The Terrifying Monolith of My Own Voice

This is your FINAL REMINDER that I shall be reading tonight for the Show and Tell Show at Union Hall in Brooklyn. Be there or be elsewhere!

An event requiring me to speak into a microphone and through speakers reminds me of the most terrifying encounter I’ve ever had with my own voice.

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with my voice throughout my life. Mostly hate when it comes to how it’s used naturally. Whenever I hear recordings of me just talking in a non-performance-type setting, I cringe. It sounds too high and pinched, and I uptalk like a Valley Girl.

Plus, I can hear these unnecessary ironic emphases that I put into certain words when I’m trying too hard to make people laugh. This technique was impressed on my brain from years of hearing my father on the phone, sweet-talking a business associate or schmoozing someone who had something he needed. I always made fun of him for these phone calls behind his back, and my punishment for this insolence is to inherit every single one of his verbal mannerisms.

But he was an excellent mimic, too. He could do “voices” extremely well, and I’ve inherited that trait from him. So what I do like about my voice is its chameleon qualities. I’m good at imitating accents, picking out the idiosyncrasies of someone’s speech and repeating them. I also have the curious skill of being able to hear voice work and identify the responsible actor, even if I don’t know their names. This ability was honed by years of watching kids shows, whose rosters of voice talent are small and incestuous.

So I often feel like Peter Sellers when it comes to my voice: I’m more comfortable when I’m not Me.

Despite all of these feelings, once upon a time I started a band and made myself the lead singer. Actually, it was because of these feelings. I looked at singing as another voice I would “do.” Since this was a punk rock-ish band, the standards for acceptable singing voice were much lower. And in any case, I wrote the songs, so I preferred to have them sung badly my way.

I had delusions of grandeur for this band. I insisted our genre was “hardcore soul,” which was more a product of listening to a lot of Nation of Ulysses and the Stax/Volt boxed set than anything approaching reality. But it sounded cool, which was better than being true.

Ultimately, my band’s sole brushes with fame were 1) opening for Mooney Suzuki years before they busted out, and 2) being sampled on a Le Tigre song.

I interviewed Kathleen Hannah–one of giant heads in my personal punk rock Mount Rushmore–for a zine and felt brazen enough to give her our 7″. She emailed me out of the blue months later to ask if it was cool to use the beat from one of the songs. I was too blown away to even think to ask for any sort of payment. (Exhibit Q in the eternal case of The People vs. Me Ever Being Rich.)

Then again, I received payment of another kind. After the album came out, I saw Le Tigre at Warsaw in Brooklyn. They closed the show with “my” song. And after the show, Kathleen thanked me profusely for letting her use the sample. Any money I would have received would have been spent long ago, but I’ll have that memory forever.

But I didn’t know this modest fate awaited me when we recorded this 7″. I convinced myself this self-produced six-song record with no distribution would change the world. I was convinced that everything I was involved in was fraught with HUGE stakes, in a way that only someone whose life actually has few stakes can be.

We recorded the seven inch at one of the band’s guitarist’s house (the guitarist who wasn’t also my brother). His parents were indulgent enough to allow him to convert a guest room into a practice room, with mattress pads and eggcrate insulation for sound proofing. Even crazier, they permitted him to empty out their external, barn-style garage and build a stage in it where we would do shows once a month or so, while fending off the mild concern of local cops worried about noise and so many kids in one uninsured place.

To record the 7″, we rented an ADAT machine, a digital multitrack recorder that Wikipedia tells me is now primarily used to “drive laser light shows.” We also enlisted my friend Steve, since he was in school for sound engineering and had already done demos for many bands, including ours. Both Steve and I were back home for the weekend from college, so time was of the essence. We had to either get it all done from Friday to Sunday or…well, just do it the next weekend, I guess. I’m not sure why I felt like we were against the clock, except that I felt that way a lot back then. And still do, now that I think about it.

We wanted to record the material in the barn, where we did our shows. That would be gritty and real! But Steve assured us it would also sound like crap and be impossible to mix later, so we took his advice and recorded indoors in the slightly more sterile confines of the practice room. Steve mic’ed all of the amps and drums and ran lines out to the “control room,” which was a bedroom across the hall.

We weren’t sure exactly what we wanted to put on the 7″, so we recorded all of our songs in a marathon session, running through them like we were being chased. Got through the song once without having to stop? Good enough, done, move on to the next one.

But we’d played a bazillion times, so that was nothing. The weirdness came when it was time to lay down the vocals. Then it was just me, with headphones, in the practice room, shouting toward a mattress turned upright. My voice wasn’t buried in the mix, like it was when we played live. Each syllable forced me to know You sound like that.

Somehow, I got through this without getting too self conscious or hoarse. When all the tracks were down and it came time to put them together, Steve was dissatisfied with the results. Not due to my performance, but for the flat, reverb free sound that resulted from recording in a drywall-lined room.

We had no effects or compressors to help us, so Steve came up with an ingenious solution. The house’s basement was curiously empty and cavernous. So we put a large cabinet speaker down there, ran a line out form the vocal track to it, and hung a mic from the ceiling with ducktape, a good 15 feet away. Then, Steve would record the resulting echo and use this as budget reverb.

I helped him set it up, but when he ran back upstairs to do the actual recording, I stayed in the basement. A few moments later, my voice began to come out of this enormous speaker, all by itself in the middle of this barren basement, as singular and mysterious as an obelisk. I could see the speaker cones vibrate with each word I said. Yelled, actually. I was yelling at myself, which was essentially what most of my lyrics intended to begin with.

If I had to assemble a montage to represent my life, this would definitely make the cut: Sitting in an empty basement and being screamed at by myself through an enormous, 2001-esque monolith.

One thought on “The Terrifying Monolith of My Own Voice”

  1. All of that is infinitely cooler than my band/recording experience… the only document of which is a left-speaker only recording of a backyard “show” that was stripped from the audio track of a video camera. nnBut I’ve had my fair share of non-accompanied vocal recording… and it’s SUPER weird. It’s really hard to get into and it makes you feel like a self-conscious tool.

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