Tag Archive | variability

Tape Hiss, Compression, and the Stubborn Materiality of Sonic Diaspora

In an article for Pitchfork, music critic Adam Ward reminisces about digital music files that sound as if they’re “being played through a payphone,” and calls the extreme compression of the low-quality MP3 “this generation’s vinyl crackle or skipping CD.” The crackles, hisses, and compression that characterize such sound files are what I term “encoded materiality.”  Focusing on the encoded materiality of the digital helps us to reconfigure our approach to sonic media, understanding how the compression of early MP3s and tape hiss remind us not only of lost fidelity, but also of the richness of exchange. These warm and stubborn sonic impurities, having been encoded in our digital listening formats and thus achieving repeatability and variability, act as persistent reminders that we can think diaspora beyond melancholy and authenticity, sidestepping the questions of purity and loss that so often characterize dialogues in the field of diaspora studies.

In Mechanisms, his work on electronic textuality, Matthew Kirschenbaum proposes a “material matrix governing writing and inscription in all forms” composed of four elements: “erasure, variability, repeatability, and survivability” (xiii). The defects of sonic technology that become encoded in digital files are one such type of inscription. Tape hiss and other recording accidents–such as Casey Kasem ruining your attempt to tape record the first Western song you fell in love with after leaving Hong Kong by fading the outro and butting in with his banter–achieve repetition and survival during the digital encoding process, becoming a welcome reminder of time and place. Such materiality helps us to better understand the politics of diaspora. It clues us in to how the elements of textual encoding (erasure, variability, repeatability, and survivability) become embedded within diaspora’s complex logic.

Image by DraconianRain @Flickr CC BY-NC.

Image by DraconianRain @Flickr CC BY-NC.

To think through these complex moments of exchange, let me offer a story about my experience with tape hiss. I grew up listening to music touched by this particular sonic grain: a ground level of noise upon which my sonic experiences were built. After I received my first iPod in 2005, I connected a tape player to the input of my computer, recorded a stack of tapes, and then manually split them into MP3s—pseudo-piracy committed in earnest. A few weeks ago, I dug up these same files and put them on my phone, once again returning the buried albums to their former glory on a constant rotation playlist. I keep returning to these particular files, rather than finding the now easily available digital versions, because I admire the survivability of their materiality. The materiality of these tracks allowed me to trace the complexity of my own history—the tape hiss is just as much a part of this history as the songs themselves.

After first moving to Canada from Hong Kong, my family and I established ourselves by unswervingly performing the same routine each weekend. We would have late lunch at our favorite dim sum restaurant, drive around for a bit, and then relax at home; there wasn’t much to do in the ex-urbs of Toronto. On those drives, we listened to selections from a stack of cassette tapes in the glovebox of our old Pontiac Bonneville. Sally Yeh’s 1987 album Blessing was on constant rotation and received its fair share of wear. This was one of the tapes I recorded to my computer, destined for digitization.

Because I hit the record button a few seconds early, my MP3 of Sally Yeh’s Blessing begins with a few seconds of silence. It’s enough to trick me into thinking that the song isn’t playing. In a quiet enough spot, I can hear that it’s actually tape hiss. No matter where I am, on the road or in the shower, my mind fills in the blank with the thick ker-chunk of the cassette entering that Pontiac stereo right before that familiar tape hiss would fill the car, always giving us a few sometimes-needed, sometimes-awkward moments of silence before the music started. The sonic texture of that tape stems from its material nature as plastic and metal. The hiss itself is due to the size of the magnetized particles on the plastic. Because of these sounds, the song tells its own story. It recalls our shared sonic and material experience as I migrate it from device to device.

Before Blessing made its way into our car, it was one of the few cassette tapes that my parents carefully packed into a dozen cardboard boxes and shipped by sea to Canada in the late 1980s. This was in the midst of the countrywide protests in China that led to the events at Tiananmen Square. That insistent ker-chunk of plastic on metal that my brain inserts every time I play the MP3s keeps my experience of the music grounded in this earlier history, too. Strange that a fluffy pop song would remind me of the serious political strife taking place on the doorstep of a Hong Kong nervously awaiting its “handover.” This sonic anchor’s ability to recall to me these snippets of history, both personal, national, and transpacific has been crucial in the development of my own diasporic identity. Listening to this particular recording of Blessing helps me to keep track of my self and my history.


