What makes a single element ‘phonographic’?

Or narrowing down on the difference between an overdub and a sample…

So, last night—one day before the end of term—I was in an exhausted state but felt I should crate-dig in my hard drives of jams and pull out something inspiring from the recordings to spend some hours in the studio. I came across a (Yamaha) grand piano recording I had self-captured at the University of Westminster studios the year before. I had used some excellent mics (two Neumann U87s over the sound holes of the piano and a stereo ribbon AEA R88 facing the piano lid from a distance), giving me both a solid, clear stereo image of the instrument, as well as a warmer, mellower room tone that I could blend in to change the staging of the piano. 

Reacting to the source, and—I believe—inspired by the recently documented epiphanies, I did many things differently to my usual beat-making M.O. I quickly reached out for a vintage reverb emulation software plugin (an AKG BX20 spring reverb that I have been favouring a lot since my dub experiments) and applied it only to the closer (U87) mics (using sends from them to the reverb). I was aiming for a mellow, more distant tone; I also wanted to make the piano more three-dimensional on the Z axis. I guess I was making it feel farther away, both in terms of physical illusion, but also conceptually. I was chasing that phonographic ‘otherness’, probably quite consciously attempting to make it feel more mysterious.

Synchronising the sampling drum-machine (MPC) via wireless link to the DAW playing back the piano tracks (Ableton), I loaded it up with banks of drum samples and some sampled vinyl crackle (that I often capture from the end of vinyl LPs). Normally, my first track is a kick drum or a complete beat, but I wanted to distance the piano right away even more. So, I programmed a combination of vinyl noise samples that made the four-bar piano patterns running in parallel feel like they had been sampled from a record. This isn’t as simple always as adding some noise—the rhythm of that noise needs to feel temporally related to the loop or music underneath. With the piano and noise combo feeling convincing, I scanned the 40’ recording of the piano jam, for tight and inspiring moments. (There was a long gap in my performance where I guess I ran out to the control room to change the metronome settings, judging by the stool creaks and environmental noises…) I then programmed a beat feeding off the main rhythm motif (particularly the bass / left hand of the piano that I seemed to have settled on in the later parts of the recording). The beat featured a lot of sub kicks and pitched 808 booms, and I remember consciously trying to pinpoint the aesthetic somewhere between the use of organic drum samples (single hits from funk breaks) and more synthetic, Trap-inspired, percussive elements. I was after something contemporary, but still rooted in my preference for a boom-bap foundation; but I didn’t want it to sound old. This aesthetic struggle is something I can hear in the work of a lot of contemporary hip-hop producers (it made me think I should check out the last DJ Shadow record that sounds a lot more synthetic on the drums, as opposed to his sample-based past). It may also be why a lot of the current boom-bap resurgence relies almost exclusively on chopped up content—with any percussive elements it may already contain—doing away altogether with the programmed beat layer aesthetic conundrum… I also wanted it to be quite glitchy (as in, referential to Glitch-Hop) and I have been listening a lot recently to a Stones Throw artist named Kiefer, who combines jazz keys performance with very glitchy, boom-bap inspired beats, so this was definitely another (sub)conscious reference. As a result, I heavily compressed the MPC mix output with an onboard compressor making the setting ‘pump’ considerably and—I’d say—favourably to the piano ‘sample’ (to be).

Given the heavy subs, I reached out for my guitar rather than the bass, and spent (unreasonably) long dialling in a pickup-pedal(s)-amp emulation-channel preamp-tape machine tone that sat well over the beat, crackle and piano. Before recording some guitar ideas, I decided to give the piano mix itself some ‘colour’ that would have occurred in older recording eras as a combination of recording and mixing formats and practices. Looking for ‘glue’ with the guitar I applied the same multitrack tape machine emulation (and tape format) to both the individual looping piano subgroups/tracks and the incoming guitar. I then run the full piano mix, including the reverb, through a mastering EQ, a Neve mix-bus compressor and both a master tape-machine and vinyl emulation.

I remember thinking I was chasing a sonic phenomenon I became aware of in one of the recent experiments of the last few nights; one that I don’t feel I have described effectively yet, as it is of a sonic nature and a little intangible:

It is that of a sonic illusion of a contained, three-dimensional sound world. Contained, because the process (EQ, compression) and format (tape, vinyl) colourations—or ‘media-based staging’, to cite Zagorski-Thomas—seem to infuse the equivalent of a sonic ‘membrane’ over the mix construction. A sound world, and three-dimensional at that, because the mix ‘construction’ is much more than a direct/close representation of an instrumental performance (again the literature on staging covers this sufficiently). It is an illusion of a source (i.e. piano) existing in space (i.e. both the captured space from the microphone representations and the added space of digital reverberation). This ‘sound-world’ then interacts with the mix-buss processing chain of EQ (i.e. the equalisation curve is perceptible not only on the instrument but also on the ‘space’, e.g. as air) plus compression (i.e. the three-dimensional sonic construct/illusion pumping against the compressor). It also gets contained by the tape and vinyl colourations and ensuing sonic characteristics. At this point, and underneath/within the beat, it assumes a phonographic ‘otherness’. I believe that the essential aesthetic of sample-based music forms—and the key differentiation between a sonic element and a sample at the heart of their processes—is this interaction with staged sonic objects, carrying markers of phonographic process. It is a phonographic process interacting with previously (even if very recently) committed phonographic processes. This kind of layering can become exponential, and sample-based music forms deal not with mixing elements, but mixing and manipulating ‘masters’ (staged sound worlds).

—a lesson learned from attempting to construct phonographic moments that function as effective sources facilitating a sample-based hip-hop compositional process: making records, not recordings, within records.

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