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.

Sylvian/Wright, Migman, and myself

Some recent releases of recorded poetry and music…

2014 David Sylvian released a recording of a project he had begun in 2011 when he paid a visit to poet Franz Wright and recorded Wright reading poems from Kindertotenwald, There’s a Light That Enters Houses with No Other House in Sight.

I had not heard about it until this summer, about two months after Wright had died (May 14, 2015). I had no problem ordering the CD from Amazon but I’ve since heard that it’s already hard to come by. Start emailing Samadhi Sound to let them know it’s their obligation to keep this in print and available (at least through them, if they’ve got problems with the big distributors). I understand that it’s expensive to print LPs and CDs and to keep them on hand but there’s no reason to not have a download available.

Dave Migman has released another album available for purchase at Bandcamp, In the Fine Night We Marched…we’re testing my memory here, I think this is part 2 of The March. The storyline is a retelling based on his notes of a walk from the Pyrenees to Fisterra, along the Via Franca, in 2013. The musical aspect of the record is different from most of his solo albums, which tend to have a DIY punk edge of rough guitar backing his voice (try The March, part 1), while his collaborations with Spleen have a rich electronic backdrop. The music here is primarily synthesized but sparser than Spleen’s style. If I remember correctly he said this album was made in Garage Band.

To help tell the story on my recording memoir Prattle and Din about what I was doing in 2011, just before I began posting my recordings on SoundCloud for all to hear, I re-issued an anniversary collection from that year, 15 Years of Prattle and Din, and put it on Bandcamp. Originally I burned about ten CD copies to give to friends: so, to me, it’s something of a joke to say it’s been re-issued. Most of the compositions were recent (as of 2011) but a couple of them, such as “Music, the Beginning” and “Evil 1”, are recreations of things I’d first recorded in 1996. It’s not particularly representative of my oeuvre in that it lacks stylistic diversity. That is, I tried to put together a fairly cohesive album.

Cryo Is Not Meant to Last

Since creating Poetry and Other Sounds a couple years ago I’ve started two other blogs, both of which have been more successful at cracking open my imagination.

Poetry and Other Sounds is the noble idea, a place for people to connect and learn and, I’d hoped, communicate. It must go dormant until I’m in a different place in my life or until someone else with more time and a more journalistic personality revives it. I’m pretty much clueless as to what’s going on in the world, artistically or otherwise; a more engaged personality is needed.

The Naked Old Man is the ignoble idea. It was meant to be a place for me to rant. Considering how opinionated I am you’d think it would be a non-stop flow of words. Maybe it’s that the plan has been degraded by thought and conscience until I’m mentally stifled. I hope I overcome that weakness. Or adapt to it. I think over time there will be many more posts.

Prattle and Din is my most recent blog and it could be of interest to you, which is why I’m writing this now, and seems to be the thing I actually need to be working on. It’s a memoir of my experiences recording my poems and sounds.

As I work on Prattle and Din it begins to shape itself. The original intent of just telling a linear narrative leading from composition to composition broke down, maybe, even before I started. There are side stories and back stories. There are brief forays into technology as I would stumble into each new tool and, sort of, learn to use it, and I have to tell you about that. There are personal and social events intruding upon creativity and the process of production. The world collapses and sometimes I go down with it and fail to produce anything for years at a stretch (I’ve been making art for so many decades—never living off it—that to have a long fallow period does not alarm me in any way).

Prattle and Din is a story that solidifies in March, 1996 and covers the creation of over 80 audio compositions since then. It’ll take me awhile to jot it all down.

Telling the tale of my recordings is the one way in which I can continue the ideal of Poetry and Other Sounds.

May the frost be with you.

Multimedia Digital Publishing, Second Experiment

In the process of writing this post I’ve already encountered a major failure. More on that later. (A link to the finished book is at the end of this post.)

Last spring I made my first foray into multimedia digital publishing with an interactive PDF called Essay. The failures were as interesting as the successes, showing that it is not a universal medium even though some form of PDF is ubiquitous. The main problem is that the Adobe software used to create the multimedia PDF uses Flash. Since the arrival of the iPad Flash is on its way out, not supported on much of anything except desktop computers.

This time I am trying to create a book in HTML. The idea is to upload the book in a folder that can be opened or downloaded, making it accessible via the device’s browser. I think it should be available to all devices except for old-fashioned e-readers that only open EPUBs. Smartphones, tablets, and desktop computers should all be able to open the HTML and play the mp3 audio. (It did open properly on a NOOK HD. My first failure, however: I could not upload a folder as an attachment to this post, I even tried creating ZIP and 7ZIP versions. I still assume this could be done on a full blown website, where the folder is uploaded as part of the site and then linked to a page, such as a download button, but I’m not sure of how I would go about doing this.)

