To “Gear” or Not to Gear

Emerging video norms

I think it’s pretty funny that people sometimes slam, as “gear videos,” synthesizer videos in which the instruments are prominently displayed. Most of the time that term of disparagement is not a meaningful articulation of what’s going on. What’s going on is you have the opportunity to witness a connection between the sounds you’re hearing and some of the means by which they’re produced. In the best of cases, such as when a single synthesizer is involved, they can even serve as contemporary études. There’s plenty of “gear” video out there (tutorials, reviews, “reviews,” tips, walk throughs, and various forms of often not remotely self-aware consumer fetishization — and then there’s perhaps the vilest of streaming infirmities, the “unboxing”). But just because you can see the gear doesn’t make it a (pejorative) gear video.

When I mentioned this online, I was asked if it weren’t the case that those complaints align with when the gear is expensive, and that either way, you have to admit that there are a lot of videos that put visuals (“even the cables”) first.

I’d say that sometimes the expense isn’t inherent in the critique (a couple used Pocket Operators can trigger the haters), but when it is expensive, the critique is more likely, for sure — though often the gear is still way cheaper than the guitars and pedalboards you see in other videos.

I definitely agree that’s the case about many overly designed videos, though I’d also argue that a lot of critiques, which verge on inside-baseball chatter, about evolving music norms don’t take into consideration similar circumstances outside of music. If you’ve dipped into bicycling, photography, or any number of other gear-oriented pastimes, you’ll find similar modes of activity. I think that’s just part of the post-hipster, over-designed, Instagram’d world we’ve woken up in.

So, yeah, some are prettier than they need to be, and some are pretty for pretty’s sake. And then some of the not pretty ones are probably not pretty to make a point — which is to say, they’re reactive while trying to appear not so.

This Week in Sound: The Aural Periodic Table

A lightly annotated clipping service

These sound-studies highlights of the week originally appeared in the January 10, 2023, issue of the free Disquiet.com weekly email newsletter, This Week in Sound.

▰ PERIOD PIECE: Jill Linz, a physics instructor at Skidmore College, has a project that “mapped atomic data into unique audible tone,” yielding an “aural periodic table.

“By examining the waveforms and tonal qualities of each element in the table, she’s beginning to explore how this ‘sonification’ of atoms might reveal unexpected structural relationships among elements.” 

These are waveforms of the first dozen elements: 

“From top to bottom, the left column shows hydrogen, helium, lithium, beryllium; the middle column shows boron, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen; and the right column shows fluorine, neon, sodium, magnesium.”

Listen at skidmore.edu(Thanks, Glenn Sogge!)

▰ BLIND SPOT: A point, from Fast Company, about how noise-canceling headphones can be too good at their job. This is in the context of the Dyson Zone, which combines air filter mask and ear gear:

“Then there’s the noise-canceling issue with the headphones. Yes, noise pollution is certainly a problem in cities like Manhattan with its cacophony of car horns and sirens. But, as annoying as those sounds can be, completely cutting them out in a dense metro area could constitute a health hazard. Situational awareness is pretty important with that many vehicles and people nearby.”

▰ TALK THERAPY: Novelist V. V. Ganeshananthan, author of Love Marriage and Brotherless Night, wrote for Time about turning to voice recognition software after losing use of her hands — and how much the tools still need to improve in order to truly serve the disabled:

“I found that I preferred Mac voice control and Google Docs voice typing because the lag between what I was thinking and what the software was typing was shorter; even if the difference was infinitesimal, it mattered. Because of its speed and its slightly better performance with non-Anglo proper nouns, I chose Google Docs for my novel. Sometimes I closed my eyes and muttered scenes into the screen, my former copyeditor’s self unable to bear the typo-written transcription. Sometimes when I could not resist touching the keyboard, I ended up having to wear ice sleeves. Sometimes I opened my eyes only to find that the dictation had stopped working partway through my sentences. If I used a phrase that was also a song or film title, Google would sometimes capitalize it. (“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” one character might have said to another.) As when I had typed for myself, I found that I could not write fiction in the presence of others. It felt too intimate. But eventually that self-consciousness fell away. It had to: The software was capable of composition, but when it came to revision, the amount of time and skill it would take to get things done was beyond me and my looming deadline.”

▰ SPEAKER SYSTEM: Apple is experimenting with using AI voices to narrate audiobooks: “[S]ome in the publishing industry are skeptical about replacing human narrators—often professional voice actors or the authors themselves—with A.I. They say that audiobooks are a form of art, and that human narrators help enhance the experience.” Meanwhile, apparently Amazon requires its Audible audiobooks “be narrated by a human.”

