Welcome to World Listening Month 2014, our annual forum on listening in observation of World Listening Day on July 18th, 2014. World Listening Day is a time to think about the impacts we have on our auditory environments and, in turn, its affects on us [for the full deets, peep our recent SO! Amplifies post by Eric Leonardson, Executive Director of the World Listening Project]. We kick off our month of thinking critically about listening with a post by media historian Brian Hanrahan, who listens deeply to sonic traces of the past to prompt us to question our desires for contemporary media representations of “reality.” It also marks the global 100 year anniversary of World War I this August 2014: a moment of silence. –J. Stoever, Editor-in-Chief
For some reason that I don’t fully understand, I am very emotionally moved by the space around a sound. I almost think that sometimes I am recording space with a sound in it, rather than sound in a space. -Walter Murch
If you want to listen to the past, there’s never been a time like the present. Every year, it seems, new old recordings are identified, new techniques developed to recover sounds thought irrecoverable. Here is Bismarck’s voice, preserved on a cylinder in 1889. Here, older still, is Edison’s. There is the astonishing recuperation of phonautograms – reverberation traced onto soot-blackened paper in the mid-nineteenth century, digitally processed and played back in our own. But as that processing underlines, no sound recording straightforwardly reproduces the real. An acoustic artifact is a compound of materiality, form and meaning, but also a place where technology meets desire. Old recordings meet the listener’s longing halfway; they invoke a reality always out of reach. And not simply a longing to hear, but also to touch, and be moved by, the fact of an absent existence.
Take, for instance, HMV 09308. In October 1918, just before the end of the Great War, William Gaisberg, a sound recordist of the pre-electric era, took recording equipment to the Western Front in order to capture the sound of British artillery shelling German lines with poison gas. Gaisberg died not long after, probably from Spanish flu, although some say he was weakened by gas exposure during the recording. Nonetheless the “Gas Shell Bombardment” record – a 12-inch HMV shellac disc, just over 2 minutes at 78 rpm – was released a few weeks later, just as the war came to an end. Initially intended to promote War Bonds, ultimately the record was used to raise money for disabled veterans.
For decades, the HMV recording had a reputation as one of the very earliest “actuality” recordings – one documenting a real location and event beyond the performative space of the studio, imprinted with the audible material trace of an actual moment in space and time. Documents like this – no matter what the technology – usually come with additional symbolic authentication. Here, the record’s label does some of that work. This “historic recording,” says the subtitle, is an “actual record taken on the front line.” Publicity pieces drove home the message. In the popular HMV magazine The Voice, Gaisberg – or probably his posthumous ghost-writer – described the expedition in detail, claiming the track to be a “true representation of the bombardment.”
In the same issue, a Major C.J.C. Street compared the recording to his own experience on the Front. “Its realism,” he wrote, ”took my breath away… I played the record many times… finding at each attempt some well-remembered detail.” He didn’t say so in his article, but Street – an artillery officer, a novelist and a propaganda man for the intelligence agency MI7 – was in fact the impresario of the record. This was not the first time he had found astute uses for sound media. The previous year he had put together a record that set artillery drill commands to popular tunes – the recording was both a propaganda release and an army training tool for new recruits. With the Gas Shell record, Street knew he wasn’t just selling recorded sound, but also an auratic sense of closeness to an overwhelming reality, the palpable proximity of war and death. Authenticating detail helped to underpin this sense of an absent real made present. Street cued the listener for those “well-remembered details.” In particular, he singled out one indistinct rattly flap-whizz noise, hearing in it, he claimed, the sound of a round with a “loose driving-band.”
