Listening Through Distorted Sound


JL: Let’s discuss the distorted sound in the recordings I shared with you. I must acknowledge that I lied to myself: it’s not rubbish even for me [laughing]. But at the same time, it was a kind of rubbish to the person who asked me to record these moments during my fieldwork in Romania. It was my first recording of these kinds of situations, and I was still an amateur, a kind of a Michael Rockefeller figure in this Roma neighborhood, and together with a musician friend, we made a mistake for the first recording: we used a shotgun microphone, the Sennheiser ME66/K6. For the recording you hear, we put the microphone at the other part of the room, 30 meters from the speakers. To describe the scene, it would be rubbish if you are just interested in the semiotics of what is said or sung in the microphone. The announcement and the sound that you hear at some point is just a conventional announcement of the entry of the godparents of the child or of the groom and the bride for a wedding. For the musicians it is really boring, and from a musical point of view, nothing of interest. But what is really striking is the dynamic of the volume and the distortion. You can hear the differences between the singer and a person from the family speaking into the microphone. The people are closer to the microphones than to the speakers.


EK: And there is all this delay effect. And here, in a minute, it turns off at a certain point.


JL: Yes, because it was the father of the child making the announcement. But I do not know if they deliberately fade it out or if he doesn’t have the privilege to have such a delay effect. I am not sure because there really is a difference of engagement with the microphone between how a member of the audience speaks and how the musicians actually engage with the microphone: the mouth is really stuck close to it. You can hear a real difference. It is not at all the same atmosphere, as if it was not the same room.


EK: That’s fascinating. There’s so much information in how they use the audio, like when turning off the delay. Is it that the delay is meant to be there for the singer, but once somebody is speaking, it shouldn't be on anymore as it serves a different purpose? I wonder if it overloaded the microphone. Was it extremely loud in the room?


JL: Yes, it was really loud.


EK: So, it was too much for the microphone. Because it’s not digital clipping. It’s overloading at the mic, so it actually sounds okay. I mean, obviously, it's distorted. But it sounds like the actual sound system was also distorted. Right? 


JL: Yes.


EK: So it's not just an artifact of recording. It's as if the distortion is part of the aesthetic of the audio. And that's an interesting aspect of rubbish. Just maybe as a side note: when I did my dissertation research back in 2000-2001 [laughing], I was interested in the aesthetics of amplification in temple festivals in Kerala, in South India (Karel 2003). And I thought a lot about loudness and distortion. And, yeah, it's part of this aesthetic of making an event big and loud, letting it overload on the system. And so it's not just about our recordings of it.


HW: Just like it is in Java. That's fascinating. I have to dig up your PhD. That's just what I'm writing about for my article for this issue, about this Javanese idea of loudness and authority being intertwined.


EK: Okay. Yeah [laughing].


HW: It completely destroyed my recordings.


EK: I have a chapter about that.


HW: Yeah, wonderful! Sorry, I was talking on top of you, because I was so excited about what you said.

EK: I never published anything, so I haven’t contributed to the discourse in sound studies on this topic. So one of the things I would try to do is to ask people about the distortion, like neighbors on the street from the temple, blaring, music across the street. And over the course of the rainy season, the cassettes that they're using get increasingly distorted, I don't know if there's mold growing on them [Heikki laughing], and the audio will become crunchier and crunchier: crrrr, crrrr, crrrr, until it’s almost just this rhythmic thing after [several] weeks, and you’re just hearing the basic rhythm of a song coming through. I loved the sound of it. I have a lot of recordings of that, actually they are 20 years old now or more. But anyway, I would try to ask people about the distortion, what they think about it. I was a naive anthropologist trying to ask direct questions like this. And, of course, it didn't work at all. People didn't really know what I was asking. They would just say: “Well, I love that song,” or “the song is good, because it’s about God,” and, “I love the lyrics, the lyrics are good,” and “hearing the song, I hear the lyrics.” I was not able to talk about what I heard as the quality of the audio. They were hearing the song; they weren't hearing the audio of the song. I think I would try to actually play back a recording I had made of how it sounded during the broadcast, so that they could listen to it a little bit out of context, and still it didn't work. They would hear right through the audio to hear the song itself. They would talk about whether they like that genre of song or whether this kind of “Tamil” song is appropriate to be played in this particular temple and stuff like that. But nothing about the distortion. So, for that daily broadcast from the temple, loudness was there. It was important that it was loud, but even more for the temple festivals, where you’re really establishing bigness or greatness.

Audio recording made by Jonathan Larcher, during his first fieldwork in Romania, August 2007.

Audio recording made by Ernst Karel during his fieldwork in Kerala, India, 2000-2001.