A Recording Memoir

A recording memoir? Like spending months in the studio with rock stars? Endless drama and creativity? Even those books (try Tony Visconti, Glyn Johns, or Phill Brown) give a hint of day after day at a control surface playing knob and fader ballet. It’s rarely glamorous. The excitement is a bit more rarefied, that sense of a job well done.

That story is becoming legend as even professional musicians do more and more of their recording alone at their home studio. They might still have some interesting tales of life on the road but their recording experiences are becoming as dull as any amateur’s, possibly not even getting to play with those cool looking faders and knobs, just sitting at a computer’s monitor clicking the mouse between takes.

Welcome to the blank screen of infinite creativity. It’s just you and the machine. I hope you can work together. It need not be as intimidating as it seems, maybe even less so than a blank sheet of paper.

Last November (2014) I began to write down my experiences in recording as I attempted to make the transition from clueless to creative. The memoir would be Prattle and Din. I spent most of my free time for the next nine months bringing the tale up to date, as of August 2015, telling the story of each recording as well as of my (mis)adventures with technology. That’s almost twenty years of me and the machines, beginning in March 1996 on a 4-track cassette portable studio. Since 2002 I’ve been working on a computer with DAWs and virtual instruments and processors. Don’t worry, I haven’t become some sort of jaded technocrat; I’ve managed to remain true to my roots and am still pretty seriously clueless.

Of the reasons for me to write of my experiences recording poetry and music (or other sounds), other than to just get it out of my system, I think the most important is that I can inform and warn (and maybe entertain) others who would attempt to create a similar art. I’ve tried a variety of home recording solutions, both hardware and software. Along with the articles telling of each individual composition, its aggregation and evolution, I have posts on microphones, software instruments, effects units, analog and digital portable studios, et cetera. Learn from my mistakes (buy a preamp for your mic!). My experiences are limited so I’ve added numerous links to every article.

I might also inspire you to get beyond some of the conventions of music to try more experimental ways of producing sound. If you think a pop song or classical music is the best thing ever and that’s what you want backing your poetry, by all means. But, really, there’s no reason to get stuck with convention. Everything, absolutely everything has music making potential. It’s just a matter of capturing those sounds and then doing something with them, whether leaving them natural sounding or mangling them beyond recognition (just taking something out of context is often enough). The sound manipulating possibilities within computer software make this very exciting to play with. And if you’re a poet you probably already like playing with sound.

If you have experience recording my story might just be a bit of nostalgia and a source of argument (for instance, I do not glorify recording on a 4-track). Checking out someone’s instruments and tools in recording is quite a bit like checking out someone’s library—it seems to be the geek alternative to butt sniffing (I reek amateur).

I almost forgot, you might have an interest in my recordings and want to know more about them. Almost every post has a story about the sounds I’ve used, maybe something about how they were processed, and how they were put together. There are often photos of the recording tools and of household objects turned into musical instruments. There are screen shots of how the sounds are laid out on a DAW’s timeline, showing the structure of the thing. There is the poem itself (or rant or dream) and often some background information as to what was going on in my life when I wrote it and how it evolved over time, if it was an early work.

I want more people making this kind of nonsense—poetry and other sounds—so it is in my self-interest that I convince you it’s worth your time. I just want to kick back and enjoy what you’ve done. I want the luxury of being a fan.

Interactive Books, First Excursion

For over 30 years I’ve wanted to produce books that include not just my words but also my drawings/paintings. Back then it was impossibly expensive, even to do it in black and white. Adding audio to my repertoire in 1996 put it even farther out of my reach.

Now we have digital publishing. The possibilities are overwhelming. They are more titillating and frustrating than satisfying, because there is no universally readable format. (Pariah Burke lists the current formats, their pros and cons, in ePublishing with InDesign CS6. Discussed are: EPUB, PDF, digital replica, interactive magazine, and HTML—and the variations of each.)

But, it’s fairly affordable.

I decided to start with something already in existence, a chapbook I produced in 1984. It was called Essay (verb, to try something difficult) and was my first foray into self-publishing. Originally it was printed by a quick printer in black ink, no half-tones, on highly acidic paper. The text was done on an old office typewriter (manual, not electric) by a not-so-competent typist (me) with drawings that were pretty basic and, so I thought, easily copied (they weren’t, because I couldn’t afford to do half-tones). I knew so little about making books that I even botched the binding (see photo below), stitching from the side rather than through the spine (side stitching is common in traditional Japanese binding, I love the look of it and use it from time to time, but what I did with Essay was nothing but incompetence).…I made 50 copies. A few friends bought them. The Amazing Alonzo’s paperback exchange in Duluth put a couple on the shelf on consignment (I was a good customer). Cheng-Khee Chee, then head librarian of the UMD library, graciously bought a copy.

Chapbook cover. Essay. With inept binding.

The cover of Essay, 1984, showing the inept binding.

The first step was to scan all my original printer spreads (yes, I still have them) and then break them into individual pages. The awkward part of this book, and what makes it a poor choice for a first try, is that it’s all images. Ordinarily you’d create a book in InDesign or QuarkXPress by creating text and image boxes that will reflow to fit the screen of the viewing device, depending on what format you choose to export this as. I still might try to do this one as a fixed image epub, like a children’s storybook.

