For a long time, album covers helped make music tangible. We'd arrive home from the record store and, depending on our age, rip the packaging off our new vinyl, CD or cassette and inspect the cover art, liner notes and photos while listening to our freshly acquired music.
Then the internet changed everything, making music digital and greatly reducing its tangibility while drastically increasing our ease of access to it. But some nostalgia remains. As technology marches on, Waveform prints — artwork that plots out the soundwaves of your favorite song and turns it into a print to hang on the wall — is offering a way for music lovers to celebrate their favorite song with a physical, built-to-last object.
Waveform is the brainchild of U.K. artist Alex Szabo-Haslam, who was inspired to start making the prints in homage to his favorite electronic artists including Aphex Twin and Autechre.
Here Szabo-Haslam talks about the inspiration behind his art, and plotting out those massive drops.
How did you get into making this art? Are you a big time music fan yourself?
Waveform started roughly seven years ago, back when I was working at a secondary school. My job at the time was split between being [a substitute teacher], and support worker for kids with difficulties fitting in with mainstream education. In practice, it was a really oppressive environment: the school was badly managed — in two years of employment they burned through five headteachers and had a huge staff turnover. At break times I'd hide in the library to escape the madness, where I'd find myself scanning old physics textbooks.
It was here I discovered really odd-looking sound diagrams from the early 20th century, which triggered something in me: I'd sit drawing different ways to interpret sound whenever I could, sketching various shapes and line styles. One afternoon, a science teacher saw my sketches, and encouraged me to develop them further. I gravitated towards visualising the music I love: rave, electronic and synth-driven stuff by Aphex Twin, Altern-8, Kraftwerk, 808 State and so on. I didn't realize at the time, but Waveform got me developing my work for the creative design industry — it became a springboard to escape a job and career I hated.
What's the process for making these prints? How many times do you have to listen to each track to get them right?
There's no way to put a number on it, but I do listen to tracks several times while making each artwork. I draw every track individually, plotting the bars against the original soundwave by hand. There's no doubt much quicker, automated ways to do this but I prefer retaining a human element in the process. Perhaps that's not noticeable or even important to other people, but it is to me.
Is there anything unique in the way that electronic music plots?
Not especially, though I tend to know instinctively whether tracks will produce a visually enticing soundwave after the first listen. Some tracks really don't always work well: for example straight-up techno bangers that stay at the same level for five minutes with no variation in intensity. Having said that, what works for me isn't necessarily what works for others — one backer was adamant he wanted a Napalm Death print even though it's only a few seconds in length. I guess the beauty is producing something different each time.
Have you plotted any tracks with big drops? What does that look like?
Yes, that can work well. Anything with a lot of variation or break in sound will usually produce something aesthetically pleasing. With some tracks, you can instantly see how the soundwave mirrors the track, or you can hear something and have a pretty good idea of what it will look like. I worked with a photographer on this project, Hannah Soar, who did a great job of helping show some of the more interesting works I've made.
What tracks do you get the most requests for?
Far and away the track I've been asked for most is New Order's "Blue Monday," but generally people ask for electronic and synth stuff. I'm looking forward to seeing what comes from this project — it'll be interesting to see tracks I wouldn't usually produce. When this project ends, I'd love to produce a show with every Waveform I've ever made on display. No idea where that would be, or how I'd afford it… if anyone wants to host a struggling artist please give me a wave.
Learn more about Waveform here.