Audio Hell

I wish to coin a new phrase. Playback Hell.

Been working on an ep since 2011. Some of the tracks, I wasn’t really happy with, but the main stumbling block putting me off finishing them was that they sounded terrible outside of the DAW. I’d have them on my MP3 player and the bottom-end would be flickering up and down, all glitchy like. Some sections sounded dirty as if the DAW couldn’t handle the enormous bottom-end I was employing – very much like tape saturation. And instead of the reverb tailing off as it should, it would break down nastily as the volume ebbed. Something just seemed disastrously wrong.

So I reinstalled the mastering plug-in that I was using, to fix the reverb problem. Several times. To no avail. After much trial and error, I found that the default threshold setting of the expander in the multiband harmonics section was set too high. I know – it should’ve been obvious.. *rolls eyes*

That was the reverb fixed, but what of the rest of it? Too much bass? Really?

Ignoring this madness, I finally got the tracks to the point where I was convinced they were 99% complete, and listened on my MP3 player – I like to give them a few days of listening to see if there are any last tweaks to be done. Some tracks sounded fine.. some sounded awful. The glitching and saturation thing was still there. So I listened to them in the DAW and they were fine. I listened to them in the mastering app I use and they were fine. Jesus Harold Christ.

I then played them back in Windows Media Player (I still use XP) and they sounded.. awful. Must be the MP3 encoding, I thought, so I listened to the wavs in Media Player – still crap. Yes, I know it’s Media Player, but it doesn’t usually do this. Sinking feeling abounds. I relay this to someone and they suggest I listen back using VLC, as they’re not hearing the problems I’m describing.. I do and the tracks sound perfect, wavs or MP3s. Good old VLC.

What is the point of all this whining? Well, I guess I’m concerned that other’s playback devices/apps/whathaveyou won’t do the tracks justice. No one else who’s heard the ep has said anything about audio glitching, and it could just be that I’m in my very own Playback Hell, but it still concerns me.

My MP3 player is hardly a cheap thing – it’s a decent Philips device. I’d imagine Mac users won’t get these problems, but if you’re using Windows, get the lovely VLC – there are many reasons to use it, not least it being able to achieve the mighty feat of playing back audio as it was intended.

So, beware of your playback choices, because they may be interpreting audio differently to how the originator wanted. Which is pretty ridiculous.

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TGCD1

The lovely TG lightning flash, aka the Spiders From Mars backdrop!

Hmmm… TGCD1.

I’d read about Throbbing Gristle in an old copy of Spiral Scratch magazine I’d bought because it contained a detailed Bauhaus article. So enamoured was I, that I didn’t notice the TG section till later. Spiral Scratch was a record collectors magazine that would review bands and their discography in extensive fashion, which appealed to my obsessive tendencies. Not so much a record collector myself, but when I get into a band, I want to know all about them and I’ll get their back catalogue and listen to it for months and months. And months.

The article was fascinating – their whole aesthetic, their fierce independence and general ‘anti’ stance. I didn’t feel there was any meanness in what they did, no real message of HATE, but I definitely felt they were ‘dangerous’. And enormously compelling.

So I think sometime around 1993 I saved my pennies and bought TGCD1. I was skint and CD’s were expensive – I think it cost me £15 from Virgin – a small fortune to me back then. I got it home and with bated breath and great expectations, I put it in the CD player and listened. My face scrunched-up into a ‘what the fuck is this?!’ expression and I started hitting FastForward, hoping it would ‘improve’. It didn’t.

I wasn’t about to piss £15 away, so I gave it a good few listens, but still, I was unimpressed. On the whole.. The last 15 minutes or so, that was definitely much more interesting to my ears, though. And when the rhythmic synth line kicks-in at 32:20… woah. I realised there was something there. I remember sitting in the flat with the lights off, listening to that particular section and having an epiphany. I still thought little of the rest of the album, but that section was AMAZING.

Anyway, I taped the thing and took it back to the shop to get my money back. Food was more important than a disappointing album purchase!

Maybe a year later I came across a dirt cheap copy of Mission of Dead Souls. Being a lover of live albums, my interest was piqued again. And anyway, it was £6. This time there was no turning back, the thing was incredible, time had enabled what I’d gleaned from TGCD1 to do it’s work, as if I’d learnt a new language and suddenly it all made sense.

