Handmade Sound: my sound design exhibit at Art In The Age

 My first exhibit is running until November 27th. We opened it on November 4th and had about 500 people come and play the exhibit that first evening.

I had been thinking about designing some gallery exhibit ideas when I met Daniel Abraham on the flight home for SXSW. He was in a good mood despite having had a trash can full of beer bottles dumped on his head by the band Trash Talk, who he was filming. I was in a good mood because I’d just had a great time at SXSW.

He asked me to design an exhibit about sound and recording. Easy enough idea, back then…

So then we come to August, when we set an opening date for November 4th. I promptly started dragging my heels because I didn’t know what to do. Luckily, many of my friends are artists and exhibitors and I asked for a lot of advice. Thanks: Carol Han, John Pettit, Mary Smull, Caitlin Butler.

Mainly what I wanted was the following experience: someone walks up to a machine, knows they can touch it, plays with it and hears a sound being affected and understands what is happening. It’s that last part that was so difficult. To have the user be able to affect the sound and know how they are doing it. I want them to have the feeling that …oh I can do this, too.“

To demonstrate reverb I borrowed Dr. Dog’s spring reverb unit, took the cover off, hung it on the wall and explained how spring reverb works. We also explain why you’d want to use reverb in the first place. In recording we use fake reverberation to give a sound depth, to make it sound like it exists in a different place than is inherent in the recording.


(Daniel Abraham tracing a cassette)

The tape loop section was designed to show how we made loops of music before we had digital samplers. This started with me trying to get one of my two Tascam 38’s functioning and it just wasn’t happening. ATR generously donated two reels of 1/2“ tape that came as pancake reels. That means no flanges. I made a lot of calls around and Josh Meakim came through with a reel of 1/2“ that I could borrow and two flanges! I made a loop on the 38 and it worked… then it didn’t. Just no response to any transport controls. Daniel had found an old tape machine at a yard sale and brought it over. It worked! And it had a tape on it of some old band practicing in their basement. It was kind of sludge rock. Sounded like Jack White would love it. So I cut a bunch of 1/4“ tape strips and made loops of different lengths to see what we could get it to do. I had the idea to make a shape or spell something with the tape and Daniel had the idea to get empty thread spools on nails on the wall so the tape had less friction as it tried to wind around the loop points. We settled on spelling something with the loop on the wall. This part of the exhibit isn’t interactive but it’s certainly visually striking.

I wanted to use my Kaoss pad in the exhibit. This is a common DJ tool that’s so fun and expressive to use but I imagine it’s not well known to other musicians. I picked an effect that seemed to give the user the quickest dramatic change to sound and that also made sense about how you were altering the sound. For the first week I had the tiniest tape loop running into the Kaoss pad: I cut open a cassette tape and made a loop out of it. This was so unreliable and eventually snapped so I replaced the Kaoss pad’s input with a microphone.


(Tiniest loop)

One part that was more popular than I expected was our Remix the Beatles section. I …found“ some Beatles multitracks floating around online and transferred those 4 track masters to my tascam 8 track cassette multitrack. My wife, Carol, cut foam board around the multi track so the user can only access the faders, pans, and varispeed. I wanted to remove the confusing buttons and functions of these devices that could have the user accidentally touch a setting that ended their experience. I wanted to give them instant creative control and not feel they were intimidated by the number of buttons. This is why there is foam board cutout on the Kaoss pad, SP 404, and cassette multitrack.


(Tape covering buttons to cover with foam board)

The last interactive section is the Sp 404 sampler. I love David Attenborough nature films and the way they’ll draw out showing you a bird for 30-45 minutes until you’re really excited to finally glimpse it. They tell you how hard it was to find this bird, let alone film it. They tell you it’s endangered and how fragile its environment is. I was hoping with this part of the exhibit to describe a sound that is utterly unique so you feel a sense of wonder when you hear it. I love the experience of haring something unique and asking …What’s that?“ The SP 404 is a common sampler now and in this part we’re not using it as a sequencer, or as an effects box. It’s used a a visually interesting playback device. Much credit again to Carol for smartly laying out the descriptions of the sounds.

We also pulled some interesting recording footage and are showing that continuously during the exhibit. These are films I watch regularly for inspiration: Sinatra leading a recording session, Lee Scratch Perry putting a track together, Kanye West awkwardly showing the MPC to 60 minutes.

I was very grateful this is my first experience putting together an exhibit. There; no chance it would have been as successful without Daniel, Erin, and Elissa at Art In The Age who built it with me.

Soon after someone wrote a review of the exhibit and I was very happy to read they understood what I was going for.http://www.knightarts.org/community/philadelphia/handmade-sound-bill-moriarty

The exhibit runs daily until November 27th.



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