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Preview: theatre of noise

theatre of noise



An eclectic look at the media landscape, including film, poetry, and soundscapes. Announcements of upcoming papers, presentations, and performances of Robin Parmar.



Updated: 2017-12-11T03:08:53.419+00:00

 



Review: The Seventh Victim

2017-10-31T14:20:38.269+00:00

(image)
The Seventh Victim (1943)
Directed by Mark Robson
Produced by Val Lewton

The premise is standard pulp. A schoolgirl, Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter), searches for her missing sister Jacqueline in New York City. She discovers relationships to a lover, a psychiatrist, and a strange cabal. I won't get too specific here (mild spoiler warning) because I wish to encourage you to view this remarkable film.


The plot leaks out in small pieces; many scenes are almost arbitrary. There is a tour of a perfume factory, an encounter there with an employee from some past friendship. At an Italian restaurant, serving as relief from the otherwise oppressive atmosphere, we meet an admittedly bad poet dining under a mural of Dante. There is a strange weasel of an investigator, who is as scared as the schoolgirl to walk a dark corridor. An atmosphere of the uncanny is conjured from the very incoherence of the narrative, which is forever hinting at peripheral connections.

(In hidden classrooms, children conjugate the verb "to search" in French.)

The psychiatrist is Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway), the same character who appeared in "Cat People" the previous year. He even references the patient he had in that film. But the good doctor (actually a strange man indeed) didn't survive that encounter, so how can he be here talking about it? Unless this is a prequel. In which case, who is he talking about?

Jacqueline (Jean Brooks) keeps herself hidden for most of the film; a McGuffin we expect to be mostly irrelevant to the developing romantic subplots. But this is a double-misdirection; she is the key. When revealed, it's as though a ghost from a silent film has reappeared from our shared cinematic past. Such an alternative film could easily contain the expressionist chase sequence that is The Seventh Victim's concession to pulp narrative. But nothing else is normal at all. A sense of both narrative and stylistic disruption is omnipresent.

All of the major characters are women, and they are strong agents in their own drama. The men are mostly ineffective, from the impotent poet to the useless husband. Despite some noire clichés, the film is feminist. Once scene functions only to demonstrate Mary's self-determination relative to a milquetoast suitor.

This schoolgirl waits patiently, in the same building where her sister keeps an (almost) empty room. There is a strange neighbour, glimpsed only in shadow. When Mimi finally speaks, she introduces further inter-narrative confusion. She is the same actor (Elizabeth Russell) who appeared in "Cat People". And who would again provide her powerful presence to "The Curse of the Cat People" (1944). Given the presence of Dr. Judd, is she supposed to represent one of these woman?

The film begins with this epigraph from John Donne: "I run from death, and death meets me as fast. And all my pleasures are like yesterday." What we don't yet know is that this is not a throw-away literary reference. Instead, the entire narrative is predicated on this theme. The ending is uncompromising, a punch to the gut. Two women, outcasts from normative society, each take control over their own lives. Lives that include death as a necessary predicate. Their actions challenge the definition of "victim", and call the very title of the film into question.

How this got past the censors is beyond me. The Seventh Victim is a profoundly subversive film.



Suggested improvements to the Korg Volcas

2017-08-27T15:19:57.781+01:00

This articles is part of my ongoing series on Desktop Electronic Music (DEM). The landing page provides easy access.I have spent several articles describing the creative use of the Korg Volca Sample. Nonetheless, there are many limitations in the design and implementation. Many of these could easily be remedied, resulting in a much more functional and expressive instrument. In this article I list 27 (!) improvements. And then present a redesigned interface.Certain improvements apply to the entire Volca family, but many are specific to the Volca Sample. 1. Battery Power. It's wonderful the units work from regular AA batteries, but these tend to give out unexpectedly. Some sort of indicator or quick battery test would be helpful. (Some people have claimed the LEDs will fade when the battery is low. They don't.)2. Replace AC input with USB. Korg chose a bizarre configuration for their AC adapter, making it hard to find a suitable adapter and near impossible to use one you might already have hanging around. If this was replaced with a USB port, standard USB power supplies could be used. 3. USB data transfer. With a class-compliant USB port, transferring samples to the unit would be as easy as drag and drop. No need for custom software. (Though apps would still make organisation easier.)4. Sequence and sound storage. There is currently no way to save sequences, samples, and other data. The USB connection would also allow backing up the Volca. 5. MIDI out. DEM is all about components working well together. MIDI is an essential part of this. That's why add-on MIDI out ports are a hot item with those who use the Volcas regularly. Though full DIN ports are handy, I would be happy with TRS ports, in order to save space. Adapters could be provided, as with the BeatStep Pro.6. Ports on the back. I hate having cables coming off the top panel, since they get in the way of actually using the unit. And they use up valuable real estate. 7. Power switch on the back. It's real easy to turn the Volcas on and off. Too easy. 8. Master volume on the back. Again, this is a critical control that you likely need to set and forget. In fact, I always run the Volca at maximum, since the output is not that high. A small pot on the back panel next to the output port would be preferable to one on the front.9. Touch panel functions. On the Volca FM, the touch keyboard serves double-duty to select other functions. On the Volca Sample only six of the touch panel buttons are so used. Several buttons could be eliminated by assigning Mute, Solo, Reverse, Reverb, Step Mode, and Step Jump to the touch strip.10. Spaced Knobs. The current knobs are maybe not too small but are certainly spaced too closely. But with ports removed from the top panel, there would be ample room for larger knobs. (I note that the FM actually has a tad more inter-knob spacing than the Sample.)11. Readable colours. White on grey is readable in subdued light. Black on grey (Sample) is not. Neither is grey on black (FM). This is annoying for an instrument designed to be played live. 12. Improved controls. On the Volca Sample, the "analogue isolator" (EQ to you and I) has oversized knobs that move if you breathe on them. The two sliders on the Volca FM have totally different functions but are grouped together as if to be played simultaneously. Again, this is just asking for a performance mistake.13. LED Brightness. It would be great if the brightness could be turned down, since in a dark environment the LEDs are rather blinding. 14. Colour mnemonics. The Sample has two transport buttons in red, five functional buttons in white, and a FUNC button that shifts the function of those five button. The FUNC button should not be white like the others, since it has a special purpose. Rather it should have a distinct colour, say yellow. Yellow would then be associated with the second function of each button, so we have some sort of colour mnemonics. (By contrast, the Volca FM has 8 buttons with three distinct colours. It's more logical.)15. Meaningful control values. I[...]



Mika Vainio and DEM

2017-08-26T14:37:25.941+01:00

This articles is part of my ongoing series on Desktop Electronic Music (DEM). The landing page provides easy access.I have been studying the music of Mika Vainio, after his unexpected death this year. Though I was always aware of Panasonic, I must say that their work had no direct influence on mine (until now) since I was already working in parallel, exploring aspects of noise and decomposed beats. Nonetheless, there is much to learn from him. width="500" height="281" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/hVy-h6aP1O0?list=PLt5swpzDL1tOA0HvlNowp8fguSBH6DZY8&showinfo=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen>Born in 1963, Mika Vainio had a varied musical career before forming Panasonic with two friends in 1993. The next year their debut EP was released, on the experimental techno label Sähkö Recordings. Under legal pressure they changed their name to Pan Sonic in 1999, continuing as an integral unit for another decade. Besides his work in Panasonic, Vainio released over sixty records in various solo and collaborative projects. When he died in April 2017, the obituaries recognised his "transformative effect" on techno music.Panasonic's music has been described as a "forbidding array of pure tones, sinewaves, pulses, electronic squelches and ultrasonic waveforms" [Rob Young in The Wire #157]. These sounds signify the glitch aesthetic without necessarily being a product of errors and equipment breakdown. Consider that Vainio's live performance kit includes the OTO Biscuit, an effects box designed as a bit crusher and distortion unit. The noisy result cannot possibly be considered an "error", any more than running a guitar through an overdrive pedal is an error.There is a problem here for anyone who sets out to make glitch music. A mistake can occur once, so there will be only so much music you can get out of any piece of equipment, only so many errors you can creatively harness. Mistakes repeated become the new intention. What was at first an accident becomes affectation or simply style. Is Panasonic's music post-digital, or simply digital, utilising to the fullest the possibilities the technology affords?Panasonic's music is nothing if not repetitive, the tracks obsessively focused on "simplified contrasts of space, volume and temporal division" [David Toop in Haunted Weather]. Vainio's prodigious recorded output is indicative of a process that explores all possible variations within a certain musical phase space. He starts with a few constitutive musical elements, applies a particular set of constraints, and then generates macro structures as combinatory results. The clue is in the name, Panasonic, not a mockery of a Hi-Fi company, but an acknowledgement that Vainio wished to express "all sound". I find this music particularly relevant for my current interest in DEM. Vainio seemed quite proud not to use a laptop computer in performance. Instead, he limited himself to a Vermona Lancet (monophonic synthesiser), Korg SX workstation, a Lexicon FX unit, and the OTO Biscuit already mentioned. We know this, since his technical rider is public. This minimal setup was augmented by a flexible mixer. His description reads:Mixing deskwith faders, 4 mono channels and 4 STEREO (!!) channels minimum, pre and post switches for fx, three range EQ and - most important! - 2 aux out-sendsThe routing was necessary for setting up feedback chains with his two effects units. In my previous articles on mixers, I have considered the utility of a matrix mixer for creative expression. My proposed design might well have found favour with performers like Vainio.I will soon present a paper at ISSTA 2017 that incorporates this discussion of Vainio, as an example of a corpuscular approach to music. I will also consider granular synthesis as part of my recuperation of the atomic theories of Epicurus. That takes us into some strange philosophical territory... the full text will be available in due course. [...]



