The Silent Sounds

On July 4th of 2012, I saw a band at a backyard show in Nacogdoches. Struck by their unique live performance, I asked to schedule an interview with them. Both band members worked full-time and in different cities; it took several months before I had enough material to merit a post, and by that time the blog reboot was underway. Though the band is now nebulously defunct, one member having moved to Austin, I think how they conducted their live shows demands mention.

Silent Sounds

 

If Austin is the Live Music Capital of the World, the Live Music Badlands of that world are East Texas. It is a land divorced from civilization; a land the soothsingers bid travelers to avoid in hushed voices, where phonascetics go to test their faith. The few musicians, eking out a living in the elements, are either jazz crews catching a break at the patio of a hotel bar, country bands pushing through another round of Texan towns, or evanescent groups of 16-year-olds playing music only other 16-year-olds could appreciate.

Chris Ahrens and Adam Lamar make up the The Silent Sounds, a different kind of band. Their style of music is heavy on guitar and samples, and could be compared to Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Mogwai or Stars of the Lid. But what truly sets them apart is the way their music reaches the audience. Instead of using speakers, they transmit their music by radio to their fans, who are asked to bring receivers and headphones. This allows them to play practically anywhere, without violating the Noise and Vibration laws of Chapter 34 Article V of the Nacogdoches Code of Ordinances. They’ve played small, singularly personal shows in the middle of neighborhoods, in local stores, coffee shops and in the middle of parks, without a peep.

 

How did the headphone idea develop?

Adam: It would probably be cooler to say something like, “Since most people these days digest music through an iPod, blah blah blah,” but honestly, it was more of a joke when we first talked about it. The idea just kept growing on us, and then one day I got a message from Chris that said, “Well, I just bought a transmitter.”

Besides avoiding city ordinances, does it allow you to do anything that would be difficult to pull off using speakers?

Adam: Even what’s in the live sets now is always going to be more noticeable in the headphones as far as left/right separation goes. It’s also easy for us to do guerrilla shows since we can get in and out of a place quick, and no one really knows what we’re doing unless they saw the Facebook post and brought a radio.

What’s it like running a band in a small town?

Chris: The main problem with operating in a small town is the lack of music venues. In Nacogdoches there are bars that have bands, but none that were designed with musical performances in mind. One of the best things about a small town is the community. We know most of the producing musicians around and the small community lends itself to many collaborative projects.

Adam: It can be frustrating when people don’t go to a bar to see a band. They just go to the bar and you just happen to be playing there.  We’ve both played in regular, you know, band-type bands, so we’ve been through that. This project is different enough that there’s a level of novelty to it that creates a general interest, but it’s also different enough that a lot of people just don’t get it. We’ve got a handful of people that like what we do and they really like it. As long as you’re making music you enjoy, it doesn’t matter how many people come out to the shows.

List your equipment.

Adam: Our setup is super simple — two guitars, a Macbook running Ableton Live and another one running Mainstage. We control Ableton during the set with a Novation Launchpad, and I’ve also got a Morley A/B switch in my guitar line so I can change presets during songs. The second Macbook is also running an Ableton session with more vocal samples, and it’s all MIDI mapped to a couple of KORG Nano controllers.

Where do you find the visuals for your shows?

Adam: From the $5 DVD bin at Walmart. Anything that has four or more black and white movies for $5 is a must buy.

Where do you guys draw inspiration from?

Adam: You can usually tell where my head’s at by keeping an eye on what I’m adding to our Spotify playlists. But good music always inspires me. Not necessarily in an “I’m gonna copy that” way, but more like the opposite of not wanting to work on music after having to listen to a shitty pop station for eight hours at the office. And then there’s days when Chris hands me a stack of 10 songs and says, “This is what I did this weekend.” I guess you could call that inspiration by demoralization. But if I had to just list people who use loopstations, then Dub FX and Lowercase Noises would be near the top.

