It’s been almost three years since I’ve posted here. I have nothing new for your ears. If you want to check out some of my releases go to swampmessiah at Bandcamp.
It’s been a rough three years.
To only put a small spin of melodrama to it, I nearly died. Perhaps if I were single and living alone I would have.
Regarding art and life itself, if you are sick enough it not only affects your creativity and productivity, it diminishes your ability think and feel. By the end of June 2017 I was barely functioning in any capacity, physical or mental. This was the culmination of nine years of avoidance. Not denial—I knew what I was getting into—but avoidance.
From the summer of 2008 I had been showing unmistakable symptoms of diabetes. But I don’t trust doctors. Nine years of damage because I feared the treatment and the changes to my life more than the illness.…There was weight loss and weakness. Loss of dexterity and balance. Muscles have not revived.…The permanent and most debilitating damage that I could have held off for many years with treatment is to my nerves, both peripheral and autonomic neuropathy, which also led to muscle degeneration, from the lack of feedback, along with the lack of nutrients that starved the cells.
At the time—June 2017—I was being treated for pneumonia (which turned out to be empyema that required a surgical remedy that August). And yet more, I had cataracts, surgically removed December 2018/January 2019.…When we were in Australia for six weeks, just before surgery, I found it to be a very yellowish, unfocused place…which didn’t make their appallingly cramped, glum bathrooms any more appealing.
Between all these symptoms I felt very vulnerable and generally helpless. For almost a year I had difficulty walking even a block most days. This spring I finally started taking a bus and venturing a couple miles from home on my own. Still, some days I can barely get from room to room in our house.
I won’t go into a lengthy description of my symptoms. The important consideration is that I cannot do most of the things that we do without thought, the everyday things we take for granted. Everything I do, every step and movement, has to be conscious. Walking, standing, looking away from what I’m doing. I stumble and stagger when I walk and risk toppling if I look over my shoulder for oncoming traffic or tip my head back too far back to drain a glass of water.Picking something off a table, writing or drawing with a pen, holding a fork—very difficult. For instance, it isn’t just that I can no longer touch type from the loss of feeling. This summer—mid-July 2019—my vision again affected my ability to do negotiate space: I started to see double (diabetic diplopia). I can’t even be sure of the key I’m pressing when looking right at the keyboard. My fingers don’t go where I think they will.
Almost every basic function of my body is erratic. If I wander away from the house my trip might be cut short by my digestive system or low blood pressure (the two often go together). So far, I have not completely fainted. Not quite. Basically, I’m a wreck.
If you are sick enough it’s like you’re numb and addled by meds. You can’t think straight. You’re apathetic. But even when you’ve recovered enough you might not have that flow and spontaneity needed to create. You might not have the stamina to take on even a small project. You might not feel like playing. The lack of sensory feedback cuts out something essential. For me this has been compounded by the difficulty of using tools, any kind of tools.
I’ve tried painting, both with acrylics and digitally. The results are clumsy. Digital painting has a learning curve and an unfamiliar tool set that does not excite me. Physical painting requires adjusting from minute finger and wrist movements to use of arm and shoulder. No more intricate detail, that’s for sure. With a loss of technique it becomes entirely dependent on design and concept—never my greatest strengths.
I’ve updated my studio setup, both software and hardware, but, as you can tell, nothing has come of it. I haven’t even felt like noodling with a synth. Even the synth apps from Arturia that I have on my iPad have not been that tempting. (And I’ve had to switch DAWs, each with a considerable learning curve. I currently have: ACID Pro, my entry to audio composition, which has finally been updated but no longer seems viable; Cakewalk, which I used briefly but find arduous and uncooperative with MIDI controllers; Studio One, which has a great interface but I haven’t actually used, and would cost too much to update if I did want to us it; and Reaper, purchased this spring, which looks the most promising but I’ve never actually tried it.)
For now, at least, I’ve shifted focus from creating to cataloging and presenting, which I periodically do anyway. I’ve been working on my InDesign skills to create books of past achievements. PDF and fixed layout EPUBs are the most attractive options. Though I still like to imagine that I’ll be able to produce physical copies, whether with perfect bindings or stab bindings (for some great design ideas for creative stab binding, check out Becca Hirsbrunner).…Right now I can’t even keep the pressure on a straightedge to trim with an X-Acto or score a page with a bone folder. I’m trying to modify tools and workspace to improve my chances of doing what I want to do.
(The big project I’m working toward is a fixed layout EPUB of all the posts on this site (including this one and the fixed pages, a total of 133), which would include the audio tracks. I’m working on it. But I need greater skill than I have, so I’ve been creating test books in InDesign—table of contents, linking objects to text, the uses and limits of master pages, text flow, refining my use of the menus and tools and styles, et cetera. One test book was a crude work on stab binding. Then, two months of this summer went into creating a book of my top “100” albums. (I put that in scare quotes because it’s closer to 1200 albums. The top “10” is, at last look, 35. The next 100 was…I forget. More than 100.))
