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

Ain’t That Grand

An ongoing series cross-posted from

Bionic piano
Augmented piano
Cyborg piano
Extended piano

What Sound Looks Like: An ongoing series cross-posted from

Also tagged / / Leave a comment ]

Portnoy’s Cassette

Stereo system provenance

Items from the estate of the late novelist Philip Roth (Portnoy’s Complaint, American Pastoral) are now up for auction. Among the household possessions: Roth’s stereo system, a fairly mundane assortment of aged components, pictured above.

Look closely at the image. I do wonder what the three apparent cassette players, a single deck on the left and a dual on the right, were for. A friend pointed them out when I shared the image elsewhere. I imagine Roth recorded himself telling his stories, and then used the system to dub copies for the transcription process. (I also like to imagine he was making generative tape loop compositions with Mia Farrow for the score to a Rosemary’s Baby sequel. A reader can dream.)

I found the Roth item via a brief rant in the Guardian that focused on its author’s deeply felt antipathy for “literary fetishists,” antipathy that didn’t manage to muster 300 words. I get the concern. I’ve killed my heroes several times over, but I also imagine that if Roth’s stereo were later found in a thrift store or garbage heap, there would have been 1,000 words to the contrary. I’m not sure what the best option is, but waiting over a year and then holding an online auction seems OK. Starting bid: $150.

This is lightly adapted from the July 14, 2019, issue of the free weekly email newsletter This Week in Sound.

Tag: / Leave a comment ]

The Conference Call v. Acoustic Literacy

An interview I did with the Article Group

It was a pleasure to have been interviewed for an article about the contentious and ubiquitous sound technology known as the conference call, especially because the article’s author, Rae Paoletta, sets the correct tone right from the start. The article begins: “The conference call is a gangrenous finger on the clammy hand of human achievement.”

After speaking with Paoletta on the phone (not a conference call, just two humans on a shared line, very old-fashioned and convivial), I was a bit concerned with how harsh I was about conference calls, specifically the often non-technological reasons for why they so often fall short of their purpose. How I put it is: “In a broad sense, people are ultimately kind of lazy,” but even before the article gets to my concerns about what I refer to as a societal lack of “acoustic literacy,” someone else says it more directly: “generally people are selfish dickbags and this translates to terrible conference calls.”

In advance of speaking with Paoletta, I sketched out a list of conference-call grievances, key aspects of the conference call, both as a technology and a site of human interaction, that are susceptible to failure. It played out like this:

  • voice quality
  • background noise
  • voice menu commands
  • hold music
    • signature brand sound
    • signature cues
    • signature hold music
    • option for no music
    • options for music
    • misreading digital silence
  • spatial orientation
  • visual orientation (cues on screen)
  • politics of being on hold pre-call

Paoletta’s piece, which also quotes Dr. Julie Gurner, is available at

Not so much ironically as inevitably, I has several conference calls in the wake of speaking with Paoletta, including on the morning the article came out. I imagined this was a jinx, and the call would utterly fail. It didn’t, fortunately. My main observations of the call, in my heightened state of awareness due to the Paoletta conversation:

  • sonic moire/cutouts (from cross-talk)
  • squelchy feedback
  • uneven volume levels
  • Max Headroom vocal glitch
  • cicada-like atmospheric noise
  • background construction noise

I posted that list to Twitter. A friend joked in reply, “The way you describe it, I’m like, where can I find that track on Bandcamp?” This made me realize something: The exact same sonic issues that I abhor in conference calls I seek out in electronic music.

Also tagged / / Comment: 1 ]

Dummy Jack

A modern fetish

When I received an invitation from asking if I wanted to participate in one of its occasional Project:Object series, I knew immediately the identity of the object I’d want to write about: a little dummy jack made of plastic and metal.

The Hilobrow endeavor originated as Significant Objects, which its founders, Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn, have described as “a literary and anthropological experiment.” For each round of Project:Object, participants write about some item of interest to them, according to some theme. James Hannaham wrote about Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band’s 1978 album, Meets King Pennett, for a series on Political Objects. Annalee Newitz wrote about a remnant of a car bomb for a series on Illicit Objects. Ten years ago, William Gibson wrote about a military-industrial ashtray. The current series is Fetishes.

The essays are very short, around 500 words, so I’m not going to quote much of mine here. It begins “Sometime around the turn of the millennium I was plagued by a very turn-of-the-millennium hassle: laptops that made unwelcome sounds when turned on.” The full piece is at

This dummy jack object was in my possession when the first Significant Object series rolled out, and in some deep lizard brain pocket of my memory, it was already associated with the endeavor when I got the invitation. As I note in the essay, I have been incapable of sorting out why the Realistic tape recorder the jack originally accompanied came with it in the first place, what purpose it once served. I did reach out to some engineering-profession friends, and we didn’t arrive at any useful conclusions, except to the extent that the absence of an explanation burnished the object’s aura of mystery, which reinforced its value to me as a fetish.

I had recalled one old friend, the incredibly talented Jorge Colombo, used to employ a makeshift such object, forged from snipped headphones, to keep water out of his iPhone when drawing illustrations on his screen in inclement weather, so I asked him about the practice via email. He quickly replied:

You are all correct about the dummy jacks, great memory. Rendered unnecessary once Apple move headset orifices to iPhone bottoms (before that the main problem was shooting photos in the rain) but I still have some.

And he shared this photo of his collection:

I was fully aware that the dummy jack as a concept has an understood purpose: making a connection or interrupting a signal without introducing a new signal. Shortly after I submitted my Hilobrow Project:Object essay for publication, I happened to obtain a new (to me) module for my synthesizer, and I was reminded me of this utility. A detailed survey of the device’s functionality included two references to means by which a dummy cable (which is to say, a cable used as a dummy jack, in that half of it isn’t plugged into anything) can have an impact on the circuitry. For example:

Tip: if you want an inverted copy of a signal–such as a gate stream–but you want it in the positive voltage domain (0-5v), use these same patch approaches, but insert a dummy cable in LEFT to defeat the -5V offset. Voila!

Voila, indeed.

In any case, I love the Project:Object series, and it was a thrill to participate. There are 25 contributors in all for the Fetish series, and these include Kenneth Goldsmith, Beth Lisick, and Shawn Wolfe. Read the introduction and check out the full index at

Tag: / Comments: 4 ]

Ornament and Candy

Soon to be upgraded, and eaten

Why, yes, a five-star review on to the person from Poland who included the lovely rainbow power cable and a bonus region-specific candy bar* with my, speaking of candy, (mini) Ornament and Crime synthesizer module (due to be updated momentarily with Hemispheres alternate firmware, though by “momentarily” I mean after work, and though “after work,” this being Friday, will likely mean this weekend, which is to say before Monday, if I’m lucky).

*”Milk chocolate bar with creamy flavoured filling (contains alcohol).”

Update: Who knew? Updating the Ornament and Crime module to the alternate firmware called Hemispheres took approximately five minutes, tops. I’m all set.

Also tagged / / Leave a comment ]