Sunday, August 23, 2015

Learning To Mix Part 2: Percepts, Affects and the Sixth Sense

 Yeah, you got to mix it child
You got to fix it must be love, it's a bitch
Yeah, you got to mix it child
You got to fix it, but the love, it's a bitch, all right.
- the Stones, Live in Texas, 1972

Experienced engineers develop a sixth sense about their mixes.  They can tell when it sounds good, when it's working in a way that goes beyond  the physical sound waves coming out of the speakers. They know, or at least begin to suspect, when the tracks they've been mixing turn into music.  They can be completely fatigued from long hours of concentrated listening, their ears verging on meltdown and still know when a mix feels good or not.  It goes beyond hearing; mix engineers experience the music with their whole body, feel the mood and atmosphere it creates and whatever sensations might arise. Developing this sixth sense seems crucial to understanding when the musical aesthetic has arrived or descended into the mix.  It's the same sense musicians tap into when playing together, especially improvising musicians who create as they go.  They necessarily tune into a musical telepathy to keep the entity afloat, alive and moving.  Improvising music, getting familiar with the zen of that skill can definitely help in the creative mixing situation which has it's own kind of improvisation.  A good look at various kinds of improvisation can be found in Derek Bailey's book, Improvisation: It's Nature and Practice in Music.  Some examples from this book that apply to mixing:

"... means that the exact size of the sruti is in many instances purely a matter of personal choice, a choice depending upon the musician's knowledge, experience and instinct." -p. 2

Sruti, a Sanskrit word,meaning to 'to hear' is the smallest interval used in Indian music.  Substitute 'exact size of the sruti' with 'exact nature of the mix.'

"Most musicians learn to improvise by accident; or by a series of observed accidents; by trial and error.  And there is of course an appropriateness about this method, a natural correspondence between improvisation and empiricism.  Learning improvisation is a practical matter: there is no exclusively theoretical side to improvisation.  Appreciating and understanding how improvisation works is achieved through the failures and successes involved in attempting to do it."   - p.8

" Ours is a very intuitive music, you learn intuitively, the feeling for a raga (or a mix) is acquired intuitively." - p.9

You can hasten the development of this sixth sense by opening up the nervous system to receive more input becoming increasingly sensitive to subtler energies.  The specifics of how to do this appear largely individual, everyone figures it out for themselves depending upon inclinations, circumstances and other factors.  I've been using a floatation tank for years to aid this; in my younger days I did a lot of yoga that had the same effect; practicing Magick.  There are thousands of techniques and practices and you can make up your own.  You just want to ensure that the nervous system is opening up to more received signal not closing down.  One way to tell is to look at a piece of art before and after an expansion practice.  You will notice more, receive more of the artwork, input a clearer, more direct signal after a successful experiment; your perceptions will be heightened.  The same principle applies to music.  I used to float for an hour before going to the studio and this definitely improved the job performance.  Conversely, you should be able to notice when the nervous system's sensory apparatus narrows or closes down - fatigue being one common cause of that.  

Everything that you do in this regard, all the work, all the pain for the gain, accrues.  In fact, any effort, discipline, practice you do to become a better engineer accrues, it adds up, no effort is wasted even the so-called mistakes; you automatically get better in the studio by doing it a lot.  Not long after I started recording my first record with The Now Feeling in 1985 I realized that I needed to basically camp out in a recording studio for a period of months or years to get the knowledge and experience seeping deep down into my bones, to saturate my body with studio savvy so that this wisdom became instinctual, not something I had to think about.  That's what I did.  I relocated to New York City and got hired on at Platinum Island working constantly, up to 120 hour weeks for a period of about three years.  It illustrates a principle I noticed a long time ago, namely that you will get better at anything by doing it regularly, consistently and as frequently as possible.  The corollary of this in an open-ended, constantly changing and expanding discipline like mixing music is that you never stop learning, you can, and do, always get better.

I said in the previous post that mixing is almost always collaborative.  That means learning how to communicate with the Producer and Artist, learning how they communicate their musical vision, what metaphors they use to describe it and translating that into a technical approach.  It doesn't hurt to ask if they have any musical references they'd like to play to give an idea of the direction and sound.  Comparing a mix to a painting, putting the sound into a visual context becomes a common referent.  The mix can have a foreground, midground and background.  It can range in multiple intensities from dark to bright, warm or cold i. e. bass to treble.  It can get described in colors - someone once asked me to make their rhythm guitar sound more brown.  I knew exactly what they meant, more lower mids.

Collaboration encounters disagreements from time to time.  My practice is to get a mix to a point that I like, print it, then let the Artist or Producer have me change things to their heart's content.  You will save every mix.  Most often their changes make a definite improvement.  I'll also let them know if I think they're making a bad choice or if they're obsessing over detail, but I'll always apply their request if I don't convince them otherwise.  The credo of High Velocity Sound Engineering is the effective interpretation of the artist's vision.  If the artist gets in the way of their own vision or if your vision of what it could be goes further, you have to put that aside if they're not open to your input; go with what they say or drop out.  Ultimately, they are paying for it and they're going to have to live with it forever while you nomadically move on.  Finding a way to become detached from the end result, setting aside the mask called the engineer's ego can prove helpful in such situations.  Empathy for what the artist is going through doesn't hurt either.  It can prove helpful to remember that you're doing this all the time; you are comfortable and at home in the recording studio whereas the studio can get intimidating to people less accustomed to it.  However comfortable they are, the artist opens up, goes deep and bares their creative soul in the studio.  You want to respect and be sensitive to that soul-searching to protect the intimacy of the space.  Clients can tell when you respect their art.

Why mix music?  What is it about music that moves us so?  How is it that a specific arrangement of sound vibrations can dramatically lift our mood, make us feel better, even inspire creative activities?  If we had some inkling of a direction to go in to answer these questions it might aid us in our job of mixing, of formulating and defining that specific arrangement or assemblage of audio and quantum wave vibrations and intensities.

In between the loudspeakers and the brain something happens that engenders these reactions, that affects us sometimes quite profoundly.   Gilles Deleuze wrote prominently as a philosopher of the in-between.  He is pragmatic and considers effective philosophy always to be an attempt at a solution to one kind of problem or another.  For the purposes of this essay we will say the problem looked at here is how to mix a piece of music most effectively and most affectively.  Affects and percepts are terms Deleuze introduced and used to describe the feelings and sensations produced by art of all kinds. 

  "Art thinks no less than philosophy, but it thinks through affects and percepts."
 -Deleuze and Gutttari, What Is Philosophy, p. 66 

"What is preserved - the thing or work of art ( the mix) is a bloc of sensations, that is to say a compound of percepts and affects.  Percepts are no longer perceptions; they are independent of a state of those who experience them.  Affects are no longer feelings or affections, they go beyond the strength of those who undergo them.  Sensations, percepts and affects are beings whose validity lies in themselves and exceeds any lived.... The work of art is a being of sensation and nothing else: it exists in itself."
 - op cit. p. 164

The second quote agrees with both the tenets of Magick and of Taoism.  In Magick, percepts, affects and thoughts are known as spirits, angels, archangels, demons, elementals and various other archiac sounding names.  The point being that music contains a realm of non-human entities that you, the mixer, help to bring into sensible focus.  Music appears alive; it gets brought to life by musicians. This apparency of life, this assemblage of percepts and affects with varying discernability depending upon the sensitivity of the sensory apparatus might help explain why we can listen to a favorite piece of music multiple times over a period of years and still get something new out of it.   That life can be recorded, replicated, distributed and broadcast around the world by audio technicians and a marketing network.

High Velocity Sound Engineering views the recording studio as a landing pad for the descent of higher entities.  This requires an invocational approach.  Regarding music as a living non-human Intelligence involves a much different approach than treating it as another commercial disposable product for mass consumption.  The studio that Bill Laswell and I recorded classical violinist L. Shankar in Madras (now Chennai) India made you remove your shoes at the front door.  The only other places in India with the same rule were Hindu Temples.  When you entered the Control Room from the foyer you passed through an antechamber containing a large altar filled with portraits and statues of deities and gurus, garlands of flowers and a constantly lighted oil lamp.  Incense seemed always burning with a fragrance resembling jasmine orange.  A female employee was present whose only job was attending this altar.  I'm not advocating this same approach here in the West, but a healthy respect for the sacredness of the music-making endeavor can't hurt.  An interesting coincidence happened when we started on the first day.  There was a movie voiceover session running late when it was our scheduled time.  A large screen projected the film behind the actor reading his lines in the darkened studio..  After about 20 minutes with no end in sight, the movie's dialogue read, "get out, get out now!!!," and they abruptly stopped.  I guess they took the hint from Coincidence Control.

