September 21st, 2009

Bass Poverty & the Politics of Frequency: Kode9 on Treble Culture

photo by jake walters, via the wire

As the treble/bass culcha conversation continues here and there, we keep coming around to the words & work of Kode9 / Steve Goodman. It became increasingly clear, esp as we wait for his book to come out (yo MIT Press, get at a Fellow!), that I should ask him if he’d answer a few building questions, as artist and/or theorist, producer and/or scholar. He was nice enough to shoot back “some quick thoughts.” They appear below, with my questions in boldface. If anyone else has opinions to offer, I am — as they say — all ears. (Thx also to Derek Walmsley for his questions, referred to below, that have spurred my own — and for, presumably, letting me run that great photo above.)

* Listening to music via mobile devices appears increasingly common, and has been an aspect of street/public culture especially remarked on in the UK/London. Don Letts recently told the Guardian that, “It’s disturbing when I see kids on buses, listening to music on their phones, and it’s just going: tsk, tsk, tsk, tsk, with no bass. Bass culture is Jamaica’s gift to the world and technology is, kind of, ruining that. Bass is sexy. Women respond to bass.” Knowing something of your own interest in bass, both as a scholar and as a producer/DJ/labelhead, I’m very curious about your take on this phenomenon and its phenomenological implications.

Well while I can definitely relate to where Don Letts is coming from, thats not my point of view regarding mobile devices. While I share a concern with the bass poverty of new media and clubs etc., the fact is that music has never been more ubiquitous, coming through so many different technical channels. Clearly there is a politics of frequency going on when these technical devices are designed, just like there is “expert decision” making going on behind the supposedly psycho-acoustic criteria involved in perceptual coding of mp3s that favours certain average frequencies over others. There is a politics of frequency that permeates the whole technical ecology of sound recording, storage and playback devices. And I’m the first person to complain about crap sub bass response on your average club sound system. But I think something much more interesting is going on with kids using the mobile phone speakers as mobile sound systems. The potentials of young people carrying sound reproduction (and increasingly production) devices around with them at all times I think is more significant than the fact that they are trebly. . .the becoming trebly of mobile culture is perhaps part of the cost of sounds ubiquity – bass is heavy – i.e. its not so portable. I think that sonic culture is in transition right now, and this kind of ubiquity is going somewhere quite unpredictable and i don’t think you get half of that picture by just complaining about lack of bass, as much as I do generally complain about that.

* If bass (pressure) is, in some basic sense, about mobilization, about moving masses/massives, does something fundamental about this socio-cultural circuitry get lost when frequencies drop off? Or does perhaps the representation of bass (in higher frequency ranges) or the imagination of bass (on the part of listeners) serve to compensate?

At least in the club setting, what gets lost is a certain sensual relation between the dancer and their body, the sense of the materiality of their bodies, that they are just another vibrating object in the room. What I think is conceptually powerful about bass culture is that it reminds the arrogant human race that they are really mostly composed of non-organic matter, are not self-enclosed individuals but permeable membranes through which forcefields can pass and interfere with your insides. I think there is a extent to which bass culture educates dancers about their bodies, literally vibrating parts they didnt know they had.

The thing is, the mobile phone sound system – what are its precursors – transistor radios on buses? ghetto blasters? well not really I don’t think – there is something new about the mobile phone sound system which maybe has not fully materialized yet. . .i.e. that it is potentially a production and a reproduction devices, as well as a transmitter – like a junior pirate radio micro-transmitter. So my problem is not with tinny playback devices in situations where there traditionally there was never much bass playback. . .my problem is more with the squeezing out of bass in music performance venues/clubs/festivals etc. Now obviously there is a feedback from a youth culture used to hearing their music as purely in the mid-range of frequencies, and you can hear that e.g. in the brittle production of grime, but thats still a very bass heavy music.

