Sunday, January 6, 2019

All-around Breakdown: Experimental Artist Graham Dunning On His "Mechanical Techno" Set-up & Tentation 12-inch LP (White Denim #27)


"Tweaking, improving, and modifying a machine is what I've been doing with Mechanical Techno since starting the project a few years ago. This process gives the record it's title, the mostly obsolete word, "tentation;" a more colloquial word for the same thing might be fettling. The two tracks that make up this album are each made through a process of fettling a musical machine.

I started playing more abstract, Noise-based turntable sets in 2008, usually playing with several turntables, modified hardware and vinyl, guitar effects pedals, cymbals, springs, marbles, rolls of tape, dentistry tools, and anything I could get my hands on. The focus in the early days was texture, drone, controlled feedback, and surface noise, but still with some rhythmical elements that scratched up records naturally provide. I used randomly occurring snippets of sound and samples disconnected from context quite a lot in those early recordings and live sets, too.

Sometime later, I began an aleatoric recording project using several sound sources with different loop lengths—locked-groove records, tape loops, live mics, modulating synths, and more—which I called Music By The Metre (Entr'acte, 2014.) The idea was that I'd build a kind of music-making machine from multiple components and once set up, allow the machine to run and do its own thing.


Evolving out of these projects (plus, my background in making sample-based Electronic music on a computer with a step sequencer) I started developing Mechanical Techno in early 2014. The basic idea is to use the turntable as a sequencer. On top of a normal SL-1200, several layers of vinyl are stacked on top of one another, each divided by a wooden spacer. As they're on a single axle, all the layers turn at the same time and stay approximately together; an idea I took from the abstract turntable duo Vinyl-Terror & -Horror. Each layer can make sound in a different way: some use a normal tone-arm to play a record with some parts blanked out by adhesive plastic, snippets of samples are played rhythmically, some have pegs at regular intervals which flick against electronic drum triggers to play beats, some have copper strips, which allow a synthesizer note to play with each rotation.

As a live performance, I build the tower of records on-the-fly. Each new layer adds a new sound allowing the audience to recognise how the sounds are being generated. The precariousness of the tower and the instability of the system adds some theatre to the show. In the studio, I build the tower in a different way each time: the building of the machine is the building of the track. Once I'm happy with the way it sounds as a loop, I'll move to the mixing desk and make a dub mixdown of the sounds, fettling it as it plays. I'll record a few takes this way to stereo—then, the final tune is just an edit from one of these takes."


A1 - "Another Rhythem"

"The whole track really developed out of the way the initial piano sample was looping. It's made from the first hit of an unknown white label record. A piece of thread tied to the tone arm stops it [from] progressing along the groove, pulling it back to the start. Normally with this technique, the loop loops once for each turn of the record—every four beats—but for some reason here, due to the particular set-up of the system, it clicks back to the start every three rotations, every 12 beats. The way the counterweight was set, the speed of rotation of the deck, how worn the needle was, all contribute to this—it was unplanned on my part, but the feature on which the whole tune is based.

The hand clap-type sound is made from a few scratches on an otherwise blank record (some white labels you come across are single-sided.) Several deep lines, close together, cut with a Stanley knife at 12 O'clock and roughly 6 O'clock create this rhythm. The fast series of clicks created by the scratches creates something like a synthetic hand clap sound. The waveforms of the two look very similar, too. In all the recordings I make, the records and the samples are deliberately "scratchy"—the surface noise is as important a part of the composition as the sample itself.

I only use white labels in the Mechanical Techno project and white labels that I've found second-hand in charity shops or car boot sales. A record with unprinted white labels normally signifies one of two things: (1) it could be a test pressing of a release sent out to the label and artist prior to the main run beginning for them to check for errors; or (2) it could be a short-run of an independent Dance music release, made by DJ's for DJ's. Something designed to be played for the dance floor, rather than sold en masse, so doesn't need a nice design or even any print at all. Either way, I like to think of white labels as being special in some way, more important than regular mass-produced vinyl. Finding them second-hand, discarded and unloved, has a poinginecy for me. Coming across a whole bunch of House music white labels amongst the usual Easy Listening tat [ie: "Dollar Bin" records] in a charity shop might signify a specific person's broken dreams—didn't make it as a DJ, so just send the records to the junk shop.


