iPhone noise study

September 15, 2009

I love finding interesting sounds in the mundane. The other day on my commute back from work in New York, I plugged my mostly dead iPhone into the socket near my Amtrak seat, and hooked up my headphones in preparation for finding something long and interesting to watch on youtube. As I fumbled around on youtube, i noticed a very quiet noise coming through the headphones. I thought I must have accidentally engaged the iPod app, and was now listening to some of my music. I paused to try and descern what it was. I thought it could be Kevin Drum, or possibly one of the sessions on flat grey marked suspended pole holds tree. So I continued to listen, but could not identify the source, which I happened to be enjoying very much.

So I clicked over to the iTunes, and the sound changed. So I clicked on something else, and it changed again. I then realized that the sound was coming not from iTunes but from the device itself. So I grabbed one of my everpresent recording devices, plugged in, and began recording.

While recording, I played around with the different apps and things to investigate how the might change the sound. The sounds are screeches, clicks, bursts of white noise, little rumbles, and some almost turntablist sounding scratches. Playing with the touch screen affects the types of sound made, the volume, and the variation in pitch. In general though you can’t control these discretely, orvery precisely at all. It’s still fairly addictive to play with tho. While certainly not mindblowing, there is a nice range of sounds you can make.

I imagine this is some kind of grounding issue, which really should not happen, but it’s so quiet, it really won’t disturb most users. It also only occurs when the powercord and headphones are plugged in.

This is a pretty nice little study to listen to, and i think i may try playing with this a bit more in the future to see if i can get more sounds.


- iPhone noise study (amplified using Audacity)

Prepared Walkman Improvisation

August 21, 2009

From the time I began circuit bending, I have been playing with walkmen. they are cheap and readily available, and there are a number of interesting things you can do with them. some of which has been previously documented here.

In the past though, I mostly did things which involved tape, as that was fairly obvious and direct. for an early experimenter there is a lot of fun to be had with a walkman and a simple tape loop. But as my interests have moved away from looping, constant sound masses, to more discreet utterances of sounds delineated by space, and focused on timing and texture, I have also moved away from tape.

Even still, the whole object of the walkman with it’s very common, even almost sad appearance, holds something for me. Perhaps it is history. It being the first playback device i owned, and part of my first forays into sound experimentation.

Because of this, I have been drawn back to it again. To attempt to wring from it the last quantities of available sound from beyond magnetic tape. Instead of once again firing up the loops (though I do plan on doing another loopscape at some point) I instead fired up the soldering iron and investigated the inner workings.

I have made walkman feedback devices before that did not require tape, but for this one I wanted to push into all the lesser known areas, and find things I’d never found before. So instead of attempting to build a finished device (which almost always dissappoint imo) I chose to create a kind of platform for continued exploration that left no routes closed off. i simply opened to back of the walkman to expose the board, and prepared it in several ways:
prepared walkman
I added a discrete motor control, and amplification knob and shutoff, a “bit crushing” knob, and inputs for up to two stereo devices. the devices currently include, a tape head, a contact mic, and a small speaker. I have also added metal posts to a few of the solder pads on the PCB so that I can easily attach alligator clips to them.

The following is an improvisation made using this device, and it’s various preparations, recorded direct to MD. In some ways it is still a study, but it is also a piece to listen to and enjoy many times. I have been listening to it occasionally for weeks, and it still confounds me. I hope it pleases you as well.

Be warned though, it starts quiet, but get’s quite loud. there are some very high pitches in here as well.

- Improvisation for walkman (without tape)

Cage on Branca

August 1, 2009

I received  a message from a friend today, telling of a performance by Glenn Branca in new york that is to happen soon, and inquiring as to whether i’d like to attend. As I can’t stand not knowing precisely what I’m getting into (especially when in nyc) in terms of music, I looked it up. the piece turned out to be “Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses”. I searched around for clips, and found a boomkat listing for the album and was surprised to find that said album contained an apparently venomous audio critique by John Cage. After some more net digging I was about to find the audio clip on ubuweb (of course!) which I present to you here.

Now, in general, I side with cage based on what he says here about musical politics, but having not heard the complete work and in ignorance of Branca’s thesis, I won’t comment further (Momus does a great job of it here already) . Instead, I wanted to offer this piece up to those who have not heard it, as a piece of music in and of itself, as while listening to it I was continually moved and confounded by it from a purely musical standpoint (though I did appreciate the text). In a way it is almost as if Cage and his foil Wim Mertens are making a live textural improvisation with the sounds of the surrounding area.

