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  • The Dictaphone in My Life
  • James Saunders (bio)

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I began using tape dictation machines in versions of my modular composition #[unassigned] in 2001. I wanted to work with some simple yet robust sound-processing tools that avoided the use of computers: I needed something that did not crash, did not need lengthy sound checks and was extremely portable and relatively ubiquitous in order to facilitate future performances. My wife had a Sanyo TRC-580M that, in addition to standard volume, record and playback controls, provided the option to play and record at two speeds (2.4 and 1.2 cm/sec), had a voice-activated recording control (which could be calibrated to trigger recording at alterable ambient sound levels) and allowed the tape to be scanned backward or forward using the play and rewind or fast-forward controls simultaneously. The limitations imposed by this functionality defined my initial uses of the machine and to some extent the development of my music in general over the past 5 years.

I bought a second identical model and used them together for the first time in #051201, for cello, clarinet, two radios and two dictation machines. The machines were used to record sections of the music at 2.4 cm/sec and play them back later in the piece at 1.2 cm/sec. This sampling allowed overlaying of material such that an event could be fed back into the piece a number of times, each an octave lower and half the speed, while overdubbing live sound. One of the wonderful characteristics of these devices, however, is the fact that they do not quite play back at exactly half the speed: There is always some slight fluctuation and distortion. This results in some detuning, producing excellent results when recombining the recorded sound with its acoustic source. The sound quality is also naturally lo-fi, and all the more beautiful for it. There is very little bass, and although they only output 150 mW, they have a surprising capacity for projection, even in relatively dense textures.

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Fig. 5.

Olympus S711 dictation machines connected to a piezo feedback network.

Photo © James Saunders

This simple instrument revolutionized the way I worked and subsequently altered the types of sound materials I employed in my music. Previously I had been drawn to textures that revolved around isolated gestures placed in a field of silence, with occasional drones. Using dictation machines altered this balance significantly by creating denser laminar planes that fused disjunct elements together. Indeed, an interesting characteristic of these devices is their quasi-acoustic sound quality: although it is clear that some processing is taking place (primarily due to the distortion), in some textures the recorded and live sound are relatively hard to distinguish, which is emphasized by their very definite sense of location due to the small speaker size. They can also be repositioned in space or moved around during playback or recording, to diffuse sound in a very direct manner. My compositional interests generally revolve around working with unstable sounds, such as extremely slow bow speeds or minimal breath pressure, and the nature of these instruments is perfectly suited to finding points of contact with such sounds. More recently I have been exploring what happens inside the box. One of my machines has just broken, so I have taken it apart to find out why: A whole new world has just opened up for me.

Although I have generally used dictation machines in small ensemble pieces set in a time structure that encourages echoes of earlier material to return later in the piece, I have also used them in purely electronic setups and, more recently, a month-long installation where visitors operated four machines, recording and playing back parts of the ambient and composed soundscape over an extended timescale (#0505-040606-[i], Keith Talent Gallery, London, May-June 2006). In addition to using them in my own compositions, I have also used dictation machines as performance instruments when playing pieces by other composers or improvising. I connect them to more extended electronic networks incorporating homemade...


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pp. 33-34
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