Improvisation with the Volca Sample

2017-08-25T14:46:11.134+01:00


This articles is part of my ongoing series on Desktop Electronic Music (DEM). The landing page provides easy access.


I've been writing a lot about the Korg Volca. But I've also been making music!

Here you can see me using some of the techniques I outlined in my tips and tricks and article on wavetable synthesis.

width="500" height="281" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/U0Wk2h58Mng?rel=0&showinfo=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen>

This video isn't meant to be a polished musical experience, but rather a typical rehearsal. In other words, it was a learning experience. It gave me a chance to figure out lighting and framing. I blocked the lens a few times... stuff to learn, indeed!

For me, a minimal performance like this is all about constraints and flexibility, working in tandem. My improvisations are explorations within a frame defined by my tools.

I think the Korg Volcas embody this principle perfectly. Their low price and small form factor means that you don't get every feature you might want. You have a MIDI in port, but no MIDI out. You have a good number of knobs to directly change sound parameters, but they are tiny. You can load new samples, but not sample directly, nor offload sounds from the unit. You have a built-in reverb but no other effects. You can store patterns and songs, but only ten of one and six of the other. And so on.

In the current do-anything digital world, these limitations can seem strange. But old-time synth users are well familiar with having to make do with the idiosyncrasies of a particular model. Indeed, this is part of their charm. It's why people still seek out an MS-20 or SH-101, and why manufacturers keep replicating old favourites for new musicians. Personality.

(But in an upcoming article I will take the opposing view and argue for improvements to the Volcas.)

I will be performing 8 September 2017 in Dundalk, Ireland at ISSTA 2017, the International Festival and Conference on Sound in the Arts, Science and Technology.



Turn your Volca Sample into a synthesiser

2017-08-24T13:35:43.402+01:00

This articles is part of my ongoing series on Desktop Electronic Music (DEM). The landing page provides easy access.In my last article I gave you thirteen tips to get the most out of your Volca Sample, using both tried-and-true sampler techniques and the special capabilities of this surprising little unit. Now I will go one further and show you how to turn your Sample into a synthesiser. How is this possible? Well, we actually have two different methods. Additive synthesisAdditive Synthesis creates distinct timbres by layering sine waves of different amplitudes and frequencies. This is easily done in the Volca Sample by loading in a handful of sine waves, spaced an octave apart. A sequence utilises up to ten parts, each at its own pitch. We have full control over amplitude, pan, and envelopes, and so could certainly get some variety by summing ten sine waves. I encourage you to try this, if only to discover the limitations. Ten overtones is not that many, and the requirement to fine tune every component becomes tiresome for the limited variety of sounds that result. The entire Volca is then devoted to one timbre, which is rather limiting. The second method is much more versatile.Wavetable synthesisWavetable Synthesis involves scanning repeatedly through a waveform, so it can be replicated over time. The Volca Sample has a Loop function, so all we need to do is load up samples that represent waveforms (rather than complete sounds). Then we can use the techniques mentioned in the last article to play these continuously. The resulting synthesised textures are perfect for pads and ambient music.Where do we get waveforms? Well, it's easy enough to sample sounds down to their constituent parts, or even draw a waveform in an audio editor, freehand. But there are also plenty of ready-made resources.For example Kristoffer Ekstrand, under the stage name Adventure Kid, curates a large collection on his website. The Adventure Kid Waveforms (AKWF) are single cycle waves, 600 samples in length. At the native 44.1 kHz each amounts to 1344 bytes. At the Volca Sample sampling rate of 31,250 Hz, this is only 996 bytes. At just under 1 kilobyte each, we could in theory fit 4000 waveforms into the 4 MB of sample memory. The problem is we have only 100 sample slots. If we could group 40 waveforms per slot, they all could fit.The graph at the top of this article illustrates the principle. This sample has four repetitions each of sine, saw, triangle, and square waves. Four waveforms fit in one sample. Dividing up a sampleRecall from the last article that we can alter the "Start Point" and "Length" of a sample. I explained how we can set the same Sample in multiple parts, each using a different segment. Perhaps we can use this method to access different waveforms within a single sample.The resolution of these controls presents a practical limitation. According to the Korg cheat sheet, "Start Point" can set the playback point "within the range of 0% to 90% of the total length of the sample". The control increments over the range 0 to 127. So, when the display reads "0", we are at the start of the waveform. When it reads "127" we are 90% of the way to the end of the sample. Each increment represents about 0.7031% of the total. Likewise, "Length" sets a "range of 1% to 100% of the original sample length", relative to the starting point. Each increment here represents 0.7795% when Start is set to the Sample beginning. But it may represent a different amount if it varies with the Start position. Sheesh!This scheme isn't very helpful. If I could ask for a firmware change, it would be to change the increments to match exact divisions of the file. "Start Point" would run from 0 to 90 and "Length" from 1 to 100. Each tick would correspond exactly to one percent. Since we aren't going to be able to access precise points, our wavetable synthesis method is compromised. Nonetheless, let's persevere.Thinking inside the boxI doubt any of us needs 4000[...]



Volca Sample tips and tricks

2017-08-23T14:13:39.874+01:00

This articles is part of my ongoing series on Desktop Electronic Music (DEM). The landing page provides easy access.My last article presented overview of the Korg Volca Sample. This sample player holds up to 100 different sounds, though the 4MB of memory enforces a total duration of only 65 seconds. If you have experience with old-school samplers, you will be right at home with these restrictions. But readers more familiar with software samplers might be perturbed. How can we get useful results without gigabytes of memory?This article will run through a number of ticks and tricks, some specific to the Volca Sample. Be sure you've read my previous article, which points you to useful software and other resources for your Volca. To clarify terminology: A sequence is a pattern of sixteen beats. A sequence includes up to 10 parts, each of which has a sound chosen from one of 100 samples.Preparing samplesFirst, make notes! Use a notepad, spreadsheet, or whatever system you like to list the samples you are using on a given piece, together with their size. Consider how many you might need and which are superfluous. This is especially useful if you are trying to pack in as many samples as possible. The unit itself does not tell you how much space remains, but simply refuses to load excess samples. Delete all samples you don't need from the Volca. This frees up memory for other samples, since the total memory is shared over the 100 slots. You can only have ten parts per sequence, so perhaps you only need ten samples in the unit. Load a new bank of samples for your next track, clearing as you go. This is not a good strategy for live performance, but works in the studio.The Volca Sample is a stereo unit, but consider if you really need a stereo sample. Mono sounds can be panned later on, to produce a wider sound stage. For drum hits a mono sound should be more than sufficient... and this save you half the memory.Consider the sampling rate of 31,250 Hz. The samples you start with are likely 44.1 kHz, 48 kHz, or maybe even higher. Resample your sound to reduce the file size. (I should point out that Vosyr will automatically do this in any case, so that the samples load properly on the unit. But it's a good general principle.)Trim all files down to the shortest usable length. This is already the case for the factory samples. When you audition them individually, some seem too short, to the point of being unusable. But in the context of a drum pattern, they sound fine. Use the Volca's featuresLong cymbal crashes or legato sounds are likely not possible. But that's why the unit has a reverberation effect that can be assigned per instrument. Augment a short sample with reverb to produce a longer tail. One of the most important features on the Volca Sample is the "Loop" toggle. A typical drum machine does not need to loop samples, since they are one-shot by nature. But the Volca Sample can repeat a sound, retriggering it for as long as its amplitude envelope permits.Here we come to an amazing trick. Audition a sample by playing it from the touch panel. At the same time as you play it, quickly tweak the "Amp Decay" knob to its maximum setting. The sound will now just keep playing, without a decay. It's a hidden mode for infinite sustain! (Thanks to Schtang on YouTube.)The "Start Point" and "Length" of the sample can be adjusted. If the sample has a percussive attack, increasing the "Start Point" skips the impulse component, resulting in a smoother onset. If the sample has a significant decay, reduce the "Length" to the point where the sample is still sustaining. By making both of these adjustments, you retain only the steady-state portion of the sample, which will now loop more seamlessly. You are now well on your way to legato parts and pads.When working with pads, it's often good to layer similar sounds, but starting on different beats. This will help cover up the glitch that might be heard at the start o[...]