The record stayed in the HMV catalog until 1945, but only in the early 1990s were its production history and authenticity claims seriously examined. In specialist journals, archivists, collectors and amateur historians undertook a collective forensic and critical analysis. A promising auditory witness was located: 95-year-old Lt.-Col. Montagu Cleeve another former artillery officer, in his time a developer of “Boche Buster” railway gun, later a music professor – was invited to critically assess the recording. Cleeve vouched unreservedly for its authenticity. He heard in it, he said, an unmistakable succession of sounds – the clang of the breech, the gigantic report of the firing explosion, the distinctive whiny whistle of a gas shell on its way across no-man’s-land. Others looked to data rather than the memories of old soldiers. One expert on pre-electric recording noted the angles commanded in firing instructions, correlated them with known muzzle velocities for 4.5 and 6-inch howitzers, then used this and other information to “definitively” explain the counter-intuitive anti-Doppler sound of the shells’ whistling. He also identified the audible echo effect – the curious “double report” of the guns heard here – as the sound of a brass recording horn violently resonating at a distance of exactly 26.5 meters from the guns.
Eventually, skepticism won out. Close listening at slow speeds – just careful attention and notation, nothing more elaborate – revealed inconsistencies and oddities in the firing noises. The bongs, plops and whistles seemed internally inconsistent. Some of the artillery sounds – ostensibly a battery of four, firing in quick succession – varied implausibly with each successive firing. Physical evidence from the record’s groove, as well as extraneous noises – surface crackle and fizz, and, audible within the recording, the swish of a turntable – seemed to indicate at least two rudimentary overdubs, in which the output of one acoustic horn was relayed into a second, possibly using an auxetophone, an early compressed-air amplifier. All this resulted in a double- or triple-layered sonic artifact. Finally – the crucial evidence, although oddly it was hardly noticed at the time – an alternative take was located. In this take, according to its discoverer, the entire theatrics of gunnery command is simply absent, and there is no sound at all of whistling shells in motion. What was left was a skeleton sequence of clicks, thuds and cracks, supplemented with only a single closing insert, the portentous injunction “Feed the Guns with War Bonds!”
In short, it seems highly likely that any original field recording was, at the very least, post-dramatized with performed voices and percussive and whistling sound effects. So, it is tempting to say, that clears that up. The recording’s inauthenticity is proven. File under Fake. But in fact, if we don’t stop there, if we set aside narrow and absolutist ideas of authenticity, and instead explore the recording’s ambiguity and hybridity, then Gas Shell Bombardment becomes all the more interesting as an historical artifact.
Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that some form of basic recording was done in France, very possibly a staged barrage specifically performed for Gaisberg’s visit, and that this recording then had effects added back at HMV in London. The record might then be seen less as a straightforward documentary, and instead as an unusual version of the “descriptive speciality,” a genre of miniature phonographic vignette dating back to the 1890s, far predating longer-form radio drama. Very little is known about these early media artworks, but it is a fair generalization to say that in America the genre was more slanted towards vaudeville comedy, whereas in Europe, imperial and military scenes predominated. As early as 1890, for example, there had been German phonographic representations of battles from the Franco-Prussian war. The Great War saw a flourishing of the genre. Scholars are just beginning to take an interest these old phonographs; here’s one recent essay on the “Angel of Mons,” for example, a British acoustic vignette of a famous incident on the Western Front.
Listen to a 1915 German descriptive speciality, depicting the attack on the fortress of Liège the previous year:
As a descriptive speciality, Gas Shell Bombardment is unusual because it incorporates an actual indexical trace. But such traces – as emphasized by Charles Sanders Pierce and many later media-theoreticians– do not resemble their referent, they are caused by it. The bullet hole does not look much like a bullet; thunder is lightning’s trace, not its likeness. But for Street and Gaisberg, the trace’s lack of resemblance caused problems: the original recording’s lack of detail, cues and clues, but above all its lack of internal dimensionality, created a perceptual shortfall and a lack of credibility. Maybe they hoped that the guns, by sheer force of amplitude, would overcome the spatially impoverished, reverbless reproduction of pre-electric recording. If so, it didn’t work. Without added effects, the guns’ trace was as flat and “body-less” as a sequence of Morse. It was a sound without a scene. The producers’ interventions aimed to thicken the primary artifact with referential-sounding detail, but also to heighten the sense of materiality and spatiality, and to strengthen the sense of diegetic presence, of worlded thereness. The soldiers’ voices – louder and quieter, close-up and farther-out – and the fake-Doppler of the “shell whistling” lent the recording narrative direction (literally, some trajectory) and “authenticating” points of detail. But above all they gave a sense of internal space to the recording, a space into which the listener could direct her attention.
