Theories of Flavor and Sound

I've been working on a solo electronic record. It began about about six months ago, but things have been picking up steam in the past two or three and I'm starting to get excited by this project. It might be a bit presumptuous to call it a record, I suppose, since it will never see vinyl, but it's full-length: currently about 50 minutes long, 20 tracks. Every song is in 5/4 time, which lends itself to flow and rhythms that are impossible in 4/4. I'm nearly done writing the songs themselves, but there's a much larger challenge ahead.

When the songs are finished I have to try and make the sound quality less amateur: this would be the mixing and mastering phase on a professionally-produced record. I am no sound engineer and this is the first time I've ever attempted to "mix and master" anything. I hardly know what the words mean. But I do know that when I listen to my music side-by-side with "real music", the stuff I'm working on sounds hopelessly bedroom. The fidelity is thin and puny and sounds different on every stereo. While trying to fix this, I began to notice some weird similarities between making this record and trying to create cocktails.

My first attempts at original cocktails were horrible. My drinks began simple and spiraled out of control as I added one ill-considered liqueur after another, trying improve the flavor. In the end there would be sixteen ingredients in a discolored disaster: flavors muddy and indistinct, vaguely nauseating. When the basic recipe wasn't good, all the pomegranate/simple syrup/Grand Marnier/champagne in the world wouldn't rescue it. They only made the drink worse, introducing new flavors that fought the existing ones.

The problem was balance. I didn't understand liquor well enough to create a synergy between a few carefully-considered ingredients and let their characteristic flavors mingle. I tried to compensate for this by throwing in everything I could think of. I didn't realize that the more I added, the less the cocktail tasted of anything. Well-applied simplicity highlights the complexity of ingredients and their interactions rather than hiding them, and is actually more full-flavored than some trainwreck involving half the rail.

"Simplicity" is a deceptive term since each ingredient in a cocktail has myriad chemical components. "Lime" isn't one flavor: it's many sugars and acids that we interpret as one. Tequila and Cointreau are equally complex flavors. Properly balanced, they make a Margarita that positively sizzles. Nothing else is required but those three ingredients, carefully combined. The acidity of the lime and the sweetness of the Cointreau shimmer against each other like they were run through a phaser pedal, and mask the alcohol burn of the tequila while still allowing its cactusy flavor to come through.

Sound, even a deceptively simple sound such as a guitar note, is just as complex. The most basic sound is a sine wave, a series of half-circles alternating up-down-up-down on an oscilloscope. It creates a round, even tone in a single frequency. Middle C is 261.626 Hz. The A above it is 440 Hz--the frequency of most tuning forks. In fact, a tuning fork is one of the few ways to produce a sine wave without a computer. Sine waves are rarely or never heard in nature. These waves are not very complex and their tones do not give the ear much to think about.

A guitar string, plucked, creates vibrations that show up on an oscilloscope as a jumble of sine waves acting on each other. They coexist and create a single complex wave with many tones: when we pluck a middle C on a guitar string we are not just hearing a vibration of air at 261.626 Hz. We are also hearing, to a lesser extent, the C note an octave above it (1046.502 Hz), and the C note above that (2093.005 Hz). We are hearing a C at every higher octave, plus many other frequencies in between, but 261.626 Hz dominates the sound and we perceive a middle C without realizing the rich makeup of a note from a well-tuned string.

Compared to a guitar note, a sine wave is hollow, flat and weirdly piercing. Sine waves do not have the emotional impact of guitar notes. A lone virtuoso with a guitar can wring tears from an audience; an entire symphony rendered in computer-generated waveforms leaves the same audience feeling cold. Such basic synthetic tones are like artificial lime flavor, a synthesized chemical trying to replicate the hundreds of natural chemicals that make up the real thing. Many people refer to poorly-made liqueurs and artificial flavors as "one-note", but given the complexity of a single note it might be more accurate to describe them as "one-tone".

The magic of a good Margarita lies in the fact that there's more than just three tones--sour, sweet, and alcohol--in the glass. Tequila, even simple blanco tequila, has a remarkably multihued flavor: the sweet, wild, pungent, planty taste of fermented agave juice. Then there's the lime juice. This is sour, true, but the sugar content is also quite high and it may contain bitter oils from the peel as well. The Cointreau is sweet but, again, complex: it is made of bitter and sweet orange peels infused in sugar beet alcohol and has a depth that is not to be found in lesser industrial triple sec liqueurs. 

Just as "middle C" describes a combination of many frequencies that we interpret as a single note, simple names also hide the veritable laboratory of chemicals that go into the flavors "tequila", "Cointreau" and "lime".  Even the combination of the three--dozens or even hundreds of flavors interacting together--gets grouped under a single word: "Margarita." What seems like a three-note chord is actually a full-orchestra hit.