Overview of the Korg Volca Sample

2017-08-22T16:56:02.312+01:00

This articles is part of my ongoing series on Desktop Electronic Music (DEM). The landing page provides easy access.My last article gave an overview of recent Korg synthesis products. Here I will look in detail at the Korg Volca Sample, illustrating features of note, providing helpful resources, and so on. The Volca Sample has notable improvements compared to earlier Volca units. It has stereo output (with pan automation), something I consider rather essential. It also permits step recording, which makes pattern entry a whole lot easier. There's a song mode that enables pattern chaining. You get 6 songs, each of which can contain up to 16 chained sequences. With only 10 stored sequences in total, this is still not a robust way to develop a set of music, but it's a welcome improvement.A major shortcoming is when playing a Song, most of the pattern editing is locked. So you cannot "perform" a Song in the same way you can an individual sequence. For the first time on a Volca there's a swing control, so your beats can be given a degree of "human" feel. Unfortunately, this offset is not transmitted through the sync. Also, it's a global setting, not stored with your patterns. Finally, there's a reverb effect built in, which can be assigned per part, although the amount of reverb is global setting. Speaking of sync, if you use a mono 3.5mm cable you get beat synchronisation between different Volca units. Use a stereo cable to get transport control as well. Now, if you start the sequencer on the master Volca, the slaves start as well.The so-called "manual" is only a one-sheet PDF that tersely says what each control does, but provides no real instruction. Much of the information in this article was compiled by trawling internet forums, user groups, and videos. The Volca can run off an AC to DC adapter, but one is not included. The Korg KA-350 Power Supply is an expensive accessory. Though it provides a conventional 9 V at 1700 mA, the connector is of an uncommon variety. Why Korg would do this is beyond me. One small change and you could use any conventional guitar foot-pedal adapter. But, no! Instead, you need to find a centre positive jack with 1.7 mm inner and 4 mm outer diameter. A company called MyVolts has stepped up to the plate with a single adapter that terminates in five cables, so you can run all your Volcas from a single supply. This is possible since each Volca has a current draw of 80 mA or less. So convenient!Sampling with the VolcaThough it's easy to skip over the missing "r" in the name, it's important to realise that this unit is not a sampler per se. There is no microphone or audio input, so you cannot directly record audio. The best way to get new sounds onto the Volca is to use the excellent free software from Frederikson Labs. Available for Mac OS or Windows, Vosyr is not only a sample manager but also a sequence editor. Simply drag audio files from your hard drive to the awaiting bays, then download these individually or in groups to the hardware. The way this works is quite amazing, since there's no digital connection on the Volca. Instead, the samples are encoded as sound, and sent through the sync jack. Now that's innovation!Samples can be mono or stereo, 16 bit, but sampled only at 31,250 Hz. In use this is not a big limitation, and imparts a certain "warmth" that some listeners might even find pleasant. Only 4 MB of memory is available, which comes out to 65 seconds spread across the 100 samples. For drum sounds that's not an issue, if you are frugal. But if you want to load pads or legato parts, you are going to have to be particularly clever. (See my next article!)I should mention that the samples that come with the Volca are very well chosen. The drums are excellent and the remaining sounds typical of what someone making happy techno or house music might want. (Easy enough for me to delete!) To delete a sample, you need to boot your Volca[...]



Korg synths and the Volca series

2017-08-22T16:36:20.100+01:00

This articles is part of my ongoing series on Desktop Electronic Music (DEM). The landing page provides easy access.In recent years, Korg have combined the nostalgia for analogue synthesis with a desire to innovate. This article will provide a quick overview of their products, specifically the Korg Volca series. To my mind these units are exemplars of the Desktop Electronic music paradigm.Korg analogue synthsThe release of the Korg Monotron in 2010 marked a shift in thinking for a company famous for their electronic musical instruments. Indeed it was their first analogue synth in three decades. Running off two AAA batteries, this tiny plastic box came with a built-in speaker for quick auditioning. The stylophone-style contact keyboard made any precise pitch unlikely. The Monotron was designed for sound-making as play, rather than as "serious" musical activity. The filters were apparently based on the Korg MS-20, although the audio quality is such that it was hard to judge. In 2011 the Monotron Duo and Delay were added to the line-up. These devices are typical of a certain Korg thinking that aligns very well with DEM. Each instrument has obvious limitations, stemming from the cheap build, inexpensive price, and limited size. But they also have unexpected features that encourage flexible usage, especially in combination. With the Monotrons, this is reflected in the audio input jack, which allows external signals to be processed by the units (through filter and delay circuits). For this reason, I found the Monotron Delay to be the most compelling of the three models. I purchased it as a "stocking stuffer" and it ended up in a couple improvisations.Korg's revivalist impulse crystallised in 2013 with the Mini MS-20, a faithful replica of the original semi-modular monophonic synthesiser, albeit in a smaller form factor. In 2015 the Korg MS-20M Kit version followed, alongside their replica of the ARP Odyssey duophonic synthesizer. The fact that Korg re-issued another company's product is noteworthy. It demonstrates their commitment to the analogue aesthetic, which is as much about adopting certain working methods as it is about the resulting sound. New instruments followed in 2016 and 2017. First, the Korg Minilogue, a four-voice analogue synthesizer. Next, the Monologue, a monophonic version of the same, but with certain innovative features (e.g. micro-tuning) courtesy of co-designer Richard James (Aphex Twin).Korg VolcasBut for me, the Volcas are Korg's most intriguing releases. This series was introduced in 2013 with three instruments: Volca Keys, Volca Bass, and Volca Beats. As the names indicate, each was designed to be one component in a musical production. For this purpose, they have sync in and out ports on standard 3.5mm stereo cabling. These enable tempo and transport synchronisation. The units also have a DIN MIDI in port, though not MIDI out. To use with a computer or external gear, the usual method is to take a MIDI out to the first Volca, and then daisy-chain the remainder through the sync port. If you need MIDI input to several Volcas, a splitter cable before the first unit is the solution.These instruments are small (less than 20 by 12 cm) and battery powered (via 6 AA cells). Hence they meet the requirements of DEM, as previously defined. They are not so tiny as the Monotrons, but are much more capable as musical instruments. They are not so large as the synths with "proper" keybeds, but are less expensive and just as capable sonically. The first three Volcas were analogue synthesizers with a built-in contact keyboard and sequencer. They store only 8 patterns and there's no way to export these from the instrument. This reflects the positioning of the Volcas as easy devices for on-the-fly composition. Korg includes an excellent feature labelled "motion recording". This allows the automation of knob movements into a sequence[...]



Invisible(s) Archipelago(s) #1 Serendib Rhythms by Stéphane Marin

2017-08-19T15:05:12.311+01:00

The contours and frontiers of an island can be designated or traced without difficulty; and within an archipelago, from island to island, circuits of navigation and exchange form fixed and recognized itineraries that draw a clear frontier between the zone of relative identity (recognized identity and established relations) and the external world, a world of absolute foreignness. -- Marc Augé, Non-Places: An Introduction to Super-ModernityNo, islands cannot be traced, and there is no absolute border. Coastlines vary over time in both shape and extent, an interplay of tide and current. Come back next month and the shore face has retreated due to erosion. Return once more and the vines might have overgrown their previous limits, now trailing the salt water. Everything is in constant process. Crab shells lie where gulls have discarded them. Sea greens rot above the reach of the sea. Piers for fishing boats extend the built environment out into the water. And there always remains, as some excess of reality that we cannot contain or contend with, glaciers melting on the other side of the globe. There is no permanence or stasis, no "clear frontier". This myth of natural harmony is long overdue for revision.A dog barks suddenly. Like a canine alarm-clock, it's been fashioned and positioned to wake us from our reverie. It ushers in a drone of insects, a dark sound bed harbouring some industrial noise. Is it a motorboat offshore? Or a generator closer to hand? The auditory world of Stéphane Marin is open to many interpretations, each provisional by necessity. In the opening minutes of Serendib Rhythms, the composition grows in density and intensity, before dropping away suddenly to reveal a tool impacting on wood, part of some agrarian activity. Or so we guess.Sounds are fluid here, a product of Marin's complex audition of his milieu, and his powerful desire to make us listen as well. The arrangement is theatrical, the album structured in movements, sutured by sudden sonic events that demand our attention. This is the opposite of "nature recording", that Romantic desire to represent a pristine world exempt from our influence, as some sort of refuge. Instead, Serendib Rhythms incorporates patterns of working life as prominently as the pulse of water or insect.Marin foregrounds sounds others choose to avoid. A barking dog is conventionally heard as interruption, as noise. Many would exclude this sound, but Marin's contrary decision calls attention to itself. Some might find this difficult listening, but it is also invigorating. The album notes speak of "de l'atomisation des espaces opérée par les microphones", which is a powerful phrase. Marin doesn't present sounds as evidence of an indexical reality. Instead, they are deliberately reconfigured for the ear through montage. The title of this soundscape is as dense as the material: Invisible(s) Archipelago(s) #1 Serendib Rhythms. The word "archipelago" describes the re-assembling sonic fragments into a "web of composition". It also retains the geographic meaning. Narratives of shoreline and border are enacted, sometimes physically. There is a remarkable section where a hydrophone is dragged through various materials. The alternation between submerged and emerged sound worlds creates a rhythm, a trace in time and through space. We are encouraged by narrative convention to interpret this sequence as a journey, a literal walk through the littoral. But Marin also ensures that we maintain awareness of the microphones as objects in the world, rather than transparent transducers.Augé sees an archipelago as defining fixed circuits of exchange, but nothing could be further from the truth. Monsoons, floods, and currents change the optimal route through an island cluster. What today is a clear path might tomorrow be overgrown with vines, threatened by crocodiles, or simply d[...]



