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For The Love Of Microcassettes [2013-09-17]

Based in Gainesville, FL, Hal McGee is an indelible figure in the experimental, avant garde, noise community. Active in the experimental underground since the early 80’s, he has recorded and produced over 200 albums and compilations. He was an integral figure in the homemade cassette culture movement of the 80’s. During this time he co-ran with Debbie Jaffe the Cause and Effect Cassette Distribution Service to spread homemade cassettes from experimental artists all over the globe. He also created the publications Electronic Cottage and HALzine.

It’s 2013 and Mr. McGee is still a tireless producer and promoter of experimental art and artists. His own personal recording output is rather staggering. It’s not uncommon for Mr. McGee to be seen carrying around his trusty microcassette recorder capturing source material or recording an album on his lunch break. He’s constantly collaborating with other artists, recent collaborations include: Crank Sturgeon, Ironing, Chefkirk, Stirner, Koobaatoo Asparagus, and Centipede Farmer, to name just a few. When not focused on his solo work, he also performs in the avant garde bluegrass band, Canned Ham along with his brother Mark McGee. He periodically hosts experimental shows in his apartment (Apartment Music), often challenging 2 artists at random to collaborate on a set, playing no louder than a television set. He also organized the improv series Laboratory Music and the Dictaphonia Fest.

Through his label HalTapes, he’s known for creating interesting concept compilations, including: the Automatic Confessional series, the Connection Cassette Compilation series, and Dictaphonia series. He has even challenged artists to record tracks as if they were him on his Hal McGee as recorded by album. His latest project is the Museum of Microcassette Art (MOMA). Recently, Hal took some time to talk to me about MOMA and his love of microcassettes.

m[m]:Tell me about your inspiration behind the Museum of Micro-cassette Art Project and why you decided to orchestrate this undertaking? If I recall correctly, last year you briefly flirted with starting a microcassette label or series. Why did you ultimately decide on scrapping that idea and how is MOMA different?
Hal I have been recording and releasing my homemade experimental music on standard size audio cassettes since 1982.

Hal In 2006 Andrew Chadwick introduced me to the joys of the tiny cousin of the cassette, the microcassette.

Hal In 2007 I released on CD-R my first full-length album recorded solely in the microcassette format, “The Man With The Tape Recorder”, followed by “Magnetic Personality”.

Hal I was greatly inspired by the Microcassettor compilations (music and noise originally recorded on microcassette and released on CD-R) produced by Justin Waters on his Sounds From The Pocket Label in the middle part of the first decade of the 2000s.
In 2009 and 2010 I produced the Dictaphonia Microcassette Compilation Project, which consisted of 10 volumes of 60 minutes each of microcassette recordings by artists from all over the world. These compilations were released in the microcassette format. Not many other artists or labels had released material on microcassette, and certainly not to the extent to which I took it!

Hal I also produced Dictaphonia Fest, a live showcase of microcassette performance art on November 7, 2009, at The Laboratory in Gainesville, Florida. Additionally, I released on microcassette an album by underground music legend Conrad Schnitzler titled “DictaCon”.

Hal Concurrent with the Dictaphonia project I produced the Automatic Confessional project. Anonymous contributors called my telephone number and left a one minute message on my microcassette answering machine. The initial phase of Automatic Confessional consisted of 21 hour-long microcassette tapes of messages published online.

Hal In 2010 I released on my HalTapes label six split releases on CD-R of microcassette recordings by myself and other practitioners of the dictaphonic arts.

Hal Since then I have released on cassette, CD-R, and online several solo and collaborative albums of microcassette recordings.

Hal I love microcassettes! I love the sound of them. I love their intimacy and highly personal nature. Anyone who wants to read more about my special relationship with microcassettes should read “Hal McGee’s Microcassette Manifesto”.

Hal Essential to my admiration of the humble microcassette is that its roots were as a utilitarian office implement or personal dictation device. Aside from halfhearted attempts to market stereo microcassette recorders in the early 1980s the manufacturers never really marketed microcassette as a viable way to record music. This utilitarian, mundane, everyday-use aspect of MC appeals to me because (and especially in recent years) my personal goal as an artist is to make my life and art as close together as possible.