Chris: Adam and I draw a lot of inspiration from each other. He has a more mechanical precise approach to music. I’ve never seen someone more focused on achieving a specific sound. He has an idea and he has the ability to reproduce it with tools. I, on the other hand, have a much looser approach. I like to push buttons and turn knobs. I may not know what I’m looking for but I always know it when I find it. I try to stay loose so that I can create happy accidents.
When it comes to music I would have to say that my musical inspirations are drawn mainly from the Butthole Surfers, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Built to Spill, the Mercury Rev and Dan Deacon.

Anything else you want to mention/promote/give advice about?

Adam: I’m mixing a record for The Sabotage Manual out of Austin. It’s good. You should get it when it comes out.
Also, Tim and Leela Bryant at The Runaway Mule have been big supporters since day one. They sell our CDs as well as stuff from other Nacogodoches artists. And they let us play live in their store. Go buy stuff from their website. There’s a page of links on our website. Everyone on there are pretty cool people.

 

Check out their website at TheSilentSounds.com and listen to their latest album below.

“Drench with your splendor me”

I could listen to this all day.

The man in the video is Douglas Shaw aka Sleepy Doug Shaw aka Highlife. His music career seems a bit sparse from the research I’ve done; recording things here and there and performing with groups such as “Gang Gang Dance” (website) and “White Magic” (listen here). He released an EP as Highlife called “Best Blest” (read about it here).

The instrument he is using is called a shruti box.

 

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PLOrk

What is PLOrk? It stands for Princeton Laptop Orchestra. Sounds goofy right? That because it is. It’s also a really cool idea with a ton of potential.

A professor at Princeton wrote a custom programming language for laptops specifically to interact with custom made speakers with 5 or 6 channels of sound. Watch the video below for a brief overlook on what PLOrk is all about.

Here is a slightly more in depth look at the orchestra and its inner workings.

So, is this going to be the next generation of large ensemble musical performance? Will we start seeing laptop orchestras popping up around the world or is it just a novel idea that is going to fizzle out?

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Sixto Rodriguez Is No Longer Missing

My ears have been increasingly inundated over the years with the smooth, and not-so-smooth, melodies of the great Indie music machine. But sometimes it’s too much. Sometimes I can’t take the musical aptitude of so many cusp-artists, and the excitement of musical exploration crashes, and I give up.
It is only fitting that the last time this occurred, and my desire for the inevitable search of “the new” subsided, a man of Detroit’s own 1960s motown glided, oh so sensually, out of history and into my lap. Well, maybe not my actual lap. But here’s to hoping.

Sixto Rodriguez, known by some as “Sugarman”, is finally entering musical stardom some 40 years after his original album and first attempt at breaking onto motown’s scene in the late 1960s.
The catalyst for Sugarman’s resurrection was “Searching for Sugarman” — a Swedish-British documentary directed by Malik Bendjelloul. The film won a number of awards, including an oscar for Best Documentary in the 85th Academy Awards as it detailed the journey of Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman and Craig Bartholomew Strydom, two Cape Town Sugarman fans bent on solving Sixto’s enigmatic disappearance. And apparently they did. Finding him alive, a Sugarman revivial took hold and landed Rodriguez, at 70 years old, back on the stage.

Sixto’s work began early. He recorded his first album, “I’ll Slip Away”, in 1967 on the Impact label. Sadly, to no musical avail. He then joined sexy forces with Funk Brothers’ bass player, Bob Babbitt, and in 1969 recorded “Cold Facts” which would be released finally in March 1970. It included the hit aptly named “Sugar Man.”

The Facts piqued interests much more than his first attempt, as the album explored a psychadelic realm that the likes of Led Zeppelin hadn’t yet ventured.

In the golden age of governmental and societal protest through song, before misguided anarchy and angst spilled out of the mouths of babes like Green Day’s nauceously iconic “American Idiot” (don’t even attempt to defend them), Rodriguez stood among classic anti-establishment artists with songs like “Establishment Blues” and “Hate Street Dialogue.” He encapsulated the social unrest of the time in lines like “I’ve seen Hate Street’s hanging tree.”

