Monthly Archives: February 2016

Audio Archaeology: A Yale Student’s final project, 1966

[this is a part of the continuing Audio Archaeology series, where I explore the found reel-to-reels of past recording enthusiasts.]

yale studentThis is the most interesting of my early finds with this collection. Some tapes appear to have been recorded with a portable recorder, then re-recorded onto the larger reels in this collection. Understandable, they wouldn’t want to lug their 50-pound Ampex two-track to Sprague Hall, Yale University School of Music for this performance. According to the sadly brief note, this is the performance of a student’s composition in 1966, “recorded at Sprague, copied at Moore’s.” The only evidence I see at the moment of a “Moore’s” in New Haven is a restaurant called Archie Moore’s. Moore could just be a friend or a hobbyist.

The composition is thoroughly of the 20th century avant-garde strain. It seems the collector’s interest fell firmly in that area- there is a fascinating tape devoted entirely to the avant-garde and musique concrete. Also it was recorded in stereo- I’m getting the idea if a tape is in stereo, this collector valued it.

Without further ado, here is the student’s composition, clocking in at over 20 minutes:

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Dusty Grooves: Audio Archaeology: A trip though a found tape collection

[this is a part of the continuing Audio Archaeology series, where I explore the found reel-to-reels of past recording enthusiasts.]

old Scotch tapesThis is the first installment of a series that will explore the contents of a reel-to-reel tape collection I acquired quite by accident. I’ve had reel to reel machines for years, and occasionally I re-stock tape by taking old reels off of people’s hands. This particular transaction was nothing unusual. I knew the tapes were old and used. They were part of the seller’s parents’ estate. Some notes were associated with the tapes, and as I thought they might contain info about their condition, I asked him to include them in the box.

The postman dropped off a big, heavy box about two weeks later. Inside were 63 tapes. The “notes” turned out to be a meticulous accounting of everything on all the reels, including index numbers for EVERY track. Program notes. Artists and composers. The collection is predominantly Classical, and in mono. A chunk is recorded from album, but a goodly portion was recorded from public radio stations in the New York City area in the 1960s. There are some hostcard catalog of tapes announcements, but like you find in many carefully assembled personal collections, the announcer has been removed except when they share biographical information about the composer or performers. I am still sifting through this treasure, listening for station IDs. I figure across 63 tapes recorded one program per track, two tracks per side, somewhere in there the taper neglected to cut out station information, and I will find it.

As I find interesting things, I will upload them to the cloud and share them here. I’ll be starting with something quite interesting and atypical in the collection, so do tune in next time.

Confessions of an audio junkie

I’ve always been, since I can remember anything at all, a recording junkie. I’ve been dancing to music since I could walk. I got my first record as a gift from my aunt Kathy, who said whenever she played Beatles ’65, I danced and danced until sweat poured over me. So at the tender age of 3 I obtained my first record album. I begged my parents to play it, and they saw the wisdom soon after of buying my first record player. I was still at a very kinetic stage of development and what records survive from those early days only do so due to some kind of miracle. They are scratched to the point of unplayability. I wore holes through a clutch of Beatles 45s. By the time I was 8 or so, I apparently demonstrated a degree of care since my dad gifted me with the hand-me-down stereo and was given long players instead of singles.

Also in those early years I was given a hand-held cassette recorder for Christmas. I proceeded to wear through batteries and tapes, recording anything and everything. My friends and I wrote skits and taped them. I would record bad jokes. I read from books.

A couple of treasured recordings- treasured in memories, the tapes are sadly lost- were of my dearly departed grandmother reading bible verses with me, and a nearly complete recording of the Broadway stage version of Tommy by the Who, before it even came out on LP. Thusly my bootlegging career began almost as soon as my recording career did- and I carried that bootleg around for decades before it was finally lost in a flood along with many of my other irreplaceable trophies of childhood.

I couldn’t have asked for better musical tutors in The Beatles. Along with their producer and engineers, they comprised one of the most formidable practitioners of the art of analog tape recording our culture has ever seen. Listening to the singing and instrument was just one dimension. Unlike any other artists at the time (save for the 20th century Avant Garde and Frank Zappa, none of which I knew anything about as a kid), they were *overt* tape noodlers. Even the most naive listener gets that there is something deeply weird about tracks like “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite-” and basically that weird something is tape collage. Both track contain hand-assembled tape loops- created in the flesh with magnetic tape, a razor, and adhesive tape- made up of segments of *other* recordings. Some segments play forwards, others play backwards. I heard in these songs the doorway to a world just as intriguing to me as sailors discovering uncharted land.