Hal A microcassette recorder is for me a companion, much like a dog. It’s always there, in my palm, in my pocket, or on the pillow beside me.

Hal The Dictafawn microcassette label notably sprang up in early 2011 and flourished until mid 2012, with 23 releases.

Hal Since the Dictaphonia compilation project I have considered several times the possibility of starting a microcassette label. Operating a microcassette label is much more complicated than operating a cassette label.

Hal Operating a cassette label is involved enough and takes a lot of time, care, attention to details, equipment maintenance and upkeep, purchases of blank tapes, mailing and shipping, etc. that many people reading this publication will be familiar with.

Hal The most challenging difficulty facing a would-be microcassette label owner is that there is no easy problem-free way to make microcassette duplicates! With standard cassettes it is a relatively easy matter to make copies from a master onto blanks using a double cassette deck for dubbing.

Hal There ARE dedicated high-speed microcassette duplicators (high speed dubs are a definite taboo in my book of audio art, whether we are talking about microcassettes OR cassettes - but THAT is a subject best left for another article) but are very hard to find.

Hal To my knowledge there is no such thing as a microcassette dubbing deck. The only way to make dubs is to interconnect two microcassette recorders with a cable. When I started the Dictaphonia project I thought for sure that it would be a relatively simple matter to connect a cable from the EARPHONE jack of the master playback MC machine to the MICROPHONE input jack of the MC machine on which I would make copies. Much to my chagrin I discovered that the copies sounded horrible, all blown-out and distorted and not in a pleasing way! The problem, as Dave Fuglewicz explained to me is that MIC jacks contain pre-amps which boost the incoming signal. It is therefore not a clean signal like you get with a LINE IN on a cassette deck. So, Dave built for me two custom signal attenuators which got the job done. Even then I was never happy with the sound quality of the Dictaphonia dubs on microcassette.

Hal I think that the Dictafawn label made dubs by playing a master on a low-powered CD player connected by a cable to the MIC input jack of a microcassette recorder.

Hal These issues above detail why I have since chosen to release my microcassette-based recordings on CD-R, cassette and online. I felt that the essential qualities of the special sound of microcassettes was better served by making distribution copies on these other media and formats.

Hal Nevertheless, and taking these difficulties into account, I have nearly ceaselessly promoted microcassette as a tool for making primary recordings - either to be transcribed directly to higher-fidelity analog and digital formats, or as raw materials to be mixed and re-mixed with other audio materials.

Hal In early 2012 I formed a microcassette discussion and information group on Facebook, as a place where enthusiasts of the little tapes could share their experiences, gain knowledge, and promote the format.

Hal During the discussions in that group I put forth the idea of starting up a new microcassette label, in part to fill the gap left by the demise of Dictafawn. Immediately dozens of people got really excited about the idea! It was an idea that seemed to spark the attention and imagination of a lot of people.

Hal I offered to operate the label, and in group discussions I explained what such an operation would entail, including the necessity of purchasing heavy-duty reliable Panasonic brand (Model RR930) desktop microcassette transcribers to make dubs. I explained what this would cost, along with the cost for blank microcassette tapes. Given the fact that this would be a community project involving so many people whom it would benefit, I asked for donations to help purchase the necessary gear and media.

Hal Silence, except for the hiss of a non-existent microcassette.

Hal I think maybe one or two people tentatively, and in private, offered to contribute some money to help fund it. All of a sudden, as soon as I asked for help to support the label project by monetary gifts, everyone’s enthusiasm for a microcassette label died. Sadly, predictably, I might add.

Hal Plus, on top of that disappointment, I started thinking about just how difficult and how much of an absolute pain in the ass operating a microcassette label would be! Even if I did pay for the two new transcribers and the blanks myself I knew that the expenses of the project would never end - buying blank tapes, mailing free copies to contributing artists, trades, high international postage prices, etc.

Hal I ditched the idea of a new microcassette label.

Hal Then, in mid July 2013, I finished up a long series of microcassette and cassette based collaborations with several partners, in which they sent me source tapes which I then mixed with my own recorded materials, often “mixing blind”, not listening to my partner’s tape before I improvised a mix of our two tapes.

Hal I pondered... what to do next? I am never really happy unless I am doing a project!

