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Listening to art. Playing with audio. Sounding out technology. Composing in code. Rewinding the soundscape.

tag: gadget

Central Listening Device

And what I'd give for dependable sync

As always, in between descriptions of his voracious reading and hints at ongoing projects, Warren Ellis wrote in his April 24 Orbital Operations email newsletter about his everyday practical habits. This time around that meant the way his phone is optimized as a central listening device. And after sharing a screenshot of one of the screens on his phone, with all the apps and widgets aligned, he included a parenthetical that made me smile: “(It’s possible that even Marc Weidenbaum is looking at me like I’m nuts right now).”

And as it turns out, I do have a screen on my phone that is not particularly dissimilar from his:

One swipe right from my phone’s home screen is, indeed, a music-specific page. Let’s break it down:

The top widget is for YouTube Music. There are a lot of streaming services. I’ve tried most of them. I find them largely dispiriting (due to the lack of contextual information), insufficient (the widely hailed and also economically suspect “universal jukebox” has bizarre voids, such as the instrumental tracks I often buy hip-hop and r&b 12″s to access), and not particularly distinct from each other (though kudos to those services that do, at least, list the record label, even if it isn’t clickable to access a full catalog, as I vaguely recall used to be the case with Rdio). So, of all of ’em, why do I subscribe to YouTube Music? (Especially since I now use an iPhone, my first ever, having previously been on a sequence of Androids, all the way back to the G1.) The main benefit of YouTube Music is the subscription gets me ad-free YouTube.

The bottom widget is for Apple Music. I don’t subscribe to Apple Music, but I do, for the time being, have the annual subscription to iTunes Match, which lets me upload my own audio files to the cloud. When I receive a promotional copy of interest from a musician, record label, or publicist, I drop it into the Music app on my laptop and eventually — this may be vaguely seamless, but it’s not time-unintenstive — it becomes available to me more widely. Also in there are some old records I bought on iTunes when DRM roamed the Earth. (If anyone has recommendations for better ways to do this on an iPhone, lemme know. I’ve tried lots of options — see two paragraphs down — and none of them have been much better. I do know that I have close to zero interest in yet another gadget, so carrying a separate device just for music is close to a non-starter for me. But, as Romeo Void sang, never say never.)

Between the two widgets are some apps and app folders. I buy music on Bandcamp with some regularity, and also get a heap of promotional copies through the service. I mostly listen to SoundCloud via my laptop browser, but it’s handy to have on my phone (the app has a lot of shortcomings, most notably that there’s no access to the DMs). I don’t listen to many podcasts; thus far, the Apple Podcasts app has been sufficient. I don’t listen to a lot of pop music, but when a song catches my fancy out in the wild (which these pandemic days generally means: as part of a TV show or movie while I’m seated on the couch), Shazam keeps track of things I’ve perked up to. Mixcloud is often a good place to find music I like in new contexts, leading to me finding out about adjacent artists whose work I might not know, or just hearing the music I like in a different aesthetic continuum than I think of it as being part of. (And if you’re looking at the tiny album covers closely: yes, I do listen to a lot of movie scores, with Cliff Martinez and Clint Mansell always in rotation.)

The “Etc.” folder is for apps I’ve tried to replace Apple Music with for syncing, to little avail. It’s also got the Apple Music and YouTube Music apps in there, if I wanna pull them up, rather than revisit a recent listen from the widgets. And the “Meditation” folder is as it seems (Calm, Insight Timer, and four apps that Brian Eno did with Peter Chilvers, the original Bloom still being my favorite).

Also worth noting is what the screen doesn’t contain: YouTube, where I do a lot of my listening, and any audiobook apps (Audible, Hoopla, Libby). Those are elsewhere on my phone, and I spend a lot of time in them. Also not on this screen are any of the possibly hundreds of apps I own for making music. They’re on my iPad for the most part, though I have a few of ’em elsewhere on my phone (I have a few setups I use for producing generative background music, but my phone is optimized for battery life). And also not here are any white noise apps. I used to employ them frequently, but since switching to an iPhone, I just use the iOS Background Sounds feature.

