Surrealism Through Sound Design: The Squish Engine Manifesto

Written and Designed by Rei Low

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The Squish Engine is a powerful sound design tool capable of creating watery, metallic, and, for lack of a better term, squishy timbres. Fundamentally, the Squish sound is just a modulating comb filter and a flanger in series, however with the engine, sounds can be dialed in and overtones are somewhat tuned to the fundamental.

Chapter 0: Conceiving The Gothic Flatline

The original idea for the Engine was to create an ‘impossible space’ to send sounds into. Spring reverb is sort of a close analogue of what inspired me. With spring reverb, a signal is sent through a literal spring and summed with the dry signal on the other. The spring reverb effect is unlike any real space we have on Earth; there isn’t a particular type of physical space that sounds like spring reverb.

I asked myself, what would be the most impossibly bizarre sounding “space” that I can emulate. Some of the original sound design by sv1, Nathan Blair, galen tipton, Himera, and other textural ambient producers all have a sort of hyper realistic and yet also impossible sounds. There’s a SOPHIE interview in which she describes synthesizing a giant piano the size of a mountain. She is still cutting edge and ahead of her time today.

The album Sharing Secrets by Himera is another one of those classic albums to me, which is a beautiful playground of intentionality and meditation on what the newest wave of electronic sound design can be. That’s what my electronic music project is really about, opening up a door through the mundane capitalist realism into other worlds, with literal different laws of physics.

As a somewhat classically trained and lazy electronic musician, Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage are some of my favorite dead guys. It’s important to not reinvent the wheel when dealing with electronic music or avant-garde noise music. Taking all this into account, I wanted to make a plugin which made playing in the liminal squishy phase universe easy and accessible to a wider audience. I realized all these ideas into a basic Vital patch, and with that, we can now enter the Gothic Flatline.

Chapter 1: Building the Portal to the Gothic Flatline

What I had figured out so far about simulating the sound of these artists was that they use phase to shift the overtones across time. Two effects that I knew did this were comb filters and flangers. In hindsight, using a phaser never really came to mind, but that would be effective as well.

Comb filters are actually not filters at all. The resonance pattern of a filter that looks like a comb is below. However, the implementation of a comb filter is actually a short delay. So, essentially a comb filter is a really short delay that filters out some frequencies in a signal. Below is a graph of the frequencies filtered out by the short delay. It looks somewhat like a comb, hence the name comb filter.

Inside the Squish Engine is an aleatoric, or chance based effect, which means the same inputs will not always create the same outputs. An internal random control voltage generator modulates the tuning and cutoff frequency of the comb filter. That being said, the tuning knob will concentrate and tune the timbre of the output to the source sound.

Above, I’ve set up a Vital patch in which a Comb filter’s cut off is modulated by an LFO. When you introduce modulation to the cutoff, the resonance of the filter gives it a really gnarly timbre. This is where I got the initial idea of the Squish Engine. I wanted to hardcode a flexible tool to morph samples and synths into squishy textural foley.

Flangers are a sweeping comb filter, which were originally implemented by pushing the flange on a doubled tape recording. By utilizing these two phase-based effects, we can successfully recreate the patch from Vital into Max/MSP.

I added inlets to the stock Max flanger and comb filter control knobs, which allowed me to create savable presets and knobs which can control the main features of the sound. The final signal is mono, so I ran the signal through a chorus effect to restore the stereo signal. The random number generator makes control voltage which modulates the comb filter. The tune knob changes the amount of random modulation. The mix slider was almost completely lifted from the video below, and that is most of what is going on under the hood.

Voices increase the spread of the flanger across the harmonic spectrum. It sounds like multiple detuned copies of the original sound. The center of the flange is the tone at which the flanger starts oscillating, and the rate is synched to the tempo of the track. You can turn the Rate knob to add a sweeping pulsing timbre. The feedback knob is for the resonance of the comb filter’s notches. And tuning will, as said above, bring the wet signal more in line, texturally, with the dry signal.

There’s a built-in EQ adapted from Ableton’s stock Max EQ3. Use the band knobs for cutoff values for the EQ. There is a preset bank on the right hand side. Use Shift+Click on the three remaining boxes for saving the state of the knobs as a preset. Finally the wet dry slider on the bottom sums the dry and wet signal.

Chapter 2: Drum Synthesis with the Squish Engine

I have prepared a few presets on the right hand side of the Engine. You can shift+click to replace the first four or fill in the last three. What worked best for me was running hats AND snares through one of the presets. After that, try running just the kick through another preset. One thing I’ve heard artists who beta tested it do is record the sounds and pick what they like the best. Personally, I love the random aleatoric aspect of the Squish Engine, but for those who are control freaks, feel free to do as you please with the preset function.

The effect produced by the Engine is really powerful, so what I do is get a very clean signal, something like a monophonic arpeggiated melody, hi-hats, snares, kicks, or breaks, and run them through the presets. That being said, I’ve run chords and drones through the Squish Engine as well. If you like how it sounds, I encourage you to run with it.

