Saturday, May 26, 2012

Questions for Dean Wilcox, Sound Bricoleur

A lifelong music fan, Dean has spent the majority of his adult life atoning for his early love of Chicago. He is currently filling the gaps in his post-punk and ambient vinyl collection.  For decades, he has worked as a lighting designer, and he noted that while considering these questions,”I had a revelation that I structure sound the way I design lights by responding to what is in front of me.”

How would you describe what you do?  

Basically I push blocks of sound around. I have always had music in my head, but the computer is such a wonderful tool for those of us less musically inclined. To be able to see sound as well as hear it is wonderful. Eventually I have to force myself just to listen.

Is this different than what other people think you do?

I don't know what other people think I do. I do share sound files with people but no one has ever really asked how the sound was produced. 

How do you know if you’re on the right track with a project?

It really has to do with feeling it out. I have tons of projects I have abandoned because I didn't quite know what to do with them. Some are samples, some layered sounds with effects, some built up with real instruments. Occasionally when I come back to them I hear something in them that sparks a thought and then I can finish the track. Other times it is just best to move on.

How do you go about making choices?

I like using programs and filters that mangle sound, chop it up, create something I can't control. And then I listen. I may hear a small bit that catches my attention and so I magnify it by pulling it out of the mix or looping it. Typically one choice leads to another and another and so the track gets built up over time by adding layers, effects, and other sounds.

How do you know when you’re done?

I can usually feel it. In a way it is like structuring a narrative. The essential pieces are established in the opening moments and then they are developed. Some pieces can sustain a long slow build that can last five or ten minutes, others run their course in two or three minutes. Strangely I can usually hear that something is missing, some sound or build or chunk. I keep adding those until it doesn't need anything more.

What’s your workspace like?

It's everywhere. I have guitars and a bass in the back bedroom along with a USB mic set up to sample live sounds and drums in the basement, but I have also taken samples on my phone or from a cd player and a glitched disk - which basically means I wrote on it in sharpie, cut it, scratched it or whatever. You never know where it will catch or what sounds it will make so it is always a process of discovery. I actually would love to create a workspace where everything is always set up an accessible, but mainly I move from room to room so no one can hear what I am doing. I tend to head to a far corner of the basement when vocals are involved.

What are your essential tools?

Mac laptop and GarageBand no question. I bought a decent USB mic a few years back which works great for recording live instruments.  I occasionally use Audacity when I want to reverse a track which is hard to do with GarageBand.  I have a copy of Logic but it is so complicated I have yet to sort it out. The same is true for MAX/MSP. Basically I get an idea and I want to get it down quickly and GarageBand is great for that.

What’s the most surprising tool you use?

I guess it depends on what surprises you. Basically anything can make sound and with a combination of filters any sound can be bent or mangled or altered. I've sampled my furnace turning on, I have sampled skipping CDs, I even sampled the erratic sound of dripping water on a trip to Biltmore. 

What was your biggest mistake or the one you learned the most from?  

It's all mistakes. I have no idea what I am doing. That is the fun part. I listen to early pieces I made and I can hear that I really had no idea how to use the tools. It's all a learning experience and every time I get a new plug-in, a new effect, a new toy that makes sound I make mistakes all over the place. But these lead to a greater understanding and some very interesting and unpredictable sounds.

An example of Dean’s work:

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