A Quick Mention

I want to treat this installment as a news flash. Mark Goodwin has an upcoming event and Dave Migman has two new releases of music and poetry.

First, I’ll pass on the basics of the exhibit Mark Goodwin is putting together in Leicester, quoting from an email announcement he sent me: “Poems, places & soundscapes  An international exhibition of digitally produced sound-&-poetry focusing on place, and soundscape. Poet Mark Goodwin and Brian Lewis (of Longbarrow Press) bring together and present a range of vivid, immersive sound-enhanced poetry made through various poet, musician and sound-designer collaborations, as well as by individual poet-sound-artists. The exhibition also includes a small selection of ‘place-entranced’ film-poems. This exhibition is part of Mark Goodwin’s Sound-Enhanced Poetry project, which was awarded an Arts Council of England Grant for the arts in 2013.  An open and informal panel discussion about sound-enhanced poetry and film-poem will launch the exhibition on April 10th 2014, 6.30 pm, The Cube Gallery, The Phoenix, Leicester.”

I hope you get to see and hear it in person.

I’m also hoping there will be more to post about the event and exhibition.

Something a little easier for most of us to experience are two more collections of recordings by Dave Migman, both released on March 5, 2014. We have a collection of his solo works, In the Kingdom of the Blind, released on Spleen’s label Splitting Sounds Records, which includes possibly my favorite recording of his, The Drift.

The other collection is another collaboration with Spleen, Where All Tracks Lead. As much as I liked their last album, Sheol, I think I find this one even more satisfying, perhaps because the music is more rhythmic (the old rocker in me is hard to put down).

In the future I’d like to do an article about Radio Wildfire, from the UK, who feature recordings of poetry and sound (I noticed both Dave Migman and Mark Goodwin on a current playlist), as well as hosting and presenting live events. I’m trying to get ahold of them. (A brief aside: the background on their site kills my eyes and leaves me with a fuchsia afterimage that prevents me from seeing much of anything for about 30 seconds. I hope your eyes are more adaptable than mine. It looks like an great site.)

I intend to get more information about recorded poetry from Longbarrow Press (notice that they have a tab for recordings), who publish Mark Goodwin and are involved in the exhibition. My ambition is to fill the world with multimedia publications, so if I ask enough people and write about it I will eventually get my wish? I think with or without me it’s happening.

I have also been digging into what Bandcamp allows you to upload into a release package. This includes PDF and video. So there’s no reason a poet and noisemaker couldn’t include a standard PDF with text and images as well as an interactive PDF with the recordings included, as well as video. Time and technology and skills permitting, of course. I’ve been thinking of releasing something of my own just to test the possibilities but more so I encourage others to try. I would like to hear and see what you can do.

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A Small Treat from Dave Migman

I think I’ve made it clear in other posts that I’m very fond of Dave Migman’s work. His prose and poetry are filled with rich imagery that is both visceral and thought provoking. The readings/performances, in his wonderful voice, are always evocative.

So, when I see a new track posted on soundcloud with a link leading to a new album I get pretty damned excited.

I don’t mean this to be a review: just a news flash.

Here are a few links for listening to Dave and—do yourself a favor—buying a download of the album:

A recent posting by Dave Migman, Hall of Sighs, that brought me the good news that he’d put another album up for purchase on BandCamp.com.

This is the link to Migman’s new release, Dogcast Work, a collection of recordings he’s had on the Dog Cast Central podcasts over the course of 2012.

Post script: I’m on the verge of giving up on soundcould.com. The code they supply for WordPress has not been working in my most recent posts. I keep getting a message that the track is not currently available. Why am I paying them $100 a year? I think my money could be better spent…just about anywhere.

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.

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.

 

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.

If the Book Could Be Heard

At one point the intention for the book was to include a CD of recorded performances of the poems and some of the prose. Things did not work out that way but you need not miss out.

I’m talking about Lee Foust‘s recent publication of Sojourner.

I’ve been listening to his recordings on soundcloud.com for almost two years now. I’ve always had the impression that you could find him on a street corner or in a park in Florence, drums in hand and his voice and eye sneering at the American tourists (of course, only his fellow Americans). Or I can imagine him reading his work to his creative writing students, alternately trying to scare them to death with the poet’s edge he gives to every word or breaking their young hearts with tales of love lost. Maybe none of this is true but it’s easy to imagine. I mean, it also wouldn’t be hard to imagine those students totally numb and oblivious, just because he’s their teacher.

It could be a sad thing that the CD of poems was not included with the book. But you’re in luck. The recordings have long been available to hear but, in preparation for the book, they have not been available for download. Now you can download them and burn that CD yourself (thank you, I’m in the process of doing just that this weekend).

Foust’s performances have always seemed to me to have an abrasive edge, something of a scab of anger and disgust with how people treat one another. On reading the prose in Sojourner I found a different feel, more observant, introspective, and distant. But am I projecting? My favorite composition in the book is “Sojourner (Back in NYC)”. Reading it to myself it was meditative, philosophical, almost a chant of variations on a theme. To again hear him read it, the piece is entirely of the earth, full of flesh and the senses, the experience quite tangible and not particularly peaceful.

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.