Mixers can be considered special case musicians.  How a mix gets constructed and balanced bears a direct relationship to how musical the piece turns out; it has a direct relationship to the nature, quantity and strength of the percepts and affects that generate from it. Tuning in and paying more attention to the mood altering aspects of a mix relates to the development of the sixth sense, the mixing intuition mentioned earlier - opening the nervous system to getting more affected by music, receiving increased signal,  helps to create mixes strong and resonant with mood and atmosphere.  When successful, it becomes a transmission of a range of percepts and affects, actual and virtual; actual in the moment of listening, virtual in that they always appear different to a greater or lesser extent with every different moment of listening.  The virtual field with its multiplicity of combinations of percepts and affects offers one explanation of  why we can listen to a great piece of music hundreds of times in a lifetime and continue to get different and new things, new gnosis from it.

Musical intuition also naturally develops through  long time spent mixing.  Music itself shows how to unlock the nervous system to receiving greater and more subtle forces and energies.  The theory behind these gnostic awakenings applies the idea of entering the space/mood/atmosphere of a piece of music - the chamber that music exists in.  The mix is one critical determinate of that chamber; or even the mix = the chamber.  The chamber is alive, a singular entity containing  a diversity of everything in it.  Consider it a non-human teacher.  It generates percepts and affects creating an electrical circuit between the music and the receiving apparati in the listener.  Music that affects you strongly can change and alter different parts of the nervous system; it can increase sensations, feelings, and intuitive ideas.  The next time you hear the same piece of music, even a recording of the same performance, you will hear it differently, both because the context of listening will be different, and because your nervous may be changed from the previous listening, slightly more sensitive and aware of the deeper layers the music has to offer.  Listening to music attentively creates an alchemical feedback loop; by alchemical we mean, among other things, the growth and expansion of spiritual functioning ( to use a vague general phrase) or what Deleuze called transcendental empiricism.  Opening up the nervous system to receive and transmit greater signal.
The affect is not the passage from one lived state to another but wo-man's nonhuman becoming.
- op cit. p.173 (slightly paraphrased)

We at HVSE regard the printing of the mix as the most critical juncture point of the mixing process.

The chamber, the space, mood and atmosphere of the moment when the mix is printed also gets recorded, it's not just the audio. 

This can get experimentally verified.  Take a two track recorder of any kind and record the ambience of any intense space - a shamanic or magick ritual, a house burning down, an intense meeting of some kind, then play it back later to someone who wasn't there, but who is able to listen attentively and get their reaction. 

Awareness of the zen moment the mix is printed when the Invocation occurs, naturally creates an aversion to recalling the mix and making changes at a later date.  Sometimes this can't be helped if the client or producer isn't present at the recording of the mix.  If the changes are minor then the integrity of the initial pass doesn't seemed adversely affected.  Mixes that get recalled and tweaked to death (both a figurative and literal phrase) seriously hinders the invocational affects.  Ideally, the final decision makers of the mixes future prolongation and use are present when the mix is printed.  The first few years working with Bill Laswell I engineered a lot of mixes he did and we never recalled a  mix, not once ever.  That's because there was always full presence at the moment of printing; never a need to go back and fix something later.  Expanding the nervous system to receive more signal, more percepts and affects, more communication from the music can also be viewed as a penetration into the present.

To put it in less philosophical terms, it's simply understanding when the mix feels right.  That doesn't always mean when every element is perfectly processed and balanced.  I can vividly recall mixing Nicky Skopelitis' Ekstasis project with Bill and Nicky.  I was not quite ready of getting a balance on one of the songs when Bill suddenly said, "this feels great."  I said something to the effect that I wasn't ready with the mix and he told me not to do anything else to it, "whatever is going on, it feels really great."    Nicky also got way into it when he heard it.  We printed it in that moment as it was.  I'd been too busy doing all the proper things you're supposed to do to a mix to pay attention to the strong feeling and presence it had in that moment.

And now for something completely different...


Recently I looked at a number of youtube videos of more well-known mix engineers taking questions on their craft.  Many of them were from the Mixing with the Masters workshop series.  It was interesting and informative to see the different approaches they take.  One of them, I don't remember who sponsored it,  was a Q & A session with Chris Lord Alge and Bob Clearmountain.  They were asked what three unique qualities they brought to the mixing sessions to make them better and Lord Alge's response was " CONFIDENCE CONFIDENCE CONFIDENCE!!!"   I  find CLA highly entertaining when he talks about engineering.  I think he's absolutely right on this point.  Confidence in your abilities to get the best possible mix goes a long way.  When you're confident, you're not worried or intimidated which are basically fear reactions and make you less present in the moment.  When you're confident and on top of it, the well-equipped recording studio can feel like a sports car that you rev up to a smooth cruising speed; high velocity.  The presence and attention a mixer brings to their job cannot be underestimated.  Confidence in what you're doing helps put you solidly in the moment.  The first time I met Jason Corsaro at the beginning of the mix sessions for The Swans, The Burning World album he immediately struck me as someone with the large presence of a star engineer and I instinctively knew it for a significant quality to bring to a session.  Just confidence that he could do the job better than anyone else; not arrogance or ego which confidence sometimes gets mistaken for.

It's So Easy

Here's a mix I really like, I don't know who did it.  It's a great garage band performance by Paul McCartney of Buddy Holly's, It's So Easy from the Rave On tribute album released in 2011.  The mix noticeably highlights the garage band aspect with overdriven vocals, massively compressed drums and exaggerated solo levels.  I love it!

Optional listening exercise: find a copy of John Coltrane's, My Favorite Things, the studio album, and for at least one pass listen closely to Coltrane's saxophone tone.  He subtly bends notes for emotional emphasis almost like an Indian musician searching for the exact right sruti to play -  the smallest interval of indeterminate size.  This seems particularly evident in the first two pieces, the title track and Everytime We Say Goodbye.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Chaos Across the Sky

Material with The Master Musicians of Jajouka 
Live In Belgium and Warsaw.

The rhythms driving the lives of animals and humans are a means of countering chaos and its threats of extinction.  This arrangement of an environment responding to chaos gives rise to a chaos-rhythm or chaosmos.

 - Deleuze & Gutarri, Mille Plateaux

 courtesy of Yoko Yamabe

photo by Cherie Nutting 

The task of art, philosophy, and science involves confronting chaos according to Deleuze and Guttari in What Is Philosophy?  This dates back at least as far as the ancient Greeks, the first philosophers, who endeavored to put systems of order over the apparent randomity of the natural world.  Chaos, however, does not go down without a fight. It resists order.  The jungle takes back its own - chaos always comes back to break down order.  Science calls that entropy.

Magick mixes elements of art, science and philosophy into a singular approach diving deep into chaos for negentropic purposes.  Powerful music = powerful magick.  This might explain the inevitable chaos that arises when two vigorous musical entities such as Material and the Master Musicians of Jajouka combine forces.  It should come as no surprise.  As Bill Laswell remarked on the way to the Warsaw soundcheck, "When you ride with Jesse James you can expect that you might get shot."  We didn't get shot in that instance, but the drivers did leave three of our musicians back at the hotel. Later, Laswell talked about using chaos as part of the process.  You don't run and hide from it or curse its calamity.  Chaos isn't the enemy, complacency is the enemy.  Art, science, philosophy, and their bastard child magick stay in motion creating coherent trajectories of flight through the chaos endeavoring to stay one step ahead. Always keep the Void at your back is the advice they give you when you get your wings.  The see-saw struggle between order and disorder makes for the chaos-rhythm mentioned in the opening quote, the chaosmos - a word borrowed from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, literature's epic confrontation with chaos. 