More than anything, I read. A lot. Since the end of January, after both eyes were repaired, I’ve read close to 100 books, both solid and digital. Mostly non-fiction or graphic novels. Quite a few books were on design, bookbinding, or InDesign (do you read InDesign guides cover to cover? I do). I’ve been on an Ellen Lupton binge and can’t recommend her strongly enough. I often read as part of my creative process, what might seem a fallow period, trying to subconsciously organize what might come next. And to feed myself. Walking is or was the best way to digest ideas while not seeming not to pay attention to them. But reading has long been what feeds me.
Dreams are typically as tedious as daily life, sometimes more so. If we remember anything it’s a fragmented image and a lingering emotional resonance, maybe an utterance or physical sensation, seldom more. Maybe you want to hang onto it. Maybe not. Sometimes there’s a biographical connection or some other way in which it’s obviously meaningful. More often, of those remembered, dreams are random and meaningless unless you choose to elevate them.
Hearing someone recount a dream is one of the low points in our social experience, so why would I want to tell you mine? I’ll say more on this later in the post. First, I want to address the history of the project and the technical issues, as though that could be more interesting than my dreams.
Beginning 2013, I had been playing around with the idea of an interactive book of sound recordings to accompany the text, so you could read along or just listen, already having tried out an interactive PDF. My second foray was to do it as a website, posted on the Adobe host site and discussed in Poetry and Other Sounds, 2014. This was a collection of dream narratives I’d been accumulating for over twenty years.
I wanted to give the dream narratives another try as a digital download via Bandcamp. I love that you can add quite a few extras to your album, that it need not be limited to music, such as photos, videos (I think you can include video), booklets, and posters. The album was uploaded October 2, 2016 with three bonus tracks that are dream text audio compositions from years past (Dream House, The Horse, and The Psychedelic Baby of Death) and three versions of a 124-page PDF book. The Dreamsdownload is name-your-price, which includes free. I think you can also stream any or all of it if you just want a glimpse.
This past August I began reworking the site, created in Adobe’s Muse, as a booklet (recreated in Adobe’s InDesign) and downloadable album. Rather than going for the original interactive concept, this time keeping sound and vision separate entities. The easy part, the booklet, was almost complete before I began to grapple with the recording. Again proofing the text, fixing numerous typos I’d missed before—it’s amazing how I keep finding them no matter how many times I go over it. I did not revise anything to make me seem a better writer nor to create a more natural flow when reading (this latter became an issue when recording).
The sequence was a bit of procrastination and the reason was my dread of rerecording all the narratives. It’s not so much that I’m getting lazy with age or unwilling to take on a large project. My aversion to rerecording is the unreliability of my voice from one day to another or even throughout a single day. Because of chronic sinus congestion (mainly triggered by low pressure systems it would seem) my vocal cords sound worn out. My voice is no longer clear, acquiring both a softness and a roughness (my father’s voice has gotten so bad from the same problem that he sounds like he’s had a tracheostomy, his voice not much more than a whisper). When it’s really bad, both because I can’t breathe through my nose and the steady post nasal drip, I can’t maintain a flow of words, my speech constantly interrupted as I gulp air. It also sounds like I’ve got a cold, affecting the timbre of my voice. In my mind at least, it also seems to interfere with the enunciation of the words because air for certain phonemes, or to simply swallow, cannot pass through my nose but is forced back into my throat—generally, the air cannot shift around in my upper respiratory passages as I flap my jaw and move my tongue while speaking.
There were several new narratives that needed to be recorded, since first publishing the collection. I didn’t want to go back to the headset mic (Audio-Technica PRO-8HEx) that I’d originally used, not really liking the sound it imparts to my voice, preferring to try out the Heil Sound PR-40 I’d gotten earlier this year, which would change the sonic continuity. On Labor Day weekend I began rerecording the whole thing, almost forty narratives (quite a few being over five minutes), with the idea that it could take me weeks or even months to finish.
I began late Sunday morning. With several breaks for meals as well as family time, frequent departures from my room for water, both in and out, and to rest my voice, I felt I was on a roll and kept going until I’d finished reading everything, sometime past midnight. A typical reading required at least two takes. Quite often, especially on the longer narratives, I’d become tongue tied and have to repeat a passage numerous times to get it right (this is when you realize a word on the page is very different from a word in the mouth). If my reading bogged down too many times my frustration would come out of my lungs and there would be burst of volume at the beginning of a paragraph or phrase that wouldn’t sit right with the rest of the reading… Throughout the day, with changes in humidity (sunset always gives me grief) and as the decongestant would wear off, my sinuses would interfere with the reading. Still, I felt I’d nailed all of them. Just in case, I left my mic and preamp set up for several days in case I wanted to take another shot at reading.