Needless to say, my collection now contains everything TG I’ve ever been able to get my hands on. Most of it, then. They became an enormous influence and I voraciously soaked-up everything I could find about and of them. Which was not so easy in the 90’s, when the web was not at all as ubiquitous as now and I was still skint! My ears and mind opened-up massively. Not that I was a musical ignoramus, but I definitely had my head up my arse much moreso than I did post-TG.

They influenced my approach to making music; my approach to using the studio – ever since I’d started making my own music, I’d always had that alternative slant that I’d picked up from my love of post-punk. ‘Playing’ the studio as if it were an instrument appealed to my love of sound and my general techy interests, so it was nothing new to me, but TG seemed to give me new found impetus to do so; they inspired me to focus more on the possibilities that my limited equipment offered. I say studio – it was a desert-storm damaged mixer (the roof had blown off a warehouse somewhere in the Middle East) that I’d bought cheap and repaired (I still use it), some guitar effect pedals, a domestic hifi tape recorder, a couple of drum machines, one of those crappy Yamaha keyboards you got in school’s music departments and a beloved Atari ST.

Making the most of what I had and making my own equipment became the order of the day. I’d always been interested in electronic music (having been exposed to ‘Oxygene’ and ‘Autobahn’ when I was little) and in the ensuing years, I became very interested in early computer music and musique concrète – I wanted to play with tape machines and vinyl.

By 1996 I’d met a like-mind and we formed Stray Dog City, a unit interested in improvisation within a framework, post-punk (ethereal or not), soundscapes, playing the studio, and being able to do it all live, which we managed to do with great success. I don’t mean we were successful in terms of a career in music, but that’s always been beside the point anyway. I just mean it worked, it worked well and I consider it a milestone of immense proportions in terms of my music output.

Is TGCD1 to blame for all of this? I’m not sure, but it’s definitely quite nice. You can hear it in it’s entirety here:

TGCD1 on the Youtubes

Interstices – an interval between things or parts

Not having any structures, plans or fixed ideas about performing can mean that I never really know what’s going to happen once I start playing.

To be fair, variation is in all performance, though less obvious in the outpourings of the strictest of performers, but the level of variation I’m referring to here is to the point at which I’ll only decide what equipment to take to a gig not long before I leave. And anyway, I’m normally running late. I may well put a lot of thought into the whole escapade – I’m hardly unthinking. Trying to get an old TR606 to reproduce dubstep patterns can piss the hours away.

The point is that every gig is different and sounds different. Mood, atmosphere, equipment et al, all conspire to affect the outcome. I stopped taking the laptop after just one gig, frustrated by the time it took for sequences to load and not really wanting to be a laptop pilot anyway. Of course, I could exploit Ableton’s excellent live facilities, but I simply prefer to use an instrument, like the sad old curmudgeon that I am. And of course, I’m sitting here now thinking I could make good use of the Mukebox… so maybe the laptop will make an appearance after all.

Slowly but surely I wend my way toward the point. I have not been working so much on my ‘studio’ releases for a good few months now, and as such have had little to say. Yes, I have a solo EP or two in the pipeline, but I don’t really want to churn them out like boxes of cornflakes – I’d rather work on them when the time is right, until they eventually see the light of day. But in the meantime? It would appear to most that I have little to say. A couple of side-projects have seen a lot of my attention, but Mutate has been mostly quiet.

And so it dawned on me that I should begin releasing my live performances as a series, that kinda runs as a separate stream to my studio releases. After all, I don’t even consider attempting to perform any of the material I decompose in the ‘studio’, choosing instead to simply improvise from scratch. No beats from fave tracks, etc. OK, so I might take the 606 and it might be pre-programmed with a beat, but it won’t be something I’ve lifted from one of my studio recordings. It will invariably get live-edited/messed-with while I perform anyway. (I say ‘perform’, but in reality I’m devoid of charisma and stage presence.)

So begins the ‘Interstices’ series – a slow trickle of live recordings, nicely mastered and released onto various netlabels and the like. When there is no latest EP to release, there may well be a new live release to fill the gap. If I have decent video footage, then I’ll get it up on Youtube. You can witness me making an enormous wall of sound, whilst seemingly doing very little. And I’ll probably look awkward, but hopefully ‘thoughtful’.

First up is the recording of my last solo set at Birmingham’s wonderful Ort Cafe. Mastering work is underway, so it won’t be long before it’s complete. Promise I won’t take forever.

Long live the gaps between!