In this context, we can only admire the creativity and performative élan of the unknown production crew. We know little about effects production in early phonography. It is a safe bet that some techniques were adopted from theatre, and that there was overlap with silent film accompaniment. But whatever the method used, it would have called for the awkward orchestration of a limited number of iconic sounds to create an impression of a spatially coherent and materially detailed sonic environment. The recordist and his team would first have had to imagine how relative loudness – of voices, of material objects struck and sounded – might create a sense of spatial depth when transduced through the horn’s crude interface. Then they would have had to perform this as a live overdub, keeping time with the base track of the gun recording played through another horn. And all this done with participants and equipment crowded tightly around the mouth of the huge horn, crammed into the tiny pick-up arc, a scene looking something like this image of Leopold Stokowski’s pre-electric recording sessions or this photograph of the recording of a cello concerto.
As well as this hybrid of trace and live performance, there is another performance here – Gaisberg’s journey itself. With twenty years of recording experience, Gaisberg was probably very well aware that the expedition would not yield a “realistic” recording of the guns. But the expedition had to be made, so that it could be said to have taken place. Expectations had to be primed and colored, so that, to use André Bazin’s famous phrase about photographs, the recording could partake in an “irrational power to… bear the belief” of the listener. The journey, and the accounts of Gaisberg and Street are not a supplement to the “true representation” of the gas bombardment. They are part of that representation. Moreover, in subsequent writing it is noticeable that the manner of Gaisberg’s death becomes a rhetorical amplification for the authenticity of the recording’s trace, as if his fatal inhalation (of gas molecules or flu bacilli) were itself a deadly indexation, paralleling the recording’s claim to capture the breath of the War, and even of History itself.
In media-historical terms, the Gas Shell Bombardment recording can be understood as a late, transitional artifact from phonography’s pre-microphonic era. The desire for the sonic trace, for an ever more immersive proximity to events was there, but electro-acoustic technology was not yet in place. Two years later, in 1920, Horace Merriman and Lionel Guest made the first experimental electrical recording, arguably also the first true field recording. The event, appropriately enough, was an official war memorial service in London, where Merriman and Guest – working for Columbia Records – put microphones in Westminster Abbey, running cables to a remote recording van parked in the street outside, where they sat amidst heating ovens and cutting lathes. By the end of the 1920s, remote recording and broadcasting, while never straightforward, were well on the way to ubiquity.
Claims made on behalf of technologies of reproduction may seem simplistic, but there’s a grain of truth to their simplicity. If there were nothing special – even magical – in the referentiality of the camera that captures the moment, the recording that’s like being there, the liveness of the live broadcast, these things would not play the role they do in everyday life and in the ideological fabric of society. But there is falsehood too, in over-simplifying the nature and affective charge of old photographs, old footage, old recordings. These are made things, composed of different materials, media, signs and conventions; they are inseparable from the desires and expectations they induce and direct. They function in part by mimesis and verisimilitude, but also through the gaps, blank spots and false illusions of their trace. They can – rightly – intensify our feeling towards the past, but should also prompt us to think about our own desires and investments.
Image by Flickr User DrakeGoodman, “Horchposten im Spengtrichter vor Neuve-Chapelle 6km nördlich von La Bassée Nordfrankreich 1916,” A trio of lightly equipped soldiers from an unidentified formation oblige the photographer by looking serious and pretending they’re just metres from the enemy, listening for activity in his lines. The improvised “listening device” is actually a large funnel, probably liberated from a nearby farm.
