Monday, June 24, 2013

A Quarter of Nothing

In 1905, Einstein wrote five articles and had them published in the prestigious Annalen der Physik (Annals of Physics). In one of these papers, “Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Koerper” (“On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies”), Einstein detailed his Special Theory of Relativity. He was 26 years old and working six days a week in the Swiss Patent Office in Bern. In between work and his family life (he had a wife and son), Einstein worked diligently on his scientific theories. Even with what seems like very little time, Einstein had his most productive and momentous year of revolutionary scientific theories that year.

By 1916, just ten or so years later, he published the General Theory of Relativity, the current description of gravitation in modern physics. General relativity generalizes special relativity and Newton's law of universal gravitation, providing a unified description of gravity as a geometric property of space and time, or spacetime. In particular, the curvature of spacetime is directly related to the energy and momentum of whatever matter and radiation are present. The relation is specified by the Einstein field equations, a system of partial differential equations.

He spent the rest of his life working to match those youthful accomplishments. Why does genius so often bloom in the young, and why is it so hard to be creative later in life? Of course, there are a lot of counterexamples of senior citizens making groundbreaking discoveries or creating new ideas, I just can’t think of any. The best I can do is Colonel Sanders who invented KFC when he was in his seventies.

I’ve often written about my life of science, and a few times about my life of art. In this short essay I’ll describe what I think is the best musical composition and production I ever produced, and I was only 19 or 20 years old.

This is a song I wrote (well at least several parts) and played both the piano (backwards) and the twelve-string guitar on the first two sections. These parts were then wedded to a fairly standard blues riff and recorded on quarter inch tape. I concluded the composition with more of the ethereal backward music and twelve-string and even some churchy organ.

I’ll tell you a little about the name. I called it “One quarter of Nothing” and in my notes on some old yellow paper I would often show it as “Zero over Four” or "0/4," a mathematical description.

(Don’t worry, I didn’t divide by zero, which is not allowed in mathematics. You can divide nothing as much as you want … that’s valid. But you end up with less than nothing!)

(It also looks a little like a time signature such as "4/4" or "2/4.")

The name came originally from the use of quarter-inch magnetic recording tape. I had the final recording wound on a small reel, not the normal seven-inch diameter reel, but a smaller two and one-half inch reel since it was only a few minutes of tape. I remember telling my buddy Robin Sterret that is was a quarter-inch of nothing. We then started talking about that and how much money we could make as best-selling musicians. Somehow the discussion became that we would split the money evenly among we four, and I said or someone said, “a quarter of nothing.”

Well, to tell the truth, it was so long ago that I’m not really sure exactly how the name came about. This was back when we were playing at a bar in Butte, Montana, called the U & I Club. “You” and “I,” get it? I was going to college at the School of Mines there, as were the others in the band. Anyway, the drummer, a guy named Donnatelli, we called him “The Don,” and we didn’t even know about the Mafia. Anyway, he said he was going to use his money to buy a bar. I said, “The trouble with bars is the customers,” as we were very experienced with noisy and rude bar people as we tried our best to entertain them. His answer was, “Customers! There won’t be any customers.” I should have expected that response since he told everyone that his office was at the bar.

Anyway, I used a full-track tape recorder to record some piano sounds, including reaching inside the piano and strumming the strings directly with a guitar pick. (I think we also used a quarter. There’s that concept again.) The point of using a full-track recorder is that you can flip the tape over and play it backwards. Remember, this is before the Beatles showed off their fancy studio tricks. I think they may owe me for this little idea even if I didn't patent it, although I stole … errrr … borrowed the idea from a Wonderful World of Diseny episode where they showed how they created the duet for an animated movie that had two siamese cats singing. The song went something like: “We are Siamese if you pleeease. We are Siamese if you don’t please.”

To record the voices they had a female singer make a tape recording. Disney engineers then played the recording faster to raise the pitch and they made two copies and recorded those with one of the copies slightly out of sync … or something like that. The goal was to get some sort of oriental effect, since the cats were Siamese.

Reminds me now of the special musical effect called “flanging.” Flanging is an audio effect produced by mixing two identical signals together, with one signal delayed by a small and gradually changing period, usually smaller than 20 milliseconds. This produces a swept comb filter effect: peaks and notches are produced in the resultant frequency spectrum, related to each other in a linear harmonic series. Varying the time delay causes these to sweep up and down the frequency spectrum. Originally, one of the tapes was slowed down by putting a finger on the edge of the reel or "flange." Hence the name. A modern day flanger is an effects unit dedicated to creating this sound effect. Back in those days, all you had to make sound effects was the tape recorder and a few tricks. But I digress.