A simple habit of my dad’s proved to be a profound influence on me. The family stereo had a cassette recorder, and he would swap records with friends. He’d record the ones he liked. But cassettes came in fixed lengths that only roughly correlated with the length of records. So, if he had a 60-minute cassette, and a 40-minute album to record, he’d finish out side two with either part of the album repeated, or the tracks he liked from a different album. I understood the logic, and the implications, of this almost immediately. When I got the hand-me-down family stereo, I began trading records as fast as I could. I’d record my best friend’s Elton John records, and he’d record my Beatles records. But it occurred to me I could put on those tapes anything I wanted. Any tracks, from any albums I had, in any order. But I didn’t stop there. Soon I was making tapes for my friends that had a special DJ announcing the contents- me. At first I had to bounce between the old beater portable recorder and the stereo. But eventually I asked my parents for a microphone- the stereo recorder very conveniently had microphone inputs. My first crude “home studio” was born.

This tendency to make mixtapes became a full-blown compulsion in high school. I volunteered to DJ at an after-school party, and I amazed everyone by having recorded mixtapes for the event in advance. I was able to take requests because I brought a turntable and a crate of records, but most of the evening I just played mixtapes. After a while I was fulfilling requests for tapes from friends- they knew I had a good record collection. All they had to do was furnish a tape. Sadly, because of the diasporic nature of this activity, absolutely none of these masterworks survive.

But mixtapes of another kind do survive, and they mark the definite line between just taping artists and being the artist.

I credit this innovation to a handful of friends, and a couple of musicians- Brian Eno and Laurie Anderson.

The idea of playing records on the wrong speed was not exactly unknown to me. I had a collection of tapes i made of classical records borrowed from our high school library’s woefully outdated record collection. I’d play the old 45s on 33, or 16. The 33s sometimes sounded good on 16 as well. I had basically invented my own form of ambient music and played them as background music for studying or reading. Brian Eno is an artist who occasionally produces very similar work, deliberately. My mom liked David Bowie, and I liked Roxy Music, and both groups of artists are signposts to Brian Eno. I found his album Discreet Music as a cutout, so it was very little risk. After listening to it, and really absorbing it, I found I couldn’t hear music in the same way again. I was interested in abstract art- here was a guy making abstract music, and it moved me in the same profound way Rothko and Ellsworth Kelly’s paintings did. More to the point, Eno’s ambient works can lull you into a Flow state, almost to the point of hypnogogia. My roommate and I invented “Enoizing.” to de-stress, on Fridays instead of hitting the bars we’d play progressively relaxing Eno albums until we had practically melted into our chairs.

The next artist I needed to hear was Laurie Anderson. I thought I was a pretty cool kid- I dug punk and new wave, and listened to sixties garage and psych- but there was another kid in my college dorm who was cooler. He had a better stereo, and more records. He had even converted the closet alcove into a record room. And he had some really out there records. The one that affected me the most was Laurie Anderson’s United States I-IV- still high on my list. I borrowed it and taped it. But it was one particular song- “Difficult Listening Hour-” that intrigued me the most. It’s a radio show from an alternate universe. The DJ’s voice is slowed down to the point of creepy unfamiliarity. S/he introduces a program of what s/he promises to be difficult music. Difficult…. how? Other than the intonation “ooo-la… ooo-la,” there’s no evidence of the meaning.

But I had an opinion of what it meant, and I felt the need to run with it. There was a small gang of us that would hang out in our dorm rooms- all creative types with some sort of stereo. I challenged everyone to come up with the hardest possible thing to listen to. If even one of the listeners couldn’t stick it out, the person who made the tape “won.” If everyone made it, they “lost.” And I’m not being egotistical when I say I always won.

This was a synthesis of all the aesthetics that interested me- abstraction, dada, randomness, aggression and alienation- in the form of a game. Moreover, a game of sonic endurance. I realized in retrospect that instead of going out to bars and challenging each other to drink more shots than the others like most college students, we were challenging in each other in a less harmful, much more creative way- but still in celebration of the competition that naturally occurs in adolescence. And I could make a fearsome racket. I managed by hacking my tape recorder in a couple of primitive ways. One was the removal of the erase head. It was an irreversible act of sabotage. No more could I tape over something I didn’t want to keep. Instead, every time I recorded something, it simply added itself to the sound. In effect, a simple multi-track recorder. I found I could record in mono to the left channel, then do the same, but to the right. I could also build sounds across channels by layering them. Take a handful of records played on various wrong speeds, and record layer upon layer upon layer- i had no problem making something that was impossible to endure.