Brían Hanrahan is a film, media and cultural historian, whose work focuses on the history of acoustic media, German and European cinema and the culture of the Weimar Republic.
Edited post-publication at 8:00 pm EST on July 7, 2014
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SO! Amplifies. . .a highly-curated, rolling mini-post series by which we editors hip you to cultural makers and organizations doing work we really really dig. You’re welcome!
During a preview of the UK tour of my performance Beacons, I noticed something intriguing. There were a couple of children in the audience, and they were singing along with me. I mean, not just singing – doing all kinds of vocal things along with me.
You have to understand that I’m an extended – or I now prefer the term extra-normal – vocalist. I make artwork from the ‘weird’ qualities of the voice. Now, the term weird, when it comes to the voice, is always culturally relative. But let’s face it – in almost any of the industrialized cultures, we don’t exactly let the voice go wild, and so the category of “weird” is pretty large and full. Our cultures are a Freudian fiesta of vocal repression and sublimation. When’s the last time you heard a heartfelt, loose, easy series of adult sobs at a business meeting, or a wail of deep mourning at a funeral? When it comes to the voice, we’re pretty uptight.
However, here were some children absolutely letting loose and going along for the ride. This has happened before. During my piece Soie Soyeuse, during which I wrap the audience in habotai silk, some children got right into it. I was five feet away making really incredibly ‘ugly’ chewing noises and groans of gnashing teeth and they delightedly voiced along.
Right now, everything’s becoming user-driven. The audience loves to co-make art. And why not? So I thought: let’s go for broke, here. Let’s try to create some environments and experiences in which kids (and the kid in all of us) can really explore what their voices can do. Let’s give them freedom to experiment. Let’s reward them for wildness. Let’s try to make it child and family friendly, but beautiful and rich and somehow sensual, despite the limitations of the tablet format. I worked like a dog to get financing. I collaborated with scientists. And so, Voice Bubbles for iPad was born.
It’s free, thanks to our funders. It’s got no silly pop up ads and in-app purchases. Kids love it and will use it for hours, happily. It lets them record, improvise, structure and add effects to their voices. They can play back little sequences or structured phrases. They can fool with what else their voices can do and be.
It makes them feel, and makes we adults question, just why we need to keep the voice so under wraps when it’s a source of so much playful joy and intense engagement. Give it to a child to enjoy. Enjoy it yourself.
*You can explore other related artworks at www.yourvivaciousvoice.com
Yvon Bonenfant is Reader in Performing Arts at the University of Winchester. He likes voices that do what voices don’t usually do, and he likes bodies that don’t do what bodies usually do. He makes art starting from these sounds and movements. These unusual, intermedia works have been produced in 10 countries in the last 10 years, and his writing published in journals such as Performance Research, Choreographic Practices, and Studies in Theatre and Performance. He currently holds a Large Arts Award from the Wellcome Trust and funding from Arts Council England to collaborate with speech scientists on the development of a series of participatory, extra-normal voice artworks for children and families; see www.yourvivaciousvoice.com. Despite his air of Lenin, he does frighteningly accurate vocal imitations of both Axl Rose and Jon Bon Jovi. www.yvonbonenfant.com.
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This post continues our summer Sound and Pleasure series, as the third and final podcast in a three part series by Leonard J. Paul. What is the connection between sound and enjoyment, and how are pleasing sounds designed? Pleasure is, after all, what brings y’all back to Sounding Out! weekly, is it not?
