Sunday, April 26, 2009

Dictaphonia shop talk

Here is the text of an e-mail letter I just sent to Dave X:


Yesterday I started working on mastering the Dictaphonia compilation, just getting a feeling for it, testing out gear connections, etc. I immediately encountered some challenges. As you know, my plan has been to do mastering and then make copies using two Panasonic RR-930s. I figured that I could connect a cable with eighth-inch plugs on both ends - one to the MONITOR (headphone jack) of one machine, and the other into the Microphone jack of the second machine. When I tried this last night it didn't have the desired effect. There was a lot of distortion and "machine noise", both of which radically changed the sound of the original recording (your track in this case) and in fact nearly drowned out the source sound. My guess is that the MIC jacks are not meant to handle a line signal like that which comes out of the MONITOR jack. I tried everything, including using different cables, plugging into different AC outlets/power strips. Still, no good.

I was able to make decent copies by playing back the tape on one machine and recording it with the built-in condenser microphone of the other RR-930. While satisfactory one time through, I doubt that doing this twice, once for mastering and another for making a copy from the master, will have a good result.

So, unless I can find a way to overcome the noisy MIC jack problem - perhaps I need to find a way to attenuate the MONITOR signal? - I am going to have to find a work-around method! One solution might be to make a master on CDR, play it back over my stereo system speakers and record with a microcassette machine condenser microphone. Actually, the Sounds From The Pocket label used a CDR master for their Reynols microcassette release. I tried this out briefly and your track sounds great transferred to CDR.

Even if I am able to find a way around that MIC jack issue it seems that making a master on microcassette and then copies from that will just make copies that sound like crud, and not in an appealing way.

On other issues, I am starting to regret my original rule about:
"The DICTAPHONIA Microcassette Compilation will only be available in the microcassette format. Not online, not on CDR or cassette."

After having listened to your piece on the CDR I started thinking about how great it would be to release Dictaphonia online too, in addition to the microcassette.

Let's face it, the audience for this compilation is going to amount to about 40 people - the people who actually contribute to it!

Some of my best stuff, as far as I am concerned, is my microcassette work which I have released online in mp3 format. Such as The Man With The Tape Recorder, Magnetic Personality, and Sandwichism.

I adore the sound of microcassette-based recordings! It has an immediacy and pleasing lo-fi-ness that just gets my brain cells all happy and tickled.

As you know, I have been a big proponent of online music, and many of my recent works have been specifically designed with the mp3 format in mind - working within its limits, fully taking into account the characteristics of the medium. Certainly, while they are different in many respects, microcassette and mp3 both excite and amuse me and appeal to me as minimalist vehicles for audio art.

I will certainly consider all of this in a lot more detail. At this moment it seems to me that what I am discovering about microcassette is that really it is best suited as an original-capture device and as a performance tool to do live mixes - but perhaps NOT as a medium for duplication, making multiple copies. The way most microcassette machines were designed is for one-time immediate use in a sketch-pad, note-taking kind of way.

One of the participants in the Dictaphonia project (Rob of Su Sous Toulouse En Rouge) has an idea to make one of a kind microcassette tapes to give to people. While this is not of interest to me, it seems like something that would be well-suited to the characteristics of microcassette -- one-time use as the final product.

Oh well, one lives and learns! And I am not afraid to change my mind about things, thanks in great part to the GIFT of schizophrenia :) I think it's most important to keep the Dictaphonia project within the spirit of the microcassette as audio art medium and object, and maybe not so important to adhere to the strict guidelines I originally set out.

I have already made allowances! I have allowed local contributors to in-person hand-deliver their submission to me. Plus I have allowed one contribution that was less than the stated minimum length of one minute.


Hey everybody, please reply to these thoughts. I would like to read your feedback and reactions.


  1. Hi Hal,

    If things aren't working out as you'd hoped, I think it's fine to go to plan B. It's art and not science, so breaking the rules is OK. I'm looking forward to hearing the final product in whatever form it takes!

    Kathy B.

  2. Thanks, Kathy for those thoughts.

    In an e-mail response K. Paul Boyev (Otolathe) told me:

    "Your problem is that the mic in is designed with a pre-amplifier for a microphone (to boost a very low level signal) and the headphone out is "hot" in order to drive an electromechanical device: viz., a headphone. So you have the worst of both worlds: hot output into sensitive input.

    There are three "output levels" in weakest to strongest order: mic, instrument, line. Headphones don't make this list, in general but it is hotter than line level and to feed a headphone output into a mic-level input you are correct that you will have to attenuate the signal. Might I suggest using one of your mixers? Simply hook up the headphone out to channel 1, and then you can use the mixer to figure out what doesn't distort after you send it to the mastering deck by trial and error.