The fourth wave of electronic music

2017-08-16T20:25:00.496+01:00

This articles is part of my ongoing series on Desktop Electronic Music (DEM). The landing page provides easy access.Electronic music was originally the exclusive activity of those who could gain access to elite computer systems. Now it's an egalitarian process, a collaboration between boutique hardware firms, cottage industries, and musicians of all stripes. A performer might use a MIDI controller connected to a compact synth module. Or homebuilt sensors feeding an Arduino. We're the operators with our pocket calculators... which are actually tiny drum machines. We are the dreamers of dreams... implemented in esoteric Max patches. The state of the art is fluid and multivalent. It's hard to see a context when you are embedded in it. So perhaps it's useful to share my musings, which outline four paradigms that have shaped our relationship to electronic music.First wave: LEMFirst, we visit the laboratory. After the Second World War, digital computers came into their own for military and business applications. They stood like sentinels in their special climate-controlled rooms, maintained by teams of experts. To write code you'd use a keypunch machine to stamp holes in thick paper. Enough holes in the correct places and you'd have a finished card. A few hundred (or thousand) of these and you'd have a short programme. Because these computers worked in batch mode rather than "real-time", you might have to return the next day to get the results. This made is extraordinarily difficult to be creative. It wasn't until 1957 that Max Mathews, working at Bell Laboratories, popularised the use of computers for music, with his MUSIC I software. When John Chowning invented FM synthesis at Stanford University in 1967, the main driver was computational efficiency. Through the 1970s and 1980s, processing speed was still a bottleneck in creating music. But by then computers were being developed specifically for the task. The Synclavier from New England Digital and the Fairlight CMI enabled real-time control, but were still expensive behemoths. Modular synthesisers took a different approach, being electrical circuits specifically designed for music. Though versatile, their bulk and power requirements inevitably ground them (pun intended) in studio environments. The Buchla 100, pictured above, is one example. It was developed for the San Francisco Tape Music Center, used by composers including Pauline Oliveros and Morton Subotnick.Both the computer and circuit approaches can be described as Lab-based Electronic Music. LEM was based around institutions that could afford the equipment and the running costs.Second paradigm: REMAs home organs became popular in the fifties, electrical and electronic instruments became more familiar to those outside the lab. Organs evolved to included electronic rhythm accompaniments, arepeggiators, and other components borrowed from experimental instruments such as the Ondes Martenot (1928) and the Trautonium (1929). These keyboard-based instruments evolved into synthesisers. This heritage is clear if we look at Ace Electronic Industries. Founded in 1960 by Ikutaro Kakehashi, Ace made organs, rhythm boxes, and guitar effects. As domestic synths became viable, Kakehashi formed Roland Corporation (1972) and the rest is, as they say, history. Yamaha is another example of a Japanese company that leveraged their expertise in pianos to design first organs and later synthesisers. By the late 1970s, music stores were stuffed with keyboards from ARP Instruments, Moog, and other fledgling manufacturers. The eighties brought the Casio CZ, Yamaha DX7, and other classics. These instruments were designed not for the lab, but for the stage. They were relatively portable and dependable, compared to their ancestors. MIDI came along in 1983 to help synchronise and pass messages between unit[...]



Survey of matrix mixers

2017-08-16T20:24:34.187+01:00

This articles is part of my ongoing series on Desktop Electronic Music (DEM). The landing page provides easy access.In my last article I proposed a matrix mixer suitable for DEM. Here I will take a look at those mixers that already exist on the market.The main criteria for a device to make this list is that it is affordable and compact. Certainly there are studio-quality matrix mixers, from companies like Allen & Heath. But these range in price up to $4000. That's a different domain!Doepfer A-138mImagine any possible signal generation or processing task and you can find a modular synthesiser unit that does what you want. In a very real sense, modular synthesisers are a superset of all other audio. But a reasonably capable kit is expensive, power-hungry, and bulky, once you've assembled a dozen or more modules in a case.Doepfer has a matrix mixer in the popular Eurorack format. It's a four-by-four configuration that is designed for both audio signals and control voltages. As such, it has a distinctive feature that puts a column into bipolar mode, where the signal can be subtracted from the output. The cost is a very reasonable €140.Like most modular units, the connections are mono jacks, directly on the front panel. Ken Stone DIYIf you wish to build a mixer yourself, you can burn a PCB, purchase the components, and follow Ken Stone. This popular design is five-by-five, with a bipolar switch on every connection. Here's a later four-by-four design.Elby Designs has followed Stone with a four-by-four mixer, the CGS733, part of their Panther project.DIY passive matrix mixersAround the web one will find various people who have made their own passive matrix mixers. Examples include Mickey Delp and Giacomo Bisaro. Xiwi Electronics once offered a four-by-four kit. Brendan Byrne demonstrates the possibilities of feedback using this unit. width="500" height="281" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/70lzNnbUW6o?rel=0&showinfo=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen>An inexpensive three by two passive mixer is available from Handmade Electronic Instruments, but it's mono and works with jack inputs. Behringer MON800The MiniMON matrix mixer has a heterogeneous collection of RCA and jack connectors. The controls are far from straight-forward, as its designed for studio monitoring duties rather than line mixing. ConclusionNear as I can tell, this is the sum total of available options. None of them offer stereo connections on minijack. Though it would be easy enough for an electronics guru to reconfigure the DIY options for that wiring, there are no off-the-shelf products. From this I conclude that there is a gap in the market for my DEM matrix mixer.AcknowledgementsThis research is part of a larger project funded by an Arts Council bursary. [...]



Proposal for a matrix mixer

2017-08-16T20:23:16.723+01:00

This articles is part of my ongoing series on Desktop Electronic Music (DEM). The landing page provides easy access.In a recent article I evaluated the feature sets of tiny line mixers, in order to find one suitable for DEM (Desktop Electronic Music). It was difficult to find a perfect tool for the current ecosystem of small synths, drum machines, tablets, phones, and other consumer devices. For example, of the ten units considered, only three worked with stereo minijacks, since they targetted an earlier music-making paradigm.In this article I'd like to add some further functionality to my specification, and propose a mixer design. There's a real gap in the market for a compact mixer than can be used as a creative tool in its own right.Mixer as creative toolI'd like to start the discussion with the Bastl Dude. Bastl is an innovative company who create pocket instruments and modular synthesisers. As such they exemplify what I am calling DEM, since this is a way of making music that relies on a multiplicity of interconnected devices.Dude is a simple mixer, but in the manual they have sections for "Dude as a sound processor" and "Dude as a tone generator". These possibilities exist with any mixer, but are highlighted here due to Bastl's outlook. Given this approach, it surprises me that the unit is not better designed for this purpose. As I mentioned last time, it's a monophonic unit with very basic controls.Bastl write about creating feedback loops, which is easily done by attaching outputs back to inputs. Elsewhere I have discussed the creative use of the "no-source" mixer at some length. See my website for a link to a full paper you might find intriguing. The other creative possibility is to use a mixer to feed different effects units. Full mixers have dedicated signal paths for this task, usually termed an auxiliary bus.But, rather than an afterthought, what if we designed a mixer to optimise this potential?SpecificationsFirst, we'd need to be working with stereo signals on minijack, since that is the DEM "standard". Next we'd need multiple outputs, and a way of addressing these for each input. The unit should be as compact as possible. There's no room here for additional features that are better supplied by additional devices, made for purpose. I'd also like to directly support high impedance inputs from contact mics, since these are very handy as drum contacts, sample triggers, or, yes, even audio microphones. As a bonus, we could input pickups from guitars and other instruments, home-made coils to pick up electromagnetic signals, and so on. All are part of my sound-making toolkit.These features rule out a passive mixer. Instead, the unit should run on a standard 5V USB input. We can supply this from an AC adapter, laptop, or battery pack. Lots of flexibility! As a bonus, perhaps an internal battery pack would be feasible. Three standard AA cells gives us 4.5V and, crucially, allows recharging. I dislike gear running off wasteful 9V cells. (Though I understand why this is often the case.)How many controls can we support? Typically a mixer channel might have a volume potentiometer (fader), pan or balance control, and EQ, in addition to the sends.Proposed designThe following is a front-panel design that incorporates flexible routing. There are three channel strips, each mapping an input to three outputs. Each input has a power/mute button and gain knob. Underneath is a high-pass and low-pass filter. For each output channel there is a larger gain knob and a smaller balance pot. Minijack inputs would be provided on one side of the box, each with a switch to put it into high impedance mode. If there was room, full jack inputs could be normalled to these, like on the Rolls unit I discussed last time. This saves on using adapters[...]



