Category Archives: sound art

Unboxing, HD: RME Fireface UCX // Presonus HP4 // Shure SM58

The unboxing of an RME Fireface UCX audio interface, a Presonus HP4 4-way headphone mixer, and a Shure SM58 microphone (which is also unscrewed to see: does it look like an SM57 without its windshield?!).

No talking, just sound – this is unboxing vérité.

The Fireface UCX — tl;dr: no regrets, it is excellent — comes with an impressively thick, detailed, spiral-bound glossy-covered reference manual, with colour images where required. TotalmixFX may be so deep it can be confusing, but the manual describes well what everything does – so just need to take time to learn to use the tools. One half of manual is German, the other is English (perhaps other languages are available in different countries … idk). It is well indexed.

Both the UCX and HP4 come with soft little button feet stickers to put optionally place on underside of the units to prevent slipping, and have small wall-wart style power supplies. Notably, on the HP4’s there is a lamp-tyle on-off switch on the cable near where it attaches to the unit: this addresses the lack of power button on the unit itself. The UCX of course has a solid metal gear-stick style power switch on the rear of the unit: interestingly when switched off, a green LED lights up to let you know that it is in standby. Whilst initially surprised, I think this is a clever feature as it reminds you that really, you should turn devices off at the mains when not in use as (i think) some power is still being used (ecologically, and economically wasteful). This has prompted me that I need to aquire a powerboard with switches to only power devices as they are required. So, kudos to RME for prompting me to save money and act responsibly.

The UCX has two midi in/outs. This is excellent, and will suit my purposes very well: connecting a Nord Micro Modular’s line in on port 1, and its PC editor in/out on port 2. With all the ins and outs I have been well able to take advantage of the unit as a two channel send-return DSP from/to UCX channels 3/4 while using Ableton Live, with tempo sync. I have the Micro Modular’s editor open concurrently, so can create/modify devices as required (drum machines, vocoders, synthesisers, all feeding off each other — truly excellent machine) and route audio back to Live. Within Live I route the midi input from a Novation X-Station to the UCX port 1 output, which allows me to perform with and control the micro modular. Sweet.

The UCX also comes with a USB cable, and an optical S/PDIF (TOSLINK) cable. I plan to connect the X-station using coaxial s/pdif however.

The driver for the UCX come on a CD (printed with date of release); this isn’t of any use for me though, as I will be using it with a Windows 10 Surface Pro 3 tablet which has no cd-drive. This didn’t pose any problem: I just downloaded the latest driver from RME’s website instead. Installation was a quick and easy breeze, and everything worked as one would expect it should (a pleasant surprise!).

The UCX unit itself is solidly built — it inspires confidence. The channel-select/level-setting knob on the front works well: it has a stepped feel, and a solid-click function.

The PreSonus HP4 is a solid little utility device, with an all metal chassis and brushed alluminium encoders. My intent is to run two balanced cables from UCX outputs 1/2 to the HP4, then 4 persons (e.g. bass, guitar, keys + vox, percussion, or whatever) can listen to and adjust their mix as desired; and a fifth person could always use the line 7/8 phones output on the UCX itself. It has a mono mix toggle button, and a mute button: these are clear perspex and light up green when engaged.It has a small red LED to indicate when power is on. As mentioned above, the power supply for my unit included a lamp-style power toggle switch. The encoders are smooth and have a quality feel. In short: it does what I want and feels like it won’t break.

The SM58 is well known, but I thought it worth ‘unboxing’ as the contents of its box are not explicitly stated. It comes with: a user guide (specifications, mic placement etc), and usual warranty etc; a velcro strap for attaching to and securing a mic lead; the SM58 microphone and holder itself; a Shure-embossed black (vinyl?) double stitched zip-pouch, which is kind of fake leather with a spongy soft, wet-suit like material on the inner; and a bronze adaptor to allow smaller screws on stands to attach to the mic holder. I’d heard that by removing the wind filter, you basically have an SM57: so, for the sake of seeing/showing what this looks like (yes, sounds are the important thing, but I’m visually curious) I took this off in the video too. I also unscrew the mic itself from the handle, out of curiousity. Nothing remarkable (it looked a little naked and fragile! The sound will be the true test; not in this video), but nice to get to know my new microphone.

Comparisons FWIW:
The RME Fireface UCX is fantastic, no regrets at all. When researching its purchase, I also considered the MOTU Ultralite Mk3/4/AVB and the Arturia Audiofuse. However questions of reliability (drivers on the former, button quality on the latter) and longevity of these relative to the pretty consistently positive reputation of the RME products led me to the UCX. It just seemed from what I read to be a cut above the others in terms of quality, and while I still have not experienced the other units first hand I am very pleased with the RME unit in itself. It sounds fantastic (main thing), works flawlessly (which my X-station’s audio driver had ceased to do), and is incredibly flexible down to inclusion of onboard DSP eq and effects (which in my quick checks so far sound good). Looking forward to years of use from this beasty.

