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A Brief History of Auto-Tune

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Sound and TechThis is the final article  in Sounding Out!‘s April  Forum on “Sound and Technology.” Every Monday this month, you’ve heard new insights on this age-old pairing from the likes of Sounding Out! veteranos Aaron Trammell and Primus Luta along with new voices Andrew Salvati and Owen Marshall.  These fast-forward folks have shared their thinking about everything from Auto-tune to techie manifestos. Today, Marshall helps us understand just why we want to shift pitch-time so darn bad. Wait, let me clean that up a little bit. . .so darn badly. . .no wait, run that back one more time. . .jjuuuuust a little bit more. . .so damn badly. Whew! There! Perfect!–JS, Editor-in-Chief

A recording engineer once told me a story about a time when he was tasked with “tuning” the lead vocals from a recording session (identifying details have been changed to protect the innocent). Polishing-up vocals is an increasingly common job in the recording business, with some dedicated vocal producers even making it their specialty. Being able to comp, tune, and repair the timing of a vocal take is now a standard skill set among engineers, but in this case things were not going smoothly. Whereas singers usually tend towards being either consistently sharp or flat (“men go flat, women go sharp” as another engineer explained), in this case the vocalist was all over the map, making it difficult to always know exactly what note they were even trying to hit. Complicating matters further was the fact that this band had a decidedly lo-fi, garage-y reputation, making your standard-issue, Glee-grade tuning job decidedly inappropriate.

Undaunted, our engineer pulled up the Auto-Tune plugin inside Pro-Tools and set to work tuning the vocal, to use his words, “artistically” – that is, not perfectly, but enough to keep it from being annoyingly off-key. When the band heard the result, however, they were incensed – “this sounds way too good! Do it again!” The engineer went back to work, this time tuning “even more artistically,” going so far as to pull the singer’s original performance out of tune here and there to compensate for necessary macro-level tuning changes elsewhere.

"Melodyne screencap" by Flickr user Ethan Hein, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“Melodyne screencap” by Flickr user Ethan Hein, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The product of the tortuous process of tuning and re-tuning apparently satisfied the band, but the story left me puzzled… Why tune the track at all? If the band was so committed to not sounding overproduced, why go to such great lengths to make it sound like you didn’t mess with it? This, I was told, simply wasn’t an option. The engineer couldn’t in good conscience let the performance go un-tuned. Digital pitch correction, it seems, has become the rule, not the exception, so much so that the accepted solution for too much pitch correction is more pitch correction.

Since 1997, recording engineers have used Auto-Tune (or, more accurately, the growing pantheon of digital pitch correction plugins for which Auto-Tune, Kleenex-like, has become the household name) to fix pitchy vocal takes, lend T-Pain his signature vocal sound, and reveal the hidden vocal talents of political pundits. It’s the technology that can make the tone-deaf sing in key, make skilled singers perform more consistently, and make MLK sound like Akon. And at 17 years of age, “The Gerbil,” as some like to call Auto-Tune, is getting a little long in the tooth (certainly by meme standards.) The next U.S. presidential election will include a contingent of voters who have never drawn air that wasn’t once rippled by Cher’s electronically warbling voice in the pre-chorus of “Believe.” A couple of years after that, the Auto-Tune patent will expire and its proprietary status will dissolve into to the collective ownership of the public domain.

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Growing pains aside, digital vocal tuning doesn’t seem to be leaving any time soon. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but it’s safe to say that the vast majority of commercial music produced in the last decade or so has most likely been digitally tuned. Future Music editor Daniel Griffiths has ballpark-estimated that, as early as 2010, pitch correction was used in about 99% of recorded music. Reports of its death are thus premature at best. If pitch correction is seems banal it doesn’t mean it’s on the decline; rather, it’s a sign that we are increasingly accepting its underlying assumptions and internalizing the habits of thought and listening that go along with them.

Headlines in tech journalism are typically reserved for the newest, most groundbreaking gadgets. Often, though, the really interesting stuff only happens once a technology begins to lose its novelty, recede into the background, and quietly incorporate itself into fundamental ways we think about, perceive, and act in the world. Think, for example, about all the ways your embodied perceptual being has been shaped by and tuned-in to, say, the very computer or mobile device you’re reading this on. Setting value judgments aside for a moment, then, it’s worth thinking about where pitch correction technology came from, what assumptions underlie the way it works and how we work with it, and what it means that it feels like “old news.”

"Anti-Tune symbol"

“Anti-Tune symbol”

As is often the case with new musical technologies, digital pitch correction has been the target for no small amount of controversy and even hate. The list of indictments typically includes the homogenization of music, the devaluation of “actual talent,” and the destruction of emotional authenticity. Suffice to say, the technological possibility of ostensibly producing technically “pitch-perfect” performances has wreaked a fair amount of havoc on conventional ways of performing and evaluating music. As Primus Luta reminded us in his SO! piece on the powerful-yet-untranscribable “blue notes” that emerged from the idiosyncrasies of early hardware samplers, musical creativity is at least as much about digging-into and interrogating the apparent limits of a technology as it is about the successful removal of all obstacles to total control of the end result.

Paradoxically, it’s exactly in this spirit that others have come to the technology’s defense: Brian Eno, ever open to the unexpected creative agency of perplexing objects, credits the quantized sound of an overtaxed pitch corrector with renewing his interest in vocal performances. SO!’s own Osvaldo Oyola, channeling Walter Benjamin, has similarly offered a defense of Auto-Tune as a democratizing technology, one that both destabilizes conventional ideas about musical ability and allows everyone to sing in-tune, free from the “tyranny of talent and its proscriptive aesthetics.”