Part of the goal of this series of podcasts has been to reveal the interesting and invisible labor practices which are involved in sound design. In this final entry Leonard J. Paul breaks down his process in designing living sounds for the game Vessel. How does one design empathetic or aggressive sounds? If you need to catch up read Leonard’s last entry where he breaks down the vintage sounds of Retro City Rampage. Also, be sure to be sure to check out last week’s edition where Leonard breaks down his process in designing sound for Sim Cell. But first, listen to this! -AT, Multimedia Editor
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Game Audio Notes III: The Nature of Sound in Vessel
Strange Loop Game’s Vessel is set in an alternate world history where a servant class of liquid automatons (called fluros) has gone out of control. The player explores the world and solves puzzles in an effort to restore order. While working on Vessel, I personally recorded all of the sounds so that I could have full control over the soundscape. I recorded all of the game’s samples with a Zoom H4n portable recorder. My emphasis on real sounds was intended to focus the player’s experience of immersion in the game.
This realistic soundscape was supplemented with a variety of techniques that produced sounds that dynamically responded to the changes in the physics engine. Water and other fluids in the game were difficult to model with both the physics engine and the audio engine (FMOD Designer). Because fluids are fundamentally connected to the game’s physics engine, they takes on a variety of different dynamic forms as players interact with the fluid in different ways. In order to address this Kieran Lord, the audio coder, and I considered factors like the amount of liquid in a collision with anything, the hardness of the surface that it was colliding with, the type of liquid in motion, whether the player is experiencing an extreme form of that sound because it is colliding with their head, and, of course, how fast the liquid is travelling.
Although there was a musical score, I designed the effects to be played without music. Each element of the game, for instance a lava fluro’s (one of the game’s rebellious automatons) footsteps, entailed required layers of sound. The footsteps were composed of water sizzling on a hot pan, a gloopy slap of oatmeal and a wet rag hitting the ground. Finding the correct emotional balance to support the game’s story was fundamental to my work as a sound designer. The game’s sound effects were constantly competing with the adaptive music (which is also contingent on player action) that plays throughout the game, so it was important to provide an informative quality to them. The sound effects inform you about the environment while the music sets the emotional underscore of the gameplay and helps guide you in the puzzles.
Defining the character of the fluros was difficult because I wanted players to have empathy for them. This was important to me because there is often no way to avoid destroying them when solving the game’s puzzles. While recording sounds in the back of an antique shop, I came across a vintage Dick Tracey gun that made a fantastic clanking sound when making a siren sound. Since the gun allowed me to control how quickly the siren rose and fell, it was a great way to produce vocalizations for the fluros. I simply recorded the gun’s siren sound, chopped the recording into smaller pieces, and then played back different segments randomly. The metal clanking gave a mechanical feel and the siren’s tone gave a vocal quality to the resulting sound that was perfect for the fluros. I could make the fluros sound excited by choosing a higher pitch range from the sample grains and inform the player when they approached their goal.
I wanted a fluid-based scream to announce a fluro’s death. I tried screaming underwater, screaming into a glass of water, and a few other things, but nothing worked. Eventually, when recording a rubber ear syringe, I found squeezing the water out quickly lent a real shriek while it spit out the last of the water. Not only did this sound really cut through the din of the gears clanking in the mix, but it also bonded a watery yell with the sense of being crushed and running out of breath.
For the final boss, I tried many combinations of glurpy sounds to signify its lava form. Eventually I recorded a nail in a board being dragged across a large rusty metal sheet. Though it was quite excruciating to listen to, I pitched down the recording and combined it with a pitched down and granulated recording of myself growling into a cup of water. This sound perfectly captured the emotion I wanted to feel when encountering a final boss. Although it can take a long time to arrive at the “obvious” sound, simplicity is often the key.
Anticipation is fundamental to a player’s sense of immersion. It carves a larger space for tension to build, for instance a small crescendo of a creaking sound can develop a tension that builds to a sudden and large impact. A whoosh before a punch lands adds extra weight to the force of the punch. These cues are often naturally present in real-world sounds, such as a rush of air sweeping in before a door slams. A small pause might be included just for added suspense and helps to intensify the effect of the door slamming. Dreading the impact is half of the emotion of a large hit .
