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  • Sound Shapes, Drumming Infomercials and the Wonders of the Casio Sk1
  • Jeremy Hight (bio)

I could finally afford it—that pretty much begins the story.

As a boy of 14, I dreamed of mounted racks of analogs, with an insane peacock-hued spaghetti of patch cords in the backs and a warm buttery sound.

I imagined veritable landscapes of sliders, touch-sensitive strips, fields of knobs and a long line of drum machines and real drums to mic up and record. I became more realistic after a while and just hoped for something I could afford. I had already out of necessity learned how to record my drumming on the turntable of an old Sears stereo while I recorded on its built-in tape deck and taped it to practice and to play with various feels and styles. I tried to play a Kraftwerk-type song on those little toy keyboards that companies gave away as paperweights, as well as a Speak & Spell.

I fell for the Casio Sk1 (Fig. 16). I bought it with money saved up from my allowance and a birthday. It soon became clear that it had a lot more going for it with its limitations and weird quirks than was suggested by the presets. This thrilled me to no end and inspired hours of experimenting. The drum set was tinny, so I learned to sample my breath to make bass, snare and hi-hat loops like a Roland TR 808 or TR 909 (the drum machines that brought bottom-end bass to electronic music) with even a bit of distortion and tiny fills. I also became really interested in sampling the voices of AM radio newscasters in their weird polarity of speaking either really excitedly or in a morose deadpan worthy of funeral directors in old movies. I once accidentally sampled static as a station signal wavered. It was amazing. It somehow played back as a lush string sound! I learned with practice that the Sk1 could capture static with a distortion at a certain tone and signal range that it translated sonically into something quite rich.

The Sk1 recorded in two channels. If I played with the presets in record mode, it created a sort of odd semi-arpeggio, with a fluidity between short notes as opposed to the normal sustain. It was great for playing fast and working with scales. The batteries would die out pretty quickly, however—the sound would begin from its pristine little presets and samples to slide into mutated distortion, spastic burps, electronic fuzz and a sort of sandpaper static undertone.

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Fig. 16.

Sound Form (tribute to the Sk1), 2007.

© Jeremy Hight

At first this was annoying and disappointing. After a while I realized that I could plug the keyboard in at full power and sample one of those odd mutants, providing a sound palette to manipulate. This was an exciting early taste of something like circuit bending. I learned to see sound in shapes, serrations, edges, color forms and their recombinations.

Television shows such as "Dynasty" and "Dallas" and infomercials provided arrays of sounds to utilize, from voices to layers and percussion. Monotone voices or voices with odd modulations (e.g. bad public-access cable hosts) could be used for bass on low keys, snares in the middle range and cymbals and quirky little accents on the high end. An ad for a truck-driving school aired one night at 3 AM yielded the most amazing drum and string sample I have ever heard. The samples could only be a few seconds long, so they had to pack a lot of elements or something really odd and rich. It surely must have sounded quite insane to my parents, when in the middle of the night they would hear the television play odd late-night detritus with massive 10-second spikes in volume at odd intervals.

I lost my Sk1 years ago when it was taken apart by a bandmate. He replaced it, but it somehow was not the same, and I began to experiment with other tools. I now create works such as a recent one composed of interacting architectures of...


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