MIDI wiring diagrams

2017-08-16T20:16:41.481+01:00

This articles is part of my ongoing series on Desktop Electronic Music (DEM). The landing page provides easy access.This article will explain how MIDI cables are wired, starting with conventional DIN-5 sockets, then looking at TRS connectors. This will help anyone who needs to trouble-shoot wiring or solder their own cables.DIN-5 connectors are paired as male and female ends. But there are two tricks.First, the pin-out diagrams are sometimes presented from the point-of-view of wiring the plug. But, commonly, when using the MIDI cables, we might prefer the point-of-view of how the plug looks externally. One is a mirror image of another. (This might be obvious to all but me, since I swear I am topologically impaired.)Second, the MIDI in and MIDI out sides of the cable are wired opposite each other, so that when they are paired, the current flows correctly. Electrically, that makes sense. But pragmatically this might be counter-intuitive. After all, when we examine a MIDI cable, it isn't labelled as to which end is which (in or out). Diagrams will help. Note that you can click on these to get large PNG files, which you are free to use.Pin-out diagrams for MIDI DIN-5Here is a male plug, seen from both plug and wiring views. Note the symmetry about a vertical bisection. (Now I sound like my high-school math teacher.)And here is a female plug, seen from both views. Once again, these are reflections of each other. And furthermore are symmetrical with the male plugs.Now that we know how to number the pins, we must understand how they are used to conduct signals.MIDI electrical connectionsThough MIDI for some reason standardised on DIN 5-pin sockets, pins 1 and 3 are never needed. Pin 2 is used for the shield, in order to ground the cable. That leaves the other two pins to carry an isolated current loop.For a MIDI out connection:pin 4 = -ve or sinkpin 5 = +ve or sourceFor a MIDI in connection:pin 4 = +ve or sourcepin 5 = -ve or sinkThe pins are exchanged because the pins on a male plug are flipped relative to the sockets on a female connection. So, when all is said and done, a positive signal will travel continuously through the positive wire.This is why all devices (instruments, controllers) have female sockets. And all cables (except those explicitly designed as extension cables) have male plugs. This ensures the correct electrical contacts without having to label ends. If only it were this simple!Behold, the minijackWith the rise of DEM (Desktop Electronic Music), manufacturers have shunned DIN-5 sockets. They are too large for tiny devices from Korg, Novation, Arturia, and IK Multimedia. Instead, the 3.5mm stereo minijack, commonly used for stereo headphones, has been repurposed. These plugs have a TRS connector, which means Tip, Ring, and Sleeve. These three current paths are exactly what's required for MIDI. So, a good match then.But of course we have a problem. Because in Audio Land the signals do not need to switch pins, but in MIDI Land they do. So although two 3.5mm stereo cables might look alike, they could have different internal wiring. This is a nightmare. The way to solve this is to adopt a standard, say a particular colour-coding for cables designed for MIDI. Maybe they should all be purple. But such is not the case. The problem compounds when we need to connect devices that use both types of cables. Now we must convert between minijack and DIN-5, each carrying the same MIDI signal. And, naturally, this solution depends on whether the MIDI signal is incoming or outgoing. When you purchase an Arturia Beatstep Pro, you get two white adapters as pictured below. (A black male MIDI connector is included for comparison.)Both of the white adapters have a female MIDI DIN plug, so it can be coupled wi[...]



Mixers for desktop music

2017-08-16T20:47:42.308+01:00

This articles is part of my ongoing series on Desktop Electronic Music (DEM). The landing page provides easy access.If you are anything like the typical DEM practitioner, your desktop is a tangle of cables, interlocking musical devices, power supplies, and patch-cords. How can we tame this mess? Here I will tackle one aspect of the problem, by evaluating portable mixers.UPDATE 16 August 2017: Two additional mixers added, for twelve in total.TerminologySome basic terminology will help us in the evaluation.There are essentially three audio signals signals we might encounter in music, but this review will only focus on one. Microphones produce weak signals that require boosting with a mic pre-amp. Pickups like those found on electric guitar require impedance matching through a DI ("Direct Inject") box. There are plenty of compact mixers on the market (from Mackie, Behringer, etc.) that handle these cases. But here I am interested only in line level signals (at a nominal -10 dBV). Most consumer audio equipment, tables, keyboards, drum machines, CD players, etc. use this signal strength. A simple potentiometer will help us balance the levels within this range. No amplifiers or impedance matching are necessary, but they are a nice bonus.Cable and plug terminology is different on each side of the ocean. I will refer to a jack plug, meaning a 6.5mm or quarter-inch plug, typical of instrument cables. Confusingly, this is also called a phone connector. (But not a phono connector. That's different.) Jack plugs may be wired for monophonic signals, using two signal contacts (Tip Sleeve or TS). Or they may be wired for stereo using three contacts (Tip Ring Sleeve or TRS). The second common type of plug is the minijack, AKA eight-inch or 3.5mm. Again these can be mono (TS) or stereo (TRS).Passive or activeThere are two main types of mixer circuits. Active mixers require power, and allow you to boost signal strength. This power can come from a DC adaptor plugged into the wall, batteries, or a USB cable connected to a computer (or similar device). Passive mixers do not require power, but instead mix signals using potentiometers only. Since there is resistance in the way of the current, the output will always be less than the input (by 15 to 30 dB). This may be an issue if your devices are not loud enough to begin with. You will need to make up the gain in a later amplification stage, which can introduce noise. To counter this potential disadvantage, passive mixers are inherently more portable. Also, since the circuits have no polarity, inputs and outputs can be reversed. A circuit that combines four inputs to one output is identical to one that splits one signal four ways.Jack solutionsOK, it's time to check out what's on the market, starting with those mixers that accept full-sized jack plugs. I will price each unit at Amazon UK (in pounds sterling) and Thomann (in Euro) where possible, using direct manufacturer pricing otherwise.Omnitronic is a brand of the German firm Steinigke Showtechnic, which distributes DI boxes, cable testers, mixers, preamplifiers, and similar devices. The Omnitronic LH-025 is an active stereo mini mixer in the entertainingly named "Little Helper Series". The LH-025 is unique in this comparison in having three stereo inputs, each configured as a pair of mono jacks. Each stereo pair has a level pot and a smaller balance pot. This too is a distinctive feature. The stereo output is also provided on two mono jacks, with a level pot allowing control over the sum. Additionally, the front panel has two stereo headphone jacks with a single pot controlling both. Price on Amazon is £74, reasonable considering this is the most fully-featured jack mixer in this compar[...]



On conspiracy theories

2017-07-20T16:48:40.096+01:00

It's time for me to make a few observations about conspiracy theories, if only to get all my thoughts in a row. I've been asked a few questions lately, and it gets repetitive repeating fragments. Here they can live in context, under one handy heading. First, I need to contextualise these comments by saying they only apply to the armchair thoughts of those in the relatively comfortable embrace of "Western society". I have no experience with how these patterns of thought play out in other places. Second, I will use the conventional phrase "conspiracy theory", even though these random persecution fantasies do not deserve the term "theory". By their nature they lack the required rigour, testability, etc. Third, I am not using the word "conspiracy" in the strict legal sense, but rather follow common usage. These conspiracy fantasies involve hundreds or even thousands of participants, elaborately-constructed plots, duping of large sectors of the media, etc. There is no doubt that small conspiracies with a very limited number of participants have existed and will continue to exist. These generally get exposed in short order. Examples include a break-in at the Watergate apartments or a meeting between the Trump administration and some Russian officials.But I think we all know what falls under the category discussed here. The government has a UFO under wraps at Roswell. The Twin Tower attacks on 9-11 were an "inside job". Water fluoridation is a plot by a cabal of dentists. Etc.Why do conspiracy theories exist?People believe in conspiracy theories, despite all evidence against them, because they are selective in choosing which facts to accept. They do not have strong enough ego structure to adapt to challenges to their beliefs, nor to make change in themselves. So any contrary information is dismissed without being properly considered. Any confirming data is welcomed immediately. No equitable fact checking or testing is performed. Belief in a conspiracy grants individuals access to a peer group that justifies feelings of persecution and reinforces belonging. This shields members from needing to think outside their controlled environment. Any contrary evidence is dismissed out of hand. "You are all sheeples!"Such attitudes are driven by existential fears, particularly fear of the unknown and fear of death. Epicurus already wrote about these anxieties two millennia ago. He also included fear of punishment, for example beliefs in an afterlife where we might be rewarded or punished by the gods. He categorised these as "empty beliefs" and understood them to be the main source of anxiety in civilized life. (Before civilisation we had no need to invent fears, since so many threats were actual.)Studies continue to prove Epicurus correct. For example, "researchers have found that inducing anxiety or loss of control triggers respondents to see non-existent patterns and evoke conspiratorial explanations", according to Scientific American. The same study shows that arming oneself with knowledge can stave off these tendencies. People with more "education" are less likely to believe in conspiracy theories... though many still do. Knowledge here does not mean the mindless accumulation of facts; conspiracy theorists do that very well indeed. Instead, one must learn the logic necessary to analyse facts, to sift out the true from the false. What counts as a good source? How do we check facts? I have taught research methods at third level and, believe me, it's an up-hill struggle. That's because evidence-based processes and reasoning are rarely taught in schools. I believe we should start philosophy in pre-school, but this would contradict the requirement of manufacturing[...]