There is such an odd tension about this whole back and forth. Notice the absolutely odd timing of each phrase, as if Cage himself planned them indeterminately. How cage leaves you to hang almost indefinitely between phrases as if it could be the end, or left only with his dry rhythmic chuckle that oft times goes on just beyond the comfort level. And what of his partner? Possibly the most patient person of all time! Waiting, endlessly, for his counterpart to unfold his idea, and never being a hinderance, not even for a second. Though his flemish accent is dry, he (in his relatively few appearances) nearly rivals Cage in his sensuous working of the english language. Both men talk as if they are savoring the feeling of each word in their mouth while forming it. A sound that has a pacing and tonality that for me recalls a quiet slow solo. There is something about listening to the sound of these two men talking that especially today was a great pleasure.

Of course, one cannot speak of this “piece” without mentioning the third of it’s stars. The background noise. For whatever reason it sounds pleasingly in tune with both voices. It is a multilayered din, with the occasional clang, snatch of passing chatter, or bus sound, but the real star is the persistent short tone that repeats in the near background. Also somewhat in turn with the other sounds it provides a strange meter that seems to break up the rest of the parts into some form of process that I do not understand, but thoroughly enjoy. It is so insistent that it is almost maddening, and yet it’s imperfection keeps it standing just on the brink of annoyance without falling over. In a way it sounds like a Radu Malfatti solo sped up in it’s odd spacing and timbre.

An excellent listen, and if only for this recording, I am glad that the Branca piece exists, and that cage Attended, and that Wim recorded.

The continued evolution of this blog | Some recent inspiration

July 3, 2009

This blog started out initially with an idea, but no real plan. And as I’ve carried on, things have changed and the initial idea, no longer really suits me. I think about this blog all the time. It seems every weekend almost, I plan to write but I hardly do. I’m less interested in some of what I used to do, and more interested in other things. I’m busier. I got promoted at my job, and my wife and I bought a new house and moved into it. All the time though, I think of this blog and how I can post better and more often.

A perceived need to continue on in the initial spirit of this blog is one of the things that made it so hard to come back. For one, almost every post in the past contained something I had recently recorded. While I still plan on dropping the occasional random recording on here, my focus in recording has gotten much more specific. I have also slowed down in my production/collection of new gadgets for reasons I have addressed before. This can no longer really be the blog of random happy sounds that it used to be.

While it seems like I may have stopped doing a bunch of things (and this is true) my musical pursuits have gained in other ways. I have become interested in a lot of new music and have been seeing some great shows. I have also met some new people whose ideas have influenced mine for the better (I hope). Since I’ve been gone a while, here’s a little list of the things that have been on/in my mind for the past few months.

The Watchful Ear – This is the blog of Richard Pinnell. A far more ambitious blogger than myself, he writes about music every day, and his blog is something I come back to almost as often. Richard has the fortune of finding himself sat right on top (or perhaps just to the side) of one of the most fertile improvised music communities anywhere these days. And he writes about it in such wonderfully thoughtful detail, it makes me want to catch the first plane to London. He also does a ton of reviews. Over the last few months he has saved me a bunch of money, as due to the quality and quantity of his reviews, there is no real reason to purchase the WIRE anymore (ok, I’m kinda joking). Really, I think his blog is one of the things people in the future will look back on, and say wow thank God for that.

Dotolim – Dotolim is (from what I understand) and improvised music series in Seoul,  Korea. It is organized by Jin Sangtae and seems to take place about once a month. It features mainly musicians from Seoul, but there are occasionally guests from Japan and the states. The best thing (for someone not based in Seoul) is that they video record, almost every set, and they are available on youtube. In a grenre of music that seems for some reason relatively distant from the benefits of modern internet technology, this is a real treat.

The format is relatively simple. Each night there are 2 – 3 sets featuring different combinations of players, and occasional solos. Since the Seoul scene is relatively small there are a few recurring players, and it has been interesting seeing how there approach changes with different partners or playing devices. Overall a great window into a scene that is very exciting right now.

Philly Sound Forum – PSF is an improvised and experimental music series that takes place in Philadelphia and is curated by Jesse Kudler and Ian Fraser. We had talked on occasion about how there were opportunities for very exciting musicians to play Philadelphia, that were not being taken advantage of by some of the other music series in the area. And how there were some smaller scenes in the surrounding areas that were worth attention as well, and yet not getting much. So Jesse and Ian got together to just do it themselves, and thus far it has been great. Based on some inspiration from dotolim, they also have made an effort to put as much documentary content about each show on the website that they can, and there is some excellent music and video offered there for free. I’m always looking forward to new PSF show announcements.