Hal I published an online article about the de-personalization of homemade experimental music, in which I suggested that the use of tape as a creation tool is a good way to re-connect the everyday self with one’s creative sound art self.

Hal The Museum Of Microcassette Art project arose out of my love for my beloved microcassette; my respect, admiration and acknowledgement of homemade music’s Mail Art roots; my wise recognition of the impracticalities of operating a microcassette label; and my clear vision of the unlimited potentials of Internet Music (if only we will use it in ways that benefit us and not alienate us). I wanted to create a project that mixed the best aspects of highly-personal lo-fi microcassette art, mail art, and the Internet (which is the future, which is now).

Hal The plan for the Museum Of Microcassette Art project is actually very simple. Anybody who owns a microcassette recorder can contribute. I mail two 30-minute microcassette tapes to each contributor. The artist fills up one tape with any sounds that they want, in any style that they wish. The artist decorates the tape, j-card insert and case in any way that they want. Then she or he mails the tape back to me. The tape is essentially a one of a kind audio art object, which I then share with the world by publishing the audio and pictures of the visual materials online for anyone and everyone to experience. The artist can use the other tape that I sent to hem for any purpose they desire. My suggestion is to make another one of a kind tape for a friend. So, the second tape keeps the project going and helps it to spread in other directions.

Hal The project is a way to promote microcassette art, and to preserve and archive that art. Plus it’s a hell of a lot of fun for a lot of people and personally satisfying to me. Silly me. The project, less than three weeks into its development has cost me more than the initial costs of a microcassette label! But at least I don’t face the utter agony and tedium of dubbing hundreds of microcassettes!

Hal As of August 17, 2013 I have mailed out packages containing two microcassette tapes to 94 contributors in USA, Norway, France, Sweden, Germany, Canada, UK, Chile, Greece, Czech Republic, Spain, Italy, Guatemala, Australia, Russia, and Uruguay. I have received three contributions in return with the great joy awaiting me of receiving many many packages in the months and perhaps years to come.

m[m]:In the Microcassette Manifesto you write about your disdain for the fetishistic aspects of the cassette label resurgence and how the micro-cassette has largely been untainted as an art object. Do you feel a certain sense of irony in spearheading a project which is ultra-limited (only one physical micro-cassette) and transforms the micro-cassette into an art piece?
Hal There is irony aplenty, and MOMA is a project with several jokes embedded in it.

Hal Example which illustrates the irony: my current FB profile is a modified version of Marcel Duchamp's "L.H.O.O.Q.". I have pasted a picture of a microcassette onto the Mona Lisa's face so that the spindle holes of the tape become her new eyes. Spindle holes are negative spaces which exist in order that the tape can be moved. Both Duchamp and Da Vinci's works are now museum pieces. Duchamp's work was a ready-made modification of a cheap picture postcard version Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting of the Mona Lisa.

Hal One of the jokes in the project is that the project's acronym is the same as the Museum Of Modern Art,and that the project is also your mom, sort of...

Hal MOMA transforms the microcassette submitted by each artist into a one-of-a-kind fetishistic art object, which is then transformed into a public object by means of me publishing it digitally online. So, on the one hand, I, as the curator of the project, am in possession of the one object unlike any other; yet on the other hand, by publishing it on the Internet, its preciousness is subverted. Can it really be said that "it" is a fetishistic object? What is it that the tape actually is? The physical tape object itself? The sounds encoded electromagnetically on the tape? What changes when the images and the sounds are digitized as 0's and 1's and they are in a sense broadcasted on the Internet where anyone can access them? If nobody ever listens to and looks at it on the Internet (which is unlikely, but still...) and therefore nobody ever experiences it but me, what then?

m[m]:You mentioned some of the issues you ran into when you considered starting a micro-cassette label. There are definitely some differences between recording with micro-cassettes and cassettes. Are there any tips you can provide for those unfamiliar or new to the format, looking to record sounds that micro-cassettes were not really intended for (noise, instruments, etc.)?
Hal  Keep in mind the specific limitations and characteristics of the microcassette medium. Anyone who chooses to work with microcassette chooses to work within sharply defined parameters. This challenge, if one fully accepts it, can encourage the audio artist to think in different ways about audio art composition.

Hal  It makes little sense to try to record with microcassette in the same way that one would with standard cassette or digital recorders.