    Dereck Donohue said:

    "I was wondering how you were going to do the duplication. I thought maybe you had a micro cassette that had a line out besides a headphone jack, or you were going to hook up two answering machines. I have no problem making a cd-r of my track, but at the same time I fear it might increase the fidelity of the piece. But it might not.
    If you made a master to a normal sized cassette it might be more true to the original. At the same time, you would have to figure out a way to dub it back to the micro cassette. You could do this.
    Play it real loud in a room,maybe not even that loud. The little things are sensitive. Try to turn all the micro cassettes on at the same time.(Give yourself about thirty seconds of leader on the master tape.) Maybe only about five at a time. That way you would be dubbing five at a time and they would all come out different depending on where they were on the room. Or if they were all close to the speakers, they would come out somewhat alike.A little bit of chance, a little bit of magic.Tadah!
    Well that's my two cents. Maybe not the best idea, but it would work.But you know way more about sound than I do. If I come up with anything else I'll let you know.-Dd"

    Phil Klampe (Homogenized Terrestrials said in an e-mail:

    "I pretty much agree with what you are saying. I don't think releasing these recordings on line or on cdr takes away anything from the original intent. A cdr of a microcassette recording is a somewhat accurate representation. A microcassette recording of another microcassette recording is a limited or incomplete or effected representation due to the distortions caused during the dubbing process."

  3. DO NOT PANIC! I'll build you an attenuator cable this week and send it to you. :-)

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. A few words of clarification. In the original post above I said that I am not interested in one of a kind microcassette tapes. What I meant is that I am not interested in doing them. I think that it is a great thing that somebody, in this case Rob of SSTeR, wants to do them. In many ways this is an ideal situation - one of a kind personalized art - and Rob is to be commended for undertaking this project.

  6. I received lots of good feedback on these subjects. You can read some more of those replies below.

    I want to assure everyone that I fully intend to carry through with the original plan of releasing the Dictaphonia compilation on microcassette! But maybe in the future (in a few months) I will reissue it online on my web site.



    K of Vagina Teeth/Jesus Teeth wrote in a MySpace message:

    "as far as i am concerned an online release or any other format for that matter would just be more exposure for the whole project. i am very proud of the piece i submitted and would want as many people as possible to expeience it as well as the other submissions. i still think a micro-cassete release would be alot of fun, but i understand why it may need to be released in other formats as well. i trust you will please me either way this turns out hal. keep up the good work!!! very interested in hearing the finished comp!!!!!"

    Krysten Davis wrote in an e-mail:

    "I don't think releasing the music online and/or in CDR format would
    take anything away from the project--in fact, given the technical
    difficulties inherent in reproducing it in microcassette format, it
    seems the logical thing to do. I appreciate your asking for our input
    on the subject!"

    Dave X wrote these three e-mail messages:

    "My immediate thoughts are that running a signal from monitor to mic is probably going to really give it some serious distortion-- the monitor out needs a bit of power to drive headphones ordinarily, and the mic needs a bit of power to boost the input, so you'd be combining both of these effects-- it could get nasty. If you want to go CDR, go ahead-- it will reproduce all the grimy goodness of our beloved micros-- maybe every contributor copy can come with a random original microcassette!"

    "I think you should definitely continue with this as a physical release-- you're selling yourself a bit short if you think there will be no interest beyond contributors. Part of the reason we continue to use microcassettes is due to the fetishization of the object itself-- it may not be entirely logical, but it's still a factor involved. So you've got all these contributors who are beating a dead medium-- I'm pretty sure this is the wrong crowd to lob mp3s at, haha. Besides, everytime you get a contributor, it's another mouth saying "hey, check this out" to their 30 closest friends, right?"

    "Don't get the wrong idea, Hal-- I don't MIND it online. I'm not about to come out against mp3s, that would be a pretty hypocritical standpoint for someone managing a miniature netlabel! I just don't think it's the right flavor for the job, that's all. But hey-- I'm not the pioneer-- you are. Blaze that trail, Hal!"

  7. Keep it as "microcassette only" for awhile, then release it in other formats sometime in the winter as a special treat. Hey, do you have winter in Florida?

  8. Thanks for the comment, Anonymous. As I said in the most recent post, I have overcome the technical challenges and am moving ahead as planned with the compilation to be released in microcassette format. Yes, maybe later on, in a few months, I might release it on online for a a broader audience to enjoy.

  9. Hal: Try recording the microcassette to cd, then go out of the cd player headphone jack using 1/4" to mini-jack plug to the microcassette input. Volume can be controlled via the headphone volume control as well as initially having a good level for the microcassette to cd transfer. Just an idea. Richard

  10. Richard, this is an excellent suggestion, and is in fact the method I will be using, or something very similar.

  11. Releasing the material on the net would be a great idea, in my opinion. I think the material would have a wider audience than the contributors if it was downloadable. The site would be great for this.

    If you need a MC deck with line in, I've got one you can use. After I'm finished with my contribution I'd only need it to listen to the resulting product, which wouldn't be the case if the end results are available online. Just let me know!

  12. I took another look at my MC recorder and I was wrong, it doesn't have a line-in jack ... I saw two inputs and thought one was line-in, it turned out to be a mic-in, and the impedance is different. But I did figure out a work-around; I found that I got a pretty clean signal by playing the source through the headphone jack to the mic input of the recorder, setting the volume REALLY low on the source. This is exactly what Richard suggested, works fine...