iPadded Cell

One of the exciting aspects of recording these days is the affordability of it. The most recent release from Dave Migman was created on an iPad, iPadded Cell. Almost all of us have some sort of electronic device, just to survive in the modern world, that probably comes with or can download recording software. When finished you can upload your recordings to Bandcamp for free (the fee comes out of your sales rather than up front).

For a while now iPads have included the whole Apple software bundle, including Garage Band. I work on a PC so I have no direct experience with Garage Band but I assume it’s pretty much like any other DAW. It comes with a fairly useful and robust sound library of both traditional instrument sounds and electronics. As with any other DAW, if you want the subtlety of performance a physical object would produce, the non-musical squeaks and wonks that are often incorporated into the sonic palette, especially since the elevation of jazz to serious art music, you’ll be very unhappy. You’re still going to need a real instrument and microphone and, most obviously, a real musician. But you can do some amazing things with these software instruments.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts about Migman’s recordings, he’s most at home with his guitar making some rather punkish squalls of rhythmic noise to accompany his blood and sinew, modern myth poems. Some of the slicker sounding, more classical accompaniment on this album seem incongruous and a bit misguided. The opening track in particular, “No Soothe Throat”, came across as an ominous forecast with its plucked strings. It turns out that much of the recordings here have synth and electric guitar sounds that, to me, work better. But even the other recordings with orchestral patches seem to fit better. I’m not really here to review his work though I seem to be sliding into a review. I just want to point out that you can do some interesting and acceptably good work with inexpensive tools.

Here is an extensive quote from Dave: “I have my own misgivings about the album… partly guilt. I know a lot of musicians and they spend their lives practicing their art… with the touch screen instruments that the iPad version of GB offers you create sound by rubbing the screen (sounds bizarrely Sci-Fi erotic… like something from an old Woody Allen flick) – but its true. Pressure alters the sound, resonance, the way you touch the screen alters note length. It’s actually very intuitive and well designed. However, as stated in the note that goes with the LP – I’m fairly certain a monkey could belt out a tune on the thing. The presets offer structured chords in rhythmic sequence, which you can alter should you wish. For me the boon is that after years of carving rocks I can’t play guitar so well, the old hand claws up. The guilt factor comes with the ease and comparative lack of skill needed to create a tune.
Another drawback with GB is that you can’t alter the levels to a great degree and to transport the tracks to a laptop or PC is complicated and time consuming… it’s also a bitch to recompose each track into the full song. I’m sure there are ways of doing it.”

The other thing I wanted to point out about Migman is that he is a hard working guy. I don’t know of many people recording poetry and music together and most of us who are seem to be too easily distracted by other things. Dave, too, is distracted. I know he’s written at least one novel while producing several albums of recorded poetry. I start to wonder if the guy sleeps.

If you want to do some good in the world, buy his work. Any of us who are recording poetry and music or other sounds are less than marginal. We need your support.

Advertisements

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.

Online Recording Resources

I don’t think making art is just a matter of spewing sounds or paint or what have you to convince the world that you’re alive and that you feel, though I have engaged in a great deal of spewing over the years. You have to start somewhere.

I think making art is also a matter of craftsmanship. It’s a matter of learning to use and misuse the requisite tools. At times I’ve been a little too concerned with craft and technique. Until you’ve mastered your tools craft can interfere with your emotional flow and you end up with nothing but a poorly made exhibit of technique—at best, an educational aid, a reminder of what you don’t want to do again.

During winter break of my final year of high school (this would have been December, 1974) I began delving into my mother’s paint box, which she hadn’t touched in over a decade. When I graduated in June of 1975 I started to paint in earnest and began ransacking the Duluth public library for everything I could find on painting and drawing techniques and quite a bit on art history: it was all new to me. This lasted at least a couple of years.

Throughout the 1980s I went through a similar process with books on writing poetry.

In the spring of 1996 I again began this process with books and magazines on home recording.

