Several years ago, my wife and I spent a good deal of time traveling around Thailand. It seemed that whenever we stopped at a souvenir shop to buy postcards, we would see one particular picture over and over again. They were all different photographs, taken by different people at different times, but they were all remarkably similar. They showed a stone carved head of the Buddha cradled in the roots of a tree. It’s an incredibly romantic image that seems to capture the Buddhist concept of impermanence as well as the endurance of the spirit and, after months of coming across this photograph, my wife and I finally decided to see it for ourselves. What we found when we got there were crowds of camera toting tourists, trinket shops, food stands and lots of trash. In the middle of it all was this head in a tree. The effect was anything but romantic. One by one, we tourists all lined up with our cameras and carefully framed our shots to exclude the messy reality of the situation.
For a while after that, I made a point of not excluding from my pictures what I normally would. I left in the power-lines, the traffic, the crowds and the trash. Problem was, those pictures sucked. I don’t want objective reality from my art. I want art to communicate a point of view and that requires, to some degree, the filtering out of irrelevant details. The question is then – how much filtering? Carefully framing a shot is one thing, but loading it into photoshop and manipulating it to the nth degree is quite another. Our tools have become so powerful that we run the danger of making things too clean, too simple, too carefully framed. Art is not a representation of reality but I find it most effective when it preserves the illusion of reality.
Ok, time to segue to sampling. Here’s a recording of a pyrex bowl being played by wetting the fingers and running them around the rim.
As you can hear there are lots of squeeky rubbing sounds. What I can do is cut out all the squeaks and connect the remaining parts into one continuous loop. Then I can run it through a multi-band compressor to tame some of the more strident frequencies. This makes a very clean sounding instrument.
To me though it sounds too generic. There are lots of similar sounding sampled instruments out there that sound much better than my three dollar pyrex bowl. The imperfections are what give this instrument it’s unique character, it’s childish little-engine-that-could, I’m-just-a-kitchen-appliance-trying-to-be-an-instrument charm. If I leave the squeaks in though, another problem crops up.
As the instrument loops you can hear the same squeak over and over which betrays the artificiality of the instrument. There are several solutions and, practical or not, I’ll try them all so we can compare them.
#1 make a longer loop
This works except that the loop always starts in the same place. When playing a succession of notes listen to how each note starts in the exact same way. Subconsciously I think this un-natural predictability is noticed.
#2 randomize the sample start point.
This is only possible in “sampler mode” and is done by using the randomize sample start script. I rather like this solution. It only requires a loop of decent length and is highly variable. Keep in mind though that “sampler mode” loads the entire sample into memory. If we were using a larger instrument this would be a problem.
#3 use round robin programing to alternate between a set number of starting points.
Not truly random but variable enough for my tastes.
#4 layer different length loops against each-other.
This creates the illusion of variability because with each pass, the relationship between the different length loops changes. Not the best solution in this situation, but this trick can come in very handy.
#5 randomize the squeeks.
This is the most difficult solution to set up, but offers the user the most control. I wrote a script that randomly plays one of 10 squeaking sounds. There are controls that let the user choose the volume of the squeaks and how frequently they happen. There are brief ducks in volume and pitch at the same time as the squeaks to help “marry” the two sounds together. For better or worse, this sort of control over detail typifies digital art. It will be interesting to see where we go from here. Is mastery over detail the next frontier or will we gain new appreciation for randomness, chance and circumstance?
All the versions of the Pyrex bowl instrument are available in the download section. Since each instrument is unique, they work well when played together. For the song this week, I decided to further blur the line between polished and un-polished, acoustic and digital, by incorporating my sampled bowls into a very raw piano recording. Can you imagine an ensemble of pyrex bowl players gathered around the piano in my living room?