So, that’s my central listening device. And it’ll probably look different in a couple weeks. Do you have a music/listening screen on your phone, and if so, what does it look like?

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Ceramicist Edith Heath’s Economic Model

And thinking about small-scale manufacturers of electronic music instruments

Haven’t played hooky from work in a while, and yesterday was a good day to do it. I spent much of the afternoon at the Oakland Museum of California, over near Lake Merritt. Oakland is close to where I live in San Francisco, at least as the satellite mapping service flies, but it can be quite the trek by car.

After lunch in Berkeley at the always awesome Vik’s Chaat House, I headed to OMCA, as it is supposed to be abbreviated (though OMOC or OMoC seem to make more sense). The main draw at OMCA currently is an exhibit of Edith Heath (A Life in Clay, January 29, 2022 – October 30, 2022), whose namesake pottery studio remains, even after her 2005 death at the age of 94, a major presence in the San Francisco Bay Area, and elsewhere. The firm was purchased from her in 2003 and continues to this day.

Heath inhabited a unique middle ground, as Rosa Novak, an artist and reseacher, explained in a video about Heath Ceramics that is part of the exhibit. Heath was not a major mass manufactured line like Russel Wright. Nor was Heath herself the sort of potter who simply crafted pieces intimately by herself and never explored scaling up an operation. Fully committed to being an iconoclast, she produced work at a company that she and her husband, Brian Heath, oversaw. There are numerous hallmarks of Heath ceramics, from the mid-century silhouette, to the economical color palette, to the earthy textures. In combination, they manage to be something special without drawing attention to themselves. And yet, much as it’s been said that Thomas Edison’s greatest invention was in fact his laboratory, there is much to learn from the Heath operation itself. If at first I was disappointed there was more documentary than pottery on display at OMCA, I quickly realized just how creative was their approach to business.

If you’ve read this far, you are no doubt wondering how I might tie my day at the museum looking at ceramics back around to electronic music. One thing that struck me when taking in the exhibit, which is more focused on history than on the objects themselves in many ways, was this economic, artistic, and business model that Edith and Brian Heath arrived at, and in turn how it brings to mind the scale that some small producers of electronic music hardware and software aspire to: neither one-off bespoke instruments, nor mass-market items, but somewhere in between.

It might be a stretch to compare the sourcing of chips and other components to the Heaths’ dedication to the region’s clay deposits — one of my favorite quotes in the exhibit reads: “When we came to California, Brian and I spent weekends driving to wherever we heard that there was a clay pit” — but it isn’t a stretch to consider the independent solo and small teams that design and make a lot of synthesizers, guitar pedals, and other instruments, and who are more often than not musicians themselves. It is, in fact, quite informative to think about how these other small creative businesses seek to find a means by which they can make things that larger companies might not recognize value in or find a fit for.

At the heart of the Heath’s company was always a creative tension between intimate and behemoth, between the hand and the factory. Note the language in the Heath flyer reproduced above, specifically the bit at the end about the desire to be “free of mechanistic tyranny.” There is much to meditate on in the trail that the Heaths blazed for themselves, and how it can inform small operations to this day.

Clearly, this is not a situation where an instrument company like Noise Engineering, or Monome, or Koma, or ADDAC, or Bastl, or Orthogonal, or Empress Effects can be mapped directly to what the Heaths did. Someone can easily point out differences, like how some of these firms (though not all) have devices manufactured at least in part overseas. But the point isn’t to suggest they’re the same, just to note that the Heaths located a balance, a mix of human-scale intimacy and broad accessibility, that many small electronic instrument manufacturers themselves actively pursue.

