Monthly Archives: May 2010

Sounds of the Earth

During my downtime the past few nights, I’ve been listening to and reading up on a pair of phenomena that involve strange radio transmissions.

Have you ever heard of Numbers Stations? These are radio stations on the shortwave band whose only job is to transmit a random-sounding series of numbers either by voice, Morse code, or noises. It is theorized that they are used by governments to send coded messages to their operatives out in the field, yet no single government will admit to using them. A Ham listener can use signal triangulation to locate the transmitting antenna, but there’s no clear way of knowing who the station serves and what its message is.

The use of Numbers Stations is actually growing even after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War (some would argue that the Cold War never actually ended). Even in this day and age of high-speed communications and strong encryption, the fact that clandestine activities still happen with this antiquated technology bears testament to the fact that this is probably the only truely anonymous form of communication.

Since the last few decades of last century, there’s been growing public awareness and concern regarding Numbers Stations, and various researchers, Ham operators, and writers have taken to the cause of documenting these stations, logging their existence, writing down the patterns of numbers, and making audio recordings for a wider distribution outside the amateur radio realm. One such collection was compiled by the Irdial netlabel of England on a 4-CD set called the “The Conet Project – Recordings of Shortwave Numbers Stations“. Irdial has been kind enough to release this collection for public download at Archive.org. I suggest you read the Wikipedia article, grab the collection, and take a listen. It’s chilling, haunting, and a thrill to hear.

The next phenomenon, though not as clandestine, is still sharply related to the first. Mankind has been hearing strange noises ever since the first 20-mile telegraph line. Operators would hear clicks, pops, whistles and chirps coming out of their receiver sets in between all of the buzzer noises of the telegraph transmission. What they didn’t know at the time, and what we’ve discovered over the last century since the telegraph, is that they were hearing electromagnetic noises generated by the Earth. Every lightning strike, every Aurora Borealis, every solar particle, cosmic ray, burst of energy that strikes the Earth, emits a broad range of electromagnetic noise across the whole frequency spectrum, from DC current up to visible light.

But the electromagnetic frequencies clustered within our human range of hearing (called VLF, or Very Low Frequency) are the most interesting. With the right radio receiver — essentially a large antenna to pick up the noise, an amplifier, an audio filter, and an amp to power a speaker or headphones  — you can listen to these pops and whistles yourself. Researchers have been building these radios and studying the noises for decades, making years-worth of audio recordings. Irdial published a collection of recordings called “Electric Enigma: The VLF Recordings of Stephen P. McGreevy” (also found on Archive.org), gathered by McGreevy on his outings around the Northern hemisphere using equipment he built himself. I suggest you grab it too; the sounds are incredible.

These restore my faith that, even at my age, there still might be some wonder left in this world.

Three. One. Seven. Five. Nine.

Stutter

It’s a late Friday night alone, and my demons are talking at me. They’re telling me that since I am alone, late on a Friday night, that I obviously must have done something wrong with my life. That there had to be one missed opportunity, one blind moment, one bad mistake early on in my adulthood to begin a chain of events, decisions, and lost potential that lead up to yet another night alone. I can’t deny that our lives are more than the sum of our choices, but our choices nonetheless impinge on our lives and hammer us into the shape we are at the present.

I just cannot see where I may have turned wrong. Was it my volition (or lack thereof), or was it outside forces beyond my control (or lack of willpower)? Did I get too greedy? Did I not get bold enough? Did I not answer my hunger when the bounty was rich? I simply do not know, and even with counsel, I never will.

One event is all it takes to initiate a reverberating series of fumbles, misteps, and stutters. I want to recover.

Greasing Wheels

So I’ve finally started pushing the Record button.

The hardest part of making music is learning your instruments and your tools. After picking up all this equipment, it’s taken me some time to get familiar with the basics of my synth, sampler, sound module, drum machine, and DAW software. Five months ago, when I knew a lot less than I do now, every time I pressed Record on the DAW software, it was screwup after screwup after screwup. Frustration rose and overpowered joy, and so I let the music project lie fallow for months.

Until March, when I got the synth. It became a joy again. I got to peck and poke, pushing parameters around, finding sounds, figuring out what that damn thing can do. It became fun and novel again. I had to know more. So I picked up the manual and read it, and started reading the manuals to the rest of my gear. Now I’m getting familiar with it, and that, my friends, is a good, good thing.

I sat at my workstation last night and hammered out a nasty bassline. I recorded the midi of it, learned how to clean it up, loop it, record an audio loop of it. Laid down a track with a GM patch called “Nylon Guitar” (mildly reminiscent of the real thing). Worked up a drum track. (Yeah, I know…Creativity, WOW!) It’s mostly a throw-away track; the vibe is totally not Glass Door material, but I’ll keep punching at it. Each hour spent with it is a new learning experience.

There’s plenty more work to do.