Where do I begin?  The efforts to get the proper traveling visas for the Moroccan musicians began months in advance for this latest musical deployment.  They were finally issued days before we had to leave.  The Arabic names probably didn't help along with all their passports showing the same birthday, January 1, due to the common practice in Africa at the time of not recording the day a child is born.  Payments from the promoters were delayed because of their reluctance to fund the operation if half the group couldn't make it.  I received my plane ticket the day before departure.  I was flying on United which had a widespread systems crash with their computers the morning I flew out that fortunately had been straightened out in time for my afternoon flight.  The promoter of the festival in Gent, Belgium had gone to extra lengths and expense to organize a soundcheck and rehearsal the day before our concert, but due to the chaos, half the band couldn't make it.  Material with Jajouka were the headliners for the festival's first night yet we had to go on with a minimal soundcheck, and no rehearsal.  They hadn't played together since the shows in Italy last year.  Its difficult to get together in advance when the group lives on three different continents.

The chaos apparently affected Lady Gaga who headlined the third night of the festival with Tony Bennett.  A story was circulating amongst the festival staff that she requested a Rolls Royce to pick her up to make the 40 minute transit from the Brussels airport to Gent.  Nary a Rolls could be found so they asked for a Bentley instead - also unavailable, but they were able to hire a Maserati for the drive.  When chaos strikes, it really hits hard.  Trooper that she is, Gaga settled for the Maserati.

The performance venue in Gent was situated underneath an extremely large white tent beside a cultural arts building built in the 16th century as a monastery and used as a maternity ward.  It looked to hold about 2 - 3000 people.  I was delighted to discover two front of house sound desks, an analog Midas Heritage board (my favorite)  for the headliner acts and a digital one for the support groups.  I only had Aiyb, Peter and Graham (percussion and horns) for the soundcheck and a stage tech enlisted to bang on the drums.  I pleaded with the Stage Manager and Promoter for a soundcheck the next day before doors opened, and was rewarded with a lecture regarding all the chaos involved in arranging time for us the day before the show.  The Promoter did agree to allow us to check the bass rig and the Jajoukans in the 45 minute change-over between acts.  When it came time to do that, the Stage Manager attempted to block it by saying we couldn't check through the P.A.  I argued with him vehemently, so the two of us marched off like children to the Principal's office, in this case the Promoters trailer, to have him resolve the dispute, which he did in my favor.

I made sure to get to the site early enough to catch some of Jack Dejohnette's group, Made In Chicago that, besides Jack on drums consisted of Muhal Richard Abrams (piano), Roscoe Mitchell (saxophone), and Larry Gray (contrabass and cello).  I loved what little I've heard of Dejohnette's drumming from Bitches Brew (Miles Davis) and from a show I mixed in Frankfurt with him, Laswell, guitarist Derek Bailey, and DJ Disk formerly of the Invisibl Skratch Picklz.  Perhaps it was the mood I was in, but Made In Chicago did absolutely nothing for me - staid, subdued, lackluster except when they took unaccompanied solos, I could really feel the soul in Muhal's piano playing.  By contrast, a strong vital current infused the Green Room  - located far from the stage in the former maternity ward - where Material was working out its set.  Bachir and Mustapha were playing their rhaitas, banishing the chaos.  The acoustics in the stone-walled Green Room, that was actually white, reverberating making them sound like a whole orchestra.

When it came time for the change-over, James was on top of it getting the bass rig checked out and up - the SVT classic head had to be swapped out due to a faulty screaming tube, but the backline company had a spare that worked.  My biggest concern was getting levels for the Jajoukans; to start with, only four chairs were in place for the five musicians.  Straightening, that out, I dashed back to the Green Room to find them outside furiously inhaling nicotine and drinking coffee for their pre-concert stimulants.  They obviously didn't share my sense of urgency, but I was able to get them to the stage and soundchecked before we started.

The media was all over both festivals, the one in Gent broadcast the show on television late at night, probably the same in Warsaw as there was a mobile TV studio in a long truck that someone said was worth $10,000,000 parked behind the venue.  Bill gave several interviews it seemed.  In one of them I heard him give the well-known quote, "writing about music is like dancing about architecture," an interesting thing to say to a music journalist!  I'm not up to dancing about architecture so here's a short clip to give a feel for the music.  The sound isn't high fidelity by any means, recorded on someone's camera mic - I don't know who to credit - but, rest assured, this is just a teaser for the live album to come.  I got a good 96k digital  mix board recording of both concerts.

The spirit of Ornette Coleman was in attendance for both shows, especially in Gent when Bachir Attar gave a passionate account of playing in the procession that brought in Ornette's coffin at his funeral then treated to audience to the same music.  The whole group also played an extensive improvisation of the main theme from Dancing in Your Head, Ornette's 1977 album that included a 1973 recording of Ornette playing with the Master Musicians in Jajouka with William Burroughs present.  That piece is called Midnight Sunrise.  The show in Gent was an overwhelming success and for a few short hours the chaos abated, subsumed by the music.

Our set in Gent ended at midnight. Catering had left us some good food for a post show meal.  We arrived back to the hotel around 2 am.  The Moroccans had a lobby call for 4 am - hardcore!  Bill got a phone call from them at 5 am saying, "We are at the airport, they don't have tickets for us. What should we do, return to the hotel?"  Bill told them that they did indeed have tickets and that going back to the hotel wouldn't do any good.  The confusion stemmed from the budget airline's policy that boarding passes be printed out before going to the airport.  They figured it out and even got their extra luggage on board without charge, but were told to sit near the front of the plane to balance out the load.  I guess they took that advice because the plane successfully got off the ground.  More chaos at the hotel in Warsaw, a problem with currency exchange.  The hotel only accepted Euros in exchange for Polish Zlotys, American dollars were verboten except at the official Currency Exchange vendor down the street.  That's where I went, but it was closed by the time they realized the need for local money.  How are we going to eat?  Room service was a last resort due to the pricy hotel.  Somehow the problem got solved.

The venue in Warsaw was a converted industrial factory that reminded me of a small airplane hanger.  There wasn't any house lights.  All illumination came from theatrical lights.  A bank of lights were placed on the floor in a semi-circle behind the stage bathing the space in the same shade of blue as the winged saxophone in the photo.  The mixing desk was a digital SSL  which I hadn't used before.  I told the PA tech that I would need a guided tour of the board.  He said he was learning it too; had only used it for three days ...  uh oh!  Fortunately, there was a younger assistant who knew it and patiently ran me through its uniquely obtuse protocol until I had it down.  SSL desks sounds great, but they love complexity.  For instance, it's a five step procedure to turn up an auxilliary send ( i.e. an effects send like reverb, delay, or my Kosmos low end machine) whereas on an analog mixing board, like the Midas one in Gent, it's only a matter of reaching over and turning a knob.  It was interesting to compare the board mix recordings from the two shows, one from an analog, the other from a digital desk.  They both sound good with the analog one being distinctly warmer.  Analog still rules in this case, however I doubt the average listener will know the difference after they've both been mastered.

During our set-up I noticed an old friend walk in, Nils Petter Molvaer, a Norwegian jazz trumpet player who has played with Material in the past.  He was part of the support act, billed as Sly & Robbie meet Nils Petter Molvar - Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, the archetypal reggae rhythm section who became known to the world when they anchored Black Uhuru in the late '70s, early '80s.  The name of this group had me flashing on old monster movies - Godzilla meets King Kong, two musical heavyweights destroy Warsaw.  That's an exaggeration, metaphors only go so far; sometimes the map only suggests the territory.

The real destruction came when  Bill Laswell began playing his bass at the start of the Material set.  Backstage, Bill reminded me of the Sierra Nevada reggae festival we played at years ago with Tabla Beat Science when I'd been instructed to make sure the bass sound shook the foundations, a task I was only too happy to oblige.  I had checked out Shakespeare's sound, also quite huge as is his style.  I made sure the factory performance space was filled with low end when Bill began playing and was rewarded with about five people coming up to the mix position distressed by the massiveness, the other 995 or so attendees seemed ok with it, I scan the audience for reactions.  It remained in context with the music and varied dynamically throughout the set.  I was fortunate not to have a tech standing over me with an SPL meter (sound pressure, measures loudness) as was the case in Gent where they were trying to enforce a ridiculous 93 dB limit.  By comparison, the street traffic in New York averages around 90 dB.

When I initially said hello to Nils, he said, " Oh, we were just talking about you regarding mixing Painkiller (John Zorn, Bill Laswell, Mick Harris) concerts."  I felt a little ambivalent hearing that, but took it as an indication to go for the volume. 

