Steve’s Super Surround Sound Space

Steve’s Super Surround Sound Space

            My class recently went down to the University of Washington district to check out a interesting studio with an awesome sound exhibit created by a man named Steve Peters. The room itself is kind of hidden, but that almost adds to it. Upon entering, you’ll be greeted by eight pairs of candles, two or so in each set, position atop eight speakers, which are covered in a light cloth, that gift you with the only light in to the room: an orange, peaceful low level light. Four of these speakers are snug in the room’s corners, and the others places against the walls. Your seating will simply be a couple of benches.

That’s all you need.

Place yourself in the middle if possible, and listen. Listen to the birds, the bells, and the songs of the people, and try to avoid throwing your head over your shoulder when a whispers creeps out, tempting as it may be. Use the rich stereo image to vicariously interweave yourself into the world it creates. Become the audience for the voices, as they are there for you.

I really enjoyed this exhibit. At first, I was wondering how long my attention would last, but I was greatly surprised by the loss of time: when my eyes closed, it captured me, and I was immersed. The whispers in particular, and ironically, stood out the most. Being so quite, it was very difficult to tell that the sound was from speakers, and it genuinely seemed like people where there with me, only to disappear if I attempted to look. In fact, if I did open my eyes after many minutes had passed, only to see my fellow students sitting so still, as if unconscious, it really emphasized the power of the experience, and now I want to create something with 8 channels of surround. For those of you in that area, I would definitely try and get in for a listen. Here’s the website: http://www.jackstraw.org/

As cool as it was, he’s not the only one doing this. Trimpin is another local Seattle sound artist who creates some interesting projects. He was actually born in Germany, but managed to find his was to the United Sates in 1979. Also, According to his biography page on his website, www.trimpinmovie.com, he does not allow his recordings to be “commercially released” or to be represented by a gallery or dealer. He does, though, have some previews there: http://www.trimpinmovie.com/#/selectedworks/

And just in case you’re not satisfied, here are two more artists/pices, a Jim Green the jokester: http://jimgreen.org/home.html and an interesting concept found here called Immersedhttp://sarahlayne.wordpress.com/2008/09/17/installation-concept-immersed/

Let’s Listen: Nine Inch Nails – Head Like A Hole

Let’s Listen: Nine Inch Nails – Head Like A Hole

            In this post, I analyze Nine Inch Nails’s (abbreviated NIN) Head Like A Hole of their album Pretty Hate Machine (1989) [Within NIN’s “Halo” chronology, it lies within Halo 2]. The song was produced by Trent Reznor, the only true member and songwriter of NIN, and Flood. It was written in 1988, and the album was recorded in various studios, so I can pinpoint the exact location. In a 2002 interview with Reznor, he says that he used a Commodore 64 more all the MIDI and sequencing through a Mac Plus. It was by far, Pretty Hate Machine‘s most successful song climbing up the billboard charts at the time of its release.

The piece starts out with percussion, mostly panned right, with a staccato like distorted blurb popping in the center after a few seconds. A massive kick and snare soon follows, temporally dominating the mix, accompanied by “singing children”.

The verse introduces a multi-octave, square like bass line that repeats throughout the song, the kick/snare remain in the middle, but have been pulled back. Reznor’s vocals also pop in here, which contain some reverb and delay. The second half of the verse also brings back the melody the children were singing, but much lower note wise and in the mix.

The chorus quickly fires into action with raunchy, distorted guitars blazing through where the main bass once lived, which is now only a clean bass following the guitar. The vocals are also intensified with harsh screams backed down a bit in the mix, cutting through with the passion. The second part of the chorus (or post-chorus) has the vocals cleaner with multiple takes layered together. An atmosphere synth is also included, predominately in the right channel. Another low level envelope filtered synth glues it all together.

The second verse mirrors the first with the addition of some extra sounds bouncing left and right in the stereo field. The voice also sounds like it has a touch more reverb.

The second chorus and second post-chorus remain the same.

The first bridge of the song brings the return of a similar melody/sound from the first verse and the signature bassline, partnered with drums made up of a kick, snare, high hat of sorts, and various blurbs of percussion here and there. There’s also a strange vocal like synth panned somewhat to the right. Actual vocals pop back in half way through.

The final chorus repeats.

The outro is similar to the post chorus with an extra, harsh background vocal for the first part, and the last few seconds of the song drop the drums, leaving a wordless vocal melody, “hue-hue”s, and the sound of the children from the intro.