The next day, on playback, they didn’t all sound as good as I had thought. Because of the impossibility of my voice matching it would not work to just drop in minor corrections, of a phrase or paragraph, I decided to try to edit everything first rather than rereading. This was a matter of cutting out the fumbled passages and the gaps within individual phrases. It doesn’t always play back smoothly, if you listen closely. But I decided to keep the trimmed recordings rather than trying again. There’s a sonic continuity to what I have that I value over a flawless take. I like the idea that it was all read in a single day. Also, it’s a life choice: there’s the issue of going on forever, letting perfectionism take control.
The first step in editing the recordings was to remove the background noise of things like computer fans (the PR-40 is very good at rejecting sounds not close and in front of it, so this was minimal compared to what I’ve had to do on previous recordings) and as many of the mouth clicks (popping of saliva bubbles?) as I could. (In my head I hear a lot more noise than the microphone picks up…fluids churning and bubbling, bones shifting and cracking, all because of congestion.) In the past I’ve used the noise reduction software in Sound Forge. It’s better than the free stuff but I’ve recently discovered that the treatments in Adobe’s Audition are better, leaving fewer sonic artifacts while more thoroughly removing the noise. A single pass with the pop and click filter removed almost all the mouth clicks without damaging articulation of phonemes (you might think a small, quick dental or fricative could be erased).
Next, again in Audition, I cut out my verbal missteps as well as trimming some of the ends of each piece. This process was time consuming, as I’d have to listen attentively to the entirety of each recording. (I later found I missed some of the flubs. I guess I’m easily distracted.)
I then went back into Sonar, which is what I used for tracking, for effects processing. I used a free version of iZotope’s Nectar that came packed with Sound Forge (I think it was) with a podcast preset on the channel effects. This pushed up the lower frequencies of my voice so I sound a bit like a radio DJ. I tweaked the upper mid frequencies with a little boost to improve audibility. There’s also a little compression in the preset (and maybe a de-esser, which I seldom need). In a separate effects bus there’s a very subtle reverb (Native Instruments’ Reflektor set in Guitar Rig), something called “kids’ room”. It has very little reflection compared to most reverb presets. Still, it was too echoey for my taste and I turned it way down until, for many listeners, it will seem too dry (I’m used to hearing things in a small, absorbent room, like in a living room or bedroom, and find highly reverberant spaces disorienting and phony). I can’t recall if I had iZotope’s Ozone in the master bus at this point or if that was on another pass. After setting all the tracks in CD Architect to hear how it flowed as a whole I found I wanted to trim the beginning and end of all tracks to have a consistent gap between each narrative, approximately four seconds at the beginning and two seconds at the end (I also trimmed some of the pauses within a recording so that they seem tighter and that the long pause is clearly indicative of a transition between tracks). And that I wanted to tweak the EQ to tone down a little of that DJ boominess. Maybe that’s when I added Ozone to the chain. On the final listen all but one of the tracks were normalized. Little by little, several passes through various compressors flattened the dynamic range to make my voice more consistently audible. This process also brings up some of the oddness of my voice: not sure if the mic is picking up reflections from my room or if it’s my mouth itself (perhaps exaggerated by the loss of several teeth) but I sound a little like I’m in a very small box. I hope no one else is listening that closely.
There was a resistance to rushing to Bandcamp to publish the results. I wanted to take a break from my voice, in more ways than one. And I wanted to hear the collection through from start to finish one more time. Good thing. I noticed some glitches in my reading that I’d missed before.
There remains a strong temptation to reread, rerecord, and remix the whole project (right after uploading to Bandcamp I bought new mixing software from iZotope, Neutron, and of course wanted to reprocess the whole thing). I’m never happy with what I do. Now that it’s online for public consumption the idea of remixing seems ridiculous yet I still want to do it. Perfectionism is the worst addiction: just say no.
The booklet is a minor variation of what I published as a website. You can either read it as a separate text document or read along with me. Originally I planned a PDF in spreads, so you’d see two pages the way you would with a physical book or magazine. At my partner’s suggestion, to make it easier to read on a small device, I also did a page version, where you only see one page on screen at a time. And on the off chance that anyone wants to print out one or more pages, I made a version with a white background that won’t totally drain your ink cartridges.…Initially, because they were meant to be electronic publications, I put links from the table of contents to each narrative, section (such as notes), and photo, with a link on those pages back to the table of contents. The print version lacks these links. (While working on this last booklet I was exploring a user’s manual and realized how bookmarks are utilized in a PDF. So, in the white print version, instead of an active table of contents there are bookmarks performing the same function.…Just thought I’d try it out and maybe make the reader’s life a little easier.)
So far, everything I’ve said is about the technical aspect of the project.
I first documented a few dreams around the time I was briefly in college, circa 1979. A few of these dreams are from that period or slightly after (two are from early 1980) but only one or two were written down at the time, as poems.
