Music is Noises – An Essay from my Degree Studies

The following is an essay I wrote fora course while at university. The course was Interrogating objects and the task was just to write about an object and what it ‘meant’. The course was nonsense (cultural studies) but fun in extremis. I enjoyed writing this essay. It may have errors, inconsistencies or innaccuracies caused by me being a dumbass. Also, this was written a few years back..so some opinions may vary.

Enjoy. (And ask questions)

 

 

Music is Noises:

The Story of how the Sampler came to Life

The AKAI MPC2000XL and other samplers in a live environment

 

 

 

 

At the Sonar2000 Electronic music festival, Matthew Herbert, performing as Radioboy, walked on stage and placed a milk bottle on a stool wired with microphones and surrounded by metal boxes filled with wires and silicon. Utilising the equipment around him, he proceeded to record a series of sounds generated wholly by the bottle; produced by any means possible: hitting, tapping, rubbing, dropping, filling, pouring, spilling, and culminating in a climactic smash. As he sampled these sounds from the bottle, he gradually built up a layered pattern of sequenced loops, creating a huge heaving soundscape of rhythm and noise. A pounding techno beat prevailed, but the audience had seen that the music was both less and more than your average dance hit, it was in fact simply a tiny bottle, amplified and deified into the sound of music.

 

The sampler is a device for recording sound for reuse in another form. Once sampled a sound can be edited and distorted a thousand times over, destroyed and rebuilt in a different order. This sample, edited, trimmed and looped can be used as the basis for a new composition. Andrew Goodwin holds that we live in ‘the Age of Plunder’1, where some ‘DJ’s, musicians and engineers…have made an aesthetic out of sampling…and in some cases, a politics out of stealing… For this school of sampling “stealing” segments from other records is part of the meaning of the “new” text.’2 Goodwin is only looking at sampling music, but the same can be said of any act of sampling, although Matthew Herbert (who performs as Herbert, Radioboy, Dr Rockit and the Matthew Herbert Big Band) would argue that the segments of sounds taken from significant (or insignificant) objects becomes the meaning of the new text, as the new text is becomes an extension of the object, a product of its consumption. Herbert himself recalls his work as Radioboy, sampling simple objects such as a Big Mac Meal or a Starbucks coffee to create a political statement on his 2001 album the mechanics of destruction:

The Radio Boy record was of specific pride for me because the process became much more important than the music. It didn’t matter what the music was like, it was just the fact that It was music. It was also a turning point for my music because for the first time instead of having to be about something, McDonald’s, Starbucks etc. it actually was those things. For instrumental music this is a mini revolution.

-Matthew Herbert Records and Responsibility3

I also derived great pleasure from consuming these omnipotent products in ways that they weren’t designed for. I didn’t drink the Coke, watch the TV or eat the Big Mac. In part then, it’s a chance to reclaim these products that have filled the world’s landfill sites with non-biodegradable plastics and people’s stomachs with less than healthy food. It’s also a journey of rubbish, turning shit into music, the temporary into permanence, and the identical into the unique. Whether you actually like the music or not, is an entirely other matter…

-Matthew Herbert the mechanics of destruction4

Herbert’s turning of shit in to sound is part of his attempt to reclaim the world around him to create music for people to enjoy and to spread a particular anti-globalisation and anti-corporate manifesto. Samplers make noise into music, and transfer the meaning of that noise into music, this essay attempts to look at how samplers are used by artists to create music and meaning, especially in the live sphere. My particular object of focus is the AKAI MIDI Production Centre MPC2000XL, a particularly popular sampler/drum-machine/sequencers that is representative of one of the many samplers and other devices produced precisely for consumption by the live user, be he DJ or musician or hybrid of the two.

The sampler’s ability to make music out of any noise is political in a very specific way, one that was commented upon by John Cage as early as 1939 with his prescient observations on percussion, noise and electronic equipment:

Percussion music is revolution. Sound and rhythm have too long been submissive to nineteenth-century music. Today we are fighting emancipation. Tomorrow, with electronic music in our ears, we will hear freedom.

Instead of giving us new sounds, the nineteenth-century composers have given us endless arrangements of the old sounds. We have turned on radios and always known when we were tuned to a symphony. The sound has always been the same, and there has not been even a hint of curiosity as to the possibilities of rhythm. For interesting rhythms we have listened to jazz. At the present stage of revolution, a healthy lawlessness is warranted. Experiment must necessarily be carried on by hitting anything- tin pans, rice bowls, iron pipes- anything we can lay our hands on. Not only hitting, but rubbing, smashing, making sound in every possible way. In short, we must explore the materials of music. What we can’t do ourselves will be done by machines and electrical instruments we will invent.