Similarly, the PreSonus HP4 was purchased on basis of perceived reliability: it was more expensive than its available competition (Behringer HA400), but I considered it worth it to ensure low noise, high signal and solid build quality.

I also purchased a Rode PSA1 studio arm to function as a compact mic stand — I got tired of the unboxing video thing, so didn’t end up including it in this video, but I can report: It’s solid, affordable, has a smooth action, connects as desired to the SM58’s mic holder (i think i used the bronze adaptor ring) and swings out of the way when i don’t want it around and into the way when I do. I’m sure it will be great with a proper condensor mic set up one day, however this would be overkill for my purposes (a room without acoustic treatment, with birds tweeting happily outside my window); hence the SM58 dynamic mic. Perhaps one wish: if it were available in white instead of black, that perhaps would have been less obtrusive visually!

live ambient electro at the Alley Cat (2009) with clouds…

I ‘borrowed’ some samples here from the wonderful sound and new media art archive (I hope nobody minds? I doubt anyone will notice! but just in case they do these are great clips, so I’m sharing the sources):
‘One million years’ by On Kawara
‘Anna Livia Plurabelle’ read by James Joyce
‘Glossolalia: speaking in tounges’ from UbuWeb Ethnopoetics archive
Speaking Freely hosted by Edwin Newman features Marshall McLuhan 4 Jan 1971, Public Broadcasting/N.E.T.” (53 seconds in… gold)

Also, the chapter ‘people and countries’ of a Librivox recording of ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ by Friedrich Nietzsche, and read by ‘Gesine’ (who has a great reading voice!)

Performed on a Korg N1, Nord micromodular, Novation X-station and playing samples on an mp3 player. Songs: Intro; Remember when the 1990s were the future?; Let’s be lazy; “all night long” (haha just a hint at 9’06”); jupiter; (14’18”) latter day art (beyond good and evil); Glossolalia; That’s the he and the she of it; The visual man

The video was made as projected visuals for Hobart+Music=Yeah in 2010. I like how if you stare at the clouds for long enough you (or just i?) see strange animals and faces emerge; trippy…

ASMR and Memes of Technological Dystopia

“Are you lonely, are you lost? … Hello, I know that you’ve been feeling tired. I bring you love and deeper understanding. Hello, I know that you’re unhappy. I bring you love and deeper understanding.”

The 2011 re-release of Kate Bush’s ‘Deeper Understanding’ has a fantastic video clip and, although soundwise I prefer the original 1989 version, provides a great evocation of a fascinating contemporary phenomena, the artificial/electronic love archetype. This has likely been a theme in popular culture for at least as long as there have been computers: market-based solutions for the alienation of modern city life and the evidence of individualist social dysfunction this may be read as. Other explorations of the nexus between machine and affection, loneliness and desire, silicon and flesh, include Computer Love (1981) by Kraftwerk and the recent Spike Jonze film ‘Her‘.

One of the more interesting contemporary manifestations of the ‘computer love’ archetype is the popular genre of youtube videos featuring ‘ASMR’ (Automated Sensory Meridian Response). This is a hybrid genre featuring aspects of confession, counselling, flirting, guided meditation, and theatrical performance but centered on an overall aesthetic involving whispered voice, often binaural, in which the static of room sound and delicate vocal nuances are heard softly and intensely in the listeners’ ears, mostly delivered in a confessional direct ‘conversation’ by the performer facing the video camera, and making use of extra auditory triggers such as bag wrinkling, brushing feathers on a microphone or alternating breath through the right and left audio channels. The goal of the videos are to elicit an ‘automatic sensory meridian response’ and so the medium is very much privelaged over the content (a nod to Marshall McLuhan here). Here is an example:

Here I am attempting to informally articulate what I find fascinating but also unsettling about the medium of ASMR, and to place it in a popular art and culture context. As a topical phenomenon, ASMR has been written about before – here is one example of a blog post with an depth exploration of what the author describes as the notions of “intimacy and strange feelings” through technology mediated voices, and features an appropriately Marxist edge to the critique, as well as listing some other popular culture manifestations of the ‘cyborg whisper’ including the Kate Bush song mentioned above.

The role of gender in the ASMR genre is immediately apparent, with the apparent majority of channels are run by young women (as sketchily evidenced by a search for ‘asmr’ on youtube), although there are exceptions:

and this one which reminds me of the ‘word jazz’ of Ken Nordine, e.g. here and here):

If you are watching an ASMR video and look at the sidebar, you may feel a sense of ‘seediness’ from the overall gender disbalance in relation to the ‘market’ aspect of ASMR on youtube. If you search for ‘ASMR’ with a filter for view count 17 of the most watched videos on the first page are (when I searched) by young women, 2 by men, 2 indeterminate (and three advertisements). There is an apparent exchange of “what you want” gratification for viewers in exchange for (hopefully sufficient) advertising revenue: triggers; tingles; a sensual encounter. Reimbursement is totally legitimate – the creators seem to put a lot of effort into regularly releasing new videos and projecting an engaged and caring self for their audience:

And watching a few you get the sense that many creators get worn down, despite or because of the counselling role they are undertaking. Some offer coping advice directed to the self as well as audience:

The confessional monologue in the above linked video suggests that harsh comments from some audience members may be a cause for depression amongst some creators (at 6 minutes and 35 seconds), which in turn provides content for future ASMR videos. In this video you can also see the commitment to fulfilling ‘requests’ by subscribers for specific content, such as the ASMR vocal triggers in the form of spoken word lyrics (reference to requests for this at 8 minutes and 6 seconds).