Recording all of the sounds for Vessel was a large undertaking but since I viewed each recording as a performance, I was able to make the feeling of the world very cohesive. Each sound was designed to immerse the player in the soundscape, but also to allow players enough time to solve puzzles without becoming annoyed with the audio. All sounds have a life of their own and a resonance of memory and time that stays with the them during each playthrough of a game. In Retro City Rampage I left a sonic space for the player to wax nostalgic. In Sim Cell, I worked to breathe life into a set of sterile and synthesized sounds. Each recorded sound in Vessel is alive in comparison, telling stories of time, place and recording with them, that are all their own.
The common theme of my audio work on Retro City Rampage, Sim Cell and Vessel, is that I enjoy putting constraints on myself to inspire my creativity. I focus on what works and removing non-essential elements. Exploring the limits of constraints often provokes interesting and unpredictable results. I like “sculpting” sounds and will often proceed from a rough sketch, polishing and reducing elements until I like what I hear. Typically I remove layers that don’t add an emotive aspect to the sound design. In games there are often many sounds that can play at once, so clarity and focus are necessary when preventing sounds from getting lost in a sonic goo.
In this post I have shown how play and experimentation are fundamental to my creative process. For an aspiring sound artist, spending time with Pure Data, FMOD Studio or Wwise and a personal recorder is a great way to improve their skill with game audio. This series of articles has aimed to reveal the tacit decisions behind the production of game audio that get obscured by the fun of the creative process. Plus, I hope they offer a bit of inspiration to those creating their own sounds in the future.
- My GDC 2012 talk – My site includes an MP3 recording of the talk and the full powerpoint presentation. A full video of the talk is in the GDC Vault but requires membership
- See the Jon Hopkins Soundtrack in the Video Game Vessel video game soundtrack video by me on YouTube – shows use of Lua with music in the custom level editor : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KOyjMPPvaY4
Leonard J. Paul attained his Honours degree in Computer Science at Simon Fraser University in BC, Canada with an Extended Minor in Music concentrating in Electroacoustics. He began his work in video games on the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo Entertainment System and has a twenty year history in composing, sound design and coding for games. He has worked on over twenty major game titles totalling over 6.4 million units sold since 1994, including award-winning AAA titles such as EA’s NBA Jam 2010, NHL11, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2, NBA Live ’95 as well as the indie award-winning title Retro City Rampage.
He is the co-founder of the School of Video Game Audio and has taught game audio students from over thirty different countries online since 2012. His new media works has been exhibited in cities including Surrey, Banff, Victoria, São Paulo, Zürich and San Jose. As a documentary film composer, he had the good fortune of scoring the original music for multi-awarding winning documentary The Corporation which remains the highest-grossing Canadian documentary in history to date. He has performed live electronic music in cities such as Osaka, Berlin, San Francisco, Brooklyn and Amsterdam under the name Freaky DNA.
He is an internationally renowned speaker on the topic of video game audio and has been invited to speak in Vancouver, Lyon, Berlin, Bogotá, London, Banff, San Francisco, San Jose, Porto, Angoulême and other locations around the world.
His writings and presentations are available at http://VideoGameAudio.com
Featured image: Courtesy of Vblank Entertainment (c)2014 – Artwork by Maxime Trépanier.
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Before Roland’s new TR-8 Rhythm Performer, a contemporary drum machine, was unveiled this year, the company released a series of promotional videos in which the machine’s designers sought out the original schematics and behavior of its predecessor the TR-808, an iconic analog drum machine from the early 1980s. The TR-808 holds cultural cache–most recently due to its use by Outkast, Baauer, and Kanye West–that Roland is interested in exploiting for the Rhythm Performer. The video features engineers closely examining the TR-808’s sound with an oscilloscope, trying to glean every last detail of the original’s personality.