"Audiodatenkompression: Manowar, The Power of Thy Sword" by Wikimedia user Moehre1992, CC BY-SA 3.0

“Audiodatenkompression: Manowar, The Power of Thy Sword” by Wikimedia user Moehre1992, CC BY-SA 3.0

Jonathan Sterne, in his book MP3, offers an alternative to normative accounts of media technology (in this case, narratives either of the decline or rise of expressive technological potential) in the form of “compression histories” – accounts of how media technologies and practices directed towards increasing their efficiency, economy, and mobility can take on unintended cultural lives that reshape the very realities they were supposed to capture in the first place. The algorithms behind the MP3 format, for example, were based in part on psychoacoustic research into the nature of human hearing, framed primarily around the question of how many human voices the telephone company could fit into a limited bandwidth electrical cable while preserving signal intelligibility. The way compressed music files sound to us today, along with the way in which we typically acquire (illegally) and listen to them (distractedly), is deeply conditioned by the practical problems of early telephony. The model listener extracted from psychoacoustic research was created in an effort to learn about the way people listen. Over time, however, through our use of media technologies that have a simulated psychoacoustic subject built-in, we’ve actually learned collectively to listen like a psychoacoustic subject.

Pitch-time manipulation runs largely in parallel to Sterne’s bandwidth compression story. The ability to change a recorded sound’s pitch independently of its playback rate had its origins not in the realm of music technology, but in efforts to time-compress signals for faster communication. Instead of reducing a signal’s bandwidth, pitch manipulation technologies were pioneered to reduce the time required to push the message through the listener’s ears and into their brain. As early as the 1920s, the mechanism of the rotating playback head was being used to manipulate pitch and time interchangeably. By spinning a continuous playback head relative to the motion of the magnetic tape, researchers in electrical engineering, educational psychology, and pedagogy of the blind found that they could increase playback rate of recorded voices without turning the speakers into chipmunks. Alternatively, they could rotate the head against a static piece of tape and allow a single moment of recorded sound to unfold continuously in time – a phenomenon that influenced the development of a quantum theory of information

In the early days of recorded sound some people had found a metaphor for human thought in the path of a phonograph’s needle. When the needle became a head and that head began to spin, ideas about how we think, listen, and communicate followed suit: In 1954 Grant Fairbanks, the director of the University of Illinois’ Speech Research Laboratory, put forth an influential model of the speech-hearing mechanism as a system where the speaker’s conscious intention of what to say next is analogized to a tape recorder full of instructions, its drive “alternately started and stopped, and when the tape is stationary a given unit of instruction is reproduced by a moving scanning head”(136). Pitch time changing was more a model for thinking than it was for singing, and its imagined applications were thus primarily non-musical.

Take for example the Eltro Information Rate Changer. The first commercially available dedicated pitch-time changer, the Eltro advertised its uses as including “pitch correction of helium speech as found in deep sea; Dictation speed testing for typing and steno; Transcribing of material directly to typewriter by adjusting speed of speech to typing ability; medical teaching of heart sounds, breathing sounds etc.by slow playback of these rapid occurrences.” (It was also, incidentally, used by Kubrick to produce the eerily deliberate vocal pacing of HAL 9000). In short, for the earliest “pitch-time correction” technologies, the pitch itself was largely a secondary concern, of interest primarily because it was desirable for the sake of intelligibility to pitch-change time-altered sounds into a more normal-sounding frequency range.

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This coupling of time compression with pitch changing continued well into the era of digital processing. The Eventide Harmonizer, one of the first digital hardware pitch shifters, was initially used to pitch-correct episodes of “I Love Lucy” which had been time-compressed to free-up broadcast time for advertising. Similar broadcast time compression techniques have proliferated and become common in radio and television (see, for example, Davis Foster Wallace’s account of the “cashbox” compressor in his essay on an LA talk radio station.) Speed listening technology initially developed for the visually impaired has similarly become a way of producing the audio “fine print” at the end of radio advertisements.

"H910 Harmonizer" by Wikimedia user Nalzatron, CC BY-SA 3.0

“H910 Harmonizer” by Wikimedia user Nalzatron, CC BY-SA 3.0

Though the popular conversation about Auto-Tune often leaves this part out, it’s hardly a secret that pitch-time correction is as much about saving time as it is about hitting the right note. As Auto-Tune inventor Andy Hildebrand put it,

[Auto-Tune’s] largest effect in the community is it’s changed the economics of sound studios…Before Auto-Tune, sound studios would spend a lot of time with singers, getting them on pitch and getting a good emotional performance. Now they just do the emotional performance, they don’t worry about the pitch, the singer goes home, and they fix it in the mix.

Whereas early pitch-shifters aimed to speed-up our consumption of recorded voices, the ones now used in recording are meant to reduce the actual time spent tracking musicians in studio. One of the implications of this framing is that emotion, pitch, and the performer take on a very particular relationship, one we can find sketched out in the Auto-Tune patent language:

Voices or instruments are out of tune when their pitch is not sufficiently close to standard pitches expected by the listener, given the harmonic fabric and genre of the ensemble. When voices or instruments are out of tune, the emotional qualities of the performance are lost. Correcting intonation, that is, measuring the actual pitch of a note and changing the measured pitch to a standard, solves this problem and restores the performance. (Emphasis mine. Similar passages can be found in Auto-Tune’s technical documentation.)

In the world according to Auto-Tune, the engineer is in the business of getting emotional signals from place to place. Emotion is the message, and pitch is the medium. Incorrect (i.e. unexpected) pitch therefore causes the emotion to be “lost.” While this formulation may strike some people as strange (for example, does it mean that we are unable to register the emotional qualities of a performance from singers who can’t hit notes reliably? Is there no emotionally expressive role for pitched performances that defy their genre’s expectations?), it makes perfect sense within the current affective economy and division of labor and affective economy of the recording studio. It’s a framing that makes it possible, intelligible, and at least somewhat compulsory to have singers “express emotion” as a quality distinct from the notes they hit and have vocal producers fix up the actual pitches after the fact. Both this emotional model of the voice and the model of the psychoacoustic subject are useful frameworks for the particular purposes they serve. The trick is to pay attention to the ways we might find ourselves bending to fit them.