There is an article on the Vice blog on ASMR which acknowledges the hallmark of successful ASMR video makers as being ‘young, female, and good-looking in a nonthreatening way’, but disavows this by saying that in general ‘…head tingles and sex don’t mix … but physical attractiveness can’t hurt’. Part of me feels that, if the essence of ASMR really is about delicate 3D voice and sound stimulation, how can it be coincidence that the ASMR medium is stylistically dominated in this way? I think there is a blurring between this ‘asexual’ idea and a reality of human sexuality, which in a market context such as youtube where advertising revenue is sought after seems to be a factor in the production of these videos. So in regard to this aspect of ASMR I am unable to fully articulate what is a vague concern of a subtext of objectification or an unnerving manifestation of comfort technology a la the Kate Bush song mentioned above.

(Incidentally, I think it’s great the Vice article mentioned above not only considers the broad range of ASMR-type videos, but also interviews people involved in the ASMR youtube community, which in my eagreness to commit my thoughts to the ether I have not done but recognise is essential for truly developing a picture of what ASMR means to people.)

The pop art aspects of ASMR videos are my favourite feature however, in particular the roleplaying variations, which can be quite surreal:

Audience-wise, based on the content and comments you get the sense that there is a cross-over between those seeking synaesthetic experiences as well as those seeking human affection, the latter as depicted in the Kate Bush video, or the Kraftwerk song mentioned above:

Another lonely night
Stare at the TV screen
I don’t know what to do
I need a rendezvous – Computer love, Computer love

I call this number
For a data date
I don’t know what to do
I need a rendezvous – Computer love, Computer love

Or myself, because feeling lonely late one night, after moving to a new city, aimlessly searching the internet somewhat narcissistically for ‘track y pants’ (a rephrasing of my own musical alter-ego), clicking on a youtube link to a powerfully creepy song by Y Pants, ‘That’s the way boys are’ and somewhat ironically clicking on the bizarre sounding link – ‘[ASMR ♥] Ear Cleaning Role Play (+massage)’ by fastASMR:

‘((**PMA Examination**)) Binaural Medical Exam Role Play ♦ Close Up Ear to Ear ASMR ‘ by WhispersREDASMR:

and ‘ASMR Cranial Nerve Exam Role Play HD w/ Ear to Ear Whispering’ by Cosmic Tingles:

So bizarre, and very creative; I think it certainly is a form of performance art. The lo-fi sound aesthetic, with glitchy artifacts in the background noise very apparent with volume turned up high to hear whispering, is for me one very charismatic attribute of the ASMR aesthetic. I subsequently read the entry for ASMR on Wikipedia and watched more, random ASMR videos.

I think the genre is fascinating and an interesting development of confessional video; counselling services; performance art; affection economy – coming together in a form somewhat like that observed by musical artists such as Kraftwerk (1981) and Kate Bush (1989) more or less thirty years ago. It is unfair to cast these themes in a solely negative dystopic light, as the songs are really musings on social change as humans integrate further with technology and away from families; computerised affection or ASMR YouTube videos may offer solutions to problems in society which probably emerged alongside industrialisation and ensuing modernisation and urbanisation. Is ASMR a form of free-market Tele-health?

And so now, after posting these really great songs about technology and affection and some good examples of the ASMR genre, here is a song I recorded late one night a couple of weeks ago. It is not a polished song, just a sketch – in a sense half way between a song and an ASMR confession; probably not as successful as either, but that’s what experiments are for:

ASMR through music with whispered singing and stuttered visions of a desolate city dreamscape

The description I wrote on YouTube:

“A sketch attempt at inducing ASMR through a song about ASMR, with whispered voice, room noise and panoramic tapping percussives.

The idea [of ASMR] is, you wear headphones with the volume up and delicate spatial noises and textures induce your spine to tingle…. This video was a late night experiment at how this would work in a musical context. Usually this is done in a different format to this though – see the side bar videos (roleplay medical exams are an especially odd experience).

Inspired by the aesthetic of youtube ASMR videos and the notion of being lonely and stressed in a city, listening to a stranger whisper intimately to ‘you’ as a surrogate for close human affection. This latter aspect isn’t what ASMR is about in essence (“tingles”), but it seems to be a part of how it plays out in youtube context, which is interesting as a sociological phenomenon.”