But that wasn’t the end of it. I also discovered by leaning on the stop button, lightly, I could cause the recorder to speed up. By holding it there indefinitely, I could make very slow recordings. It reduced voices to low rumbles, and added a very annoying whine in the upper register. That, plus multiple layers, plus turning the input level to eleven- mission accomplished. A few of those tapes survive, and they are indeed difficult to listen to, as much today as they were then.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but in the act of making these primitive recordings I was learning the rudiments of professional sound recording.

I had learned basic guitar chords from my dad- from my uncle, some, as well but mainly my dad. He gave me his Gibson acoustic when I went to college. One day with some student loan money burning a hole in my pocket, I found a Fender Mustang at a pawn shop. This was in the days before Nirvana when one could get an old Fender for $150. Why did you think punk and grunge bands bought them? anyway, I started to make electric guitar recordings by direct injection. I could make basic overdubs thanks to my modified tape deck. But I wanted to be a real rock and roller, you know? Like Pete Townshend or Jimi Hendrix. I found a non-working Sony reel to reel and brought it home. It just needed a belt, but I had made a more important discovery before I fixed it. You could plug anything into its microphone input and use the volume control to generate distortion. I was already a noise junkie and this was a whole new world of sound to explore. But I found the quality was really quite terrible and impossible to control. This didn’t stop me from making a multitude of tapes of awful guitar music.

I found it quite pleasant to put on headphones, record guitar racket and just say whatever came to mind over a microphone. At first it was quite banal- just reading anything, like album covers or from books. Soon enough I was composing silly lyrics of my own.

So I did this until that venerated old recorder died for good. It had been a loyal footsoldier on the front lines of noise abuse for years. I was in a new relationship and moved to a bigger place, and had a place to lock myself away in the attic room and indulge in my illicit little habit if I wanted. It was not the best marriage, though. My feelings about this relationship began leaking into my lyrics. They were so cathartic, I began to see the value in going about it more systematically, and began to write lyrics in earnest. As the quality of the work increased, I felt the need to document them in a more sophisticated manner. It was then I decided it was time to create a real home studio.

It was quite modest at first- basically the guitar, a chain of two recording devices plus some mics and an old drum machine thing called Rhythm King. Simple effects came about in the form of cheap guitar pedals, which I used with the mics as well as the guitar, and even fed the tape machines through. In a way that was the best setup I’ve had, because it was all so tentative, experimental and temperamental. Failure wasn’t just a constant, it became an aesthetic. connections would short out in the middle of a song and cause a terrible racket.

Eventually I wanted more control. I spent some rainy day money on a four-track reel to reel. I invested in a bass guitar and, one piece at a time, a drum kit. I placed the drums in an alcove, and stapled egg-foam mattress pads to the walls above them. Initial recordings were terrible. Eventually I found the missing piece of the puzzle- at a music store, in the pile of rubble politely called the clearance aisle, I found what I later determined was THE very mixing board intended for my tape deck.

As I slowly and painfully learned how to make rough mixes, the quality started improving. I read a lot about mic placement. I bit the bullet and bought mics good for voices and drums. Probably the best step forward was mixing to more than just headphones, but also to speakers. It was listening to playback through speakers I realized how limiting direct injected guitars were- there just wasn’t enough life, since none of the room make it into the sound- plus I was in need of compression and a touch of ambiance. Eventually I acquired a guitar amp, compressor and stereo reverb.

Now my work was more like pop music than it ever had. I think to some degree, the gear dictated that. By setting up a virtual live band setting, I made virtual live band music. That meant choruses and verses and taking solos and inventing drum fills and bass riffs. It was all good fun and liberating, too- absorption in the process lifted my spirits and inflated my self-worth.

But life interferes, like it always does. Two events, the death of my father and the aftermath of that, and the failure of my marriage, took me back to some very dark places. I found solace in music.

The way I look at it, the dark self-punishing thoughts I had, I could have really committed some serious self-destruction. I did engage in some occasional professional sabotage. But instead of doing something like falling into substance abuse, I had been working on this home studio, and I channeled that darkness into art. The result was a handful of songs which I still consider the best thing I’ve ever done. I never could relate to my wife’s judgmental family, or her competitive friends. And all you have to do is read the news to not feel like you belong on this world. This led me to write Astronaut, about a person who concocts the delusion of being an alien who was born on the same day his people crash landed on Earth. He was the only survivor. Raised as a human, he always suspected he didn’t truly belong here. So he forever tries to send signals to his home planet, hoping for eventual rescue.

