The New You – Whispering Down

To kick the New Year off, here’s a New You promo video dating from (gulp!) 1987. I’ve had this sitting around for ages, most obviously in need of a serviceable audio track: as you’ll be able to see time has taken its toll.

Marie Malone: vocals.
Paul Hazel: guitar, keyboards, percussion.
David Westmore: bass.
Ian Cleverley: drums, vibraphone.
[There was also a whole bunch of people playing acoustic guitar in the choruses. Can’t remember who exactly…]

Video filmed and edited by David Stonestreet.
The New You logo and backdrops designed by the Bleach Boys.
Video transferred from VHS tape. The original audio track has been replaced with a recording from the 45rpm single: one pass of noise reduction has been applied.

Song written by Willson/Hazel/Malone.
Produced by Paul Hazel.
Engineered by Martin ‘Crazy’ Pavey.

A Brief History of Electronic Music

Raymond Scott
Raymond Scott

1992 found me studying Music Information Technology at City University under Jim Grant and Simon Emmerson. As part of my dissertation I wrote a long piece on the history of electronic music. It sat around on the old for a while, but I recently revised it and updated it for my own students, and, for those who are interested in such things, I’m including it here.

I think it remains useful. It is only a brief history but it covers a lot of ground, technological, artistic and political. It finishes around the time synthesizers entered the mass-market and just before MIDI, but it goes right back to the medium’s real beginning. Contrary to what most people think, “music technology” didn’t begin in the late 1960s with Bob Moog: as far back as 1906 Thaddeus Cahill had a working polyphonic additive synthesizer that transmitted pure electronic music over a telephone network. Talk about being ahead of your time…

The Telharmonium
The Telharmonium

A Brief History of Electronic Music (372kB .pdf)

Korg DS-10

Here’s something: a venerable analogue monosynth re-imagined for the 21st Century and the Nintendo DS, no less.

2 twin-ocillator synths and a 4-part drum machine pre-loaded with samples create by the DS-10 itself. A 6-track sequencer. Built-in FX and real-time sound control via the touch screen. Wireless communication allowing you to sync multiple units together and swap data. From this:

To this:

Fun. Amazing. Mind-blowing. And yet so musically limited (to put it mildly). A Toy.

Karlheinz Stockhausen 1928-2007

I cannot let the death of Stockhausen pass by without saying something. But what?

Firstly, I’ll have to admit that much of his music remains completely unknown to me. Despite this, those pieces that I do know exist somewhere inside me in a place that is very close to the centre of my musical world: Gesang Der Jünglinge, Kontakte, Microphonie, Telemusik, and his masterpiece Hymnen. In other words, all his early pure electronic stuff from the period 1956-1967.

I believe that no matter what else Stockhausen has done since, these works alone would assure his place as one of the most important composers of the 20th century. Simply put, he stripped Western music down to its absolutely minimal state—the sine wave—and built it up from there, harmonic by harmonic. Complex sounds were laboriously created by overdubbing simple tones, initially using only the most basic equipment: tape machines; oscillators; a white noise generator; filters; and later, reverberation. Stockhausen describes one such process during the production of Gesang Der Jünglinge, quoted in Kurtz (1992):

I invented completely different processes in which the three of us – myself and two musical and technical collaborators – each used a different piece of equipment. One of us had a pulse generator, the second a feedback filter whose width could be continuously changed and the third a volume control (potentiometer). I drew graphic representations of the processual forms. In one such form, lasting twenty seconds, for example, the first of us would alter the pulse speed, say from three to fourteen pulses per second, following a zigzag curve; the second would change the pitch curve of the feedback filter, in accordance with another graphic pattern; and the third – using yet another graphic – would change the dynamic curve. […] So we sat down to realise one of these processual forms, one of us would count 3, 2, 1, 0, then off we went. The stopwatch was running, and at the end of twenty seconds each of us had to be finished.

Each composition took him months of laborious and painstaking work. And yet despite the mathematical precision and scientific rigour with which these works were created, incredibly, miraculously, they sound vital, thrilling, and organic. They sound like they’re alive, and 50 years down the line still have the power to shock, excite, and stimulate. This is Stockhausen’s genius.

Contemporary musicians, with their computers, their synths, samplers, and plug-ins; their MIDI, their virtual instruments and their digital mixers; their automation, quantization, and their Auto-Tune; their loops, their cutting and pasting; they still have almost everything to learn from Stockhausen because—despite the archaic nature of the technology he used—conceptually he remains light years ahead of them.

I love Stockhausen because:

  1. He was brave. He went where the music took him.
  2. He was independent. No record company puppet.
  3. He was doing ‘surround sound’ from the beginning. To him, a sound always exists in three-dimensional space. (This is a drawback listening to his CDs: they’re only in stereo.)
  4. He was committed to his vision. If you were lucky enough to attend one of his electronic music concerts, you just sat in the dark and listened!
  5. His music is just awesome.

Finally, here’s a short 2006 TV piece—apparently from the BBC’s Culture Show—that shows the honesty, intelligence, integrity, and downright impish charm of the man. Delightful:

Thankyou so much. The End.

Kurtz, M. (1992) Stockhausen: A Biography. Faber.

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.]


Hello all,
Welcome. This is a new blog that will be about things I’m particularly interested in i.e. narrative, interactivity, medium theory, music technology, design, new media literacy, etc.. Hopefully it’ll be pretty eclectic: it’s all grist to the mill, right?

OK, that’s enough of that: let’s get on with it.

I love this little video: it just makes so many things about sound and vibrating objects so clear. And because it’s video it’s not only showing process, but it’s doing it in a multisensory way: information received by eye and ears is assimilated and compared. Books, static text, are good for some things, but this is what multimedia are good for…

BTW: the normally invisible patterns in the vibrating object are called Chladni patterns.