Mark Vernon & Pause Buttons

As I mentioned before, I visited with Mark Vernon the weekend before last and we talked at length about his amazing collection of amateur tape recordings, approaches to composing and the whole relationship to sound that develops when you get seriously interested in recording it. I really value the opportunity to talk to other artists who are interested in sound and who understand such things as why I might want to record their uniquely squeaky floorboards*, and I learned much from Mark Vernon in our short exchange.

One of the many things we talked about was how a medium that’s as physical as magnetic tape leads to errors and processes that are less easily made or followed using today’s recording equipment. With an old reel to reel player it is very easy to put the tape in the wrong way, to go at the wrong speed or to physically damage the medium in some way. Furthermore, because of having to rewind and fast-forward your way around a tape, it is easy to record things in the wrong place, to record in the middle of something else, or to just plain record over the top of something. The sounds of the equipment being used are much more noticeable in recordings made on old tape machines. The click and clunk of machine-parts, the hiss of the tape going through the machine when you play the tape back etc. are all part of how analogue technology is more flawed, noisier, messier and less sleek than digital technology. I’m struggling for the right words here, so I might revert to Rob Sheffield who says so much better than I can, what it is that tapes have and what it is that we experience when we start listening to them;

The cassette is full of tape hiss and room tone; it’s full of wastes space, unneccessary noise. Compared to the go-go-go rhythm of an MP3, mix tapes are hopelessly inefficient. You go back to a cassette the way a detective sits and pours drinks for the elderly motel clerk who tells stories about the old days – you know you might be somewhat bored, but there might be a clue in there somewhere. And if there isn’t, what the hell? It’s not a bad time. You know you will waste time. You plan on it.

– Rob Sheffield, Love is a Mixtape

I love the way Rob Sheffield writes, and I love the way Mark Vernon thinks about tape;

…that’s another thing you become aware of – how things are juxtaposed, on a tape. It’s one thing after another after another after another after another… sometimes they’re recorded over or things are chopped off. And I think I became more aware of those kind of accidental or non-deliberate things, and how you can use those or incorporate them.

– Mark Vernon, talking about tape

Thinking about tape in this way and also reading Alvin Lucier’s book Reflections has got me thinking about how I record things. I have a tendency towards editing everything. I love my digital recorder. I love the quality of the recordings I get from it, I love how rapidly files can be retrieved off my SD card and edited, I love that I can normalize all the sounds until they are as loud as possible without peaking out, and I love that I can edit out unwanted sounds of frequencies with relative ease and convenience. I also love the portability and unobtrusiveness of the technology; I love that it can literally sit in my hand or my pocket and record from wherever I stand. I love that when I put the headphones in my ear, I can hear the world around me in much greater detail. I never have gotten over the wonder of putting my earphones on and hearing the world in close, sonic focus. It never ceases to be amazing, to listen – effectively – through a microscope. And I wouldn’t trade my trusty EDIROL for all the reel-to-reel recorders in the world. But I am interested in the imaginative relationship that I nonetheless have with analogue technology and the nostalgic and iconic qualities possessed by actual tape. I am interested in the memories I assign to specific cassettes I owned in the past, and curious as to why no mix-CD I have ever owned or mp3 playlist has ever held quite the same physical fascination, say, as an old C60 green cassette that I once had with Vangelis’ Chariots of Fire soundtrack recorded on it. I loved that tape, its blocky plasticity in my hand and the way my obsessive playing, fast-forwarding and rewinding stretched it so that Vangelis’ chords warbled and oscillated much more than they had when the original recording was made.

So when Mark Vernon began talking about how working with old, found tapes has changed his perspective on digital recording, I was really interested to hear how he had rationalised or combined his understandings of both mediums. He talked about a project he is working on where the pause-button function on a flash recorder is used in between recording different sounds, in place of the STOP button. So you walk around with the recorder paused and then release the PAUSE button, record whatever you want to record next, and then PAUSE it again in readiness for the next thing. If one uses the STOP button, a new track is created for each sound, meaning that the sounds are discretely saved as different files. Using the PAUSE button between sounds means that sounds are piled up one after the other in a single file… rather like the way that sounds are collaged one after the other on a cassette tape.

It may sound like a subtle distinction to make because – afterall – one could always (as I normally do) record any interesting sounds distinctly and separately, and then edit and collate them on a computer. But in so doing, one gets to maintain a lot of control over the final product, and sometimes it’s nice – even desirable – to relinquish some control to a process. Using the PAUSE button to edit recordings on the fly does mean that sometimes you inadvertently hit the recorder on when you didn’t mean to, or forget to unpause it when a desired sound occurs. It also means that you have to think more carefully about the order that things are recorded in, since it is much harder to cut up and splice a single sound file than it is to collate individual sound files. I was fascinated by the idea of the PAUSE button portrait project that Mark is undertaking, where he creates sonic portraits of the interiors of peoples’ homes, using the PAUSE button as an immediate editing tool between recording various sonic instances around the home. He is layering these with snippets of dialogue of people talking about their homes and the results I’ve heard so far are stunning.

I was so inspired that I went around my bedsit recording all the sounds inside it using only the PAUSE button between sounds and then not editing the final result in any way. I also used the PAUSE button to edit my soundwalk today, breaking up the journey from Oxford Brookes to Reading into sections of 10 second recordings, made at 100-step intervals. In my home, I found that using the PAUSE button meant that I became quite thoughtful about what to do next in terms of deciding on what sound to ‘make.’ I didn’t want to contrive it too much, so I went through the things I had been planning to do anyway, but ordering the activities somewhat according to the sequence in which I wanted the sounds to be recorded. It was interesting; the process of recording and listening and thinking about what I would do next based on sound was quite new. In terms of the soundwalk, I loved how using the PAUSE button in between every 100 steps of walking meant that all the segments of sound I collected were edited ‘in camera’ so to speak, as one single file. It’s possibly the worst recording I’ve ever made, technically, since there was quite a lot of wind about and I still don’t have a pop-shield for incredibly windy moments. Ordinarily, I wait for the wind to die down if I’m trying to record in windy situations, but the process I imposed over my recordings today didn’t allow for that kind of contrivance at all. I’m pleased with the sense of transit in the recording; the sense of moving stage-by-stage through different geographies that has ended up in the final recording, and I enjoyed using a new process to collect my sounds.

This is the kind of thing that artists give you; a new way of seeing familiar things. I love that it’s possible to rediscover a tool that you use every single day of your life, just by talking with someone about how they use theirs. So thanks Mark for the PAUSE button tip! I am interested to see how your PAUSE button portraits work out and inspired to play more with in-recorder editing. In the meantime, I need to knit a pop-shield.

I am also currently really enjoying Hairwaves – this was a collaboration between Zoë Irvine and Mark Vernon, in collaboration with Glasgow designers Freight (it’s amazing! A whole CD of compositions created using recordings made at the hairdressers, field-recordings of blow-driers and suchlike, and really amazing interviews with people about… hair.)

You can read more about Mark Vernon at www.meagreresource.com/

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