For us there is no better sound than Funktion One. Powering the Space Terraza since 2000 and later taking over the whole club, Funktion One are responsible for the sound of We Love… Space. Fidelity, depth of sound, power and functionality are all paramount in their design. Below, Tony Andrews, owner and designer of Funktion One airs his gripes about the slippy slope the MP3 generation is pulling audio quality down. We couldn’t agree more.
Although the previous incarnations of our future sounds articles have focused solely on physical instruments, today we have a look at something solely software based. It’s caused stirs since first conceptualised in 2000 and is now winning awards for innovation across the board. The concept underlying Melodyne is Local Sound Synthesis. Peter Neubäcker, creator of the program, first thought of the idea philosophically, with the desire to free sound from time. The question was posed symbolically – What does a stone sound like? – relating sound to a stone, which has a form but to which time is not really relevant. From this question came the idea that sound may exist independently of pitch and time. The program it self varies from other audio processors in that it doesn’t work to make audio samples longer or shorter but instead to view the clip as a landscape where different sounds can be found in different time locations. That landscape can be travelled through freely with the pitch of the sound at any location being an arbitrary characteristic of that sound. This manages to isolate what have previously been defined as inseparable aspects of sound: pitch, time, and timbre. It allows users to do what seems intuitively impossible, to manipulate individual notes within chords independently. Check out the video below for a better description of what is going on…
Dub has been present in popular music since its early 70’s Jamaican reggae roots, also filtering into dance music in later decades, but never widely acknowledged for what it is: a truly groundbreaking conceptual art form equal in significance to other giant aesthetic leaps such as Cubism or jazz. It abstracts the essence of music and allows its creator to redefine and reshape boundaries for what might otherwise be a predictable form of expression. – Francois Kevorkian
Before there was dubstep – there was dub. Development of soundsystem culture took the pioneering Jamaican sound of Lee Perry and Errol Thompson and threw it into the social mix of early 1970s UK dance halls. A hallmark of dub music is the massively low-pitched bass and swirling sound effects which could be augmented live by DJs. The multi-layered sounds with echo and variation in volume create soundscapes, drawing attention to shape and depth, the space between the sounds.
Soundsystem design was competitive, with different crews building bigger, badder and deeper systems in order to outdo one another. One of the original protagonists in the field, Jah Tubbys, is still alive and well today. You know when a company is producing amplifiers with names such as the “Annihilator MegaAmp” – they mean business. Have a look over at their site. For the full range of amps and effects units.
Jah Warrior has a list of the “Top Ten Baddest Roots Dubplates”. It has audio samples of old 7″s which would rock nights such as Dub Club in Tufnell Park and Aba Shanti at the Blue Note. The battering-ram basslines would become trademarks of the roots sound in the late 70′s. “I began collecting records, ones which cost little then but have since come to be worth a small fortune. Dances were different in those days. They were more dread, with very few outsiders, unlike the wide audience which roots dances attract now. Most of the sounds were much heavier – you’d be literally gasping for breath because the bass put so much pressure on your chest.” – Steve Mosco.
Roots Rock Reggae return to heal our nation, cut out the negative rap vibration, bring again the Jah Sensation. Jah Rastafari!
I was there in the blitz and it’s come to me, relatively recently, that my love for abstract sounds [came from] the air-raid sirens: that’s a sound you hear and you don’t know the source of as a young child… then the sound of the “all clear” – that was electronic music. – Delia Derbyshire
Regarded by many as the mother of electronic music, Delia Derbyshire was a sculptor of sounds. The electronic music pioneer graduated from university with a degree in mathematics and music. On approaching Decca Records in 1959 she was informed that the company did not employ women in their recording studios. In 1960 Delia joined the BBC as a trainee studio manager and then requested to be attached to the newly created Radiophonic Workshop (whose most familiar contribution to the world is the Dr. Who theme tune) where she influenced many of her trainee colleagues. The idea was to have a department providing, at low cost, theme and incidental music plus sound effects for radio & TV series. Today some of this stuff sounds quaint and dated but Delia’s work stands out thanks to her ultimate resource – a limitless imagination. Delia combined her interests in the theory and perception of sound, modes, tunings and the communication of moods purely through electronic sources.
Deal or no Delia?
The Radiophonic department was initially always run by someone with a drama background. Derbyshire was the first person there of a higher musical qualification. However, much of her early work remained anonymous under the credit of “special sound by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop”. Delia was called upon to create music for any area where an orchestral composition would be out of place – the distant past, an unseen future or deep in the human psyche. Desmond Briscoe, founder of the department notes: “Workshop was then a very popular word among theatre ‘types’, and it gave away the Drama Department origins. It was originally going to be called the Electrophonic Workshop, but it was discovered that ‘electrophonic’ referred to some sort of defect of the brain, so it had to be changed! A board was set up to see that the place was run properly. Unfortunately, one board member had a doctor friend, who advised that three months should be the maximum length of time that anyone could work there, as staying any longer could be injurious to their health; like they’d go mad, or something.”
