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

Next-Gen MIDI Controller

An ongoing series cross-posted from instagram.com/dsqt

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How We Listen

And the failed promise of files

How we listen to music in 2020 differs significantly from how it was 10, 20, 30 years ago. And it differs from how we’ll listen in the future, doubtlessly. Over at an online, public discussion board where I regularly participate, someone introduced a conversation about how we listen right now. My initial sense was I listen on varied services today, whereas during the distant past of relative youth my listening was more unified. Then I began to do some forensics — that is, I thought before I typed my contribution to the discussion — and what I found differed from what I expected:

The Past: When I was growing up, I listened through four main ways: (1) the AM/FM radio in my bedroom, (2) the boombox cassette player (later with an LP player hooked into it) in my bedroom, (3) my parents’ LP/cassette player in the living room, and (4) MTV on the living room television. (Eventually a cassette Walkman and a CD player joined the mix. And later on: a CD Walkman.)

The Present: I set down that list to contrast it with the present. By definition, the present is more in flux than the past. These days, I note, it’s easier to categorize my listening habit by technology than by location. Someone replied in that same discussion that the transition “from place-based listening to product-based listening” is worth reflecting on. I agreed: I think the phone and the laptop are my main sources of distancing from music listening in this regard. Locations have disappeared because there is no spatial distinction. Sitting in the living room without either my phone or my laptop is a luxury I rarely take up — outside the house, even less so. By way of example, I typed my part of that chat on my phone as I walked to the barbershop. (For further example, three people at the barbershop were playing some racing game together on their own phones, as if the barbershop were their living room.) In any case, what follows is where my listening habit stands in mid-February 2020. It may change. It will. And I do need to treat my living room more like a cultural Faraday cage.

Laptop: Browser (SoundCloud, Bandcamp, YouTube, etc.), plus a desktop Google Play Music (GPM gets me ad-free YouTube) application, plus an endless array of files that I have long since failed to keep organized. I play the files in VLC. (I would like something less clunky looking than VLC.) And there’s a CD player hooked up to my laptop, though I use it less to listen directly than to rip files (FLAC, thanks for asking) that I then listen to.

Phone: Same as laptop, minus the files (and less frequent SoundCloud).

iPad: Same as phone. (I have also gotten into setting up wholly unoriginal, very simple generative stuff that I think of as the semi-intentional releases of the software developers, but that’s a side topic.)

Other: Stereo in living room (LP, CD, cassette — though the cassette player is unplugged at the moment due to spatial constraints).

Notable Absence: I don’t really listen to podcasts. This may or may not relate to the fact that I don’t really listen to much music with words/voices in it. I do listen to a lot of audiobooks.

The Future: I am fine listening in lots of different places and formats. To be clear: I’m not really in any major way disappointed in my listening habits. The primary corrective fixation I have is the failed promise of digital files. I have a ton, and do not revisit them the way I do other formats. I want to have a better handle on my file-based listening. I’ve been on the hunt for a good cross-platform (iOS, Android, Windows in my current case, though it’ll inevitably change) options. I sometimes think a standalone portable device is a good idea for me. The MP3 player, once ubiquitous, is now such an antiquated concept that when I ponder it, my brain translates it into “a Kindle for music.” (I don’t have a Kindle. I’m waiting for when the Paperwhite gets the inevitable upgrade to adjustable warm light.) That said, I don’t really want to carry one more thing.

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Dialing Instructions Inside

Phone (away from) home

This notepaper was on the bedside table. A few sheets were stacked on top of a pleather folio at the hotel where I spent time over the holidays. There were no instructions inside the folio, despite the clearly printed promise. There was, however, a memory of a time when a hotel phone was your primary such connection to the distant world while away from home. You’d share the number and extension upon arrival, and if you traveled regularly, you’d struggle with the slight variations in keypad controls depending on device and manufacturer. Instructions were valued, even if information design hadn’t caught up with the brave new task at hand. You might be greeted, at day’s end, with a welcome light. The light signaled the presence of voicemail, of messages from friends and loved ones. Allowing for time zones, you might never actually speak with these people directly while away; you’d ping-pong audio snapshots of your respective days: recollections, notices, inquiries. Today we’d call such communication “asynchronous,” a term necessary because so much of life has become synchronous, or at least has gained the illusion of synchrony, a synchrony whose acceptance masks, and may even cause, many forms of interpersonal fracture, fractures resulting from the pressures of profound simultaneity. As for those old audio snapshots on hotel phones, they were the preserve solely of the temporary residence’s third-party system, one that would be wiped clean when you settled the bill at the end of your stay. Today, somewhere, there is a surplus of this notepaper, ever so slowly being worked through by visitors who bring their own phones. Maybe they’ll use the bedside phone to ring the front desk to request a pen.

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The Landlubber’s Hydrophone

Witness the sonic emanations captured by the Geofón mic.

It’s not often I write an entry in this site’s daily Downstream series on the audio examples for a piece of music gear, but maybe it’s more of a case that I don’t do so often enough.

Proceed immediately to the website (lom.audio) of the Bratislava, Slovakia-based company LOM and check out the four audio clips recorded with LOM’s highly sensitive microphone, the Geofón, shown above. Per the descriptive copy: “Geofón is a sensitive geophone adjusted for field recording purposes. Originally designed for seismic measurements, it can be used with regular field recording equipment to capture very faint vibrations in various materials and even soil.”

There is also a warning: “Neodymium magnets may cause interference with credit cards (magnetic stripes), cardiac pacemakers and ICDs.”

And a caveat: “Due to the nature of the geophone sensor, you may experience picking up electromagnetic interference in specific urban areas and other places with strong electromagnetic fields.”

The mic, which looks more like a plug, comes with a magnet (“for attaching to steel constructions”) and a “stainless-steel spike adapter,” so you can stick it into the ground. The four audio examples on LOM’s Geofón page are somehow both earthy and atmospheric, and all are deeply enticing. There are heavy waves of a bridge handrail, the fluttery reverberations of locks on a bridge, the creaky echoes of bowed plastic siding, and the undulating hum of a bathroom fan. They get at an intimacy that gets your imagination going. You look at the objects around you, at the ground outside your window, and ponder what audio is secreted inside it. The Geofón is, in a manner of speaking, a hydrophone for a landlubber. Much as the hydrophone can be submerged , the Geofón, in its own way, tells us what is resounding just below the surface of our senses.

More on the Geofón at lom.audio. The outdoor image is from the LOM Instragram page. The sound designer and recording artist Richard Devine posted a video of the Geofón in action at his Instagram account yesterday.

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Harmonica Clouds

And variations within

The layering comes quickly in this video from Ryan Kunkleman. A button is pushed and the harmonica disappears off-screen. We hear a few notes, and we expect the playing to complete a phrase, for the player to pause for a breath. This doesn’t occur. Instead, before the original phrase ever ends another one is layered atop it. Looping has been enacted. There will be no pause for breath for the nearly 13 minutes of this piece. What there will be is a steady accumulation and movement between the held tones of the harmonica, chords giving way to phrases giving way to chords, little moments occasionally peeking (and peaking) through the sonorous clouds.

The tools, in addition to the harmonica and microphone, are a recent piece of software called Cheat Codes (github.com/dndrks), running on a Norns, an open-source sound computer from Monome (monome.org).

This is the latest video I’ve added to my YouTube playlist of recommended live performances of ambient music. Video first posted at Kunkelman’s YouTube channel, under the moniker esc.

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