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Pundits on Fire in Hell

Stop telling me how to think!

Today's Ftrain is an MP3 file, Pundits on Fire in Hell , which lasts 2 minutes or so. It's 1.3 megabytes in size, and should take no more than a minute or two to download on a 56K modem. It originally had an ending, but this afternoon I realized I didn't like the last minute at all, so I cut it off, ignoring the narrative consequences. I'm planning on buying a good mic and doing some digital radio theater, soon, but now I'm in an ugly, experimental, startup phase.

All the sounds in the file come from me, or my trombone, and were recorded, unscripted and improvised, on the 50¢ microphone that came with my computer. This is not a boast, but a warning. What I recorded tonight is nowhere near as good as the 1-minute long "Audio Tour of the Future" I've been scripting in my head, where the robot choir sings robot hymns, and the magnobeam shoots protagonist Red Rocket's red rocket out of the sky with a gigantic SWOOSH. Nor is it as good as the project I'm working on with a musician friend to do MP3 narratives layered with music. But it's here now.

The file represents 3 hours of goofing off, trying to get ecasound , a sound and music multitracking utility for Linux, to work for me. Unlike most mixing programs, which use sliders and graphic representations of different sound channels, ecasound is a command-line utility, essentially a macro language for audio. You record tracks as individual WAV files, then mix everything together like this:

ecasound -a:1 -i:base_01.wav -ea:90 -etf:40 -epp -kos:1,30,70,.4,1 -a:2 -i:base_02.wav -ea:120 -etf:20 -epp -kos:1,30,70,.2,1 -a:3 -i:base_03.wav -ea:90 -etf:10 -epp -kos:1,30,70,2,1 -a:4 -i:base_01.wav -ea -kos:1,0,100,1,1 -epp -kos:1,0,100,.25,1 -a:5 -i:base_02.wav -ea -kos:1,0,100,.5,1 -epp -kos:1,0,100,.5,1 -a:6 -i:base_03.wav -ea -kos:1,0,100,.25,1 -epp -kos:1,0,100,.333,1 -a:7 -i:base_06.wav -ea:900 -efb:300,400 -a:8 -i:base_07.wav -ea:200 -a:9 -i:base_05.wav -ea:40 -etr:20,2,109 -kos:3,70,120,4,1 -a:10 -i:base_09.wav -ea:40 -a:11 -i:base_08.wav -ea:80 -a:1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11 -o:song.wav

That command mixed together 11 different sounds, adding effects to them as it did so. It's not as insane as it looks; for instance, this line:

-a:5 -i:base_02.wav -ea -kos:1,0,100,.5,1 -epp -kos:1,0,100,.5,1

really means:

Assign to channel 5 the file base_02.wav. Then, change the volume (-ea). The volume shifts over the course of the file, varying its rate according to the values which emerge from an oscillator (-kos); the oscillator should start from 0 and go to 100, .5 times per second, or rather, once every 2 seconds, and all right, this is impossibly complex. I'll stop here.

I love this sort of thing. I don't know anything about music, but I love the way sound is pliable on a computer. It's a shame that TV happened; if computers had come along during radio's heyday, sound design would have become a major artistic discipline, rather than the domain of advanced university music programs and Hollywood backlots. Of course, without TV and cathode ray monitors, computers would print to a teletype. So my argument is pretty much stupid.

A Wobblevision is an old TV that is rewired to work as a sort of oscilloscope, allowing you to see sound.There's a computer language called CSound which allows you to write programs which, when executed, produce sound and music, and I spent a good 6 months in 1997, diving inside of it.

To compensate for the incredibly opaque CSound documentation (it's gotten much better in the last 2 years, but it's cruel for beginners), I bought books on the science of synthesis, learning about the Karplus-Strong algorithm, which simulates a plucked string by mathematically modelling the way sound travels inside a guitar or bass string, or about the different kinds of oscillators you can use, the shapes of different waves, and experimenting with granular synthesis. I plugged my computer into my Wobblevision to see how harmony works, to experiment with different waves. I ended up creating a 10-minute composition for Wobblevision, creating sounds and music which would look good, even if they sounded awful.

Can you tell I cannot get the short story I'm writing to work?

This is a temporary piece without much point. I'll probably take it down in a week or so.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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