Dance music, itself, can be very fickle. Styles, sub-genres, and sounds can go out of fashion very quickly, but it also, has a deep history of recycling itself, re-discovering lost sounds, re-using classic sounds (try to imagine a world without an open 909 Hi-hat, or the "Amen" Break.) Crate-digging is a type of social archaeology—sampling unfashionable records for me is a way of recognising the importance of them. Dance music is constantly eating itself and sh*tting itself back out. In Mechanical Techno I'm physically recycling records, as well as sampling from them.

The live mixdown of the track is all through the mixing desk as a dub mixdown. In dub, the mixing desk becomes an instrument, but the material already exists, the dub producer normally doesn't generate sound themself. A dub mixdown is a live arrangement, a live composition, and an improvisation. My mixdowns are unrehearsed, often the first take is the best take and often, things I did by mistake are my favourite parts. In general, I can't abide slickness in music and it's something I consciously avoid. In these tracks, I use typical dub effects delay and reverb—aiming for both a claustrophobic and cosmic sound through the manipulation of spatial effects. The misspelling of "rhythm" as "rhythem" in the title came from an early recording session. I kept it in as the wrong spelling and carried it forward, in the spirit of the project."


B1 - "Ping Pong Rhythem"

"Since February 2016, I've been using Ping Pong balls on the top of the Mechanical Techno tower as part of the live performance. Rolling around on the surface, they strike some Piezo Discs, which trigger a Nord Drum synth tuned to play some FM bell tones. The ridiculousness of the set-up often gets a laugh from the audience and there's something mesmerising about the orange balls rolling around fairly randomly, whilst the rest of the beat plays on, but there's also, something musically coherent in this semi-random rolling, which I wanted to try and capture in the studio for the first time on this track. I kept one hit of the digi-bells consistent to anchor the sound into a kind of riff or melody, punting the Ping Pong balls about to let them hit with different irregularity.

The "farty" bass sound comes from a cheap little analogue synth made by a company called Gakken. It works a bit like a stylophone, playing a note when you touch the stylus pen against a resistive strip. I modified the Gakken to have these contact points on the end of a wooden tonearm, then, made some records with copper strips at intervals on their surface. When the copper passes under the contacts, the synth plays a note. It worked better on paper than in practice, so the synth quite often misfires or sounds a bit weak: this is very much something I encouraged to give it a distinct character.

The cymbal sound comes from another copper strip record, one with four evenly spaced bars on it. I made a little circuit with a battery and a solenoid—like the type that strikes the notes in a doorbell—and placed it near a broken cymbal. So, the off-beat hi-hat sounds are acoustically played, electrically triggered. Something I'd not anticipated was that this very rudimentary circuit also, caused some electromagnetic interference—a very short, but significant audible spike—in various channels of the mixing desk each time it fired. It comes very slightly before the cymbal ping each time, as the solenoid striker takes a few milliseconds to move and reach the cymbal. At first, I thought this ruined the whole recording, but I accepted it as an unusual additional percussion element and went with it.

Each time I build the machine in the studio, I also, set up the mixing desk and effects in a different way. Here the main reverb is provided by two spring reverb tanks, each out of the back of a different guitar amp, one for the left channel and one on the right. There's also, a big compressor on the reverb signal, which can take a side-chain input from various other signals—sometimes, it sounds like being plunged into water before the rhythm comes back. A couple of times in the track, I also, send the reverb signal back into the tanks, causing them to feed back. As the tanks are open, there are a couple of bits when I've muffled them from ringing out using a bit of felt. As with the machine itself, and using a turntable, in general, I like the tactility of a spring reverb, both as an effect and as a sound source. It's a physical object you can touch to directly change the sound—often, with unpredictable results."


"[Tentation] was released by White Denim in September 2018. Matt Korvette got in touch with my studio mate Natalie Sharp, whose project Lone Taxidermist had been touring with his group, Pissed Jeans. I had these tracks already recorded and ready to go, so it was great to have the opportunity to put them out on vinyl as an LP. I'm really grateful to Matt for being so supportive and enthusiastic about my work, despite us not having met in-person.

Josh Bonati mastered the record at his studio in Brooklyn and was kind enough to show me 'round, when I was on holiday there. For anyone interested in this experimental branch of turntablism, I've taken a great deal of influence from the following artists (amongst many others): Milan Knizak, Christian Marclay, Vinyl-Terror & -Horror, Thomas Brinkmann, Maria Chavez, Otomo Yoshikide, Philip Jeck, Janek Schaeffer, and Joke Lanz."

- Graham Dunning (@grahamdunning)

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