Sketches of the Inchoate – The Studio

The Studio 

Emilie

We’re seated in the control room of the studio, that I’ve had built into the basement of our house, which spans the entire length of the house underground, giving me plenty of room to work with.

I’ve put on a song by Emilie Nicolas, “Sky”, to demo the space, and the clarity possible in the studio’s control room.

I’ve already set the volume to a level that is very loud, but not uncomfortable, to show that the control room allows music to be listened to at high volumes, certainly without any distortion, certainly without any rattling whatsoever, and moreover, no perceptible changes to the frequency distribution of the sounds.

As the opening percussive bells strike, Jeff says,

“The panning is so pronounced in an environment like this –

I forgot what it’s like to listen to music in a studio:

It’s just not the same.

I can hear every detail of the recording, it completely unfolds.”

He looks over to see the woofers of the NS-10 speakers above the console visibly oscillating to the strike of the bass drum at the drop of the chorus, reverberating after, pumping a fluid, creating the impression that something is alive, as Jeff thinks he hears Emilie say the word, “animal”.

The second chorus comes in, confident again he hears Emilie say, “animal”, as he feels a wave of chills wash over his skin, terribly excited by this tiny Norwegian woman, now in a location unknown to him, her mind nonetheless animated, in the room, with him, filling the air around him and in him, like a ghost.

No need for speculation

There’s something in the outside world that you want to remember later on –

How do you make that happen?

Your actual human memory can handle only so much, so you need something in the outside world to store it, which means you need a system that lets you represent the thing in question.

Language is probably the first generalized method human beings developed for doing exactly that.

Musicians developed their own language, to represent music, filled with the familiar dots and lines, and Italian annotations.

But both words and notes represent ideas.

What we’re looking for instead is something more concrete:

A representation of an actual thing in the outside world.

For example, a portrait lets you represent an image, and perhaps to better remember it, though perhaps it could instead eventually replace the actual memory.

A photograph notches up the quality of representation, since the process eliminates the role of a human interpreter of facts, that is instead automatically driven by machine –

This assures an accurate accounting of whatever’s there, though it could still of course be incomplete.

So as we transition from human language to photograph, we slip from idea and into physical reality, where your mental associations are no longer necessary to the core message of the representation.

The process that generates the representation also slips from the subjective, and into the mechanically objective –

Two people will probably use different words to describe the same thing, but they have almost no control over what happens inside a camera, once the conditions of the photo are fixed, making the representation deterministic after that point.

Now imagine looking at sheet music –

If you can’t read it, then you’re looking at a nonsense thing, and so your mental associations matter.

Now instead listen to a song you’ve stored on your phone –

It doesn’t matter what you think, at least in terms of listening, since the sound is physically real, compressing the air around you, directly triggering your senses.

In the latter case, your associations are important to a tertiary message, which is the meaning of the song, that you can’t understand unless you feel, and in some cases, unless you analyze its structure.

When you see a note, you have to imagine what it sounds like.

When you hear a note, you don’t have to do a thing.

What modern media did generally was to create a new, generalized method for representing the outside world –

You can take a picture, or record a sound, perhaps record the temperature, all allowing the conditions at the time to be recorded and recalled.

Digital technology took this idea right into the extreme, allowing absolutely anything to be represented in a single universal language –

Binary code.

This turned the giant tape machine I laboriously cleaned and loaded reels onto as a college student, into a program you can now buy for a few hundred bucks, allowing the type of signal processing that just a few decades ago required millions of dollars worth of equipment to be done on a laptop.

This is a longwinded way of saying that our studio is much more elaborate than it needs to be, both in size and in scope, and is instead a piece of memory, recreated –

A representation of my past, so that I can remember who I am, and where I come from;

It’s roughly two thousand square feet of New York City, buried in a basement, in Copenhagen –

The ghost is the real thing.

The control room

A quality recording will accurately represent the sounds it is intended to record.

A quality playback device will accurately unpack a representation of a sound.

A quality set of speakers will accurately amplify the signal generated by a playback device.

A quality control room won’t change the sounds coming out of the speakers, due to reflections and absorptions in the room.

And so the recording process begins with a sound, slips into representation, and then ends again with a sound.

The control room is where you listen to the sound of your recording, and change it to suit your imagination, or a client, if you’re me in college –

But now I have no clients, and no one else to please, other than my Ida, and my imagination, and so everything I do reflects this.

The live room

Through the sliding glass doors behind the console, is the live room, where you record live instruments, and vocals –

Rectangular, wider than deep, and wider than the control room –

The control room has additional insulation and wiring in the walls, and a deliberate structure shaped to create an acoustically neutral environment, that doesn’t change the sounds emitted by the speakers.

What you hear in the control room is as close as you can get to the undisturbed ghost that made the recording.

The live room is instead acoustically dead, so the moment you make a noise, the sound terminates, once it hits a surface in the live room, with no noticeable echo, creating a very strange environment, even for conversation, since your voice doesn’t carry at all.