It wasn’t until 1992-93 when I resumed writing, after buying a word processor, that I began to document the few dreams I could remember, including one from early childhood. My goal was to create literary artifacts, to make the telling beautiful and interesting—as I’ve already mentioned, hearing someone recount their dream is as boring as hearing about what they ate for lunch or their weekend with the in-laws, though usually whinier. There’s a long held truism or belief, stated by many writers, that dreams do not make good stories. I tend to agree; but I wanted to try anyway. As I said, I wanted to do something with the literary presentation. I’ve played with that enough so that very few of these narratives have the same style or feel, each one an attempt to remain true to the dream’s feel. I also wanted to stay true to the logic of the dreams. To me, part of what makes a dream telling so tiresome is that the person tries to apply waking logic to something by nature random and fluid. I find that the dreams often have biographical resonances or just inherently interesting images, which I often point out, but I really try not to explain or rationalize anything. The earlier attempts to document dreams from many years prior are more likely to have passages detailing the circumstance of my life, in part because my life was in flux. The more recent narratives focus on the dream itself and rarely venture into the details of the waking world.
As the written narratives have varied, I’ve tried to alter my reading to fit each dream. Some are brief poems. Some are frenzied tellings of a personal event. Some are soapbox sermons. Others are essays or intellectual explorations. Some are rituals or ceremonies. Some are casual chats. I suppose the most common affect is to tell a story as though it’s a film, merely describing the images flowing past, allowing the images to present and define any meaning.
My dreams are quite vivid. Most of the details in these tellings are as true to the memory of the dream as I can make them, whatever embellishment attempting to stay within the character of the whole. Usually, though, I don’t remember enough of a dream to write about it: yet those single images can stay with me for years. Since publishing this work I’ve had a couple of very intense dreams about our younger child, who’s been in Australia since last December and is working on getting a partnership visa to stay there up to five years. We’ve been coping with this (electronics slightly mitigate the sense of loss—I can’t imagine what it was like before phones or telegraph). The kid’s face or presence has been in recent dreams, but not enough of the surrounding dream has lingered into daylight to warrant a new text. Or maybe I just don’t want to write those details (several of the narratives here are just the parting image), keep them to myself for a while.
You wouldn’t know this: what I find missing here is the variety of my dreams, because there’s not enough to remember when awake. I especially like the dreams that are basically horror movies, as I’m chased through landscapes or interiors by witches, vampires and even more beautiful, glorious monsters. (An actual nightmare involves bad things happening to people I care about. There’s one that comes to mind of looking for our older child in a swamp, early spring when there’s ice with shallow water beneath—that’s all I remember of it.) And there’s so little erotic content in these narratives compared to what I’ve experienced. But most of all is the tedium of someone, often my maternal grandmother, telling me how to do something I already know how to do. And let’s not forget work dreams—is there anything worse? A common dream situation is one in which I’m trying to read something but can’t make out the words; or I’m looking for something in a library, rummage sale, record store, et cetera, and can’t read the titles. I have many dreams of losing control, most often of vehicles, though not as often as I did forty-some years ago when I’d be riding through back roads and logging trails on a motorcycle in my waking hours then dreaming about it at night, perhaps more daringly but ultimately losing it. One attempt to capture this loss is a piece called “Dream House” which does not tell of a specific dream but of the recurrent motif of architecture. There are, though, many dreams set in the forests of northern Minnesota, as well as other forests, or involving bodies of water small or large, still or flowing. And, of course, many of these dreams have a princess or goddess. I’m always falling in love in my dreams, whether with women I know or, more often, blatant archetypes.
As in real life, my dreams are richly sensual. They are not just visual. Often there is music—nameable or novel, sometimes the work of friends or even my own. It’s rare, though, that anyone in a dream actually speaks; instead, it’s more like telepathy, things are known. Likewise, actual sounds, the stuff in film called foley, are rare except for the drone of machinery. Smell is sporadic and taste is almost never present, but touch can be more powerful than vision. I often wake with sensations on my skin or within my muscles. I feel embodied by my dreams, or within them. I think this is why I sometimes want to remain in a dream, to perpetuate it into waking life. It’s a little like being in love, feeling embraced and wanted, regardless of the content of the dream.
Geosonics by Soniccouture…it was on sale recently, half price through Native Instruments. I bought it without remembering much of what I knew about the instrument/library. It had been about a year since researching it. I just knew that it looked really interesting and that the presets were magnificent.
So, after buying it and playing around with a few presets to put together a droning new composition, I’ve started re-acquainting myself with what I now have. Maybe I should have done that before rushing in to make something (as though that would have radically changed the end product).
A brief comment on my initial experience…It took hours to download at 6 GB. Then, when I tried to play the instrument a message came up that it was created on a newer version and that I needed to download the latest version. I thought that referred to Geosonics. Wrong: Geosonics is a Kontakt instrument and it was Kontakt that was not up to date. Then I had some problem with the password when trying to activate the software, thinking I was logging in to Soniccouture when, in fact, I was activating it through Native Instruments. The final problem was that when I closed Kontakt and reopened it, the library was gone. I had to reinstall the library, which would again disappear. It was late on a Friday night, I was very tired, and I sent an email request for help to Soniccouture before searching any solutions. The next morning I explored the FAQs at Native Instruments and found that I needed to dig through a chain of folders until I found an xml file that needed to be deleted. Then the computer needed to be rebooted, Kontakt re-opened, and the Geosonics library added one last time. It’s been working since, and the smiles and deep sighs of pleasure have been accumulating. (When I did get to my email, after fixing the problem, I found a reply from Soniccouture with the same solution. They’ve already made a good impression on me by not only responding but doing so in a timely manner. If you’ve had to deal with online support you might have an idea of how rare that is.)