"Audio Culture": quick look at the revised edition

2017-07-03T15:05:57.958+01:00

Published in 2004, Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music provided a one-stop reader for those interested in contemporary creative sound practice. Editors Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner performed an admirable service in bringing together classic pieces from Attali, Russolo, Cage, Cascone, WS Burroughs, Schafer, and many others.Thirteen years later a revised edition is being published by Bloomsbury, so I thought I'd have a look at what's changed. I haven't had a chance to review a copy of the book, so this is only a consideration of the scope. First, there is a significant increase in the content, I am guessing about one-third. These are the new chapters:Anne Carson: "The Gender of Sound"Drew Daniel: "Queer Sound"Kevin Quashie: "The Quiet of Blackness: Miles Davis and John Coltrane"+Maryanne Amacher: "Perceptual Geography: Third Ear Music and Structure Borne Sound"Evelyn Glennie: "Hearing Essay"Annahid Kassabian: "Ubiquitous Listening"Lawrence Abu Hamdan: "Forensic Listening"Ultra-red: "Organizing the Silence"Kenneth Goldsmith: "Six File-Sharing Epiphanies"Tara Rodgers: "Cultivating Activist Lives in Sound"Lawrence "Butch" Morris: "Notes on Conduction"Jennifer Walshe: "The New Discipline"Yan Jun: "Re-Invent: Experimental Music in China"Wadada Leo Smith: "Notes (8 Pieces): Creative Music"Vijay Iyer: "Improvisation: Terms and Conditions"Mattin: "Going Fragile"Trio Sowari et al.: "27 Questions For a Start … And Some Answers to Begin With"La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela: "Conversation with Richard Kostelanetz"Situationist International: "Détournement as Negation and Prelude"Marina Rosenfeld: "A Few Notes on Production and Playback"Eliane Radigue: "The Mysterious Power of the Infinitesimal"Holly Herndon: "Laptop Intimacy and Platform Politics"It's obvious that this list significantly increases the representation of women, but also of queer theory and, to a lesser extent, non-Western practice. That is all for the good. Several important practitioners that were previously overlooked are now present (Amacher, La Monte Young, Radigue).I also notice that the Pauline Oliveros contribution has been changed from "Some Sound Observations" to "Auralizing the Sonosphere". I might have missed other alterations. Unclear from the table of contents is that at least ten chapters have been cut from the first edition, those by:Morton FeldmanMark SloukaRusso and WarnerSimon Reynolds (on "Noise")Masami Akita (interview)Eisler and AdornoOla StockfeltJK RandallChristian Marclay & ToneBen NeillAlthough this list includes some important names, I don't think these texts represented their best writings, so I am not sad to see them go. But some of the topics require more consideration than the new volume allows. One cannot just forget about Christian Marclay. And how about including some of Paul Hegarty's contentious text on noise?So, how will this new volume function as a reader? There are many new names here I do not recognise, and look forward to reading. However I would say this emphasis skews the book away from established works and more into exploratory territory. That suits my personal reading practice, but less so the function of a reader. So, what would I have done?For a start, I would remove the subtitle "Readings in Modern Music", since that last word is too limiting. The book already includes much that cannot readily be incorporated under "music", so why not be free of it?Claiming to cover "audio culture" and then forgetting to consider radio as a political, cultural, or technological force is unfortunate. Essays by Jody Berland and Gregory Whitehead would be welcome. There appears to be nothing about politicised issues like sound i[...]



Rebuttal to "There Is No Scientific Method"

2017-06-30T14:37:30.530+01:00

It's been a year since the opinion piece "There Is No Scientific Method" by James Blachowicz was published in the New York Times. But only now did a friend on Facebook bring it to my attention. The author's mission is to pull science down from some perceived pedestal, by way of comparison to poetry. The sad and unfortunate effect is to diminish both vital processes to mere communication. I will review this article in order to assert the exact opposite. The scientific method is indeed special and valuable. Poetry is not limited to mere advertising of meaning, but is the veritable wellspring of life.We must start with the title, which is clickbait, no doubt. Even the author admits only to the weaker claim that "there is no distinctly scientific method". A manipulative and dishonest banner is not really a great way to begin an intelligent discussion.Insurmountable problems with the argument are encountered from the outset. Most astounding is that Blachowicz does not define his subject. It should be obvious that if you are going to address the scientific method, you should be clear what is being considered. Instead, the author presents an example from the field of scientific research, Kepler's work on the orbit of Mars. I will be generous on two counts. First, I will accept that this one example is emblematic of science as a whole. Second, I will accept the author's description of Kepler's working method as accurate, though it comes with no references.From this example, we might deduce that the scientific method is an empirical approach to testing hypotheses against known and repeatable observations. Well, we might say that, but it's far more than Blachowicz says. But again, let's be magnanimous and proceed.It might astonish a careful reader, but this is already half of the article. The remainder considers Socrates defining justice, a process the author reduces to adjusting "literal meaning" to meet "the actual meaning... in our minds". This assertion somehow divides meaning into two parts, the "actual" part of which is entirely mental. I don't think it does the author any favours to dwell on a philosophy that might justify such a strange picture of the world. It is far simpler (and more accurate) to say that a definition of a word matches common usage. Yes, that's circular, but language is inherently a trail of signification from one term to another... or have we learned nothing from semiotics?What this has to do with the scientific method is unclear. Because, in fact, it has nothing to do with it. Oddly, that is the entirety of the argument. I kept re-reading the conclusion, imagining I had missed a leap of logic that might connect together the random thoughts Blachowicz has dumped onto the page. But, no. Instead, we find this:If scientific method is only one form of a general method employed in all human inquiry, how is it that the results of science are more reliable than what is provided by these other forms?Er, what? How can we parse this sentence? Scientific method has not been defined, but if we generously fill in this lacuna, we still have a claim that this is "only one form of a general method employed in all human inquiry", something that has not been demonstrated in the slightest. But it paints a picture of a world in which "all human inquiry" is fuelled by a method that forces comparison of hypotheses to facts in the world, repeatable and demonstrable. Mere opinions and rhetoric would be invalidated before being accepting as having any truth value. This would be a world free of "alternative facts", political lies, and misrepresentations of science. While this might be a wonderful pla[...]



"Got a light?" The blind centre of the atomic experience (Twin Peaks redux)

2017-06-27T23:21:52.542+01:00

The Lynch universe is full of record players, speakers, radios, and other sonic devices. It also sometimes permits a television or movie screen. A chilling scene in Fire Walk With Me froze Agent Cooper's after-image on a CCTV screen, as Phillip Jeffries stormed down a hallway. Here the televisual augurs the supernatural effects that lie behind the normative facade of everyday life. Twin Peaks: The Return has extended this idea beyond all expectation. In episode 8 it literally blows up in our face.Back in Episode 1 of what passes for a third season of the classic surrealist drama, we were introduced to Sam Colby. He has a dull job changing the memory cards on a bank of cameras. These have their viewfinders trained on a glass box, sealed internally, but open to the air outside the high-rise. He sits on a comfy seat (which, naturally, has room for two viewers). He stares intently. And we stare too, wondering what we are looking for. Will anything happen? Given that "the box" was once common slang for television, the message is clear. As viewers of this programme, we too will sit patiently looking for clues, while events happen (or don't) in inexorable fashion. When something does happen, it will be sudden, unexpected, and ferociously violent. As our proxy, Colby does a poor job. Easily distracted, he misses Cooper's fleeting re-appearance in the quotidian. In Episode 8 an alarm rings, so the Giant (named ??????? in the credits, but still played by the wonderful Carel Struycken) proceeds to the theatre. There he watches a broadcast of an atomic bomb test, framed on the proscenium stage. It's a report from some other time and place. And he knows what to do... levitate and extrude golden fibres, until they birth a translucent sphere. As viewers, we are both confused and one step ahead. For we have already been subject to the full atomic experience, in a sequence that must rank as one of the most powerful on television. (If it's still television we are watching. Grant this for now.) The scene starts with a long zoom into a slow motion explosion on the horizon. We travel across a landscape covered in roiling vapour, closer to the central mushroom cloud, and then right inside. At this point the imagery fragments into abstraction, dancing sparks severing percept from percept. Time and space are here shattered in an act beyond human understanding. This explosion appears to be the root of the evil unleashed upon the world in the form of BOB (one letter short of "BOMB"). But the brilliance of this sequence is not in the context of the Twin Peaks mythology. Banal matters like plot and character hardly matter, as the abstract content of this episode makes apparent. Rather, the wonder here is that Lynch is replicating the actual historical experience (visual and psychic) of watching the first atomic bomb broadcasts. This thesis requires us to revisit Operation Tumbler, a series of tests designed to explain how blast pressure can be accurately measured in an atomic detonation. (There was always some reason for some further test.) The third part of the series, Tumbler Charlie, used a Mk 4 atom bomb of weight 10,440 lb, dropped from a B-50 bomber at 3447 feet over Nevada Test Site Area 7. But the military and scientific rationale were, on this occasion, eclipsed by a far more significant fact. This was to be the first live broadcast of an atomic explosion. Television cameras were positioned at Mount Charleston, 11 miles from ground zero. Despite this distance, it was feared that the blast might destroy the equipment. Indeed, such concerns were justified. Power failed 14 minutes befor[...]



