Archive for the 'by David' Category

The Psycho-Acoustic Cinematic Sensory Ambush Effect

Have you ever watched David Lynch’s “Eraserhead” in a darkened theater late at night, with the sound pumped way, way up? The incredible melding of image and sound results in something more than either of the two could ever be alone. Sound designer Alan Splet‘s careful use of deep rumbles, distant industrial sounds, hisses, and early 20th century electric create a sonic landscape which ambushes the senses, colonizes the deep unconscious with its disturbing sonic accompaniment to Lynch’s stark black and white visual cinematic dystopia. Eraserhead’s post-nuclear industrial wasteland of factories, 1930s depression era housing and nightmarish visions which the main character Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) inhabits is all the more ‘there’ by virtue of exquisitely considered, measured and subtle sound mixing which does more than simply than bring the on-screen visual world to life.

Melbourne-based critic film maker and scholar Philip Brophy has written about the psycho-acoustic effect of film soundtracks in his essay The Architecsonic Object. The essay focuses on a case study around Dennis Hopper’s 1988 film “Colors“. His observation is that the film’s carefully organized surround sound actually directly affects the audience by immersing them in a kind of total sonic environment. And that the many overlapping individually spatialized sound track elements work together on a kind of subconscious level. He talks about sound in “Colors” helping to create a sense of the film ‘space’ by in part framing notions of environment as they are ritualized and experienced by the warring factions in the film, the LAPD on the one hand and the LA gangs on the other.

I had the great privilege to work with Philip on my 1998 35mm short film ‘Otherzone‘ for which he oversaw the sound design. We used six-channel Dolby surround sound for the final mix. Most of the sound elements had been assembled using Logic Audio software, in synchronization with a videotape of the 35mm edit which acted as the MIDI trigger for the many layered sounds. The slow and steady process of building sound track elements took time, and we were both conscious about how the music (by Ollie Olsen) and the sound in such a dense cyberpunk film would and should overlap and blur. The full effect of digital surround is truly awesome in a large theater with all the surround speakers doing their thing to fully ‘spatialize’ the six-channel sound track.

It was important to Philip that he originate most of the sounds himself. None of the FX came from sound effects CDs, rather being recorded from real life or from synthesizers and then processed on a PC. Phil’s sound effects database was based on a comprehensive list that I provided him. This was in turn based on the visual content of each scene. Every thing that could make a sound in our futuristic world did, and had a sound effect recorded for it.

Click here to read on his website about Philip Brophy’s rationale and working methodology for “Otherzone’s” soundtrack.

Just as good movie soundtracks marinate you in real-time in a sumptuous stir fry of sonic and psychological effects, massaging you with bass, treble and everything in-between, certain music genres also seek to place the audience in a certain psychological condition.

Here in San Francisco’s Mission District, deep subsonic bass speakers literally rattle the block at 3a.m. as cars slowly cruise by playing hip-hop. It’s a place where decades- old rituals of turf, music and dress sense play themselves out every day and every night. It’s a theater of street corners and shop-fronts, back alleys, thrift-stores and taquerias. The Mission is where immigrants, artists, activists, gang members, yuppies and a whole lot more besides congregate, rub shoulders, pass each other in a steady dance of the street. The place is alive with sound. Every person and most groups have a unique sound track – from car stereos, boom boxes and from shops, amplified playstation portables, ipods, and live street performance. The sounds all meld together like the opening scene of “Blade Runner“.

On street corners here Gospel music sung live by Baptists surge forth choruses; wave-after-wave of slow blues which profoundly move all but the coldest of hearts to tears. Reggaeton is ubiquitous – since the early 1990s, it has been a form which has hybridized hip-hop with Latin beats and in doing so has forged a uniquely global urban sonic texture which could arguably, like hip-hop itself only have emerged at the time it did. A time of personal computers, of global networks, McWorld, of a Latin set of identities framed by ever accelerating forms of international image and sound circulation. Reggaeton so totally about the street. It’s everywhere. Cars, trucks, stores, ice-cream vendors. It infuses the Mission with its intense staccato punctuated syncopated rhythms, defining the lived experience of urban Latin culture for most who live here. It’s a part of life, and it fully aims to be. As Obi Wan Kenobi says of the Force in “Star Wars” – “it surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together”. When urban music works, it is so much more than just music. It’s a cultural adhesive.

