In the Box: Deadmau5 Brings Do-It-Yourself EDM to Red Rocks

Joel Zimmerman, aka Deadmau5.
Joel Zimmerman, aka Deadmau5. Leah Sems

Joel Zimmerman, better known as the mouse-headed EDM sensation Deadmau5, is an ever-evolving perfectionist.

The Canadian producer hustles nonstop to improve on his past work, from his impressive catalogue of music to his world-famous set designs. His latest and greatest upgrades will be on display this Friday and Saturday at Red Rocks, for a two-night show appropriately titled Day of the Deadmau5, as part of his national Cubev3 tour.

In the spirit of constant reinvention, Deadmau5's latest record, here's the drop!, comprises remixes of material from his 2018 orchestral album where's the drop?. Released on October 4, here's the drop! includes reworked versions of the orchestral covers of Deadmau5 classics from where's the drop?. Basically, this newest album is a reinterpretation of a reinterpretation of Deadmau5's work, done by artists signed to his Mau5trap label.

"As far as completing a piece of music goes on my end, it's never really finished," he explains. "Before it goes out to the world, I do take a minute to maybe listen and think, 'Could I have done this differently? Could I have done this better? Could I have just done a completely different take on it?' But then hearing other people remix, it gives you a window into how it could've been different. So it's a pretty cool thing."

Concert-goers seeing Deadmau5 this weekend shouldn't expect to hear too much material off of here's the drop!, as the Grammy-nominated DJ prefers to stick to his originals during his live sets.

"Honestly, I think I only really dabble a little bit in it on tour, just because of the format," he says. "But because I have this massive catalogue of my own music, I mostly stick to that before I go to the remixes. That's not to say I don't play them, but I very lightly sprinkle them into the show."

The current Cubev3 tour is not so much to promote Deadmau5's latest album as it is to show off his other recent masterpiece, Cubev3. Deadmau5's signature set piece — a massive cube covered in projections — has been a defining part of his live performances since he debuted the original version at Coachella in 2010. He introduced the followup, Cube 2.1, for his "lots of shows in a row" tour in 2017. Now he's touring with his most complex technological feat yet, Cubev3, which was revealed at Ultra Music Festival in Miami this past March.

"After we built 2.1, it was kind of the same thing as far as finishing a piece of music and thinking, well I can go about this better," Deadmau5 says. "The massive differences are obviously the mechanics that rotate and can tilt and can do all this cool showboaty stuff. But I think the real difference was the content delivery system. The whole system actually works in real time, so that means we can make on-the-fly changes or really fast changes to any kind of visual element on the screen. That can all be adjusted as it goes, and that's not something that can be easily done with pre-rendered video."

Cubev3 made its dazzling debut at Ultra Music Festival in March. - RUKES
Cubev3 made its dazzling debut at Ultra Music Festival in March.

Given all the smaller alterations to the cube's design over the years, Deadmau5 says Cubev3 is actually closer to the cube's seventh iteration. Designed by Collyns Stenzel, produced by Chris Schroeder and programmed by Deadmau5, Cubev3 rotates 360 degrees and can tilt from a 45-degree angle to a 90-degree angle. As opposed to the last version, where Deadmau5 would peek out from atop the cube, Cubev3's semi-transparent LED panels allow him to DJ from inside the cube, with a custom-design touchscreen app inside so that he can control the cube from within.

The hour and a half of visuals that Deadmau5 personally produced for Cubev3 are computer-generated in real time rather than pre-recorded.

"This is done in a completely different way, where it's actually programmed, in the sense that all the visuals are created with code," he says.

Rather than hiring someone to create the visuals, Deadmau5 taught himself to write code. "I sat down and learned GLSL for six months," he explains. "I started from the basics of how to create a shader and how real-time rendering works. I just studied that stuff and joined a lot of forums and made a lot of friends in that section, and learned a lot and applied what I knew. And while it's not the best of the best of the best of real-time rendering and content and stuff like that, the point is, it's all mine. The show visuals are an extension of what I do."

Since Cubev3 made its debut at Ultra, Deadmau5 and his team have gained a whole new demographic of fans in the tech community. "They notice all the little enhancements that we've done and how we are physically pushing the envelope on GPU technology and stuff like that," he says. "So a lot of nerds came out and really enjoyed what we're doing."

Cubev3's rotation and tilting mechanisms allow Deadmau5 to actually DJ from inside the cube. - ALIVE
Cubev3's rotation and tilting mechanisms allow Deadmau5 to actually DJ from inside the cube.

The behemoth Cubev3 is about 21 feet tall and 22 feet wide and clocks in at around 7,000 pounds. Although the current cube's weight is only about half of that of Cube 2.1, Deadmau5 says that getting the structure to pass engineering and safety inspections at the various venues on his tour was perhaps the biggest challenge in taking his show on the road.

Even the Red Rocks stage had to be reinforced by civil engineers to accommodate the sheer weight of the cube for the Day of the Deadmau5 shows.

Also, the seating structure of Red Rocks presented a new challenge. "If you're playing for a crowd and you're in an amphitheater, it's pretty easy to pick the angle, but if you're playing for a wall of people, you have to dynamically change that angle. And that's something we've been trying, actually, just for Red Rocks," Deadmau5 explains. "Basically, it's a re-projection camera that we can lift up from about 60 feet in the air to about 100 feet, so that there's an optimal view from whatever height you're at, which isn't usually considered a factor. When you're playing Red Rocks, you're playing to a wall of people, so you have to make adjustments for that."

While lighting and visuals have always played an important role in EDM concerts, Deadmau5 has taken the relationship between music and visuals to a whole different level. Of the synergistic effect, he says, "I think a lot of it has to do with just basic synchronization. Something that's actually rare. There's not a lot of cohesiveness in most stage shows, just because you have three teams of people all fighting against each other or trying to be synchronous. You have your lights and lighting fixtures — that's all one system. Then you have a video system, that's a whole other system, and then the audio, the performer who's delivering the audio. All these things have to be...well, in my mind, they have to be perfectly synchronous."

To achieve greater cohesion among the different systems, Deadmau5 cut the production down to two teams. He personally does the audio and video, so that only the lighting engineer has to match his timing.

Some of Cubev3's visuals contain self-referential nods to its creation process, like the lines of code shown here. - LEAH SEMS
Some of Cubev3's visuals contain self-referential nods to its creation process, like the lines of code shown here.
Leah Sems
While the audience may not consciously notice the difference it makes, the subconscious effect of perfectly synchronized audio and visual content is more aesthetically pleasing and has more impact on the fans, claims Deadmau5.

"This is what I'm selling," he says. "This is the Deadmau5 show. You're looking at Deadmau5's stage idea. Maybe not necessarily the engineering, but the concept. And then you're looking at his visuals and his coding and the way he wanted to arrange it, how he wanted to do it, and you're listening to his music. So, you're going to a Joel show. You're going to a Deadmau5 show. You're seeing all things Deadmau5 made."

Day of the Deadmau5 takes place at 7 p.m. Friday, November 1, and Saturday, November 2, at Red Rocks Amphitheatre. While the first night, with openers i_o, LIGHTS and Callie Reiff, is officially sold out, you can still catch Deadmau5 at 8 p.m. Saturday, November 2, with openers GETTER, LIGHTS and Callie Reiff. Tickets are $59.95 before taxes and fees at

Hear Deadmau5 and more favorites from Westword writers on our Westword Staff Picks playlist.
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Cleo Mirza recently graduated from Kenyon College with a degree in English and anthropology. She enjoys good food, cheap wine and the company of her dog, Rudy.
Contact: Cleo Mirza