Another thing we have been discussing is some form of improvised music workshop, which hopefully will come to pass within the next few months. While we are still working out the details, I will say that the general idea is to 1) allow more opportunities for improvising musicians in the area to play 2) to open communication between musicians in the area and encourage dialogs that will help us hone our craft. 3) ?????…. we are still figuring it out, but keep coming back, I will be posting about it as it takes shape.

I could go on here, but I’ve already run on longer than I wanted to. I will continue in the next month of this blog to highlight things that have made an impact on me. They may just be mentions and urls, and they may be full reviews. More in a while…

And I’m back | New improvisations

June 5, 2009


My life is killing blogging, but i’m going to fight back, because there’s tons of great stuff to write about. I have been busy though, new job, new house, new business etc. Lots of interesting (and time sucking) stuff going on.

So my focus in playing and listening has changed a bit and it’s been causing me to be less active here. I’m trying to turn that around though, and I have a post in the works about all that, but it’s taking some time to write.


In short my playing has changed and become more focused (i think). I used to want to play everything in the world, but i have decided to limit what i do to a couple different things, so i can really begin to develop my own way of playing. What i’m working with right now is mostly centered around frequency, vibration, and playback. My tools include: motors, recorders, contact mics, and objects that can be struck or driven by vibrations.

I’ve also become concerned with the when, where, and why of making this kind of music, so some of my concerns as i’m playing are: How is this sound related to the others? Now that that is over what can I do next to make a break/continuation? How much/little space should there be? Should I do what feels right, or something more dramatic? etc. etc. And in general I’ve eschewed most stereotypical forms of drama or visceral action. I use very little physical movement or gesture, and i’ve done away with vocalization completely. The idea being to move focus away from my presence as a human and “artist/musician” to focus completely on sounds and their relationships/lack thereof.

Below is a couple of somewhat recent solos exploring these devices and ideas. One is using only motors and resonant objects, the other uses those in combination with pre-recorded sounds. I often record/playback sounds that are very similar to what I play live. In some ways it’s a device to blur the line between what i am playing ang not playing.


Motor solo 1

Motor solo 2 (with recordings)

BTW, I suck at wordpress, so I have no idea how to do an image caption. Anyway, what you see there is a vibrating construction with electric toothbrushes a speaker cone pickup and some tin-foil for resonance.

Indeterminate Improvisation

December 9, 2008

One of the issues with improvisation that i have been (and doubtless will be) grappling with, is the issue of non-intention, and indeterminacy. As a bit of a Cage devotee, I of course, find these things to be very important in the kind of music I make, but there is always the question of how and why they are utilized. Initially I think my instinct in music making was toward picking up instruments with which I had no relationship, and exploring the sounds they made as a total novice. While this approach can certainly be effective, even very effective at times, I found that it never ended up growing a real relationship with the instrument that continued past the initial novelty. At some point, the stumbling about as indeterminacy, wears thin, as you become more familiar and therefore more determinate in your playing. You either have to resist this, or become more focussed in your approach, and there are plenty of arguments for both sides (but that’s not what I want to get into here).

I suppose then, that this may be a good explanation, for why I appreciate accidental sound sequences so much. They get to be so fresh and sometimes so beguiling, with no effort to remain true to any praxis, and no overanalyzation. The sounds don’t worry about themselves.

This interest has lead me to experimenting with various strategies for incedental sound making and recording. One device i have been using a bit of late, is the utilization of contact microphones to pick up the sounds of othwise mundane activity. An example of this technique could be contact micing your dinner table, while you and a friend have dinner, thus transforming all of the incedental movements you make into a sequence of pseudo-random sound. Sometimes these techniques work surprisingly well on their own, but often times they really work well, when combined with other sound sequences, so that the sounds “collaborate” in interesting ways.

Here are a couple of examples I think work particularly well, and that I have found very enjoyable to listen to:

Accidentals 1 (4:34)
Stereo contact mic recording of myself working on the computer/Stereo contact mic recording of myself unloading dishes from the dishwasher.

This piece is full of interesting moments. The space between sounds becomes very charged at times, and may be intereupted by forceful and precise bursts of sound. I find this piece to have a delightfully in-human sense of space and timing. It upsets my expectations still after multiple listens, something I have been appreciating a lot recently. I also like how small each “instrument’s” pallette is. There is a relatively small variety of sounds, and yet somehow this restriction works as more an asset than a drawback.