Geosonics is based on the field recordings of Chris Watson (once upon a time member of Cabaret Voltaire). These recordings unadorned are beautiful and inspiring and are part of the package (the fifth folder). There are four folders of presets of the recordings as manipulated by a selection of sound designers (Ian Boddy, Biomechanoid, Martin Walker, Andy Wheddon, among them…Soniccouture’s links for these names come back to the page you’re on; frustrating because it’s hard to find much info on any of them).
I really recommend watching the videos on the site. There are several of Chris Watson, which are a pleasure in themselves, detailing the stories behind the capture of some of the sounds (a residue of my childhood in the swamps of northern Minnesota, I can attest to the difficulty of doing anything when swarmed by mosquitos and other biting insects). There are also several instructional videos walking you through the sections of the Kontakt instrument ($179 seems a high price but after watching the videos you start to understand how much went into Geosonics and to how rich and flexible it is as an instrument).
The field recordings are of wind, wires (primarily, again, wind), water and ice, and swamps. And, so, there are four folders of presets. With the presets you can still access the original sound. Whether from an original sound or a preset you can still tweak until you’ve driven yourself crazy. There’s a fairly rich set of effects (delay, chorus, phaser, compressor, lo-fi, a button called “reverse”, and a host of reverbs ranging from conventional to IRs taken from Watson’s recordings). There are two effects busses. (Not immediately obvious to me, you click on the word (such as “reverb”…for instance, to toggle between the natural sound and the processed click on the word “focus” in the middle of the header…to change files click on “off” or the current name, just under just under “pitched 1” and “pitched 2”) to get a drop down menu. I saw this done in the videos but had to play around a little before I found the correct places to click.)
I would love to have the field recordings as WAV files so I could do my own kind of manipulation—mainly stretching, reversing, and pitch shifting—which leads to less musical results. Still, that’s such a small complaint and, if I really wanted, something that could probably be satisfied by other sample libraries.
The field recordings lend themselves to usage as pads and drones and most of the presets reflect this. You can make rhythmic and melodic instruments but, as stated, they work best for long, evolving sounds. Gorgeous sounds. I’m happy.
This month Native Instruments is featuring a sale on Kontakt instruments from Soniccouture. Several interested me (the one created in conjunction with Imogen Heap sounds and looks wonderful). I bought Geosonics, the one I’d been looking at for at least a year, in part because it’s the instrument/sound library that most reflects my own experiments (in some ways I’d be happier with the initial field recordings—because I lack the tools, opportunities, and time to capture the sounds myself—then mangle them myself…the results would not be as pretty).
On Friday (July 15, 2016) I stayed home to deal with a wobbly car—that is, bringing it to a garage and waiting by the phone to hear how expensive it was going to be. That’s when I had the time to get online and begin the process of downloading and installing Geosonics (I intend to do a separate post going into more detail about the product and experience). And on Saturday I began perusing the sounds in the wire folder, finding eight that I thought might work together.
Saying that I found instruments in a folder called “wire” might not make much sense. The starting point is a collection of field recordings: wind, wire, water and ice, and swamp. The recordings have then been manipulated into mostly complex, sprawling drones (pads), though there are some that work for melodic or rhythmic performances. It’s the sort of thing I’ve been doing with my own sounds but much more involved and much, much prettier. Geosonics is a very lush, sensual, addicting sound set; the sounds are an event in their own right, which could be a problem if you want your own personality to be boldly stamped on the composition (in which case you’re probably more interested in making such an instrument/library from scratch).
Inquest, draft 1, July 17, 2016:
As you can hear, I went for the drones.
Throughout Saturday afternoon and evening I captured rather random performances for each instrument. Most were first takes. The composition was set to 85 BPM but I have no idea what the actual tempo is, since the metronome was off. Except for one “bass” track there’s nothing rhythmic going on: just that arbitrary bass pulse that fades in and out. The first track was definitely a drone. It might have a greater variety of notes than the rest of the tracks, as I began to focus on just five keys (B, C, C#, D, and D#) after that. There’s still plenty of dust on the other keys of my MIDI keyboard.
All of this would have been done earlier (say, before dinner) but Sonar froze up a couple of times (a lot of programs have been doing that with Windows 10—”Not responding”—coincidence?). As I said, they were almost all first takes. A very quick and thoughtless construction process. If I truly didn’t like something I’d do another take rather than tweaking the MIDI notes.
As I was laying down the drones and squalls I jotted some words, which were sort of the first line. After that I kicked back and free associated the rest. Then edited the text with another layer of free association. I’d just finished a short book on the geology of the National Parks in Utah (all part of the Colorado Plateau) and had then moved onto Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora, with its biomes. As for why there would be a “soft spoken inquest,” make something up. That can be your contribution to the creative process.
