Ugliness and the Coloration of Digital Sound

By Matt Rederburg

Things can be beautiful when they begin to fall apart. It is no secret that many of us find unpredictability a very musical thing. Most like it in small doses. Many styles of rock n’ roll are bettered by a player’s utilization of tube-based guitar amp and the breakup they have come to expect from it at certain volume levels. The effect of amp-breakup on the sound of an electric guitar can be a key part of the overall tone. Take a listen to “I’m Slowly Turning Into You” by The White Stripes, or strap in for the entirety of “Dopesmoker” by Sleep. These are just the first two examples that my iTunes offered up, chosen for no other reason than the fact that these songs owe some to their sonic signature to the abuse of imperfections in a signal chain. Although standard practice now, guitar amplifiers were not originally designed to respond in such a way. A shortcoming of design is now a preferable feature.

My intention isn’t to champion the virtues of the modern electric guitar, but to support the same attitude toward other instruments and sound generating devices. Perfection and purity will never escape the realm of subjectivity, so why not place value in a bit of ugliness? By testing the limits of a piece of hardware, you allow yourself to be surprised. You also might find that you give a voice to a piece of equipment in an extreme way. An ideal situation finds you at the threshold of visceral engagement where you respond to the gear as much as the gear responds to you.

I have only, and will only, ever perform in an era where digital synthesis and manipulation of sound is an accessible option. Sound leaves to digital realm to be heard by us, but there is a very deep reserve of processing options before that stage. There are so many exhausting branches to the analog (hardware) vs. digital (software) debate, and most just get in the way of actual performance. My experience has led me to believe that it IS, however, harder to coax a sense of randomness out of a lot of digital options. The randomness that I’m looking for, an arguably inspiring randomness, is the same sort that can be found in driving hardware past a sensible point of engagement.

Do we throw computers by the wayside and instead choose from a selection of hardware and instrument options that time has already deemed acceptable? Not a single one of my peers draws such a thick line in the sand. There’s no need for it, and this musical randomness isn’t always appropriate. What I’d like to suggest, to those individuals who perform with sounds that begin in a digital realm, is to be more adventurous with the exit route of these sounds. They have to enter the world at some point to be heard. What if instead of adopting hardware to reproduce these sounds as neutrally as possible, you place an item in your chain (after the conversion from digital to analog) that’s distinct in the way it interprets the material?

Just recently, I had the pleasure of being a part of the Integra Contemporary and Electroacoustics (ICE) ensemble lineup for the Fall 2016 season, and it was a fantastic opportunity to put this idea into practice. Admittedly, my choice to instrumentation started more as a question of “What if?” than a calculated attempt at routing digital sound through an imperfect signal path. When asked to establish what instrument I was going to contribute to the ensemble, I grabbed my Macbook and a Native Instruments Maschine – which is a piece of hardware with velocity sensitive pads, knobs, and buttons used to send MIDI data. With it, I figured I would have plenty of flexibility to trigger and modulate sounds using the partnering Native Instruments Maschine software. Surely I could find a role in the ensemble easily with so many options. I also grabbed an external soundcard to provide analog outputs for my digital sounds. Lastly, I grabbed a cheap karaoke machine I had lying around. The appeal of this machine is that it had two microphone inputs with independent gain controls. These inputs ended up receiving sound from my digital rig. The manner in which this karaoke machine interpreted the sounds I was sending from my computer completely changed my role in the ensemble.

This karaoke machine distorted quite easily, and at the most extreme amount of input it would break up in a way that completely obscured the originally timbre of the digital sound. You could “play” the machine, adjusting levels of saturation, clarity and internal noise (a product of a fairly cheap design) by manipulated the two input gain knobs in combination with the master output knob. It was fantastic, and I became very excited to perform with it.

Once I understood the characteristics of the machine, I became less concerned with the complexity of the sounds I was using in the digital realm. Stock, pre-packed sounds became a new animal when coaxed through the karaoke monster. At least once per performance my deliberate tweaking jumped sideways into the territory of calf-roping as I jumped to counter a surprising response from the machine. Sometimes the inputs had a poor connection, and signal would drop out until I performed enough of the usual jiggling ritual to bring the sounds back to life. It was an experience that demanded engagement as a performer. Never did I have a free hand. The best part of my instrument was the portion that was falling apart. I invite you to try it out.

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