This is achieved by padding the walls and the ceilings, with absorbent foams and fabrics, and covering the entire floor of the room with a thick, Persian-style rug that is specifically designed for the purpose of absorbing sound, but nonetheless gives the visual impression of an otherwise ordinary patterned rug, with an overall reddish hue, and white fringes.

The ceilings are lower in the control room, to model the original studio I grew up in, about 9 feet high, but the live room has towering, 20 foot ceilings.

The second stairwell down into the studio enters the live room, at the back left of the room –

It was built to accommodate the movement of equipment, and large instruments, and so it’s more than double the width of a normal staircase, causing the trap door above in the kitchen floor to be incredibly heavy.

To make this more manageable, we had a gearbox mounted to the kitchen wall, adjacent to the trap door, with a crank that lifts the chain, which is attached to the trap door, which when closed, leaves the chain slacked, and flush into a cutout in the surface of the trap door, so we don’t trip on the chain.

The live room is empty save for three items:

A single bass drum set, with three tom drums;

A Hughes & Kettner amplifier;

A black Steinway grand piano.

All other incidentals, like XLR cables, microphones, and mic stands, are kept in a closet in the live room.

The piano is on the center right of the room, with the keyboard visible upon entry.

I also bought the portrait of Clara Schumann by Lenbach, which hangs on the wall to the right of the piano.

The drums are on the left, roughly opposite the piano, with the drummer’s seat positioned just a few feet from the left wall.

The closet is a roughly double-wide, walk-in closet, built into the right wall of the live room, to the right of, and just behind the piano, opened by pulling on the right hand side of what appears to be another sound panel, that doubles as the door to the closet.

There’s a large and heavy sleeping bag in the closet, that we use to drape the drums when recording piano, and drape the piano when recording drums;

There are also fresh, white, hotel-style towels on a rack –

If you’re a real musician, you might sweat.

The original chandelier from the house is hanging from the center of the live room, having been replaced, with an assemblage made from twenty interleaving small gold metal chandeliers, each with bulbs atop gold metal branches, extending outward from a gold metal center, like a blasted atom, then assembled into a large collective whole, with the branches and bulbs interleaving within, shaped more or less exactly like its parts at its perimeter, with each component chandelier independently suspended, which I designed myself.

I understand that hanging a chandelier in a live room is a bad fact for acoustics, creating some reflections, maybe even sympathetic vibrations, but this is our home studio.

Moreover, even when pounding on the drum set, I’ve never heard a rattle, because the floors and walls of the room are so dead.

The only thing hitting the chandelier, as a practical matter, is the concussive force of the air from the cymbals moving, and the drum skins vibrating, which isn’t enough to move the needle, and actually make an unwanted, audible noise.

There are panels of XLR inputs mounted into the walls of the live room, just above the floors, connected to the patch bay in the control room, which in turn allows for connection to the A/D convertor, and the outboard compressors and effects modules –

This is how you take a sound picked up by a mic in the live room, and pump it to the control room, and ultimately record it.

Each panel of inputs is demarcated by a thin blue line above, which you can see from a distance.

Clara Schumann

Ida’s playing Estampes, looking out the windows of the kitchen, as I sit at a small iron cafe table with a marble top, having coffee, reading the weekend edition of the FT, and I see her staring out the window, off into the yard, watching the tree in our backyard move about the breeze, just like I did the day we found this place, but with both of us now closer to the window –

Small, leaded glass panels in a fairly large, iron-frame, painted white, only slightly distorting visibility, and only upon conscious effort to observe the uneven surface of the glass.

She’s in a white, floral printed cotton dress, with small and sparse, but bright coloring, echoing the colors from our yard.

The walls of the kitchen are pale red brick, but with tiling above the sink and stove, which are just below the window, with an arabesque pattern, blue and pale yellow color.

“I bought the Clara Schumann painting that I showed you a few months ago.”, I announce, which I suppose was rude to both of us, since we were otherwise both lost in introspection. 

“Wasn’t that in the Robert Schumann house?”, she asks.

“Yes.”

“How did you manage that?”, she asks.

“I have nothing else to do.”, to which she replies,

“You’re a moron.”

While I’m out with Ove, who’s visiting us, Ida goes into the studio –

Descending the smaller staircase, into the studio lounge, through the control room door, with the absurdist signage, walking past the console, sliding the door open to the live room, looking up into the chandelier above, then standing, her hands on her hips, staring at the portrait of Clara on the wall, she tries to understand why I’ve done this –

Looking closely at Clara’s eyes, she becomes reminded of me, without conscious effort, and so she understands, and I have no one to forgive.

Ida’s gift for me

Ida spends months studying the Brahms Intermezzo Op. 118 No. 2, ultimately playing it for me on a Sunday afternoon, in our studio, as I sit not far from the piano, with the portrait of Clara not far from Ida.

I say afterwards,

“That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me.”

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