuwDZ0). My immediate thought was “ I need to have that!!” There is really nothing missing from other gear. It is really amazing what companies like Native Instruments, Ableton, Serato, and Pioneer have done to push DJ technology forward. My heroes are those innovators that have got us to the point we are at today. I think that some of the products that we are introducing now are really going to take what those companies have built and really go to the next level. I can’t wait to show people what we have coming up.

The fact that the audience can see what the DJ is doing with Emulator really makes it a show-piece for entertainers. I think it’s not enough to DJ anymore. You either need to produce musice or have a real stage show. There is no secret that if you want to make it big, you need to make killer songs and make videos that impress people. Take “#SELFIE” and “Turn Down For What.” I don’t think that those songs would be nearly as big as they are without those awesome videos.

Emulator has been featured in a ton of music videos and there is a big artist who will be releasing a video featuring Emulator.

A’Damaged Pro – What has been the most rewarding part of the trial and error process that ultimately led to the Emulator Elite?

Alan Smithson – I think that the most rewarding part of building the “Elite” was when we had the first prototype built and ready. It was the day we had a huge investor pitch with over fifty people in attendance. We, literally, had wet glue when we arrived to the pitch. we had an investment offer before I had finished the presentation.

We have gone through some incredible breakthroughs with Emulator. Our first stand was made from some 2×4 pieces of wood we had in our warehouse nailed together. We dubbed it the “Emulator Stand 3000.” We have come a long way from the 3000.

A’Damaged Pro – What was the most daunting moment in the creative process?

Alan Smithson – The moment we realized that our first prototype of the Elite was made from the wrong material. We made the case/stand out of stippled aluminum in order to make it lightweight and we failed to realize that the flex in the material would result in a completely useless product. We all had a good laugh when I used a cocktail table to keep it sturdy while I did the investment pitch. No one knew it didn’t actually work but our team. We now make the case out of an amazingly strong and lightweight honeycomb aluminum.

A’Damaged Pro – How did you become affiliated with the Electronic Music Alliance (EMA)? What potential did you originally see in the EMA?

Alan Smithson – I first met Janine, from the EMA, at EDM BIZ three years ago. I was struck by the passion and vision of an organization within our industry that wanted to give back. I feel like our industry has been bombarded by DJs, promoters, and club owners making tons of money, but none of them being philanthropic. I think that the EDM world was so poor for so long that everyone is still coming to grips with the amount of money they are making now. Buying a new Ferrari is more important than giving back.

The EMA was an organization that had a plan, a vision, and really expressed a desire to do good on behalf of an entire industry. I hope that I can do more to contribute in the future.

A’Damaged Pro – As you’ve seen the organization grow, how has your view on the EMA’s potential to incite change evolved?

Alan Smithson – I think the EMA has become more organized and really streamlined their efforts into four categories: Green Wave (a way to protect the earth with environmental initiatives, Play it FWD (a community-based charitable movement), Health/Safety, and Advocacy (to help spread the love of our amazing music and culture).

A’Damaged Pro – How different to do you think the world would be if the entire electronic community signed the EMA’s “Party Pledge?”

Alan Smithson – To be honest, from what I have seen, the entire EDM world has already adopted this without formally agreeing to it. I have very rarely seen any douchebags at EDM events and when they do appear, they are quickly singled out and either removed or chilled out by their friends.

I think that is why I love this culture so much. It breeds love and understanding rather than violence and intolerance. Just ask any of the police in Las Vegas what their favourite event of the year is. The resounding answer is Electric Daisy Carnival (EDC).

A’Damaged Pro – What is your take on the potential therapeutic and healing properties of music?

Alan Smithson – Music has been long since known to calm people and relieve stress. I have only met one person in my life who said they didn’t like music and I think that person died a long time ago.

A’Damaged Pro – What are a few charities whose causes you hold in high regard?

Alan Smithson – The “SickKids Foundation” holds a special place in my heart. No children should have to suffer and “Sick Kids” hospitals really do give kids the best possible chance at a great life.

I think that “Doctors Without Borders” does an excellent job at bringing Western Medicine to third world countries.

The “Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation” is one of the world’s most important charitable organizations. They have single-handedly eliminated malaria in most places around the world.

A’Damaged Pro – Please list three global issues that you believe deserve immediate attention and your potential solutions for addressing them.

Alan Smithson – Pollution has to top my list. I have the privilege of living in one of the most incredible countries on earth and daily life is not subject to smog, pollution, and poisoned water supplies. I think that a lot of people in the U.S. and Canada rarely think about what is going on in the rest of the world. Take China for example, they had to shut down factories for three weeks to clear out the smog for the Olympics. We must treat our planet with more respect, which is hard when the wealth distribution in the U.S. has become so out-of-whack with the rest of the world.

I, unfortunately, don’t have any solution for this problem other than to say, do your part as individuals and companies to ensure we do right by Mother Earth. She will provide for us if we are good to her.

A’Damaged Pro’s final words…

Mother Earth. Technology. Humanity. There has to be a way to tie it all together. There has to be a way that it all finds an acceptable balance. Where do we start as a community? It appears that we as individuals hold the key. We must “activate” ourselves to be consciously aware of the impact we can and do have on our environment and on society as a whole. One must learn to crawl before one can walk. You must open your mind to the questions before you can accept the answers. It’s no secret that there has always been merit to the “strength in numbers” concept. We, as individuals wield amazing power. As a localized community the power is even greater. Unifying local communities on a global scale could ultimately translate to an unprecedented level of potential change. Alan’s charming take on his personal experiences and the evolution of the EDM scene reminds us that music is central to our intrinsic growth, as a global community, and the beacon of hope for brighter things to come.

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