Lots of media at this event too.  I overheard Bill being interviewed by an intense individual asking weighty questions like, "What is the purpose of music?"  Didn't hear Bill's answer, but at another point he was talking about watching an old horror film very late at night in Ethiopia with the typical kind of soundtrack that genre has.  As the end credits rolled, the prayer calls from the Koran started up outside blending with the soundtrack to form a unique musical moment.  Now if you had a recording of that... then he mentioned my ambient field recordings.  It's true, I look for those moments.

Conversations in the car: Bill and Peter driving back to the hotel after soundcheck, started with a discussion of what keys to play in to match the untempered pitches of the rhaitas, the Jajoukan horns and the liras, their flutes.  Untempered music, free from the prison of the piano with its fixed tonal center notes not allowing pitches in-between.  Polytonal might be another way to describe it.  At one point while listening to the recording I thought I heard 3 different keys going on.  We cross a bridge and Peter mentions an architect who made a bridge design he has seen in different places that resembles a harp.  They are called Cable-Stayed bridges and were orignally designed by a 16th Century architect named Faust Vrancic.  I don't recall if that's the architect he mentioned, might have been someone more contemporary.  Driving to the airport the following day with Hamid and Graham I am treated to a short explication, history and conflicts of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) a group formed in the mid 60's in Chicago.  Muhal Richard Abrams, the pianist who played with Dejohnette before us in Gent was one of its founders.  I sensed I was privy to some inside information that won't make it into the history books.

The MC for Warsaw was the head promoter who looked like a cross between Dr. John and Roy Rogers for his physical appearance and his white Western suit complete with an arty cowboy hat that would have fit in perfectly with the old Wild Wild West TV show.  I remember him from years ago when we started playing in Warsaw, at first with Praxis and later with Ekstasis.  At that time we played in a formal theater otherwise used as an opera hall from what I remember.  He seemed the same as ever though I don't recall the Western attire back then.

Ten minutes before showtime chaos struck when Cherie announced that the Jajoukans didn't have plane tickets out of Warsaw the next day.  I had given her their plane tickets the day before at the hotel after Yoko had forwarded them to me to print out.  I don't know what happened, but expect Cherie got distracted by the currency exchange/food crisis.  I was at the sound board by then so don't know exactly what went down, but it didn't detract them from the music, and might have even contributed.  Sometimes a little shot of chaos stirs things up forcing one to lock into the presence of the moment to shake it off and move forward - move forward or sink into chaotic dispersion.  For whatever reason or contributing factors, the concert was once again incredible.  Sufi trance music meets American jazz, though jazz seems an inadequate term.  I'll let those who can dance about architecture come up with a suitable genre label.  Maybe something like post-structural jazz which is only saying we don't know what it is except that it's beyond jazz.

Personally, I managed to avoid most of the direct hits of chaos until the shows were over and we were flying home.  I will cop to calling upon occult assistance in the hotel room each show day, something I've done for years and is probably the main reason I've survived long enough on these crazy musical adventures to relate these tales.  Going through security at the Warsaw airport I passed the metal detector okay yet they made me go back to take the Kosmos out of its bag and run it through the X-ray machine again; first time I've ever had to do that.  This time going through the metal detector I set it off even though I was exactly the same when I passed through a moment before.  So they frisked me and in all the confusion I didn't see my small, non-electronic notebook, not realizing it was missing until a few minutes later when buying some tea.  I rushed back, but it had vanished.  It had all my notes for this blog.  No big deal, I remembered most of them anyway and started writing them down again.  The chaos really hit two days later checking into a motel in Ojai, California to begin supervising mixes for a Johnny Boyd record  still in progress.  My laptop computer was perched on my roll away suitcase like many times before when gravity beckoned and the suitcase toppled.  I thought the laptop would be undamaged, it was in a padded case and it fell on carpet, but when I powered it up the monitor display was crazy and unreadable despite no visible sign of damage.  My laptop and cell phone constitute my office on the road so it was a bit of a setback.

When you ride with Jesse James you can expect you might get shot.  What doesn't kill you makes you stronger (quotes from Bill Laswell and Fred Nietzsche respectively).  If you survive riding with the James gang you might get to share in the loot.  Powerful creative types attract chaos.  Bachir Attar and the Master Musicians of Jajouka, Sufi heirs to the musicians of the Sultan's Royal Court of Morocco, profoundly influencing counter-cultural giants such as Brion Gysin, Paul Bowles, William Burroughs, Brian Jones and the Rolling Stones among many others can be expected to leave chaos in their wake.  Chaos doesn't seems nihilst or evil to a vital creative endeavor.  Its resistance acts as a pushing force, pushing one ahead to stay above it.  Pushing the artist to the edge to either sink or swim.  Chaos-rhythm, chaosmos.

photo by Cherie Nutting, Warsaw

 photo by Cherie Nutting

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Learning to Mix

Mixing is an artform.  It is that stage of making a record that most determines its final sound.  All of the recorded tracks are assembled, processed, added to with effects, balanced, and placed in a stereo field to create an affective, musical aesthetic; a final stereo or surround mix of how it's going to be.  Spatial coordinates can be inferred by each track's  register and timbre (pitch and harmonics), its pan position in the stereo or surround mix, and its relative volume level in the mix.  Dynamic range determines depth, panning marks the width of the field while the frequency range stakes out the vertical axis.  The spatial coordinates of the sound in a mix constantly changes in one dimension or another with the movement of the song.  Both rhythm, and the duration of any individual sound belong to the dimension of time.   The relationship of each track's position in the space, each separate sound in the mix, forms geometries though not necessarily Euclidean geometries.  As the song moves along, these ever-shifting geometries can give an impression or a simulation of traveling through space.  These spaces appear affective in ways that range from triggered gnostic experiences to just making you feel better, a mood change of some kind.

This perspective on mixing takes an architectural, spatial approach to the construction of the sound environment that becomes the final mix of a song.  With mixing we are creating a space for the music to live in, for the music to become alive in.  There are many different perspectives and approaches to mixing possibly as many as there are competent mix engineers though with some overlap between them.  An individual mix engineer can utilize multiple perspectives and take completely different approaches depending upon the music.

The best way to learn how to mix is by doing it ... a lot.  You can read about it all you want, watch YouTube videos of star engineers explaining their techniques, sit in on sessions with experienced mixers - all that is fine and can be helpful but only if you have a way of applying it to mixes of your own; putting it into practice.   Old school animators have something they call pencil mileage - skill at drawing comes from doing it over and over again.  So I strongly recommend getting mixing mileage by mixing as much as possible.  When I started mixing in the studio all my mixes sucked.  One day they stopped sucking.  I don't know why except maybe for the mixing mileage that slowly accrued.

Mixing is almost always a collaborative venture in one way or another.  It's rare, outside of home studios, that the same person engineering the mix is the same person who gives final approval.  It could also be said that mixers collaborate with the equipment they use.  In professional studios, freelance engineers join an unspoken alliance with the techs and assistants who maintain the gear.  For us taoist vitalists who acknowledge the lifeforce in inorganic as well as organic matter, the equipment becomes alive in its own dimension allowing a mutual collaboration between human and machine; between one kind of machine and another.  It's not much different from B.B. King naming his guitar Lucille and making love with her playing notes of the blues.  A good mix engineer will "play" his studio equipment, his instrument, with the same passion, determination and openness to experimentation as any master musician.

The first, most basic thing a becoming-mixer has to do is to learn to listen.  Start with training the ear to differentiate the various instruments in a track, then the various pitch and harmonic relationships, the balance between the melody and the rhythm.  In other words, learn how to hear a mix, learn how to enter the space of a mix by deep, concentrated listening.  Listening is a function of attention.  The more attention you have the better you'll be able to hear, sense, and feel a mix.  I wrote three posts that expand these comments under the series title The Art of Listening, first, second, and third.

Another line of listening development that should begin right away is to learn to correlate the sound you hear with the audio frequency spectrum as measured in cycles per second commonly called hertz abbreviated hz.  What does 200 hz sound like as opposed to 2Khz?  You start by separating sound into the fundamental ranges of bass, midrange and treble then zeroing in from there - lower mid, upper mid etc.   Next would be to learn to hear the different ranges of a ten band equalizer which are set an octave apart from each other followed by a 1/3rd octave, 32 band eq eventually graduating to a fully parametric eq which means it has a sweepable frequency range and a sweepable bandwidth.