The first attempt at interactivity was to add navigation. Because I didn’t want to do anything to conflict with the look of the original I did not create visible buttons. So far everyone who’s played with this has found the navigation buttons pretty quickly (most of them are what you’d find in any format of epublishing).

Then I decided to take a step into the future (or recent past) by adding audio. I read a description of each page or read the poem. Conscientious artisan that I am, I cleaned the background noise from the recording (that would be the fan on my computer), compressed the vocal to make it more consistently audible, tweaked the EQ (also to make it a little easier to hear), and added a pinch of reverb to make it more aesthetically pleasing. Of course almost all this work disappeared as soon as I converted the files to 32-kbps MP3 files—sounds like shit but it makes the overall document file more internet friendly (it’s still about 10MB).

It’s easy to embed any kind of media file into an InDesign document. A little file player is created that can be placed anywhere on the page.…On playback of the finished PDF I found it becomes an ugly gray box that won’t go away until the file is reopened. It took some fooling around to find a place that was consistent from page to page but would never cover any of the text.

A replica of the table of contents where I define all the navigation points and the button for the audio player.

Here I define all the navigation points and the button for the audio player.

What seemed like an almost universally supported file format, the PDF, has failed everywhere except on PCs. It only worked the way a printable PDF would on Macs and mobile devices, both Android and Apple operating systems. That is, the navigation buttons still worked. It seems that InDesign creates a Flash player when embedding the audio. (I need to further explore what’s happening. So far my searches have not been informative, much less suggesting alternatives.)…I tried attaching the audio files in Acrobat, which also worked on my desktop. On my NOOK HD this version would no longer open the PDF reader navigation with page thumbnails.

Click the link below for a fully operational copy of the book. Your feedback is welcome.

essay interactive electronic 2013

Okay…I tried a preview on my computer, a PC running Vista 64-bit, and everything worked.

As I continue to explore electronic publishing I’ll keep you posted at this blog. I’m looking into other possibilities as well, such as a bonus feature with a CD download (a printable PDF with images and text).

Addendum, March 7, 2013: Because people are running into the same difficulties playing the uploaded PDF as they had at home when various family members tested it (no audio on Macs or mobile devices) I’ve uploaded the audio to soundcloud.com. To hear the continuous set go to the sets tab or to the sounds tab for the individual tracks (which can be downloaded, for your convenience). One thing to say in favor of the recordings posted on SoundCloud is that they are higher quality than the 32 kbps mono versions embedded in the PDF. They are 256 kbps “stereo”. Supposedly CD quality.

Pretension

Last summer I had an email exchange with fellow soundclouder Lee Foust about contributing to this blog (he’s in the process of publishing a book, more information regarding this and other works can be found on his website and his blog, Sputnik—you might also want to google his old band, Nominal State) . He mentioned that his students found many things “pretentious” and that he thinks pretension is a requirement for the creation of art. The subject has been nagging me for months.

I find I’m unable to pick apart what he said to guide you into my own essay—and we’ll generally be talking about something different; that is, different interpretations of pretension and how it applies to art—so I’ll quote his paragraph in full, and maybe it’ll nag your thoughts, too:

“As yet I don’t really have much myself to say on the issues that you raise or upon the form itself. I try, in my CW workshop, to play recordings for students and perform myself once a year at the art school where i teach this course, to expose them to performance and inspire them–but, for the most part, they seem rather shy. Often performance for them is “pretentious.” At art school this seems to be the most feared word. As a post-’77 punk I find this similar to the revolutionary musician’s “street cred.” The establishment (mainly through journalism) tames and quiets the musician or artist by creating false paradigms–the artist is a savage who cannot understand what they made/do and if they self-consciously (as in performance) do appear to understand their own art they are “pretentious.” I always argue that without pretension there is no art–innocent art is a lie–the artist always knows what they are doing, I think, we must pretend/fight to let the chaos in rather than vice-verse. So, performance is a hard sell to America’s youth I find. Even I, listening to FareWell Poetry found it rather too slick–but I’m falling into the same trap I think, I find it rather controlled and too well orchestrated. There is, I guess something to be said for a little chaos, a little chance in art, perhaps. So I spin around in contradiction apparently. Ha.”
—from an email dated July 9, 2012

To that I want to add a dictionary definition of the word:

1

: characterized by pretension: as

a: making usually unjustified or excessive claims (as of value or standing) <the pretentious fraud who assumes a love of culture that is alien to him — Richard Watts>

b: expressive of affected, unwarranted, or exaggerated importance, worth, or stature <pretentious language> <pretentious houses>

2

: making demands on one’s skill, ability, or means : ambitious <the pretentious daring of the Green Mountain Boys in crossing the lake — American Guide Series: Vermont>

—from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary

The social meanings of pretension are pretty clear, basically synonymous with social climbing and ostentation, the ubiquitous wanna-be quality of the modern world. In my day-to-day drudgery behind the scenes of corporate America (I install office furniture), I see this sort of pretension primarily in the marketing and art departments (the latter could lead to a whole discussion of people figuratively putting on berets…to me, they are fashion flakes, people more concerned with social status than art…or to a discussion of how many of these people feel they’ve sold out, given up on true creativity by making corporate icons, when in fact they’re generating the only kind of art our society values, whether it’s the logo or the Sunday newspaper ad, which often causes them to give their beret a defiant tilt).