I still have tapes of the various versions of this song. The first version uses some synth sounds to simulate a crash and a rescue beacon. The eventual final version strips away special effects and is a guitar, bass and drums affair with a “crashing” verse and the wail of a lost soul at the end. It felt so good to finally be able to create something lasting that expressed exactly how I was feeling then.

The other song from this period I feel proud of is called “Feels so bad.” It basically equates substance abuse with social dislocation and existential yearning. The music is a culmination of everything that became before it- I poured all of my soul into it. Two guitar tracks, some fairly decent solos, pretty good drumming- after a couple of years of practice I was becoming a passable drummer. From a technical standpoint, I made the recording as good as possible while at the time unleashing some chaos. The drum sound turned out very well, as did the vocals (at this point recorded in a small makeshift booth, and old closet) and the guitar cabinets, complete with peals of feedback that shook the room. It feels very live for a one-man-band.

The end of that marriage resulted in radical downsizing, and the need to sell basically the whole studio. I still have master tapes from that era, locked away in a crate. I have one guitar, one bass guitar, and the old Rhythm King that was the heartbeat of all my tracks (I used it as a metronome basically). Everything else is gone.

The next decade of my life revolves around being a dad and finally letting myself be loved in a strong, lasting relationship. And I had a brief battle with cancer, and a yearlong struggle with persistent vertigo and dizziness. My lifelong love of recording things was and continues to be a non-trivial part of who I am. So over the years I have made recordings of the kids and some field recordings of nature sounds. A few years back I got the bug to dig out the old music. Fortunately before shuttering the doors entirely, I dubbed off the best of my work to digital compact cassette and regular audio cassettes. From that I compiled a CD that I would whip out occasionally and listen on the road. It was enough to sustain an interest in recording again.

Significantly, what I’ve recorded since hasn’t had much in the way of lyrics- I feel like in the 90s I exorcised a huge demon and since then I’ve been a mostly retired balladeer, the music having done what it needed to get me through an awful period in my life. The thing is, this is a new era- tape machines have been replaced by digital recorders. I have pulled instruments together in an ad-hoc way on a couple of occasions to produce tracks for something I (probably weirdly) consider a “side project” with it’s own separate identity.

One of my favorite dad jokes is to end a conversation with “im gonna start a band called x” or “that’s the name of my death metal band.” For instance, “half-eaten muffin is the name of my death metal band.” So once my daughter asked me what I was making. I had a sun tea jar out in the front yard, full of water with some tea bags dangling in it. I replied “I’m making decaf chai sun tea,” which was exactly what I was making. I then said “that’s the name of my new band.” So that’s what it became, the name for my new alter musical ego. He’s curious, a little whimsical. Definitely more contented. So while some themes of alienation do pop up (one song, for instance, features a robot wondering if machines have a soul), the point, if there is any, is more subtle. It has an ambient side which I find myself being drawn into more nowadays.

I don’t think my musical therapy is over. I’m getting older, and that presents its own challenges, and some will be unpleasant, I expect. But I am definitely at a sort of crossroads, or a weigh station, or something. Recently I pulled out every one of my tapes and digitized and cataloged them- by most recent count, I have preserved about 180 individual compositions. I’ve divided them into “releases” in order to make sense of the lyrics and the time frames. They sit alongside works by my favorite bands on my iPod, just to remind me of where I’ve been- really, in their own imperfect, incomplete way, they are my journal. For years I’ve been cursing myself for not being disciplined enough to keep a real journal. If I had realized every time I pressed record, it was a new entry in a real journal, I might have provided a more consistent record. But at least I’ve finally had the sense to realize the studio was like a psychiatrists’ couch, and I have plenty of sessions to look back on to remind me who I am now and again.

Don’t put all the work on the artist

Famously (in my own mind) an art teacher once said: “Art is a dialogue. Without a reaction from a viewer, a painting does not communicate, and is not art.” Perhaps the point was taken to the logical extreme, but it hammers an important lesson home: the burden of the aesthetic experience isn’t all on the artist.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot since I purchased two used books recently, both Rolling Stone Record guides. One was published in 1980, and the other in 2000.