The act of withdrawal that many of us perform in order to interface with our sonic technologies, as Alexander Weheliye shows in his reading of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man in Phonographies, can play a powerful role in understanding one’s own racial subjectivity. Weheliye focuses on the scene in which the titular narrator-protagonist retreats to a subterranean cave-like space to listen to Louis Armstong’s recorded, disembodied voice in complete solitude. He asserts that the narrator builds his own subjectivity through a recognition of the self by projecting that self onto Louis Armstrong’s “vocal apparatus,” that is, his voice coming through a phonograph (143). “The phonograph’s ability to disconnect the singing voice from its face, or rather to replace it with a technological visage, further heightens its materiality, which impels the protagonist to imbue Armstrong’s voice with a surplus of signification” (Weheliye 145).

More than a black and white photo or a stern historical lecture from the elders, the “heightened materiality” of the digital format, a type of “technological visage” cathects my own diasporic history most forcefully to the sonic anchor of tape hiss because it acts as a “voice without a face” in the same way as the phonographic Armstrong. But despite the privacy of the phonographic listening act in this scenario, Weheliye suggests that

the phonographic listening modality also bears the traces of sociality… since the listening subject is drawn out of him/herself by encountering the technologically mediated sounds of other subjects—we might even go so far as to suggest that the phonograph itself functions as a subject, especially in its interfacings with various humans. (165)

So it is with similar sonic technologies that can encourage the “eschewing [of] the social” such as iPhones, CDs, and, yes, cassette tapes. Like Ellison’s narrator interfacing with the mechanical apparatus that conveys Armstrong’s voice, the insistent “defects” kept on the digital file keep the mechanism of its delivery at the fore, allowing me first to understand that diasporic feeling of dis-ease—and to imagine beyond it.

Sally Yeh's "Blessing." Image used with permission by the author.

Sally Yeh’s “Blessing.” Image used with permission by the author.

What I gain from the digital yet still stubbornly material tape of Blessing is not any overt lyrical or thematic gesture to a diasporic subjectivity on the artist’s part, but rather an induction into what Giorgio Agamben calls, “the idea of an inessential commonality, a solidarity that in no way concerns an essence” (18), or perhaps a community based on “belonging itself” (84). Likewise, Weheliye’s “diasporic citizenship coarticulate[s] the national and transnational instead of playing a zero-sum game with political identification” (369).  If diaspora is defined by the perpetual desire to seek an imagined originary point of true identity that inevitably leads to melancholy, as psychoanalysis maintains, tape hiss and other encoded materialities turn the gaze away from the mists of origin, validating instead the development of diasporic identity in the aftermath of emigration. Of course, loss and melancholy are legitimate psychic aspects of the diasporic experience, as persuasively demonstrated by scholars such as David Eng, Shinhee Han, Anne Anlin Cheng, but they neither define the whole experience nor are they mutually exclusive to it. It is in this way that we can think of diaspora as a community of belonging by becoming.

A consideration of the stubborn ways that materiality is encoded in the digital helps us to think of diaspora as more than psychic fait accompli—it is also a ‘coming community’ characterized by the process of belonging. Kirschenbaum’s matrix provides the right foundation for a study which considers how material inscriptions are related to our diasporic lives. The inscription that defined my diasporic becoming came from the cassette tape that travelled across the ocean in a boat for five weeks, escaped erasure, survived repeated playings, became digital, and lives on now as a hissing reminder of our history of emigration. What else may we find about our own becoming and belonging if we attune our ears to the encoded materialities of sonic diaspora?

Featured image “Decayed Cassette” by darkday @Flickr CC BY.

Chris Chien is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English at the University of Southern California working variously in the areas of sound, diaspora and transpacific studies, all with a distinctly queer bent. He completed his M.A. in English Literature at Loyola Marymount University and his Honors B.A. in English Literature and Latin at the University of Toronto. Chris has presented papers on angelic gender fluidity in John Milton’s Paradise Lost and post-colonial affect in the work of Herman Melville and Amitav Ghosh at the Rocky Mountain MLA and South Atlantic MLA conferences respectively. He is currently developing a paper that examines the performativity of diaspora, masculinity, and the capitalist ethos in Eddie Huang’s memoir Fresh Off the Boat and its adaptation as an ABC sitcom.

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Musical Objects, Variability and Live Electronic Performance

This is part two of a three part series on live Electronic music.  To review part one, click here.

