DIY Instruments and White Label Releases
Since 2008, I have been looking at bass-inspired noise music through improvisations, working collaboratively and also performing with Dirty Electronics (Richards 2016). I am inspired by electronic dance musicians such as Autechre, Burial and Talvin Singh, whose music is characterized by a heavy bass sound. An interest in this area has led me to develop my research through practice exploring live electronics, sampling and looping techniques, and performing with purpose-built, do-it-yourself (DIY) instruments.
One of my self-imposed artistic conditions is making and exploring new sound objects through the building process and largely investigating them through practice. Exploration of the “instrument” is an important part of my methodology that involves an iterative process of building, practicing and rehearsing, recording, composing and, lastly, listening. I am interested in the outcomes — for example, the performance and the studio “works” — as a way of documenting the instrument. I take a sound object, play, rehearse, practice vigorously and push the instrument to its limits.
The process starts from the workbench and the idea of creating something bespoke excites me. Similarly, when I was a DJ, it would be the exclusive one-off “dubplates”, or limited white label vinyl, that gave you a “high” (Harter 2008). There was nothing better than having something tangible in your hands that was unique and a limited edition. No one else could replicate or duplicate these specials. In some instances, I have in a similar manner to the dubplates created a bespoke new sound object, or worked excessively with new sound material that is not widely accessible or easily imitated. The ideas and reflections explored here arose out of my background as a DJ and running and working in a UK record shop, and perhaps in later years through working with Dirty Electronics. This has made me draw parallels between the idea of the white label release and DIY instruments and the relationship with my own practice.
The White Label
A white label record is a plain, 12-inch record with a white label affixed to it bearing no information about its contents. It would have no affiliation to a record company and in some circumstances is initially manufactured to gauge if there is an interest in the music and targeted at tastemakers such as DJs, radio stations, distributors and record shops.
During the last 20 years, a cult of vinyl has arisen, one that originally centred on the practice of deejaying (be it hip-hop or house music). In these deejay worlds, the most auratic disc of all is the pre-release, white label record, a disc that — in order to preserve its exclusivity — divulges no label information at all (Osborne 2008, 283).
Some record labels manufacture white labels to check the quality of the vinyl pressing and to ensure that the music has been mastered correctly. These checks also include whether the vinyl plays correctly on a turntable without any anomalies like clicks, skips, wow and flutter.
In electronic dance music during the late 1980s and early 90s, DJs and producers would work in record shops and make their tracks on home-studio bedroom setups or in cheap local studios. They would then press up a small quantity, for example, 500 white labels, and sell them in their own stores. Similarly, independent record labels would distribute boxes of pre-release white labels at record shops, to create a “buzz” or excitement around a new record. The DJs would test the music by playing out the vinyl in bars, nightclubs and on radio. This was often all without major support from a marketing or PR firm. This method continued during the 1990s to the early 2000s. In the record shop I used to work in, the rarer exclusive vinyl was kept under the counter, stored and put away for specialist DJs who had rung in advance knowing a white label was just about to be released. The rest were sold on a first come, first served basis. The rivalry of having a special new release amongst DJs was rife and it reflected how up-to-date your music collection was. The exclusivity of the record was a symbol of how connected you were with artists, record shops and labels. More importantly, as there is no labelling on the vinyl, it isolates the music with no expectations. At this point the artist is anonymous. DJs and record collectors would have to guess by listening carefully to the contents, making the white label and the music itself esoteric:
Vinyl thus achieves most symbolic purity when surrounded by other objects, people and other commodities of the same universe of meaning, and also in particular social contexts where its meaning is seamlessly understood by participants. For example, a white label 12-inch vinyl with nothing printed on it except a numeric code is virtually worthless to most people, but possibly of immense symbolic and economic value in certain listening communities. (Bartmanski and Woodward 2015, 120)
Cost and Access
The white label presented a cheap and affordable way for upcoming producers to release music. There was no need to be signed to a big record label, although some producers did have the aspiration and intention to get signed. Despite being a good promotional tool, many titles went “unnoticed”; as the popularity of the medium rose and the affordability was relatively cheap, in the end there were too many independent artists flooding the market with their own white labels. Just because some of these releases were limited and obscure, it did not necessarily mean they were unvalued.
