Pop: A real head spin

It's got audio tracks you can alter at will. It's got video footage of Horace Andy and rotating blue spheres. It's called `Header' and Russell Bulgin is decidedly confused...
Click to follow
What is Header? Ostensibly, a five-track audio CD with additional music and visuals that can be accessed either through an Apple Macintosh or an IBM-compatible PC.That makes it a CD-Rom, then. Not quite. So should Header be labelled an Enhanced CD, another new format which allows audio and video to coexist cosily between a computer screen and domestic hi- fi?

"An Enhanced CD is exactly what it's not," says Mark Ainley, firmly. Ainley is one of a Soho-based quartet, all short hair and Silk Cut, that has spent the past six months creating a product for which, as yet, there is no media pigeonhole, let alone a definable market niche. "The major record companies are dying for someone to come along and test the market for them," Ainley claims. "But even our distributor is mystified as to exactly how Header can be sold."

Music CD-Roms traditionally mix music with video and a game in an attempt to snare hardcore fans of a particular band with a frisson of faintly dopey interactivity. A CD-Rom, it seems, is also about artistic self-aggrandisement: global unit-shifters like Sting, Sade, Prince and the Rolling Stones each now have a CD-Rom to snare additional shelf-space in crowded record stores.

Brian Eno, in his 1995 diaries, dismisses the CD-Rom as a restrictive, interim technology caught in the slow-to-access limbo between a regular CD and the excesses of the Internet. "Everyone and his auntie wants to make a CD-Rom," Eno reckons, "because they think everyone else is making one."

Header is different, not least because of the music it contains and the rarefied sliver of pop culture it encapsulates. "It wouldn't have happened if we weren't enthusiastic about music," says Ainley. "Every aspect of this CD is musical - a lot of CD-Roms might be about music, but they're not musical." The five audio tracks are the easiest elements of Header to explain. Artists of whom commercial radio has never heard (UNKLE, As One, Red Nail Kidz, Carl Craig) jostle for space with Seventies reggae icon King Tubby. Video clips include an interview with reggae singer Horace Andy, Carl Craig and Mo' Wax record label boss James Lavelle.

Yet what sets Header apart is its - to use an awful word - interface and the control the user is given to shape the sounds. This product comes with no instructions. Non-linear and defiantly, abstrusely beautiful, Header eschews music CD-Rom cliches: no icons mimicking record decks, no anorak questions to answer to bag a virtual backstage pass.

Instead, the screen fills with subtle, elegant images. Nudging the cursor around causes things to happen: on the Carl Craig screen, clicking on spinning blue spheres activates separate audio loops, allowing the user to sample and create fresh tunes. Don't touch the mouse and the computer recompiles Craig's Detroit techno instrumental tracks to make new music - which is never the same twice.

A Guy Called Gerald's sought-after 12in "Finlay's Rainbow" is a homage to King Tubby. Tubby's own element in Header takes the vocal and dub versions of "Great Stone" and allows the two to be merged in infinitely variable proportions - a digital simulation of what he had dreamt of doing in his Kingston studio back in 1976.

Mark Ainley is reticent about discussing the technical breakthroughs that he, Martin and Luke Aberdeen and Luke Pendrell made in writing the code for Header. For example, separate tape machines were used for the original masters of the King Tubby tracks - they ran at slightly different speeds but have been synchronised for Header. Mixing tracks without an inadvertent hop, skip and jump also required a new Windows '95 program extension to be created from scratch.

"We've had to borrow money to finish it," he admits. "The artists we approached got into it and supplied audio and video material for free, which was an enormous help." Header 2 is in the early pre-production stages and should include contributions from Courtney Pine, Photek and Andy Weatherall. So how would Mark Ainley define success for his digital baby? "Success, for us," he says, "is the ability to make a second one."

n `Header' is available at selected record shops or can be ordered direct on 0171-287 4382; e-mail header@tui.co.uk, pounds 15.00