In the first part of this series,”Toward a Practical Language for Live Electronic Performance,” I established the language of variability as an index for objectively measuring the quality of musical performances. From this we were able to rethink traditional musical instruments as musical objects with variables that could be used to evaluate performer proficiency, both as a universal for the instrument (proficiency on the trumpet) and within genre and style constraints (proficiency as a Shrill C trumpet player). I propose that this language can be used to describe the performance of electronic music, making it easier to parallel with traditional western forms. Having proven useful with traditional instruments we’ll now see if this language can be used to describe the musical objects of electronic performance.

We’ll start with a DJ set. While not necessarily an instrument, a performed DJ set is a live musical object comprised of a number of variables. First would be the hardware.  A vinyl DJ rig consists of at least two turntables, a mixer and a selection of vinyl. A CDJ rig uses two CD decks and a mixer. Serato and other vinyl controller software require only one turntable, a mixer and a laptop. Laptop mixing can be done with or without a controller. One could also do a cassette mix, reel to reel mix, or other hardware format mixing. Critical is a means to combine audio from separate sources into one uniform mix.  Some of the other variables involved in this include selection, transitions and effects.

Jenn Lush (Home Bass), FORWARD Winter Session 2012, Image by JHG Photography (c)

DJ  Lush, FORWARD Winter Session 2012, Image by JHG Photography (c)

Because DJ sets are expected to be filled with pre-recorded sounds, the selection of sounds available is as broad as all of the sounds ever recorded. Specific styles of DJ sets, like an ambient DJ set, limit the selection down to a subset of recorded music. The choice of hardware can limit that even more. An all-vinyl DJ set of ambient music presents more of a challenge, in terms of selection, than a laptop set in the same style, because there are fewer ambient records pressed to vinyl than are available in a digital format.

Connected to selections are transitions, which could be said to define a DJ. When thinking of transitions there are two component factors: the playlist and going from one song to another. The playlist is obviously directly tied to the selection; however, even if you select the most popular songs for the style, unless they are put into a logical order, the transitions between them could make the set horrible.

One of the transitional keys to keeping a mix flowing is beat matching. In a turntable DJ set the beat mapping degree of difficulty is high because all of the tempos have to be matched manually by adjusting the speed of the two selections on the spinning turntables. When the tempos are synchronized, transitioning from one to the other is accomplished via a simple crossfade. With digital hardware such as the laptop, Serato and even CDJ setups, there is commonly a way to automatically match beats between selections. This makes the degree of difficulty to beat match in these formats much lower.

Effects, another variable, rely on what’s available through the hardware medium. With the turntable DJ set, the mixer is the primary source of effects and those until recent years have been limited to disc manipulation (e.g. scratching), crossfader, and EQ effects. Many of the non vinyl setups and even some of the vinyl setups now include a variety of digital effects like delay, reverb, sampler, granular effects and more.

With these variables so defined it becomes easier to objectively analyze the expressed variability of a live DJ set. But, while the variables themselves are objective, the value placed on them and even how they are evaluated are not. The language only provides the common ground for analysis and discussion. So the next time you’re at an event and the person next to you says, “this DJ is a hack!” you can say, “well they’ve got a pretty diverse selection with rather seemless transitions, maybe you just don’t like the music,” to which they’ll reply, “yeah, I don’t think I like this music,” which is decent progress in the scheme of things.  If we really want to talk about live electronic performance however we will need to move beyond the DJ set to exemplify how this variable language can work to accurately describe the other musical objects which appear at a live electronic performance.


Joe Nice at Reconstrvct in Brooklyn NY on 2-23-2013, Photo by Kyle Rober, Courtesy of Electrogenic

Take for example another electronic instrument: the keyboard. The keyboard itself is a challenging instrument to define; in fact I could argue that the keyboard is itself not actually an instrument but a musical object. It is a component part of a group of instruments commonly referred to as keyboards, but the keyboard itself is not the instrument. What it is is one of the earliest examples of controllerism.

On a piano, typically fingers are used to press keys on the keyboard, which trigger the hammers to hit the strings and produce sound. The range of the instrument travels seven octaves from A0 to C8, and can theoretically have 88 voice polyphony, though in typical that polyphony is limited to the ten fingers. It can play a wide range of dynamics and includes pedals which can be used to modify the sustainabilty of pitches. With a pipe organ, the keyboard controls woodwind instruments with completely different timbre,  range, and dynamics; the polyphony increases and the foot pedals can perform radically different functions. The differences from the piano grow even more once we enter the realm where the term “keyboard,” as instrument, is most commonly used: the synthesizer keyboard.