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Owen Marshall is a PhD candidate in Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University. His dissertation research focuses on the articulation of embodied perceptual skills, technological systems, and economies of affect in the recording studio. He is particularly interested in the history and politics of pitch-time correction, cybernetics, and ideas and practices about sensory-technological attunement in general. 

Featured image: “Epic iPhone Auto-Tune App” by Flickr user Photo Giddy, CC BY-NC 2.0

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“From the Archive #1: It is art?”-Jennifer Stoever

“Garageland! Authenticity and Musical Taste”-Aaron Trammell

“Evoking the Object: Physicality in the Digital Age of Music”-Primus Luta

Going Hard: Bassweight, Sonic Warfare, & the “Brostep” Aesthetic

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The Wobble Frequency2

[Editor's Note 01/24/14 10:00 am: this post has been corrected. In response to a critique from DJ Rupture, the author has apologized for an initial misquoting of an article by Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, and edited the phrase in question. Please see Comments section for discussion]

Time to ring the bell: this year, Sounding Out! is opening a brand-new stream of content to run on Thursdays. Every few weeks, we’ll be bringing in a new Guest Editor to curate a series of posts on a particular theme that opens up new ground in areas of thought and practice where sound meets media. Most of our writers and editors will be new to the site, and many will be joining us from the ranks of the Sound Studies and Radio Studies Scholarly Interest Groups at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, as well as from the Sound Studies Caucus from the American Studies Association. I’m overjoyed to come on board as SCMS/ASA Editor to help curate this material, working with my good friends here at SO!

For our first Guest series, let me welcome Justin Burton, Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University, where he teaches in the Popular Music and Culture program. Justin also serves on the executive committee of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music-US Branch. We’re honored to have Justin help us launch this new stream.

His series? He calls it The Wobble Continuum. Let’s follow him down into the low frequencies to learn more …

Neil Verma

Things have gotten wobbly. The cross-rhythms of low-frequency oscillations (LFO) pulsate through dance and pop music, bubbling up and dropping low across the radio dial. At its most extreme, the wobble both rends and sutures, tearing at the rhythmic and melodic fabric of a song at the same time that it holds it together on a structural level. In this three-part series, Mike D’Errico, Christina Giacona, and Justin D Burton listen to the wobble from a number of vantage points, from the user plugged into the Virtual Studio Technology (VST) of a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) to the sounds of the songs themselves to the listeners awash in bass tremolos. In remixing these components—musician, music, audience—we trace the unlikely material activities of sounds and sounders.

In our first post, Mike will consider the ways a producer working with a VST is not simply inputting commands but is collaborating with an entire culture of maximalism, teasing out an ethics of brostep production outside the usual urge for transcendence. In the second post, Christina will listen to the song “Braves” by a Tribe Called Red (ATCR), which, through its play with racist signifiers, remixes performer and audience, placing ATCR and its listeners in an uncanny relationship. In the final post, Justin will work with Karen Barad’s theory of posthuman performativity to consider how the kind of hypermasculinist and racist signifiers discussed in Mike’s and Christina’s pieces embed themselves in listening bodies that become sounding bodies. In each instance, we wade into the wobble listening for the flow of activity among the entanglement of producer, sound, and listener while also keeping our ears peeled for the cross-rhythms of (hyper)masculinist and racist materials that course through and around the musical phenomena.

So hold on tight. It’s about to drop.

Justin Burton

As an electronic dance music DJ and producer, an avid video gamer, a cage fighting connoisseur, and a die-hard Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson fan, I’m no stranger to fist pumps, headshots, and what has become a general cultural sensibility of “hardness” associated with “bro” culture. But what broader affect lies behind this culture? Speaking specifically to recent trends in popular music, Simon Reynolds describes a “digital maximalism,” in which cultural practice involves “a hell of a lot of inputs, in terms of influences and sources, and a hell of a lot of outputs, in terms of density, scale, structural convolution, and sheer majesty” (“Maximal Nation”). We could broaden this concept of maximalism, both (1) to describe a wider variety of contemporary media (from film to video games and mobile media), and (2) to theorize it as a tool for transducing affect between various media, and among various industries within global capitalism. The goal of this essay is to tease out the ways in which maximalist techniques of one kind of digital media production—dubstep—become codified as broader social and political practices. Indeed, the proliferation of maximalism suggests that hypermediation and hypermasculinity have already become dominant aesthetic forms of digital entertainment.

"DJ Pauly D" by Flickr user Eva Rinaldi, CC-BY-SA-2.0

“DJ Pauly D” by Flickr user Eva Rinaldi, CC-BY-SA-2.0

More than any other electronic dance music (EDM) genre, dubstep—and the various hypermasculine cultures in which it has bound itself—has wholeheartedly embraced “digital maximalism” as its core aesthetic form. In recent years, the musical style has emerged as both the dominant idiom within EDM culture, as well as the soundtrack to various hypermasculine forms of entertainment, from sports such as football and professional wrestling to action movies and first-person shooter video games. As a result of the music’s widespread popularity within the specific cultural space of a post-Jersey Shore “bro” culture, the term “brostep” has emerged as an accepted title for the ultra-macho, adrenaline-pumping performances of masculinity that have defined contemporary forms of digital entertainment. This essay posits digital audio production practices in “brostep” as hypermediated forms of masculinity that exist as part of a broader cultural and aesthetic web of media convergence in the digital age.