▰ BUG REPELLANT: The noisier humans get, the less successful grasshoppers are at having sex. Even though “their calls can reach intensities of 98 decibels at one metre, which is about as loud as a hand drill,” we can muffle that with our own sound: “As this species is highly dependent on acoustic communication for mate location, the reduced calling effort demonstrated by males at both study sites might have a negative impact on mating success.”

▰ QUICK NOTES: RING TONE: The Kitchen Sisters have an episode on the great sound artist Bill Fontana’s work based on the silenced bells of Notre Dame(Thanks, Lotta Fjelkegård!) ▰ LIST LESS: Nothing particularly sound related ranked among the top 10 technological innovations as determined by MIT’s technologyreview.com, nor among the four additional items readers are to vote for. ▰ LEADER BILLBOARD: Ranking the 10 best games based on their sound design: thegamer.com▰ FOLEY DU JOUR: Learn how game designers behind Dead Island 2 made the sound of zombie guts, among other subjects.

Widescreen Synthesis

Another generous slate from Glasgow-based Instruō

This is a set of six modules from the Scottish company Instruō from the library of the virtual synthesizer software VCV Rack

The maximum display width of an image on Disquiet.com increased significantly with this site’s recent redesign. I figured I’d employ the capacity for the first time by taking a screenshot of the six modules that the Scottish company Instruō (instruomodular.com) made available for free last month on the free software synth platform VCV Rack (vcvrack.com) — along with, for good measure, a seventh module, the earlier Cš-L oscillator, just to max out the width. Each of these modules was ported to software from existing commercial hardware that Instruō designs and builds in Glasgow.

It’s also a good opportunity to highlight the interview I did back in January 2021 with Instruō founder Jason Lim about the process and decision-making that went into the company’s initial slate of hardware ports: “How Instruō Went Virtual.”

On Repeat: Guðnadóttir, Frisell, Rathrobin, Rplktr, Colombo

Recent favorites

It’s the start of a new year, and I want to try to get back in the habit of posting quick mentions each Sunday of my favorite listening from the week prior:

Hildur Guðnadóttir already had committed some of the most remarkable film music of the year for Tár, Todd Field’s feature starring Cate Blanchett, and she’s followed it up with Women Talking (Deutsche Grammophon) Both scores veer dramatically from her often drone-based prior work (Chernobyl, Joker, Sicario: Day of the Soldado). Women Talking, in contrast, features a lot of staccato string work.

▰ If I had done a top favorites of 2022, guitarist Bill Frisell’s Four, his third album for the jazz label Blue Note, would have been on the list for sure. It teams him with Johnathan Blake on drums, Gerald Clayton on piano, and Greg Tardy on horns (saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet). The key word is “team,” as this is a jazz album with essentially no solos; it’s all about constant interplay.

Beth Chesser and Pier Giorgio Storti collaborate as Rathrobin. Their album Ear to the Ground combines strings, voice, and unidentifiable textures, including field recordings, into a sometimes aggressive but often ruminative sonic spaces. It came out almost a year ago, at the end of January 2022, but I’ve only recently started listening to it.

Rplktr (aka Łukasz Langa) recorded half an hour using the Awake script, which comes as part of the Monome Norns musical instrument. It’s sparkling and lightly percussive. Just listen as the patterning unfolds.

▰ Embedding here won’t do it justice, so if you do use Instagram, check out Jorge Colombo’s (instagram.com/jorgecolombo) — specifically the short films he posts. The “NYC2” batch, for example, are black and white snippets, shot in cinematic horizontal mode — field recordings that evidence the keen eye and ear I’ve admired for decades.

This is a screenshot from Jorge Colombo's Instagram page, showing a train passing

M8 + TouchOSC = ❤️

Gadgets making friends

This is a photograph showing the M8 synthesizer connected to an iPhone using the TouchOSC software as a controller.

On the left is the M8, a remarkable little portable synthesizer (or “synthesizer sampler sequencer,” as the developer describes it: dirtywave.com) that I got recently. On the right is my iPhone running a piece of software called TouchOSC (hexler.net), which provides a customizable control surface. In between is a Micro-USB cable and an Apple dongle. Given how complicated so much technology can be, all the more so when trying to connect two pieces of technology from different manufacturers (don’t get me started on my I2C headaches — and if the term “I2C” is unfamiliar, you might count yourself thankful), I marveled at the immediacy of this connection, the ease with which I could suddenly not just set parameters but maninpulate them in real time.