Chapter 3: Moment Form In the Gothic Flatline

Moment Form is a form of music composed of moments. Originally explained by Karlheinz Stockhousen, it is a passage of music made up of a mosaic of moments. One of the earliest pieces of music that challenged my perception of music was Kontakt by Stockhausen.

Playful in its nature, we can use Mark Fischer’s notion of breaking up rhythm into moments, by creating auditory photomontages as outlined in Flatline Constructs, originally from William Burroughs.

The operation is very technical – Look at photomontage – It makes a statement in flexible picture language – Let us take the statement made by a given photomontage X – We can use X words X colors X odors X images and so forth to define the various aspects of X – Now we feed X into the calculating machine and X scans out related colors, juxtapositions, affect-charged images and so forth we can attenuate or concentrate X by taking out or adding elements and feeding back into the machine elements we wish to concentrate – A Technician learns to think and write in association blocks which can then be manipulated according to the laws of association and juxtaposition – The basic law of association and conditioning is known to college students even in America: Any object, feeling, odor, word, image in juxtaposition with any other object, feeling, odor, word or image will be associated with it – Our technicians learn to read newspapers and magazines for juxtaposition statements rather than alleged content –

We express these statements in Juxtaposition Formulae –

The Formulae of course control populations of the world.

Rhythm is essential to musical phrasing and we are conditioned to understand music as pitch explained by rhythm played by instruments. With audio-montage form, we are undermining the implicit bias towards rhythmically explained music. Like the pacing steady flows of machines, sound has been industrially produced time across space partitioned equally. Unlike the western style of classical music, African rhythmic music, and other forms of early non-Western music, metronome music lacks the human error in pacing, timing, and singing. Software such as Melodyne rip humanity out of a take, forgoing it for equally tempered harmonic superiority.

Today's rap music is cathartic and hedonistic, in the corporeal literal sense of the word. There’s also something to be said for the content of rap lyrics, but what I mean is it feels good to listen to. It’s like alternative indie rock in the 90s and 2000s. “Underground rap”, "Soundcloud rap", "Cloud rap": these styles are almost analogous to shoegaze, with autotune, saw waves, and clipping 808s taking the place of analog distortion. The literal artifacts of digital signal processing become the aesthetic.

Industrial Music was founded on the principle of Anti-Music, and this places the Squish Engine firmly in the camp of Industrial ethos. It can be understood as a post-industrial electronic music tool, and I am forgoing the white noise for a sound much more inhuman than ones inspired by industrial production. Capitalism atomizes Pacing and Moment creation into rhythmic commodities. These commodities are the final order of Baudriallard’s understanding of abstraction: Song Form.

By harnessing the form of a song, and forgoing the rhythmic limitations, we can now create post-song mosaics. A mosaic is similar to a Body Without Organs. It exists in the Gothic Flatline. It is an art form of the immediate subjectivity of human moments, outside capitalism. In other words, Squish Engine is a tool for liberating music from song form, and reaching the human space outside of capitalist realism. It is an engine for teleportation, powering the satellite Zion of Neuromancer, in the sonic realm.

Chapter 4: Gothic Flatline Moments Realized

Schizophonia means the source of a sound is disconnected and broken off from its original source. This can be done by recording or modeling the response of an impulse in a resonant environment. These visualizers are an analogous type of schizography: images that are disconnected from their original source: the natural visual world. The subjective existence of experiencing can be explained evolutionarily, aesthetically, historically etc. Instead of a simulated landscape or uncanny valley, these song visualizers tap into what makes music special. What makes music special is the harmonic relationship between signals.

The source of the visualizer's aesthetic is signal-cybernetic beauty, opposed to visual-field beauty. In short, the visualizers are mesmerizing not only because of their balance, color, composition, but also from these elements coming together from signal flow manipulation of digital data. Digital schizography, or mosaic form, derived from the harmonic relationship of signals, likens itself in function to the Infinite Jest samizdat. The samizdat exists not to extract meaning from art, but the meaning of the art itself is extracting human attention. The mosaics exist as odd curiosities, redirecting the subjective experience of viewing into the data domain instead of real life. CGI exists to render, using data, real life.

Samizdat renders data for human attention. We could call it content, samizdat, or advertisements, the form is still the same. The form is a fourth order simulacra, a cascade of stimulation raining down on bio-cognition pattern recognition machines. The association of stimulating simulation of sensory signals to products, images, and commodities forms a parasocial attachment to media, and without digging too deep, sexual parasocial relationships with phones.

Digital realism is understanding the way attention engineering is linked to digital production. Art is so saturated you can’t help but develop synesthesia. Cross pollination and microfracturing of identities have reduced people and times to flat images. The whole of human knowledge is available to a generation, hypersocialized, self-diagnosed autistic, trans, online native. We have a sexual relationship with media, and we are all fucking our favorite albums, tasting our favorite movies, having sex with our phones. Retreat into the domination of subjective digital consumption.