And Establishment Blues proves to be a canon of Rodriguez’s own social disapproval — sentiments shared by many then and now.

“Garbage ain’t collected, women ain’t protected
Politicians using people, they’ve been abusing
The mafia’s getting bigger, like pollution in the river
And you tell me that this is where it’s at.”

“Gun sales are soaring, housewives find life boring
Divorce the only answer, smoking causes cancer
This system’s gonna fall soon, to an angry young tune
And that’s a concrete cold fact.”

His “inner-city poetry” and political jabs written so long ago can still be applied to topics of our time, “Like his poke at the pope’s stance on birth control, and his plaints about corrupt politicians and bored housewives,” as a Huffington Post entertainment article explains.

While now back on some stages, Rodriguez’s current fight persists in his demand of the royalties accrued during his absence, when his music became increasingly popular in South African culture and society. But Rodriguez isn’t giving up or leaving anytime soon. He tried that once and it only worked for 40 years. I am hopeful, even at 70 years old as he struggles to reach those notes he once slid out so perfectly, that Rodriguez will regain his footing again in music’s history.

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Turning Things into Musical Things

Eight years before ex-Talking Heads member and general weirdness guru David Byrne was collaborating with St. Vincent on Love This Giant and four years before he reunited with Brian Eno to make Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, he was busy scurrying around a warehouse in Minnesota, setting up small machines at different parts of the building.

Byrne installed air compressors, hammers, and motors onto the water pipes, heating systems, plumbing, and metal girders in the infrastructure of the Aria, a historical warehouse in Minneapolis that serves as an event center. Each of these machines corresponded to the keys of a centrally-located, retrofitted organ to make an instrument capable of making a variety of mostly unsettling and echoey whistles, clacks, rattles and hums.

Byrne repeated this process with three other buildings across the world: at the Färgfabriken in Stockholm (2005), the Battery Maritime Building in New York (2008), and the Roundhouse in London (2009).

The one that remains my favorite aesthetically is the Roundhouse.  The organ lies in the dead center of the bottom floor of the cylindrical building, out of which the wires explode out and hang on the small machines Byrne installed, creating a polychromatic spider’s web.   It goes a little something like this:

This set-up makes me want to see what you could do visually with this concept.   Instead of motors, the keys could be connected to projectors that display different constellations on the ceiling against a projected sea of stars, or spectrums of light on a central object.  I’ll keep thinking about it.

I was reminded of “Playing the Building” – the name of this series of installations – by this video of the pianist Hauschka playing his augmented piano in InCase’s Room 205.  The Room 205 project, which sets up venues to the unique specifications of each episode’s featured artist, has a few other neat videos as well.  I’d at least suggest checking out Daedelus’ very blue videos.

Keep it tasty.

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February Album Writing Month

It’s almost February which means its almost time for another FAWM! FAWM stands for February Album Writing Month (their website here) in where you are challenged to write 14 original songs in the month (usually 28 days) of February. It’s a very encouraging way to push yourself into creating music (especially if you’re like me and need a little creative shove). In order to officially participate in FAWM you must create an account on their website. When you create an account you are encouraged to upload your songs to track your progress – a way to stay accountable for your work. FAWM provides the ability to stream your songs publicly making it really easy to check out all the other “fawmers” songs and gives you the ability to send and receive commentary on work that is being submitted.

My brother Ben (also a writer on The Tasty Beast) and I have participated in years past and have really enjoyed it. If you are interested at all in making music you should definitely think about participating in FAWM this year. The community is really great and very encouraging.

Also, if you are curious how I am doing or in Ben’s progress go to the FAWM website click on “Fawmers” at the top of the page and then type in either “Ben Lowe” or “Josiah Lowe” to access our songs and monitor our progress.

Contact me if you are participating this year and we can cheer each other on! Maybe even do a collaboration!

