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How do museums share sound technologies with their visitors? Edward Wilson-Stephens talks about creating a unique DJ set.

Electronic musical instruments and sound technologies have played a role in the creation, shaping and recording of all styles of music over the last 70 years. Although many are likely to remember the names of the songs or the musicians who wrote them, few may be aware of the instruments and technologies used to create them.

Considering that museums exist in order to preserve these objects, exhibiting them in interesting and engaging ways while safeguarding their continued preservation can be challenging. Add to that the notion that electronic musical instruments and sound technologies are designed to be turned on and used; then consider that they are designed to be heard; and it soon becomes clear that exhibiting these objects is no easy task.

Over two more years of PhD research, I will continue to explore ways in which museums collect and exhibit electronic musical instruments and sound technologies. One common challenge that researchers and academics encounter is finding new ways to share knowledge with different audiences. Additionally, when considering sound, it is worth considering how one could talk about sound when it is easier just to hear it.

Enter the DJ set. Well… to be more specific… enter the DJ-set-slash-PowerPoint-presentation.

I set myself the task of creating a 30-minute DJ set for Lates: Good Vibrations at the National Science and Media Museum, using music created, shaped or recorded by iterations of the electronic musical instruments and sound technologies collected by the Science Museum Group (SMG). The audio (mixed on Ableton software) was accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation which displayed the objects used to create each song and highlighted the year each object was manufactured, the release date of the music it featured on, and the year that iteration of the object was collected by the SMG. This audio/visual experiment was named Sound Travels because of the entanglement between the journeys of the objects and the journeys of their sounds through time and space (hence the postcard design).

Listen to all the songs from the Sound Travels DJ set in this YouTube playlist:

A slide from the PowerPoint presentation that accompanied Sound Travels

DJing can take many forms of self-expression. Whether a DJ set exists as a playlist, a beat-matched selection of dance and electronic music, or experimentation with playback technologies and recorded music (known as abstract turntablism), DJs aim to keep their audience dancing or otherwise engaged in their song choices. The use of the beat-matching technique owes a lot to objects such as the EDP Spider that allow musicians to program patterns of melodic notes and percussive sounds as sequences. The constant timing of these sequenced patterns has helped to create millions of songs whose time signatures, tempos and rhythms remain the same throughout their durations.

The inclusion of pitch control sliders on turntables allowed platters to spin faster or slower than standardized revolutions per minute (RPM) settings and, therefore, speed up or slow down music, providing a way for DJs to match the tempos of different songs. This technology and practice has since transferred across to digital music, allowing CDs and mp3 files to be mixed together using hardware and software tools.

The Electronic Dream Plant (EDP) Spider sequencer
The Electronic Dream Plant (EDP) Spider sequencer

Several unique challenges were encountered when deciding on which tracks to use.

I discovered that a theremin was used on Erykah Badu’s ‘Strawberry Incense’, but I could not find any clues as to the make of the theremin. Therefore, I decided to list the instrument on the PowerPoint presentation as just ‘theremin’. I chose this song because, after an ethereal start from Clara Rockmore and her RCA theremin, the beatless introduction of ‘Strawberry Incense’ provided the perfect soundscape for blending into Clara Rockmore, followed by a laid-back hip-hop groove that kick-started the rest of the mix.

The inclusion of the Midas XL3 mixing console was an anomaly as it was not used in the making of The Prodigy’s instrumental track ‘Weather Experience’ but was, instead, used to mix the front-of-house sound when the band toured.

The beat-matching technique was used during three parts of the mix: the slower hip-hop at the start, the thumping acid house in the middle, and the faster synth-pop and drum and bass towards the end. Although the breakdown midway through ‘Weather Experience’ combined well with the intro to ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ by The Beatles, transitioning between ‘Acid Tracks’ and the much faster ‘Kids in America’ needed a more creative approach. I decided to use my trusty Korg Monotron Delay synthesizer to add mind-boggling, time-twisting delays to the music in real-time, while shifting the master tempo from 125bpm to 170bpm, in time for the start of ‘Kids in America’.

Two Technics SL-1210 MK2 direct drive turntables
Two Technics SL-1210 MK2 direct drive turntables

Unfortunately, there were songs that did not make the cut. David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ (which features the toy-like Stylophone synthesizer) proved to be too laid-back for this DJ set (I’m so so sorry, David Bowie), while Hawkwind’s ‘Silver Machine’ (which showcases the noisy power of the EMS Synthi VCS 3 synthesizer) sounded far too heavy in comparison to everything else.

Listen to and view a recording of the set below:

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