Recently an archive of 267 tapes has come to light including an experimental “dance track” which Derbyshire prefaces with: “Forget about this, it’s for interest only.” Orbital’s Paul Hartnoll says it is “quite amazing … That could be coming out next week on Warp Records … It’s incredible when you think when it comes from [the 1960s]. Timeless, really. It could be now as much as then.” She created her music before the invention of synthesisers using oscillators, signal genterators and loops, literally cutting, pasting and reversing segments of magnetic tape.
Delia fell out of love with the BBC in the mid 70s when her productions were being declared too lascivious and lustful for childrens television. She began to experiment in London’s psychedlic underground scene forming a band with founder of synth manufacturer EMS, Peter Zinovieff. Some of their gigs sound like crackers, how about the two-day “Million Volt Light and Sound Rave” at the Roundhouse? The association with Peter Zinovieff had already led to the BBC buying three VCS3s, and in 1970 the Workshop took delivery of an EMS Synthi 100 modular system. It was the biggest voltage-controlled synthesizer in the world Christened ‘The Delaware’, after the road outside the studios, it had 16 oscillators and even incorporated its own oscilloscope and frequency counter. As with the VCS3, there were no messy patch cords: instead were provided two 60×60-way ‘pin patch boards’. There was a digital sequencer too, which could store up to 256 events. The massive control surface presented a sea of knobs to twiddle, but one of them, labelled ‘Option 4′ was actually a dummy. Not connected to anything at all, it was occasionally tweaked to appease awkward producers who wanted to get ‘just the right sound’.
Her works from the 60s and 70s continue to be used on radio and TV 30 years after their creation. She has legendary cult status amongst electronic music fans in Sweden and Japan. Derbyshire is regularly cited, credited and covered by acts such as Aphex Twin and The Chemical Brothers. Its believed her infectious enthusiasm for experimental sound has transferred to others during meetings with Paul McCartney, George Martin, Pink Floyd and Brian Jones.
A complete list of her works has yet to be compiled, but amongst other things she has mentioned involvement in the earliest electronic music events in England – proto-raves perhaps? Before Delia, electronic music had a reputation for sounding ‘ugly’; she proved that it could also be extremely beautiful.
What we are doing now is not important for itself, but one day someone might be interested enough to carry things forwards and create something wonderful on these foundations. – Delia Derbyshire
The MP3 has become synonymous with downloaded music. But there are still people who refuse lossy digital downloads and would prefer to buy CDs to rip at optimal quality. MP3, AAC and other audio formats were designed to reduce the amount of data needed for a file to provide an accurate representation of an original recording. This enabled files to be sent over a low bandwidth 1990′s internet or packed onto the earliest low capacity MP3 players. They all use a form of compression through perceptual encoding – analysing the uncompressed waveform and using a model to work out which bits will be beyond the capacity of most human ears. This information can be reduced or discarded, resulting in a smaller file.
People who have naturally sensitive ears and/or who have trained their brains to recognise slight differences in audio quality (e.g. audio technicians, classical musicians) may spot flaws in MP3 tracks that most people would not. This is where lossless compression formats come in, for example FLAC which compresses audio without losing any data, so you can maintain the 16bit depth and 44.1kHz range of CD audio. However the results are considerably larger files than even the highest quality of MP3 (320kbps).
There is an argument that the MP3 and by extension the iPod, iTunes and Beatport et al are changing our perception of music itself. Thomas Edison promoted the original phonograph by demonstrating that a person could not tell whether behind a curtain was an opera singer or one of Edison’s cylinders playing a recording of the singer. Students of audio engineering and psycho-acoustics are regularly asked to take part in “double-blind” experiments, where even the person conducting the experiment does not know at first the MP3 from the file of higher quality to avoid subliminally passing the answer to the students. Each year preference for the MP3 format rises. Students prefer the quality of that sound to music of a much higher quality. The “sizzle sounds” of the MP3, it is a sound they are familiar with. It is perhaps comparable to a generation of people preferring the artifacts of vinyl – the crackles and pops. It was familiar and comfortable to them. Is this now the same with iPod lovers? Listening to music on your iPod is not about the sound quality of the music, and it’s more than the convenience of listening to music on the move. All that “sizzle” is a cultural artifact and a tie that binds us. It’s mostly invisible to us but it is something future generations looking back might find curious because these preferences won’t be obvious to them.
Of course, pandering to the market has influence here: If you are a sound engineer mixing for a mass market, these days you’ll tend to assume crappy reproduction environment for your target audience and you’ll mix accordingly, with lots of brutal compression and tricks to give the vague illusion of real bass. The resulting recordings do sound better in the MP3 formats on inferior equipment – not that they sound especially good anywhere. It’s the reason for the popularity of Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” which sounded substantially better on transistor radios than music from other producers.