CONVERGENCE CULTURES

Media theorist Henry Jenkins defines “convergence culture” as “the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behavior of media audiences who will go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment experiences they want” (Convergence Culture, 2). The most prominent use of “brostep” as a transmedial form comes from video game and movie trailers. From the fast-paced, neo-cyborg and alien action thrillers such as Transformers (2007-present), Cowboys & Aliens (2011), and G.I. Joe (2012), to dystopian first-person shooter video games such as Borderlands (2012), Far Cry 3 (2012), and Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 (2012), modulated oscillator wobbles and bass portamento drops consistently serve as sonic amplifiers of the male action hero at the edge.

Assault rifle barrages are echoed by quick rhythmic bass and percussion chops, while the visceral contact of pistol whips and lobbed grenades marks ruptures in time and space as slow motion frame rates mirror bass “drops” in sonic texture and rhythmic pacing. “Hardness” is the overriding affect here; compressed, gated kick and snare drum samples combine with coagulated, “overproduced” basslines made up of multiple oscillators vibrating at broad frequency ranges, colonizing the soundscape by filling every chasm of the frequency spectrum. The music—and the media forms with which it has become entwined—has served as the affective catalyst and effective backdrop for the emergence of an unabashedly assertive, physically domineering, and adrenaline-addicted “bro” culture.

Film theorist Lorrie Palmer argues for a relational link among gender, technology, and modes of production through hypermasculinity in these types of films and video games. Some definitive features of this convergence of hypermediation and hypermasculinity include an emphasis on “excess and spectacle, the centrality of surface over substance… ADHD cinema… transitory kinetic sensations that decenter spatial legibility… an impact aesthetic, [and] an ear-splitting, frenetic style” (Cranked Masculinity,” 7). Both Robin James and Steven Shaviro have defined the overall aesthetic of these practices as “post-cinematic”: a regime “centered on computer games” and emphasizing “the logic of control and gamespace, which is the dominant logic of entertainment programming today.” On a sonic level, “brostep” aligns itself with many of these cinematic descriptions. Julianne Escobedo Shepherd describes the style of Borgore, one particular dubstep DJ and producer, as “misogy blow-job beats.” Other commenters have made more obvious semiotic connections between filmic imagery and the music, as Nitsuh Abebe describes brostep basslines as conjuring “obviously cool images like being inside the gleaming metal torso of a planet-sized robot while it punches an even bigger robot.”

“Ultra Music Festival 2013″ by Wikimedia user Vinch, CC-BY-SA-3.0

“Ultra Music Festival 2013″ by Wikimedia user Vinch, CC-BY-SA-3.0

MASCULINITY AND DIGITAL AUDIO PRODUCTION

While the sound has developed gradually over at least the past decade, the ubiquity of the distinctive mid-range “brostep” wobble bass can fundamentally be attributed to a single instrument. Massive, a software synthesizer developed by the Berlin and Los Angeles-based Native Instruments, combines the precise timbral shaping capabilities of modular synthesizers with the real-time automation capabilities of digital waveform editors. As a VST (Virtual Studio Technology) plug-in, the device exemplifies the inherently transmedial nature of many digital tools, bridging studio techniques between digital audio workstations and analog synthesis, and acting as just one of many control signals within the multi-windowed world of digital audio production. In this way, Massive may be characterized as an intersonic control network in which sounds are controlled and modulated by other sounds through constantly shifting software algorithms. Through analysis of the intersubjective control network of a program such as Massive we are able to hear the convergence of hypermediation and hypermasculinity as aesthetic forms.

“Massive:Electronica” by Flickr user matt.searles, CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0

“Massive:Electronica” by Flickr user matt.searles, CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0

Media theorist Mara Mills details the notion of technical “scripts” embedded both within technological devices as well as user experiences. According to Mills, scripts are best defined as “the representation of users embedded within technology… Designers do not simply ‘project’ users into [technological devices]; these devices are inscribed with the competencies, tolerances, desires, and psychoacoustics of users” (“Do Signals Have Politics?” 338). In short, electroacoustic objects have politics, and in the case of Massive, the politics of the script are quite conventional and historically familiar. The rhythmic and timbral control network of the software aligns itself with what Tara Rodgers describes as a long history of violent masculinist control logics in electronic music, from DJs “battling” to producers “triggering” a sample with a “controller” or “executing” a programming “command” or typing a “bang” to send a signal” (“Towards a Feminist Historiography of Electronic Music,” 476).

In Massive, the primary control mechanism is the LFO (low frequency oscillator), an infrasonic electronic signal whose primary purpose is to modulate various parameters of a synthesizer tone. Dubstep artists most frequently apply the LFO to a low-pass filter, generating a control algorithm in which an LFO filters and masks specific frequencies at a periodic rate (thus creating a “wobbling” frequency effect), which, in turn, modulates the cutoff frequency of up to three oscillating frequencies at a time (maximizing the “wobble”). When this process is applied to multiple oscillators simultaneously—each operating at disparate levels of the frequency spectrum—the effect is akin to a spectral and spatial form of what Julian Henriques calls “sonic dominance.” Massive allows the user to record “automations” on the rhythm, tempo, and quantization level of the bass wobble, effectively turning the physical gestures initially required to create and modulate synthesizer sounds—such as knob-turning and fader-sliding—into digitally-inscribed algorithms.

SONIC WARFARE AND THE ETHICS OF VIRTUALITY

By positing the logic of digital audio production within a broader network of control mechanisms in digital culture, I am not simply presenting a hermeneutic metaphor. Convergence media has not only shaped the content of various multimedia but has redefined digital form, allowing us to witness a clear—and potentially dangerous—virtual politics of viral capitalism. The emergence of a Military Entertainment Complex (MEC) is the most recent instance of this virtual politics of convergence, as it encompasses broad phenomena including the use of music as torture, the design of video games for military training (and increasing collaboration between military personnel and video game designers in general), and drone warfare. The defining characteristic of this political and virtual space is a desire to simultaneously redefine the limits of the physical body and overcome those very limitations. The MEC, as well as broader digital convergence cultures, has molded this desire into a coherent hegemonic aesthetic form.

