My 33 1/3 book, on Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Volume II, was the 5th bestselling book in the series in 2014. It's available at Amazon (including Kindle) and via your local bookstore. • F.A.Q.Key Tags: #saw2for33third, #sound-art, #classical, #juntoElsewhere: Twitter, SoundCloud, Instagram

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

tag: gadget

Introductory Loop-Making

Another weekend experiment

Another little weekend project straight out of any Electronic Music 101 textbook: make a tape loop with an old cassette. I’d never done this before. The cassette tape is from an old batch of unused 90-minute Maxells I have on hand. The loop was recorded on a Panasonic Standard Cassette Transcriber RR-830, a relic of when I’d record interviews on physical cassette and then transcribe from those cassettes. That Panasonic device has a foot pedal, which used to make the start/stop process of transcription a tiny bit more bearable, especially because it can micro-rewind an adjustable amount with each pause.

The audio of my first tape loop came out OK on the first try — I recorded a short strum on an acoustic guitar — but there was an issue with playback on the RR-830: After two or three cycles through the loop, it would come to a stop. I had high hopes of using the RR-830 in a performance setting, given the potential for that foot pedal, along with other attributes of the device, like control over tone and playback speed. (Another issue: there was a not so little gap in the audio, and it was suggested to me to record the audio first on a longer stretch of tape, and to then make the loop from a subset of that tape. I’ll try this approach next time.)

At first I thought the issue with the playback ending on the Panasonic had to do with a poor job on my part constructing the cassette. So, I took it apart and made it more taut by trimming the length of the tape a bit, as well as reinserting the second plastic reel. Still, the Panasonic ceased playing after two or three cycles. To test the newly refined tape loop, I put the cassette in the old, bright yellow Sony “Sports” Walkman, and it played well, over and over and over. Perhaps there’s a setting on the RR-830 that will make it less sensitive, and therefore capable of playing the loop on repeat dependably.

Making the loop was more painstaking a process than I’d expected, even after advance warnings from various experienced people. The standard cassette tape has loose parts, held in only thanks to the tension supplied by five tiny screws. In addition, getting the tape to the correct length, and connecting it into one continuous piece, requires a level of dexterity almost — but, fortunately, not quite — beyond my manual dexterity. I got it to work, which was a lot of fun in the end. The sound quality is excellent, which is to say it is rich with texture, not high-fidelity.

And if you want to try it out, the tape-oriented musician who goes by the name Amulets has a helpful video on YouTube. There’s also a good tutorial at instructables.com.

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Snakes & Oscillators

A glimpse at a video-game music interface by Jon Davies

A post shared by Jon Davies (@jonpauldavies) on

Just to follow up yesterday’s post of an Instagram video depicting a tiny robot band playing artfully arranged instrumental music, here’s another solid example of the miniature musical-technological (a slightly more humane appellation than “music-technology”) wonders found on the social network.

As you listen to the clip, a brief synthesized melody is being modulated in real time, the sound warping at the whim of a controller. The familiar shape of the x/y control pad is viewable in the lower right hand corner of the illuminated grid device. What it controls is this snake, familiar from video games like Centipede, the early-1980s classic. The snake can be aimed at a little stationary reward, whose consumption by the snake ushers in a new phase of the melody, which appears to move up the register a step at a time, or something along those lines.

The rules of this game-composition aren’t entirely clear, but it does appear that while you can aim the snake to hit that reward light right on the schedule that the rhythm suggests, you can also delay doing so, letting the standing melody extend for awhile. It’s nice to imagine how an audience in a live setting would get engaged in such a performance, becoming aware of the process and enjoying the occasions of delayed gratification as the snake takes its time to consume its prey. It’s also interesting to think how the scenario can train a player to keep time, or adeptly veer from it, along the lines of Guitar Hero and other so-called rhythm games.

Video found via a post by Scanner Darkly on the llllllll.co boards. Software by Jon Davies, on whose Instagram account the clip was published. The device is the open-source Monome Grid controller (more at monome.org). Davies says the code will soon be shared publicly, for those who want to play along at home.

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Let’s Get Physical

A new device, a new human-machine connection, new music from Marcus Fischer

A post shared by marcus fischer (@marcusfischer) on

The notions of YouTube celebrities and Instagram influencers are indisputably up for debate. What isn’t is that both sites, along with other social media platforms, are rich with bits of sound and music, art and culture, design ingenuity and technological innovation, that exist primarily on those platforms and that are, for all intents and purposes, in existence because of those platforms. It’s an article for another time that YouTube and SoundCloud and Instagram, among other spots, are where I get the sense that I once upon a time got from crate digging — that’s before I even knew it was called crate digging and I was just a kid in a record store buying specific records because I recognized one name in the liner notes from another record I liked — and then listened to that new (to me) record, listening through it for some element I might find tantalizing, and then following that element to other recorded destinations on my next trip to the record store. That act of tracking took days or weeks to complete a cycle in the pre-internet era, and has long since come to happen so often — so fluidly, so subconsciously — within a few minutes that we don’t even remember what we clicked on that got us eventually to the bit of sound/music/art that has now enraptured us.