The one lesson almost all these works omit is the importance of making art. All the gear in the world, all the techniques every master can pass on will not give you what you need to make art. Just get out there and do it. Spew! The people I’ve encountered who are recording their readings on their phone or onto their laptop with the built-in mic are off to a good start. I would urge them to do the best reading/performance that they can (rehearse it, record multiple takes) and don’t get too close to the microphone but beyond that, just keep recording.

That being said, improving your craft will help you offer something more pleasing to your audience. Lo-fi has its charms but, to me, the only redeeming charm is that a great performance was captured despite poor technology. Most of the time the recording is only a tool for capturing and structuring the actual art, which is sound, and should be as transparent as possible. But recording can also be a more integral part of the art, in a sense adding to the flavor or creating a tangible matrix for your words and sounds. Once you have some skill it becomes an esthetic choice and you are a little less a victim of technology.

The substance of this article is minimal, a series of almost random links to websites that discuss some of the basics of home recording. I ran a Google search of “basic music recording” which provided most of these links. Then I ran a search for “basic recording techniques” which was very disappointing: it was almost all adds for schools. And a third search for “home recording tips”.

This article began with someone’s letter to the editor in Tape Op, a magazine for recording engineers, thanking them for opening a new questions page on their website. ( http://tapeop.com/and http://tapeop.com/questions/) I can’t say enough in favor of this magazine, I’m a fan (and I’m not a fan of much that humans have created), and the subscription is free. The magazine on the whole is not that geeky. It’s not really a tech mag with page after page of mic placement and reports on knobs turned, though they have those moments. Primarily it’s a document of the human side of recording. I find the interviews inspiring and informative.

If you’re trying to take the first steps into more serious studio recording, on whatever budget, I don’t know that Tape Op is the place for you. I recommend reading every issue past, present, and future (as I said, I’m a fan) but you could very easily find your eyes glazing over when they do get down to serious discussions of hardware and technique. And when you see the price tags on some of the gear you will sometimes think there’s nothing in it for you. But they, more than anyone, support the just-do-it approach to recording. Use whatever is at hand. It’s the art that counts, not the tools used to make it.

I think I’ve said this before and I know I’ll say it again: if you have a computer connected to the internet you can get almost everything you need to record online for free.

I’m going to supply a rather random list of links I found from those searches. What I noticed is how much most of the authors get caught up in gear fetishes. That’s why I’m putting the dummies.com link at the top of the list. (I generally haven’t gotten much of value from their books, which are too broad and too basic to answer most of my questions. But they might be the perfect place for you to start.) I also liked the quick links on the Basic Home Recording Studio site, which is why they’re second on the list.

Also, most physical book stores and certainly the online bookstores have plenty of how-to books for home recording. I read many that were in print in 1996 or shortly after. They also have a tendency to get bogged down in gear fetishes. As do I, for that matter.…I think you should find the few things that you really need, the best you can afford, and learn to use what you have. Everything else is potential distraction and baggage. (Here is a quick reference as to where you might start looking for cheap and useful tools: http://www.sweetwater.com/c1006–Portable_Recorders.) A portable recorder is a significant step up in quality compared to using your phone or the mic built into your laptop and can be used for recording just about any sound, from your voice to environments to instruments.

http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/determining-what-you-need-for-your-home-recording-.html

http://www.basic-home-recording-studio.com/

http://www.musicradar.com/us/tuition/tech/25-pro-tips-for-better-home-recordings-169382

http://therecordingrevolution.com/

http://lifehacker.com/the-basics-of-music-production-lesson-1-set-up-your-h-499088482

http://audio.gracenote.ca/knowledge/basic_recording_process.htm

http://www.articulate.com/rapid-elearning/4-simple-tips-for-recording-high-quality-audio/

http://entertainment.howstuffworks.com/5-home-recording-studio-essentials.htm

http://www.renegadeproducer.com/diy-home-studio.html

http://www.homerecordingtips.org/

http://www.soundrecordingadvice.com/tips.html

Do You Really Want to Be Heard?

