Producer Alex Noyer On Making Music Doc “808”
Bright graphics help tell the story of the 808 drum machine in Alex Noyer’s documentary, “808”
By: Marjorie Galas
Producer Alex Noyer has always loved beats. A music fan since childhood, he most attracted to styles with strong backbones; from house music to salsa to hip-hop. The co-founder of the UK company You Know, an “innovative creative solutions agency with a focus on film and video” he created with Alexander Dunne, spent the early part of his professional career creating digital marketing content for companies including L’Oreal, Durex and Jagermeister. Noyer also oversaw the You Know UK digital branch called ActiveArk, which he expanded to Finland in 2007. With the business booming, he wanted to flex his creative muscles and embarked on a documentary film career.
It was after completing his first feature-length film, “New York Influence City”, that Noyer met music producer Arthur Baker. The two men discussed Noyer’s short docs that focused on artists and his prospects for a future music-related documentary. After Noyer discussed tracks that inspired him, Baker informed him they all had something in common. They all used a drum machine called the 808: a discontinued item that was hard to come by.
“I knew there was something there,” said Noyer. “I spoke to Alexander Dunne about working on a documentary around this machine, and his eyes lit up.”
Thus began the three-year odyssey creating “808”, a documentary that tracks the rise and discontinued creation of the 808 Roland TR 808. The rectangular black box dotted with levers and knobs was a drum machine that’s popularity emerged with electro, hip-hop and synthpop artist. The influence of the 808 eventually spread through techno, R&B and pop music. Artist ranging from Public Enemy, Marvin Gaye and Fatboy Slim have all had hits fueled by the sounds of the 808.
To get the documentary off the ground, Noyer and Dunne compiled a track list dating back to the origins of the 808. They wanted to include the instrument’s birth without overwhelming the viewer. They focused on an international reach, from LA, Brussels, Finland, Japan to New York, as they whittled down musical highlights.
“We began in Miami. As we were going through interviews, it confirmed our idea. We didn’t want it to be encyclopedic; we couldn’t pretend to get all points of its background,” said Noyer. “We wanted to have a sense of its traveling around the world. We tried to be wholesome in that approach.”
With a diversity of recordings represented in the documentary, securing rights was a daunting task for the producer. There were many times Noyer felt the movie might flounder due to complicated legal aspects behind the business. Fortunately Arthur Baker lent invaluable assistance with this task. Towards the production’s completion, Atlantic Records joined as a partner, further aiding in clearances. As the interviewing process continued, Noyer discovered many members of the music industry, from producers to musicians, were happy to lend a voice and a contribution to the chronicling of the 808’s origins.
Through the course of the three-year, multi-continent interview period, Noyer insisted on being present. The film had a small, indie budget, and Noyer felt a responsibility to be present as the story took shape. He became a full member of the team, assisting with role necessary.
“It allowed for the production to be centrally managed,” said Noyer. “I could assist with setting up locations, setting up hotels, transportation, all the tasks. I was also a music fan, and this gave me the opportunity to meet all these luncheons as well.”
Interviews with artists and producers including New Order, Rick Rubin, QuestLove, Pharrell Williams, Jellybean Benitz, Phil Collins and Jimmy Jam are included amongst many others in the final cut. Each segment in the film is tied together by a strong, futuristic graphic that was inspired by the 808’s design.
“Most drum machines are grey with black buttons, but the 808 has an interesting design that makes you wan to use it,” said Noyer. “We explored a creative identity through design. We know some younger viewers may not be familiar with all that’s discussed, so this will help with the intrique.”
Noyer and Dunne asked British icon Zane Low to record the narration. A member of BBC press, Lane had covered the music industry for years and interviewed many of the great musicians featured in the 808 documentary.
The film had a successful premiere at the South By Southwest Film Festival, and aspects of distribution are currently being finalized. Noyer looks forward to sharing the film with colleges and universities that have been reaching out, anxious to add the film to their music history curriculum.
Looking back over the experience of making “808”, Noyer is appreciative to have enjoyed discussing the 808 with so many musicians he respects. He found them to be down to earth, genuine and extremely enthusiastic. He has begun contemplating a stand-alone companion piece that would chronicle his personal 808, a 35 year-old machine – as he travels to Japan and seeks technical services on the discontinued equipment.
“I keep it in an old army box while traveling,” said Noyer. “They always make me open it up and they seem so confused when they see the 808.”
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