To make a good mix you need to know what a good mix is for you.  So listen to lots of music, music that you like, music that moves you.  What is it about a particular mix that affects you?  Listen to good productions on headphones and by good I mean what sounds good to you not necessarily what is commercially popular or what "experts" consider good.  It could be good 'lo-fi.'  In my early days the album Aja by Steely Dan was considered the ultimate sounding hi-fidelity studio record but I didn't care for it or the way it sounded; too clean, pristine and in a space without life to my ear.  I learned much about the space of a mix listening to Love You Live by the Rolling Stones believe it or not.  That served as a primary reference for  mixing live rock-n-roll in nightclubs in the early '80s.

The kind of music you wish to get involved with will suggest which songs or albums to reference,  So if the aim is to mix commercial pop songs then you'll want to listen to music of that ilk, but it can also prove helpful to check out music contrary in style to introduce different influences into the genre.  If you're looking to do all kinds of music and going for the best possible sound then I suggest listening to music that has lots of dynamics and depth, mixes that create a large space for the listener to enter.  It should also be music that strongly moves you, if possible.

Led Zeppelin's sound influenced me a lot for creating huge sonic landscapes with vast affective panoramas.  Listen to any album that Jimmy Page produced on headphones and hear the techniques employed to create powerful, otherwordly sound environments from the fairly limited (you would think) palette of heavy blues rock.  For instance, he does all kinds of studio wizardry to create interesting, diverse and dynamic vocal arrangements with basically just one singer, Robert Plant.  Jimmy Page was an invocational producer with Led Zeppelin, he practiced magick with the studio.  He intentionally, and quite successfully put his experience of magick into the album productions.  Led Zeppelin IV, the one named by four singular sigils, is probably the strongest in that department, but also III, II, I, Houses of the Holy and Physical Graffiti show Thelemic influence; even In Through the Out Door, which Page didn't produce but did play on, carries the same current.

Going into those spaces by listening to Led Zeppelin increases the probability that you'll absorb some of that flavor consciously or subconsciously.  You can pick up the thread or baraka or jump into the current of Thelemic magick without ever knowing anything about it or even knowing that occurred.  One effect of this contact - you get more in touch with your deepest desires, i.e. what is it that you want to do?  what do you really want to do?  As opposed to external pressures, cultural and societal expectations of how to live and other such outside controlling factors like economic slavery, etc.  Getting in touch with basic essence desires describes one meaning of 'do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law; the second half of that equation or the response being, 'love is the law, love under will.'

The point is not to convince anyone to listen to Led Zeppelin and wake up inner spiritual desires while experiencing good mixes - they are hardly the only music that will do this - the point is to examine the area of percepts and affects in music; how does it make you feel (affects) and what sensations does it cause (percepts); how does music affect and change your consciousness, how does it heal or cleanse?  Through percepts and affects.  More on this later, but first a word from our sponsor.

I began this audio odyssey mixing live sound for touring nightclub bands in Western Canada.
The very first mix lesson I had was with a soundman for a bar band that I was temporarily helping to run lights for. This was 1979 and he was mixing on a Soundcraft 1 board, i.e. the first series of Soundcraft mixing boards.  It was the old scoop out the lower mid register in the bass drum trick to get a punchier and better sound.  The eq on that board had a boost or cut potentiometer (pot) at four different fixed frequency points, 60 Hz, 250 Hz, 2Khz, 10Khz, if memory serves.  Those limited eq choices were a good way to get the ear familiar with the different areas of the frequency range.

The first steady full time soundman job I had was with the band Sargent.  The audition, doing sound for them in a club, was hilarious ... in retrospect.  Their departing soundman told me that the 10 band graphic equalizer used to tune the P.A. to the room was wired backwards - the bass and treble frequencies were in the mid bands, while the midrange bands were where the bass and treble sliders were supposed to be.  He played a tape through it and managed to convince me he was right.  So I spent the night guessing at the eq settings as if they were backwards ... unbelievable!  Not only do I barely know what I'm doing at this point, but I'm given this complete nonsense as I later discovered it to be.  I still don't know if it was a big con and he was messing with me or if he really was that out of touch with how the eq worked.  For some reason they hired me anyway.  Later, I heard that they were going to pass on me but for some reason their manager at the time, whom I didn't know, lobbied hard to them to give me a chance and they did.  I have no idea why that guy went to bat for me, maybe my Guardian Angel whispered something in his ear?  It worked out for me, but not so much for the manager who got fired not much longer after that.  I learned a lot working with them and became close friends with everyone in the band. 

The next memorable mix lesson came a couple of years later.  I was mixing for The Tickets in the Riveria Hotel in Edmonton when the band's manager Don Destafano came up up to me while they were playing and said, " it sounds good, well balanced, but try turning up something in the midrange on Doug's vocal.  I'm looking for a little more definition in it,"  By then I was mixing on a Soundcraft 1S board which had semi-parametric equalization on the channel strips.  I turned up one of the mid-range bands 1dB and swept the frequency select pot until I found the right spot for better definition in his vocal.  Don came back and said I'd nailed it.  It's an eq technique I still use to this day from time to time - do a slight, narrow band eq boost and sweep the spectrum until you find the sweet spot that brings an edge of definition or clarity in the mix if a track needs it.

The first, and one of the only semi-formal mixing lessons I had in the studio took place at the close of the mix sessions for The Burning World by The Swans and it was with Jason Corsaro.  We had to do two more mixes of  alternate versions of two songs that only had Michael Gira singing and playing acoustic guitar.  Jason just turned me loose and said go ahead and mix them then gave me some good constructive criticism while I did it.  It also felt like something more subtle was being transmitted, a passing of  the baton.

Within a couple of years after that, I did my first album mixes for a Bill Laswell production with the French pop group FFF; their first release, Blast Culture.  Recorded in the Greenpoint studio we took the tracks back to my old stomping grounds, Studio East at Platinum Island to mix.  Jason Corsaro mixed the first three tracks which had greater priority  I assisted him on those then assumed the helm to mix the remainder of the record.  The first song after Jason left wasn't going well, it wasn't falling into place and sounded chaotic and unorganized.  Bill had me take all the faders down then start bringing up the instruments and working on them one at a time starting with the drums.  The process we went through to get that song into shape became another valuable mixing lesson for me.  That track worked but the next night I felt stuck on another song; it sounded flat and uninteresting to me.  Bill had left for the evening and I was charged with getting the mix ready or nearly ready for the start of the following day.  I took a break and did a short ritual to clear my head and regain focus.  When I started back up again all these ideas of how to make the mix more dynamic and exciting began flowing in, a breakthrough in the mixing logjam had occurred.  Bill liked the mix when he heard it the next morning; the excitement in the track was palpable to everyone.  We never looked back, the rest of the mixes flowed smoothly.  A few months ago I met up with Nicolas Baby, FFF's bass player at a dinner party in Montmarte.  We hadn't seen each other for about 25 years.  He told me that Blast Culture was an important album for them paving the way and helping to successfully establish the popularity of the band in France.  It was good to hear that the mixes had translated well to the marketplace.

I took away a few things of value from the FFF sessions.  One was having fresh ears at the end of the mix when it gets printed and finalized.   It's amazing how much better you can hear when you haven't been mixing and listening for 8 to 10 to 12 hours.  We timed it so that the FFF song mixes were 90% finished by the end of the night then broke and made final adjustments in the morning with fresh ears.  Of course, that was back in the day when record budgets afforded the luxury of mixing a song a day.  In present time, it's not uncommon to mix multiple songs in a day especially since many projects are self financed, yet there are things you can do to refresh the ears before printing a mix.  When mixing Blind Idiot God's Cyclotron album with Laswell at the Hit Factory in New York I would take a 10 minute break just before printing a mix and stand on my head.  The rush of blood to the head has the effect of massaging the ears so that you begin to hear in a whole new way.  I no longer do that, but sometimes get the same effect by lying on a couch with the legs raised above the head.  It only takes about five minutes to make a noticeable difference.  Even just taking a five minute break can help to recharge auditory functionality.  In the old days mixing from analog tape, you automatically had a two to three minute listening break when the tape rewound to the beginning of the track.  Now with the majority of music mixed from the platform of Digital Audio Workstations ( DAWs) you can loop the song or a portion of the song so that it constantly repeats.  It's not hard to get caught up and not take a break for hours at a time.  I used to joke to my assistants that someone should design a plug-in to simulate tape rewinding that would periodically turn off the program for a few minutes and force an ear break.