The first glaring difference is that, even if you have an encyclopedia of knowledge about keyboard synthesizers, when you see a performer with one on stage you simply cannot know by seeing what sounds it will produce. Pressing the key on a synthesizer keyboard can produce an infinite number of sounds, which can change not just from song to song, but from second to second and key to key. A performer’s left thumb can produce an entirely different sound than their left index finger. Using a keyboard equipped with a sequencer, the performer’s fingers may not press any keys at all but can still be active in the performance.

Minimoog Voyager Electric Blue, Image by Flickr User harald walker

Minimoog Voyager Electric Blue, Image by Flickr User harald walker

When the keyboard synthesizer was first introduced, it was being used by traditional piano players in standard band configurations, like a piano or organ, with timbres being limited to one during a song and the performance aspect being limited to fingers pressing keys. Some keyboardists however used the instrument more as a bank for sound effects and textures. They may have been playing the same keys, but one wouldn’t necessarily expect to hear a I IV V chord progression. Rather than listening for the physical dexterity of the player’s fingers, the key to listening to a keyboard in this context was evaluating the sounds produced first and then how they were played to fit into the surrounding musical context.

Could one of these performers be seen as more competent than the other? Possibly. The first performer could be said to be one of the most amazing keyboard players in the piano player sense, but where they aren’t really maximizing the variability potential of the instrument, it could be said they fall short as a keyboard synthesizer performer. The second performer on the other hand may not even know what a I IV V chord progression is and thus be considered incompetent on the keyboard in the piano player sense, but the ways in which they exploit the variable possibilities shows their mastery of the keyboard synthesizer as an instrument.

Well, almost.

While generally speaking there isn’t a set of variables which define the keyboard synthesizer as an instrument, if we think of the keyboard synthesizer as a group of musical instruments, each of the individual types of keyboard synthesizers come with their own set of fixed variables which can be defined. Many of these variables are consistent across the various keyboards but not always in a standard arrangement.

As such, while the umbrella term “keyboard” persists it is perhaps more practical to define the instruments and their players individually. There are Juno 60 players,  ARP Odyessy players,  MiniMoog players, Crumar Spirit players and more. Naturally an individual player can be well versed in more than one of these instruments and thusly be thought of as a keyboardist, but their ability as a keyboardist would have to be properly contextualized per instrument in their keyboard repertoire. Using the MiniMoog as an example we can show how its variability as an instrument defines it and plays into how a performance on the instrument can be perceived.


Minimoog, Image by Flickr User Francesco Romito

The first variable worth considering when evaluating the MiniMoog is that it is a monophonic instrument. This is radically different from the piano; despite one’s ability to use ten fingers (or other extremity) only one note will sound at one time. The keyboard section of the instrument is only three and a half octaves long, though the range is itself variable. On the left-hand side there is a pitch wheel and a modulation wheel. The pitch wheel can vary the pitch of the currently playing note, while the modulation wheel can alter the actual sound design.

As a monophonic instrument, one does not need to have both hands on the keyboard, as only one note will ever sound at a time. This frees the hands  to modify the sound being triggered by the keyboard exemplified via the pitch and modulation wheels, but also available are all of the exposed controls for the sound design. This means that in performance every aspect of the sound design and the triggering can be variable. Of course these changes are limited to what one can do with their hands, but the MiniMoog also features a common function in analog synths, a Control Voltage input. This means that an external source can control either the aspects of the sound design and/or the triggering for the instrument.

Despite this obvious difference from the piano, playing the MiniMoog does not have to be any less of a physical act. A player using their right hand to play the keyboard while modulating the sound with their left, plays with a different level of dexterity than the piano player. The right and left hand are performing different motions; while the right hand uses fingers to press keys as the arm moves it up and down the keyboard, the left hand can be adjusting the pitch or modulation wheels with a pushing action or alternately adjusting the knobs with a turning action. Like patting your head and rubbing your belly, controlling a well-timed filter sweep while simultaneously playing a melody is nowhere near as easy as it sounds.

At the same time playing the MiniMoog doesn’t have to be very physical at all. A sequencer could be responsible for all of the note triggering leaving both hands free to modulate the sound. Similarly the performer may not touch the MiniMoog at all, instead playing the sequencer itself as an intermediary between them and the sound of the instrument. In this case the MiniMoog is not being used as a keyboard, yet it retains its instrument status as all of the sounds are being generated from it, with the sequencer being used as the controller. Despite not having any physical contact with the instrument itself, the performer can still play it.