Following videogame theorist Jane McGonigal, virtual environments push the individual to “work at the very limits of their ability” in a state of infinite self-transition (Reality is Broken, 24). Yet, automation and modular control networks in the virtual environments of digital audio production continue to encourage the historical masculinist trope of “mastery,” thus further solidifying the connection between music and military technologies sounded in the examples above. In detailing hypermediation and hypermasculinity as dominant aesthetic forms of digital entertainment, it is not my goal to simply reiterate the Adornian nightmare of “rhythm as coercion,” or the more recent Congressional fears over the potential for video games and other media to cause violence. The fact that music and video games in the MEC are simultaneously being used to reinscribe the systemic violence of the Military Industrial Complex, as well as to create virtual and actual communities (DJ culture and the proliferation of online music and gaming communities), pinpoints precisely its hegemonic capabilities.

“Gear porn” by Flickr user Matthew Trentacoste, CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0

“Gear porn” by Flickr user Matthew Trentacoste, CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0

In the face of the perennial “mastery” trope, I propose that we must develop a relational ethics of virtuality. While it seems to offer the virtue of a limitless infinity for the autonomous (often male) individual, technological interfaces form the skin of the ethical subject, establishing the boundaries of a body both corporeal and virtual. In the context of digital audio production, then, the producer is not struggling against the technical limitations of the material interface, but rather emerging from the multiple relationships forming at the interface between one’s actual and virtual self and embracing a contingent and liminal identity; to quote philosopher Adriana Cavarero, “a fragile and unmasterable self” (Relating Narratives, 84).

Featured Image:  Skrillex – Hovefestivalen 2012 by Flickr User NRK P3

Mike D’Errico is a PhD student in the UCLA Department of Musicology and a researcher at the Center for Digital Humanities. His research interests and performance activities include hip-hop, electronic dance music, and sound design for software applications. He is currently working on a dissertation that deals with digital audio production across media, from electronic dance music to video games and mobile media. Mike is the web editor and social media manager for the US branch of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music, as well as two UCLA music journals, Echo: a music-centered journal and Ethnomusicology Review.

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Listening to Robots Sing: GarageBand on the iPad-Aaron Trammell

Fiddling With Freedom: Solomon Northup’s Musical Trade in 12 Years a Slave

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Sound in the 19th3Editor’s Note: Sound Studies is often accused of being a presentist enterprise, too fascinated with digital technologies and altogether too wed to the history of sound recording. Sounding Out!‘s last forum of 2013, “Sound in the Nineteenth Century,” addresses this critique by showcasing the cutting edge work of three scholars whose diverse, interdisciplinary research is located soundly in the era just before the advent of sound recording: Mary Caton Lingold (Duke), Caitlin Marshall (Berkeley), and Daniel Cavicchi (Rhode Island School of Design). In examining nineteenth century America’s musical practices, listening habits, and auditory desires through SO!‘s digital platform, Lingold, Marshall, and Cavicchi perform the rare task of showcasing how history’s sonics had a striking resonance long past their contemporary vibrations while performing the power of the digital medium as a tool through which to, as Early Modern scholar Bruce R. Smith dubs it, “unair” past auditory phenomena –all the while sharing unique methodologies that neither rely on recording nor bemoan their lack. Today, the series kicks off with Mary Caton Lingold‘s exploration of the materialities of Solomon Northup’s fiddling as represented through sheet music embedded in his 1853 narrative, amplifying a sound that was key to both his freedom and his enslavement.Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, Editor-in-Chief 

Steve McQueen’s recent film Twelve Years a Slave has renewed interest in the original 1853 narrative, which has long been a valued resource for historians of nineteenth-century slavery, literature, and music. Because Solomon Northup was a highly-skilled fiddler and a keen observer of plantation culture, his autobiography is one of the most substantive accounts of musical life during slavery and, to my knowledge, the only slave narrative that includes sheet music in its text. As such, it preserves in audible form a precious record of Northup’s musical artistry and facilitates a sound-based study of nineteenth-century black fiddling, a tradition that was flourishing during Northup’s lifetime.

Uncovering the sounds of vernacular music of the pre-recorded era can be incredibly challenging. For this reason, Northup’s descriptions, when coupled with musical notation, make it possible for us to hear something historically significant. Although “slave music” was all the rage in the 1850s due to the widespread popularity of blackface minstrelsy, print-based compositions by enslaved (or free) musicians are difficult to come by and even more challenging to verify. The tune presented in Northup’s memoir has its own complex relationship to the minstrelsy genre, but it remains a unique sample of African-American music that warrants close-listening.

"Roaring River." In Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, by Solomon Northup, 322. Auburn, NY: Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1854. Courtesy of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University

“Roaring River.” In Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, by Solomon Northup, 322. Auburn, NY: Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1854. Courtesy of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University

I use performance as a research method for exploring historical vernacular music, offering here my interpretation of “Roaring River: A Refrain of the Red River Plantation.” As I discuss in an essay titled “Listening to the Past,” the process of performance illuminates the subtleties of musical expression. (Do I play it like this or like that? At what tempo?) The aim of such exercises is not historical accuracy, but rather, an attunement to the sonic possibilities of a given piece. These possibilities cannot tell me how Northup would have played the song or what it meant to him, but they allow me to consider the kinds of choices that he would have had to make as a performer, thus illustrating the intellectual and sensorial richness of his music-making. Rather than simply presenting and describing the sheet music, I aim to make it possible for people to hear what would otherwise sit silently on the page.

In the first recording I play Northup’s melody solo to give you a sense of the tune.


In the second, I am joined by guitar.