Another thing I learned is that it can prove useful to take a short break and do something completely different, introduce the energy of a different octave as it were.  I'll often bring in books when mixing, books of a an abstract or difficult nature slightly beyond my full comprehension. Some examples include Finnegans Wake by James Joyce, The Cantos by Ezra Pound, Burroughs cut-ups, poetry by William Blake or various titles on philosophy, etc.  My practice is to take at least a 5 - 10 minute ear break every couple of hours and at that time I take a refreshing plunge into a literary pool.  It seems incredibly relaxing and rejuvenating to break completely in thought and emotion as well as physically from the task of mixing.  I return to the task with a fresh outlook along with fresh ears; often this is enough to inspire new ideas for the mix.  It's like cleaning the palette when wine-tasting so that each vintage tastes fresh.  When working as a perfumer blending up essential oils for people on the street you would clean the olfactory palette by smelling fresh ground coffee brought along for that purpose.

Introducing the energy of a different octave harkens back to the cosmology of G.I. Gurdjieff and his Law of Octaves.  The theory gets convoluted in its details, but I'll give a simplified overview.  Every intentional cycle, every process trying to get to a destination of some kind can get divided into the eight steps of the octave common to Western musical notation.  They use the common solmization of do, re, mi, fa ,sol, la, ti, do to designate the steps.  Taking the process of mixing a song for example, you begin or "sound the do" of that process by going into a studio with your multitrack files or tape (analog files) and patching up all the gear you want to use.  The final "do," the octave above the starting point represents the completion of the process, a successful final mix approved by the client and one that hopefully rocks the world.  There are two points in between the first '"do" and the octave above where it is said that the energy starts to go off course and these occur at the "mi-fa" interval and at the "ti-do" interval.  These correspond to the points in the scale where the intervals are semi-tones (half steps) as opposed to the full tones of the other intervals.  According to G's Law these intervals require a shock of some kind to prevent them from going off course.  These shocks don't have to possess the jolting nature of electrical shocks or become scary surprises; shocks of this kind consist of the introduction of energy from a different octave.  Finnegans Wake introduces a completely different octave, the octave of reading that book, into the song mixing process.  I must add the caveat that I use this theory, G's Law of Octaves, in any application more as a guideline to intuitively reference or ignore rather than as a rigid code to dogmatically follow.

I'll use literature to inject outside energy because I'm inclined that way, but other things could work just as effectively - playing video games, looking at visual art; drawing something, watching a film clip etc. whatever turns you on outside of music.  I will make an argument for injecting literary content into the sound studio situation.   Good books introduce different perspectives, moods and spaces, different lines of freedom that can influence the creation of your mix.  When mixing the dub pieces for Cyclotron, Bill Laswell, after playing a lengthy sound montage of various dub experiments, gave me Naked Lunch as a reference to tap into.  Burroughs, the prototype dub engineer with his cut-up transitions and satirical deterritorialization of the status quo.  Dub rivals free jazz in its methodology of deterritorializing music and sound - shifting sonic spaces through radical editing, sound effects, overdriven reverbs with massive ambience, delays feeding back and forth to infinity like a hallway of mirrors, tasteful distortion and whatever else the unchained audio imagination can do to make this new music by processing sound.  For one dub piece I marked off a 16 bar instrumental section, randomly cut it up (razor blade and tape back in the day) then flung all the pieces into the air, picked them up and spliced them back into the track.  Some of the pieces were backwards; the experiment worked the first time, no further modifications were needed, and it sounded incredible. That's one way literature can affect a mix.

 At another time in the Blind Idiot God mix sessions, it might have been a different dub song, I tried loading a sample of an elephant crying that I'd recorded at a temple in Madras, India into the AMS Delay then triggering it at a good, dramatic moment.  The first time I heard it I couldn't stop laughing because of how ridiculous it sounded in context.  Not every experiment works out, but you won't know until you try it.

End of Part 1.  Stay tuned for Part 2 where the subjects include using found ambience, percepts and afffects, mixing with confidence and more.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Ornette Coleman

One of the most profound musical geniuses to ever grace this planet, Ornette Coleman shed his mortal coil yesterday, June 11, 2015 at the age of 85 and moved on to destinations and becomings unknown.  Ornette was a huge inspiration for me long before we met and it only increased after that; not less than two weeks ago I cited his comment that he wanted to make music like Bucky Fuller's Synergetics as highly influential for me. 

Ornette Coleman
 photo by  AP/Harry Cabluck

 Ornette once told me that he made his music to conquer death.  That's pretty much a direct quote as I remember it.  I'd have to look back into journals or dive deep into memory cells to remember how the conversation got to that point; it wasn't non-sequitur nor did it take long for him to construct a context for the comment so that it sounded completely natural in that space; not dramatic, just factual.  This took place the first time we met.  Bill Laswell had been invited to Ornette's loft in Soho to see the artwork and meet an artist Coleman was helping out and Bill took me along.  That Ornette would talk about music and death to me the first time we met shows an extraordinary level of esp or intuition.  Music and research into death, not always together - those two subjects have been a primary focus of my attention for years.  He seemed to be able to instantly zero in on that.  I was transparent to him in that regard.  It shows to me that he was a master, an informal teacher of the mysteries who taught just by doing what he did.

John Coltrane on Ornette Coleman:

Mr. Coleman’s music had such force that even Coltrane said in 1961 that the 12 minutes he had spent on stage with Coleman amounted to “the most intense moment of my life.”

- quoted from the New YorkTimes Ornette Coleman obituary by Ben Ratliff

Did it work?  Did Ornette conquer death with his music? This question can likely never get answered with 100% certainty, however we now have a unique time for anyone interested to intuitively answer the question for themselves with some measure of probability.  Experienced labyrinth readers, people trained to make contact and deliver instructions to voyagers who have left their planetary bodies know from experience that contact with the being of the departed can be strongest the closer it occurs to physical death.  Contact can get made in a variety of ways, it doesn't have to be formal.  Play some of his music, light a candle, say a prayer, there's a million ways to make contact.  Contact can go in two directions; indications of how he is doing may get discerned.  People who were especially close to him will likely experience intense being contact with him for the next few months or more.

1968 Ornette Coleman album with Elvin Jones, Jimmy Garrison and Dewey Redman.
photo by Francis Wolff

Death, from one perspective, can seem like a free fall; the image of Alice falling down the rabbit hole.  Whatever presence, will, and attention the Being can muster up might act like a parachute or maybe like a jet pack that can steer and guide the voyager's trajectory by the force of intention.  You can be anybody you want next time around.  Readings, prayers, kind intentions, anything of that nature directed to the being of Ornette Coleman can help assemble the parachute/jet pack effect.  Even in the bardo if someone calls your name it will grab your attention and help you to focus.  Playing Ornette's music at this time is like calling his name.  That could be one way he used his music to conquer death.

painting by Massimo Chioccia and Olga Tsarkova

Ornette was low key whenever I saw him with a humble, but very warm demeanor, or should I say radiance because it was sensed and felt as much as observed.  Even when harshly critical to Julian Schnabel for a few moments listening to his album mixes, he did it in a kind, compassionate way, not intending to belittle Julian or destroy the music, but rather speaking from on high as a foremost philosopher of music, a provocateur of innovative change responding to the repetitive nature of folk/rock/country song structures.  I couldn't detect any arrogance or elitism either just one genius' opinion about something outside his common milieu; another classic Laswell juxtaposition.  It was during that meeting that Ornette verbally responded to comments/arguments I made against his point of view.  Except the thing was, I only made those objections internally with no idea anyone could hear my thoughts; a startling display of telepathy.

The first time I recorded Ornette playing his horn was for the same Schnabel album.  Though I had heard him play quite a bit on recordings, his saxophone tone through a vintage tube mic over the studio monitors felt so unbelievably rich and alive after hearing only a few notes; the very sound of his tone generated percepts and affects, i.e. those things that give cause to sensation and feeling; his very being, full of heart and soul came through both the tone of his horn and how he used it to navigate the melodic/rhythmic/harmonic storytelling corridors of musical content and expression.  It was like being next to the sun.

Another time Ornette was visiting Bill's Grrenpoint recording studio in Brooklyn when I asked him to explain Harmolodics.  I listened closely to his explanation and at one point I thought I understood.  I told him my conclusion and he answered, "no, no, no, that's not it at all.  Harmolodics is music intended to bring out the fundamental of the listener without modulation."  Sounds a lot like Crowley's 'Do what thou wilt' to me.