-John Cage, from the Magic and Accident website5

Cage talks of the percussive noise as taking the language of music from the old forms into new ones. He would have been proud to see the use of samplers being so prolific, and pleased by the wide variety of noises that modern music listeners are willing to subject themselves to. Herbert claims that the sampler ‘not only levelled the playing field by allowing the sound of a chair to be equal to that of a Stradivarius violin, but its operating system is based almost entirely on accidents’6. Cage would have viewed this levelling as a reflection of the levelling of society that has happened over the last hundred years, the massive move into our modern way of understanding. No longer is the hierarchy of the orchestra respected, the anarchy of the sampler is prevalent, no sound is inherently better than any other until it has been shifted into its musical form.

The sampler is at the same time the most post-modern of musical devices, being a device purely for reshaping things and simultaneously robbing them of meanings and suffusing them with new ones, infinite in variety. For Herbert the power of the sampler is in its emptiness, its readiness to accept anything: ‘I was so in shock and awe…at the potential of this empty machine – empty like a saxophone before it’s filled with air.’7. The sampler can be reinscribed with new sounds at any time, and these sounds can be restructured. For many, like Herbert, this reconstruction is imitative of the political changes that are sought by modern activists. Sampling becomes a way of stealing back power on a microcosmic yet powerful level an act of reconstruction from the destructive wastes of the modern political landscape.

The sampler, like the drum machine, was one of the many tools that emerged from studios in the seventies, and was used as part of the extensive rigs of producers of all varieties of music all over the world. Dick Hebdidge, in Cut ‘n’ Mix8 reports on the reggae and hip-hop producers, and their work in the studio that reflects the way samplers are used:

An engineer will stretch the sounds into different shapes, add sound effects, take out notes and chords or add new ones, creating spaces by shuffling the sequence of sounds into new patterns

Cut ‘n’ Mix p13

[In the late 1970s the] hip hoppers “stole” music off air and cut it up. Then they broke it down into its component parts and remixed it on tape. By doing this they were breaking the law of copyright. But the cut ‘n’ mix attitude was that no one owns a rhythm or a sound. You just borrow it, use it and give it back to the people in a slightly different form… The heart of hip-hop is in the cassette recorder, the drum machine, the Walkman and the…ghetto blasters. These are the machines that can be used to take the sounds out on to the streets and the vacant lots, and into the parks.

  • Cut ‘n’ Mix p141

Goodwin traces the sampler’s development from 1979’s immense and prohibitively expensive Fairlight CMI9, to 1986, when Casio released a sampler anyone could own for less than a hundred pounds.10 By the nineties the AKAI SL1000 sampler was an industry standard professional sampler that was affordable to the bedroom producer, although it was mostly a production tool, not suitable for live performance. The concurrent development of the drum machine was always more influenced by the needs of live performance. Drum machines, often coupled with record decks provide the beats to accompany the lyrics of all varieties of large performers, most notably the rappers of hip-hop, a music born out of rhythm and words. The MPC2000XL is one of many devices that combine the sampler and live drum machine to create an entire music production station that works on the fly just as well as in the studio after hours of painstaking programming. The MPC’s twelve touch pads act as triggers to samples, allowing a performer to turn any pre-sampled sound into a rhythm or melody in a simple and immediate fashion that similar to that of playing a keyboard or a simple drum.

The MPC is particularly iconic amongst modern hip-hop performers. Guillermo Scott Herren (also known as Prefuse73) lists his MPC amongst those to be thanked in the liner notes to his album Vocal Studies and Uprock Narratives, which used the sampler as the chief sound source for the album. The Anticon hip hop label artists also share a passion for the MPC, here are a few notes from the label website11 about the relationships its artists have built with their MPCs and other equipment, and how they use them to shape their sound:

[Odd] nosdam [D Philip Madson] begins his art-making by imagining and holding in mind a very specific sound, and then scouring dumpsters, thrift stores, swap meets, the free bins outside record stores, and yard sales across the U.S. (and occasionally Europe) in order to make concrete the elusive dimensions of that dreamed-up sound. With the raw material of long-forgotten duds in hand—“the most worthlessly obscure records I can find in the basements of Walnut, Iowa’s many antique shops,” as he notes—he then brings an arsenal of samplers (the E-mu Systems SP1200, the Akai MPC 2000, and the good Boss Dr. Sample SP-202) to bear on his far-flung sound sources. As of late, he’s taken to blurring sampling and instrumentation—especially favo[u]ring the Micro Moog and the drum set—as well as to weaving into his music a wealth of self-made field recordings. His recording process similarly twines the inimitable tape warmth of his cassette 8 track and the minute precision of Pro Tools, and within his menagerie of machines he tries to maintain a certain rapidity of pace and spontaneity.

