Miles Davis: Blue In Green

A short film I made last year:

Just Loud

It’s around this time of year that I start my classes on audio mastering. One of the big issues for me is the abuse of limiting plug-ins, and so it was with some delight that I recently came across this useful little movie on YouTube:

There are places when limiting heavily may be appropriate: mastering tracks for club-bound 12″ vinyl, for example. But most of the time people are being seduced by the most superficial of signifiers—pure volume—when really anyone wanting it louder just has to turn it up for themselves.

This isn’t some esoteric geek issue, either: even The Guardian have written a very good little article about the “loudness wars” here. What’s interesting is that it obviously isn’t the mastering engineers who are doing it—in fact they’re complaining like crazy—but the record companies and, tragically, the artists themselves. Even Paul Simon is at it!!!!

This cult of loudness extends through to the finished product: Thomas Lund at TC Electronics has shown how modern CDs are simply recorded too ‘hot’. His research shows a 2002 Eminem CD generating around 25 instances of “obvious distortion” every 10 seconds! [The full paper is Distortion To The People.]



Quote of the Month

This month’s quote is another by-product of the D&AD Xchange 07 conference as discussed in the last two posts. One of the threads running through the conference was that of sustainable design, and this emerged as the central them of presenter Ken Garland, venerable design maven, photographer, toy designer, educator, and writer.

Called Subtraction, his presentation was theatrical, very amusing, anecdotal, and highly improvisatory—even though he was clearly well prepared—and highlighted a strategy we often recommend to students: bring in loads of props! This included a wind-up radio, sweets, piles of junk mail and catalogues he’d picked up off his doormat, and the inevitable dustbin. He had an alarm clock that he used as a comic stooge. However, the intellectual centre of the presentation was a mood board, or at least what appeared to be a mood board: as he went to refer to it he just ripped away the array of images and revealed this quote:

Why should we so gratuitously assume, as we constantly do, that the mere existence of a mechanism for manifolding or of mass production carries with it an obligation to use it to the fullest capacity? […] To achieve control we shall even, I suspect, have to reconsider and perhaps abandon the whole idea of periodic publication [for] we cannot continue to inertly accept the burdensome technique of overproduction without inventing a social discipline for handling it; and that until we do this our situation will steadily worsen.

Lewis Mumford

Quote of the Month

The emerging sense of a self-directed, self-aware person takes place within the context of symbolic systems that are increasingly only internally referential. Awareness is not of the world but of the systems of mediated representation. An increase in personal knowledge about the world equates with the extension of mind ever deeper into the mediated systems of representation and meaning. Individual choice and personal freedom thus become based on the ability to discriminate between a limited number of elements presented and represented in the mediated world, whether shampoo or political candidates.
I am encouraged to frame my experiences into the shop-worn clichés of a language that drones perpetually through the airwaves and over the broadband connections.
Rather than arising out of local, human experience elaborated though conversations with other people, language now comes prepackaged and reflects not the need of human beings but the values of capital, the machine, and the technological system.

Gary Krug

McLuhan 5: Two Biographies

I recently bought Marshall McLuhan: Escape Into Understanding, a biography by W. Terrence Gordon. Originally published in 1997, the book has become available again due to the Gingko Press‘s laudable and long overdue McLuhan reissue programme.

However, before reading it I decided to re-read the first McLuhan biog, Phillip Marchand’s Marshall McLuhan: The Medium And The Messenger. This was originally released in 1989 (but again remains available in the form of a 1998 MIT reissue with a new introduction by Neil Postman). I read it sometime in the early 1990s—a long time ago—and my getting the W. Terrence Gordon book seemed like an ideal opportunity to revisit it:

It’s a very good book: it’s written very clearly and really does attempt to get McLuhan’s difficult ideas across in plain English. The facts of McLuhan’s life are presented in a straightforward narrative, and in particular his difficult relationship with his influential mother really leaps off the page.

Gordon’s book is quite different. Although the basic narrative remains the same—the facts of McLuhan’s life seem unproblematic—the emphasis is quite different. McLuhan’s mother barely registers, whereas the relationship with his wife is touchingly and convincingly portrayed.

Far more of the book is given over to McLuhan’s ideas, which is both a blessing and a curse: on the one hand Gordon really does try to (say) fillet out and summarize the complex ideas in Understanding Media in a compact form, but on the other hand his explanations can be as confusing and as jargon-laden as the ideas he’s trying to explain. As a linguist and semiotician he’s far too immured in his own academic discourses.