The music the adults would listen to when I was a kid, in the 1960s, always had the band at the far end of a very large room, barely audible, and the vocalist practically sitting in your lap. This is the pop mix and it’s still in use today, though part of the rhythm section might be turned up enough for you to always feel the thump in your rump (or wherever it hits you and makes you want to dance).

I loved hearing a rock mix, really coming into its own around 1970 when I was starting to collect records, where the singer is just another member of the band.

Just compare Andy Williams’ recording of Moon River with Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, you’ll immediately hear what I’m talking about. If you were to have these songs as background in a crowded room, such as a restaurant, you’d only hear Williams’ voice. Black Sabbath…unless it was played loudly enough to be annoying you might not hear at all. It would just be a garbled mess.

How to mix music and poetry has been an ongoing discussion/debate/argument—depending on how much investment someone has in the outcome and how threatened they feel by criticism—I’ve been having with poets, musicians, and DJs on soundcloud.com, as well as with friends and family.

As I’ve stated, I like the rock mix. I like having the vocal down in the mix not lording it over the other sounds. But I’ve come to the other side, the pop side, with regard to poetry and music. I think I may be consorting with the devil. I’m almost certainly betraying Art (that stuff with that capital A).

Most of my life I’ve created in response to some inarticulate need, some bizarre drive to put things on paper or canvas, to noodle around with images and then words and most recently to do unnatural things to sound. I have rarely made things to please others or to communicate with them. I’d say it’s more how I think, or how I document stages of a thought, so I’d only be trying to communicate with myself. I certainly haven’t done it for money.

But in the past few years, since the spring of 2011, I’ve been posting my recordings on soundcloud.com and other human beings have been interested enough and gracious enough to listen to what I’ve been doing. I think I owe them a little consideration, even if I’m still only trying to communicate with myself.

I’ve started to develop my recording and mixing technique in a more sociable direction (not necessarily improving it): primarily, I’ve been using a lot more compression and EQ.

When you speak, the first phonemes, as well as the first words, have more wind behind them, more energy, and will sound much louder than the rest of the sentence. Your first word or two will be loud and clear and possibly overloading the microphone and circuits whereas the end of the sentence will trail off into silence. This varies from person to person depending on their reading/speaking technique, how well they preserve their air supply and how often they pause for breath, as well as how full of wind they are (I’m not going to play with the windiness of any particular poet, myself included). I’m not very physical and I tend to be a mumbler, so when I record myself I drift off into nothingness more often than not. My technique makes it hard for people to hear what I’ve said.

The easiest way of dealing with this is to use compression. As the word implies, compression squeezes things, in this case sound. Your loudest sounds will be squashed so they no longer jump out compared to the other sounds. It gives you headroom, which means that you can turn up the volume of the whole sentence, before you overload and distort your equipment and digits. (This is what they do in radio and TV, especially in advertising, to make things seem louder.) A lot of compression makes everything sound like crap, there’s no longer any dynamic range. Also, it brings up the noise floor: as soon as you have more headroom to raise the overall volume you also raise the volume of the noise, such as circuit noise, tape hiss, ambient noise, computer fans, et cetera (to some extent this can be dealt with by using noise reduction software, but often only in the spaces between the words, depending on the quality of your software and how much and what type of noise).

Because all of the vocal is now louder from compression but without the spikes at the beginning of words, I can make my voice sound louder than the surrounding sounds without overloading the mix. It’ll be easier to hear what I say. The sentences will not trail off the way they did in the original recording.

The other thing I’ve started doing is to tweak the EQ in the mix. What this means is to accentuate or diminish different frequencies to make various sounds or my voice stand out against the others. I’m not going to dwell on this. A quick and rough example should be enough.