The use of guitar accompaniment would have been highly unlikely during the period, but it helps to support my amateur playing by providing a livelier, fuller feeling. Northup connected with banjoists, percussionists and dancers as an enslaved and free musician and it’s interesting to imagine how a single song like this would have been transformed according to the talents, desires, and constraints of the performers assembled. It is unclear from the narrative whether or not the tune is an original composition or something Northup learned while living along the Red River, where he was enslaved in Louisiana. One also wonders how many nineteenth-century readers would have plucked the melody at a keyboard or bowed it on a family fiddle. What might their motivations have been?

Though Northup does not discuss the fiddle tune in the text, he does describe the lyrics below it, remarking that they were accompanied by a percussion technique called “patting” among his fellow slaves. He describes this widely documented practice as follows: “The patting is performed by striking the hands on the knees, then striking the hands together, then striking the right shoulder with one hand, the left with the other—all the while keeping time with the feet, and singing” (219). According to Northup, the lyrics that accompanied patting were often nonsensical because they were made to conform to the tonal and rhythmic pattern being patted. He offers “Harper’s Creek” as suitable for the practice but it’s worth noting that the lyrics voice a presumably white man’s desires to own a piece of land and a slave. Though presented below the sheet music at the end of the book, the lyrics are ill-fitting for the fiddle tune provided, which seems more likely to have been played without vocal accompaniment. In light of Northup’s descriptions, the sheet music creates an interesting blend of various performance modes, from popular folksy vocal diddy (with possible origins in minstrelsy), to patting, and fiddling. Here you can see a wonderful example of patting accompanying a nineteenth-century fiddle tune as performed by the Carolina Chocolate Drops and guest Danny Barber (Intricate patting begins at 1:22).

In addition to serving as auditory artifact, the presence of sheet music in the narrative relates to the way Northup’s musicality was commodified within the aesthetic economy of slavery during and after his captivity. After regaining freedom, his talents are presented for sale in the book presumably to appeal to the sort of audiences who would also have coveted the sheet music of minstrelsy, which caricatured and lampooned black performances. Popular appetites for representations of plantation culture left an imprint on Northup’s autobiography as well as other abolitionist publications, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

"Jumbo Jim," Courtesy of the Newberry Library, Chicago. J.F. Driscoll Collection of American Sheet Music, Box 307a.

“Jumbo Jum,” Courtesy of the Newberry Library, Chicago. J.F. Driscoll Collection of American Sheet Music, Box 307a.

Music-making was both labor and leisure for Solomon Northup and it profoundly influenced his experiences as a slave. His narrative also illuminates the far-reaching impact that he and other black musicians had on their communities as well as nineteenth century music.

Alas! had it not been for my beloved violin, I scarcely can conceive how I could have endured the long years of bondage. It introduced me to great houses —relieved me of many days’ labor in the field—supplied me with conveniences for my cabin—with pipes and tobacco, and extra pairs of shoes, and oftentimes led me away from the presence of a hard master, to witness scenes of jollity and mirth. It was my companion—the friend of my bosom triumphing loudly when I was joyful, and uttering its soft, melodious consolations when I was sad. (217)

Solomon Northup’s biography is highly atypical of slave narratives because he is a free man who is sold into slavery. Some have criticized the popularization of his circumstances, arguing that because he conforms to modes of respectability as a literate, propertied black man, he serves as an ideal hero for white audiences while inadequately representing the experience of slavery. Though many aspects of Northup’s biography are unusual, his status as a highly sought-after musician is emblematic of a legion of black fiddlers who dominated music scenes North and South, from ballrooms to barns, beginning as early as the late seventeenth-century, as Dena Epstein explains in her indispensable study, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Music to the Civil War (1977).

Prior to enslavement, fiddling, “the passion of [his] youth,” provides Northup with supplemental income that helps to sustain his family during periods of insufficient employment in agriculture and carpentry. Music was an ideal side-career for someone in such circumstances, though, as Northup’s story shows, it did not protect him from the dangers of being black in the United States. He is captured and enslaved while touring as a circus musician. Ferrying South toward the Louisiana plantations that would become his deplorable home, Northup’s freedoms are violently stripped away. But his talent as a first-rate fiddler travels with him, becoming a defining element of his experience of slavery.

Fiddles were extraordinarily popular instruments during the era. Lightweight, portable, and increasing in mass production during the nineteenth-century, a single fiddle could service a large dance if need be. As such, slaves were encouraged (or forced) to take up the instrument and musical ability was considered a highly prized skill. Fiddling granted (primarily male) slaves an unusual degree of mobility as well as opportunities for economic advancement. The fact that numerous runaway slave ads note that the sought-after individuals were fiddlers or had in their possession a violin suggests that the increased mobility and access to income may have facilitated escape for some. For more information about these trends and their eighteenth-century origins, I highly recommend Richard Cullen Rath’s How Early America Sounded (2003), an excellent cultural history of sound.

Etching of Solomon Northrup "in his Plantation Suit" accompanying his 1853 Narrative

Etching of Solomon Northup “in his Plantation Suit” accompanying his 1853 Narrative

Just before being sold at market to his first master, Northup encounters an enslaved young man in possession of a fiddle and sizes him up by asking if he could play the “Virginia Reel,” a popular dance. The young man cannot and so Northup takes the instrument from him, boldly showing off his more substantial repertoire and ability, much to the delight of those around him. Though about to be sold into an unknown and terrifying fate, this seemingly mundane interaction underscores how important musicianship is to Northup’s identity and also how significant it was to the societies through which he was forced to move. Whether in New York State, a New Orleans slave market, or a backwoods swamp plantation, fiddling was a thoroughly popular form of entertainment, widely enjoyed by Americans, slave and free, rich and poor, native and immigrant.

