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Static - Noise, Or Music Sound Scaping?
By Mick Polich - 10/27/2010 - 09:30 PM EDT

Static…..noise, a steady hum of electronic hiss, pop……………. trying to transmit over AM radio airwaves………old-school DJ’s spinning vinyl, yeah, there was a day back in the ‘90’s when static was sampled for ‘musical’ purposes, to establish a mood, a groove…static….

Early October,2010:

It’s an unseasonable 80 degrees in the evening as I sit down after a weekend of lawn work, splitting wood, spray painting furniture, beer in hand, looking out at the north side of Storm Lake. I have some AM radio station barely dialed in from Omaha (it’s a haul for some radio signals from Omaha, hell, ANYPLACE, to make it up to my radio here, but that’s o.k.), listening to the Saints/Cardinals game well into the 4th quarter. Of course, I had some other column idea in mind, but I decide to switch it up, and talk about an effect that has been used as a musical dressing, annoyance, and part and parcel of transmitting sound since the telephone, and the first phonograph machine. I remember my years on my uncle and aunt's farm – my mom passed on, dad had to work the night shift at John Deere, so I stayed at my uncle and aunt’s farm north of Des Moines, Ia. for a few years – listening to my uncle dial up Minnesota Twins games at night as he got ready to turn in. Static abounded, but in a nostalgic way – still, the template was set for me: I dug the sound of noise – mechanical, hum, and static, for whatever reason. How would this effect apply to my musical directions in life? Could I use this effect in my own musical creations?

I started to research about ‘musik concrete’’ pioneers such as Stockhausen, the guitarist Elliott Sharp, and folks who were getting entrenched in the downtown scene ala New York City back in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. A few select, close high school buddies (who later went on to local infamy in our post – high school group with our 'band', the “Loadz”) and I would check out the emerging punk/No Wave/electronic scene with great glee. Sheee-at, kids, there was somebody else with a twisted sense of humor who enjoyed dissonance, noise, and bent lyrical content in the musical universe. Ian Drury and the Blockheads, Material,Bill Laswell – thanks for the memories!

So, what has this got to do with ‘static’? Well, ‘static’ as an effect, a musical statement, and at times, ambient sonic layering, can kind sneak up on you. Back in the day ( abeit the late ‘70’s), certain artists were getting sick of what they termed ‘corporate music’ on the airwaves. In revolt, these artists stripped down rock and pop (and thus, the recording process it took to make the music), and took it back to its raw roots in structure and sound. So, in listening to,say, early Clash, Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks, the Jam, or any number of era bands, not only would you hear ragged, on-the-edge playing and music, but the recordings left in amp noise, hiss, and hum. To my ears, this gave this music a certain personality, as much as the polished smooth of the day, say, Fleetwood Mac, Foreigner, or Pablo Cruise (Wikipedia – it all, chid’lins…..). Thus, ‘static’ was as much a part of the music as the A5th’ power chord ’……

‘Musik concrete’ pioneers have been using what’s been deemed the unusable elements of audio recording for years. Stockhausen, Masami Akita (a.k.a. Merzbow), Derek Bailey, and others would delve into noise use static as another musical layer in their compositions (open your mind up on the ‘compositions’ part, youngsters – o.k., close it back up if you wanna…)

I’ve got a drum machine from Boss – late ‘90’s model called “Dr. Groove”. On a few of the hip hop loops, there is programmable static, as in vinyl hiss and scratch (big thing when DJ’s from the era  were  sampling records from the previous twenty to thirty years ). I still use the pedal (not just for that effect alone). Fun stuff ,in my world – and useable.

Static has been with us since the early days of audio broadcasting and recording – it is as musical as you would like to make it, or as memory – envoking as you wish.

It’s definitely a take-it-or-leave-it part of sound, music, and the recording arts. If you’re looking to expand, add to, or change your musical palette, samples of static, noise, and distortion, when used correctly, c an heighten the sense of drama in sound painting.  Alot  of  old – school stuff from the early days of hip hop and rap that has a sampled drum loop ( thanks, James Brown – hope everybody is getting their fair share now as far as your family and old band mates that provided SO much for the early days of sampling……) will have recorded static from the vinyl it was lifted from.

Me? Well, I tell ya, static just brings home my old record collection, and all those late-night Twins baseball games from my uncle’s farm……wonderful!

Keep exploring, and keep experimenting, peeps – bless you all, and later!




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