In Car Audio

Where to start? I’m too old for this shit, anyway! I’ve been in and out of bands since I was 13; been playing piano ever since my late uncle David taught me how to play “Billy Wash Your Dirty Shirt” on granny’s old Emerson when I was four. I’ve toured, recorded, been on telly, radio, played in pubs to one man and his dog (literally – in an old toilet called The Sir George Robey in Finsbury Park, around 1991), played huge festivals, been signed to a label, the lot. But it was never my own music. I was always either a hired hand or simply along for the ride, so my creative input was restricted by the fact that I was not in charge. (truth be told, I probably spent a lot more time making the tea for those who were!) Sure there were some laughs, but also some catastrophes and times when I very, very nearly lost it all.

I’d been trying, best I could, to impart some of my ‘wisdom’ to the undergrads at the London College of Music, and soon realised that I needed some form of creative release to instantiate a sense of through-put, whereby continuing to create stuff I could keep my lecture content relatively fresh. The Uni was kind enough to facilitate me doing an MA in Advanced Music Technology, which I began alongside my lecturing schedule. It was a little humbling to realise that 20 years of banding, recording, sessioning, roadying (and, of course, making tea) hadn’t amounted to much other than a basic overview of some aspects of the industry. I was thrust into the wonderland of surround-sound, visual programming languages, acoustics and psychoacoustics, not to mention research and academic protocol. I muddled through, learning more in the space of two years than I’d learnt in a lifetime of climbing in and out of the back of transit vans, tour busses and recording studio kitchens. Pretty soon it came time for me to undertake the ‘final project’ – the culmination of all of my studies. I was given a blank sheet, on which to demonstrate that I was indeed a Master of Arts. I was to create an audio artefact, underpinned by a not insignificant body of research. What should I do? I have a studio full of kit, so why not put it to some good use and make a record?

So, there I was sat in my room, looking at the array of apparatus I’d amassed over the years – guitars, synths, samplers, mixers, microphones, tin whistles and all manner of obsolete gadgetry, begged, borrowed, stolen and, occasionally, purchased. I have sample libraries, midi files, patches, patterns and presets-a-plenty, more than I will ever use. The world was my oyster and I had many swords with which it to open.

I knew that with all these tools I could do pretty much anything. Should I produce a chillout album? A country blues record? A rock opera? Classical? Jazz? What about a foray into post-dub industrial doom-core?

I had the strangest experience. It was an overwhelming and very sudden sense of boredom and frustration, mixed with some hopelessness and depression. Had all my hard work amounted to nothing other than yet another re-invention of the wheel? Haven’t we got enough chillout / country blues / rock opera /classical / jazz / doom-core? Isn’t the internet full of more of this stuff than even the most dedicated musicologist has time even of which to scratch the surface?

I knew the sounds that all this kit could make. I knew it backwards. How was I going to make anything new, innovative, interesting, if all I was doing was succumbing to the music technology industry and dialling up presets and pre-recorded wave files only to organise them into a slightly different order to that of a billion other electronica producers?

I sat back in my chair and averted my gaze away from the hard-drives and hammond organ and drifted into a dark dream of disillusionment. I could see my assessment feedback: “A well-crafted audio artefact, utilising many of the skills you have learnt as part of the course, but lacking in any real sense of purpose or innovation.”

My lovely and long-suffering wife brought me in a cuppa and, on hearing of my frustration, suggested doing something different.  She wondered if I could combine my interest in cars with a composition, perhaps incorporating car noises into the orchestration. My eyes opened and I found myself looking at my £250 Golf MkIIIIMG_1872 sat semi-rotting on the driveway, and a disjointedly daft thought flashed through my mind that perhaps I could collaborate with my car! I shook this nonsense out of my head and looked down. I found myself looking at an old portable minidisk recorder I’d bought off Ebay many years ago and studied its form, determining that it was probably about the same age as my car. I then started looking around the studio, in a desperate yet familiar act of procrastination, to see what else harked back to that era. My gaze fell upon my Akai sampler in the rack atop an old MIDI Function Junction. Hold on, was a plan starting to form? An angle? A topic? A concept? Make a record out of anything from the 1990s?

Drunk on a cocktail of desperate determination and idiotic despair, I plugged an old camcorder mic into the minidisk recorder and marched out to the car, and something started to happen. I had read in some ancient music tech mag about using ‘found sound’ to spice up recordings and just thought “why not? I’ve got bugger all else to contribute!” I listened back to the recordings I had made but I started hearing in a different way. I compared the sound the car door made when I slammed it to the sound of it closing gently, and discovered in that innately inert rotting green heap of neglected and insignificant automobilia, a sense of dynamics. A soft ‘close’ versus a purposeful ‘slam’ gave the car a voice with which it could describe two emotions – gentle optimism and angry determination. That’s music, isn’t it? It can’t be, it’s just noise. Hang on, what’s the difference??

And so my academic question established itself. What is the difference between noise and music? I pondered for a while but needed some help. I turned to a book called Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, and came across a letter some turn-of-the-century composer had written to his mate. In this letter he described his boredom and exasperation with the sound of the orchestra, the fact that all he seemed to be doing was arranging the same old sounds just in a slightly different order. This was at the time of the industrial revolution, a time when the streets were alive with the alien sounds of hydraulic pumps, steam engines, and mechanisation. The chap, Russolo, spoke of his wonder at these new and intriguing sounds and started to ask why he could not compose for them rather than for the traditional orchestra, a collection of sounds he knew backwards.

It was like I had made a friend!

My only frustration was the fact that I could not travel back through time with my minidisk recorder and my sampler and give him a hand! So I thought I would do the next best thing and write an opus using nothing but the sounds I could get from cars.

However, I was determined that this project was not to become an inaccessible avant-garde electro-acoustic squeaky-door experiment into sonic weirdness. I still wanted to make a pop record. So I did. And I also did a lot of thinking and writing about the notion of noise, and what has to happen to it sonically, psychologically and culturally in order that it can be considered music.

It came together quite well, in my opinion, and I got a great mark for the project. The question is: what the hell do I do with it now? That’s why I’m writing this – to get some sense of what I have done and where to go with it next. I am just full of questions! Do I start a record label and sign myself up? No other label is going to know what to do with this stuff, it’s too bonkers to fit in with any kind of promo campaign. Do I just stick it all on Soundcloud and share the link? Should I make some accompanying videos and put it all on YouTube and watch the halfpennies roll in? Should I start furthering my research into the noise/music debate and submit papers to symposiums and become a Doctor of Noisy Racket? No idea!

So I will just try a few things out and see if anything sticks, blogging my efforts to anyone interested. Is anyone interested? Maybe the tracks will see the light of day, but if my past experience and endeavour is anything to go by, the whole project will simply find itself laying abandoned on some hard-drive somewhere. Let’s see.