Number 81: Inquest

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.

 

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Toss the Polish

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.

 

 

20 Years Frozen for All Time

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”.

Just a week ago I released an anniversary retrospective on Bandcamp, 20 Years Frozen for All Time.

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).

20 years 72 page book-print version

stitching guide

 

Number 80: Sleep Now

Sleep Now, draft 1, January 10, 2016:

 

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.

Screenshot of my original samples folder. Sometimes the titles indicate the source of the sound. The older collections, from my Roland MS-1, often refer to an early name for the project, since it could only hold 16 samples totally 28 seconds or less.
Screenshot of my original samples folder. Sometimes the titles indicate the source of the sound. The older collections, from my Roland MS-1, often refer to an early name for the project, since it could only hold 16 samples totally 28 seconds or less they were project specific.

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.

A frog-shaped guiro.
A frog-shaped guiro.

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.

Wok brush.
Wok brush.

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.

Wire basket, top view.
Wire basket, top view.

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.

5-gallon water jug.
5-gallon water jug.

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.

A cast aluminum wheel, perhaps a flywheel.
A cast aluminum wheel, perhaps a flywheel.

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.

Sleep Now, draft 1, Sonar screenshot.
Sleep Now, draft 1, Sonar screenshot. The first six tracks are samples. The next three are MIDI tracks for virtual instruments (soft synths). The last track, in expanded view, is my voice.

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.
Spontaneous blur.
Transparent hypothesis.”

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.)

Sleep Now

Enlightenment threatened us.
We returned to dream.
Spontaneous blur.
Transparent hypothesis.
Sleep now.
Sleep now.
Sleep.

 

2015 Drafts Playlist

My 2015 playlist is minimal, to put it politely. Months ago I knew that I would make nothing new but it seemed only right to wait until the year was officially over to document the fact.

I’d already noted in my 2014 playlist that I’ve been focusing my free time on this particular blog, getting the narrative up to date. In 2015 all my free time, other than reading a few books and taking the occasional nap, watching a couple of movies and spending time with my family, from January through August went into Prattle and Din. Now I just add as I go.

In 2015 I made some effort (September and November) to learn Sonar. After twelve years working with ACID Pro it was disconcerting to switch to another DAW. Some things in Sonar are similar or even easier. But sometimes I have no idea how to do something that was a no-brainer in ACID (for instance, pasting a clip (that is, an audio file) multiple times at a set spacing along the timeline (in printing this is called step-and-repeat)).

As mentioned in a previous post, I bought the microphone I’d been lusting after for years. You’ll be hearing it on future recordings though you might not be aware of it. It works very well with my voice. Though I’ll probably continue using the Røde NT-1 for recording most other sounds.

Something I hadn’t mentioned, from lack of time, is that in November I finally bought the Arturia virtual synth collection because it was on sale for $200. These are software replicas of about a dozen classic synthesizers and electronic keyboards popular in the 1960s through the 1980s. I’ve had very little time to play around with them, to actually get to know them, so it’s probably more a matter of infatuation than true love.

(Our younger child, aged 19, took a leave of absence from college and purchased a plane ticket to Australia with the intent of spending a year in Melbourne. It was our plan, therefor, to spend as much of our time together as a family as we could. This included a trip to Florida, officially for a wedding, just before the kid left.

On top of which, a few days before Thanksgiving our stove and kitchen sink were removed as the first step in a long overdue remodeling. We didn’t get the new ones installed until December 22nd, I think it was. This was a distraction. At least, it wasn’t conducive to recording.)

And there you have it. A blank playlist. It’s kind of soothing, don’t you think.

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Our newly remodeled kitchen. In the back entry, through the open door, you can see the old door fronts and hideous hardware we’d been living with for 22 years. The little cabinet by the stove has a tip-open door on the side for garbage—we’re just thrilled by little things. The light that I’d just installed above the stove is blinding for short people, so we’ve commissioned a piece of stained glass from a friend. And after 22 years of cooking on an electric stove, gas seems like one of the seven wonders of the universe.
Karen and I on Sanibel Island, early December 2015. I hate hanging out on the beach, so the rain made little difference (except that I only had one pair of shoes).
Karen and I on Sanibel Island, early December 2015. I hate hanging out on the beach, so the rain made little difference (except that I only had one pair of shoes).

2013 Drafts Playlist

Very little audio was worked on in 2013. My enthusiasm spurred by SoundCloud waned in 2012 as they began to tinker with the interface. Almost everything I’d recorded had been remixed/mastered in September 2012, so I felt like leaving things alone. More importantly 2013 is when I began focusing on digital publishing by reviving an old chapbook, Essay, as an interactive PDF and by creating a dreamlog as a website.

There were only three new compositions.

Number 79: November

I quote my notes to the recording:

A couple of repeating phrases were keeping me awake one night:
Thousands of irregular splinters of sky
Each framed by a twig a branch a limb a trunk
Recording started 10/13/2013. To which I added:
November
All this changes in five months
What comes next
A held breath or a stilled breath

There’s really nothing to “November” except those words. I use my voice, looped, in place of instruments. And even with this I do little to process my voice: noise reduction, panning and volume, maybe a little compression. I don’t think I added any reverb because it would have muddied the sound.

November, draft 1, October 13, 2013:

 

November, draft 1, ACID Pro screen shot.
November, draft 1, ACID Pro screen shot.