Sampling can be tricky. Sometimes you’re lucky and you get just the right sound to slot into a piece that ends up making every other part of the creative process fall perfectly into place. I recall sampling a snippet of a choir from the radio that sounded incredibly groovy and evocative when I looped it. Even though the piece I built around it didn’t quite do it justice, I still bliss out every time I replay that loop on Bandcamp.
But there are many times when I labor on a sample for what seems to me to be a very long time, only to end up with nothing salvageable. Maybe it’s a lack of skill, but I find the process pretty hit or miss, with a lot more miss than hit.
One place I regularly return to for inspiration is Hal McGee’s oeuvre of microcassette recordings. There is a veritable goldmine of great material to sample, and one instrument that pays off big dividends for my personal creative work is the Vox McGee—Hal’s voice. There’s something about what Hal says and the way he says it that I find really inspiring, perfect for building some of my little sound odysseys around.
What is it? How does he do it? Well, I think it is conscious artistry. Sampling Hal’s voice from the microcassette recordings is not too different from ripping a great groove out of a classic song. Hal has been performing in these recordings for years, and one cannot ignore the fact that when he hits the record button, it’s like a jazz artist knowing when to start his solo or set up someone else’s. Lots of great riffs are born in the process.
So, yeah, sampling Hal may be considered cheating, and I am lucky he is generous in allowing these “collaborations.” I just hope that what I do is to take what he has offered the world and create something that stands on its own, humble though it may be.
I have bitched about the digital world just as much or more than any old guy. You want to believe that the LP sounds better than the CD. You know it sounds better than the MP3. The digital domain is so impersonal and there is a vast wasteland of zeroes and ones. Too much content, and the word content itself makes you feel like a person who once had an insatiable appetite until that all-night buffet in Vegas finally did them in.
What about the warm sound of the cassette? The fact that a real person went to the trouble of making a real work of art with great images and interesting sounds and that there is personal touch in mailing it to you, you know, like a real human being? All that is wonderful. I eat it up because now I have my appetite back and that Vegas buffet is suddenly a distant memory.
But then I remember “Pic Trans.” The artist 6e. The “album” (if it was ever part of something as normal as that) titled, “log(b);.” It doesn’t get less personal than that. Track information that looks like the detritus of a partial file left on a wiped hard drive and buried at the bottom of a hill of office refuse in a dump. Is it a title, or is it some kind of data transfer error? Who knows? Somewhere someone does.
And that’s what gets you.
OK. Really what got you was that after you saw and clicked that hyperlinked sound file on MySpace all those years ago the thing you heard sounded like a groove made by sweet, floating vapors, undulating to the micro-fluctuations of temperature and moisture in an otherworldly
jungle. The vapors forming what looked like the vague, swollen outline of a massive prehistoric lizard, lumbering along to the slow, churning rhythm of daemonic percussion. You swear you saw its shadow. The grass surely flickered as its ghostly leg fell rushing through the pregnant air to meld with the pillowy top layer of the jungle floor.
What sort of person made “Pic Trans”? Where did this person live? What kind of gear did they use? Do such sounds even come from objects as mundane as gear? You Google it. You find nothing. You Google it many times, and Bing it, and whatever other search engine you can find, year after year, because someone somewhere must have made this sound. Or did they? Was this not the digital dream of a lonely mainframe computer in an isolated warehouse owned by the Russian mob that makes grooves that put Massive Attack to shame when its not being used to hack elections and crash the power grids of entire countries? (Don’t blame the mainframe. There is something sublime in a machine that wields so much power in any hands.)
All trace is gone. Except that file on your computer. The one you downloaded all those years ago. And now it is your personal secret. You belong to a cult of one. No one else—to your knowledge—has this file. If you were to ask your friends what they know about it, you would get blank stares at best and maybe even that suspicious sideways glance of someone who is wondering what the hell you could be thinking. So you keep it to yourself, and like that one time you were almost convinced there must be a god because you knew an insignificant future event, like “the professor is going to call on me today,” for absolute certain and it turned out to be right as rain, you treasure it with a private wonder that surpasses your ability to communicate with words or gestures.
If you said anything, you would just sound like an idiot or a madman anyways. You may say that this could have been a cassette without a label under the passenger’s seat in your friend’s junker car that he gave to you when you asked him what it was. “I dunno,” he muttered absent-mindedly. Then half-roused by the question in delayed reaction, “Take it home and listen to it. I have no idea what it is and I don’t really need that clutter.”