There's nothing wrong with adding to the Margarita. Some people add orange juice, pomegranate or other flavors with tasty results. These improvements gild the original structure, like Phil Spector's orchestral sections on Let It Be. With care, a Margarita can be added to or altered. But the original recipe with its three ingredients is the vital backbone which must be balanced to begin with.

Balance is just as essential when mixing a piece of music. This is not to say that every instrument should be the same volume. Lead instruments will be more prominent, but they shouldn't drown out the supporting instruments. Each instrument has its place, as do the ingredients in a 2:1:1 Margarita. But finding their proper places is far more difficult than just twiddling volume knobs and the reason is directly related to the complexity of waveforms I described above.

A bass mostly occupies the low end but produces tones in the mid and high frequencies as well. These may be particularly loud at, say, 2650 Hz and 12000 Hz. Perhaps this is from fingertips scraping the strings, or noise from the amp, or just how the bass is built. If I have a lead synth that also wants to occupy the 2650 Hz frequency, the two instruments may fight each other. Instead of coexisting they may cancel each other out or clash, and I will have a flat or jarring piece rather than one that soothes the ears with a pleasing balance of low, middle and high frequencies.

This problem is sometimes solved with careful use of EQ. EQ, equalization, refers to de-emphasizing undesirable frequencies and emphasizing desirable ones. If I decide that a cymbal needs a crisper sound, I can EQ it up at 12000 Hz. But I've learned the hard way that less is more. EQ is best when used to turn something down, like cutting the extreme lows of a bassline so that it lies against the subsonic thump of a kick drum. This is sonic Tetris, nestling together protruding pieces to create even horizontal lines.

When dealing with songs that sounded thin or unbalanced, my initial approach--much like my approach to unbalanced cocktails--was to add things: EQ, delay, effects. I would doctor the hell out of everything. If I couldn't hear the cymbals, I turned them up; if the bass was too soft, I slapped on some distortion. If the synth didn't jump out, I EQed up the high-mid so that it could fight through the cymbals I had just cranked up. More, more. Everything became sonic soup, a cacophany from which nothing stood out. My initial attempts were disasters: lopsided, muddy, weirdly irritating and stress-inducing. I usually ended up wishing I had just left the original track alone.

The problem was often that my ingredients--my instruments--weren't very good to begin with. Maybe the sound quality wasn't there: too much distortion, too many effects, or maybe just a plain bad sample. Or maybe I had layered on too many instruments which confused and distracted from the main themes. Other times the basic mix--the balance of instrument volumes--was off and I didn't realize it.

Rather than adding more filler to a song, the solution frequently lay in the opposite direction. I tried laying everything bare and starting at zero. I removed all EQ and all effects and began by making sure the underlying balance was strong. Only from there would I tweak EQ and add effects, filling out certain sounds and subduing others. The magic lies, like a Margarita, in the interaction between sounds. A thin string section sounds thick when a good bassline is rumbling below it. They complement each other and achieve a fullness that is far greater than just the sum of the parts. Rather than EQing everything in sight, I tried to allow the tones to mingle. If a bass, a synth and a cymbal could share frequencies, then I let them mix like tequila, Cointreau and lime.


(Many thanks to andywho for expertise and guidance.)



I've been keeping radio silence for a while because I've been a little busy with various projects. One of these is a band called Hinemos, which is archaic Japanese for "all day long." Most Japanese people, I'm told, wouldn't understand the word.

We have been practicing every Sunday since we formed in February. The band members are some of the first Japanese friends I have made here. Playing in a band is a pretty good way to make friends because there's motivation beyond just hanging out. We're trying to accomplish something together and the socialization is a happy byproduct. We go out for sushi or to a Japanese pub after practice and we're probably going to Fuji Rock Festival this summer to see a reunited My Bloody Valentine.

We played our first show on Saturday. It was good fun; it's been a while since I played a show. I wasn't particularly nervous. I was rarely nervous before shows in Minneapolis, either, just excited. Although maybe I should have been nervous this time, because our set wasn't finalized until a couple hours before the show; we were still writing songs that afternoon. We cut it close.

On Friday we practiced until midnight in our usual studio near a scummy drainage canal that runs through Shibuya. We met again on Saturday in a studio in sleepy Nishiogikubo, where our show was to be held, and for three hours we tweaked songs, planned our set and rehearsed. In the end we still didn't have enough material for a full set, so we threw in a disco-fied cover of the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army", which went down better than we had any right to expect.

Our music is spazzy, funky psychedelic rock. It's not like my previous Minneapolis band, Born Under Punches, but it's not too far removed, either. Junichi (vocals and accoustic guitar) usually takes the lead: he writes lyrics and usually decides chords and song structures. Jun-chan (bass) and Ito (lead guitar) are content to follow Junichi, and I just do what I do. At times I have to tone it down a bit; Junichi veers towards the J-pop side of things and that's no place for a free-form jungle throwdown. But luckily the members all cool and have good taste in music, and they are willing to indulge me in my more out-there moments, and even work my ideas into songs at times.