Five blocks from where I write, sometime in the early to mid 1960s, Carlos Santana once played live informal casual concerts outside his house on Shotwell street to passers by. When the Bay Area is most itself, the boundaries of the “public” and the “private” melt altogether. It’s the kind of thing that just cannot ever really happen in say Silicon Valley forty miles south. Mountain View, San Jose and Sunnyvale are definitely suburbanized, privatized cultural spaces by comparison. But Reggaeton is there too, just not in as obviously public a way.

Psychedelic music went out of its way to immerse the audience in a sea of sound effects and music ‘effects’ in order to invoke transcendental epiphany in its listeners. One could even argue it was the psychedelic impulse which was behind the amazing soundtrack by Ben Burtt when he went to such lengths to locate, record then manipulate the organic sounds for the Star Wars films. So dense, so layered and so profoundly otherworldly were the sounds in the original Star Wars film in 1977 that it was clear to see how the Northern Californian ethic of trial-and-error, experimentation, and a concern with how sound directly affect the senses (in other words, how much of a trip they were!) was behind them. Being a trained movie editor (the person whose job it is to layer a film’s soundtracks as well as to cut the vision) it is not by accident that George Lucas would in the 1980s and 1990s go to such lengths to seek to standardize high-quality audio playback for film viewing with his THX digital sound system, a competitor to Dolby.

Lucas is from the tradition of American experimental and underground film makers who recorded and processed sound in offbeat and totally incredible ways with their layer-upon-layering of images, like Bruce Conner and Arthur Lipsett (who like Lucas, named his films with almost random number/letter combinations) whose lineage reaches back to the Beat generation, and before them the Dadaists, and Surrealists.

John Cage staged musical compositions that were made up entirely of sounds made by ordinary objects, or no sounds at all. View a performance of “Water Walk” by Cage here for a 1950s TV show called “I’ve Got a Secret”. Ordinary kitchen appliances and household objects are performed like musical instruments. This is sampling done live on TV over half a century ago. See how baffled and taken aback TV host is, and how outraged and amused the audience is at what they assume is a big joke. But it is no joke. Thought out sounds, composed, layered and organized in meaningful ways can open up whole new dimensions, other zones.

Studio Death and the Distributed DIY Media Explosion.

Hello. My name is David Cox.

This is my first blog entry for MixMatchMusic so I’m starting it with a longer-than-usual general think piece about music, sharing, and the impact of the internet on the global economy of media production and distribution.

I’m a musician, writer and filmmaker and you can view my work at my blog:


User-generated, socially based distributed databases of writing, music and video content proliferate and multiply exponentially. “Audience” and “musician” as discrete categories are blending into a new entity – the maker-user. The prosumer. The digital share economy participant. Whatever you call it, the old boundaries are falling.

The wounded record industry is looking around at its own smoldering ruins pathetically trying to put the free flowing wine into cracked obsolete bottles. Bands now freely give away music, knowing full well that it’s the brand of the band – the very idea of say, ‘Radiohead’ that is really important now, not simply the music itself on its own.

PR and advertising – database-driven commercial propaganda systems – have subsumed what was once a solid manufacturing model for music, its production and distribution. The Hollywood writers strike demonstrates how the internet is eating away at the movie & TV production process in a similar way. Those writers want a slice of the youTube/MySpace/Google/Facebook/iTunes pie too, and those that won’t get paid by the old-school production dinosaurs that have paid them up until now will probably start their own prosumer media entities.

Studio death is everywhere. The population is making its own media, and sharing it over commercial and non commercial channels hitherto unthinkable in scale and sweep. Broadband, wireless systems and a plethora of ways to connect to them have pulled the rug from under the old system. Legal frameworks like Creative Commons, and well-funded private archival systems like make the process of making and sharing music easy, and in a growing number of cases even profitable.

The “medium is the message” as Marshall McLuhan once said, by which he meant, the medium you use is inseparable from the message sent using it. Emulators and plug-ins exist to digitally reproduce sounds once popular at other times. Those sounds evoke both those times and the cultural values which went with them.

Drum and Bass music could only have emerged in the mid 1990s when the PC hardware and the sequencing software to make it first became widespread. It gave rise to and was shaped by a cultural phenomenon. Electronica then was not just about music, but about the semi-anonymous circulation of music-as-evidence of a new distributed and global cultural underground movement based on drugs, computers, libertarianism and anti-authoritarianism.