In regard to art, pretension often seems a misnomer, something applied to anything you don’t like or don’t understand or are uncomfortable with, as it appears with Lee’s students.

I came of age in the era of Progressive Rock (born in 1957—you do the math). In my experience pretension is a synonym of grandiose and over the top. It’s what artsy people in England do. Basically, it’s the opposite of Real Rock.…I’ve actually come around to another side of this argument and find that dumbing down is more pretentious than trying to excel. If you have the training, as, for instance, many of the prog rockers had, why would you ignore your skills and ambitions to play simple rock? Is it more sincere? Are three basic chords somehow more authentic than six esoteric or exotic chords? What’s more pretentious than someone from a middle or upper class background with a PhD. singing folk songs or blues?

I was brought up to be a janitor or something similar. So, for me, any creativity, any artistic activity, anything that pushes my imagination and consciousness beyond going to work for 40 hours a week and then taking care of my home and family is pretension. (Actually, it might be considered insanity.) I have absolutely no business writing or recording poetry (or even reading it!). I have no business drawing or painting. Who the hell do I think I am writing a blog and expressing opinions? So much of my life is a betrayal of who I was meant to be.

The only art that I saw before I was eighteen (I exaggerate slightly in that we were presented with Literature in high school but few students could connect with it in any way) was commercial art: advertisements and illustrations, pop music and Hollywood, radio jingles and slogans both corporate and political, billboards and magazines, television and radio. This is almost certainly reflected in my own art, especially my drawings and paintings. Even here I could say that what I create is pretentious in that I usually hope to express something—usually nothing more than to give notice that I feel or that there was an electrical blip somewhere that might be construed as thought. This is nothing more than a continuation of the pop culture of my youth. If I had been born into a different era, one that only believed in entertainment, where making meaningful statements was something left to the scholars and writers of Literature and to professional artists, I might have been content to entertain. Maybe I would even have been content to sweep floors.

I find any art that doesn’t push boundaries, any artist who isn’t going beyond what was done yesterday—which I suppose could also be considered pretentious by many who don’t like the next step or don’t understand it—falls short. “I always argue that without pretension there is no art–innocent art is a lie…” I tend to agree with Lee’s statement. Any artist who does the same thing over and over, who isn’t pushing boundaries, who isn’t trying to surpass what they’ve already done is either a moron or a cynic (placating an audience).…In a sense the artists of the Modernist period were false in exploring primitive, child, and insane art—”innocent” art—in trying to find a purer, more honest art: it could be considered strangely pretentious. The search, based on a question, was honest. Presenting their products based on that search as pure and honest art was pretentious. I don’t know that this makes it bad art, that we should no longer study Gaugin, Picasso, or Klee. I don’t see the Academic art of the late-19th Century as being any more pretentious, just as I fail to see Prog Rock as pretentious. The questions are: does any of this art express anything of interest; do you find the technique and message working together; does this work make you feel anything. And if you’re at all familiar with the artist’s career: is the artist developing; is the artist growing as a human being and is this expressed in the work.

In my experience art begins with chaos and spontaneity. It’s rare that I feel like a conduit for something outside myself—maybe because I’m too aware of the fact of my subconscious—but I almost always start with a free association, a somewhat random connection of sounds, words, or images. Then I edit and revise and polish. Not all artists work this way. I know artists who start with ideas or a need to express a specific feeling, who are very conscious of their goal right from the start. I know artists who hate to revise or polish. I know artists who seem to have no chaotic spark visible in the finished work.

So much for fear and ignorance and cultural posturing (which is pretentious). Like an organism, all art must grow or die. All artists must go beyond what they did yesterday. I find it difficult to label any vital, active artist “pretentious”. To me it’s the consumer using art for social prestige and advancement, the nauseating connoisseur, who should face the accusation.

But what do I know? I’m supposed to be cleaning up someone else’s mess.

 

 

The record I’ve been waiting for

In 1978 I heard the record that made me hungry: An American Prayer, the posthumous release of some of Jim Morrison’s poems with sound collage and musical backing by the surviving members of the Doors. Some people hate it. Some love it. To me it doesn’t matter if it was good or bad: the important fact is that it changed my expectations of what can and should be done with poetry.

Since then it’s been pretty bleak. You ever see those nature films with the animals wandering the Serengeti with nothing to eat or drink, yet they must keep moving or they’ll die: that’s how I feel about recordings of poetry and music. There have been sporadic recordings throughout the years by artists who don’t feel the need do whole albums or multiple albums of poetry (for instance, Hawkwind and Laurie Anderson might come to mind).

And of course there’s Brian Eno and Rick Holland’s collaboration Drums Between the Bells.

While checking out what was going on in the world of Istvan Peter B’Racz, probably looking for something of his to listen to, I noticed he was following someone called Farewell Poetry. Of course I had to find who or what they are.

Of course I had to buy the CD/DVD once I heard “As True as Troilus”.

Listen while you read on:

September, 2011 Gizeh Records released Hoping for the Invisible to Ignite by Farewell Poetry. This is the record that has given me hope. (I think Drums Between the Bells will make more waves and influence more people, both artists and consumers, leading to more recordings of music and poetry combined—which gives me hope that there’s a future for the genre.) This is the record I’ve been waiting for almost 35 years, and because of this I have hope that beautiful records of a sort I long to hear will still be made.