 

Jel [Jerry Logan] quickly gravitated towards hip-hop, beats and ultimately to beat-making. …In line with early hip-hop beat pioneers, jel knew he needed an SP-1200 [a sampler similar to the MPC] to produce the sounds he was dreaming about. Without the means to buy one, jel found a job pumping gas at a service station until he stacked enough ends to buy his first SP-1200. With the right equipment, he soon found himself spending most of his time making beats in his bedroom.

Anticon label Website

The MPC combines simplicity with versatility and also, beneath its relatively user friendly surface contains an abundance bells and whistle12. It is an immensely powerful tool that represents one of the great triumphs of technology reshaping the boundaries of music, by allowing absolutely anything to become music.

 

Recently I had a chance to watch an MPC in use at a live Prefuse73 performance. The format of the gig was a band of talented musicians, from guitarists to drummers to DJ’s, led by Scott Herren himself (a solo producer as far as album recordings are concerned) on his MPC. As it dawned on me that I could see his fingers tapping out the key melodies and beats of his performance, I realised that the depth of the sound was coming from an intense mingling of live instruments and electronic samples. The experience was hypnotising, not least because it was the most breathtaking use of technology in a truly live way I have myself witnessed. Everything dynamically flowed amidst the rich tapestry of sound Herren wove in and out of the performers around him. He was in command despite making his impact with little more than a plastic box. Live performance is the bane of most electronic producers, live shows are notoriously hard to pull off when most tracks come pre-packaged and pre-programmed. The MPC is a device that gives the dynamic power of live performance to the world of the electronic. To the world of the noise. The feeling of watching that performance draws me back to Cage’s words and forces me to twist them: Today, with electronic music in our ears, we hear freedom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

 

  • Accidental Records Magic and Accident www.accidentalrecords.com

  • Anticon Records – www.anticon.com

  • Appadurai, Arjun The Social Life of Things (Cambridge:CUP 1986)

  • Birchall, Clare Records and Responsibility: An interview with Matthew Herbert by Clare Birchall 15th June 2003 – http://www.signsofthetimes.org.uk/matt.html

  • Goodwin, Andrew ‘Sample and Hold’ in On Record Edited by Simon Frith and Andrew Goodwin (London: Routledge 1990)

  • Hancock, Herbie Rockit (New York: Columbia 1979)

  • Hebdidge, Dick Cut ‘n’ Mix: Culture, Identity and Caribbean Music (London: Routledge 1990)

  • Herbert, Matthew (Radioboy) The Mechanics of Destructionhttp://www.themechanicsofdestruction.org

  • Herren, Guillermo Scott (Prefuse73) Vocal Studies and Uprock Narratives (London: Warp Records 2001)

  • Odd Nosdam No More Wigs for Ohio (Oakland, Ohio:Anticon Records 2003)

  • Why? Oaklandazulasylum (Oakland, Ohio:Anticon Records 2003)

  • Warp Records – www.warprecords.com

 

 

 

 

1 ‘Sample and Hold’ in On Record Edited by Simon Frith and Andrew Goodwin (London: Routledge 1990)

2 ‘Sample and Hold’ p271

3 Records and Responsibility: An interview with Matthew Herbert by Clare Birchall 15th June 2003 – www.signsofthetimes.org.uk/matt.html – all quotations from this website

4 The Mechanics of Destruction www.themechanicsofdestruction.org – album available for download and all quotes taken from this website

 

5 Magic and Accident http://www.magicandaccident.com

6 Records and Responsibility

7 Records and Responsibility

8 Cut ‘n’ Mix: Culture, Identity and Caribbean Music (London: Routledge 1990)

9 The Fairlight CMI one of the samplers favoured by Herbie Hancock on his infamous single Rockit an Electro-funk. As well as being the first mainstream record released to feature vinyl scratching, it was one of the various precursors to modern hip hop that is particularly of note for its popularity with hip hop DJs to this day.

10 ‘Sample and Hold’ p261-2

11 http://www.anticon.com all quotes taken from this website

12 See Appendix for technical specifications

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