Let’s say your voice is not real high, not real low. It probably competes for sonic space with most stringed instruments and parts of a drum kit, such as the snare and cymbals. (I rarely use conventional instruments or samples of them but more than likely you do. Either way, whether using a guitar or a washing machine, the premise is the same.) I will lower the volume on my voice below, say, 500 Hz, or 300, because not much of the articulation is at the low end. That’s where the vowels are. I’ll save that range for other sound sources, let them have their say. But I will bump the EQ a little around 1000 Hz (or 1 kHz) because that’s the area that speech is most legible. That’s where you’re most likely to recognize individual words. It’s the range of articulation. Along with that boost to my voice, I’ll tone down some of the other sounds (for instance, I might notch the guitar part a little around the same frequency range, at least while I’m speaking).

Exactly how much EQ and compression are not just a matter of taste but reflect the kind of instrumentation you’re using and how much you want your words to be heard. If you’re doing just voice or voice with a very quiet and subtle background you might not want to tweak it much, or not at all if you’re a purist. If you’ve got a lot going on, perhaps going for some version of a “wall of sound”, you’ll probably want to make some major changes to the levels.

Enough said about the technology. I want to say more about the history of how I came to more of a pop mix and what the debate is about.

When I started posting my recordings I received comments from listeners who couldn’t hear what I was saying. I’m calling what I write poetry and the idea is that the word is god, so, yeah, they should be able to hear the word. Some of these people were native speakers of English, so this means that they simply can’t hear what I’m saying. Others were only somewhat acquainted with English: first, to accommodate them I started posting the text on the song page; then, to make it even easier, I started posting the text as a comment on the track itself (so at least with the old soundcloud interface they could read it while listening, without having to leave the page they were on).

So far this has done nothing to change the esthetic object. It’s put me out a little, time wise, but the recording remains the same.

But it was still stressful for the listener. That’s when I started digging into my recordings and altering the levels, both in the mix (changing the compression and EQ as well as volume of one track against another) and in the mastering stage, where I can shape the overall sound. This did change the esthetic object. This pushed me from my beloved rock mix to the dread pop mix. (Okay. Art people aren’t supposed to like anything pop, unless it’s an ironically cynical spoofing of pop. Despite how weird and unfriendly my recordings are, I’m actually a pretty mainstream kind of guy. I am not pure. I am most definitely not high art. And, ultimately, I have no pedigree or credentials. Let’s just say I’m a poseur. So, really, by using a more pop sensibility I’m only violating my own taste and not staining my everlasting artistic soul. The soul that I don’t have: I’ve just decided that I’m an artistic golem.)

Sorry for the digression.

Another detail of mixing that I’d forgotten, which brings me out of both the pop and rock esthetic, is that I use little or no reverb. It’s called mixing dry. (I think Lou Reed is one of the few name artists who doesn’t, or didn’t, sweeten his voice with reverb. I will process the hell out of my voice but really don’t want to use reverb. This has nothing to do with Lou Reed’s choices.) I came to this decision because my arrangements are very busy (let’s be honest: cluttered) and even a little reverb made my words that much harder to hear. I came to this conclusion probably ten years before I started posting online. The conclusion to be drawn from that fact is that I couldn’t even understand myself.

The original use of reverb, it’s reason for being once people started recording in a studio rather than a concert hall, was to give the recording a sense of place. It was there to make the band sound like they were in a better room than the one they were actually in. But almost immediately musicians and recording engineers started using reverb as an effect, to sweeten the sound, to give parts of the recording a little something special.

This has now become a source of sonic nightmares, and I don’t mean the creation of recordings that strive to express a nightmare or to capture the dissociation of a nightmare. I mean that reverb is now used to turn music into a sludge of sounds in competing spaces. Anyone who has recently gotten their first effects unit or software with reverb has made garbage (myself most definitely included, even though I was trying to be restrained). The worst of it, though, isn’t the excess of reverb but the conflicting echoes. Almost every instrument, especially electronic synths and samplers, will have its own reverb. So, in the finished recording, you could have it sounding as though each instrument was played in a different room. On top of which the whole composition might be awash in a unifying reverb. I guarantee you will have trouble understanding the poet’s words when reverb has gotten out of control.