What I’m trying to do is almost the same as if I’d created an interactive book in EPUB3. The bonus is that it should be something close to universal access, as mentioned above. The downfall is that the publication is not bound, or packaged, as an EPUB would be (from what I’ve read an EPUB is little more than a packaged HTML document). (Of course, the other problem with all the things I’m trying out would be marketing: how do you sell it? After you’ve jumped through all the proprietary hoops you can upload your EPUB to one or all of the online sellers, which I don’t think you could do with a raw HTML file.)

So, for the past four months or so I’ve been compiling my documented dreams, recording readings of them, gathering photos, and piecing it all together in Adobe’s Muse.

One of the problems I wanted to tackle is the recording of the readings. Normally I work with a Røde NT-1 microphone mounted to a boom mic stand. The issue is that the mic and pop filter obstruct my view of the text so that I have to position my neck and back at odd angles to speak into the microphone while maintaining a clear view of the text. The first thing I tried was setting up a Zoom H1 portable recorder on my desk. The sound was odd, probably from reflections (echoes) off the desktop and nearby furniture, making it sound like I was in a small box. This led me to buy a new microphone, an Audio-Technica PRO 8 HEx headset mic: hands free and line of sight clear. Unfortunately I don’t like the sound of it. There’s no lower range (most microphones give you a proximity boost which makes all of us sound a little like radio announcers). I had to tweak the EQ to cut back on the middle frequencies, which I usually boost, and boost the lower frequencies. The sound is still inadequate because of the lower bit-rate mp3 format I used for the HTML download (128 kbps, which is a compromise between small file size and clear audio). (It sounded better on my NOOK than it does on my computer’s speakers.)

Another problem I faced was that I hadn’t been able to get audio files to work when linked to a button in Muse. The answer was to have the media file open on a separate page or tab. Now you can hear the narration while reading along.

And, of course, there’s the issue of navigation. Starting with the cover page there is a link to the table of contents. All pages have a link to the table as well as to the cover. (My intention was that when opening the folder you would open the file called index.html to access the cover/home page, to give you something of an EPUB experience…though opening any file at random would be like opening a real book at random, except that you use the links rather than flipping the pages.) Then, as you would expect, each title in the table of contents links to its respective document. Because this is not a PDF or EPUB where you can swipe from page to page I added previous and next page links. Beyond that, there is a button to open the appropriate audio file in whatever media player your system uses. See the sample pages below:

Cover page of Dreams, by Swampmessiah, with instructions on opening the file and using the links.

Cover page of Dreams, by Swampmessiah, with instructions on opening the file and using the links.

Typical text page from Dreams, by Swampmessiah, with instructions on using the links.

Typical text page from Dreams, by Swampmessiah, with instructions on using the links.

I think I’ve said enough.

Higher quality audio files will be uploaded to my page on soundcloud.com. They will be compiled as a set and downloadable as individual tracks (they are copy righted and made available only for your personal use).

I’m sorry I couldn’t give you the folder as an attachment to download into almost any device. Instead, I will provide you with a link to Business Catalyst, a feature of Adobe’s Creative Cloud, where I can post up to five live websites (small ones) as part of the overall service: dreamlog.businesscatalyst.com.

 

No Universal Format for Digital Publishing

Was there a time in which anyone inventing new technologies was stoned to death for violating tradition? I imagine there was. And every time I have to deal with a new battle of proprietary products I start looking for something to throw.

Don’t get me wrong, I do not idolize old technologies (with the exceptions of the bound book and a manual transmission in my car). I’ve lived with oil lamps and wood burning stoves and outhouses and having to haul in water. I’ve written with a manual typewriter (it’s sort of a printer/keyboard combo without a monitor and very limited editing capabilities, primarily involving the crumpling of paper). I’m not someone who misses the sounds of clicks and crackles on vinyl or the hiss of tape. My desk no longer sags under the weight of a CRT monitor. Et cetera.

I do, though, tend to embrace technology when it has stabilized a little, when one developer’s offering has won the battle in the market place and we can all settle down to enjoy the content rather than fussing over the medium.

This has not yet happened in the world of electronic publishing. The primary forms are: EPUB and its variants; interactive PDF; interactive magazines; and HTML. I think the only format that works on all computer platforms and on almost all mobile devices is HTML. At a glance PDF also seems almost universal.

My first foray into both reading and production was overly optimistic. ePublishing with InDesign CS6 by Pariah Burke is an excellent work, digging rather deeply into things not exactly specific to the book’s title, with an abundance of information and tips. At the time I was looking into buying his book I was also looking at Digital Publishing with Adobe InDesign CS6 by Sandee Cohen and Diane Burns. Cohen and Burns’ book looked as though it did little more than walk you through the InDesign menus. This is more or less true, though there are a couple pages in their book that I wish I’d read (pages 224-225). Burke has charts with the pros and cons of each format and spells out their limitations. Unfortunately he’s not really looking at the market and what is typically being supported.