The Suzuki Omnichord (and friends)

I have a lot of fun little instruments. They range from toy pianos and kalimbas to cheesy Casios and homemade noisemakers like the Atari Punk Console. Of all of my novelty instruments, however, my Omnichord is probably my favorite. These were made by Suzuki in the 1980s, and came in a few different models. It was eventually replaced by the digital (and much less cool) Suzuki Q-Chord. Omnichords are a bit harder to find these days. They have a sweet lo-fi nintendo/casio-ish sound that I find very appealing. Plus there’s nothing else quite like them.

What is an Omnichord?

The Omnichord is an electronic instrument that has a few similarities to an autoharp. The primary feature being the ability to press a button that corresponds to a chord, and then strum that chord with the other hand. In addition to the Omnichord’s “strumplate” and chord buttons, Omnichords also have various drum rhythms and a tempo control. The chords can play along with these patterns with a walking bassline, or simply sustain throughout. The strumming can then be manipulated over the top of this accompaniment. This makes for some fun little arrangements. Some later models offer more voices for the strum sounds and even enable the Omnichord to be used as a midi controller.

Why Omnichord?

There are many things to like about this instrument. People may like it for the way it sounds, the design, or simply the uniqueness of it all coming together in such a package. For me though, something I really like about the Omnichord is as an aide to songwriting. There is something very exciting about exploring different chord progressions and playing with the cool and chippy sounding drum patterns that really helps that creative spark in me. Many artists have used the Omnichord to great effect, either as a featured instrument or as a shimmering addition to an already full arrangement. Below are a few vids of some Omnichords in action.


Omnichord alternatives?

There are not too many things that do what the Omnichord does quite as well as the Omnichord does it. However, there are a few things of note that should be mentioned here. First, the Omnichord is actually not the first of its kind. It is actually the successor to the Suzuki Tronichord. These are incredible rare and hard to find, but if you get the chance, I would certainly snatch one up. The other offering, like mentioned earlier in the article, is the Suzuki Q-Chord. These look very similar to the Omnichord, and have the same basic features of chord selection and strumplate. These also all feature midi capabilities (of which only the later models of Omnichords have) and a song cartridge for playing along with. While all the features of the Q-Chord make it sound like it would be an improvement on the Omnichord, something about this most recent digital instrument just doesn’t have the same charm as the original.

Surprisingly enough, two other alternatives to the Omnichord can be found as iPad apps. These are the Polychord (Polychord App Store Link) and Chordion (Chordion App Store Link). Both offer the strumming and chord selection features of the Omnichord, but on the iPad screen. The Polychord app has choices of rhythms, basslines, arpeggiators, sound editing, recording, midi, and more. Chordion offers less features, sticking simply to the chord + strum idea, but sounds can be edited with vibrato and tremolo adjustments, and chord families can be made custom by the player to fit the song and layout of preference. Both are fun diversions, and offer something a little different from the original. I’d venture to say that the hardware form of the original Omnichord is still more appealing however, but your mileage may vary.

Omnichords rock!

If you ever have the chance to play an Omnichord, I’d highly recommend it. You might just fall in love with it. I did.

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Don’t Mind My Drone

Drone
1: a deep sustained or monotonous sound : hum
2: an instrument or part of an instrument (as one of the fixed-pitch pipes of a bagpipe) that sounds a continuous unvarying tone

drone bee

A drone bee. Not to be confused with drone music. Though also very cool.

Drone music and its derivatives have become a recent fascination for me. Previously, the idea of an unchanging tone that spans for the majority of a song sounded strange and terrible. However, I have discovered that the sonic possibilities and subtle harmonic shifts that can be found in drone music to be very deep and gratifying if dug into. Drone music as a relative of ambient and meditative music is also quite intriguing to me. The way sound can seem to slide into the background of one’s consciousness or be specifically focused on in the foreground may depend entirely on the listener, but I feel like drone music can easily be appreciated in both ways.