1970s progressive rock is inseparable from the elitist idea of the musician as educated classical specialist. It was music for hippies and university educated baby boomers, who listened to it with the same reverence churchgoers have for hymns and prayers. ‘70s UK punk rock was a direct reaction to the ever-increasing decadence of prog-rock and the music industry in general and in particular the very idea that music was something which only certain special people could be allowed or skilled enough to actually do.

The early ‘90s US incarnation of punk rock (‘grunge’ as it was called by the mainstream) reflected a similar frustration with the limits of life and of the commercial nature of society in general. Punk’s fuck-you vocals and loud distortion guitar was all about absolute simplicity and the idea of DIY low-tech self-reliance as a complete philosophy of life. It was a revivalist movement about getting back to basics and casting aside all the frills and the bullshit. And it felt good to be a part of it.

Bay Area cafés at that time had sit-down terminals which for 25¢ per ten minutes allowed access to a text-only bulletin board system called SFNET. Instead of a videogame joystick on these terminals was a translucent rubber-covered QWERTY keyboard. The screen was a simple orange text-on-black type deal. Cafés united the creative population back then and computers were seen as ways to further that informal network.


an SF NET Terminal at Muddy Waters Cafe, Valencia Street, Mission District, SF, 1994

In this pre-web period, just being able to real-time chat, email and connect with café users across the Bay Area on SFNET as an idea in and of itself was incredible, and later when a telnet service to the internet was added to let you check your internet email it was even better. SFNET actually began as a way of allowing musicians in the Bay Area to connect and share information about gigs, recordings, and other info.

The web made SFNET with its 2400 baud phone modem connections a quaint anachronism by 1996 when it was quickly discontinued, but that initial impetus which prompted its emergence – the need of musicians to exchange information and music – simply moved elsewhere.

From the early days of the Edison wax cylinder recording systems through to the hyper expensive tape and wire recorders of the 1930s, recording music up until the late 1970s for most people was a costly and cumbersome process, and distribution systems were hardly ever widespread or equitable. In Russia in the 1950s, music lovers made copies of their favorite cuts of super-rare US jazz and rock music by recycling x-rays from hospitals to make flexi-disk copies. In the USA, a budding artist could go into a booth, pay 25¢ and record a one-off 45 vinyl record. These booths were called the Mutoscope Voice-O-Graph and were for many people their first experience of recording sound of any kind.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the cassette culture underground offered an alternative to the dominance of the music giants, and an aesthetic of Xeroxed art and liner notes accompanied these cassette ‘zines and music compilations.

In the 80s any kind of multi-track recording system was extremely desirable but also prohibitively expensive. And studio time, even for demos on 8-tracks, was priced at hundreds of dollars per hour. Today the same results can be achieved on any PC made in the last ten years with a sound card. I’ve found some such PCs on street corners with ‘for free’ labels on them!

Mail art, popularized in the 60s and 70s by art groups like Fluxus (which had among its members performance artist Yoko Ono) offered another use for the postal service, turning into an extension of the gallery system. Music and writings circulated in boxes and envelopes, and no matter how unpretentious and simple the packaging, every Fluxus item now fetches fortunes in the art collecting circuit. Value adding you see, special markets for those in the know, and all that.

So those of gen-Xers now look back fondly on obsolete tech for making music as reminders of a time when the same machines and instruments were well outside the realm of access and all the more desirable for it. We are hacker hobbyist collectors, I suppose, but we are also media archeologists, sifting through another kind of ruined landscape, the one where youth and energy fused with machines to make music which we thought, as all young people do would change the world. Every thrift store and pawn shop is a museum of the present and of the last thirty years, and every pawned effects pedal, hocked synth or guitar and every $15 recording deck evidence of a time when the struggle was as much to obtain the gear as make the music.

I have thus bought four cassette four-track decks in the last two years, from thift stores and flea markets and yard sales. One tascam unit which would have cost a week’s pay in 1995 was sold to me for the price of a burrito and a coke. But I like to fire up the old cassette 4-track to record a song every now again. Because, you know, the medium is the message…



I bought one of these decks for $15 at a yard sale last year. It works fine.

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