* With regard to “bass you can hear” (as you said to Derek Walmsley, since subbass is, as you put it, “not even a sonic thing”) have you yourself tailored, or are you aware of other producers tailoring, tracks knowing that they might often be listened to sans bass? Is the “fuck off” riff-based craze, “across different dance music genres,” an inherent/inevitable product of treble culture?

I’d say its got some relation to mid-culture and the way riffs resonate with alchohol, drugs, your average club sound system, and radio compression

* If, as you note, “you can’t underestimate the impact having to play on shit sound systems has on a music culture, and it’s aesthetic decisions, and what it feels it needs to do to translate into as many environments as possible…” — how do producers reckon with the commonplace that their tracks may be largely listened to on mobile phones and tinny laptops, never mind “shit sound systems”?

Well I think tracks get EQd and mastered with this in mind, to make the tracks brighter than you might think is necessary or comfortable to listen to in the studio.

* Is bass (increasingly) a luxury?

Certainly in the club world. Even when commercical clubs buy in Function 1 sound systems, they are usually not tuned up properly so you are not feeling anything under 70 Hz.


  • 1. blog »&hellip  |  September 21st, 2009 at 4:19 pm

    […] » Bass Poverty & the Politics of Frequency: Kode9 on Treble Culture. Category: d**step, misc music  |  Comment (RSS)  |  Trackback […]

  • 2. André Obin  |  September 22nd, 2009 at 6:43 am

    excellent interview!

  • 3. David Lollia  |  September 22nd, 2009 at 11:19 am

    nice read. thanks

  • 4. Christopher  |  September 22nd, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    We’ve been having this debate a lot recently in Jamaica- bass is gone from dancehall and even so-called “one drop” riddims are more about the guitar motif than a heavy bass line. A lot of people are saying this is a big reason behind the drop-off in dancehall popularity outside of Jamaica and the diaspora- its no fun to dance to anymore.

    There is no more rub-a-dub in actual dances here- daggering is the only male-female contact, and that not a bass-induced movement (unless you count the fact that have to climb up on top of the subs to leap off of to do it).

    Most of the young and new producers are at home mixing their stuff on computer speakers or maybe a pair of low-end 6″ Roland or M-Audio speakers at best. There’s no mastering, no one’s going to Mixing Lab or Arrows or wherever to have a real engineer give it the magic touch. The production chain in Jamaica is now Fruity Loops/Acid/Reason/Nuendo -> mp3 -> MySpace/Facebook/email all your friends (and not even a good mp3 encoding).

    Robbie and Flabba need to go around to every new “producer” in Kingston and give them a 4-string bitch slap

  • 5. nina  |  September 22nd, 2009 at 2:37 pm

    Interesting. Not directly related to bass, but to tastes and the dying of certain forms-

    As much as I enjoy music with bass, lots of it, I sort of have to shrug.

    Tastes change, music changes, tech changes. Acting changed when it moved from stages to screen and then from the silent screen to the talkies. Portraiture changed when cameras got good, not many Bougereaus out there but doncha love Anne Geddes. Writing styles changed with easy access to paper and pencils, then mail, and telegraph, email etc blah blah. Yeah, we got txt speak but we also have twitter and BLOGS!! and ebooks.

    I still sort of wish I could hear nice big real wood hollow drums with animal skins on them. I LOVE that sound. But that’s not what sort of thump I usually get. I deal.

    On a personal level I HATE when stuff thats important to me goes away but times change so I don’t I look forward to seeing what comes next, how ppl work with the limitations of the newer devices and how that influences the tastes of the next generation.

  • 6. Fruko  |  September 23rd, 2009 at 5:30 am

    “What I think is conceptually powerful about bass culture is that it reminds the arrogant human race that they are really mostly composed of non-organic matter, are not self-enclosed individuals but permeable membranes through which forcefields can pass and interfere with your insides”

    I think this rather bizarre quote needs a bit of focus. The arrogant human race being reminded they’re subject to outside forces by the power of bass? I know it’s a quick thought but come on…

  • 7. wayneandwax  |  September 23rd, 2009 at 9:01 am

    Thx again for all the comments.

