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Will Mitchell × TapeOp

I first met Will as he was making his bed, inside a cubicle at Washington City Paper. I was a freelancer at the time, and it was one of my first visits to the actual office. He set up an ikea foldout so he could pull late nights wrangling web code. It was an amusing sight, but I don’t think we had any real conversations until sitting with mutual friends on the grass at Fort Reno. Even then, we were just casual acquaintances.

I couldn’t find a good shot of me sitting on the grass, but here’s one of me playing on the stage. (Photo by Stephanie Breijo)

I can’t recall exactly what started it, but in 2015 or so, I started to get serious about learning to program computers, mainly writing web stuff: JavaScript, servers, command lines, the whole bit. Will quickly became a regular source of assistance in my otherwise self-taught journey. He also became a close friend, and with the exception of my most severely ill period, we’ve been emailing on a regular basis ever since.

Often, we talk about tech, old and new, especially as it relates to music & ethics. There are so many great electronic components rotting in trash dumps. Like all tech, music gear gets outdated and thrown out; then a decade or two later, it gets relabeled as “vintage” and the price tag triples. The wasteful byproduct of consumerism becomes a nostalgic object and the cycle starts all over again.

As we started talking about collaborating, and antiquated gear came up. For a long time, magnetic tape was the standard medium for recording music. Eventually, inexpensive digital options came along and made it unnecessary (though it’s still fun to play with). At this point, you can recreate the audible effects of tape in a computer, and it’s indistinguishable from the real deal. But plenty of audio engineers still pine for the “warm sound of tape.”

We basically flipped that idea on its head. Instead of focusing on the sound of an actual recording on tape, we captured every squeak, hum, and click we could find on the machine itself–we played it like an instrument.

Will set up a camera and a mic which recorded for about a half an hour, while he poked and prodded an old Teac he had lying around. Then, he sent it all to me. I chopped up the sounds, threw them into my sampler, and composed a song with them. To complete the circle, I recorded the song from my sampler onto my own tape machine. It just felt right.

Sending Will’s tape machine sounds from my sampler into my own tape machine.

For the music video, I managed to sync up all the noises with the actual video clips of Will recording them. It was a long, convoluted process, involving a sequencer, some custom programming, a calculator, and a bit of extra editing by Brendan. But the final result is pretty dang cool!

[Listen on SoundCloud]

Will had quite a lot to say about the project, which I’ve edited and condensed.

+ + Q + A + +

RL: How did we even come up with this piece?

WM: The seed was your idea: that I would build something weird and you would play it. I sent you a list of every item in my apartment (“wand blender,” “old reel-to-reel,” “coyote skull”), and you sent back sources of inspiration (Laurie Anderson’s tape bow violin, Alvin Lucier sitting in a room, David Byrne playing a room), and the intersection of those was the reel-to-reel.

You got to thinking about limitations as creative fuel, and a few days later the electromechanical answer clicked into place: record every sound we could get from the tape player, without using it to play tape. Which made my part easy. All I had to do was build an instrument without building anything. And you had that MPC all fixed up and ready to go.

RL: Did it turn out the way you expected?

WM: Pretty much! I didn’t know what form the music would take, and some of it surprised me, but I had a sense of all the available sounds, and I figured you’d chop it up and put it back together nice.

RL: Why do you think it works?

WM: It works for me because the process of making it – digitally chopping, splicing, and layering – draws a direct line to early tape manipulation. I think that’s kinda cool.

RL: Are you fascinated by antiquated technology in general?

WM: Up to a point. I could probably go down a rabbit hole with anything considered obsolete. But I’m not a collector, I don’t have a driving need to own a Curta.

RL: What do you think old tech tells us about the people who used it?

WM: It tells us about the shit they had to put up with. If you use a tape player, you’ll remember the effort of finding the beginning of a song. If you use a VCR, you’ll have to pry mangled cassettes out of it. Got a vintage calculator? I predict that you’ll only calculate with the lights on.

They threw a lot of it away. Not just after, but during. The nostalgia industry laments this, but not in an honest way.

RL: Does it inform the present as well?

WM: Yeah, it shows us the shit we have to put up with. And what we’re missing. For example, the sense of touch. Everything today is pictures under glass. Tablets and phones, swiping. Some cars have touchscreen stereos, which is completely insane.

Like why did we eliminate this incredibly responsive method of controlling things? Because it requires mechanical parts, and mechanical parts break, right? Well they’re all gone now, and everything still breaks. Everyone wants the sense of touch back, and we can’t have it back.

RL: How should we think critically about tech, old and new?

WM: The most important thing is to figure out how it’s lying to you. Old tech, according to the nostalgia industry, was more dependable. It was built to last, you could fix it yourself. But that’s a lie. It’s survivorship bias. Some of it was built to last. Some of it you could fix yourself. Some of it survived to be fetishized, and everything else got thrown away.

New tech has another trick. It wants you to think it’s an accurate representation of reality. It’s not, it’s just a model.

The biggest lie is that technology is neutral, because the unstated corollary is that neutral things are good.

RL: Has the pandemic affected your view of (or relationship with) tech, old or new?

WM: Right now I’m thinking, what if the pandemic happened 10 years ago, or 20? How would we fare with the internet & media of the time?

Back in 1995, Wired published a story called “Savior of the Plague Years,” about a “Mao Virus” (bleh) that locked down the entire world in 2020. You won’t find it, it simply doesn’t exist online anymore. Scientists working in isolated bunkers around the world, using the “Internet” to sequence genes and whatnot.

It was optimistic stuff. Was that ever a radical idea? Managing a pandemic via email and video chat? I can’t remember. But I don’t think they predicted social media. A whole other eusocial mechanism working against us. Those scientists, once they had the cure, they just injected it into cheeseburgers and people lined up at McDonald’s. Sweet summer children, Wired in 95.

RL: As the country gradually opens back up, do you think you’ll approach making things in a different way? Does it make you want to collaborate more, or do you feel like you’ve embraced doing things on your own?

WM: The isolation of the pandemic convinced me how much I need to collaborate in order to create things. I’m hoping to come out of this, if we do actually come out of it, with a drive to arrange more of that.

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