I’m won over by Jayne Amara Ross’ poetry and voice (Ross is also a filmmaker and the second disc is video). I’m won over by painfully beautiful music, a mixture of sweetness and noise building to multiple crescendos and final collapse.…I feel totally inadequate to describe anything about these recordings: just listen to them. That’s all I want you to do: listen to these recordings. I can’t get my fill.

How Statements by Eno, Mark Goodwin, and David McCooey Led to the Creation of This Blog

My interest in the fusion of poetry and music has often seemed dormant: all the years waiting for something to come along, waiting for some of the big names to embrace the opportunity of creating something relatively new and unfamiliar; all the years I spun my wheels trying to figure out how to make this kind of art myself; years thinking no one else was interested in such an art, or thinking of it as a secret cabal in New York or London or Berlin (places where they might take poetry seriously, but not so seriously it couldn’t be polluted by pop music). Even after finding a few of my kind on soundcloud.com it didn’t feel like enough. But I drifted along without working very hard to find more.

When the Sept/Nov 2011 issue of TapeOp (No. 85) arrived in my mailbox I noticed that they had an interview with Brian Eno. That could be interesting. It was. It was very enjoyable and informative and interesting until I read a sidebar on page 44, two questions regarding a recent collaboration between Eno and poet Rick Holland, Drums Between the Bells. Words to me that were devastating, since they suggested I was right that there isn’t much out there: “The whole process was a little like alchemy for both of us since we were working in a form that doesn’t really have much of a history.”

Of course I ordered the CD.

I also wrote to TapeOp (probably the first of the two actions). My hope was that it would be published and that I’d be led to a hidden treasure of music and poetry. (I really want to thank editor Larry Crane for publishing that one (it appears I have a reputation for writing often). It led to some interesting and rewarding responses, mainly of people introducing me to their own work.)

First, I’ll quote myself, repeating in full the letter I sent: “The interview with Brian Eno was the most enjoyable I’ve read in TapeOp, and I’ve read almost all of them. I want to thank you for the discussion of Drums Between the Bells, his collaboration with poet Rick Holland. As Eno said, “We were working in a form that doesn’t really have much of a history.” I hope it’s a form that has a future. Ever since I received Jim Morrison’s poetry set to music, An American Prayer, for Christmas in 1978 I’ve wanted to hear more of poetry and music combined. I’ve come across so little. Is there a gold mine out there I’m missing? Are people making something of poetry and music and I just don’t know where to look? Maybe once again the ripple effect from Eno’s splash will wash something up in a decade or two.”

Before I go any further with the responses I got to this letter to TapeOp, I’d like to add a couple tracks from Eno and Holland.

First of all, a guy named Steve sent me some information about Jack Kerouac reading with a jazz band on the Steve Allen Show, as well as an attachment of one of the performances. Interesting. I still need to follow where else this could lead, what’s in print and available.

Then I received an email from Brad Fiedler with a link to Shive Records and his collection of recordings called Typer Tapes #1. This is definitely worth your time. It reminded me of early Tom Waits and the Marlow stories of Raymond Chandler, with kind of a gritty street feel and a weird jazziness, but most of all reminded me of the Beat poets.

The third was someone named Bobby with a slightly confusing pointer to Listener. I liked what I heard but haven’t been back for more.

The fourth contact, a guy named Evan, recommended an EP by Sigur Rós, Rimur. Maybe some day it will be easily and affordably available.

Another gem was a message followed by a CD-R from Christopher Libertino. He’s known for his Alien Guitars loop discs and many soundtracks. You’ll also find some wonderful songs at his website. What grabbed me were the six recordings on the CD he sent, called Schism (three of which are posted on SoundCloud) of his poetry and sound design (and artwork). Here are two of them:

Yet another wonderful lead came from Wren Curtis regarding the work he and his brother have been doing with poet Lynn Martin. From a recent email: “We absolutely never rehearse – Lynn gives my brother the set list and a very brief overview as to the mood of the poem(s) about a week before a gig, my brother gives me a setlist 5 mintutes before we play with nothing but the title of the poem and a key, and off we go.” This is very different from how many of us work, alone in our private studios/bedrooms/garages, laying down one track at a time. I often forget about the performance side of things.

On the heels of that email was a message from saxophonist Hal McMillen, alias ThinMan-Studios, with a link to a track he and a friend had done, called Next Life. He came the closest to introducing me to the gold mine I was seeking, a place I’d already been: soundcloud.com.

The final message message was from Steven, who writes Christian-themed songs in a folk/alternative style. I agreed with him that poetry has long been associated with music in the form of song lyrics and that it’s possible poems were originally sung not spoken but that I’m still interested in spoken poetry. (I also think I offended him when I pointed out that I am an atheist and much of my writing is hostile to religion.)

That last message arrived the same day my younger daughter was hit by a car (many scrapes and bruises, a chipped thumb bone, and several broken metatarsals, the outermost being shattered and requiring a long convalescence—but, considering the possibilities, relatively minor injuries). That is, I stopped paying attention to poetry and music for several months.

My interest resumed in April when Mark Goodwin sent me a link to an essay by David McCooey, Fear of music: Sounded poetry and the “poetry soundtrack”. David had also come to the conclusion that what we are doing is hard to find and poorly documented, though he has also shown that we are not at an absolute beginning, that others have been here before. An interview of Mark Goodwin on the subject of Digitally Produced Audio Poetry also confirmed this (“I now have a problem – where do I send this stuff? (Any ideas will be gratefully received!) I’ve surfed the internet standing on my sore ears and as yet I’ve found very little out there that is quite like the stuff I’m producing”, to quote Mark).

