Tuning in to Soundwriting

Unboxing Audacity: Mixing Rhetorically with Digital Audio Workstations

by Mathew Gomes

1. Introduction

In a 2011 lecture sponsored by the Red Bull Music Academy (RBMA), professional audio engineer Gimel "Young Guru" Keaton described his work on the track "Rock Co.Kane Flow," which was the closing track on De La Soul's (2004) album The Grind Date. As an example of audio-engineering work, Young Guru's description of the track illustrates the rhetorical complexities an audio engineer may face when trying to contribute both technically and artistically to an album.

De La Soul's (2004) "Rock Co.Kane Flow" featuring MF Doom. Lyrics available at Genius. "Rock Co.Kane Flow" begins as a laid back, midtempo track with a relatively spare arrangement that becomes gradually more intense as it continues. The song mostly proceeds at a tempo of 87.5 beats per minute and includes a sample from Space's (1977) "Deliverance," in which a chorus intones pitches in a minor key. The sample has been modified from the key of C minor to the key of F minor. The percussion contributes to the track's sense of economy, primarily alternating bass drum kicks with snare drum hits. The bass line also contributes to the spartan arrangement and parallels the harmony suggested by the sample several octaves lower. The song builds its intensity in part through the lyrics and in part through dramatic decreases in the tempo at the end of each of the six verses, which is followed by either a continued slowing or acceleration. As the track proceeds, electric guitars gradually join the mix, and by the end of the track, a loudly squealing electric guitar has moved to the foreground of the mix as Dave Jolicouer delivers his final line. The track comes to an abrupt end with the delivery of the final lines.

As a group whose debut album was released in 1988, De La Soul offers on "Rock Co.Kane Flow" a lyrical narrative of their enduring success and contributions to hip-hop, comparing themselves to "average MCs of the times." At the end of each verse and in the final lines on the album, listeners will hear an effect where Young Guru slows and stretches the rap vocals. The track concludes with Dave "Trugoy" Jolicouer rapping over a gradually slowing beat while Guru stretches his vocals: "The birthdate's September 2-1, 1-9, 6-8 / Too old to rhyme, too bad, too late." In his RBMA lecture, Young Guru explained his decision to slow and stretch the vocals on "Rock Co.Kane Flow," which included vocals from De La Soul and MF Doom, who passed away in October 2020, and was produced by Jake One:

You've kinda got to match what you're doing, effect-wise, with the vocals at the end. It adds on because Dave is saying … "too old to rhyme, too bad, too late" because it's the last record on there and he's making a statement that De La consider themselves old. Then he's saying it's too late because now you've just listened to their whole album and you're at the end of it, so it's like it's kind of a play on words. So it's like the stretching out. Sometimes effects are more for what's going on at the given time and what someone's saying. Then it's the slowed-down version of him saying, "too old, too bad, too late." I had to figure out little neat stuff to go along with the record. It'd seem stupid if they're rhyming at the same speed while the beat is doing all this intricate stuff. You have to give credit to Jake [One] for doing that with the beat and to De La for doing that. Then it's up to me to go, "Okay, I’m gonna do this and go along with what they're doing to present the whole record that way." So a lot of the time it's based on whatever’s going on in the song. (Red Bull Music Academy, 2011, 69:38-70:46)

Young Guru's response reveals how the practices of audio engineering may balance purposes: honoring others' work and adding creatively to that work. While Guru describes his commitment to complement the work of other artists and musicians (in this case, De La Soul and the producer, Jake One), he also notices and develops spaces for his own agency, which he expresses by slowing and pitching the vocals down to complement the sense that time may be running out for De La Soul.

This moment from Young Guru's RBMA lecture illustrates some of the rhetorical potential that exists within audio-engineering practices. Noticing and engaging with these spaces is significant to developing sonic literacies, which Michelle Comstock and Mary E. Hocks (2006) defined as "the ability to identify, define, situate, construct, manipulate, and communicate our personal and cultural soundscapes." Opportunities for developing sonic literacies in writing classrooms are emerging in many forms, as soundwriting instructors have asked students to "listen" (Comstock & Hocks, 2006; Hocks & Comstock, 2017) and "sound out" (Detweiler, 2019; Rice, 2006) many types of sonic media. The growing range of sonic projects teachers have described include interviews (Detweiler, 2019; Droumeva & Murphy, 2018), soundscapes or "audio portraits" (Brownell et al., 2018; Detweiler, 2019; Droumeva & Murphy, 2018), audio microhistories (Fancher & Mehler, 2018), and podcasts (Burns et al., 2018; Cushman & Kelly, 2018).