But it’s not. Not really like that. Because maybe you would take it back to your friend’s car and he would tell you with the lightning strike of instantaneous recognition, “Oh yeah! I remember now. I picked up this hitchhiker on the road to Jacksonville and she had this tape a guy named
Dylan gave her at a show in Gainesville.” And then the mystery would be gone, and your cult of one would evaporate, smacked by the harsh light of actual knowledge.
You see, there is something about the mystery. Something about that mathematical title. Something about the fact that *that* sound had been merged (Deliberately? Randomly?) with such inscrutable track information, and the fact that MySpace is now dead and no one ever provided the slightest clue where this thing came from, even when MySpace was a thing.
That, my readers, is sacred. And nothing short of Kurzweil’s Singularity is going to take that away from me. And, no, I will not link the file for you. It’s not online. How can I post someone else’s file to the internet? You want a Russian mafia hacker mainframe gunning for me? Forget it.
<this way and that>
nothing much to hold onto
what can I remember?
not enough, never enough
so I wander
and every day I see
a different scene
it’s the same place, they say,
and yet I never see
the same thing
yesterday I saw a rock
or was it a skull?
some wandering animal
and for the rooting
<this way and that>
will I remember?
I already forget
the picture made me
~ Lumen K
The analog synthesizer truly came into its own in the 1970s, when R. A. Moog released the Minimoog, a fixed-architecture music synthesizer with a built in keyboard that was within the financial reach of middle-class people. Now the electronic sounds of experimental artists of earlier decades could be harnessed by a larger number of people. Shortly thereafter, simpler, more affordable synthesizers such as the Korg Micro Preset and the EDP Wasp hit the market, paving the way for the explosion of ‘80s synth pop.
The pioneers of DIY cassette culture also eagerly embraced these instruments, whose sounds would increasingly appear in the midst of their free-spirited audio alchemical concoctions. As synthesizer technology moved from the analog to the digital era, DIY musicians were able to snatch up the old analog gear that many musicians were dumping so the latter could enjoy the reliability and predictability of digital instruments. Gone were problems with tuning and remembering complex patches. With digital, sounds could be recalled with the press of a button and they would always arrive in tune.
Just as was the case in other advances in audio technology, however, plenty was sacrificed with those gains. Predictable can sound sterile. Listen to the same sound for too long, and the ear gets weary, the mind bored. Minimalistic interfaces on synths made “programming” sounds a time-consuming chore, and musicians increasingly relied on factory presets. Now the radio was filled with songs that had the same signature sounds from the same expensive digital instruments (e.g., Yamaha DX-7).
Eventually, a groundswell of interest, driven in no small part by DIY electronic enthusiasts as well as the persistent murmuring of musicians frustrated by the particular limitations of digital synths, eventually led to a new golden age of analog. Now the market is flooded with both analog and digital synths from scores of companies and cottage manufacturers to the point of a veritable glut. Korg’s Monotron series puts analog synthesis in the hands of anyone who has 40 bucks to spare. DIY artists have a dizzying array of choices, and the internet serves as a giant secondhand market. The Craigslist of any town might offer a used synth reasonably priced. Keep your eyes peeled!
Is there a downside to all of this? Only that you may become more consumed with the process of acquiring gear than with making sound art. It happens. A lot. Ever encounter the acronym G.A.S.? Gear Acquisition Syndrome. It’s a half-joking term. Half. Entire online discussion fora are devoted to people obsessing over gear. These fora suffer from the same problems many online discussion venues do—more heat than light. An unsuspecting artist can go to a discussion board to figure out how to solve a problem uploading the latest firmware and get caught up in interminable threads about what Dave Smith should have done when he made his latest flagship polyphonic dream synthesizer. The aptly named "gearslutz" is notorious for its countless pages of whingeing from guys who spend more time and energy collecting a picture-perfect assembly of pristine, exorbitantly expensive music gear than they ever devote to making music.
DIYers beware! In the DIY spirit, I don’t think it is anyone’s job to tell you how much or how little time or money you should spend anywhere. You’ll make your own decisions and you won’t take what I am saying as a prescription. That’s how we like it. But you might be thinking that you are not happy with where you are and you want to be inspired to create more art. In that spirit, I say: Pick up a soldering iron or a pen/stylus. Close that discussion board window on your desktop. Press the record button in your DAW, cassette deck, or micro-cassette recorder. Make art. Make or bend instruments. Now is the best time ever to bask in the light of your own creative spirit.
~ Lumen K (recovering gear addict)
is an electronic sound artist