The 1980 volume was a bible of sorts for me when I was a teenager. I didn’t get an after-school job for the usual reason: to put gas in the tank of a crappy used car, so you can go do teenage stuff, although the money from it certainly was used for that. No, I was moved to find work for the express purpose of buying a stereo and building a record collection. Today you’d just go to Blogspot blogs or Youtube to build your free music library. Not in 1980. At that point in history, if you only cared about cruising, you bought cassettes. If you cruised AND had a classic car, there was a good chance you bought eight-tracks. But if you had arguments with your parents, got grounded and had to shut the world out with some critical musical listening on a big, heavy pair of headphones, vinyl was the only way to go. But the start-up cost, especially to a 15 year old, was not insignificant. It was a deal-breaker without that after-school job.

So I resigned myself to food service so I could buy own stereo and records- and not have to listen to the archaic junk in the living room. I wanted real high fidelity! I wanted to FEEL those guitars and drums and shrieks of life down to the very core of my soul. Thank goodness for layaway. Six months later, I bought my first amp. Six months after that, a decent turntable and set of headphones. And every paycheck went into the painfully slow procurement of one- sometimes two- $9 records at a time.

If you only have one new work of art, you study it. scrutinize it. Drop everything and give it your full, undivided attention. And if you are a teenager with an after-school job in the food service industry, you have to choose VERY carefully, because if you bought a shitty album, it HURT. I mean in a real, visceral, physical way. It was painful to hear your hard-earned $9 wasted on bad music. And in those days, it was hard to trade used stuff. It involved the postal system and a lot of trust. It sometimes didn’t turn out. People wonder why Columbia House was a viable business. This paragraph explains exactly why.

Anyway, they had a copy of the Rolling Stone Record Guide at the public library, on reference- meaning it could not be checked out. So before I had a car, I took a bus downtown after school every day and read it like seminary students read the Good Book- one chapter and verse at a time. I absorbed it so fully, that even today when I think of albums like ZZ Top’s Tres Hombres or James Gang’s Thirds, I can see their ratings in my mind’s eye (both got four out of five stars). It guided my purchases back then in the dark ages when you couldn’t hear the music before buying it.

So this book- the 1980 edition- is kinda the ur-document of my musical tastes. I went to college a few years later with my musical tastes forever changed by the intriguing artwork of the albums in the import bin- generally beyond the scope of Rolling Stone’s editorial tolerances, and we parted ways. Many years later I bought a used copy on a whim- a couple of dollars for a good copy, why not?- and while I was at it, bought a 20 year more recent update just for fun.

The 1980 editors knew the historic background of pop music, and could speak eloquently about where bands fit into that mosaic. They took the long view. If they didn’t outright reject the music, or praise it to high heaven, they could at the very least understand it. This meant even if the review was mediocre, you could glean from the review enough info to realize YOU would probably love it, and most of the time, they were right.

In stark contrast, the 2000 editors did not have much respect for the long view. They either ignore it or, worse, provided their own spontaneous assessment of it. Rather than trying to find some kind of real value of the music (an impossible task, but necessary to try, especially if you are going to rank things), they seemed to favor the sort of blanket dismissal that is dispensed all too common. I think they were trying to be irreverent and snarky, but the result just reads like narcissism. The criticism is not something you can depend on quite the stark contrast between editions. But it’s prescient nonetheless- it’s like a gaze into the crystal ball. It’s not too hard to find this kind of self-absorbed dismissal on the Interwebs.

Hardly any thought given to perspective. I can understand that to a degree- after all, what is music but sensory impulses to enjoy or not enjoy at the moment it’s played? But here’s the thing- without some patience and understanding, slow-growers never get a chance. Difficult work just remains difficult. It’s the aural equivalent to never eating your Brussels sprouts and going for the cupcake every time. Oh yes, the cupcake loves to please, and you can eat cupcakes all day long if you want. But it leaves you hungry. The more difficult Brussels sprouts give you longevity and a life of substance, not fluff, and in the end you’re more deeply satisfied.

Art is a two-way street. You can’t be content with mere ingratiation, unless you really, really don’t care about meaning and quality. But why would you be content with that? Would you be fine with friends that flatter you so you pay them attention, while secretly they loathe you? No, surely you would prefer real friends that weather the hard parts and appreciate you for who you are, not what they can get from you. Try the same with the art you enjoy. Look deeper. Find patterns. Look at the larger picture. Meet the artist halfway and try to understand why they don’t want to just spoon-feed you pleasure. It will be worth it.