You were in charge of the whole process: from creating the record to manufacturing the white label to selling the product.
As it encouraged artistic freedom, producers were motivated to get their tracks out and it was often one of the easiest ways to do this for those producing dance music. You were in charge of the whole process: from creating the record to manufacturing the white label to selling the product. The selling was often done on a sale-or-return basis, which was important for record shop owners because if it did not sell, the white labels could be returned. Eventually distributors would take notice of successful white label releases and bigger quantities could be subsequently pressed and the music could become an “official” release. The range of music released on white labels was broad. The white labels I was exposed to whilst working in a record shop were largely from the genres of soul, RnB, hip-hop, UK Garage, Drum and Bass, and house music.
DJs created their own versions, remixes and re-edits by altering original records alongside their own tracks. Sometimes this was done anonymously and other times it was not. Such practices were discussed by David Hesmondhalgh in the late 1990s:
Central to such claims is the practice of remixing — the practice of taking a master and altering the arrangement of sounds to create a new version of the record. […] There is a tendency for dance music audiences to disparage the practice, but for some commentators remixing acts as a subtle deconstruction of the notion of the “original”. Secondly, there is the image of the “white label” as a form of recording which transcends or escapes commodification by being circulated only amongst DJs. […] [T]here is certainly some truth in claims that dance music has brought about a new era of Do-It-Yourself music-making. (Hesmondhalgh 1997, 173–175)
You were considered a new type of artist by making things on vinyl and it encouraged an experimental approach through the “making process”. There are clear parallels between the DIY electronic instrument maker community and limited edition white labels. In both cases there is a strong motivation to differentiate oneself from utilitarian society and mass-produced items and draw a new experience and sound world.
As Dominik Bartmanski and Ian Woodward write, “the role of analogue record for the cutting edge and underground club scenes for which the format has always had special pragmatic as well as self-reliant, anti-systemic and counter-cultural meaning” (Bartmanski and Woodward 2015, 149). This attitude is shared with the DIY electronic music community. In the DIY maker scene primarily, it is about doing it yourself: you no longer need access to big recording studios, and therein lies the rationale to be self-sufficient. Similarly, when creating white labels you can do small runs, from one-off dubplates to pressing minimal quantities. There is no need for major record labels or mainstream distributors. It is the same with my DIY instruments. They are provocatively made to be low cost and often out of throwaway materials.
The Vinyl Object
Some producers deliberately cut to white label and the vinyl would help shape the sound. In that way the materials and circuit in DIY instruments is equally critical in shaping the sound. Some artists also press vinyl as they like the feel of it and the ability to get “hands on” (Wood 2005, 11). The vinyl is obsessively handled with absolute care, many “users continually waging a losing battle to preserve their precious discs. The record itself wears out further with each successive playing as the needle, running along the grooves, wears down the information held within” (Kelly 2010, 170–171).
As an emerging noise artist I am interested in preserving my music physically, and this could be something tangible such as pressing up limited edition vinyl. As it is a physical object, vinyl records create some kind of historical artefact that can be played and revered for years, much like my DIY instruments.
Objects such as music records matter not only in an immediate utilitarian way, so to speak by themselves, but also because they are capable of generating the cultural frame of use and appreciation which then always mediates their presence and feeds back to the experience of actual object-related practices. (Bartmanski and Woodward 2013, 15)
It has been argued that you cannot get the same feeling from MP3s (Elborough 2009). Furthermore, you develop a different relationship with a digital file. With vinyl you can appreciate the object and there is a process starting with the artist credentials and the details of the record company when it was released and the record shop it was bought from. The artwork, or lack of, on the label itself works as a marker for DJs, especially when in a dark room. Certain record labels would use a prominent logo, similar designs and colours on their artworks. These associations are etched in memory of DJs. Richard Osborne discusses these relationships and connections between the importance of the label branding of record companies and vinyl manufacturers (Osborne 2008). The marks and scratches on the surface also have historical context. Even the gestures and movement of placing the vinyl on the record deck and taking the time lifting the needle on and off the record leaves a mark and history. Christian Marclay has artistically explored the degradation of the medium in his seminal work Record Without a Cover. This is a big area of research related to vinyl æsthetics that cannot be covered in detail here. It is unequivocal that the vinyl has a strong connection to the concept of art object (Yochim and Biddinger 2008).