 

One of the qualities of this song that really stuck out to me was the mastering. The kick and particularly the snare are very punchy, and help establish dynamics not heard in modern day recordings. The choruses are also pumped up in volume more so than current music. This is easily seen if you take a look at the waveform (shown in ProTools 11):

Capture

The clear spikes indicate varying levels of loudness. If mastered nowadays, this would be nearly a straight, flat rectangle.

 

Here’s the song in full 1440p HD:

 

 

Sources:

http://www.macworld.com/article/1001384/reznor.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Head_Like_a_Hole

Notebook from the actual CD case

A Brief History of the Progression of Audio Recording

A Brief History of the Progression of Audio Recording

Beginnings –

Humans first started recording sound over a hundred years ago with using a technique called acoustical recording. The earliest recorders, utilizing this method, worked with three basic components: a diaphragm, needle, and recording medium. When put together, the diaphragm moved in accordance to the sound wave, the needled moved with the diaphragm, and the sharp point traced a pattern on to paper, cylinders, etc. This pattern “held” the sound information. I say “held” because the quality was, of course, horrid, but it was a major first step in a new technology.

Thomas Edison and a man named Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville were some one the most important individuals to recording’s birth. While Edison is widely recognized as pioneering sound recording’s major breakthrough, Edouard actually beat him to it a little over a decade with his phonautograph.

Here is one of, if not, the earliest know recordings by Edouard-Leon Scoot, 1860, where someone sings “Au Clair de la Lune”:

(Alexander Graham Bell, known for the telephone, actually created a phonautogrpah as well shortly after Edouard, but his was a bit gruesome: it was essentially the same, but use an actual human ear and part of a skull. Yep.)

There were a few devices popping up to replace the phonautograph, but Thomas Edison’s phonograph by far took the cake, which was patented on December 24, 1877. This device not only was able to record, but had a separate needle for playback (playback, simply enough, work in the complete opposite order recording did). Edison’s phonograph used metal cylinders to record the acoustic patterns onto, however, the recording time was about 2 minutes with an unfortunate short amount of playback time before degrading in quality. The hi-tech decedents of phonographs are still used today.

Era of Tape –

While phonographs worked, a new recording medium was much needed. Enter magnetic tape. Tape as we know it was first invented in Germany by Fritz Pfleumer in the ’20s.  His tape was a paper of sorts with magnetic iron particles across the surface, which, when recorded to, aligned with the audio signal. This new technology allowed for easy edits, but the sound was still crap. Fortunately, the process of AC tape biasing was accidentally discovered (this is achieved by recording a very high, inaudible frequency over the rest of the recording), and the audio suddenly and massively improved.

Here a video going more into this:

This changed everything. For nearly half a century, this tape (a further improved, of course, but basically the same, nonetheless) became the number one medium to record to. The Beatles, Led Zepplin, and some of the largest bands to ever exist used tape. Even today, if one can afford to do so, tape is still considered a high quality recording medium, yet, it has its limitations, as physical devices do. A new technology was needed.

Modern –

While immensely successful, producers and musicians wanted more than what tape could offer: the limited typical 24 possible tracks, tedious editing, and other limitations drove us into a new direction. That new format being digital, and those magic “1”s and “0”s. While a few digital techniques, like digital tape from the 80’s, existed, the computer was the major player. Before, all the sound was recorded, mixed, and distributed in analog, meaning it never was digitized, but computers offered digitization of sound and, more importantly, incredible and rapidly growing computing power. Nowadays, one can do virtually anything to sound with a few clicks of a mouse that would otherwise be near if not completely impossible in analog, and tape has been replaced by hard drives. This revolution also brought electronic music to its full potential.

So, while this seems like a gift from above, the same problem that plagued the earliest of recordings reared its ugly head once more: quality. Now, digitally recorded audio quality may be many magnitudes better than what a phonautograph recorded,  it takes a lot of work and power to get digital to sound not digital, if that makes sense. The biggest worry is that digital cuts up the audio into thousands of samples a second, and that there’s a limit on the highest of frequencies it can record. Being so complex, things get really confusing really fast, and can sound bad if done incorrectly.

Here’s a video explaining more of the quality aspects behind digital audio:

I grew up on digital audio, right around the time when tape was starting to be replaced. Personally, I’m fine with what I have available: it works just fine and so much more. However, I would still like to experiment with tape, but the whole process is way too expensive, so I’ll just take what opportunities I can catch.

All in all, there are many ways to record sound, and things will continue to improve and change. All we can do is move along with it.

Some Sources:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_sound_recording

http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/edhtml/edcyldr.html

http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/audio/bias.html