Some earlier blog posts about Ornette Coleman:

Ornette and Synergetics

Harmolodics: Meeting Ornette Coleman 

Recording Ornette Coleman 

Artwork by Elisabeth Atnafu



Tuesday, June 9, 2015

HuDost Sufi Kirtan

Sufi Kirtan, the new musical assemblage from HuDost is now available for digital download ahead of the  official July 31st release.  Kirtan is the Sanskrit term for devotional singing or chanting.  The core HuDost dyadic cyclone of Moksha Sommer and Jemal Wade Hines bring their considerable musical skills to this endeavor along with a distinguished roster of guest musicians to make this diverse, eclectic blend of nonsectarian religious expression.  As is apparent from the album title, this offering crosses boundaries, abolishes borders, deterritorializes dogma to get at common musical values found in various sacred traditions.

You can preorder a CD, buy a digital download and/or hear a sample HERE

When I mixed the sixth track, Abrahamic Zikr  I experienced a strong flash back to the energy of Jerusalem's Western Wall which I visited last year and wrote about somewhere in this post .  Other tracks recalled fond memories of the daily morning kirtan at the Sivananda Yoga Center when I lived there while going to school.

This is what HuDost says about Sufi Kirtan:

Sufi Kirtan delves into the depth of the human heart and how phenomenally accessible it is through music. Zikr is the Sufi term identifying a practice of chanting and singing; it literally means remembrance of breath, sound, love, consciousness, and of people, places, and situations needing one's awareness. Sufi Kirtan explores remembrance through interfaith chanting, songs, and is a total celebration of love, harmony, and beauty through music; it embraces the essence of zikr.

This album truly comes from the heart and from the work of ongoing practice. We began the process of recording this a few years ago and it, unlike any of our other records, has had a life of its own; the songs and the power of the music guiding us and, at times, forcing us to wait until we were ready. In this time we have grown as people, musicians, and family. The album contains this growth, the pain and longing that all humans experience, and the absolute joy that entered our lives with the birth of our son Kaleb. We hope that this translates to you and your own practice. Toward the One...



Saturday, May 30, 2015

Transition from Assistant to First Engineer

Here is a first draft excerpt from my forthcoming book, Music, Magick and the Game of Life:

In the late '80s, the next step for a successful staff engineer at a commercial New York recording studio was to become a freelance engineer.  To accomplish this one needed a regular clientele. I began engineering low budget sessions at Platinum Island  within a month or two of bring hired as an assistant.  Ironically, the first project they turned me loose on involved a therapist who made tapes intended to reprogram the victim's (patient's) habits in a floatation tank through binaural cross-synchronization.  He would tell two stories that were hard panned left and right to the extreme sides of the stereo field.  Now and then a word from the left  story would subliminally connect with a word from the story on the right imparting subconscious messages like "DON'T DRINK" or whatever subject was being covered, there were a number of them.  The subject's deep relaxation in the floatation tank would help the message sink in that much better.  It was ironic for two reasons - I had heard of floating, but hadn't tried it, yet within a year I would have a tank at home and become an enthusiastic long time user.  The second irony was that the therapist seemed in urgent need of his own techniques.   An Otari 8 track recorder with dbx noise reduction was rolled in the control room, a poor cousin to the majestic Studer A80 24 track recorder that normally assumed the duties. 

The New York studio training system was highly disciplined and rigorous;  a great apprenticeship.  I didn't realize how disciplined it was until I started working in studios outside of the City.  An assistant engineer in a state-of -the-art recording facility in New York is expected to be fully aware of what's going on at all times down to the smallest detail - how many tracks are open, is the recording level good, does it sound good, at what number does the second chorus start at etc. etc. etc. to such a degree that if the main engineer were to suddenly drop dead, the assistant would be able to jump into their shoes and seamlessly continue.  The assistant engineer knows the room inside and out, knows which gear is a little funky or which hidden audio weapons sound great and isn't reluctant to suggest them when appropriate.   She is the liaison between the client and the studio.  Assistants make the studio work allowing the engineer, producer and musicians to maximize their creativity.  Assistant engineers started getting credited as second engineers because that's what they did, a second engineer on the session backing up the main engineer, always observing and looking out for mistakes or oversights while also making sure the musicians and producers are comfortable and have what they need.  Assistant/second engineers are invaluable to the process of making a record.

As mentioned, I began assuming the first engineer post from time to time almost as soon as getting hired on staff at Platinum Island.   Not only with the low budget projects which were fairly steady, but also in the higher profile sessions I assisted on.  Engineering background vocals for the Meat Loaf Live at Wembley record while producer/engineer Tom Edmonds took leave of the board and produced; engineered all the vocals for Information Society's self-titled release which had a couple of tracks that cracked the top 5 on the Pop Charts and went platinum.  A lot of engineering work came through from having done that including mixing a song for Information Society used in the film Earth Girls Are Easy.

At a certain point I began experimenting in the recording studio with approaches and techniques that would distinguish my engineering from every other competent engineer out there.  I bought a used 1500 watt tri-amped P.A. which I used to reamp sounds in the live room.  This was the era of drum machines, triggered drum samples and  sequenced synthesizer patterns.  The P.A. helped give those sounds some non-linear character.  I usually miced the room the reamp was in with a cardiod condenser pair aimed at the corners of the room focused 180 degrees away from the P.A. to minimize the direct sound.  Once I did mic the P.A. fairly close with a Neumann FET 47 when Bill Laswell was doing a fretless bass overdub for Anton Fier on a Golden Palominos record.  Bill played in the control room going direct into the board with the P.A. functioning as a huge amp for the sound.  It sounded good and worked out well.

Another series of experiments involved using visual images and graphics in the control room to influence the listening aesthetic in a creative way.  John Lilly documents his audio/visual repeating word tape loop experiments in The Center of the Cyclone with the verified conclusion that what you see affects how you hear.  I wrote an article for TapeOp magazine, later reproduced in their book, Visual Images in the Recording Studio  that covers some of my research in this area.  Bill encouraged this and was open to whatever I wished to try so I got permission to take it as far as possible by covering up every possible inch of wall space in the control room for a Bootsy Collins overdub session.  I arrived three hours early to set it up and used Tibetan mandelas, art pictures by Max Ernst and Salvador Dali, psychedelic images, graphics from an illustrated Egyptian Book of the Dead and all kinds of other esoteric and fine art pictures.  It ended up feeling very intense in there, almost uncomfortably so.  You could feel the walls pulsating with light and image producing a natural high, a waking state. I was concerned that I'd gone too far, but the session went quickly and smoothly. Bootsy and Bill didn't seem to mind.

Effective invocational recording depends upon setting up a space.  Invocation, that aspect of magick concerned with "drawing down from above," in this case music, is a science that has much to offer the creative artist. You could just as easily say that good creative recording depends upon setting up a space.  The first thing we learn in ritual magick is to draw a circle which divides the Universe into the area of our working and everything outside of it.  Anything not concerned with our objective aim gets banished outside the circle.  Similarly, we conceptually draw a circle demarcating the recording studio environment and banish anything not useful to the endeavor including any concerns, worries, or emotional issues about mundane life problems.  We want to be fully present in the space, fully receptive to whatever might come through.

We learn from J.G. Frazer's research of primitive folklore in The Golden Bough that there appear two basic laws of magic, the Law of Similarity and the Law of Contagion.  The Law of Similarity, resonance magic, operates under the principle of like attracts like.  Or as E.J. Gold puts it, the model of a thing becomes the thing itself.  A space consecrated to ritual or explicitly dedicated to an intentional music session can be called a chamber.  We set up a space in the recording studio that appears resonant with the musical aim or resonant with a chamber where all musical possibility exists.  This can get done materially (artworks, figurines, statues, incense, lighting etc anything that creates a particular mood), astrally (through visualized imagination) or both.  The chamber where all musical possibility exists is also known as 'the crossroads' as in the Robert Johnson legend where he suddenly acquired mastery of the blues.  The crossroads legend also got attached to Bob Dylan as, according to peers, he went from being an amateurish wannabe to a talented, charismatic performer within a few months.  You can tell in any interview where he talks about his early songwriting process or his own writings that Dylan appeared directly wired to the crossroads chamber, able at any time to access a rich flow of musical content and expression.