So, using a professional recorder at the local radio station, I was able to record, not only the various piano sounds, but to play them back “backward” and at a very slow rate which lowered the pitch. That is the introduction and start of the song. You’ll also hear some bells or gongs in the sound. The Don had just purchased a set of gongs and other metal percussions, and we used some of those when we mixed the other stuff played backwards. I had a recording and live music being mixed onto a new track. Very high tech.

Bryan Wilson would have been very proud of me working all this magic in the studio. I had two tape decks and really produced a unique sound for that time since this was 1967. That is part of the creative part of the part I was talking about previously … part of it anyway.

My Twelve String Guitar

I’ve written before about my Guild twelve-string guitar I had at that time. Wish I still had that instrument. I was impressed with the twelve string sound, especially songs by the Byrds, so I had purchased this red beauty and I came up with a simple little finger-picking part that makes up the musical interlude after the backward piano and before we break into a regular twelve-bar-blues riff.

I wish I still had the original tapes because I’m not happy with some of the transitions in the song and the intro goes a bit long before breaking into the blues section. I think the twelve string part should fade out as the blues bit starts instead of stopping abruptly. That’s actually something I can do now in my studio using the digital domain, but back then I did this by recording parts from one tape onto a second recorder. I didn’t know how to splice tape back then. So, much of the music is actually a third-generation recording, a recording of a recording of a recording. Since this was all analog, that means 3 db of noise was added with each copy.

Since it “only rock and roll,” the hiss probably doesn’t matter that much anyway, and it was my first attempt.

It ends with a repeat of the effects from the beginning and I added a little organ music. So, in total, I played four instruments on this recording, the piano, twelve string, rhythm guitar on the blues part and some organ at the end. Not bad for an untalented musical hacker. Eh what?

That’s the amazing part. Since that time, I’ve done little creative with music. Since then I wrote a melody for a Robert Frost poem about a "Fire of Driftwood," and I wrote and performed some finger picking style stuff on a open tuned guitar. (And I was still in my twenties when I did that.) I've written a little poetry and a lot of prose. Recently I’ve done considerable studio and live recording, but never repeated any of the tricks I’ve just described. I used modern digital tools to recover a video interview that I video taped at Denver Seminary where an equipment malfunction made the audio very noisy. In this case the fine filters in ProTools was able to remove most of the noise and we were able to use the audio in a DVD I produced.

Another time my granddaughter was trying to record a song as a tribute to her great grandmother for the grandmother’s memorial service. The music track we were using was several steps too high pitched for Alyssa. I was able to rescue that recording using digital pitch shifting technology in Adobe Audition. You’ll find that song on the Sutros web site I link to at the end of this article.

However, in both of these cases, it was the creativity of the digital tool designers, not my creativity, that saved the audio day. No, much like Einstein, I’ve never repeated the genius I showed at such an early age. (Well, maybe not “genius.” Maybe just “smarty pants.”) I’m no George Martin or Phil Spector or Alan Parsons or even Al Kooper. Perhaps I could have been if I’d been at FAME studio (another tale you can read in my blog), but I switched my emphasis from music back to science in the late sixties.

(Those familiar with my life story so painstakingly told on this very blog that I was the Outstanding Science Student of the Year in Junior High, but left science behind to pursue wine, women, and song (and not particularly in that order) through High School and a failed year of college. Upon joining the Navy and enrolling in their Advanced Electronics Program, I rekindled the interest in science, and music took a back-seat as a nice way to spend time with friends. Since then it has been science and engineering … and math and technology.)

From a creative standpoint, I’ve always thought the problem of paradigms would make it difficult for creative types to continue their groundbreaking work later in life. It may be something about breaking rules you haven’t learned yet, or not getting stuck in mental ruts that are not there in a youthful brain. Of course, there are plenty of examples of people who maintain their creative output well past middle age. I just can’t think of any.

So, without any further adou, let me present my greatest creative accomplishment, at least in my little world. Ladies and gentlemen, I present a “Quarter of Nothing.” It is less than nothing. Not much at all. It really isn’t anything important … except to me.

Zero Over Four — A Quarter of Nothing

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