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november 2002
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Signs & Symptoms     sound

a young person's guide to Frippertronics

( Get the album at bandcamp )

'Signs & Symptoms' is a series of extracts from low-speed reel-to-reel stereo tape recordings made in the summer of 1980 in Amsterdam by Peter Mertens and Harold Schellinx, inspired by the recording technique - more than by its results - known as 'Frippertronics' (called that way by guitarist Robert Fripp in the context of a series of solo concerts in the late seventees, early eighties): a delay/feedback system using two reel-to-reel audio-tape machines.

Fripp himself had been introduced to 'Frippertronices' in the early seventees by Brian Eno, who used it as a means to produce slowly developing layers of sound to serve as a background for Fripp's guitar playing on their 1973 duo album 'No Pussyfooting'.
Eno used the set up again on his 1975 album 'Discreet Music' - a schematic drawing included in the liner notes of this record illustrates the working of the two tape machine feedback loop - and on a second collaboration with Fripp, 'Evening Star', also from 1975.

The use of magnetic tape to create delays, echoes and loops though goes back at least as far as the time when reel-to-reel machines became a common piece of studio-equipment, which was around 1950. Some of the earlier users of prerecorded sounds in music, like Edgar Varèse, worked with custom-cut (closed groove) gramophone records and variable-speed turntables. So did Pierre Schaeffer when he just started his quest for a musique concrète in the 1940s, but he then soon switched to the far more flexible reel-to-reel machines. Worth mentioning here is the morphophone, a tape playback device built for Schaeffer by technician Francis Poullin, which consisted in a collection of an erasing head, a recording head and ten playback heads at adjustable distances set around a turntable with a loop of magnetic audiotape, for which it was possible to feed back the signal of a playback head into the recording head.
I guess it doesn't make a lot of sense to point out some one, or even some group of individuals, as the 'originator(s)' of the idea to 'echo' back and forth between recording and playback heads ... it's pretty much something that came along with the machine.

The first known applications in music of the two machine 'Frippertronics' set up originate in the San Francisco Tape Music Center, founded in 1960 by Ramon Sender and Morton Subotnik, and during its first seven years of existence directed by Pauline Oliveros. One of the many 'avant garde' musicians who early on frequented the SFTMC was Terry Riley, who used the 'Frippertronics' system - which he called 'Time Lag Accumulator' - in his music for Ken Dewey's play 'The Gift' (1963). In 'Music for The Gift' Riley subjects recordings of the Chet Baker Quartet playing Miles Davis's 'So What', live for the French radio, to the process. ('Music for The Gift' is available on CD . You can listen to parts of it at YouTube's ...)
Pauline Oliveros used the 'Frippertronics' technique for her 'I of IV' (1966) (available on the CD 'Oliveros: Electronic Works').

Big Block's Colin

Nevertheless, it was definitely due to Fripp and Eno's work that the technique became popular, to a certain extent. Or let's say: more widely known. And more widely used. Anyway. That's were we got it from ...

At the time, the standard 'pro-quality' reel-to-reel tape recorder was the Revox A77, and indeed Fripp and Eno 'Frippertronicced' on A77's.
But obviously any other couple of reel-to-reels - satisfying some basic technical specifications - would do as well. On the photograph Colin Robinson (of the Manchester, England based Big Block 454) demonstrates a 'Frippertronic' set up using two Akai 4000DS machines.

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