Hal  Microcassette recorders have a narrow frequency response range. They were originally intended to capture human speech in a utilitarian note-taking fashion. This is one of the big things that appeals to me about microcassette. It seems very human in its scale.

Hal  Many recorders, especially Olympus brand have a range of 400 to 4000 Hz. Other brands, especially Sony and Memorex have a range from 250 to 4000. Many desktop microcassette transcribers have a wider frequency range.

Hal  It is my understanding that 4000 HZ is the upper range of human speech. I know from experience. I have hearing loss, and 4000 Hz is where the notch in my hearing is. This is where a lot of the consonant sounds are - the fricatives, sibilances, clicks, pops, the articulative sounds. Often in conversation, if I don’t see your lips move, all I hear are the vowel sounds. This is very musical, but doesn’t make for good communication in a usual sense.

Hal  So, you are not going to get any super high or low, bass sounds. It is all mid range.

Hal  To me the advantage of this is that the sound is very compressed, very direct, concentrated, very up-front, very distinctive. It is what it is, sort of.

Hal  Next thing to keep in mind is that most microcassette recorders record in mono. That is part of the medium’s inherent nature, I think.

Hal  Unless you have a recorder with a microphone jack all of the recordings that you make will be captured with a condenser microphone, the element of which costs probably about 10 cents, or something like that. Microcassette recorders (and some cheap handheld cassette recorders) not only have condenser mics but also “automatic level control”. These devices will always seemingly “zero-in” on the loudest sound in the environment. If you’re playing sounds on a synth and then stop playing for a second or so the recorder will pick up and amplify the loudest sound it “hears”, such as your air conditioner.

Hal  Microcassette recordings are always noisy, it seems. You can have quieter passages in your recordings, but don’t expect anything approaching silence.

Hal  Also, keep in mind that the standard tape speed of microcassette is 2.4 centimeters per second is half that of standard audio cassettes, which run at 4.8. Slower tape speed means decreased fidelity of the sounds you are trying to record.

Hal  It is interesting, and not readily apparent, that microcassette tapes are the same width as cassettes tapes. But the tape itself is thinner than that in a C90 cassette. This will also decrease the fidelity of sound reproduction.

Hal  Taking into account all of the above limitations, microcassette recordings are, in a sense, automatic abstractions of sounds. Most recordings of any sort are of course incomplete records of audio events. This effect is greatly amplified by the use of microcassette. I prefer to think of microcassette recordings as artifacts or relics of sound events. Consequently, there seems to be an historical distance to the recorded sounds. Microcassette recordings seem to have a history. They seem to have had previous existences and to have “lived”.

Hal  It is my general feeling that microcassette is best suited to capture simple sounds. One sound at at time, not layered, not several sounds at a time. Also, I feel that the closer you can get to the sound source, especially relatively soft/quiet sounds with your recorder, the better off you will be.

Hal  Also, by personal preference, I think that microcassette is highly suited for tape collage.

Hal Of course, these are my preferences, and not anyone else’s, and many people have indeed been successful with making recordings of their multi-piece band jamming or parties or loud public transportation waiting rooms, etc.

Hal The only real guidelines or pieces of advice that I can give in this regard are: listen and use your imagination.

Hal Do not expect your microcassette recorder to do what it cannot do. Use your microcassette recorder to do the things that it can do best. It is up to you to decide what those things are. Working within those limitations can be liberating if you are patient. After working with microcassette extensively you will gain a sense of what and what not to record, according to your taste, certainly.

Hal  To a lot of people the limitations detailed above will be an instant turn-off. “Why in the hell would I want to use that thing?” To me those limitations are its strengths, or actually just its characteristics. To me microcassette is intimate and highly personal and diaristic.

Hal  I like its small “stealth” size. I have captured many a candid conversation, recorder in the palm of my hand, without the participants knowing. Stick the recorder in a person’s face and what they say changes - they become more careful, less forthright.

Hal Imagination, a few examples:

- Back when I was considering doing a microcassette label I considered calling the label “Spy Tapes”. Often in eBay listings for microcassette recorders they are billed as “spy recorders”. I knew a guy who placed a voice-activated microcassette recorder under the seat of his wife’s automobile and found out from the recordings that she was cheating on him.