For instance, the EPUB: version 3.0 supports more layout options as well as audio and video. Very encouraging. Cohen and Burns point out that very few e-readers or mobile devices recognize EPUB 3.0 and, to date, that most of the electronic book sellers do not market it. (I think my next project will be a new collection, a dream log, created in both versions of EPUB and probably PDF. I’ll post them here, but until I get a website of my own this will be the extent of availability. And that’s another problem for independent publishers and do-it-yourselfers: where to publish and how to make your work available to as many devices and operating systems as possible.)

On the surface PDF would seem to be the ultimate format for an electronic book. You can do almost anything with it, it’s been around forever, and almost all devices and operating systems can open it. But there’s the catch: often they can only open it. Cohen and Burns have a long list of things that don’t work, for instance in Macs and mobile devices. Hyperlinks usually still work but multimedia and buttons only work on your PC (I found this to be true on my NOOK HD as well as on my partner’s iPad3, and I’ve gotten reports from friends that my first foray was a bust on their Mac laptops). Except on a PC an interactive PDF is likely to be opened as a flat, printable PDF (your basic, boring user’s manual-type PDF). If you’d gone ahead and created a printable PDF your images would at least be higher quality.

Interactive magazine is very interesting and very versatile, with all kinds of interactivity, linking, multimedia, and viewing options. Two catches: one is that, at present, they are not viewable on computers, just on tablets (both reference books were saying the same thing); the other is that you have more hoops in terms of processing and integration to create an app for your publication and potentially much more work and expense. For instance, to create an app for an Apple readable publication you have to have an Apple computer. I don’t think I’ll be creating any kind of interactive magazine for years to come.

What about HTML? It’s capable of doing just about everything the other formats are promising, and maybe more. It’s viewable and functional on everything but some of the older e-readers.…I think the problems are threefold: packaging, distribution, and know-how. I think for me packaging and distribution are the more difficult to overcome. Unlike the general subject of digital publishing creating a downloadable packet of HTML is a deeply buried sub-genre that is not featured in how-to books or videos. It’s something that’s always “outside the scope of this book”. It’s probably not much more than creating a folder, as you would for a website, and maybe ZIP-ing it. (Once again I’ll mention that I subscribe to Adobe’s Creative Cloud and its incredible assortment of software. Muse is still under development—at least as far as I’m concerned—but it’s already an extraordinarily easy tool for creating HTML. It’s a lot like using InDesign for creating print and electronic books.…I still find it doesn’t work well for adding audio files (and also video?) and that I need to do that in Dreamweaver.)…I have no idea how to tackle distribution. None of the online bookstores market HTML books. If they did we’d probably end up with another proprietary nightmare (for instance, even though EPUB is a common format Amazon’s Kindle will not read it, you have to convert your EPUB to their file system).

So, yes, I will keep working through these issues. And, yes, I will keep you posted as to the results.

In the meantime, I’m having vicious fantasies of throwing things at the developers of proprietary systems. I’m more of a mind to pelt them with our ever-dwindling supply of Twinkies than with stones.

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.

How to Fix the Poet

On soundcloud.com there is a mad scientist of a science fiction poet named Bryant O’Hara. His work is genuinely experimental, each recording an opportunity to explore both technology and theme. I’ve mentioned him here before. I hope to post many more of his recordings in years to come.

This weekend he put up Sym-Bionic, a roller coaster ride of pitch shifting dystopia. (I’m giving you a link to the page so you can read along if you like.) It becomes more frightening the deeper he goes. Knowing that, “We have the technology to smile” does not bring a smile to my sagging face.

He wrote the line, “We can rebuild a poet barely alive/into a socially acceptable unit”, which I am momentarily taking as an antidote to a piece I posted a couple weeks ago (a babbling ad lib indicating that “there’s no poet like a dead poet”). It would be nice to think that Bryant was trying to repair my ills, helping me bask in my own ego-centric glory, but I think he has something bigger in mind…what a poet might have to go through to become that socially acceptable unit. After hearing this you might be content as a pariah.

This is my recording:

(In checking my links I find that you’ll be directed to the new SoundCloud interface. If you’re not a soundclouder the main thing you’ll notice is that the comments are cut off at a single line, even though my comment on Bryant’s track went on at length. This might be good for you but for those of us who network on SoundCloud it’s a serious problem. The past two articles posted here, by Mark Goodwin and myself, address the changes to the site.)