Now we get back to the conflicts of opinion and why I often give offense…

It is common for the musicians working with poets, as well as poets themselves, especially those new to the tools of recording, to put the voice low in the mix and to use a lot of reverb. As I’ve now stated, I object to this not for esthetic reasons but for the sake of the listener.

With a song it doesn’t always matter that the listener can’t hear every word that’s sung (in fact, it’s often a kindness). Even when people sing along they aren’t conscious of the words. They couldn’t tell you what the singer just said or what it meant. It’s really just a flow of sounds. Even when the lyricist is superb and the listener should be paying attention that’s rarely the case.

Poetry and any other kind of spoken word demands more of you. When someone talks to you it’s normal to pay attention. You have to listen a little more closely, like it or not. Already, recorded poetry is making demands that a song wouldn’t. Then, if you have the voice so it’s barely audible, buried in the mix and drowning in reverb, you’re forcing the listener to stop whatever it is that they’re doing so they can hear what you’ve got to say. And you’re a poet and think, of course, they should do that. This is poetry. This is serious. Or, you might be thinking that it’s poetry and no one’s going to listen, ever, so who cares if the words are intelligible. Either way, you’re not really taking into account another person’s experience.

Most listeners will turn you off and look for something a little less demanding. Something that fits better in the background of their life. That’s just a fact. No one owes you their attention. No one owes you anything. Good bye, ego.

One of the arguments for more of a rock mix is that most listeners now days have the recording plugged into or around their ears. They aren’t listening on speakers and they’ll hear every word.

Another argument is that a collaboration or remix is not going to be the only version of the poem and that you can link to a clearer recording of the words. Of course my child would be pointing that out to me. I think of listening to music on a dedicated medium such as an LP or CD or tape on a device connected only to other audio devices, such as an amp and speakers. Link? What does that mean?

Yet another point of view, says my partner in a very loud voice, is that a very large percentage of the Earth’s population has better hearing than I.

Of course there’s still the esthetic argument, that it has to work as a whole. I would say the musicians, DJs, and remixers are thinking of how all the pieces fit together, of how they all interact sonically rather than intellectually, and that having the voice stand out would destroy the whole.

And then there’s just plain attitude: I’ll do as I please and the audience can follow me. Which may or may not be a statement of arrogance. Or a matter of integrity. Or insensitivity.

I’m sure there are plenty of other ways of looking at this. Please share your opinions. Dialog is just about all we’ve got.

I don’t really care how you make your recording. I don’t really care how you mix it or whether or not I can hear your words. And if you’re collaborating with me, using my words, I actually don’t care how you do that, either (ideally we both have a go at the material and I can mix it however I please).

What I do want is for you to think about what you’re doing, to have a conscious moment before you give your art and your work to the world. Do you want people to hear your words? Do you want to make it easy for them to listen or do you think they should go out of their way to hear you? Do you want your recording to work as a whole, your voice just another sound? With modern recording technology you can have it all with little or no extra expense. You can very easily make alternate mixes, let your audience download a dozen versions of everything you do. You can trust your audience to make a few decisions of their own.

If you’re a poet, a recording poet, you’ll probably never have a large audience. But maybe a few thousand people would like to hear what you have to say. Think about what their experience is. For most of us there’s an unconscious step in the creative process where you’re more of a conduit or vessel than a human being. But after that it’s a matter of editing the gift, of continuing to shape it, whatever that “it” is, into a public object, a work of art, a shared experience.

Give a little thought and care as to what that object will be.