The two books have many similarities. Both are written by ex-University of Toronto students. Both begin with almost identical opening sentences that unfold into stories outlining the authors’ initial contact with McLuhan. And as I’ve said, their basic narratives of McLuhan’s life are almost identical, albeit with different emphases. Perhaps the biggest difference between them, therefore, is the fact that the Gordon book comes from the Internet age whereas the Marchand book just precedes it. In those intervening ten years McLuhan’s ideas gained new currency as a result of the profound integration of computer networks into society, and the resulting (and ongoing) reconfiguration of all levels of society that this provoked. Gordon’s book therefore reflects this current re-analysis and re-evaluation of McLuhan in ways that Marchand’s book simply cannot.

For myself, I came away from these books with a renewed respect for McLuhan, and—ironically—a sense that I understood his work less than I did before. However, what this really means is that I’ve discovered new levels of meaning that I didn’t even know were there: McLuhan’s work on the Trivium (and the implications of this); his in-depth understanding of ideas like ’cause and effect’; the origin and effects of his compressed and aphoristic writing style; metaphor; etc.. I’ve discovered that even many of his most obvious and oft-used ideas are not straightforward: for example, what exactly did he mean when talking about ‘acoustic space’? Why is ‘visual space’ three-dimensional and ‘acoustic space’ only two-dimensional? And finally, is McLuhan a linguist? A communications theorist? Surrealist poet? Not that he would have cared what you called him, but you get the idea…

Truly fascinating stuff.

McLuhan 4: Mailer And McLuhan

There’s a 1968 TV show called The Summer Way that has been posted online by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation featuring Norman Mailer and Marshall McLuhan in conversation.

Fabulous it is too: two intellectual heavyweights delicately tip-toeing around one another in front of a live audience and, presumably in those days, also broadcast live. Mailer looks very nervous early on and is clearly at sea, and in the end just muscles his way out of trouble. McLuhan is very calm, very cool, and seems completely in control. He just flies loops around Mailer, and the amused looks on his face at some of Mailer’s comments are absolutely priceless.

It’s about half an hour long and is pure historical gold. [Edit December 2017: original link now broken.]

Quote(s) of the Month

In designing all functions and all data structures, a computer programmer tries always to use variables rather than constants. On the level of the human-computer interface, this principle means that the user is given many options to modify the performance of a program or a media object, be it a computer game, Web site, Web browser, or the operating system itself. The user can change the profile of a game character, modify how folders appear on the desktop, how files are displayed, what icons are used, and so forth. If we apply this principle to culture at large, it would mean that every choice responsible for giving a cultural object a unique identity can potentially always remain open.

Lev Manovich

The method of our time is to use not a single but multiple models for exploration—the technique of the suspended judgment is the discovery of the twentieth century as the technique of invention was the discovery of the nineteenth.

Marshall McLuhan

McLuhan 3: The Medium is the Massage

A couple of weeks ago, in an idle moment, I picked up The Medium is the Massage again and read it from cover to cover. It took me about an hour. Since then, I’ve read it cover to cover twice more, and am constantly dipping into it. I love it.

The Medium is the Massage wasn’t actually “written” by McLuhan:

The book had in fact been composed by Jerome Agel, who had written a profile of McLuhan in 1965, and Quentin Fiore, a first-class book designer. The two selected or commissioned photographs to accompany excerpts they culled and reshaped from various writings and statements of McLuhan’s. […] McLuhan contributed the punning title and approved the text and layouts. Agel and Fiore evidently did their work well: McLuhan changed only one word. Their mix of text and visuals was indeed a virtuoso feat. They used arresting photographs and artwork and performed interesting experiments with type, laying it upside down, on the slant, or in mirror image, switching its size from page to page, switching between regular and boldface, and so on.
Agel referred to the result as a “cubist” production. McLuhan recognized that it was an effective sales brochure for his ideas. (Marchand 1989, p.192)

Exactly forty years on, the book stands up well: it’s very digital media. The book is a riot of collages, visual puns, voice prints, excerpts from newspapers and magazines, cartoons, abstract patterns, extreme close-ups, black- and white-negative space, and runs the whole gamut of typographical experimentation. It’s the sort of thing that would be quite easy to do now, but was probably very difficult in 1967.

Set against and around this visual feast are expertly chosen and edited nuggets of McLuhan’s writing. The text bounces off the images, argues and agrees with them, works in concert and opposition. It resonates. It’s metaphoric.

The Medium is the Massage remains McLuhan’s bestselling book, and it’s easy to see why: the brevity, the condensation, the humour, the life offered by the interplay between text and image. It’s deep and entertaining. As an introduction to McLuhan it is second to none.

Marchand, P. (1989) Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger. New York: Tickner & Fields.
McLuhan, M. & Fiore, Q. (1967) The Medium is the Massage. San Francisco: Hardwired.

Quote of the Month

Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.

Pablo Picasso