Minimoog in Live DJ Performance, Image by Fluckr Users Huba and Silica

Minimoog in Live DJ Performance, Image by Fluckr Users Huba and Silica

Taking it one step further – if a performer were to only touch a sequencer at the start of the performance to press play and never touch the instrument, could they still be said to be playing the MiniMoog live? There is little doubt that the MiniMoog is indeed still performing because it does not have the mechanism to play by itself, but requires agency to illicit a sonic response. In this example that agency comes from the sequencer, but that does not eliminate the performer. The sequencer itself has to be programmed in order to provide the instrument with the proper control voltages, and the instrument itself has to be set up sonically with a designed sound receptive to the sequencer’s control. If the performer is not physically manipulating either device however, they are not performing live, the machines are.

From this we can establish the first dichotomy of electronic performance; the layers of variability in an electronic performance can be isolated into two specific categories: physical variability and sonic variability. While these two aspects are also present in traditional instrument performance, they are generally thought to not be mutually exclusive without additional devices. The vibrato of an acoustic guitar is only accomplished by physically modulating the strings to produce the effect. With an electronic instrument however, vibrato can be performed by an LFO controlling the amplitude. That LFO can be controlled physically but there does not have to be a physical motion (such as a knob turn) associated with it in order for it to be a live modulation or performance. The benefit of it running without physical aid is that it frees up the body to be able to control other things, increasing the variability of the performance.

In a situation where all of the aspects of the performance are being controlled by electronic functions, the agency in performance shifts from the artist performing live, to the artists establishing the parameters by which the machines perform live. Is the artist calling this a live performance a hack? Absolutely not, but it’s important that the context of the performance is understood for it to be evaluated. Like evaluating the monophonic MiniMoog performer based on the criteria of the polyphonic pianist, evaluating a machine performance based on physical criteria is unfair.

Daniel Carter on horn during Overcast Radio's set, Photo courtesy of Raymond Angelo (c)

Daniel Carter on horn during Overcast Radio’s set at EPICENTER: 02, Photo courtesy of Raymond Angelo (c)

In the evaluation of a machine performance, just as with a physical one, variability still plays an important role. At the most base level the machine has to actually be performing and this is best measured by the potential variability of the sound. This gets tricky with digital instruments, as, barring outside influences, it is completely possible to repeat the exact same performance in the digital domain, so that there is no variation between each iteration. But even such cases with a digital sequencer controlling a digital instrument,  with no physical interaction, are still a machine performances; they just exhibit very little variability. The performance aspect of the machine only disappears when the possibility for variability is completely removed, at which point the machine is no longer a performance instrument but a playback device as is the case with a CD player playing a backing track. The CD player if not being manipulated physically or by an external control is not a performance instrument as all of the sound contained within it can only be heard as one fixed recorded performance, not live. It is only when these fixed performances are manipulated either physically (ie a DJ set) or by other means, that they go from fixed performances to potentially live ones.

Mala and Hatcha in Detroit, Image by Tom Selekta, catch him on Soundcloud

Mala and Hatcha in Detroit, Image by Tom Selekta

From all of this we arrive at four basic distinctions for live electronic performances:

• The electro/mechanical manipulation of fixed sonic performances

• The physical manipulation of electronic instruments

• The mechanized manipulation of electronic instruments

• A hybrid of physical and mechanized manipulation of electronic instruments

These help set up the context for evaluating electronic performances, as before we can determine the quality of a performance we must first be able to distinguish what type of performance we are observing. So far we’ve only dealt with a monophonic instrument, but even with its limitations can see how the potential variability is quite high. As we get into the laptop as a performance instrument that variability increases exponentially.

This is part two of a three part series.  In the next part we will begin to exemplify the laptop as performance instrument, using this language to show the breadth of variability available in electronic performance and perhaps show that indeed, where that variability continues to be explored, there is merit to the potential of live electronic music as an extension of jazz.

Native Frequencies at the Trocadero 2013, Featured Image Courtesy of Raymond Angelo (C)

Primus Luta is a husband and father of three. He is a writer, technologist and an artist exploring the intersection of technology and art, and their philosophical implications. He is a regular guest contributor to the Create Digital Music website, and maintains his own AvantUrb site. Luta is a regular presenter for the Rhythm Incursions Podcast series with his  show RIPL. As an artist, he is a founding member of the live electronic music collective Concrète Sound System, which spun off into a record label for the exploratory realms of sound in 2012.

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