The soft spoken inquest, as you know, has begun. It was not my idea. I assume you know that. There are things we want to know. Why is always the best place to start: It leads nowhere. Montana. Or farther north. I can hear it in your bones. Let’s go over everything again. So many. So few. That was halfway up the mesa. I’m going to keep asking. It’s the only thing I’m here for. This couldn’t have happened in Cleveland. I assume you know that. I can hear your dry eyes scratch across their lids. You ignore them when you shouldn’t. It wasn’t in Kansas. It never is So much here is dry. That’s the purpose of questions. A lone pine and two crows. It always comes down to crows. I’m not yelling. That’s the whole point. Except for why. I’ll ask you again. You should know. Again. Why: that’s still the best place to start. I’ll say it again. You should know that. You’re so dry you can’t lick life. Again. I’m not yelling. You should know that. There were two crows. This is significant. They were not dry. Let’s get back to the central question. It was not my idea. We should always start with why.
It would be fair to describe “Inquest” as both verbal and musical gibberish. You might have a more complimentary way of saying that. To me, gibberish seems a fair assessment rather than an insult.
It had been my intention to use some sort of distortion on my voice, perhaps a virtual guitar amp or pedal. After tweaking the recording with EQ and compression (especially compression) all the little mouth sounds, like the clicking and popping of saliva bubbles, were so severely exaggerated, made even more abrasive by the distortion, that I couldn’t stand it.In a sense my vocal is as dry as the textual imagery. Perhaps if the “music” were a little thinner, lighter, less dominating I could have carried through with some sort of distortion, despite the mouth sounds, but, as it was, all the effects I tried failed to mesh. A distorted vocal just added to the already heavy-handed sense of sonic assault without making the whole in any way more interesting.
I have a feeling I’ll be coming back to this one to tweak the mix, perhaps to thin out the sounds to add a temporal dynamic that I find lacking.
I mean that both ways: hand me the polish and throw it away. I can go either way but most often try to go both at once.
What the hell am I talking about? Finishing off your recordings by either adding finesse or by working them to death.
A common phrase amongst recording engineers: polishing a turd. Most often the full expression is, in reference to mediocre musicians playing bad songs trying to compensate with technological processing to make crap sound good, you can’t polish a turd.
For me the prime example is the professional or semi-pro musician (say, a keyboardist) who is just a hired hand in someone else’s band who has long dreamed of doing their own music. Really, they have no direction or quality material but they feel they have something to say that will change the world. The songs are mediocre and meaningless; maybe just pointless solos. In a an attempt for perfection the performances are lifeless. Then they spend several years tweaking the mix, trying to get the EQ and reverb just right. If they ever finish it you’ll wonder why they bothered.
Nowadays, with the luxury of cheap home recording and unlimited editing on the computer the process can be even worse. Take an amateur musician who can’t really play in time or stay in key yet they’re convinced they’re the new Lennon-McCartney. While having every intention of making great music the resulting recording, though obviously made with musical instruments in a musical structure, could in no way feel like music.
A friend who once worked in Nashville as a recording engineer almost walked away from music, as both fan and creator. I quote him: “What was so demoralizing about it all was that the music was polished, perfected and agonized over until it was devoid of any excitement at all. Vocals and instrumental solos were picked apart and re-recorded until they were note-perfect, completely inoffensive and utterly lifeless.”
My experiences do not quite fit the stereotype because, when I began recording my stuff in 1996, I was neither musician nor engineer. Nor did I know how to construct something that might be considered musical. Everything I worked on—absolutely everything—was a struggle and the results were usually oddly mechanical. Kind of Rube Goldberg audio (like having something in ten measures of 21/8 time because that’s how long it takes for all the vowels to fall into place if the “a” is on one, “e” is on two, “i” is on three, “o” on five, and “u” on seven—that is, vowels and primes combined, as they were in “Music, the Beginning”).
As I learned to work on this stuff I began to structure things to a MIDI grid. Of course it’ll sound mechanical. With no musical ability there’s no chance for it to have feel (which could have been the case if a musician played without quantization). I think a more destructive process for me was my pursuit of clean sound. Part of the frustration with cassette 4-track was the inevitability of tape hiss. Instead of focusing on any performances of words or somewhat random banging I obsessed about having a clean signal chain (this is always a potential problem for anyone recording themself). You’d think that going digital would have been a reprieve but, in fact, I actually went further in that direction (the irony is that I then buried all those cleanly recorded tracks in a stew of reverb).
Initially working with prerecorded commercial loops, as I was doing a few years later on computer, made me extremely uncomfortable because the loops were too clean, too professional, and failed to mesh with my home recording (and lack of skill).
On the whole I’ve never quite fallen into the trap of over processing just because I have never had the time to indulge my perfectionist tendencies. In so many ways deprivation can be your friend. The key is to have enough time and gear without having so much you lose focus.