It's easy for me to go along quietly with Junichi's lighter pop moments, even if it's not really my style. I care a lot less about this band than I did about Born Under Punches. This time around there's no pipe dream of getting signed some day. I can't even practice drums regularly. Once a week with Hinemos is all I can manage right now. I've considered buying a silent practice set but I don't think it would be anywhere near the same as the full drum set right in my basement in Minneapolis. I'm not sure I have time to practice rigorously, anyway. Not like I used to.

I used to be almost spiritual about practice. An hour a day was barely even a warm-up. The second hour was where things started to get interesting, and it wasn't uncommon for me to play three or four hours some days. In those days, once a week would have hardly seemed worth bothering about. What would be the point?

Somehow, even though I took about eight months off, I haven't lost everything. I was surprised at this. I am rustier than I used to be, true, but I haven't lost it completely and I can see that it would come back if I had the opportunity to practice seriously. I would like that opportunity, though it may never come again.

Anyway, I'm OK with being a bit rough right now. I'm not studying jazz anymore and I don't have the impossible ideal of perfect musicianship to torment me. If anything, I'm more inspired by punk right now. I feel like playing dirty, ragged music and my current level of ability is fine for that. I can't really explain this urge. Maybe I'm angry about something, or maybe I've got some crazy energy to dissipate. Whatever the reason, I want to send out a musical middle finger to the world right now and I don't need to spend forty-five minutes practicing paradiddles to do it.

I'm not sure if Hinemos is going to be the right venue for that urge. The guys are cool, but pop-minded at the core, and I want to get a lot more experimental than that. But for the moment I am content to play J-pop and wreak a little havoc where I can. It's a good way to meet musicians and to feel out the Tokyo rock scene. I can get into my art-scum drum-and-bass at some later date. This is a way to dip my toes into the pool.

So now I have played Tokyo.

I haven't listened to the recording yet, but I think it went reasonably well. It was fun, which is the main thing for me. Quiet, reserved Ito went crazy onstage. Junichi warned me that he would, but I couldn't quite envision it. Lo and behold, not three minutes into the first song our bespectacled, polite guitarist was thrashing on the floor like a maniac. The memory still cracks me up. Dude flips a switch, live: during the last song he got so excited that he ripped off his glasses and threw them across the stage. After our set he spent five minutes searching for them, the darkness of the club hiding his red face.

Rock clubs are rock clubs, whether in Japan or the US, and the atmosphere was the same as lots venues in Minneapolis. Lots of black, band stickers and duct tape. Some details were a little different, though. For one, all the bands were very friendly. I'm used to bands giving each other a cold up-and-down when they meet for the first time, but on Saturday everyone greeted us ("good morning!") when we walked in. Everyone was bowing to each other and saying "onegaishimasu!" (very loosely translated, "I beg a favor of you!") all the time. I can see why Japanese bands rarely take the rock world by storm: there's something about constantly bowing and apologizing that just doesn't seem rock and roll. It's almost like they don't get it.

Sometimes I think someone should point this out to a few of them. Japanese musicians are often very precise; as with everything else, they practice doing things perfectly. I can respect that, given my studies in jazz. But they seem to forget that a lot of the music they really like wasn't made by people who tried to do everything perfectly. The classic rock, jazz, punk and reggae that they revere so much--these weren't created by people who shared their quiet appreciation of pristine form.

Punk, for instance, is popular in Japan. You can't "study" punk, I don't think.  You can't approach it reverently, carefully and respectfully. It's the antithesis of those things: you drink a fifth of rubbing alcohol and turn the amp up until the neighbors start shouting. Even jazz, the domain of talented, dedicated musicians, is the sound of things going wrong. There's a beauty to earnest imperfection which the Japanese might not always understand.

It's like watching hand-drawn animation. It's never going to be as pristine and flawless as computer animation, but there's an appeal in watching the effort of human labor. The person behind the animation comes through in every wobbling line, every jumpy movement.

(Of course, to a creative person CG can be as expressive a medium as hand-drawn animation. And Japanese musicians can be as sloppy and exuberant as Americans or Britons or Slovenians. I'm generalizing.)

Stil, sometimes I want to shake them out of their careful, proper rituals. I want to throw all the effete, prim attention to appearance and form out the window. To hell with the appreciation of beautiful movement, the reverence for well-executed ritual. To hell with harmony and grace. That stuff, as one of my readers might say, is for wieners. Some days I agree.

Like my cocktail studies. I love learning the Japanese way, but at times I just want to say, "fuck it." Who cares if my pinky is extended, or if the barspoon clinks against the pitcher? Who cares if I hold the bottle by the neck or by the body? Throw some booze into a shaker, shake the hell out of it, and serve. Plug in that damn guitar and wake up the damn neighbors.