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Monthly Archives: May 2006

Laptop Music, A Brief History

I was invited by newmusicbox.org to write an overview of “laptop music.” My intial instinct was that this would be less an introduction than a requiem. Isn’t the phrase “laptop music” sorta “over”? Well, as it turns out, no. Quite the contrary, more people are making more music with more software than ever on laptops. The piece, “Serial Port: A Brief History of Laptop Music,” was published yesterday on newmusicbox.org. It’s divided into five tidy sections:

(1) Inside the Box: The computer comes out to play; (2) Fast Backward: A brief prehistory of laptop music; (3) Tool or Toolbox: The laptop’s ever-changing role; (4) Plastic Devices: Critical laptop innovators and recommended CDs; and (5) The Incredible Shrinking Computer: Music in the palm of your hand.

One person has asked me, subsequent to its publication: “I do a lot of my music work on my iMac. My turntable is plugged into it even. Does this still count as ‘laptop music’? I mean, it’s Reason and Live and hopefully soon Reaktor.” (Those last three capitalized words are the names of different music-making software packages.)

That distinction was very much on my mind as I wrote the article. To me it comes down to continuity of technological experience. The laptop has allowed people who both make music at home and perform in front of audiences to use the same equipment, and thus it has allowed them to develop a heightened sense of intimacy with their equipment. That’s what uniquely makes the laptop, among various computer-music tools, akin to an instrument.

So, no, an iMac doesn’t count as a laptop just because one makes music on it. But if that single computer becomes one’s primary apparatus, both as a studio unto itself and as a performance tool that one plays in various environments, then it certainly might as well be a laptop.

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Bush of Ghosts Remix MP3

As of this writing, some 31,586 songs have reportedly been downloaded from the public-domain website dedicated to the re-release of David Byrne and Brian Eno‘s 1981 album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Two Ghosts songs, their 20 to 24 individual tracks laid bare, are available for free download, as are dozens of remixed versions by semi-anonymous contributors.

And as of this writing, the site’s community’s favorite track (as well as the top fave by the site’s organizers) is CGrossmeier‘s fairly generic dance entry, “There’s No Escape,” laced with a bit of turntablism. The title is actually longer than that. In the dropdown window it appears to be “There’s No Escape I,” but when you select it to play, it appears in a different window, where the title appears to be “There’s No Escape From…” something or other. Such is the website’s interface: for all its blank backdrop and simple pulldowns, it isn’t all that functional at the moment. At least in the Mozilla browser, the Listen page seems to get hung up a lot. You can select various filters (abstract, rough, slow), but nothing necessarily results. Likewise, a search for a specific name of an artist may yield a null return, even if the name appears in the Top 20.

Still, there is good stuff to be heard. Particularly recommended: “My Hero Is Echo” (MP3), credited to Asbestos, scrapes some distant chant over flutters of threadbare percussion and an undulating bass element so slow you can almost see the sine waves, before the whole thing ascends into the ether.

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Mecha Noise MP3s

There’s always a beat in the noise, some routinized element of a given signal that is inherent either in its source (like, say, the tumble of a motor) or in itself (e.g., the peak and valley of a sound wave). Prostir by .at/on (aka Kiev-based Holota Anton) is four tracks that often combine these two types of rhythm-based noise, most notably in the whir and rattle of the second track, “x” (MP3), which rotates like some sad old machine left to its own devices. Also included are some of the plugins that Anton created in the process of recording Prostir, so you can roll your own. More info at the website of the releasing netlabel, minusn.com, and at the artist’s site, aton.ho.com.ua.

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Heartland Ambient MP3s

Mark Rushton has posted a half-hour live recording of him with bassist Jon Harnish. Between Rushton’s overdubbed intros and outros, he and Harnish, playing in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, perform two pieces: one a rush of rustling wind chimes and gauzy effects, the other a grungily processed drone with more telltale evidence of Harnish’s bass (MP3). This ‘cast was uploaded in mid-May. Back in March, Rushton posted a three-piece recording (MP3), the central entry of which employs loops from the Buddha Machine by the duo FM3 (read the Disquiet.com interview with FM3 here). He’s added a thumping heartbeat to the sampled sounds, and it’s a pleasure to hear that meditative source material in a new context. More on Rushton at markrushton.com.

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Synaesthesia at E3

The organizers of E3, the big annual video game expo held a week ago at the Los Angeles Convention Center, have turned down the sound, even as video-game manufacturers have begun to turn up the music. What in the past has been an implausibly loud mix of business and fun, so loud that you couldn’t have a conversation without cupping hand to ear like some codger, became almost pleasant this year: several football fields loaded with most of the video games due out in the next six months, no earplugs required.

E3 reportedly deemed 85 decibels the acceptable max, and folks with decibel counters wandered the floor, right alongside the Fire Marshall. Thanks to the sound limit, music-related video games were able to be fully appreciated. Good thing that, since there were more music-related video games than ever, due no doubt to the popularity of the portable sound art of Electroplankton, the virtual hero worship of Guitar Hero and the calisthenics-karaoke of Dance Dance Revolution, not to mention of standard karaoke.

The most promising sound-toys (or audio-games) won’t be playable until fall, because they’re designed for the new Nintendo console, the peculiarly named Wii (prounced “whee”). The Wii is Nintendo’s bid against the Xbox 360, which is already in stores, and the Sony PlayStation 3, which is also due out toward the end of the year. Unlike both of those, the Wii doesn’t measure its performance by processing power nor by numbers of pixels per inch or per second; it measures by innovation.

The Wii’s interface, and especially the motion-sensitive “wand” that accompanies it, makes gameplay simple: no fetishization of lengthy instruction books, no coded language of seven-button command combos. There were two cool examples: in one you conduct an orchestra of little people who look like Playschool figures, and in another you bang drums to a defined pattern. The latter was, in this sense, a percussive Dance Dance Revolution or Simon. But something about the gestural interface emphasized an important aspect of play: the better you got at playing the Wii drumming game, the better you got at playing the Wii drumming game, because the game isn’t about hitting specific notes on cue; it’s about getting into a groove. And unlike with DDR, you control the sound that’s emanating from the game.

Sequels and like-designed products are inevitable in any industry, especially video games, where development costs are high and new ideas are few and far between. No one appeared to be aping Electroplankton, but simpler music games were in abundance, among them: a sequel to Guitar Hero, Guitar Hero II; a parallel product, Guitar Freaks; at least three new Dance Dance Revolution entries (Supernova, Universe, Ultra Mix 4); Singstar; and the expansively titled Beatmania IIDX 13th DistorteD.

(In related news, over at the Ubisoft booth there was no update as to what would constitute the soundtracks to the next games in the series that takes its name from thriller author Tom Clancy. That information is eagerly awaited, since the most recent in Clancy’s Splinter Cell series, Chaos Theory, was scored by electronic-music figure Amon Tobin. The forthcoming titles are Splinter Cell: Double Agent and Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Las Vegas, both due out by the end of 2006.)

The lowering of volume at E3 didn’t sit well with everyone. On Friday afternoon, an executive from NCSoft took the stage to announce that the company had been fined five grand after being cited twice for pumping out sound in the 89-90 decibel range for 45 seconds. NCsoft’s expansive booth, located next to Microsoft’s, had bands playing live throughout E3. The NCSoft exec explained that 85 was the accepted ceiling, though by his count the ambient sound in the room was 86. He said the company was reconsidering its association with E3 next year. If they don’t come, it’s their loss. From the looks of E3 2006, chances are 2007 will involve an even more significant merging of sound and technology.

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  • about

  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website Disquiet.com in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media

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