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Some Alternative Methods of Composition

This article describes several alternative methods for composition. The methods are in no particular order, but they are things that I tried.

Why consider such methods? You may be short of money and cannot afford gizmos: new or vintage. You may have a penchant for anarchism. Maybe, you learned that a little focused, deliberate destruction provokes productive brainstorming. Perhaps deep down, you really hate music but still find yourself strangely compelled to making it despite all protests from others to please, in the name of humanity, stop!

Phono-Input Distortion

Use a phonograph preamplifier as a distortion effect. Together, the very high gain plus the high-frequency emphasis of the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) Equalization Curve produce a truly obnoxious and painful distortion.

  1. Caution: Turn the volume down — all the way down — on your amplifier before you begin.
  2. Plug a line-level signal into the Phono input of any amplifier or preamplifier.
  3. Slowly and cautiously raise the volume.

Shout at Your Record Player

The needle of a phonograph can pick up nearby acoustic sounds.

  1. Leave the needle of a phonograph on a quiet part of a spinning record. The best place is the lead-out groove.
  2. Shout or scream really loudly at the needle.
  3. The needle picks up the sound. The amplifier amplifies it. Record the line-level output.

Broken Stuff

Have you found or were given something that otherwise seems useless? But if you strike it or turn it on, it makes sound.

I had an old bass amplifier that gradually became a tone generator. With no instrument plugged-in, it generated a noisy, low growl, kind of like a muffled washing machine. I believe that the insulating layers in the capacitors had dried out. Rather than repair it, I recorded it.

I also salvaged the damaged speaker from a clock radio after it received a bath of spilled coffee. Plug the headphone output of some audio device to the speaker leads and play something loud.

8-Track Cartridges

These may be getting very hard to find, but during the 1980s, 8-Track cartridges were a rewarding, though laborious and imprecise, method to manipulate and degrade sound.

An 8-Track cartridge is a long tape loop contained within a plastic cartridge. This medium was designed for mobile playback of prerecorded music, originally in cars. Home stereos of the 1970s often included an 8-Track recorder.

The cheaper recorders used mechanical buttons for Pause and Fast-Forward. Such cheap recorders did not lift the tape off the play/record head when you used these buttons. You can record while in Fast-Forward. But more fun is to play these buttons to change the speed or stop the tape while you record or play. The effect can be quite impressive and funny on spoken word or laughter.

Because the tape is enclosed in a cartridge, this medium is difficult to control with precision. In addition, the cartridge is not intended to be opened. At least three types of cartridges were produced: the easiest to open used plastic clips to hold the cartridge together; another hid the clips inside the cartridge; and the least accessible was held together by rivets.

  1. For the plastic clip design, use one or two screwdrivers to wedge the halves apart. Be careful to not damage irreparably the clips that hold the cartridge halves together. If you destroy too many clips to put the cartridge back together securely, use an elastic band to hold the halves in place.
  2. Inside is one reel of tape. Note that the player pulls the tape from the center of the reel, and winds it back onto the outside. The capstan idler is part of the cartridge. When you reassemble the cartridge, you must wind the tape in the same manner.
  3. The tape itself is thin and the back is coated with graphite to reduce friction. You can cut and splice the tape with a razor blade and a splicing block for 1/4-inch, reel-to-reel tape. Because the tape heads are deep inside the player, you cannot rock the tape over the head to hear the content of the tape and thereby make precise edits. You can try to do this on an open-reel machine, but the track format is different (8 mono, 4 stereo, or 2 quadraphonic tracks) from most open-reel formats. So, you may hear multiple tracks as you listen. 8-Tracks were always best suited to the cut-up-a-bunch-of-tape, toss-it-into-the air, and splice-it-back-together method of composition.

The tapes travel in only one direction. By splicing, you can run these tapes backwards.

  1. Cut the tape once.
  2. Wind the tape to another reel. You can use on an open-reel tape recorder, two phonographs, or a movie projector. You may have trouble fitting the center hole of the reels to the machine — do what you can to make the fit snug. Note that the 8-Track reels have a flange only on one side, the bottom. The danger is that while winding, the tape can fly off the reel and become a tangled mass. So, wind slowly, and use a finger to hold the open side of the tape in place.
  3. Splice the ends of the tape back together.
  4. Reassemble the cartridge.

Erasing pre-recorded tapes can be another big challenge. The recorders don’t have a dedicated erase head, so you record new stuff over the previous stuff. For a more effective erasure, you can record a couple of passes of no signal to reduce the level of the original material before you record something new. However, some tapes are close-to impervious to such treatment. For example, one particular Barry White tape could not be obliterated. No matter the number of passes or the type of material recorded, Barry’s deep voice always came through. It was eternal.

FM Radio Transmitters

This is a bonus method that I have not tried yet, but I think should work quite well.

  1. Buy a few of those cheap FM (Frequency Modulation) radio transmitters for portable audio devices.
  2. Plug in portable audio devices.
  3. Tune the transmitters to the same frequency.
  4. Tune an FM receiver to that same or a nearby frequency.
  5. Walk the portable audio devices around the room.
  6. For a plunderphonic approach, try to interfere with broadcast radio stations.

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