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

tag: voice

Speech-to-Text as the New Cut-up

Jamming algorithmic econo

Judging by this recent interaction with my phone, speech-to-text (STT) still has a long ways to go. Consider that the message being transcribed here was, with the exception of my name (Marc Weidenbaum, apparently aka “Mark we D Bond”), a rote automated robocall script that thousands of people have no doubt received. (That is “Mark we D Bond,” aka “Mark, we didn’t bun,” aka “Mark, we did one.) You’d think that after that many attempts by a system to transcribe the same audio over and over and over, the system would have accomplished a closer approximation.

A friend who saw me post this on social media, when it was a slightly more inchoate thought, pointed out that this STT incident was like the machine had written lyrics for the band the Minutemen (an especially ironic observation, since the band’s singer was D Boon and the Minutemen recorded for a label called SST). That idea made me think about the cut-up work of William S. Burroughs, and how with STT you could write rough-draft lyrics for a song by saying words along with the melody, and then have the transcription service make mincemeat gibberish of the rough draft, and then you could sing the resulting mincemeat gibberish with full conviction.

Oh, and the “Prima Newman” sentence was in Spanish, as was part of the preceding sentence. “Newman on the way day” is “número nueve” (number nine, number nine, number nine …). It is fascinating, and revealing, that the automated STT service can’t switch gears particularly well when the speaker, even an automated one, changes language so quickly. For individuals in situations (protests, authoritarian regimes, etc.) where they are trying to avoid STT surveillance (scenario: audio > STT > algorithmic filter > legal/police action), this multilingual approach seems like a potential tactic (along the lines of playing copyrighted material to avoid footage being archived publicly on YouTube, TikTok, etc.).

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Freeze-Dried Musique Concrète

Patzr Radio hits 229

As it nears its 250th episode, the Patzr Radio podcast continues to traffic in musique concrète with a distinctly contemporary flair. The latest track, its 229th, is by no means pop music, and yet somehow it can feel like pop, at least after the first dozen or so listens on repeat. Perhaps pop crumpled up and freeze-dried and then pulled apart with pliers, but pop nonetheless. There is something to the track’s shifty, beat-like rhythmic material, and to the pause two thirds of the way through, and to the redacted quality of the source audio, that feels as if it is responding to pop, creaking in pop’s shadow, sort of the inverse to how OG musique concrète was almost inseparable from the symphonic and chamber music it sought to occlude. The impression is fed by the opening snatch of voice, a woman in a slightly superior tone saying, “Exactly, and then they lose their function.” Lost its function, perhaps, but not its DNA. Excellent, as always.

Track originally posted at soundcloud.com/patzr-radio.

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Grazing the Ointment

Glitchy choir work from Mark Hadley


Contrasts make for rich compositional territory. Here, in Mark Hadley’s “FELT9b,” the opposed elements are vocal choir on the one hand and a beading, percussive, occasionally glitchy effect on the other. The glitch originates in part from the treatment of the vocals, which sometimes backtrack briefly, quicker than briefly, a microsecond that is like a stray thought, like a fly not so much in as grazing the ointment. The refracted vocalizing finds its match in the percussion, which is put through a delay that replicates it, as if in a hall of sonic mirrors. In a less sensitive approach, this would quadruple the seeming speed of the piece, but quite the contrary occurs. The delay seems to slow it, to divide time into more segments, to draw attention to time, to the vocals, and to a connection with the artifice of the fractured singing.

Track originally posted atsoundcloud.com/soundbymark. More from Hadley, who is based in Sheffield, UK, at soundbymark.bandcamp.com.

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A Truly Ethereal Chorus

Robin (Scanner) Rimbaud on the radio as an instrument


Even as conventional broadcast radio is on the decline with the rise of streaming services, it is experiencing unprecedented utility as a tool for making music. That observation is central to the article I wrote for The Wire about musical instruments featuring radio reception as part of their design. The article covers a wide range, including dedicated synthesizer modules, like the ADDAC102 (from the Lisbon, Portugal, company ADDAC) and the 272e (from the storied San Francisco Bay Area firm Bucha), and other devices, such as the Polyend Tracker (out of Poland) and the KOMA Field Kit (from Berlin), that include radio amid a broader range of tools, with varying degrees of integration.

In the latter camp is the OP-1, from Stockholm-based Teenage Engineering, one of whose founders, Jens Rudberg, I interviewed for the article, along with representatives of all four other firms listed above. While the collective experience of these designers was important to the research, so too was the work of musicians who employ the tools. I spoke with numerous in the process of working on the story, and quoted three in the piece, including Thomas Dimuzio, King Britt, and Robin Rimbaud, who is best known as Scanner, for his early work with another sort of radio: police-band conversations snatched from the ether.

In the context of a wide-ranging back and forth via email on the topic of radio and synthesizers, Rimbaud shared the above video as an example of his work. He said the live set began with him “randomly skipping through the frequencies until I found something in real time that felt like it might work.” What he stumbled upon was the haunting group vocalizing heard at the start of the piece. “It was a choral work on a classical radio station,” explained Rimbaud. “I then looped it and began playing across it live too.”

He continued: “As with my earlier use of the radio scanner in my works I especially enjoy the unexpected and letting these sources take me in a direction I might never expect, using radio frequencies in the ether, these indiscriminate signals that I just pull down in real time and improvise around. It could simply be a voice or a harmony, but every opportunity can never be predicted and keeps an element at risk on the surface level which has always been important to me.”

There’s a lot more material in my conversation with Scanner, and with everyone else listed above, than made it into the article. I want to find time soon to get more of it posted here on Disquiet.com, to supplement the article in The Wire.

The video was recorded on March 23, 2019, at Iklectik London and originally posted at Scanner’s YouTube channel. More at scannerdot.com.

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Icelandic Meow Echolocation

A short video by Laura Alice Watt

A housemate of mine once came home with a puppy. The little dog was so black that when its eyes were closed, which was much of the time (since it slept so much), it looked more like a silhouette than it did a live animal. However, when it was awake, the puppy was very awake. At some point, early on as a member of our multi-species household, the dog was placed in the backyard and left to explore. How it did so was fascinating to observe. On its first entry into the yard, which was quite large, the small dog started at the fence and ran, full speed, around in a circle. With each circumference, the puppy drew closer and closer in until it finally reached the center of the yard, and when it arrived there it collapsed out of utter exhaustion from the exertion.

In this video, some kittens are seen and, more to the point, heard doing their own version of exploration, in this case of an old interior space. These are the ruins of a former herring factory in Djúpavík, Iceland, perhaps best known as a spot where the band Sigur Rós has performed. Like Sigur Rós, the cats appreciate the rich echoes of the metal container. Their meows linger in the air for lengthy periods of time, measurable in multiple seconds, far longer than they’re no doubt used to. A meow generally has a quizzical quality to it. It sounds inherently interrogative: Where are you? When am I going to be fed? Here it seems to provide an echolocative utility, sounding out the three-dimensional topography of this strange structure. It isn’t only the cats who benefit from the exploration. Their meowing give us humans a sense of the space, as well: its contours, its unique qualities, its sonic potential

The video is by my friend Laura Alice Watt, who posted it at flickr.com.

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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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