Accidentals 2 (6:08)
Edited stereo field recording/Shortwave radio scan

While the first piece is thick with charged silence, this piece has none. The shortwave scanning is constant, and was not initially intended to be an improvisation. It was recorded up at a friend’s cabin in the Poconos, as I searched for interesting signals. The field recording is assembled from incedental sounds resulting from the disassembly of an oil tank and the silences that surround them. Sometimes the sounds are gentle, sometimes not. The radio here forms a range of sounds from soft pads of detailed texture, to blasts of unruly static, distant voices, and contaminated music. While the field recording plays agitator with unpredictable pin pricks of sounds and occasional sheet-metal roars.


Dictaphone cassette collage part 2

September 28, 2008

So, it’s been nearly a year since I first mentioned this technique, and since then, I’ve been in quite a few places and recorded a ton of audio snippets. Funny thing is, I’m still not even near filling up a tape, and at this point, I’m in no rush. I have however, ripped what i’ve done so far and edited it some, and i really like it. It’s strange listening back now, and not remembering what half of it even is. It’s a delightfully screwed-up ride through the past year of my life.

Once I was done, I wanted to hear it in stereo, so i chopped the track exactly in half and made a stereo file. This one is particularly enjoyable. I love the random sonic collisions that take place. Sometimes the placement of sounds is so perfect, I wonder if I some how composed it intuitively, but I know that’s just not possible.

So, now that i’ve gone and done this, I feel like I have finally gotten it out of my system, and I don’t really need to do it anymore. The funny thing is, that I can’t stop recording sounds! I may go back to the loop cassettes and start building a sound catalog, but I can’t help thinking I’ll wind up back on the same old tape, in exactly the place i left off, continuing the journey.

- Dictaphone Cassette Collage Mono

- Dictaphone Cassette Collage Stereo

Mystery audio from second-hand tapes

August 10, 2008

I’m a total thrift store and flea-market junkie as you can well imagine from the contents of this blog. I can’t keep myself from any place that brings the world of second-hand audio junk closer to me. From time to time Al and I head out to one place or another and scour the shelves for noise-makers. On one such trip recently, we discovered a booth in a local flea market that was loaded with vintage audio toys. A stack of portable record players here, a stack of recording devices there, amps and speakers and mics everywhere, it was quite a find. Amongst other things, we both walked away that day with cool mini reel to reel players.

Als mini reel to ree

Al's mini reel to reel

I was excited to find another one that was so similar to one I owned already. My thought of course was to use it to make long tape loops during sound performances. Something i’ve been meaning to do for a long time. And of course, I’m still out of luck, because sadly, the one I bought does not work. I can get it to transport the tape, but it doesn’t make a sound, not even static, which is always a bad sign. I’ll probably end up using it for scrap.

Al had similar woes, as his worked, but did not transport at an even rate. It seemed like whatever was moving the tape was slipping intermittently, which while it was a cool effect, it was not what Al was looking for. It moved enough though for us to hear that the tape on it had been used, something that always excites me, because it means a weird audio snapshot of someone’s life is on there, just waiting to be released.

Since Al’s tape machine was working after a fashion, I took it to see if I could fix it. Often these old tape machines used some kind of oil that overtime becomes more glue-like than oil-like, and opening them and carefully oiling the moving parts can revive them, and sure enough it was the case here. Although this tape machine had the oddest transport system I have even seen. It had no belts and was driven only by friction, which of course means that it doesn’t transport very evenly to begin with. Actually a really cool effect, as you will hear later.

Once I got the machine running, I rewound the tape, and listened. It never ceases to amaze me the fantastic audio artifacts that can be stored on these things. It seems to me that pretty much the same fate befell them all. They were bought and a tape was installed, and a series of people recorded fragments of whatever on them, full in the red. Then when the tape ran out, they were put away and never taken out again. While this is sad if you are the type to anthropomorphize tape machines, it produces amazing audio collages. Wholly unpredictable sounds strung together… bits of history, amateur radio announcing, random unidentifiable noise, etc. This particular example starts with a birthday dedication (I imagine for the recipient of the recorder) and proceeds through television commercials, junk drum improvisations (!!!), a faux mission impossible message, and some badly sung Beatles. To me, it’s excitingly unpredictable, and oddly poetic. Almost like an accidental Williams Mix

Having such fantastic luck with that tape, I decided to encode the tape from my defunct reel to reel as well. Not quite as profound, more just plain funny, my tape was filled with a joke telling hessian! I imagine, one of the fellows who sold me the device to begin with (a somewhat magical thought in and of itself). That being said, there are (as usual with these tapes) so interesting accidental audio fragments that are fairly aesthetically pleasing to me. The first minute or so are on regular speed, the rest is slowed down considerably. I can barely make out the jokes, because as per usual, they are recorded full in the red for the most part. I have however, sped the tape up, so you can hear the second part properly. Enjoy!