    Christopher, I appreciate hearing an ear-to-the-ground perspective from JA. As much as I can empathize with Nina in her acceptance of (and enthusiasm for) techno-cultural change, I can also sympathize with people who miss serious bass and the rub-a-dubbing it engenders.

    Fruko, I too had to read that sentence over a couple times upon first seeing it, but I’ve found the idea growing on me. Not sure quite what you’re objecting to, but it’s true that these were quick thoughts (although, presumably, fleshed out in various places in Steve’s book) and, hence, not so “focused.” For me, what is compelling about the quotation — as I understand it — is that something like bass (which is not merely a human produced thing, if that’s what you’re insinuating: sonic frequencies, hi to lo, have all sorts of sources in the world), has the potential to radically reorient our sense of our (in/organic) selves. I like the notion that embodying vibration might, in some abstract sense, mitigate against our tendencies to assume a certain integrity of our fleshy selves, calling attention to the fact that we’re composed, at an atomic level, of as much space as matter. But I’m no physicist, so I should stop there. Or here–

  • 8. kiddid  |  September 23rd, 2009 at 12:39 pm

    not sure if i’m adding anything new to the conversation, but been listening to this Zomby album recently, “One Foot Ahead of the Other” (yes, i actually bought a physical CD version), and i think of this thread every time i’m listening. though i dig the music i can’t help but feel that it plays better through the speakers on my laptop than through my nice studio monitors…it has a lot more life to it when listened to that way. it takes on less of the uber-compressed sound and opens up a bit more. having said that, i think considering the virtual/video-gamey nature of the album that this might be in keeping with the overarching concept. i’d be curious to hear a vinyl version and see what that reveals…

  • 9. Kode9 on Treble & Bas&hellip  |  September 27th, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    […] & Wax has an excellent interview on “Bass Poverty and the Politics of Frequency” with Steve Goodman aka Kode9: I’m the first person to complain about crap sub bass […]

  • 10. Kerry  |  October 2nd, 2009 at 12:30 pm

    I live in India, where mobile phone penetration is growing at a rate of over 1% of the population a month. For many of the new users – most, I would imagine, but I don’t think any data is available – this is the first form of access they’ve had to music outside of low-end home stereo systems.

    I think this creates a different dynamic than much of the rich world, where phone speakers provide an addition to prior forms of access, rather than a revolution in access itself. This is especially true in areas where electricity access is sporadic; that is to say, most of India. I haven’t really parsed exactly what this might mean in terms of access, but we’re certainly seeing a shift in the way people get their music – the norm has, for a long time now, been bootleg cassette distribution. Now, people are putting music on their phone by buying it directly from their mobile operator and downloading it to their phone – these aren’t people with computers, and most of the phones we’re talking about have pretty limited capacity.

    So the constraint here isn’t only in terms of frequency range, but also in terms of content. The bootleg tape is a fairly democratized distribution form – you can find just about any region of music distributed on boots in Bombay, from many eras, in many languages. When you look to the mobile distribution, however, you’re primarily limited to mainstream Hindi film music hits, some mainstream regional cinema, and a handful of western pop hits. I suppose this may be a transitional technological constraint, but to the extent that there’s a certain path dependency in people’s taste, it may have longer term impact.

    As for bass, one of the hardest parts of moving here, aside from the lack of burritos, was giving up my system. I’m got a decent pair of Sennheisers here, but you can’t feel them like in the club. Interestingly, most high end clubs here have amazing bass that I rarely found at the kind of club I went to in the states. There’s a class implication to this; only the very upper tier of the socio-economic spectrum can afford to go to clubs here, and they charge massive amounts compared to the norm. The closest thing to an underground is slum street parties – they can be fun, but they’re certainly not your usual club experience. And they’re all dudes. Seriously. All dudes.