- Microcassette recorders have also been used in ghost hunting and in the documentation of EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomena).

- I mentioned earlier that MC recordings seem to have history, that they are relics, crusty, frayed around the edges, yellowed from age.

- Some people I know have gone to Goodwill and second-hand shops and have removed the incoming message tapes from microcassette answering machines and have used them as they are or as the basis for cut-ups and tape collages.

m[m]:I'm glad you mentioned the potentially clandestine nature of a microcassette recorder and the candid conversations you've been able to capture. I've always felt a little weird about recording people in everyday life and then publishing those recordings unbeknownst to said persons. I do it, but feel like a weird voyeur at times. What are your thoughts on this? Have you ever had a moment where you second guessed releasing material due to the candid nature of the recordings captured?
Hal  When I'm with other audio artists, say at dinner or a recording session or drinking a cup of coffee or just hanging out, I tell them that I will be recording bits and pieces of what we say and/or it's rather obvious that I'm recording (because the microcassette recorder is on the tabletop or I'm plainly holding it). I try to make the recorder as unobtrusive as possible so that the other person will speak freely and say interesting things, hopefully. Because our peers and associates will likely/possibly hear the recordings later on one of my albums, I have a policy that if the other person says anything that might be potentially embarrassing to them, I record over the unfortunate words.

Hal  Jiblit Dupree is one of my favorite people to record because he always says funny stuff. I have recorded several of his voice mails and many of our phone conversations and he does not seem to mind and in fact I think he likes it and says even funnier stuff and tells juicier stories.

Hal Then there are the recordings I make of people who aren't audio artists, such as neighbors as I walk my dog and as I wait at the bus stop. I figure that they will never ever hear the recordings because they have no interest in experimental music, and their friends won't hear it either, so it won't matter. These people are rarely identified by name.

Hal I make a lot of microcassette recordings at my job and my three co-workers know that I have my recorder in my pocket and that I might turn it on and start recording at any moment. They are so accustomed to me making recordings that it is like second nature to them to go along with it. I have recorded some funny and crazy routines with them at work - playful banter, sing-alongs, kazoo trios, etc. They never listen to my music unless I play bits and pieces for them that include their voices, and their friends and relatives never hear it.

Hal I understand that many people probably think that it is WRONG that I record people's voices without their consent and knowledge. Number One: if I can get away with it, what's the difference? Number Two: my recordings of other people are not intended disrespectfully. In fact, I look at it as being highly respectful, because I find that person and what they are saying to be interesting enough to want to record and preserve those sounds.

Hal Those recorded sounds are artifacts of unique moments that will never happen again. I view my recorded work as archeological studies of the "present moment", which are recontextualized into pure sound, sounds as abstractions. Those moments, those actual events, are gone as soon as they happen. Me recording them and combining or layering them with other sounds, or those sounds considered within the whole of my recorded output, not only preserve those sounds, but give them new meanings.

Hal The sounds of my dogs, their voices, and my adventures with them are recorded and saved on tape. So, even though they are dead and gone, they are still with me. The same with people! People have passed through my life, people who have been dear to me, and people whom I have only met encountered once and never again...

Hal Tape recordings are a way of recapturing the past, are tools of memory, and of re-shaping reality. I believe that when you record something you change it. Recordings are my way of re-making the world, re-shaping it in forms that are more to my liking. And microcassette recordings can elevate and give meaning to the mundane, banal, and everyday. Simple quotidian events can provide epiphanies if only we will direct our attention to those events, and tape recorders engage me with those things.

m[m]:As you mentioned, you’ve been recording on micro-cassette since 2006. Since that time, you’ve amassed a large back catalog of releases utilizing a microcassette recorder to capture sounds. What have been some of your favorite releases you’ve produced using microcassettes?
Hal The best tape to start with is "The Man With The Tape Recorder".

Thanks again to Hal for taking some time to answer my questions.

Hal McGee’s word and music can be found here:

If you’d like to participate in the Museum of Microcassette Art, details are here:

photo credits:Picture one by Jen Sandwich, Picture two by Hal Mcgee, Picture three by Jen Sandwich, Picture four by Hal Mcgee, Picture five by Jen Sandwich

Hal Harmon
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