Ye olde headphones
Time for a bit of history… Apple (and Microsoft) chose poor quality encoders with low quality defaults in both their respective media players of iTunes and Windows Media Player. Apple sold low quality sound files with Digital Rights Management, to stop people sharing the music. This encouraged people to burn the tracks to CD and re-encode them to remove the DRM thus reducing the quality further. The music industry has effectively encouraged the P2P file sharing networks where often the quality and encoding is unknown. Now an entire generation think this is how recorded music ought to sound. There is a comparison to fast food, such as McDonalds with the wide variety of low-bitrate music. A McDonalds hamburger has very little in common with a home-cooked meal. People are trained by exposure to expect certain sets of flavours or textures and will dislike anything of a higher fidelity (a meal made from scratch). Until people are exposed to higher quality music, and an appropriate environment to enjoy it in. MP3s will do enough to get the basic flavour of a song across. We don’t adjust our taste to that which is best, we like what we have already grown to like.
For most listening purposes, with most equipment and most ears, MP3 is perfectly good enough. Sure, use FLAC for archiving purposes – it makes sense to have a lossless master of your CD – but if you’re clogging up a portable player with FLACs or Apple Lossless files, then either a) you have superior ears, a headphone amplifier and seriously high-end headphones or b) you’re lacking in common sense. However, it’s not all about which sounds better, it’s which sounds different – how does the music make you feel?
Every so often a gadget comes around that manages to transcend the cheap plastic frame in which it’s encased. Little known Chinese firm FM3 have created an ambient loop-playing machine which has gained coverage in the New York Times. The $25 Buddha Machine is the size of a cigarette pack, with one button, an on-off dial and a rather small speaker. Inside is a chip containing nine digitally encoded music loops. The button allows the listener to switch from one to another, but that’s the extent of user control over the experience, leading some observers to refer to the thing as the anti-iPod, attracting music fans, design fans, gadget fans and those who view it as something of a fashion item.
Noise band Throbbing Gristle have recently released their own version designed in conjunction with FM3, featuring more loops and a wider frequency range than the Buddha Machine. They have entitled their custom box GRISTLEISM, with a tracklist featuring intriguing names such as Maggot Death, Rabbit Snare, Sex String Theory and Thank You Brain. GRISTLEISM is described as part Industrial sound machine, part noise instrument.
At a moment when the unused abilities of feature-loaded computers, cellphones and even microwave ovens pile up faster than we can keep track of them, it’s satisfying to know that once you’ve turned the Buddha Machine on, you are using it to its full capacity. From the Sunday New York Times Magazine by Rob Walker.
The Buddha Machine 2.0 comes in three colours: Burgundy, Grey and Brown.
Technology has always shaped the sound of music. The Loudness War has been fought between record labels since the invention of the jukebox. The competition would be to get your song heard louder than others on a jukebox set at a pre-determined level in a noisy bar. Motown records pushed the limitations of the vinyl format. The digital media of the CD has allowed increasing volume levels never reached with vinyl.
It’s true that in this day and age we listen to music in increasingly noisy environments and perhaps pay less attention to what we hear – it must be tempting for producers and artists to engineer their tracks to “shout” the loudest. Today, many people have music on in the background as they walk, drive, or sit in front of the computer. Making music louder simply ensures that they can hear the entire song, and maybe even pay attention to it. But it also means that music no longer provides the same experience for people who want to listen actively, rather than passively. The only way to blast louder than others is to make sacrifices in the original mix. You will notice that modern music can jump out from the tiniest laptop speakers, but often does not stand up to scrutiny on a good, loud, full-range playback system. The compression needed to keep songs competitive creates distortion and other artifacts in the sound. The techniques used to maximise the volume are damaging the music itself.
Volume is different from loudness, every setting on a volume knob has a range of loudness. Compression in sound engineering is the act of raising the quieter parts of a mix without necessarily lowering the louder parts. The only type of compression you hear in nature is that which your ear does to attenuate loud sounds, and so your brain associates this with volume. Volume is a psychological cause of excitement, a trigger to the fight or flight mechanism of the brain.
Highly compressed music with little or no dynamic range (the difference between the loudest and the softest sounds) is physically difficult to listen to for any length of time. The tiredness does not present itself obviously like aching muscles or weary eyes. This “hearing fatigue” is why you may notice you do not like to listen to modern music for long periods of time or prefer older recordings. The physical and psychological aspects of “hearing fatigue” cause stress and disinterest over time. The original excitement caused by loudness wears off over time.
The Beatles, Sometimes - various remasters over the years showing extent of compression.
The reason CDs were quieter in the past was that it took a while for it to occur to producers to try to hijack the volume control from listeners. People spent a long time mixing their music to sound just the way they wanted it. Typically, they didn’t want someone to take that music and make radical or drastic changes to it after hearing it only a handful of times in a mastering session. The job of the mastering engineer was just to balance out any inconsistencies and transfer it to the delivery medium.
The competitive arms race can be compared to rivalry in advertising where swathes of countryside adjoining highways and autobahns is covered in billboards. If one company is putting up billboards then yours must do so too, or else be over-shadowed! The question is: How long before record companies are making re-re-releases of records at a proper dynamic range?
Turn Me Up! is a non-profit organisation, which proposes to put stickers on CDs that meet high sonic standards.