Every once in awhile we get tangible evidence that the resonance of the space set up in the studio influences the physical world.  I was fortunate to assist for a week on overdubs for the first Danzig album produced by Rick Rubin which I've been told is a classic by aficionados.  They brought in some occult paraphenalia, I don't remember exactly what, but typical of what many heavy metal/hard rock bands incorporate in their graphics.  They also set all the digital readouts, mostly digital delays, to read 666.  One night I wore a T-shirt adorned with a large upright pentagram and they told me it was upside down so I think they were going for the darker side of occult iconography.  That was the extent to which they set the space, there wasn't any other visible reference to the occult or ritual other than making music.  The space didn't feel particular sinister to me though it did create a unique mood.  The music was great and everything flowed well.  I engineered a session the day after Danzig left.  Everything was going well, I'd just finished recording a couple of tracks with multiple drop-ins along the way when the logic circuit of the multitrack remote freaked out, automatically rewound the tape to the beginning then started playing, going into record and erasing the two tracks we'd just finished.  Fortunately, I was right there and caught it before any damage was done.  The remote was powered down which reset it making it fine again.  That never happened to me before or since so I've always been tempted to attribute the logic freakout to leftover reverberations from the Danzig chamber.

One of the most powerful shamanistic recording sessions I've engineered, Yothu Yindi in Sydney, Australia was also one of the more elaborately created chambers I've experienced in a recording studio.  The indigenous Australians (they consider the term "Aborigines" insulting) brought in a lot of relics, banners, and traditional instruments from their 40,000 year-old culture transforming the Control Room and the live space into a different world.  After 10 - 12 hour sessions I felt completely altered and naturally high like after an extended floatation tank session. They didn't have to be told to set up a space, they were experienced shamans and knew that is what you do to tap into the magic, to go to the crossroads. Read this for more details, continued here.

One attribute that set me apart as an engineer was that I knew how to set up an invocational space.  Another overall approach to becoming a better engineer consisted of fine tuning my brain and nervous system as much as possible for maximum alertness, attention, presence and focus in the studio environment.  To this end, I practiced a lot of yoga and did other exercises to increase the concentration of my attention.  I experimented with diet though didn't get consistently disciplined with this until later on.  Things changed dramatically after purchasing a used floatation tank from my friend, Sam Zeiger.  I would float in it everyday for about an hour before a session and get out with  sharpened perceptions, able to process information rapidly and clearly; High Velocity.   The recording studio is a high energy environment even if it doesn't always appear that way.  Every electrical circuit generates a magnetic field at right angles to the electric flow and those fields impinge upon the electromagnetic field that surrounds the human biological machine which has always been regarded by me as the most complex piece of equipment in the recording studio.

Staying at the top of your game, being as present as possible in the studio because that's what the job demanded meant that your brain was thinking ahead, anticipating what might be needed next, allowing the flow to go as quickly and smoothly as possible; staying out of the way.  Working fast and efficiently is a big plus to clients who are paying anywhere from $1,000 - $2,000 a day just for the room.  It's also a big plus to musicians to not get slowed down by technical considerations once they've turned on their creative tap.  I remember taking over engineering duties to record horns with Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker for  the Bootsy's Rubber Band album Jungle Bass.  Everyone was waiting while I set up the song.  I put on a pair of "cans" (headphones) and dialed up a headphone mix on the fly taking a second to balance each track, getting it ready in less than a minute.  I noticed that Nicky Skopelitis saw the speed it took to get a good balance and pointed it out to Bill Laswell.  Previous years of mixing live sound certainly helped there. 

Going freelance is scary.  I recall my friend Knut Bohn's trepidation at the prospect.  At the time, Knut worked mostly as Nile Rodger's engineer.  It was a prestigious and steady gig, but he was wanting to move on.  We had met at the Institute of Audio Research, the recording wing of NYU.  Knut dropped out after the first quarter and got an internship at Skyline, a major studio then.  I completed the full year of school then moved back to Canada for a couple of years trying, and mostly failing to get studio jobs.  One night I got booked to assist a session for Arto Lindsay's group Ambitious Lovers when in waltzes Knut, the engineer I was to assist.  He was moonlighting from his Niles gig to fill in for another engineer.  At that moment it seemed that one of us had made the wiser career move.  We had a good time reconnecting on breaks.  Knut graciously invited me to visit him at Skyline where he showed me the new Sony digital multitrack they had with programmable punch in/punch out features and introduced me to his boss.  At Skyline we talked about working freelance which we both seemed to view as jumping off a cliff.

I'd had some previous experience with the anxiety of working independently, going off the fix of a guaranteed steady income, when moving back to Canada after recording school.  This was 1985 and I was seriously researching Buckminster Fuller and magick and keeping up a regular yoga practice.  To help get my engineer career going I made a 10 day retirement where I didn't leave my apartment spending the time studying Synergetics and practicing magick focusing on an invocation of Mercury as an archetype of communication.  It was at that time that I wrote the High Velocity Sound Engineering Manifesto where I defined my direction with the first paragraph:

"The essential aim of High Velocity Sound Engineering is clear aesthetic communication.  The information is communicated through the form of music.  Music is taken to be a high order language containing the possibility of evolutionary change.

The idea to name this operation High Velocity came from Dr. Tim Leary's book, The Game of Life.

I understood very little of Syngertics, the little I did seemed valuable.  Reading it definitely put me into a different kind of receptive space quite different from what I was used to.  At night, there were wild geometrical interdimensional chambers in my dreams of a totally alien kind.  I didn't have any noticeable epiphany or tremendous realization with the Mercury workings though only a couple of months later Terry Tompkins enlisted me to record his band The Now Feeling, my first time multitrack engineering an album in a professional studio.  It was recorded on an 80 series Neve console at the Columbia School of Recording in Calgary, Alberta.  The sessions went great even though I was moonlighting from my live sound gig at night and was getting a little stretched thin; burning the candle at both ends and in the middle.  The Neve board sounded amazing.  The people who ran the place, Mark Goodman and Lanny were mostly helpful and friendly guides though Lanny started scaring me with warnings about recording the cymbals too loud that would make the record skip.  I was dubious of this advice but didn't really know so I called Bernie Grundman Mastering down in LA to get their advice.  Bernie himself answered assuring me saying, "hell no, we can take care of it, we get tapes in here to master where the VU meters are pinned and don't even move.  Be reasonable with your levels and you won't have a problem." 

One night in a movie theatre, distracted by paranoid thoughts regarding the uncertainty of income, I flashed back to Buckminster Fuller's story of going independent and how he dedicated himself completely to working for what he called Scenario Universe.  He anticipated an effect of precession to support himself and family with their basic needs.  By precession he meant a scientific term for a "side effect." though that's a simplification.  Basically, he felt that by working for Scenario Universe with great integrity, that Scenario Universe would indirectly provide ways and means to support him and his family.  Fuller lived in poverty for a few years but eventually became a millionaire without ever directly trying to make money.  This memory eased my worried mind.  I felt encouraged and empowered.  If I worked for Music always with the greatest possible integrity then my basic needs would indirectly get taken care of.  So far, I've been right, knock on wood.

A new student of sound recording recently asked me for one piece of career advice. I told him to try to find some idealistic reason or higher purpose for choosing this line of work beyond looking to get rich and/or famous.  There's a lot of hard work and long hours ahead so it seems helpful to find enjoyment and reward from the process rather than waiting for a superficial goal that may or may not ever happen.  It could be as simple as you just love music and want to see more of it of better quality in the world.

Serving in the citadel of Music has turned out well for me.  Though unprovable, I suspect the wide diversity and tremendous amount of incredible music and musicians I've been exposed to results from adhering to the vision of the power of music over industry politics and the lust for success and recognition.  One turning point to this direction occurred in the early '90's.  Bernard Fowler asked Bill Laswell to recommend a mix engineer for an album he was co-writing and co-producing with Ron Wood for his fifth solo album, Slide On This.  Bill asked me if I wanted to be considered for this project.  The scheduling of it meant that I would miss working on another project that Ornette Coleman was producing.  I had only met Ornette, never worked with him.  The Ron Wood project would have been much higher profile if I'd been chosen but it had been an ambition of mine to engineer Ornette Coleman since I heard him say in a film that he wanted to make music like Bucky Fuller's synergetic geometry.  Jason Corsaro got the Ron Wood gig and did an excellent job, far better  than I would have been able to pull off at that time.  I got to hear some of it in Howie Weinberg's mastering suite at Masterdisk and it sounded huge.

to be continued...