Sgt. Pepper 2017 and the loudness wars

2017-06-05T00:15:57.980+01:00

Anyone with a passing interest in pop music or studio production could not help but notice the fiftieth anniversary of The Beatles' album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It's the first time an album by this seminal group has been released in archival fashion, which is perhaps surprising. There's lots of exciting news here, most prominent being a brand new remix from the original masters, by none other than George Martin's son Giles. Sgt. Pepper is often mooted as the band's finest album... indeed the best record of all time. It isn't, not by a fair shot. I would give Abbey Road and The Beatles precedence, and have sympathy for those who choose Revolver as well. It's also called the first concept album, though the conceit was paper thin. Mishearing the words "salt and pepper", McCartney imagined alternative identities for his bandmates as part of some local music hall act. This was by no means a bad strategy to break them out of their equally artificial roles as John, Paul, George, and Ringo. But the only trace of this concept that made it to vinyl were the two renderings of the title track and their dress-up antics on the cover. So, no, not really a concept album and certainly not a good example of one. But what the album does have are cracking songs, fluid performances, unusual songwriting, imagination to burn, and timbres previously unheard on record. It was an experimental album in a way pop music can never again be. Back in 1966 there was technology to figure out. The musicians were continuously asking themselves questions like: "What strange thing can we do with this tape deck that serves the song?" and "What if we played three pianos simultaneously and miked up the full decay?" and "What if we played this backwards, or down a fifth or up an octave?" There are only so many times you can ask these questions before they become part of the formula. The Beatles and George Martin asked these questions first. And, incredibly, answered them best. (I should not forget the wonderful engineer Geoff Emerick.)All of this is evident on the first fruits of the recording sessions, the single "Strawberry Fields Forever" / "Penny Lane". I like to think the group released it, in February 1967, as a belated fourth birthday present to myself. Certainly it is a gift to anyone with ears for the strange. I have no qualms in declaring it a better "album" than Sgt. Pepper... though thankfully we don't need to fight over precedence but can enjoy all of the tracks.This single was remixed in 2015 for 1+ and this new version was also released on vinyl for Record Store Day this year. How bizarre to include it once again in the current package. And doubly strange to bury this landmark of song craft and production on the second disc of backing tracks and out-takes. (Note that this mix of "Penny Lane" has apparently been tweaked somewhat even since 2015, and is hence dated 2017.)Also included on disc 2 are 16 out-takes and incomplete studio versions, covering every song on the album and the single as well. If you buy the "Super Deluxe Edition" box set you get a total of six discs, including 21 additional out-takes, the original mono version of the album, plus a 5.1 surround mix. Now, many of the extra session have been release on Anthology and all of them on various bootlegs. But they have never sounded better than here. One thing you won't find is any version of "Only a Northern Song", even though that song was also recorded in the same sessions. Versions have come out in the Anthology series, etc. But it's still an odd decision if they are trying to repre[...]



Arduino IDE: Best practices and gotchas

2017-05-26T04:17:13.424+01:00

Programming for the Arduino is designed to be easy for beginners. The Integrated Development Environment (IDE) provides a safe place to write code, and handles the make and compiler steps that are required to create processor instructions from your C++ code. This is fine for trivial applications and school exercises. But as soon as you try to use structured code (including classes and custom libraries) on a larger project, mysterious errors and roadblocks become the order of the day.This article will consider best practices for working within the IDE. I will document a number of common errors and their workarounds. My perspective is of an experienced Python coder who finds C++ full of needless obfuscation. But we can make it work!Why not switch?On encountering limitations with the Arduino IDE, the natural thing to do is switch to a mature development environment. For example, you could use Microsoft Visual Studio by way of Visual Micro, a plugin that enables Arduino coding. Or, use Eclipse with one of several available plugins: Sloeber, PlatformIO, or AVR-eclipse.But there are cases when it is advantageous to stick with the Arduino IDE. For example, I might be working on a team with other less-experienced developers. While I might wish to carry the cognitive burden of Eclipse plus plugins plus project management, they might not. Or I could be in a teaching environment where my code must be developed with the same tools my students will be using.Language features... and what's missingThe Arduino IDE gives you many basic C++ language features plus hardware-specific functions. Control structures, values, and data types are documented in the Reference. But you don't get modern features such as the Standard Template Library (STL). If you want to use stacks, queues, lists, vectors, etc. you must install a library. Start with those by Marc Jacobi (last updated 2 years ago) and Andy Brown (updated 1 year ago). I am sure there are plenty of articles discussing the relative merits of these or other solutions. You also don't get new and delete operators, and there's good reason. Dynamic memory management is discouraged on microprocessor boards, since RAM and other resources are limited. There are libraries that add these to your toolkit, but the IDE encourages us to use C++ as though it was little more than plain vanilla C. It can be frustrating, but my advice is to adapt. Code structureAs you know, when using the Arduino IDE you start coding with a sketch that is your application's entry point. As an example, I'll use project.ino.Inside this file are always two functions, setup() and loop(). These take no parameters and return no values. There's not much you can do with them... except populate them with your code. These functions are part of an implicit code structure that could be written as follows: void main() { // declaration section setup(); // initialisation (runs once) while (true) { loop(); // process-oriented code (runs forever) }}In the IDE you never see the main() function and neither can you manipulate it.Declaration sectionThe declaration section comes at the top of your project.ino. It is effectively outside any code block. Yes, even though it is in an implicit main() function. This means that only declarations and initializations are valid here. You cannot call methods of a class, nor access properties. This is our first rule:Rule 1. The declaration section should contain only includes, initialisations of variables, and instantiations of classes.This restriction c[...]



Valentine's Day microphone test revisited

2017-05-03T22:59:04.690+01:00

OK, so this article was meant to be posted months ago. Something happened and it went into limbo. Only one reader, Wojtek, noticed. I am not sure what this says about the popularity of this blog!In the original Valentine's Day microphone comparison I tested three sets of mics in different scenarios. The files are still available, so you should visit that article if you haven't already.Then, in Comments on field recording gear I showed how we match recorders to microphones, and demonstrated that for the three configurations I used, the recorders and mics are well-matched. This means that the pre-amps are adding no appreciable noise. Any noise we hear is the self-noise of the microphones. (Or comes from the sources we are recording.)Now it's time to reveal which mics were which in the listening test. The Big RevealA drum-roll please:MIC 1 = DPA 4060 + Zoom F8MIC 2 = AT 3032 + Zoom F8MIC 3 = EM172 + Olympus LS-11When I revealed this on Facebook I got some interesting responses. Some listeners were surprised by the amount of noise on the DPA mics, and assumed I had made some sort of a mistake. Nope! The results are in line with the published self-noise measurements of the microphones:DPA 4060 = 23 dBEM 172 = 14 dBAT 3032 = 8 dB (Tested figure, not as specified.)The difference between the three microphones is in no way insignificant. And these differences are reflected accurately in the recordings. This is largely due to laws of physics. A larger diaphragm can capture a bigger cross-section of a pressure wave in the air. The mic then simply has more energy to work with, and can transduce this more effectively. We usually pay a price for using smaller, handier mics. Further ConsiderationsConsider that these specs are all A-weighted, which means that a particular weighting curve has been applied to each frequency band as tested. In my considered opinion as an audio engineer, this is an inappropriate curve to apply to noise measurements. Nonetheless, manufacturers persist in what is really a deception, since they can publish smaller numbers using the A curve than if they measure noise across the frequency band without applying a curve. To their credit, DPA publish two numbers for equivalent noise level on their spec sheet. The full text for the first is: "A-weighted Typ. 23 dB(A) re. 20 µPa (max. 26 dB(A))". And for the second: "ITU-R BS.468-4 Typ. 35 dB (max. 38 dB)". The ITU-R curve is a lot more appropriate from a technical standpoint.But... 35 dB versus 23 dB. That's a pretty large difference. Which number sells more mics?Regardless, not all noise is equal. Listen to the Site B recordings again. With the AT 3032, the noise is evenly distributed across frequency, so it is much less likely to call attention to itself. The EM172 has very even mid to high frequency noise, with little noticeable noise in the lows. The DPA 4060 has significant low frequency noise in addition to what's there at other frequencies. It seems from this, that even if we had ITU-R measurements for all three microphones, the AT3032 would still come out ahead, maybe even by a larger margin.What Are Measurements Worth?Some recordists regularly slam specifications as meaningless, preferring to believe only the evidence of their ears. I am aware of psychoacoustic effects, conditioning, and expectation. These affect me as much as the next person, so I prefer to challenge my biases. I use specifications with full knowledge of their limitations. And then confirm or deny these with listening tests.Which I suppose was the whol[...]



Great invention: flash memory

2017-03-15T16:26:17.777+00:00

(image)

So, as I got ready for my next field recording excursion I reflected on how much easier things are, now we have flash memory. I mean, what a great invention! Non-volatile, no moving parts, light as a feather, and tiny. Did someone win a Nobel prize for this? I hope so.

