We indulge our gadget-curious side at Volume: Making Music in Aotearoa
There’s no shortage of weird and interesting stuff to be discovered at Volume, the New Zealand music exhibition at the Auckland Museum. There is, of course, handwritten lyrics, posters, t-shirts, records … all the things you’d hope to see at a popular music exhibition. But, so many of the objects that jump out at you are the unexpected things. The wigs, a deposit book, and most of all: gear.
Gear is the often-unrecognised (often-derided) hero of popular music. While most fans understandably give way less than a shit about it, musicians freak out over every detail, constantly keeping learning to solder together circuits just to modify an amp, a synthesizer of an effects pedal. And in New Zealand – a country that likes to think of itself as a tinkering nation – it’s no coincidence that gear is a huge part of our musical history.
Here are some highlights:
Amps might be the gear-iest gear of all. Put a shitty guitar through an amazing amp and it will sound amazing. Put an amazing guitar through a shitty amp, and it’ll sound … shitty.
And, wouldn’t-cha-know, New Zealand has actually made some great sounding amps for a while there, especially in the ‘50s-‘60s. As rock’n’roll spread to these parts, musicians wanted the kind of amplification they heard on imported records, but brands like Fender and Vox were super expensive to bring over here due to all those damn import controls (which, for amplifiers, lasted until the ‘90s).
Enter brands like Jansen, Gunn and Concord. You can still find these floating around secondhand stores (and TradeMe), especially Jansen, which, before switching to PAs in the ‘70s made pretty convincing Fender copies which are still way cheaper than their contemporary original counterparts. If you see one, buy it before they all become collectors’ items.
Sure, it’s cool to get to see David Kilgour’s Small Stone phaser, but the best pedal on this board is the Prunes & Custard, a ‘harmonic generator-intermodulator’ invented by early-Split Enz drummer Emlyn Crowther and now produced by his Crowther Audio, which also makes New Zealand’s most famous distortion pedal, the Hot Cake.
What does a Prunes & Custard sound like? Like your guitar/bass/whatever is farting through a distortion pedal after eating some mushrooms it probably shouldn’t have been eating. Y’know. Like this:
But more than it’s psychedelic fartiness, the Prunes & Custard is probably most famous for inspiring the lyrics to this Datsuns song.
Update: An earlier version of this article stated that there wasn’t a Hot Cake pedal in the exhibition. There is a Hot Cake in the exhibition, it’s just in a different section. My bad.
There are a few individual pieces of recording equipment that have made their mark on pop music history, but not many as humble as Chris Knox’s TEAC A-334OS, a four-track reel-to-reel recorder which Knox and Doug Hood used to record some of the best (and best sounding) records of the early-Flying Nun era.
The story goes that after the unexpected success of The Clean’s Boodle Boodle Boodle, Flying Nun’s Roger Shepherd was alerted to a bunch of other bands, which he wanted to record immediately. So Knox and Hood, who were, by then, based in Auckland, took the machine to Christchurch and set up in a flat and recorded the next Clean record, a Tall Dwarfs EP, the Mainly Spaniards That’s What Friends Are For 7” and, ironically, the Dunedin Double compilation LP, which launched The Chills, The Verlaines, Sneaky Feeling and The Stones.
Maybe the ‘Dunedin Sound’ should refer to a tape deck that lived in Auckland, not a jangly guitar.
Update: Apparently, this is not actually the TEAC A-334OS that recorded all those amazing records. This one replaced the original some years later.
Further update: Apparently, according to Barbera Ward, Knox’s ex-wife, this is actually the TEAC A-334OS that recorded all those amazing records.
Okay, one mixer. DJ Sir-Vere’s mixer. Don’t know anything about this model, but the stickering is a perfect symbol of mid-90s fan culture. (What happened to stickers? No-one has the marketing budget anymore?) We can only assume how many killer parties this was used at.
Also, there’s not much inclusion of dance music or rave culture in the exhibition (we know, we know, it couldn’t include ev-er-y-thing), so maybe this mixer can stand in for some of that too.
Speaking of which, it’s so great to see this, a prototype of the Serato S1, a little black box that acted as a conduit between a DJs digital music collection (on, say, their laptop) and the analogue mixer and turntables which enables DJs use Serato to play the music on their laptops as if it were on vinyl using a 12” record of Serato’s ‘NoiseMap’ control tone.
Serato is a huge deal and probably underappreciated here, given that their digital DJ systems have changed the way digital files can be used in performance, and is used by some of the biggest DJs in the world. Being name-checked in Kanye West’s ‘Dark Fantasy’ is well down the list of accomplishments at this point.
Serato is to DJs and producers as Xero is for accountants and small businesses. You can make a non-ridiculous argument for Serato be the biggest influence New Zealand has had on music globally. Shit, it might just be the highest grossing entity in the whole exhibition! (Serato – hit us up for a By The Numbers post where we garishly see if you’ve made more money than Neil Finn!)
Whatever the hell this is
We have no idea what this is and, if it weren’t for the placard, I’d no idea what it does. Apparently, Tim Prebble (brother of Lee Prebble, the Phil Spector of Wellington reggae) made this thing for Wellington band Spartacus R. The joystick controls a single sound source (a guitar or a vocal for instance) by manipulating its volume across four speakers. Move it in circles and the sound will swirl around the room. Press the red button and it will instantly push the system to full volume. Sure… why not?
The Spinoff’s music content is brought to you by our friends at Spark.
Visit Volume: Making Music in Aotearoa (also supported by Spark) at Auckland Museum from now until 22 May 2017 and get closer to the music you love.