Mutilaudio: Sound Experiments On The Digital--And Legal--Frontier By Cynthia Dyer-Bennet
Most days, David Gans can be found hunched over his keyboard, staring intently at the monitor as he manipulates fragments of sound, playing them back for the umpteenth time. The screen displays a stack of horizontal windows, each of which contains jagged vertical lines reminiscent of oscilloscope readouts. Gans is trying to match up the same series of words, as he recorded them from five different people.
To the casual listener, it is impossible to discern the differences between one playback and the next. As Gans shrinks the snippet of sound from a two-second, three-word phrase to a single word, to a quarter-second-long, individual letter, it also becomes difficult to remember what the sound was in the first place. But he is alert to every audio nuance. This is his livelihood, and he is very good at it.
David Gans is a radio producer, an author and a musician. His bread and butter is the weekly syndicated Grateful Dead Hour -- a radio show he has produced since 1987 -- which airs on 72 stations nationwide. He also hosts "Dead to the World," a weekly show on Berkeley's KPFA (94.1 FM, Wednesdays, 7-9 p.m.) that offers an hour of Grateful Dead material and an additional hour of what he calls "free-form whatever." He produces "Eyes of Chaos/Veil of Order," a radio show of eclectic music hosted by Phil Lesh and Gary Lambert.
Gans also experiments with a process he calls mutilaudio. He defines it as "a form of sound manipulation using pre-existing recorded material." This definition fails to capture the full impact of his complex sound work, which can take the listener on a long, strange trip, indeed. His compilation "Skelvis! the soundtrack," a fifteen-minute paean to Elvis Presley originally created for the Grateful Dead's Mardi Gras parade, is composed of scores of Presley recordings broken into an aural assault of jagged fragments.
"It took about a day and a half of solid work to create it," Gans said, noting that his inspiration for the piece came from an evening of channel surfing. "I happened to catch a documentary about Elvis on TV, and I recorded it... Then I went through it and collected different voices saying 'Elvis Presley' and put them, plus two CDs of Elvis songs, into the computer."
Using easily recognizable tidbits from much of Presley's work -- four-five note refrains from "Jailhouse Rock," the "go, go, go" from "Blue Suede Shoes," the words "all shook up" looped in on themselves tighter and tighter until only the "sh" can be heard in mimicry of the sound of brushes on a high-hat -- Gans layered sounds laid atop sounds, overlaid them with the voices of a multitude of announcers repeating Elvis' name, and stitched it all together to create an audio patchwork crazy quilt. The final product leaves the listener torn between delighted astonishment and the intense desire to have a shot, a toke and a tranquilizer.
DESKTOP DIGITAL RECORDING
Gans uses the Desktop Digital Studio, what he describes as a "modest version" of a desktop digital audio sound-editing equipment. His got his current set-up in 1993 from the Novato-based Sonic Solutions, which specializes in creating customized, state-of-the-art, digital audio editing hardware and software for sound technicians. . . .
He has a Quadra 950 with 40MB of RAM. The Quadra houses a 340MB hard drive where all his programs are stored. His sound files are kept separately on three other hard drives, which have a total of 6GB of storage. He needs that much storage, too. A one-minute sound file can be as large as 20MB, and Gans might have multiple projects containing several hours worth of recorded files he's working on at any given time. With sound files as large as they are, a certain amount of instability would seem inevitable, but Gans says his system has never crashed, and that "out of memory" messages are extremely rare. . . .
DIGITAL VS. ANALOG
Gans' foray into sound manipulation didn't start digitally. He's been playing audio slice-and-dice for over a decade.
"I started doing montages as soon as I started doing radio. I always liked to mix in little bits of dialog from movies and short bits from songs. It's a fun, creative way to use the medium. I did it on magnetic tape, the old fashioned way. Then, when I started using the computer to do the Grateful Dead show, I found the capabilities vastly improved," he says. "When you do it on a computer, you record all the parts you think you'll want and put them on the hard disk. Instead of cutting from one thing to another, you can blend from one thing to another. "
There are some breathtaking advantages to digital sound editing over the old days of reel-to-reel, analog work. Crossfades can last up to a hundred seconds. No longer does a sound technician have to physically cut a piece of tape and splice it to another, only to find that the splice was made in the wrong place. With desktop digital audio, experimentation takes place in RAM. An individual sound wave can be cut from one place and pasted to another in less than a second. If a paste isn't done correctly, a simple "undo" steps the piece back to the previous rendition. With the setup Gans has, he can set the undo feature to twenty-five or more back-steps. The tradeoff is that it takes a lot of RAM to keep track of that many versions.
With a computer, the work is also a lot easier, he says. No longer hobbled by the physical limitations of audio tape, Gans can quickly flip from one segment of a piece to another without having to wait for tape to rewind or fast-forward. "You can put your entire production up in the window and spot-check it," he said. He can have up to twelve audio tracks on screen at once, but says he seldom has the full dozen tracks up at the same time because "I'm working in stereo for a two-track radio station."
Gans admits that the ease of digital editing does not necessarily hasten the completion of a project. "You can spend a lot more time getting the transition just right on the computer because you're not doing it with a razor blade. You can really worry something to death because you have the ability to adjust something minutely." He even acknowledges a certain nostalgia for the old days of analog editing. "Sometimes I miss the hunching over that hot splicing block for hours at a time, but I like the result of computerized work better."
Though many of his creations are done for the sheer joy of it, he also uses mutilaudio in his work. "I use the technique to create material for my show. Every week on the Grateful Dead Hour, you'll hear, 'Here are some themes from next week's show.' That's mutilaudio there. I need to make a twenty-second audio picture of an hour's show...It's an opportunity to use the entire recorded output of the Grateful Dead as a palette for these concise, evocative pictures." . . .
Gans doesn't limit himself to musical manipulations. Some of his strongest work is in the realm of the spoken word, where it's legal to declare open season on the foibles of politics. He is experimenting with building audio satires by taking politicians' speeches and putting them into hysterically funny, and often more truthful, arrangements. He has re-edited a recent State of the Union address to startling effect. "My fellow Americans, it is politics as usual..." drawls the voice of Bill Clinton as an audience breaks into laughter and spontaneous applause in the background.
Whether Gans is putting together a sound collage for the next Grateful Dead Hour, or rearranging Senator Exon's latest dire warnings about the dangers of porn on the Internet, he never grows tired of the tools of experimentation. "I've found the Mac to be a fabulously compliant learning environment. It rewards exploration, you have to be brave and try things, develop your own techniques. The manuals that come with computer systems can only tell you so much, they can't inspire you. A lot of what I'm doing is just seeing what can be done." --