I put the most time into processing raw sounds, such as recordings I’ve made of household sounds, and breaking them up into discrete samples and loops. After that, when I start playing with them in a DAW, everything transpires quickly. Most of my compositions are put together in a single day. Or, more often, a few loops and maybe some synth parts are combined in few hours, then the thing sits on my computer for months. When I come back to it, if it gels, the rest happens quickly, usually within a few more hours. I’ve got my studio (that is, my room) set up so that I can get to work without moving much of anything. The audio interface and MIDI controller are always set up. It takes a few minutes to plug in the mic cables and get the settings close to what they’ll need to be. I read through a poem several times to make sure I have the feel of it. Then I press “record”. I mix as I record so that as all the pieces fall into place on the DAW timeline the recording is almost complete.
If you work with software instruments you’ll either have to design your sound or select presets. Since I don’t know how to program a synth yet (after 20 years!…actually only about 10 years) I sometimes spend hours auditioning presets. If you know what you want to do, if you have the melody or chord progression in mind, and are just trying to find the right sound, chances are this process will kill your creative process. For me, browsing the presets is part of the creative process: whatever “music” I come up with is a reaction to the sound of the instrument. The potentially soul destroying business of sound selection is something I usually turn into an inspiring detour.
Perfection in audio is not something I’m capable of, for lack of skill but also as an esthetic choice. I love to process the shit out of sounds (in “Music, the Beginning” I ran my voice through a simulation of a rotary speaker, also known as a Leslie cabinet). But I don’t like the final product to be so smooth and shiny. I suppose that would in part be my rock roots showing.
But if you can find the musical equivalent to a coprolite polish away. Fossils take on a nice shine.
In March 1996 I made my first multitrack recording of one of my poems with an audio backdrop. Since then, depending on how you count things, I’ve recorded 80 or more. The most recent from this January, “Sleep Now”.
The selection process didn’t take all that long. I excluded all tracks that are on 15 Years of Prattle and Din, my previous anniversary collection, as well as those that were clearly half baked, not finished, or totally beyond my abilities to take them where I need them to be (that would again be half baked). I suppose I could have chosen more and made it a 3-disc release but two full CDs, totaling over 2 1/2 hours, already seemed excessive. In that regard this has a touch of a “best of”.
The first disc (eight compositions) draws from my pre-computer era, 1996-1999. A few have been recreated in the box, such as “The Naming” and “Evil 2”, but the majority are mixes of the original 4-track analog or 8-track digital drafts recorded in the 1990s. The second disc has thirteen compositions from around 2003-2007 that rely heavily on commercial loops from the ACID loop library and those primarily 2010-2012 that are based more on my own odd loops and MIDI synth performances, or merely heavily processed sounds (my favorite tool being Spektral Delay, an obsolete virtual instrument from Native Instruments—you can hear the results on “The Angels Are Agitated” and “Winter Flowers”).
As I said, that was the easy part.
January and into February my time went into creating a booklet to accompany the audio. Several times I had to start over as the thing kept growing. It ended up being 72-pages, with biographical details, essays on my history recording (which is more fully represented on this blog), the texts of the recordings, notes on each composition, as well as photos and numerous drawings. (I will note here that not only some of the poems but almost all the drawings are sexually explicit and not suitable for all audiences). In part I had to redesign to accommodate so much material. But also I struggled to bring it all together into some sort of flow and coherent whole (the audio is in chronological order but flow and presenting of a whole also affected my selection).
The next struggle was to create a version that could be printed and bound. I expect someone to use a heavier print stock, such as a double-sided brochure or photo paper, rather than just some general purpose paper. You need something that will keep the colors and details vivid. Because of this, to keep the edge of the sheets from creeping out as you collate and fold more pages together, I made each signature only 12-page (three sheets of paper). As I composed I kept adding more signatures until I forced myself to limit it to 72 pages. Of course there could have been more.
The export to PDF menu in InDesign made the formation of a print booklet relatively easy, though I had to do some experimenting. So far, several weeks after completing the booklet, I have yet to print out my own copy. It seems like too much work. (I’ll include here the printable PDF should you feel so ambitious…I’ll also include the stitching guide).
This coming March marks twenty years that I’ve been poetry with sound and I was keen to have something new to add to the collection of tracks I’m putting together to celebrate. (I’d also like to finalize the track list so I can finish the booklet.) It’s been about 2 1/2 years since I last put together a new audio composition. I haven’t even been tweaking my old ones. In September I played around with Sonar a couple times to learn the quirks of the program. And in November I dove in again, this time to see if the Arturia softsynths I’d purchased integrated with Sonar. Other than that I really haven’t touched anything audio.
So, when I opened Sonar yesterday (January 9, 2016) I didn’t have particularly high hopes of producing a finished recording. I just wanted to play around and, I hoped, start something that wouldn’t leave me numb.