- Al’s mystery tape

- My mystery tape

Everyday field recording with baby monitors

August 2, 2008


I have been working a lot with field recordings lately, especially the idea of sampling the space in which one is playing and using it in performance. A couple weeks ago, it occured to me that I could use a baby monitor, strategically placed, to pull in at will, sounds happening outside the performance space. I almost immediately went on ebay and purchased a Sony BabyCall monitor.

I selected this model because I’ve had good luck with being able to mod Sony’s products in the past, and because this model was supposedly battery opperated, and thus, I figured, I could plant the transmitter anywhere I wanted without having to worry about power. But the listing was misleading and it ended up having a battery opperated receiver, and an AC opperated transmitter. A bit of a bummer, yes, but I think I might be able to mod it eventually.

The other night I got the idea to plant it in by back yard over night, and record the output on my computer upstairs. I quickly mounted an output with a switch inside the receiver and got to setting it up before bed. I put the transmitter outside and connected the receiver to my laptop. I set up Sound Studio to auto record when the input went above background noise level and went to bed.

The sounds that awaited me in the morning were great fun. Planes, busses, and car horns, dominated the soundscape, but the monitor warps everything in such a way that even these fairly plain sounds sounded magical to me.

I decided to set it up again, this time while i was at work, to capture the sounds in my backyard during the day. The sounds were much more of the same, cars, airplanes, trolleys, the occasional dog bark, some frequency disturbance of some kind, etc, but more frequent and louder i think. There was even some random talking that appeared (probably my neighbor). The one other thing that wound up on the recording, was my wife throwing some bottles and stuff in the recycling bin. This part was particularly interesting to me for it’s haphazard percussive effect. 

So far, this has been great fun. I think my next step is either to successfully mod my monitor so that it can be placed further from my house, or build one of these. 

I am anxious to try these techniques in performance. I’m hoping when i do, it will be a nice source of random sounds, and i really like the idea that I’m interjecting something both real-time and random into the set. Enjoy the samples.

- Domesticity

- This is a back yard

Field recording: Oil tank dismemberment

July 14, 2008

Recently, a friend of mine invited a group of people (myself included) down to his family’s shore house in the Chesapeake bay, for a weekend of grounds upkeep and some general merriment. One of the tasks that he sought to accomplish in that weekend was the dismantling of a five by twenty foot oil tank, that had washed ashore some twenty-five odd years earlier, and which had been eating up prime shore space for (obviously) far too long.

The plan was that everyone who owned one, would bring a Sawzall, and we would spend the better part of saturday, cutting it into movable pieces. Of course, me, being who I am, brought a mini-disk recorder to capture all the noise. We worked for nearly three hours straight on it, and i’d say we were able to remove about a quarter of it. Sawzalls, as awesome as they are, are just not made to cut through 3/4 inch steel ribs.

I began recording as soon as we started, and as soon as I could, moved the mic to the inside of the tank. I recorded a full discs worth of sound from various locations in the tank. The overall effect is what you might imagine, a grandiose cacophony, but there is something about the pacing and the incidental sounds made by the removal of a panel, or the constant drone of the waves, that is kind of magical.

The only thing that bothered me when listening to it, was the sounds of us. Talking, trying to figure stuff out, making dumb cheers when we got a big chunk. It was too distracting from the overall sound. So what I’ve done for the purposes of my own listening pleasure, and this blog, is cut out all of the human sound (or as much as I could). I have also cut the length down considerably of course, choosing to focus on some of the more interesting chunks. I have made an effort however to keep as much of the silence in tact as possible, so that the pace still feels natural and organic.

- Oil tank dismemberment

I also, as I listened to this may times, fell in love with all of the incidental, “non-cutting” sounds. They are just so random, robust, and wonderful sounding. So I did an edit, where I removed everything but them and the spaces around them. In doing this, the sound of the waves became very un-natural sounding, so I experimented with removing them using a noise gate. I really liked the effect. It’s kind of unnerving at times, and totally unnatural, but I like it nonetheless.

- Oil tank incidentals 



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