This past spring, I had the opportunity to take Professor Vaz’s English elective titled “Reimagining Blake.” While the course’s first half was reserved for in-depth study of poet, artist, and printmaker William Blake, the second half focused on recreating particular works based on our own interpretations of them. I chose to recreate one of Blake’s plates with a soundtrack, which Studio M then helped me to laser engrave onto a wooden record. The common threads throughout my soundtrack were themes of surveillance and societal oppression, and all the songs were originally released from the 1970s to the 1990s.
In addition to engraving a decorative plate to accompany my record display, I established an MVP (minimum viable product) for my soundtrack: One functional record containing audio clips from each song on the soundtrack, specifically the clips that I analyze next to the plate.
I ended up making the decorative plate from a clear, acrylic disc, and the playable record from a piece of birch plywood. With the help of Brian Little and an Instructables how-to by Amanda Ghassaei, I was able to make a playable record containing the compilation of song clips from my interpretive soundtrack.
I started by compiling my song clips into single track using Audacity, an open-source audio editor. Next, using Python and Processing code developed by Ghassaei, along with some specific modifications to the track in Audacity, I converted the audio file into a set data points for the laser engraver to cut. The points were arranged to mimic the analog waveform of the track, and then converted by the code into a series of arcs designed to be cut as grooves on a disc.
Creating the data file from Ghassaei’s code was simple enough, but engraving the album on the laser cutter involved a ton of trial and error. The code is capable of reproducing a pretty high level of fidelity, resulting in more data points…enough that even cutting a single groove was sufficient to crash the cutter. We experimented with adjusting the laser’s frequency, power, speed, the distance between data points, and the number of data points per file in order to achieve the highest sound quality possible without crashing the printer. We finally settled on a middling resolution, and broke the track into 138 individual grooves, cut with adjoining ends to produce a single analog audio track. Although a bit tedious, this method prevented the laser cutter from crashing and allowed me to make a playable record.
The material for the record involved more trial and error. The test records were made out of cardboard, and I ordered acrylic and wood to try for my final product. The acrylic looked like a vinyl record, but warped when I tried cutting it with the laser. The birch plywood ended up working well and held the sound even better than I expected. Interference covers most of the track when I play the record, but the song clips behind it are still audible. Another problem I ran into was the decrease in sound quality and playability moving from the outside to the inside of the record. Due to the decreased surface area for the same amount of data points, the inner, shorter-radius grooves lost a lot of fidelity. This process taught me how labor-intensive it can be to make one record containing only four minutes of audio, and the amount of precision required in inputting information into a laser cutter.
The process of recreation furthered my interpretation of the poem, as the more I listened to my soundtrack and reread “A Dream,” the more parallels I saw between the two. I did a more detailed comparison of these specific similarities on the WordPress site that hosts my project (password: email@example.com), where I compare specific verses and lyrics to one another. This project “messed with Blake” by turning the accessibility of his ideas upside-down. Blake’s plates were only available to very few members of the upper class, so by using common and widely-available audio formats (record and MP3 files) I aimed to change the equivalency of his “target audience” completely. Before taking a course that partnered with Studio M, I was completely unaware of all the resources it makes available to students. The Makerspace and its staff helped me to craft a final project I was passionate about, transforming my ideas from blueprints to a playable record.
— Leah Stauber