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Kobo Abe’s Synthesizer

And a Twitter translation

My favorite things have aligned. Here’s a video, from 1985, of Japanese novelist Kobo Abe (The Woman in the Dunes, The Ark Sakura) talking about his synthesizer, an EMS Synthi AKS, as part of his efforts in the theater. (I recommend Nancy Shields’ book Fake Fish: The Theater of Kobo Abe if that aspect of Abe’s output is of interest.) I worked in manga for five years and the only word I recognize is “ongaku” but that’s on me. Fortunately, the Japanese musician NRV (aka Nerve, aka Manabu Ito) generously posted this translation of it in reply to my initial tweet.

Kobo Abe: This is…

Interviewer: A synthesizer?

KL Yes, that’s right. You know, I don’t mean to sound pretentious, but… When you’re doing a play, if you ask a composer to do it, the music is done at the last minute. In the worst case, the music is not ready until the stage rehearsal. In my case, it’s not good if the music doesn’t come first. I’m an amateur, but I thought if I could manage it myself, so I started to make music by buying these things. So from a certain point, I’ve been adding my own music to all my plays.

I: So you have a piece of work, could you play it?

K: Yes, it’s a bit of an exaggeration to call it a work, but I make various sources.

I: Sound sources?

K: Yes. And I put them together in various ways.

I: So it’s a work of chance?

K: A kind of, and sometimes I get interesting sounds. Would you like to have a listen?

I: Yes, please.

K: It’s like the sound of a bell, isn’t it? This is a beautiful sound, isn’t it? This is how I make music.

. . .

Update: And in the ongoing discussion on Twitter, Jim Whittemore uploaded this 1976 photo of the U.S. importer of EMS synthesizers, EMSA (EMS America) in Northampton, MA. Credit for the photo goes to Dennis Kelley.

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Sound Ledger¹ (Kondo, Aerodynamics, Paris)

Audio culture by the numbers

75: Cost in $US of a tuning fork from Marie Kondo’s online store. Crystal included.

18: Number of fewer decibels produced by owls than by other birds when flying at similar speed.

5,500,000: Estimated number of Parisians exposed to road noise 55 dB or higher, the largest of any European city. London came in a distant second at roughly 2,647,600.

________
¹Footnotes: Kondo: konmari.com. Owls: sciencefocus.com. Paris: swlondoner.co.uk.

Originally published in the January 24, 2022, edition of the This Week in Sound email newsletter tinyletter.com/disquiet.

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Some Memories of Media

From LPs through the arrival of the CD

I heard a song on the radio, turned off the radio, walked downstairs, put on my sneakers, and walked to town, a little over half a mile. The record store didn’t have the record. The owner of the store had never heard of the record even though I’d just heard it on the radio. Then I walked home.

I heard a record had come out. I walked to the bus, and then got on the bus, and three and a half miles later got off the bus, and went through the mall to find the record store, and then found the record. I brought the record home, pulled off the thin cellophane wrapper, pulled the sleeve out, cupped the vinyl’s edge in my hand, tipped the LP onto the record player, lowered the needle, and turned up the volume. Other than the single, which wasn’t particularly good, it wasn’t good at all. In another week or two I could afford another record.

My parents dropped me off at the train station, where my friend was waiting. It was the weekend, and we took the train into the city, the two of us, and then walked a mile and a half or so downtown and wandered amid the shops, looking for record stores whose addresses we half remembered. With no small amount of anxiety, we went into the stores, braving the withering indifference of the clerks, and flipped through bins looking not so much for something to buy as for the one or two things we’d choose to buy out of all the things that were of interest. We’d then carry those LPs with us for the remainder of the day, cushioning them while eating falafel or hot dogs, stowing them carefully on the train ride home, and the next day actually getting to listen to them. I’d keep the receipts for the totems they were.

Sometimes I would tape a record for a friend, and vice versa. One friend taped over something else, and I fretted, perhaps too aggressively, about the reduction in quality due to reuse. Tapes weren’t cheap, but they were cheaper than LPs. It felt odd to have a collection split among two media, but that’s the way it was. One band in particular sounded much better on dubbed tapes than when I finally bought the vinyl. I realized it was because my friend’s tape deck taped a little fast. I’ve always preferred the quicker take, and have tried to emulate it with MP3s and other digital recordings.

