So I ran into a newsletter subscriber in real life recently, and she said, “I think somehow I was taken off your mailing list!” And then I had to say, “Well…probably not…it’s just that it has been a while since I sent out a newsletter…” And then I backed away slowly.
But that little interaction gave me the spark I needed to write a new—kind of long!—newsletter, and also to rethink how this whole newsletter thing functions. Lots more on that below, but first some notes on ambisonic recording, what makes ambient music “ambient,” and why ASMR is so popular. All that plus a new Spotify mix.
Know The Lingo: Ambisonics
Spring has finally arrived in Madison, and that means watching and listening to storms from my front porch while planes land and cars zoom by. (That’s what you are hearing in the clip at the top of this email.) In truth, my neighborhood is pretty quiet, so getting all three of those things happening at once was kind of a happy accident. Glad the mic was on.
In truth it was four mics. That recording was made using a technique called ambisonics, which uses multiple microphone capsules to more accurately capture the way humans hear sound in three dimensional space. Think of it this way: stereo recordings present audio on the left and right, but ambisonic recordings also give you up and down. The concept has been in use since the 1970s, but has recently made a comeback because of its applications for virtual reality, video games, and environmental field recordings. Conveniently, they make microphones that have all four capsules in one unit, so you don't have to go lugging four mics around.
The cool thing about ambisonics is that because so much sound is recorded, you can then use a computer to mix the four channels of audio down into a variety of other formats, including our old pal stereo. But the recording above is actually mixed to “binaural,” which—dig this—simulates the presence of your head in between the left and right channels (which means it only really “works” when you’re listening through headphones). Nowadays it’s easy to make this happen using software, but some old-school binaural microphones actually look like mannequin heads.
The reason you would go through all of this trouble is that the recorded sonic environment should sound very realistic—like you were sitting on the front porch with me. The downside is that it might sound weird on stereo speakers, but is anyone listening to this newsletter through a stereo? (Which would actually be awesome…?!) Whatever: plug in your headphones (or connect via Bluetooth, if you must), listen to that minute of audio, and let me know what you think.
Can Humans Make Ambient Music?
Speaking of immersive audio, I am always on the lookout for distraction-free background music. In the last few years, a handful of online services have sprung up offering “generative music,” which is music that is made by computer programming. It’s music as code, with the software engineer as composer. Because of its algorithmic nature, this music can often play for hours and hours (maybe forever!) without repeating itself. In fact, one of these algorithms just signed a major label record deal. I recently tried and enjoyed brain.fm, but I didn't want another subscription service in my life. Then I found generative.fm, which is the same idea but free and open source.
Alex Bainter, generative.fm’s creator, is unsurprisingly a disciple and advocate for generative music as a technique. But in this Medium post, he makes an interesting observation: Brian Eno, widely heralded as the godfather of ambient music, made all of his ambient albums using generative systems. And furthermore, Eno considers the album format a necessary but ultimately incomplete record of his generative process. Here's the key quote:
My records, however, were always recordings of the output of one or another of these [generative] systems: though it could produce original music forever, what went on the record was a 30-minute section of its output, which would then be identical each time you played it. However, what I always wanted to do was to sell the system itself, so that a listener would know that the music was always unique.
— Brian Eno, “Generative Music,” in A Year With Swollen Appendices
Now, the idea that albums are an incomplete record of certain sonic experiences is actually not uncommon among experimental composers; I need to re-read this book, but as I recall that is the basic premise of Records Ruin the Landscape. However, the larger idea is that we’ve had the very definition of ambient music wrong the whole time. I thought many composers—even me!—could “make” ambient music at our keyboards (both kinds). But perhaps true ambient music can only be made by evolving sonic processes programmed by people but only “performed” by systems.
Little Fluffy Clouds
The New York Times recently covered the phenomenon of A.S.M.R., which I will now link you to with little comment or fanfare. When people ask me what I do, and I mumble something about “audio production,” a surprising number of folks immediately follow-up by asking me something about ASMR: Have I heard of it, is it real, do I have it, etc. I have, it is, I don’t, but I do find it fascinating, especially as a theory for Bob Ross’s success.
The Field Mix Vol. 4
The newest mix is here, and while it does not have any Brian Eno or ASMR sounds, it does have a track from a 1950s theremin concept album called “Perfume Set to Music” and much newer music from the likes of producers Sage Caswell and Still Woozy. Also featured: Karen O, Lamin Fofana, Ken Stringfellow, and Youth Lagoon. Have at it, and be sure to “follow” the playlist on Spotify so you always have the freshest fresh.
And if you are ever looking for a song from one of the old playlists or want to travel back in time, those are all gathered in a master archive playlist. Check it.
A New (but not that new) Newsletter
Finally, you might have noticed that things look a little different around here. That’s because I’m sending you this newsletter from a new service called Substack instead of TinyLetter. There are two reasons for this switch.
First, the Substack team is thinking hard about how podcasting and newsletters might inform and reinforce each other. In fact, it’s now possible to launch and host an entire podcast through their newsletter platform. That’s not what I’m doing here—Field Noise the podcast will still be hosted on fieldnoise.com—but I am experimenting with putting additional audio out into the world through this newsletter, as per the next point.
Secondly, Substack allows me to have a subscription tier to support this newsletter and, by extension, my podcast and other work. For everyone already signed up, nothing will change—but if you do want to support the newsletter and the program financially, you now can. With even a small amount of money coming in I’ll be able to write and record for this passion project more consistently, and in return I’ll be sharing some new writing and recordings solely to paid subscribers. One of the benefits of the paid tier will be a private podcast feed including additional field recordings, extended interviews, and commentary.
I think this is all really promising from a creative standpoint, and I hope a few of you will want to subscribe. Regular prices are $5/month or $50/year, but as early supporters of this project you can get 25% off, which is automatically applied when you checkout. I’ll just leave this button right here in case you are feeling inspired.
If you don’t subscribe, very little will change—in fact, you may actually get more content than before. Hope you’re cool with that!