Those two pieces, McCooey’s essay and Goodwin’s interview, left me in a very unsettled state. It made me start thinking that I need to do like Larry Crane when he founded TapeOp, not finding the information he was looking for (and certainly another way in which TapeOp led to the creation of this blog). Once I decided there needs to be some sort of publication on the subject and no one was offering to take it on, after a week’s poor sleeping, after researching the details of creating a blog (wordpress versus blogger or blogspot), after concluding that it doesn’t matter if I don’t have time for it…here it is.

We make the art as best we can, when we can (since it doesn’t pay), adding to the repertoire; airing it as we can, getting small attention via podcasts and community radio but primarily by posting on soundcloud.com. At soundcloud.com poetry groups have been formed. Mark is constantly browsing and recruiting for Air to Hear. We try to connect with friends and strangers.

And we create blogs.

This Starts Out as a Comedy

Do I first tell you about recording tools, both hardware and software, digging into explanations of what various tools can do for you? Do I start with lessons in simplicity, just to help a beginner get started? Do I give you examples of different approaches to recording? I intend to do all these, to the limits of my knowledge and ability (limits all too quickly met, which is why I’m always soliciting contributors), but not today.

Today I’m going to give you a brief introduction of some of the tools and techniques I’ve tried over the years, a few words about the process itself, and several examples of the results. Brief, of course, is a relative term.

This story starts out as a comedy, of the obnoxious, half-hysterical sort, of someone who’s both clueless and irritatingly eager to get at an elusive goal…it’s cute if it’s your wiz-kid nephew out in the backyard building rocket ships but in an adult it comes off more like an outtake from Dumb and Dumber. (Yes, I’m talking about how I started recording.) Now days it’s easier to break into the process of recording your poetry, modifying it and turning it into some sort of temporal, 4-dimensional, audio composition. All you need is a computer, which almost everyone has, some freeware, and a way to connect a microphone to the computer (if the computer has a mic, that’s it). (Actually, you can do this entirely with hardware on a portable recorder or a portable studio, though you’ll still want to transfer to a computer and/or the internet.)

= = = = = = =

In the 1980s, into the 1990s, I kept trying to record readings of my poems, ambient sounds, my older daughter’s infantile squawks, but I was always held back by poor technology, poverty, and ignorance of the available tools; and, ultimately, I had no way to combine the various recordings into an actual composition. My ideas were not focused as to what I wanted to do and my unsubtle hints to musician friends about collaborating gave them just one more reason to keep their distance. These recordings were all done on cheap portable stereo cassette players or similarly cheap component cassette players (part of a stereo system, if you’ve come of age on earbuds), with the aid of a really cheap Radio Shack mic.

By 1995 my ideas were becoming a little more tangible and seriously too weird for any of the musicians I knew. A couple of friends, with a semi-pro home recording set-up in their attic, had begun telling me that what I needed was a 4-track. I’d heard of 4-track recording: Sgt. Pepper’s was done on 4-track at Abbey Road. You need a reel-to-reel recorder that costs tens of thousands of dollars combined with a mixing console and microphones and who knows what else. After months of this disheartening advice, my look of utter confusion caused them to finally pull me aside and show me a mail order catalog for musicians: 4-track cassette portable studio for about $400, a recorder with a built-in mixer—musicians had been using them for years. To get started the only other thing I’d need is a microphone. I ordered a Fostex XR-5 in March 1996 and my friends loaned me an Audio-Technica Pro25 microphone, designed for use with bass amps and kick drums (loud and low-pitched sounds…a Shure SM-57 would have been a better choice, costing not much more than what I eventually paid for the borrowed mic, but I’d never heard of it).

If I had been a musician that would have been all I needed. Off the bat you have four tracks of sound: one for the poem; one for banging on something; and two more for other sounds. If that isn’t enough you can bounce tracks: for instance, record something onto the first three tracks then play all three as they’re recorded to the fourth track; record two more tracks and bounce them to the third—you can get a pretty complex arrangement this way (or, in my case, a very cluttered one). Better yet, you can do weird and creative things by varying tape speed or flipping the tape to record something backwards. The process is quick and spontaneous, just plug in a microphone, flip a few switches, turn a few knobs, and make noise (oh yes, and press record). You do have to pay attention to where the cables are connected and make sure those switches and knobs to direct and monitor your signal go the right way, but, really, it’s quick, easy, and a lot of fun to work this way (there are now digital portable studios that afford roughly the same process, or if you keep your computer’s set up simple it remains fun—so, yes, I feel nostalgia and sometimes forget how much I hate everything tape based).…The main drawback is in terms of quality: cassettes never had a great sound to start with; when you bounce tracks the noise, such as tape hiss and circuit noise from your equipment, accumulates.

Fostex XR-5 cassette 4-track portable studio.