College arrived, and there were two record stores very close to my dorm for two out of the four years. One, on the second floor, had new arrivals of used records seemingly every day. Someone without much taste or sense was receiving remarkable records from record companies and immediately selling them to the store. I would buy many of these records. I wondered if this person was one of my professors. Eventually I, too, would trade in records in exchange for other records, but for the time being this was one-way transaction. The idea that records were (in addition to being a repository of sound) a form of currency, or perhaps even an asset, was still new to me. I’d never become a collector, in the sense I understood the word, but the records certainly accumulated.

CDs arrived and were, immediately, in a different league, and time passed before many were available used. These cost real money. They came inside plastic boxes that were, for a time, put inside long cardboard boxes, called longboxes, that were when put side by side the width, essentially, of an LP. The geometry facilitated slotting them into bins in record stores. Over time the amount of space for LPs shrunk, and CDs filled their place. But that took several years. CDs were both more reliable (they didn’t scratch or decay through regular usage like LPs and cassettes did) and yet more precious (due to their price, their shiny materials, and the way their cases had a tendency to break).

At first, I bought a new CD like it was a piece of jewelry or furniture, even though I didn’t own any jewelry or furniture. A few CDs sat side by side on the shelf above my desk. Their plastic spines caught the reflection of the sun at certain times of the day. When I bought my first CD, I didn’t even own a CD player. I had to go to the room of someone I didn’t even know very well and listen to it there. Eventually I got a CD player at a ridiculously low price (crazy, you might say) at a store that liked to have what it called “Christmas in August” sales. The owner would eventually serve time for financial crimes. With the exception of that first CD I bought, which was available only on CD, all the others I initially purchased were of records I already owned on LP or tape. They had qualities that made me want to hear them in the pristine vacuum of digital sound. I was not disappointed.

We lived in the city now. College had come and gone. We knew where the record stores were, every one of them. Halfway down this block, around the corner from that train stop, up above that shop. We would flip through the bins and buy records other people had discarded. We bought used records. New records were another tax bracket entirely. There was a filter on our available purchases: We bought what others no longer wanted. Some of these records were stamped with little bits of legalese claiming the record label could, at any point, come take the album back. Many had little slits in the covers that reduced their value, though for whom I did not know, because the slits meant nothing to me. Some actually were used, rather than promotional copies someone had exchanged. The worn ones had to be inspected carefully. Some were past their sell-by date. I learned to ascertain with a glance what was and wasn’t playable. Sometimes I messed up, but the records were pretty cheap used, so it rarely mattered. Again, I wasn’t collecting records; I was accessing music. Those actions weren’t unrelated, but they weren’t the same thing, either.

The first holiday season after college ended, my bosses at my first job, a graphic design company, gave me a tiny little cassette player as a year-end bonus even though I’d only worked there for a few months. It was barely larger than the case in which a cassette came, excepting the slot reserved for battery power. It was made of metal. It wasn’t the most expensive thing I owned at the time, but it was the most expensive thing I owned pound for pound. I carried it everywhere, and treated it carefully. For the first time, I had reason to tape my own records for myself, rather than to exchange with someone else. The change in size of the cassette player that rendered it portable thus utterly altered my sense of what a cassette tape was, what it was for. Now it was for me in a more personal way. The portable player, which some friends had had versions of for years, was no longer theoretical to me; it transformed music (almost certainly triggering my interest, ever since, in what many would term background music) by transforming the utility of the tape cassette. I would record a record I liked a lot, and then listen to it while wandering the city, while waiting for the train, while concentrating at work. The metal was cool to the touch, its edges were sharp, and I’d feel the tape rotating as it played, the gears and other parts vibrating, emanating a rhythm entirely apart from that of the music.

Note: This was published on October 25, but some edits were implemented early on October 26.

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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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  • My book on Aphex Twin's landmark 1994 album, Selected Ambient Works Vol. II, was published as part of the 33 1/3 series, an imprint of Bloomsbury. It has been translated into Japanese (2019) and Spanish (2018).

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