As I often do, I started by browsing my own samples (on occasion I will record something as I play with it, striking or rubbing an object usually, after which the recording is cut up into smaller pieces, sometimes looped, often stretched and warped in Sound Forge to make these samples). Too many of my compositions have sounds from the beginning of the alphabet—especially “aluminum bar” and “bending tube”—so this time I started with “wooden frog” (I skipped “world without prayer” which is specific to that composition). It’s a small guiro I had, once upon a time, received as a gift from my partner or one of our children. Of the numerous samples I’d auditioned from that folder, I deleted most of them, settling for only one that has a small part every eighth bar.
Then I tried “wok brush” and found my 4/4 rhythm with a heavy beat at the start of the measure. I did nothing with it (no processing, no volume envelope), just ran the loop start to finish for either a hypnotic or tedious beat. I like drums played with brushes. In general, I like a dirtier sound for rhythms rather than the precise thump or ting of conventional percussion instruments.
After that I opened up an old favorite, “wire basket”. Even after compression the sound is hard to hear, just a mechanical rocking sound every eight bars, alternating with the frog. It’s an object I insisted we keep even if it doesn’t stay in our newly remodeled kitchen. It’s both visually and sonically pleasing.
I thought I was going to get a steady bass drum beat from an empty water jug. Instead I found a sample with the initial transient removed (the attack, the bang of the stick hitting the jug), that becomes a repetitive swell not always easy to hear. You’ll see it in the screen shot in groups of four.
For the hell of it I opened a folder of recordings made a long time ago, on a consumer cassette deck with a $35 Radio Shack microphone, of our older child, recorded in June of 1992 when the kid was 15-months old. The original yawp was looped into a rather mechanical sound. Some rather severe EQ boosts and cuts brought out the inhuman quality of it. You can hear this growing in crescendo from middle to end of the composition.
The final sample provides another mechanical drone though the whole thing. It’s from some sort of flywheel device that I found on a job site and call “turbo bell”. Depending on how it’s used it can give a bell-like chime. Most of my samples involve spinning it on a table.
When cobbling this stuff together, as I select samples I start arranging them into patterns. To some extent I did this right from the beginning in 1996, especially once I had a sequencer, but the sonic results were always something of a surprise. It’s both more visual and more intuitive to do this on a computer; I might have a nonmusical reason for placing the sounds but have immediate feedback to judge whether or not to keep something, move it, or delete it. Early on the patterns were entirely logical (however strangely so), I had a tendency to propose really odd time signatures without a clue as to how it would sound (21/8 for “Music, the Beginning” actually made sense but why “Sex Is Something (You’ll Never Forget)” is in 13/8 is beyond me to justify). This process gives me an immediate feel for the thing, very much like smearing paint on a canvas. I audition sample after sample from a folder. If one feels like it might fit my mood, and subsequently the other samples already selected, I’ll move it around the timeline until it fits.
You can see the patterns in the Sonar screenshot.
As I was compiling the sounds I kept glancing at a Post-It note on my desk, a few lines of nonsense that were threatening to keep me awake sometime last summer or fall. Once I turned on a light long enough to write them down I either got to sleep or back to sleep, I forget which. Here, the words guided my choice of samples and how they needed to be shaped.
“Enlightenment threatened us.
We returned to dream.
Likewise, they dictated my choice of synth patches and how I would play them (just drones, with a semi-melodic drop for two of them). This was my chance to try out some of the virtual instruments I’d purchased from Arturia in November: Oberheim SEM, ARP 2600, and Jupiter 8. All of them have beautiful arpeggios but I couldn’t imagine something like that fitting into this composition. The pulsing part for the Oberheim is basically a drone but it does drop through the notes B, A flat, and E flat (more likely G sharp and D sharp in common musical reckoning, but I tend to think flat rather than sharp). The ARP is, literally, just a drone of one note. But what a magnificent drone it is. The Jupiter 8 has such luxurious pads, rich with filter sweeps; I chose one and played my descending three-note scale in what is essentially a third drone.
Even though I was dead tired I set up a microphone to record those few words while my voice was still relatively clear (it would require hours of waiting the next day as my sinuses drained). Even so, it was doubtful I could control my voice long enough to get a good take. It took about six takes to get a reading I liked. On the screen shot you can see that last take, cut up to better fit the measures. I tried to get my reading to pace with the other sounds but either I’m out of practice or I was focusing on my sinuses and throat to the extent that I lost track of the beat. (The Heil Sound Pro-40 worked beautifully with my voice. I did very little to it: opened the file in Sound Forge to do a very small touch of noise reduction; added a small tweak of compression to make it easier to understand by making the whole word more audible; and a small hint of reverb.)
In recent years this is more or less how most of my compositions come together, rather quickly and without much fuss. I still don’t know the tools of the trade all that well, barely scratching the surface of what all this software can do. What has changed over the years is my sense of what works together. I’m quicker to throw things out and more decisive about what needs to be tweaked and what can be left alone. Perhaps it could be said that I’ve mastered the art without mastering the craft.
(The first four lines of text were what kept me awake. The sleep refrain was added just before recording.)
Enlightenment threatened us.
We returned to dream.