Not only am I not a musician, especially lacking in rhythmic skills, I had grand ideas of almost symphonic creations made of household sounds. Within two weeks I had ordered a Roland MC-50 Mark II sequencer for controlling the playback of sounds and a Roland MS-1 phrase sampler for recording around and outside the house. Probably the simplest analogy to a sequencer is a word processor: like a word processor a sequencer records basic messages like note on, note number (each note of a traditional keyboard is assigned a number), note velocity (how hard a piano key was struck)—rather than the letters and numbers of a QWERTY keyboard—which when played back communicates these messages to other devices, such as hardware or software synthesizers or samplers, what to play (as in a word processor, it gives you the letters of the alphabet without telling you the formatting such as font, color, or text size, so you could have your playback sound be from any instrument, familiar or something totally original). In other words, I was introduced to the nightmare known as MIDI. Sequencers are still alive and well in hardware in the form of the AKAI MPC and many musicians prefer to compose with them rather than having to deal with a computer (newer hardware/software hybrids such as Native Instruments’ Maschine maintain the feel of a hardware sampler while utilizing the storage capacity of a computer’s hard drive). But sequencers are also an essential feature of almost all modern Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs), if your computer is connected to a piano-like MIDI controller (or a drum controller, wind controller, or even a paper controller (I don’t want to get into that, just heard about it a couple days ago). Actually, you don’t need a hardware controller: MIDI can be created entirely within the DAW, either by drawing in the notes or by step recording (either way, a very tedious process).…The sampler was a tool for recording real world sounds. At the time there were two main types of sampler. The one kind was made for creating or simulating instruments and most software samplers (such as NI’s Kontakt), as well as many hardware models and wave based synths are of this sort: very few of which give you the power to record your own sounds though most will allow you to create your own instruments once your sounds have been uploaded (ever wanted to do a simple melody of sneezes?). Originally phrase samplers, such as the AKAI MPC, were used to construct songs from samples of other people’s music (think of classic hip hop recordings by Public Enemy, Beastie Boys, Jungle Brothers, or club favorites like Fatboy Slim—though I don’t know if any of them actually used an AKAI). I chose the Roland, though it would only hold 28 seconds of sound, up to 32 samples (unless you could afford a memory card), because I could plug in that inappropriate microphone (for bass amps and kick drums) and take it with me anywhere to record any sound, edit the sounds within the sampler, and use it as a playback instrument.

So I now had some element of field recording and the option to construct with any sound. This is still at the heart of my audio compositions, with or without poetry.

(The way I started working, after purchasing these electronic instruments and controllers, was to maximize the number of sounds input while recording any given track. This is a form of pre-mixing and can lead to many retakes and headaches if you don’t get the levels just right.…First, I’d record time code to track 4, from the sequencer. Then I’d record track 1: almost always the sampler with a basic rhythm of my home recorded sounds; usually a keyboard for instrument sounds, in this case bass if I was using any; then up to two microphones, one for additional live tracking of banging on things and the second for voice recording. Then I’d do roughly the same thing to tracks 2 and 3, with more samples, synths, and live tracking. On the finished mix track 1 would be panned center, which is why I put any bass and the primary rhythm there, while tracks 2 and 3 would be panned extreme left and right. Finally, I’d make it uneditable by recording my voice over the time code on track 4.…My method was similar when I switched to a digital 8-track recorder (see below), but more relaxed. The primary advantage was that I could go back to bouncing tracks because there is so little accumulation of noise, compared to the cassette 4-track. Typically, I’d record samples to the first six tracks, still using the sequencer and sampler, then bounce them to tracks 7 and 8. This is another form of pre-mixing. Compared to the 4-track, on digital I would never really have to start all over again if something didn’t balance well with the other sounds. I could just remix another bounce (the VS-880 has eight virtual tracks, so, if I’d wanted to, I could have tried eight mixes of tracks 1-6 before I’d have to actually re-record anything), or re-record a single bad track if that was the problem. (Another plus is that I was never wasting an audio track to record time code. A whole different part of the VS-880 would take care of that.) Then I’d add tracks of MIDI-controlled synth or realtime recordings of noises and voice. At that time I made much more use of my Stratocaster than I do now.

This track, “Night”, is one I recorded to 4-track, circa 1997. It’s simpler than most in that there’s nothing to it but my own samples, one of which was looped, and voice. (The samples listed include: a wooden whistle, like a very small recorder, distorted; the side of my desk; the plastic wrapper of a roll of duct tape struck with a butter knife; clacking plastic spoons; a comb; slinkies; a mailing tube and rolled newspaper; a cassette case; a Bestine can, distorted. The Bestine can, playing the part of a snare drum, is an example of how a sound can be distorted with just the formant feature of the Boss VT-1 (see below). I think that’s also what I did with the wooden whistle, which sounds almost like a night bird.) The samples were mainly recorded as a few random MIDI performances (I do a lot of random), then replayed by the sequencer and sampler as it was recorded to tape. Followed by my reading of a poem, obliterating the time code on track 4.)

Roland MC-50 Mk II Micro Composer, circa 1996. It doesn’t look very musical or inspiring does it. There’s nothing spontaneous or innate about working with such a tool.

Roland MS-1 phrase sampler. Portable recording and instrument. The buttons on the lower right, numbered 1-8, are performance pads, played by pressing or tapping. They could play back the whole sample, such as a percussion hit; play back an extended drone if set to loop within the sample; repeat a phrase, such as a drum pattern, if set to loop the whole sample; or create chopped and stuttering effects if set to play as long as you’re pressing the pad.