Making with DIY Instruments
What could be considered as a materialist approach is equally as strong in the DIY electronic music-maker scene. Mark Frauenfelder, editor of Make magazine, talks about the maker scene and benefits of creating a DIY instrument. He argues that you challenge oneself, learn new skills, find intellectual curiosities and explore the relationship with objects. There is also a focus on doing something with your hands and creating something new that one cannot buy (Frauenfelder 2010, 219–220). This resonates with me, because of the tactility of holding a vinyl record.
A hands-on approach to electronic music can be considered as a way of developing a compositional process. David Tudor, who coined the term “composing inside electronics”, expresses this idea of finding the sounds within electronic objects and circuitry in small portable instruments (Collins 2004, 1–3).
Reed Ghazala, Nicolas Collins and John Richards all work in the domain of self-made electronic instruments. There is a common strand between them all in that they advocate a practice of live electronics using touch and physical gestures. They have evocative texts reinforcing this idea of using your hands when it comes to making DIY instruments: Ghazala’s Circuit-Bending: Build your own alien instruments, Nicolas Collins’ Homemade Electronic Music: The art of hardware hacking and John Richard’s paper, “Getting the Hands Dirty.” By and large all three shun the digital domain.
At the moment, I only build one instrument per project and have no intention of duplicating any. The idea is for the instruments to evolve with specific artistic demands. You do not have to worry about the cost of these instruments much in the same way as a limited edition white label. As a DIY instrument is an object, you can also admire it like vinyl for its visual and sculptural properties. The artisan approach of making, discovering and exploring the sound object lends itself particularly well to experimentation.
Looking at the works of Martin Howse and John Richards’ Dirty Electronics they produce their own “boutique synths” that characterize their sound. And when I listen to their studio works they both have a distinctive sound world that is unique to them — partly as they have fully embodied and nurtured their own circuit designs and schemas, from components to their own circuit boards. This commitment has encouraged a full DIY ethos and, to draw contrasts with white labels, each synth is a limited edition of their ideas and engagement in the DIY community.
The artisan approach of making, discovering and exploring the sound object lends itself particularly well to experimentation.
The current realms of how to preserve one’s music in a post-digital age excites and makes me take stock of how am I going to disseminate my music in the future. Currently, there are streaming sites such as SoundCloud or Bandcamp where you can upload your pieces and hope someone will listen to it. However, how are you going to stand out? Streaming music on a website is worthwhile, but how does this equate to actual output, whether intended to be commercial or freely available to the public? There are subscription services such as Spotify, Tidal and Deezer, where for a struggling DIY musician the rewards come with low royalty payments as discussed by Lee Marshall (2015). If you are connected with a major label you are more likely to be serviced with good publicity, but some sound artists are independent and self-driven without any affiliation or connection to a record company, such that advice or expertise on marketing and publicity would be built predominantly on self-reliance and the ideology of promoting oneself in an ad hoc manner. It is far better to do it yourself by producing DIY instruments with the idea of publishing the music on a physical product.
I can remember when I first built my own bespoke DIY synth, the Turtlebox in 2013. From this there are memories and experiences I fully hold: the anxieties, the practice, lifting a soldering iron for the first time, the smell of solder. It is important to note I am interested in the approaches of creating sound as a musician when building these DIY instruments, but not from the viewpoint of a designer or engineer. The lack of skills in electronics and the naivety of having no knowledge has not hindered me but has rather cemented the practice of using my ears, a practice supported by Reed Ghazala:
As with the painter who no longer needs to understand the science of pigments to create art, circuit-benders no longer need to understand the theory of electronics to design instruments. Finally, with electronics, you can just walk up to it and paint. (Ghazala 2005, 4)
Mash-ups and Hardware Remix — Gilora
I have already stated my interest in exploring live electronics, sampling and looping techniques. But how does a DIY instrument equate to a white label? The DIY instrument under these circumstances is my own “test press”; it is my own white label object. Frankly, it is a hand-made object and a limited edition.