Northup expresses pride in the fame he earns in the Red River region, noting that he was known widely as the “Ole Bull of Bayou Boeuf.” Ole Bull was a famous Norwegian violinist, who was one of the first musicians to professionally tour the United States in the 1850s; he became a widely-known celebrity. Because of Northrup’s sought-after talents, his masters hired him out extensively to play at the fashionable balls of nearby plantations as well as the Christmas dances held yearly for slaves. At one ball, he was tipped seventeen dollars, an extraordinary amount that he used to furnish his cabin with bare necessities. In contrast to these more favorable gigs, Northup was also forced to perform during his savage Master Epps’ alcoholic binges. These events were held for hours on end in the middle of the night as Northup’s fellow slaves were commanded to dance. The violent, dreaded affairs interrupted precious sleep and were utterly humiliating for the participants. Depicted memorably in both the memoir and the recent film, the horrifying scenario shows the way slavery degrades Northup’s musicianship and his peers’ dancing, turning these arts into yet one more thing that the master possesses. For Master Epps, Northup is a mere musical device, a kind of proto-phonograph, full of tunes that can be made to play on command. Northup’s “passion” and economic livelihood are thus converted into a mechanized musical labor commodity under slavery.

Through Northup, we can see how before the eras of sound reproduction and broadcast, the circulation of music across North America was greatly facilitated by the forced migration of enslaved people. At the time of Northup’s capture, large numbers of mid-Atlantic slaves were being sold South to the booming plantations along the frontier of Louisiana and Texas. Northup brought a unique repertoire on his journey and he also learned new music that he transported back to the New York publishers of his autobiography. Afro-diasporic musicians began revolutionizing Western music centuries before Northup was born, and as we can see, continued to do so in profoundly significant ways in the Antebellum era both in spite of and due to the harsh conditions of their enslavement.

I’d like to thank the students in my course “Sounds of the South” for their lively discussion and excellent essays regarding music in Solomon Northup’s Narrative. I’m also deeply grateful to my musical collaborator, Eric Olsten.

Featured Image by Flickr User kubotake

Mary Caton Lingold is a doctoral candidate in English at Duke University researching early Afro-Atlantic literature, music, and sound. She leads a collaborative experiment called the Sonic Dictionary at Duke’s Audiovisualities Lab and co-directs Soundbox, a project dedicated to enhancing the practice of using sound in digital scholarship.

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How Svengali Lost His Jewish Accent--Gayle Wald

Cauldrons of Noise: Stadium Cheers and Boos at the 2012 London Olympics

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Sound and Sport2Welcome to the extra innings of our summer series on “Sound and Sport”!  In today’s bonus post, David Hendy discusses his recent Noise broadcast for BBC Radio 4 on the sounds of Olympic crowds.  For an instant replay of our summer series click Kariann Goldschmitt’s “The Sounds of Selling Out?: Tom Zé, Coca-Cola, and the Soundtrack to FIFA Brazil 2014″ (August), Josh Ottum‘s “Sounding Boards and Sonic Styles: The Music of the Skatepark” (July), Tara Betts‘s “Pretty, Fast, and Loud: The Audible Ali” (June), and Melissa Helquist‘s “Goalball: Sport, Silence, and Spectatorship” (May).  Following Hendy’s post on Olympics past, give Andrea Medrado’s podcast a spin for a listen into its future: “The Sounds of Rio’s Favelas: Echoes of Social Inequality in an Olympic City.” And now, David Hendy.  Of course, the crowd goes WILD. –J. Stoever-Ackerman, Editor-in-Chief

I didn’t get to go to the London 2012 Olympics or Paralympics. Alas, my number didn’t come up in the lottery for seats. So, like millions of others, my family and I watched – and heard – the sporting action on television or, occasionally, on our smart phones. A pretty good experience it was, too: the BBC for instance gave British viewers 24 live streams of high-definition coverage for the Olympics; Channel 4’s approach to the Paralympics was smaller-scale but packed a similar punch in terms of imagery. A key part of the “enhanced experience,” however, was the acoustic quality of the broadcasts. When the Olympics had last been staged in London, during the post-war austerity of 1948, television footage sounded like this:


“1948 Olympics Clip” courtesy of Peregrine Andrews and Alan Hall, Falling Tree Productions Limited

Just about the only things viewers would’ve heard were the voices of the commentators and the distant, muted sounds of the crowd.

That evocative archive recording was used in a recent radio documentary by the British sound designer Peregrine Andrews. The programme explored just how much had changed in location recording techniques by 2012. This time around, Peregrine pointed out, some 4,000 microphones were in position at the various venues: not just suspended in the air above or placed on the trackside, but bonded directly onto the beams in the gymnastic hall, say, or attached to the targets used in archery. Competitors everywhere were heard in extreme close-up – every shift of a hand or foot, every creak of wood, every grunt or groan made audible to the viewer at home.

This wasn’t just hyperbole. Newspapers quickly latched on to the phenomenon, dispatching reporters to measure decibel levels and offer their readers guides to the “best” venues for hearing the sound of the crowd. They pointed out that an airplane taking off produces about “140 decibels of noise”– and that the cheers echoing around the soaring curves and low ceilings of the Olympic Velodrome reached very nearly the same level.

Panorama of the London Olympic Velodrome, Image courtesy of Flickr User  Jack999

Panorama of the London Olympic Velodrome, Image courtesy of Flickr User Jack999

Olympic Velodrome Image courtesy of Flickr User adambowie

Olympic Velodrome Image courtesy of Flickr User adambowie

“The roar was thrilling, to the point of pain,” claimed one reporter from the Toronto Globe and Mail. “If I had endured another minute, I am sure we’d all have gone deaf.” Zaha Hadid’s gloriously sweeping Aquatics Centre provided perhaps the most intense acoustics of all. Whenever the 17,500 fans inside cheered, the “guttural roar” was simply “ear-drum shattering,” declared the London Evening Standard. The main Olympic stadium was open air, of course, making the sound less intense. But even here the Globe and Mail journalist wrote of a “tsunami of noise” building in waves; another of the stadium’s “sonic boom”; yet another of how Usain Bolt’s 100 metres final produced a roar from the crowd which, measured at 107 decibels, beat that of your average pneumatic drill.