Things were not always this way. Upon its initial release, the TR-808 was widely dismissed. Because it did not sound like “normal” acoustic drums, many established musicians questioned its utility and many ultimately disregarded it. However, its “cheap” circuit-produced sounds became bargain-bin treasures for emerging artists. Since its sounds now play such a large part in the landscape of electronic music, this essay takes a historical perspective on the TR-808 Rhythm Composer’s use and circulation. By analyzing how Juan Atkins and Marvin Gaye used the TR-808 in the early 1980s, I show how the TR-808 created a sonic space for drum machines in popular music.
Drum machines, though commonplace today, were once seen as kitschy tools for broke amateur musicians. As audio engineer Mitchell Sigman explains, the 808’s low, subsonic kick drum and “tick” snare characterized a departure from the realistic, sampled drum sounds produced by high-end drum machines in the early 1980s. The 808 uses analog oscillators and white noise generators to make sounds resembling the components of a drum set (kick, snare, hi-hats, etc.) And, although these sounds are now commonplace, most contemporary artists use them precisely because they sound robotic, not because they sound like drums. Even though the 808 at first seemed a failed imitation of “real” drums, the comparatively low cost of the 808, which originally retailed around $1,195, attracted musicians who were unable to afford other similar machines such as the LinnDrum that retailed at more than twice that price. Roland advertised the machine as a “studio” for musicians on a budget and even as they began to disinvest from the 808–as testified by the company’s decision to invest in marketing and research for other products–the 808′s so-called noises began their movement into mainstream American popular culture. In Detroit, electronic musician Juan Atkins, now known as one of the innovators of Detroit Techno, began experimenting with the machine’s sonic capabilities as early as 1981, while other artists such as Afrika Bambaataa were also using it in the Bronx by 1982.
A landmark year for the 808, 1982 saw the release of Juan Atkins’ “Clear” and Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” tracks that illuminate the key features each musician realized in the 808. For Atkins, the machine was something he felt could embody his early career; Atkins’ use of the 808 represented a pivotal moment in the American musical landscape, in which the futurism of the sound of synthesizers echoed other segments of the nation’s sonic imagination. Gaye’s use of the 808 was a clear departure from his body of Motown work. Although the instrument enabled different sorts of experimentation for the two, the new sorts of sounds the machine produced allowed them both to explore new possibilities for musical meaning. Just as Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco argue in Analog Days that analog synthesizers required validation by musicians such as Geoff Downes and Keith Emerson a decade before, the 808 broke into the mainstream through artistic experimentation.
In the early ‘80s, Juan Atkins was learning all he could about electronic music. As an able musician and the son of a concert promoter, Atkins was poised to couple his musical knowledge with a new breed of electronic musical instruments such as the 808. Together with a tightly knit group from Detroit, Atkins succeeded in promoting techno from a subculture to part of a global dance music scene. According to Atkins, the popularity of Detroit Techno came from its adoption in European urban centers like London and Berlin, which lent the music additional meaning stateside. In an interview with Dollop UK, Atkins emphasizes that the 808 was central to this musical development, as he calls the 808 (among other machines) “the foundation[s] of electronic dance music.”
Under the moniker of Cybotron, Atkins released the song “Clear” in 1982. “Clear”’s proto-techno soundscape pushes the 808 to the front of his mix, and provides the track’s backbone. The solid, resonant kick, swishy open high hat, and the piercing snare are decidedly machinic, departing from most rhythmic trends in popular music to date, since, as music scholar John Mowitt points out, a sense of “human feeling” comes hand-in-hand with drumming.
Atkins embraced these machine sounds and considered the 808 his “secret weapon.” Its ability to be programmed, manipulated, and warped on the fly lent it a very particular kind of performance and music making that Atkins exploited. Rather than rely on the breaks that DJs could find on records, the 808 allowed Atkins to create beats to his own liking, placing kick, snare, and hi-hat hits where he found them to be most effective. Because of this flexibility, the kitsch of the 808′s sounds empowered the difference between his music and other artists’ creations. The breaks Atkins produced on the 808, for example, were obviously impossible to find on vinyl.