Of course I bought other things to embellish my creative possibilities: a multi-effects processor for reverbs and delays; a compressor (never learned to use it and hated the noise it generated); a better MIDI keyboard; other microphones; an electric guitar; as well as a ton of cables and adapters and other esoteric devices that the studio world seems to flaunt. After a year of working with MIDI and cassette I grew frustrated by the difficulties of synchronizing them, plus I wanted more tracks of recording, and bought a Roland VS-880 digital 8-track recorder (a digital portable studio). As an object I still look at it with a very twisted esthetic longing. I came to hate using it because of the difficulties of back up and retrieval and because I became obsessed with cleanliness of sound…good sound is nice to have but, really, ultimately, the only things that matter are the performance and how the pieces fit together (that is, the composition).

The one tool I’d like to mention, something not standard in most recording environments, that I’ve used over the years, is the Boss VT-1 voice transformer. Originally created for DJs, it’s obviously great for gimmicks like robot voices and chipmunks but can also be used for creative effects, and not just on voice. With it you can control pitch, for the standard giant and munchkin voices, but also formant, which is where it steps into the world of serious sound design. Basically it mimics changes in the apparent size of your vocal cavity (this can be very interesting when you apply it to things like guitars, changing only the formant but not the pitch). With it you can make somewhat believable transformations of age and gender, as well as more subtle changes to your regular voice.

Boss VT-1 voice transformer. By eliminating pitch you create a basic robot voice. By changing only the pitch you can create generic giant and chipmunk sounds, as you can with changes in tape speed. Changing just the formant can be very interesting when used with voice or any other sound. Making small changes to both pitch and formant is how you come closest to authentic seeming changes of size and gender.

This is one of my more recent excursions into voice transformations, Hello Earth, where I did an ad lib as our planet’s mother.

The one piece of equipment I lacked in those days, and one I cannot stress strongly enough for its importance, is a pre-amp. If you’ve taken a step beyond recording with your computer’s built-in mic or using some sort of USB microphone and are using a hardware audio interface, or if you’re using some sort of portable studio, I really recommend a pre-amp for your microphone—there’s more to it than phantom power. With that 4-track analog and 8-track digital, it would have made a huge difference by making the primary signal (my voice or an instrument) louder and clearer while keeping the circuit noise of all the electronics to a minimum. Even with a hardware interface it’s nice to use a tube pre-amp to color the sound a little. If you’re going for a clean sound the pre-amp colors it just a little. If you want distortion this is still considered the most desired form of noise: that is, tube distortion. It would have been a very cheap piece of gear ($100-$200) for something that would have been a great asset to my signal chain. Pre-amps are not glamorous like a signal processor, they don’t make obvious changes to your sound the way a reverb unit or delay unit can, but I wish I’d gotten one before I wasted money on all those other tools and toys. (Since shifting to computer to record, I’ve owned a Belari MP-105 and a Presonus Blue Tube. The Belari never sounded right to me, too blatant, too simple. It seems the Blue Tube is not as popular for exactly the reason I like it: it’s too clean, going from an almost transparent sound to a subtle fuzz of distortion.)

= = = = = = =

My way of working within the box, within the computer, has gone through two major periods: one running from roughly 2003-2006, almost entirely with commercial loops, and the second beginning in 2009, as I return to something of the strangeness and spontaneity of my earlier recording methods.

I don’t remember when I bought my first computer, maybe 1999 or 2000. The operating system was Windows 98 SE.…Editing my poems had been such a hassle in the old days (circa 1987 and earlier), either rewriting the whole thing by hand or, worse, retyping it: that and other reasons caused me to give up on the written word (falling in love might inspire poetry but being in love, living the life, making a home and all that, left me speechless; so did having a full time day job for the first time in my life). Then, circa 1992, I discovered and bought a word processor. Out came a torrent of words, many attempting to be politically correct while still venting spleen (a most unnatural combination).…When the word processor died and I went to look for another I found that they’d been taken off the market because computers had become so popular, cheap, and versatile. I did not want to buy a computer.

Learning to record had caused me to set aside most of my drawing. Learning to use a computer also led me to set aside recording as I spent a couple years cataloging my art (typing hundreds of poems and rants, scanning thousands of drawings and paintings).…Very slowly I started to use the computer for audio, first by converting some of my LPs to CD-R. This began by experimenting with a bootleg of Sonic Foundry’s Sound Forge (now owned by Sony). This was also my introduction to Audacity, before I bought a legal copy of Sound Forge and learned to use their noise reduction software.

Up until the autumn of 2001 I’d been making a living as a screen printer. Once the economy crashed and I was unemployed, an overly generous cousin gave me a couple hundred dollars to help my finances: I’m sure to her I misused the money when I purchased Sonic Foundry’s ACID Pro (version 3, I think) (also now owned by Sony), but it was the one thing I did in that nine months of joblessness that has had a permanent impact on my life.

As it is, I’m the kind of person who spends days reading the manual before plugging in a new device (seriously, when I bought that Fostex in 1996 I really did wait two days before plugging it in), but this computer thing took me longer. I don’t think I did much with ACID for over a year (by then I had a new job in a new field—installing office furniture).