    So if I need bass, I go to the club where the music is mostly bad, or to my friend’s studio. If only I could get a burrito in there.

  • 11. wayneandwax  |  October 6th, 2009 at 8:15 pm

    Thanks for the comment, Kerry. Interesting stuff all around. Here’s hoping for more bass & burritos for ya!

    I guess I wonder whether / when some of the people you describe will find other ways of loading music onto their phones — and what kind of music it will be. I get the sense that the mobile phone is fast becoming the most popular way to interface with the internet (and its clouds of content); for some reason, some places (providers?) seem to offer more or less limiting options with regard to with what / how one fill their phones with music.

  • 12. wayneandwax  |  October 6th, 2009 at 8:18 pm

    Further on the permeability / materiality of bodies / sound, check out this post on sound cannons (or LRADS, Long Range Acoustic Devices) from Ben Tausig, esp this passage:

    LRADs operate in the threshold between normal listening, where vibration is mild enough that we experience sound as essentially immaterial, and where we can readily pay attention to communicative and aesthetic content (music, language, texture), and extreme sonic exposure, where vibration is felt as a force throughout the body. The sound cannon is far enough along this spectrum that we react involuntarily to its painful volume, but not so far along that we lose life or limb. It’s pretty brilliant, in a mad scientist kind of way.

    In any case, it’s fascinating/macabre to consider what various sound levels can to us physically. The hardware manufacturer has a whole chart.

    (Decibels measure the intensity of a sound wave. They do not measure frequency, so for example knowing that a conversation occurs around 50 dbs does not tell us whether the voices are high or low.)

    Here are some choice selections:

    13 – Ordinary light bulb hum
    30 – Totally quiet nighttime in desert – impossible near city
    40 – A whisper
    60 – Normal conversation
    100 – House or car stereo at maximum volume
    116 – Human body begins to perceive vibration at low frequencies (imagine standing in front of a speaker at a concert, for example)
    125 – Drum at the moment of being hit
    127 – Tinnitus sets in
    128 – Human hair will begin to vibrate perceptibly
    132 – Eardrum flex becomes noticeable
    133 – Gunshot at ear level
    135 – The air begins to cool from expansion
    137 – The entire human body vibrates
    140 – Extreme damage to hearing no matter how short the exposure (this, by the way, is how loud the LRAD can be set)
    141 – The human body experiences nausea
    142 – Chest pounding is intense
    143 – Human body feels as if “someone just football tackled your chest”
    145 – Human vision begins to vibrate
    153 – Human throat vibrates so hard it is almost impossible to swallow
    163 – Minimum glassbreaking level
    172 – Fog is created
    175 – Equivalent to a quarter stick of dynamite
    180 – Damage to structures is catastrophic
    186.1 – Equivalent to a pound of TNT at a distance of 10 feet
    202 – Immediate human death
    220 – Equivalent to the largest bomb used in WWII
    257 – Equivalent to 1 megaton nuclear bomb

  • 13. » S&hellip  |  October 6th, 2009 at 8:53 pm

    […] the backdrop of recent conversations here about frequency & power — in particular, Kode9’s argument that serious bass can remind us that we’re “not self-enclosed individuals but permeable […]

  • 14. links, the last refuge of&hellip  |  May 8th, 2011 at 11:12 am

    […] This came up in my twitter feed recently. Charmingly 90s-ish, but I did like the point that it’s very difficult to get decent bass out of a mobile device/laptop/whatever, and this probably has consequences for the kind of music people will make with them. Come to think of it, there’s an interesting economic angle. The electronics will only keep getting cheaper, and the software can be free. But some things require a large physical lump that needs transporting and storing awkwardly. It’s a little like Baumol’s cost disease. […]


I'm a techno-musicologist, internet annotator, imagined community organizer.

I left my <3 in the digital global, but I reside in Cambridge, MA, where I'm from.

I represent like that.

wayne at wayneandwax dot com

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