Sunday, October 1, 2023


Marshall McLuhan is a name that has come up here a few times already, but I somehow forgot that the founder of what we call media studies had recorded an album. Released in 1967, and an LP version of McLuhan and Quentin Fiore’s book of the same name, “The Medium of the Massage” is an audio collage about the effects of media on its consumer, the title’s pun on “message” becoming intentional following a typing error in the original book. 

With McLuhan’s assured tone as a lynchpin, the effect of the album’s sound is not too dissimilar to the later experiments it influenced, like The Beatles’ “Revolution No. 9”. The intention of the album is to totally immerse the listener in a constantly changing landscape that utilises sound as an entirely separate medium of the printed work – this is no audiobook.

I found myself concentrating on the voices and sounds being sped up and slowed down. The collage is constructed of hundreds of pieces of spliced audio tape, played by reel-to-reel machines on top of each other, but the varying of their pace brings more attention to the physical existence of the tape, and how what you hear is essentially a result of friction, as magnetic tape is passed over a playback head. 

The speed of the pinch roller, feeding the tape past the head, can be varied to a desired effect, quite often comic, as anyone with a cassette player at home would find by pressing the “play” and “fast forward” buttons to make your favourite band sing even higher. The age and quality of the tape player, and the tape, also affects the output: you can tune your equipment to remove as much “wow” and “flutter” as you can, but there may still be imperfections in the tape, from its recording to their initial manufacture, to factors acting on the magnetism of the tape to affect its retention of a recording.

None of this is easily replicated digitally. Filtering audio could get close, like applying a “VHS effect” to video, but outright glitches need the original equipment, and both cassette players and “entry-level” Type I ferric tape are still readily and cheaply available. Best known for the vaporwave album “Floral Shoppe” under the name Macintosh Plus, Ramona Langley released “Big Danger” in 2017, under her usual moniker of Vektroid, which sounds like a found object: a sticky, muddy-sounding cassette tape in a damaged player that cannot play at the right speed, and that is the effect being sought – plying it back on a digital file is only the current method of delivering that particular sound.

No comments:

Post a Comment