Now, that’s all back story, because I know what got me to Marcus Fischer’s test video of a new music-making device. I’ve followed his work for a long time, and gotten to know him, and even worked with him a bit, and I marvel at the subtlety and emotion of his music, and at the visual acuity he brings to how it is presented. This Instagram video is a short segment in which he employs a new device called the Automat, from the company Dadamachines, that allows someone to impact physical objects with the same sort of MIDI data that was designed to sort of go in the opposite direction — MIDI was what let keyboards and other gadgets communicate their instructions (which note, what velocity, how hard, what sequence) to a digital device, as well as for those digital devices to communicate with each other. Here, information on a computer uses MIDI to send instructions via Automat to bang on a drum, or shake a rattle, or wallop a xylophone.

In Fischer’s hands, this isn’t merely a proof of concept. It’s an lovely micro-composition that explores how different devices will respond to the mechanical instructions, and that pushes at the intention of the tools, seeing how rapid-fire triggers will cause elegant chaos. There’s a balance in the finished work that is best exemplified by the way that final bell tone is let to ring out and decay, how this is physical music being played out in human time in the physical world. I’m avoiding the word “real” throughout that previous sentence so as not to get sidetracked by ponderings about hierarchies of experience or expression. What I want to do is draw attention to, and express admiration for, the way this little video presents an artistic pursuit in such an enjoyable, memorable, and artfully encapsulated manner.

Video originally posted at instagram.com More from Marcus Fischer at mapmap.ch. His latest solo album is Loss, which came out on the 12k label last year. He also contributed, in his words, “granular processing + modular synth drones” to a song, “Dream on Mount Tam,” on the deluxe edition of Calexico’s most recent album, The Thread That Keeps Us. More on the Dadamachines Automat at dadamachines.com and at the kickstarter.com page where it was funded.

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Dead Radio

Lost signals, social media, and finding wave lengths

I started reading Nadine Gordimer’s novel July’s People this week simply because I’d never read her, and many friends had recommended her. In terms of the stack of books sitting here waiting to be read, reading about end of apartheid seemed like a useful filter on the world. To read meant to look away from work (which was easy, as I was on vacation), but also to look away from media, especially social media. Gordimer’s writing demands attention. She’s like if John le Carré wrote about interpersonal relations — and if he did so at a tenth the speed and several times the level of detail. Both are writers of, simultaneously, micro and macro politics, of the personal and the global. Both explore nuance and codes within communication. But she does so across impenetrable emotional voids and with zero interest in titillation.

In turning away from Twitter, I entered the deep emotional grasses of her book, and found amid the narrative strains two parents. They’re lost in many ways, foremost without a working radio. They fight over the device, searching for stations, checking “wave lengths.” More to the point, the radio works, but the stations don’t. There are no signals to be received. This is both fact and metaphor. All along, during my reading, my social media is out of control. I take breaks from it to read about the dead radio. Then I take breaks from the dead radio of Gordimer’s book to take in the fire hose of our current moment. I alternate. I think about taking a social media break, which I’ve done on occasion, but this seems like a time to be aware, to be aware of being aware. I’m intrigued by mediated awareness, I suppose.

The most quoted tweet I had was years ago, in the Arab Spring. At the time, Twitter was more about consumer goods and personal expression. I’d mentioned how “I used to look at Twitter to see what tech gadget has been released, and now it’s to see what country is on fire.” Or something along those lines. Anyhow, it’s pretty clear which country is on fire now. I might turn off Twitter, but of course when I choose to turn it, or the radio, on both would function. If the dead radio in July’s People suggests one form of broken interpersonal communication, what is the hyperactive Twitter a metaphor for? More to the point, the radio in July’s People seems dead because there are no signals. Social media seems to work because there are signals. The main thing I’ve come to appreciate is that something can function and still be broken.

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5 Cassette Players Walk into an Aphex Twin Cover

A very warbly "Rhubarb"

The past week or so have been big news in Aphex Twin land, from the opening of his own digital superstore, at aphextwin.warp.net, packed with extra tracks and candid bits of liner notes, to a headlining gig at a Japanese music festival, and the subsequent inevitable price spike for a commemorative tape of the concert. Lost in the tumult was this little video cover of “Rhubarb,” the third track from the Selected Ambient Works Volume 2 album. In the video it’s being performed on the Crudman — well, on a quintet of Crudmen. The Crudman is an ingenious hack of a Walkman. The aftermarket technology allows the speed of the tape to be controlled as if it were a synthesizer module. Because the tapes in this video all have simply a sine wave tuned to C on them, the speed adjustment alters the note value of the audio emitted from the player. There are more details on the recording process at the Crudlabs YouTube channel, and at the crudlabs.org website, including (for the more gadget-literate audience) this breakdown of the device’s controls:

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