Utilising my urban music background, I decided to “mash-up” two instruments and create a hybrid of the Kobi Mutter Faraday Synth and the Turtlebox that I called “Gilora” (Fig. 1). The Kobi Mutter Faraday Synth had a generative nature. As a soloist, I wanted to expand on the possibilities of the synth. It carries a strong digital glitch æsthetic, and exploring through practice I have found it works better as a solo instrument than in an improvisation context in which I am playing with others. It kind of plays you and is hard to control, resulting in less gestural phrases.
The other modular part of my setup includes the Turtlebox, initially a small electronic sound generating device. The instrument itself is based on a feedback network built around an op amp and played by touching pinpoints (drawing pin touch controls). Different combinations of touched pins create various pitches and timbres. Depending on the pressure and sensitivity of touch, different instrumental behaviours occur. For example, the greater the pressure that is applied on the pinpoints, the lower the pitch. The instrument is even more responsive when the fingers are moist (with saliva, for example). Even so, too much moisture and the instrument plays itself: it only stops when the saliva — or any other type of moisture — on the pinpoints dries. It also behaves in an erratic way: you can control it and then you cannot. The instrument is in the tradition of, for example, Michel Waisvisz’s Cracklebox (Waisvisz 2004), and Tom Bugs’ Weevil (Bugs 2006).
The Turtlebox is intuitive and you complete the circuit by touching the pinpoints, thereby becoming part of the instrument. You are not only playing the instrument, but it also plays “you”. In the same way we can draw comparisons with the white label: we have to place it on the turntable platter and place the needle directly on the record before it plays. It is the tactility of touch and play and the relationship with embodying the sound object and handling the white label in both instances that is important.
If we talk about one of my previous practices as a DJ, I would document my performances recording on CD known as a “mix tape”. It is important to know that you are not only listening to the individual songs, but rather the relationship between each song being sequenced together without a gap. In some instances, one a cappella (just the vocals) would be played on top of the music from another artist, creating a “mashup” (Gunkel 2012). In a similar way, we would be creating our own versions and re-edits live, and, for example, some of these mixes could have been pressed to white label vinyl.
This ideology in many ways could be applied to this new instrument, Gilora. My DJ background has a central role in governing my compositional process alongside remix and re-edit techniques and culture. By putting together extracts from my own improvisatory recordings and editing them together to form new pieces, I create my own mini mixtapes, summaries and re-edits (Broughton and Brewster 2003). Moving forward, I would like to continue this investigation by hacking circuits and different sound objects together to create what I call “hardware re-edits” or “hardware re-mixes”.
Having mashed up the hardware, I take the object into the studio. The work itself derives from an improvisation process using only source material from the Gilora — I play and improvise with the object in the studio and consciously record these experiments. At this point the studio becomes a rehearsal space. I then take the recordings: splice, dissect, layer and edit the audio parts. The recordings allow me to find further details in the sounds created from the Gilora synth. The finished composition — also titled Gilora — features experimental textures with a direct inspiration from techno and IDM (Audio 1). With the additional use of delays and reverb, Gilora also draws inspiration from dub traditions. The bass section during the latter section of the piece has strong influences from dubstep and from drum and bass, honing in on sound system culture (Partridge 2010).
In Gilora, I am utilising two hardware synths mashed up as opposed to software programs to define this approach. I did not use a coding language to program these glitches; moreover, it is composed from the sounds of the synth, which I then craft in the studio. The piece is not concerned with melody or harmony, but rather with rhythm and textures.
As well as being an interesting topic in its own right, I have been able to look closely at the connections between a vinyl enthusiast and DIY instrument maker. There is a sense of artistic control in both areas. Obviously, I can see the distinctions as well as the clear parallels between the DIY instrument and the white label. You are motivated to do it yourself because of the empowerment it gives you. It is cheap, limited and, self-contradictorily, accessible and exclusive. Fundamentally, it is about the material object and the excitement of making something brand new from scratch. These aspects partly show how they relate to each other. I have managed to combine these through my own practice of making the object and recording the instrument. In particular, when I work with DIY instruments in the studio I take a similar approach to working as a DJ. The DJing feeds into the making ethos and feeds back into the studio works, ultimately exhibiting a cyclical process.
The cyclical method of DIY making and experimenting with sound objects in the studio is central to my practice. Imminently in the future I would like to continue to develop this idea of the hardware remix by hacking different DIY instruments together to create new custom hand-made sounds, highlighting that the DJ and DIY maker co-exist.
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