I’ll part with two examples of my own. The first, Psychedelic Baby of Death, is something I recorded in 1998 or 1999, and is a good example of how hard it can be to hear what I’m saying. My voice is competing with an air compressor (for a nebulizer) and an electric guitar as well as an excess of reverb on all the sound sources. I’ve tried to master it so my voice would be more audible (can’t get rid of all that reverb no matter what I do) but it still requires a lot of effort on the listener’s part.

The other recording is My Soul. This was created in June, 2012, well after I started posting on soundcloud.com, and does a much better job of taking into consideration the listener’s experience.

In case the recordings are not available for streaming, as often seems the case with soundcloud, these are the direct links to the song pages (though of course they might be down as well):

http://soundcloud.com/swampmessiah/psychedelic-baby-of-death

http://soundcloud.com/swampmessiah/my-soul-draft-1

Second post script, October 12, 2013: Several weeks ago I received help from soundcloud.com but could not correctly interpret what I was being told. They suggested I switch to HTML and re-paste the links. I don’t know anything about HTML nor how I would do this, and said so. What they meant, and what someone at WordPress said more clearly, is that I need to use the text editor rather than the visual editor. You can toggle between the two tabs at the top of your editor page. That seems to have fixed the problem.

This is a recurrent problem I have with technical support. We don’t speak the same language and it’s rare that there’s anyone on the support end who understands the subject and can still communicate with those of us who do not. (Does this remind you of math and science teachers?)

I thank people at both soundcloud.com and WordPress.com for their assistance.

Post script, September 8, 2013: In response to David McCooey’s comment regarding his own struggles with the balance of voice to sound, I think the point of the article, though not quite blatantly stated, is that we have no way of predicting the environmental circumstances of the listener. It also, I suppose, pits the creator, who would like to control the final outcome of their creation, against the consumer, who’d like to personalize that precious object to fit their own needs and tastes. Other than wanting to see artists recompensed for their labor, I think we creators need to learn to let go (I know I’m having trouble with this). Once the work has reached the public it is no longer ours. The recipients of our work have now begun to invest it with their own needs and imaginings and emotions, it’s begun to fill their dreams as it once filled ours, it has begun to reshape how they see the world.…I think my digression here is to say that I wish the audience could have the same tools I have—multitrack audio software—to remix the compositions to suit themselves, to bring the vocal down when listening on headphones and to bring it up when listening in the car.

A Very Basic Introduction to DAW

Just because you’re an intelligent and creative person (that is, a poet) doesn’t mean you know anything about recording or composing, or that you know anything about the technology for creating any kind of audio composition. This is specialized knowledge with a specialized language and specialized tools: it takes a while to learn it, even the basics.

I’m going to take a few minutes to introduce you to some of the most rudimentary means of construction within the recording technology accessible to almost anyone in the modern world: the DAW, or digital audio workstation, on a computer. That is, I want to introduce you to recording actual sounds, creating with MIDI, and looping.

I do my sound editing and some basic recording in a program called Sound Forge, then construct an audio collage in ACID Pro. (These are moderately expensive programs, both of which come in much cheaper versions. I’ve been spoiled by good software and it is now one of the few luxuries in my life. Almost all the DAWs have at least one limited use version at a lower price, and almost all also have a version that is free. The wikipedia article on DAWs lists quite a few options, both paid and free.) In the late 1990s there were huge differences in what each program could do. For instance, most of the programs were nothing more than MIDI editors and controllers. Pro Tools made its mark by being a dedicated recording platform—turning your computer into a digital tape deck. ACID was unique as a loop production program. Now they all do pretty much the same thing.

Twenty years ago loops were the buzz, very mysterious and very intimidating (at least to traditional musicians).  All there is to a loop is a sound recording set to continuous playback (yes, that annoying theme song that keeps playing while a DVD is in menu mode is a loop). Looping in performance—that is, performing and recording a musical phrase and setting it to repeat, then creating more layers the same way—takes talent and timing. The subject here is a bit more static and slow moving. The loops I use are created by setting the beats per minute (BPM) by selecting how many beats a recording has or by selecting a tempo (say, 110 BPM) in an audio editing program like Sound Forge (this is also known as acidizing). You can buy commercial loops, such as short passages of drumming, that are ready to go, and I’ve used them but find the process dissatisfying. Most often I create something original made from recording found and household objects abused in various ways.