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Olympic Stadium 2012, Image by Flickr User tom_bennett

Perhaps it wasn’t surprising that London 2012 was dubbed the loudest ever Olympics. For the main stadium’s designer Rod Sheard had always conceived it with acoustics firmly in mind. He’s quoted in a piece in It’s Nice That: “The athletes are so focused, it’s very easy for them not to hear the crowd. . .we’ve got to make it really loud for them to get any benefit from it.” And so the 80,000 people inside were packed as closely together as possible with the roof shaped to rebound their roar back into the heart of the space, generating maximum volume.

As my producer Matt Thompson and I discovered when making our recent BBC radio series Noise: a Human History (available on iTunes), this contemporary attempt to revel in the roar of the spectators throws up some striking – and very ancient – parallels. The most obvious is that of the Colosseum in Rome, which, some 2000 years ago, provided what Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard have described as “a brilliantly constructed and enclosed world, which packed emperor, elite and subjects together, like sardines in a tin.”

David Hendy at Colosseum, Image by MattThompson/Rockethouse Productions

David Hendy at Colosseum, Image by MattThompson/Rockethouse Productions

The acoustic qualities of ancient amphitheaters like this – their ability to amplify the slightest sounds – is still pretty unnerving if you get the chance to witness it for yourself, as Matt and I did when recording, at the Colosseum and at the ancient Greek theatre of Epidaurus:


In these cauldrons of concentrated sound, the roar of the spectators took on a collective force of its own – a volatile quality rich with cultural and political repercussions. During plays in Greek theatres, audiences were rarely hushed and reverential. They were talkative and unruly, sometimes showing their disapproval by drumming their heels against the benches, sometimes disrupting the action by shouting and jeering. The chorus below would address spectators directly, as if facing a jury. Audience participation was as much a part of a performance as were the actors in the orchestra or on the stage. And when it came to the Roman Games later held at the Colosseum or in even larger venues such as the nearby Circus Maximus, the barrage of sound could reach intimidating levels of ferocity.

David Hendy Recording at Epidaurus, Image by Matt Thompson/Rockethouse Productions, taken on location

David Hendy Recording at Epidaurus, Image by Matt Thompson/Rockethouse Productions, taken on location

Roman arenas were not just sporting venues, of course. They were designed for political theatre. Vespasian had ordered the Colosseum to be built to help wipe away the memory of his predecessor Nero and his notorious private pleasure palace the Golden House. Now Roman citizens had a pleasure palace all of their own. The ruling elite had also created a place for the ostentatious display of imperial power and generosity, a bribe for the people’s continuing loyalty. Which is why, if the crowds were sometimes a little slow in showing their appreciation, paid stooges dotted about the arena would start applauding – or booing – at all the right moments, while soldiers would strike down any member of the audience who lagged in their cheering. But, as in the Greek theatres, Rome’s audiences were never entirely under the cosh; they could occasionally give voice to underlying discontentment. And when so many people were so tightly packed together, sheer proximity and the contagious quality of sound meant any turn in the mood would have been quick to make itself felt.

One startling example of this came in 55BC when Julius Caesar’s powerful rival Pompey put on a show in the Circus Maximus that featured the slaughter of elephants – something the crowd lapped up until the very moment they heard the poor creatures’ death throes. In episode 9 of Noise: a Human History, I speculated on what it might’ve been like – and recalled the unsettling outcome:


In London in 2012, we had our very own Pompey, in the form of the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. He’d turned up to the Paralympics to award some medals. And as his name was announced the stadium resounded with loud booing for the first time all summer:

Why did 80,000 people all suddenly decide to boo as one? Because, one commentator quipped, there were only 80,000 people in the stadium.

Politicians as a class are inevitably unwelcome in a place of entertainment, their presence too obviously betraying an attempt to siphon off a little of the goodwill. Osborne’s particular problem, though, was that he wasn’t just any old politician. He was from the ruling Conservative party, which, true to its ungenerous instincts, had just cut welfare benefits for Britain’s disabled people. In the circumstances, turning up to the Paralympics seemed an entirely predictable affront to most of those in the stadium – one that Osborne was thick-skinned and numb-skulled enough not to have predicted for himself.

All this might seem, well, unsporting. But booing is part of the civic dialogue. It brings politicians face-to-face with their electorate. It forces them to feel the scorn and anger of those they’ve let down. The moment passes, of course. Clips briefly went viral on YouTube, and were soon forgotten. Osborne himself is still in office, overseeing the ruination of the British economy through his programme of austerity. But for a delicious few seconds we were reminded of the inherently public nature of sound. We heard – we felt – the role of listening to one another, not as a passive thing but as a powerfully collective, inter-subjective, electrifying, communicative act.

Featured Image: Crowd: London 2012 Olympic Stadium, Image by Flickr User Flickmor

David Hendy is Professor of Media and Communication at the University of Sussex, England. He wrote and presented the recent 30-part BBC radio series Noise: a Human History, which remains available to download on ITunes. The accompanying book, Noise: a Human History of Sound and Listening, will be published in the US in October 2013 by Harper Collins. He’s the author of Radio in the Global Age (2000), Life on Air: a History of Radio Four (2007), and Public Service Broadcasting (2013), and contributes regularly to radio programmes. 

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“We wanted to tell stories about sound”: Opening Ears Through the “Everything Sounds” Podcast–Craig Shank and George Drake Jr.

Quebec’s #casseroles: on participation, percussion and protest–Jonathan Sterne

Goalball: Sport, Silence, and Spectatorship– Melissa Helquist

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