(A brief digression regarding DAWs. I think the earliest programs were strictly MIDI. If you had enough sound modules, with or without a built-in keyboard, you could construct a large multitimbral composition to be played back like a symphony of player pianos. Of course it took a lot of programming and the computers crashed with even such light usage programs. As an independent medium MIDI has never caught on.…Part of why Pro Tools became a studio standard is that it was one of the first programs for the recording of live sound on a computer, basically replacing tape based recording formats (both analog and digital—the 1990s being the era of the ADAT).  Pro Tools was a very spendy proposition and has remained  so until recently, requiring expensive interfaces and converters for the sound coming and going from the computer.…The buzz in the 1990s was looping, as on the aforementioned AKAI MPC. ACID was the first program to make this ridiculously easy within the computer. Now, of course, pretty much all DAWs do all three, allowing you to work with MIDI, track live performances, and construct with loops. Usually, both hardware and software are extremely easy to set up; then it’s just a matter of doing what you really wanted to do in the first place: compose.)

For several years my compositions on the computer, within ACID, as I learned my way within the program and as the program evolved, were almost entirely made of canned loops from the ACID loop library. Instead of wandering around the house banging on things or just hauling strange objects to my room to record, I’d spend hours exploring my hard drive to find sounds that would work together. I have to liken this to the process of digging through old magazines and illustrated books to find images for a collage (almost exactly what someone is doing by creating loops from old records).…At it’s best, I view the use of loops as the poor man’s way of hiring a studio musician. Because you’re poor you can’t actually tell them what to play, you just have to accept whatever they’re in the mood to do for you that day. I’ve never been comfortable with the process, not because I think it’s in some way lazy or cheating, tapping into someone else’s creativity, not even because if hundreds or thousands of people are using the same loops everything will sound the same (I don’t think there’s much out there that sounds like what I’m doing). No, I dislike using commercial loops because they’re too professional, too pretty, and too musical.

This is one of my more satisfying recordings done with loops. It ties in well with “Night”: this is “Insects”, circa 2003.

It took me so long to get comfortable with working on the computer that I continued to record my voice to the VS-880, then transfer it to the computer, recording it to Sound Forge. After spending hours, more often days, building up the “music” in ACID, I’d have the rhythm memorized, so when I’d record the reading of the poem the performance would be almost completely synchronized to the composition (needing a little tweaking) and attuned to the feel of the sounds. (Even at the beginning I’d tend to create an instrumental, then find an existing poem or write something new that matched the feel of the piece. I almost never do something that could be construed as illustration, that is composing sounds that amplify the meaning of the text.)

2006…I was tired of working with loops. My job was wearing me out. What else was going on? Not sure, but I started to loose interest in audio compositions. Started to loose interest in a lot of things. I did a collaboration with Charles Schlee, worked on a couple other things in 2007, then my computer died in July, 2008. This was roughly two years of computer hell: the first year because almost none of my audio software or hardware was compatible with Vista 64-bit; the second year because Native Instruments was continuing to turn away from 64-bit  until the release of Komplete 7 (I don’t mean to pick on them, this denial was industry-wide). I almost ditched ACID because of it. I did have to switch from an M-Audio Firewire Solo, because they did not have a compatible driver, to a Focusrite Saffire audio interface (and even that gave me trouble at first).

The result of a two-year headache? Almost totally altering the way I work, returning to greater usage of original samples, the usage of field recording, more live tracking, and performed rather than sequenced MIDI instrumentation. I started recording directly into ACID, so my readings and other performances are in real time and more directly attuned to the sounds (quite a few more ad libs in recent years, as in “Hello Earth”, above). Even though I’d had NI’s Komplete on my computer for years (bought Komplete 3 on sale just before Komplete 4 was released—August 2006—and some of their keyboards came with a version of ACID earlier that year or in 2005) I’d hardly ever used any of their magnificent instruments. I still haven’t dug very deeply though almost every composition of the past couple years features several of their synths and samplers. (For the past year or more I’ve been playing with one of their obsolete processors, Spektral Delay, to create mutating drones.) The essential change is that what I do now is play more often than work. I still waste a lot of time browsing synth patches rather than loops and spend many hours tweaking both the MIDI data and the settings for each individual track’s effects and levels, but, really, it’s again become fun to record audio. (Also, it’s been more fun since I subscribed to soundcloud.com. I don’t have a large audience but just knowing that a few people will hear what I’ve created is a great feeling.)

The other major change, in 2011, was the purchase of a portable recording device (a Zoom H-1). When I began recording in 1996 the cheapest portable devices were Sony DAT recorders (with moving parts to break down…even worse, if I remember correctly, they were consumer grade and had copy protection that would interfere with transferring to other digital devices), I think starting at $1300 dollars, plus the purchase of microphones. The H-1 sells for about $100, is a complete recording tool with built-in microphones, stores hours of high quality audio while running on two AA batteries, and needs nothing but a USB cable to import your recordings to a computer (not absolutely necessary, because you could transfer the data by inserting the micro-SD card into your computer, but the accessory pack comes in very handy with a tiny tripod, foam windscreen, and USB cable).

I’d like to end this with something out of context for a poetry blog. First is a composition based on a processed field recording, “You Are Welcome”, that is also a vocal ad lib. The primary sound source is a recording of snow pellets falling onto dried leaves. It was processed numerous times within Spektral Delay. There is some additional instrumentation and a drum loop. (For a “purer” presentation, listen to “The Angels Are Agitated“.)…Following this is a synth instrumental, featuring presets from Native Instruments’ Absynth, Massive, and FM8. It is a multitrack recorded MIDI performance  called “Sunday Morning”.