As soundwriting instructors invite students to develop their sonic literacies, they also frequently invite interactions with digital audio-engineering technologies, especially digital audio workstations (DAWs). DAWs include the class of software with which students produce digital soundwriting, including Audacity, Garageband, ProTools, and Ableton Live, to name a few. Audacity in particular has found an audience with soundwriting instructors (Campbell, 2018; Folk, 2015–2016; French & Bloom, 2011). As a technology, Audacity is appealing because it is free, open-source, multiplatform, and similarly powerful to industry-standard DAWs (Krause, 2006).

When writers compose in Audacity, they are engaging with a subset of audio-engineering practices commonly referred to as "audio mixing." Roey Izhaki (2012) defined mixing as "a process in which multitrack material—whether recorded, sampled or synthesized—is balanced, treated and combined into a multichannel format" (p. 5). While traditionally part of music-production chains and confined to professional studios (p. 30), today mixing is implicated in the broader range of digital soundwriting projects.

Scholars have previously suggested the significance of audio engineering. Jeff Rice (2006), for example, has argued the "mix" is an important trope for understanding aural logic and imagining pedagogical possibilities for "aurally-motivated writing" (p. 268). Specifically, the mix refers to "a place to foreground effects and responses to all kinds of combinations and events" (p. 274). More recently, Victor Del Hierro (2019) has suggested how audio-engineering technologies may be mobilized for the purposes of localizing hip-hop for a variety of audiences and building unique hip-hop communities. Focusing on the mixtapes of DJ Screw, Del Hierro demonstrated how the Houston DJ "leveraged the technologies available to him to transform existing texts into new ones" and mark them with the "slow murky sounds" that would become an indelible stamp of Houston hip-hop (p. 32). Additionally, Steven R. Hammer (2018) has articulated a taxonomy of "noise" for soundwriting involving the parameter of sound "that can be altered to make noise—those sound-events that make our audiences do work." According to Hammer, noise is a process that involves the relations between the amplitudes, frequencies, durations, and placements of sounds in stereophonic channel space. Hammer further described how this taxonomy may be operationalized in sound-design assignments that ask students to record and digitally edit their work. Audio-engineering practices, technologies, and terminologies have clear influence on the work of soundwriting scholars. Nevertheless, the rhetorical and pedagogical affordances of audio-engineering technologies remain somewhat opaque in soundwriting literature.

Both experienced and inexperienced soundwriting instructors can benefit from further articulation of mixing as a rhetorical practice and from further delineation of the affordances of common mixing techniques. Teaching mixing as a rhetorical practice can help experienced soundwriting instructors convey to students how DAWs enable rhetorical decisions, especially related to arrangement and style of soundwriting. Moreover, understanding common mixing techniques can help less experienced soundwriting instructors learn to navigate and engage rhetorically with DAW interfaces. While this chapter focuses on mixing in Audacity and includes some technical instruction for navigating this interface, the techniques I highlight are widely available in other mixing technologies and DAWs.

Building upon previous scholarship, I argue that soundwriting instructors can present DAWs as interfaces for rhetorically arranging "noise" as defined by Hammer (2018). Specifically, DAWs enable options for arranging noise in space, which can help soundwriters organize information and produce nondiscursive effects. Common audio engineering techniques that mixers make available include monitoring and modifying mix and track levels, channel space, and frequencies of sounds. I demonstrate the pedagogical value of rhetorical mixing and these techniques by offering an example of my own soundscape, "The Sneeze Problem." This chapter also offers heuristics and activities that address the rhetorical affordances of observing headroom, adjusting loudness, panning, observing frequencies, and applying equalization (EQ) functions.