Like every other aspect of music, being creatively present in the studio takes practice.......

16 seconds of fame - confessions of a Lo-Fi Loop Junky

By Chuck Zwicky
27 August 2k4


The advent of photography in the 1800s and its tremendous surge in popularity in the 20th century didn't mark the end of painting, as many had feared, but actually liberated painters to explore more imaginary modes of expression. Freed from the need to produce "photo-realistic" work, painters explored new ways of seeing, and the medium became more socially relevant than ever.

In much the same way, the introduction of the computer based workstation, with its tools of unrelenting perfectionism, and digital audio's lofty claim of "perfect sound forever," gave rise to a proliferation of recordings, in a variety of genres, that are not at all concerned with conventions of maintaining audio fidelity to the source material. Ever on the trailing edge, workstation manufacturers scramble to incorporate features that will allow the novice to quickly and easily imitate the end result of some other artist's work - deaf to the irony of it all, focused on the how rather than the why. The key here lies in process, rather than processing. It is a notable constant that the most important artists of any era have used the simplest tools available to create their work, and yet it is quite common to hear a salesman suggestively muse on the thought of what "X" great artist might have done had he access to the latest "bleeding edge" technology. I suggest that this would simply throw a monkey wrench into the works, or more precisely, would be like throwing a wrench into a monkey's work-- it would only distract and confuse their natural process.

It is a great and somewhat perverse pleasure, then, to see that Electro-Harmonix have re-issued their 16 Second Digital Delay, more than 20 years after it first appeared. It has been resurrected nearly intact, a few casualties of technological obsolescence notwithstanding, (the original circuit relied on a mere 64k of magnetic bubble memory, long gone by the mid 1980s), and features some concessionary improvements. Whatever it was then, whatever it is now, it is simply fascinating to use. It inspires a unique interaction with the player in a way that few non-instruments do. The controls become an integral part of the process, encouraging a sort of unconscious wizardry rather than merely providing the means to make deterministic adjustments. As an example, you may find yourself manipulating the feedback and the fine-adjustment sliders in a way that creates an ever-evolving degenerative / regenerative permutation of your initial idea. Through this process you may discover things about your music, your playing, or sound itself that you had never before considered, as the original input becomes just a small part of the entire experience. In 1983, the EH 16 Second Digital Delay may have been before its time, but now a whole new generation of artists have given us a vocabulary of time and space manipulation. What were considered artifacts then are art today and its time is finally here.

My experience with the 16 Second Digital Delay made me very, very curious to try the Z-Vex "Lo-Fi Loop Junky," with its significantly more primitive interface and -{gasp}- analog recording technology. The taste of freedom on the path away from the 192kHz / 24-bit workstation world was too enticing!
I found one at 30th Street Guitars in NYC, and when I asked to try it the salesman led me into a separate room, wired it up and upon leaving, gave me a sort of familiar look, as if to say "the nurse will be in to check up on you every half hour." This is a very simple device to use. It goes like this: Plug your guitar into the pedal, press the record button, play something, and then press the play button. Suddenly you discover that your original guitar passage has been transformed into a plaintive encrypted message from another time, or maybe another galaxy.... Now, use the guitar in your hand to communicate with it as best you can. Leave the store quietly when the salesman comes in to tell you that the store is closing. Meet them at the store in the morning with your good credit card. Blather, wince, repeat, repeat, repeat.

If there is a lesson in all this, it must be that the real value of any object is in direct proportion to the amount of time we invest in it. A telling observation can be made simply by asking "what have we wrought with what we have bought?" These two devices could be classed as "non-preset based empirical creativity stimulators.". No 'wow' buttons, but an entirely new and valid language to use while exploring the infinite number of musical and sonic questions which will stampede from your subconscious like a hundred starving alley cats to a bowl of milk. Feed them all, I say!

Making a record is largely experimental in nature. The experience represents a huge investment of people's time, and most importantly the ever-narrowing window of opportunity in the intersection of their creative energies. Out of respect for this it is important to have your own creative access tuned-up and ready to go, but most people run low on creative options when placed in a situation of high pressure or high stakes. This makes creative intelligence hard to acquire in the place where it is most needed. What do we do?

It is this paradox that makes the experimental journey these sorts of tools provide so valuable. If you never actually use their audio output on your record, you will certainly use their creative output. What better gift?

Copyright © 2004 Chuck Zwicky