As Bleep43, an online EDM collective, notes, Atkins’ vision for electronic music would eventually pick up in London, where he relocated in the late eighties. Although Detroit Techno had achieved regional success in the US, record sales and performance dates in London signaled techno had found a larger audience abroad. Although Atkins considers himself an eclectically “Detroit” artist, he recognizes the impact of his work globally, and thinks of the modern Berlin flavor of minimal techno as a notably clever offshoot.
Marvin Gaye’s struggle with depression, drug use and relationship issues were the context for the subtle and understated 808 rhythmic backing he used in “Sexual Healing.” Gaye’s use of the 808 in “Sexual Healing” differs vastly from Watkins’ in “Clear,” operating as a tool of texture and punctuation from the noticeable timbric changes to the clever placement of handclaps and clave in the composition. While Gaye recovered from his personal crises in Belgium, Colombia Records sent him an 808 because it was more portable than a studio drummer. It also offered sonic capabilities new and exciting to Gaye’s seasoned ears.
The drum machine’s prevalence in “Sexual Healing” shows how culturally marginal sounds move into mainstream musical culture. Gaye and his producers, already squarely in the center of popular American music, experimented with the sound of the 808 not in an attempt to break through, but rather to exercise musical flexibility. Since he was already an extremely successful pop artist, Gaye’s use of the 808 marks him as a sonic risk-taker and innovator, weaving the machine sounds of the 808 seamlessly but noticeably into R and B.
The machine’s normally powerful snare is invoked only at the quietest of velocities, often being replaced by the now iconic handclap. Unlike many contexts in which the 808 is heard such as “Clear” and Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock,” “Sexual Healing“ manages to keep everything low key. Matching the lyrics that espouse peace, harmony, and sense of internal struggle (Whenever blue tear drops are falling/And my emotional stability is leaving me/Honey I know you’ll be there to relieve me/The love you give to me will free me), Gaye uses the 808 to evoke a surprisingly contemplative and serene atmosphere. It is this use that best shows the machine’s strange versatility, as both a harbinger of radically innovative musical genres and its ability to produce tranquil rhythmic textures for popular music.
Although Atkins and Gaye’s work exemplify the TR-808’s early adoption, a long road toward mainstream popularity remained because of Roger Linn’s more “realistic” sampled drums sounds included in his high-end machines. The LM-1 and its successors (famous for hit singles like Billy Idol’s “White Wedding”, Hall and Oate’s “Maneater,” and Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry”) made sampled drums the gold standard of computerized rhythmic backing. In fact, Roland’s next drum machine, the TR-909, implemented samples alongside synthesis. As a result, 808s couldn’t be given away until musical innovators gave its sounds gravitas (Sigman, 2011, 46).
The 808′s shift from sonically trashy and undesirable to ostensibly hip signifies a culturally important moment within the history of music technology. As shown in the examples above, subtle moments of economic, emotional, and geographic necessity seeded the popular music industry for the eventual 808 boom today. When techno eventually broke through to global popularity, the 808 was so fundamental to the canon of the genre that it has managed to retain a place of fundamental sonic importance for musicians and producers.
11:40, 6/11/14: This essay was re-edited for clarity, grammar, and flow by Jennifer Stoever.
Ian Dunham is a musician and music scholar originally from northeast Ohio. He earned a B.S. from Middle Tennessee State University in the Recording Industry within the College of Mass Communications, and then worked as a recording engineer in Nashville and Germany. Afterward, he earned an M.M. in Ethnomusicology from the University of Texas at Austin, where he also operated a home recording studio. He will start a PhD in Media Studies at Rutgers in the fall, where he will pursue research related to music and copyright.
Featured image: “1980 Roland TR-808” by Flickr user Joseph Holmes, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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