Posted 25 Nov 2023

Earlier this year I decided to take my electronic music live and started streaming on Twitch with a group called Golden Shrimp Guild. They’re an awesome resource for anyone who wants to try this out.

GSG puts on a regular event called SYNTHON! and this month’s theme is voice. People have been singing, speaking, doing live effects and loops, and sampling all sorts of vocal audio. For my set, I wanted to do something inspired by the experience of listening to community radio late at night with all the weird and random things that get played.

In the first section I layered some clips I’ve recorded from shortwave radio over the last year and a half. You can read about how I got interested in shortwave on News Not Doom — but the gist of it was that I saw something in the news, started to research it, and decided to check it out for myself.

As a musician, one of the things I find interesting is how many different patterns you can hear in the static and signals that come in. There’s a push-pull feeling to the audio, especially over longer distances. Even a fairly clear signal will seem to surge in intensity, then drop back. Sometimes when I can’t get much to tune I’ll still spend a while listening for different types of noise.

If you want to explore shortwave for yourself, you can get started by checking out the online receivers. But if you can, I recommend getting your own portable receiver — part of what I enjoy about the experience is knowing what signals I can tune in right here at home.

I have a Tecsun PL-880 I ordered from eBay. It comes with a detachable wire antenna that you can clip to something outside (having a porch or patio will help, or anywhere else you can run the antenna wire through a window or door). The main thing is to get the tip of it as high as possible and let the rest hang down vertically. And yes, it really does need to be outside if you want to try picking up long-distance signals.

I mentioned on the stream that Portland turns out to be in an interesting location for picking things up. Unlike AM and FM, shortwave broadcast antennas are directional. In addition, the distance of the signal is extended by angling the antenna so the signal will skip off the ionosphere. As a result, in order to pick up a signal you need to be in the same direction as the antenna is pointed, and within the area that signal will hit when it’s reflected back to us on one of those skips.

So the signals you pick up aren’t just the ones that might be aimed at your location, but also anything where you’re on the line of travel and happen to be the right multiple of skips. That’s how I came to notice a sort of line of transit from Korea to Cuba and back again, with China trying to block out Taiwan and the US playing music back at Cuba for the sake of democracy or something. It’s a completely different way of looking at the shape of the world.

To find out who’s broadcasting when and where, there are schedules by frequency and time. These get updated twice a year (winter and summer, roughly). Glenn Hauser also keeps a very old-school website to go with his weekly World of Radio program. The weekly anomaly alerts will tell you about things that don’t show up on the schedules, including pirate broadcasters and other hijinks.

I could go on about this for a while, but I hope that’s enough to give you a sense of why I find this interesting material! Feel free to email me if you have questions. Also Wikipedia is helpful if you run into terminology you don’t understand.

Other sources I used — the answering machine tapes, and self-help and MLM cassettes came from Most of the rest is from the 365 Days Project.

I will definitely be doing the Late-Night Radio format of experimental music and found audio again. Stay tuned!

Past | Random