In 2003 I found some furnace filters while cleaning out a commercial space, on my day job, and brought them home to rub and bang on. The following recorded clip is one of the results:

By looping it and placing it on the timeline in ACID I’ve created a crude rhythm. You’ll notice that the sound is quite different now: that’s because the tempo of the sample was set to something like 298 BPM but the composition is at 110 BPM. This stretches the sample beyond its limits, creating artifacts very much like zooming in too far on a photo. It’s sort of like an audio pixilation.

Here is how it sounds:

And here is how it looks on the monitor in ACID Pro:

loop and MIDI

This is a screen shot of looped audio and a MIDI track in Sony’s ACID Pro.

Below the looped audio file you’ll notice five horizontal blue bars. This is a display of MIDI information in a piano roll editor (as opposed to a text editor). The basic blue bar shows the pitch by diagramming its placement on a piano’s keyboard; duration by the length of the bar along the timeline; and how hard the keyboard was pressed or struck by the little vertical wand with a diamond on top. MIDI data can be entered by performance in realtime with any kind of MIDI controller (a piano-type keyboard is the most common but wind controllers (basically a sax mouthpiece), guitar controllers, and percussion controllers are also very common), it can be step-recorded with a controller (a laborious process where you set the length of each note then create it with the controller), or you can even draw in the notes in the MIDI editor.

The mind boggling side of MIDI is that you can play it back with any sound, whether on hardware or software. In this example I merely copied the MIDI clip and placed it on two tracks. The first track is the original sound module, a patch called M’Lady on a software instrument called M-Tron Pro (an emulation of the venerable Mellotron). For the second track I used a purely digital product by Native Instruments called Massive (a patch known as Infatuated).

The last component, and to the poet the most important, is live recording. You can record your voice or any other sound directly into the computer with any of these programs. Or you can record elsewhere with a portable recorder, your phone, or anything else that can capture sound and then transmit it to a computer, then open up the file within the composition program.

The example I’m providing is a recording of my older daughter at the age of five, in 1996, on a cassette 4-track portable studio just a few months after I began working with audio (this singing and babbling goes on for half an hour and only came to an end because the tape came to an end—unfortunately she’s become a rather shy young woman).

all four tracks

This is a screen shot of ACID Pro showing the looped sample, two copies of a MIDI clip, and a fragment of stereo audio (my daughter singing).

I’ll conclude with one of my compositions, Winter Flowers. With this piece I used a variation of sampling and looping not discussed above. First I’ll let you hear the original field recording of “snow pellets”, little hard balls of snow not quite solid enough to be considered hail. This was then looped in a processing program from Native Instruments (unfortunately long discontinued) called Spektral Delay, a mixture of delays and EQ filters with a visual controller (you can draw how the filters work). I did this several times over, each time with different settings, then compiled them randomly in ACID. To which I added voice and a couple MIDI instruments. The whole thing is very simple.

Mark Goodwin Interviewed at Strange Alliances

Last week I posted an article about recording and some of the tools that might come in handy. An interview of contributor Mark Goodwin has recently been posted on Strange Alliances that partly continues this subject (about two-thirds of the way in). It’s an excellent interview on Mark’s motives, why he’s not a farmer, and on creativity in general. I encourage you take the time to read the whole thing.

Recording Your Poetry Is Affordable

…if you have some surplus income and/or already own some electronic device such as a computer, tablet, or iPhone.