It's also truly ridiculous how much memory I carry. For fun I thought I'd do a little inventory.

On this trip I require a laptop, but will be travelling without an external hard drive for the first time. The reason? The two little thumb drives in the bottom of the photo (above). These are Samsung USB 3.0 devices. One is called the "Bar" and the other the "Stick", but they are the same technology inside. I got one of each so I could tell them apart. They are high speed and high quality, unlike the majority of memory on the market currently. You simply cannot trust manufacturer specifications and rated transfer speeds.

These will do fine for backing up recordings from the laptop. But never has it been easier to lose 128 GB!

I also have two Sandisk Cruzer Blade in 16 GB sizes (the red sticks), plus a couple naked SD cards, the 16 GB Transcend 10 SDHC 20 MB/s. To facilitate using SD cards, I carry an SD card reader, mostly because of brain-dead Macs.

These smaller (ahem) sizes make it easier to backup material on a project basis. I also use them to transfer files to installation sites, when doing a presentation, etc.

I plug these smaller sticks into unknown computers and devices, but I never do so with my two main Samsung backup drives. The reason? Viruses. It's easy for software nasties to travel from one system to another via portable memory.

To help minimise the risk, grab yourself a free copy of Panda USB Vaccine and inoculate each stick and memory card. I don't have a web address for this software, since it keeps changing. It's also hard to find from the Panda website, so simply make an independent web search.

Some devices are very choosy about exactly which memory they use, and there are lots of confusing terms to wade through. Besides which, manufacturers do not make it easy with their product naming schemes. You may wish to refer to my previous articles: Choosing An SD Card and Choosing a micro SD card for your phone.

But, back to my memory bonanza.

For my Zoom F8 recorder I have two 64 GB Transcend U1 10 SDHC-I 90 MB/s 600x.

For my Olympus EP-5 camera I swap between two 32 GB Sandisk Extreme U1 10 SDHC-I 45 MB/s.

For my Olympus LS-11 recorder I have a single 16 Sandisk Ultra 10 SDHC-I 30 MB/s. The recorder also has built-in memory, so I have redundancy.

Adding this up, I discover that on a typical trip I carry half a terabyte of flash storage. That's ridiculous! But I suppose it would be even worse if I shot more video.


P.S. Remember ZIP disks? Shudder.



Comments on field recording gear

2017-02-15T16:55:03.588+00:00

This article will provide technical details and discussion for my Valentine's Day microphone comparison. First I will outline some requirements for field recording and discuss one useful specification. Then I'll discuss the specifics of the gear, typical pricing, and conclude with some remarks about relative value.Hopefully this article will suit beginners as well as slightly more seasoned recordists. RequirementsFor field recording we want a sensitive microphone that has a low self-noise. That's because we are often recording ambiance and other signals in a low pressure regime. The requirements for live music or studio recording are quite different. For example, in those contexts it might be more important for a mic to withstand high sound pressure levels (SPL). That's not usually a priority for field recording. When it comes to a recorder, portability is naturally the first constraint. A device must be usable in the field, so the form factor and interface are key. Battery power is a must. The correct microphone connectors and phantom power are important. Then, we want the best pre-amps possible. But how good is enough? Happily there's an answer. The RANE Tech Note series has an excellent article, Selecting Mic Preamps that you should read for details. In particular, Table 3 is very useful. This allows us to determine the Equivalent Input Noise (EIN) of a microphone given two pieces of data that we can usually find on a mic's spec sheet: the self-noise in dB-SPL, and the sensitivity rating in mV/Pa. EIN numbers are negative, and the lower the better. (In other words, the higher the absolute number the better. Some people get confused by this.)The total noise we hear is the combination of the microphone and the recorder's pre-amps, though this is not calculated by linear addition. The goal is to choose a recorder that adds insignificant noise to the microphone. The article mentions that a recorder with a 10 dB better EIN rating will increase the noise of the microphone by only 0.4 dB. That sets a useful benchmark.Today we have many excellent choices when it comes to larger recorders, those that are designed to be carried over the shoulder or in a bag. But we are still a bit limited in terms of the hand-held form factor. My own bias is towards relatively inexpensive gear. Though I am a trained professional audio engineer, I do not work in that area. As a researcher and artist I don't have a steady revenue stream that could fund the most expensive gear. Luckily, such is not necessary with a bit of ingenuity and research. On the other hand, I have repeated questions on this blog from people who wish to spend essentially nothing and still get excellent results. Be aware that there is a minimum outlay required. The amount is small compared with what was once necessary; today we are spoiled indeed. Hand-held recording setupThe EM172 capsule are popular with hobbyists looking to build small electret microphones. They are dirt cheap and low noise, plus they come complete with a FET. There's little to do except wire them up and put them in an appropriate housing. A cottage industry has sprung up around this capsule. As a result, you can buy nice products from Audiotalaia in Spain, LOM in Slovakia, and Micbooster in England. These mics are small enough to go anywhere. I carry a pair of clips to attach them to fences, wires, branches, even leaves. EM172 mics have a sensitivity of 40 mV/Pa and self-noise 14 dB. This works out to an EIN of -106[...]



Valentine's Day microphone comparison

2017-05-03T22:09:47.278+01:00

It's Valentine's Day, which means that spring has sprung here in Ireland. I know my Canadian friends will find that hard to believe! But the crocus are out, the trees are budding, and birds are starting their courtship and territory marking. So I did what every field recording mammal does on a day like today... I went out for a walk with two different recorders and three sets of stereo microphones. I thought I'd share with you some sounds, since every now and then it's fun to compare gear. Well, in truth I have been in more of a philosophical than technical mindset lately, so this was a nice change of pace. What follows is a microphone comparison that developed over three updates. I think it's done now!You can download the sound files in a ZIP archive from Dropbox. I will keep this available for as long as is practical. MicrophonesIn the comments I will reveal which microphone is which, so don't read below until you have considered the options yourself. These are your choices:A pair of EM 172 caps recorded on an Olympus LS-11.A pair of AT 3022 recorded by a Zoom F8.The popular DPA 4060, again recorded by the Zoom F8.For each recording site I have kept the correspondence consistent between tracks 1 to 3 and the microphones. DetailsThe configuration was spaced omni. All microphones had fuzzy windsocks of differing efficacy; none were in a blimp or other enclosure. I tried to get the capsules aligned as closely as possible, by clipping the smaller mics to the larger.I've tried to match signal levels, but as each microphone records different timbres that is never entirely possible. But it does mean that some signals have been boosted from their original level.This is especially true of the Olympus LS-11. It has the best signal-to-noise ratio operating at low sensitivity. This means that significant amplification is required for quiet signals. But this nonetheless works out better.Site ASite A was along the park Canal in Corbally, Limerick. In front of the microphones is the view pictured. There is a row of trees, still without leaves at this time of year. Beyond are grazing grounds, used for horses. To the left distance you can see a suburban housing estate. Birds are in the trees and on the pylons and power wire. The persistent drone is from behind the microphones, across the canal, and even further past housing, 600m distant. Most of this is from the traffic on Dublin Rd., the main arterial access to this side of Limerick. For those who downloaded this set initially, note that the files have been updated. They have been properly tagged and shortened in length to 30s.This is a good test of real-world usage when field recording.Site BThis recording was made at Studio Ubiquity AKA my living room. The time was 3:30am and it's extraordinarily quiet... likely quieter than some recording studios! (Though, unlike a proper studio, this sound level is inconsistent and likely to be disturbed.) The photo shows a close-up of the triple microphone cluster. This is a good test of the microphone's noise characteristics. I ensured that the levels were equal across the mics, using a simple method. The full recording includes some quiet but distinct sounds. These were matched in all three tracks, for both timing (across the two recorders) and peak amplitude. Then the files were trimmed to the silent portions, removing the key sounds. I ensured the segment was undisturbed by low frequency sounds from local traffic. This is th[...]



Zoom F8 Firmware Update 3

2017-02-14T18:25:59.671+00:00

This is a rather belated post. But, as you can see from my website, I've been rather busy.

In August of last year I wrote a number of articles on the Zoom F8. One of these listed firmware suggestions to improve the recorder. Since then Firmware 3.0 was released, so I've edited that article to indicate which of the suggestions have been implemented. The majority have, which is incredible service on the part of Zoom. (I know some of you are reading this, so thanks!)

Besides those changes, version 3 implements a number of new features:

* Support for the new F-Control.

* Individual tracks can be monitoring without recording.

* Note and Track Name metadata can be edited while recording.

* You can specify which keys will be locked when the unit is locked for recording. These are: Track 1-8, PFL 1-8, Trim Knob 1–8, Slate Mic, Slate Tone, Encoder, MENU, HP Volume, REW, STOP, FF, PLAY, REC.

Of my previous suggestions, only the following remain valid: 4, 8, 9, 10, 12.

I will be taking the F-8 on my next major excursion, so you'll be hearing more from me. In the meantime, it's making headway in the film industry, quite a number of independent sound engineers choosing it for its low cost, without compromise.