What I love most about drone music is creating it. There is something very simple and yet tangible about creating this type of music/noise. So today we will build a drone. We are going to use my Drone Lab, designed by Peter Edwards of Casper Electronics. This was built from a kit, and features 4 square wave oscillators, an effects section, and some tremolo features. You can read more about it at Casper Electronics or in my short review of the kit here. The advantages of using this type of hardware for drones (despite the fact that it was designed for drones) is the immediate hands-on nature of the sounds, the simplicity of the device, and the completely manual/analog nature of the tuning of each oscillator.

I’m going to break down a simple process of the way I sometimes build a drone and discuss a little about each element as it is added. This is a pretty raw and dirty drone, but illustrates certain points well. Skip to the bottom to hear the whole thing from start to finish.

First, we introduce a single tone, and then add in another one octave below. The notes are slightly detuned, creating a “pulsing” effect:
Part 1

Then we add in another tone, again slightly out of tune, creating more width and adding a lot more harmonic content as the voices phase in and out of one another:
Part 2

The 4th voice added is one fifth up from the original tone, creating a little more interest in our wall of sound:
Part 3

Here we add some pretty heavy distortion. This ups the harmonic content even more, and accentuates the pulsing of the voices:
Part 4

A simple low pass filter is swept over the gritty sound, revealing more nuances of harmonics and creating movement:
Part 5

Finally, some additional band pass filters are swept around and added in and out, again to create more interest and movement:
Part 6

From here on out, the drone continues by adjusting the above changes to some degree: voices are added and dropped, the tuning is adjusted between them, distortion amount changes, and low/band pass filters swept around. If you’re feeling adventurous, the drone in its entirety can be heard below:

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Balafon

If you are looking for something to get me for Christmas, look no further.

The talented man in the video below is playing a Balafon that was constructed by the guys over at http://baragnouma.com

Wikipedia:
The balafon (bala, balaphone) is a resonated frame, wooden keyed percussion idiophone of West Africa; part of the idiophonefamily of tuned percussion instruments that includes the xylophone, marimba, glockenspiel, and the vibraphone. Sound is produced by striking the tuned keys with two padded sticks.

Percussive African music is so inspiring. Hope you enjoy!

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Need to Slow Down?


Often I want to slow down a sample and make a texture pad from the result. Or perhaps when I’m looking for an interesting loop found through planned happy accidents. But at a certain point you can actually run into some limitations by how digital audio is captured. By stretching it with most typical audio software, you will start to hear the quick shifts in tone instead of a the subtle gradients that you would hope for. So for a long time, I assumed this could only be achieved with expensive and dedicated hardware. But once again the open source movement comes to the rescue with a piece of software called PaulStretch.

With PaulStretch you can easily stretch audio anywhere from 50x to 10,000x… or even with hyperstretch mode: 1,000,000,000,000,000,000x. Holy smokes! And you can hear the playback in realtime without intensive processing just to hear it! Its easy to turn 5 minutes into 5 hours. And this software does an incredibly smooth job. It is so much fun to play with.

So how is this possible?

This program doesn’t process the sound as a single piece: it cuts the sound in small pieces and process them. Each small piece is called a “window”. The size of the windows controls the size of the window in samples, which affects the frequency and the time resolution of the resulting sounds. The small windows have good time resolution, but poor frequency resolution. Also, large windows has poor time resolution, but they has great frequency resolution. Usually, a window of 7-12k is good for most music. Very big windows (larger than 100k) can be used for special effects (for smearing the sound very much and transforming it into a sound-texture even if the stretch is closer to 1.0).

I’ve enjoyed playing around with this and using them for instruments within Renoise. Its also been fun to stretch some of my favorite songs and to my pleasant surprise suddenly hear a sample that had been sped way up.

Check out some examples of the extreme stretching below.

Here is the windows installer (sorry no mac love!). Or if your really interested, here is the sourcecode.


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