Playing with digital audio


Digital video is only as good as your sound. So getting to grips with what you film means ensuring you have a good sound too

I’ve been playing with digital audio ever since I got my last laptop – mainly trying to get various songs to play at a tempo that you could dance ballroom or latin american dances to – with mixed success. Even though I don’t really do much dancing these days, my mindset towards music is one forever affected by dancing. I’m always asking what steps go with any piece of music that has a reasonably regular percussion beat to it. It seems strange to think my first blogpost on ballroom dancing was nearly three years ago, and my first lesson in Cambridge nearly 12 years ago. Must be getting old!

Learning the basics of what makes good sound in the face of complicated software

I’m talking about the editing process here – something that brings the talents of a skilled sound engineer into their own. It’s not just a case of turning up the volume by any means. Being part of the Dowsing Sound Collective these past four months has given me insights into what ‘good sound’ is – and how you go about achieving it. Take ‘Reality Checkpoint’ composed by Andrea Cockerton about Parker’s Piece in Cambridge here:

I was one of the many voices in the background singing on this recording. The ‘recording’ in my memory is different to the one on this recording for a variety of reasons – not least my position in the collective when we were singing it. Editing inevitably takes something out of the performances we hear. Audio professionals will be able to explain why this is better than me. In non-technical terms, the bass and piano had a vibrancy that moved my ribcage – you could feel the rumble of the low frequencies as well as the energy of being in a room with over 100 other people singing co-ordinated parts from the same song sheet. (The HistoryWorks team took some photos of us – see here).

Transferring vinyl to digital

I had my first go at this with a record I bought for my very young relatives. We had this many moons ago in my childhood but it disappeared in a clear-out. Hence getting hold of an even older copy that’s now about 40 years old & is so hard to find that there are also no digital copies of the album – this being Tom Paxton’s Children’s Songbook. Paxton’s a Vietnam-era folk singer, and critic of war. When I posted a link to the lyrics to a track called The Thought, a number of you were struck by its power.

DJ Puffles on the wheels of steel
DJ Puffles on the wheels of steel

Spending a humid Saturday afternoon experimenting with electrics, I managed to hook up some of my brother’s very old decks to my laptop and play about until something seemed to be transferring. Here’s the result.

I’ve not worked out how to get rid of that low level hum/buzzing noise that you can hear – even though the software I have seems to have an option that allows you to do this. The problem is when I activate it, it zaps the rest of the track with it.

Filming on Friday at The Junction

I’ve been granted permission to film the brilliant Grace Sarah at The Junction in Cambridge later this month. (8pm this Friday 25 July, free tickets – details here). I’m tempted to simply place my existing camcorder on a tripod & press ‘record’, leaving it at that. I have neither the knowledge nor the kit to try anything that’s synced up with the lighting and sound at the venue. I also don’t want to be one of those camera-people who wanders in front of the audience trying to get the right shot.

Preparing to film but then not filming at all

I was going to put up another vlogpost last week. The problem was the noise from the neighbours playing loud music next door to the cafe I was at. Incredibly frustrating when you’ve carried your kit there, but that’s part of the deal with photography & filming. You don’t get everything working out spot on first time and every time. Despite everything that I had there, there was no point in filming because a messed up audio would have ruined it.


Apart from an ‘Oooh! This is actually more than quite interesting’ perspective, the footage I’m filming seems to fall into four themes:

  • Vlogposts – me talking to the camera about things on my mind
  • Interviews or filming others speaking to the camera
  • Musical performances
  • Documenting who has said what and when at given events

Now, in one sense all of the above could be done without the visuals: It’s the sound that really matters content-wise.

Being multi-skilled

With professional productions, you have different people doing different things, specialising in them and being good at them. When you do what I do, you’ve got to do all of what they do and try and get it to a standard that makes it watchable/listenable. It’ll never be professional broadcast standard, but that’s not my aim. It just needs to be of a standard that allows whoever is in front of the camera to get their message across to a wider audience. That’s why I find the collection of videos on my vimeo page as a personally interesting ‘documentary’ of my own journey playing with digital video.

Having the patience to research and read

If the content of all the books I’ve bought over the past 15 years were in my mind I’d be a very well-read chap indeed. But I’m not. I need people around me in order to get me started on things. Hence why the digital film school was just what I needed for the summer term. That’s just my personal learning style. Others are independent starters. On my side, I look out for the people & organisations who I can work with and provide that impetus to do things.

The changing world of digital audio – away from copyright and towards collaboration?

Basement Jaxx’s Power to the People Project is but one example of a high profile group releasing the master copies of a track and inviting people to do things with it. Pop Will Eat Itself did the same with Reclaim the Game (Funk FIFA) – see here and note both the instrumental version and acapella/vocals only versions. I blogged about the track here. We still want our game back.

Talking of world cups, despite the best attempts of various institutions to restrict online footage of past tournaments, some of the compilations of commentary and football. My favourite one is this one featuring Brazil’s 1982 team & commentator Luciano Do Valle.

Then there’s this one featuring Mexico in 2006. Mexico were my work sweepstake team that year. Football-culture-wise, they’re a bit like England. Passionate fans, demanding media, One or two superstars, qualify well then crash out to the first half-decent team they encounter, normally at second round or quarter finals stage.

“Your point?”

As in this NESTA infographic, we’re going beyond being passive recipients. I like the idea of being a co-creator and co-operator with others when it comes to making things. It’s the opposite of the mass-produced blandification of the high street that we see these days. Coming back to the point about editing songs to make them play at a tempo that you can dance ballroom to, the challenge there is having the major creators making things in a format that the rest of us can do things with, and having a legal framework that facilitates rather than impedes this.




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