Chapter 5: Techno-Surrealism

I use the word techno sparingly in this situation. Techno is a signifier with many explosive signified meanings. Technology and Techno music go hand-in-hand. The story goes that the Belleville Three made something from nothing. Influenced by Parliament-Funkadelic, space, and the future, they laid down the foundation for dancing to purely synthesized music. Techno is an Afro-Futurist genre, and as much as people want to cite Kraftwerk as a reason why techno is white, it still isn’t true. Black LGBTQ people laid the foundation for DJing as we know it. The gay Chicago club where house music was initially played, The Warehouse, literally invented the usage of two turntables and a mixer. This was by no means mainstream music or technique at the time.

Andre Breton, the writer of the first Surrealist manifesto, eschews institutions, ideas of love, or the honor of day to day work for Surrealism. What exactly does Surrealism mean? Well Andre also described the most Surrealist act as shooting a six chamber revolver at a crowd. He never did it, describing it as a self defeating question. He posed the question instead why doesn’t the nonconformist ultimately kill himself, and why doesn’t the political revolutionary move to Bolshevik Russia. These are questions which answer themselves.

What is the way through this impasse? Ultimately people make do with the situations they find themselves in. Madness is one way through. People who have been locked up in mental health institutions, like the one Breton worked at, have an eschewed version of the world. They know how to avoid and hide their symptoms, survive, and see the world through their lens. Artists are often mentally ill, outsiders, or working class because they see the world through a lens not often perceived.

"Under the pretense of civilization and progress, we have managed to banish from the mind everything that may rightly or wrongly be termed superstition, or fancy; forbidden is any kind of search for truth which is not in conformance with accepted practices." - Andre Breton, Manifesto Surrealism

Dreams are very important to Breton, and to the Afro-Futurists, the future is forged through resistance to accepted practices. I’ve read some of gum.mp3’s slides for his Afro-Futurism classes he teaches, and much of it is information I am familiar with. We have to dare to dream of a future in which utopia is built much like a creative process. Automatic art, which is at the core of Surrealism as I understand it, is the transmission of the functioning thought into art. Construction of ideas, as I have done above, are not far off from what Andre Breton was talking about.

Subconsciously, YOU can feel when the mosaics are about to end. The song form has been freed and abstracted, but we have been conditioned into thinking with the song form before it even begins. What is the way out? Through is the only way, and techno-surrealism is quite literally a phrase which came about to me in a fit of drug-dream hallucination. Here’s another excerpt from the Surrealist Manifesto:

"One evening, therefore, before I fell asleep, I perceived, so clearly articulated that it was impossible to change a word, but nonetheless removed from the sound of any voice, a rather strange phrase which came to me without any apparent relationship to the events in which, my consciousness agrees, I was then involved, a phrase which seemed to me insistent, a phrase, if I may be so bold, which was knocking at the window. I took cursory note of it and prepared to move on when its organic character caught my attention. Actually, this phrase astonished me: unfortunately I cannot remember it exactly, but it was something like: "There is a man cut in two by the window," but there could be no question of ambiguity, accompanied as it was by the faint visual image* (Were I a painter, this visual depiction would doubtless have become more important for me than the other. It was most certainly my previous predispositions which decided the matter. Since that day, I have had occasion to concentrate my attention voluntarily on similar apparitions, and I know they are fully as clear as auditory phenomena. With a pencil and white sheet of paper to hand, I could easily trace their outlines."

Chapter 6: Meaning and the Absurd

So what does all this have to do with making music? The way I have worked on this project explains in clear and concise terminology the way the Squish Engine was conceived. It covers enough philosophy, art theory, technical explanations and music to be considered what I consider a circular project. One artist Alexander Panos explained in an AMA that sound design is a collaboration between an individual and a synthesizer. The Squish Engine, among the written ideas above, is meant to be a friend for the eclectic creative. I put my world into my art. If you take anything from this project, do not be afraid of the flat circle. To me a circular project, from an artistic perspective, is a design of complete form. To expound on that idea, the meaning is the medium is the message is the form is the idea is the music.

Do not be afraid to put ideas into music. There are artists out there who care, there are fans that care. Making meaning as a human being is a Sysphysian effort. Think like Kendrick Lamar, Radiohead, Frank Zappa, Beefheart, Jimi Hendrix, Pino Palladino, Jaco Pistorius, Miles Davis etc. To me, anyone willing to challenge what we perceive music as through their own practice is an artist. Doing anything else is just making samizdat. During our time of the democratization and proliferation of studio equipment and software, making music can feel like pissing into the wind. However, putting your own experience and perspective from life into music is and has been the only surefire way to sustain long term creativity, which should be the goal of any musician.

Hopefully I’ve shined a light in the direction of inspiration for you, the reader. Ultimately, you can take what you want and throw out the rest. There’s still an entire world of unsynthesized music out there, unperformed, and unwritten.

Special thanks to Kai Whiston, Nathan Blair, and Phillipe Dionne for their help on this project.

Download the Squish Engine Max4Live instrument by joining The Zone.

Rei Low works at the edges of technology and music as a programmer, writer, and musician. Guided by his readings of speculative fiction and philosophy, he contributes to the current understanding of the underground through the blog Music Mondays, as well as writing techno-surrealist dance music.