Live video from July 2018.
by Dave Skipper
See my earlier post PowWow Performance for background on the modular performance live-streaming platform that is PowWow.
Hearing and seeing
Although noise music, like all other forms of music, revolves primarily around the use of the ears, a visual component often helps the listener/observer to focus and engage more with a performance. For some artists the visual is as vital as, or sometimes even supersedes, the sounds themselves. This might take the form of projecting images onto a screen (either pre-prepared or generated live), or a clearly gestural or even theatrical performance approach. For others (myself included) the priority is to let the sounds speak for themselves without visual augmentation. What I do enjoy is looking at the equipment/instruments being used and how the artist interacts with their gear. Yes, I’m a bit of a gear geek! And so I appreciate having these PowWow videos to (hopefully) provide a little extra insight, visual clues, and entertainment to enhance the noise-listening.
Some not-so-secret noise-making secrets
There are countless means of generating and manipulating noise. My personal focus is on using modular synths. The inherent flexibility and customisability of modulars in itself also allows for countless means of generating and manipulating noise. This individuality is one of the major appeals of modulars. In terms of the sounds themselves, my two chief considerations are audio-rate modulations and signal flow.
Before I delved into the world of modulars I grew frustrated with fixed-architecture standalone analogue synthesisers because I wanted to try out things on them that are not possible. In particular, I wanted to modulate parameters in any part of the synthesisers circuitry I wanted with the outputs from oscillators. Why was this? If you apply a slowly vibrating modulation source to the pitch/frequency of an oscillator you get a vibrato effect. Speed up the modulator into audio-rate frequencies (i.e. so that you could hear the pitch of this modulator itself as a pitch within hearing range) and very interesting things start to happen. You start to get layers of sideband harmonics as the frequencies interact, enriching the tonal qualities of the modulated oscillator (for example from a simple pure sinewave sound into something much more complex). But that’s just the first step. What if you use that complex sound to further modular the frequency of a third oscillator? Or what if you send it back into the frequency of the first oscillator, generating a kind of feedback loop or cross-modulation, or circular modulation? Or what if a soundwave is used to modulate completely different available parameters in the synthesiser system? With modulars, that can be anything! It might be the cutoff frequency of a filter module, or the on-off switching action of a mute switch, or the clock rate of a sequencing module, or the we-dry mix of a delay module. This simple tactic, especially of audio-rate modulating ‘wrong’ parameters, opens up whole new worlds of delightful experiments, happy accidents, and inspiring timbres. It’s very easy to get into superbly noisy territory very fast. There are many other ways to create noise with modulars, but this is my main path.
- Signal flow
Much as I love the raw sounds of noise that can be caressed and contorted from modulars via combinations and permutations of audio-rate modulations, it really all starts to come together and be more powerful and effective (and musical) when the overall signal flow is carefully worked out. Beyond the immediate signal flows of the different subsystems I may set up for achieving different building-block sounds, the next phase is to refine (or the opposite of refine!) those sounds into a coherent whole. This is where modules that process sounds further take their place, notably: saturation/gain/overdrive/distortion, EQ/filtering, reverb/delay. What’s important to understand about the modular approach is that distortion doesn’t necessarily need to be provided by a dedicated distortion module, filtering doesn’t necessarily need to be provided by a dedicated filter module, etc. But essentially their role in my setup is quite simple. Distortion makes the sounds more abrasive, more aggressive, more gritty, noisier. EQing allows certain frequencies or frequency bands to be accentuated or attenuated. Delays and reverbs flesh out the sound into all dimensions, washing over the ears with increased motion. In particular, once I latched onto the power of parametric EQs (whereby you can variably select which frequency is affected instead of being stuck with pre-determined fixed frequencies) I never looked back. The same noise, intricate and impacting in its own right, can turn into absolute decimation at the twist of a knob – pummelling bass frequencies can be brought to the fore, crisp and harsh mid-highs start to bite right through the mix, the whole texture transformed into countless shards as the focus of diverse noise fragments twist and turn into new sounds previously tucked-away and hiding.
Listen (and watch!) here!
As for this particular performance, I was happy with the flow and dynamic of the whole piece, and with the constituent sounds which I has to work with. It is again a fair representation of the kind of set I have been doing this year, but as always with noise music it is no more than that. Snapshots capture a point in time, and the next one will be completely different. I’m always changing things around, and trying to develop as an artist, sometimes trying out things that fail dismally along the way, sometimes hitting a sweet spot where everything comes together just right. Most performances lie somewhere in the middle.
Final note (as usual): to appreciate the frequencies and dynamics and stereo imaging properly please use headphones or good quality speakers, and don’t turn the volume down much if at all, haha! I actually tried listening on my iPhone and laptop speakers and it sounds rather tinny and rubbish a lot of the time – the deeper frequencies and details are ESSENTIAL!