When I first began recording in 1996 I started as cheaply as I could: a 4-track cassette portable studio and a used microphone totaling less than $500. Oh, yeah, and some cables. Within two years I’d gotten myself about $10,000 in debt and still had no way to put this work in front of the world except through mechanical reproduction and physical distribution. Still, it was very cheap and egalitarian compared to what was available 10-20 years earlier (well, the field was becoming expensive again as digital recorders entered the market, and that’s what brought me down).

Now there are so many inexpensive options, both for creation and distribution, because of the ubiquity of computers, portable devices, and the internet.

(Before I forget, digital portable studios are now very cheap, starting at about $100 for a 4-track. I know very little about these, the quality of recording, what formats are supported, and how they interface with computers. And you still need a microphone (and I’d say a pre-amp). This is more what you’d want if you’re working with others, such as if you were resident poet in a band.)

I’m primarily going to discuss multitrack, computer-related production. (If you have an iPad or iPhone I encourage you to explore the apps and inputs available. Microphones that connect directly to Apple products are becoming very common and inexpensive.)

One of the cheapest ways to record your art and build structures that are more than just a documentation of your reading is to use the microphone available in your laptop and to download free software, such as Audacity (for PC, I think Apple comes with music software). If I remember correctly, these recordings by Dave Migman and Lee Foust were both done this way:

Another very cheap way of recording any sound, as well as your voice, is a handheld portable recorder (I use a Zoom H-1, which cost about $100). Almost all of these recorders can connect to a computer via USB and some sort of card, such as an SD card. They often come with free software, though you might want to stay with Audacity. I use mine for field recording, though I have also used it for recording readings and improvisations. Among other things, Mark Goodwin uses a portable recorder for his landscape projects:

For reasons of control and convenience I prefer to work in a “studio” (that is, my bedroom). Probably the next cheapest way of recording directly to computer is to use a USB microphone. There are many on the market, usually under $200, that come with free software.

When I began working on a computer about 10 years ago, it wasn’t so simple and direct, though it had already become affordable (that is, costing hundreds of dollars rather than thousands). You still had to use a traditional microphone and needed an audio interface that would transform an analog audio signal into ones and zeroes for the computer (ASIO, for output as well as input, to eliminate the lag so you could monitor and overdub in realtime) . I think all current audio interfaces will supply phantom power for a condenser mic and most have a built-in pre-amp to boost the signal.

I recommend a pre-amp. It’s not a glamorous tool but is the one thing I wish I’d gotten before I laid down my first signals to tape. For digital recording it’s nice to have a tube pre-amp to color your signal a little, to add tube distortion (one of the sources often referred to as “warmth”).

At the moment my usual signal chain is a Røde NT1 condenser microphone (roughly $200); a PreSonus Bluetube 2-channel pre-amp (about $250); an M-Audio Fast Track Pro, 2-channel USB audio interface with digital I/O and MIDI I/O (also around $200). None of which would satisfy a professional engineer but is perfectly adequate for most of us. Also, keep in mind that you could get comparably good gear for about half the price if, for instance, your pre-amp were single channel or your USB interface skipped the MIDI I/O. A Shure SM57 is still a staple in the recording industry and costs under $100.

You should also keep in mind that if you intend on recording with any kind of instrumentation or mangling your voice or household sounds, software has become ridiculously cheap. For the past couple years the buzz has been around PreSonus Studio One, starting at $100. I use Sony’s Sound Forge for editing (mostly for mangling sounds, creating my own loops, and for conversions to various formats) and ACIDPro for composing. (I’ve had Audacity on my computer but haven’t used it in years. I really don’t like the program but want to remind you that it’s free and easy to use.)

Finally, there’s distribution. If you think you’ve got something to sell there’s Bandcamp, CD Baby, iTunes, and many others, each with their own quirks, perks, and idiocies. Something I’ve yet to explore: Netlabels. You can post your recordings on your own website. My choice for the past two years has been  SoundCloud, which can give you a more social experience than the other options. Or an old standard: MySpace.