BNJMN, Plastic World

[Rush Hour Recordings]


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Pardon my nerd-out, but before I start discussing BNJMN in earnest, I’d like to show you a couple of graphs.


Figure 1: Kahn, “Like We Used To” spectrogram


Figure 2: BNJMN, “Blocks” spectrogram

These are spectrograms — graphs of the frequency content of a signal over time. The x-axis plots time, the y-axis plots frequency content (in hertz) in the normal range of human hearing, and color corresponds to the amount of energy at a particular frequency at that moment in the signal. Pretty straightforward, I hope?

Figure 1 is the spectrogram of Kahn’s “Like We Used To,” recently out on Punch Drunk, and it looks about how you would expect: a solid core of low and middle-range frequencies (that’s where the most energy typically hangs out, and those are also the frequencies where we have the best pitch resolution), with energy becoming sparser at the top end of our hearing range. Figure 2 is the spectrogram of “Blocks,” the opening track of Plastic World, BNJMN’s new doublepack for Rush Hour Direct Current. There’s the usual concentration of energy in the lows and mids (although it’s noticeably more uniform than the bristly band in the first graph). But there’s also a second concentration a few thousand hertz up. Frequencies stay hot through about 10,000 hertz (around where a tone really starts turning into an annoying buzz) before sizzling again near 15,000 (where seasoned clubbers may start noticing their hearing loss). Just by eyeballing, you can tell we’re dealing with a much different kind of thing here. “Blocks” not only hits hard at different frequencies but seems to contain more sound in general.

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I hope you’ll forgive me for putting on my grad student hat, but I think this small (and admittedly less than scientific) spectrogram exercise is indicative of what makes Plastic World such a singular release. The young British producer BNJMN makes music that that feels very much of a piece with his peers. And yet his sound bears almost no resemblance to them, or to practically anyone else for that matter. Deeply synthetic and Lego-like, with alternately smooth and sandpapery surfaces built into shapes you didn’t know existed, this Plastic World is one you’ll feel like wandering around in for days with arms outstretched, taking in every contour through as many sensory organs as possible. So often in dance music, great records are the result of subtle tweaks or solid hooks. What makes this record great, however, is that it feels like an entirely new kind of dance music experience.

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“Bass music” or “dubstep” don’t feel like entirely appropriate tags for Plastic World (a few more releases and it might be time to coin the subgenre “mids music”), but BNJMN requires as open-ended or functionally meaningless an affiliation as possible. Compositionally, these tunes bear a resemblance to the malfunctioning machine music of Actress or Hessle Audio’s housiest moments, but it’s as if these reference points have been resynthesized by a computer and spit back into the world by a 3D printer. Nearly all of these ten tracks grind along at about 120 beats per minute, building up or breaking down in washes of precision-molded textures. Sometimes these sounds are familiar, yet rather bizarre. On “Fire In The Hole,” a windchime recorded hot enough to distort shimmers over a kick drum that sounds like it’s punching a guy in the face. “Depressure” gives the hi-hat over to a human beatbox. And “Plastic World” appears to feature an old faucet that’s been made to leak in rhythm and in tune. But at other times, BNJMN doesn’t try to make his sounds sound like anything in particular, letting his listeners instead delight in their peculiar effects. “See Thru Stars” is Plastic World‘s moment of catharsis, screeching towards the sky like pixelated fireworks. The nearly Drexcyen “Ocean Spray” uses similar elements to the opposite effect, coaxing you into a chilled out headspace like a robot filling your glass with cucumber water.

What’s perhaps most impressive about Plastic World is how confidently BNJMN navigates this uncharted sonic territory. What little information exists on him hints that he’s not entirely new on the scene, but it’s rare to encounter a work so nuanced and versatile from someone on their first major outing. While I’m itching for more tunes from this guy, I’m also content to continue wandering these candy-colored streets for awhile longer: something this alien needs time to sink in, and Plastic World becomes less hazy (but not any less fascinating) with every listen. Warm up those speakers, my friends, for they’re about to push a very different kind of sound.

Per Bojsen-Moller  on March 22, 2011 at 1:46 PM

I for one fully endorse and appreciate that nerd-out at the beginning. Killer album from an impressive new talent.

Blaktony  on March 23, 2011 at 8:10 PM

Impressive, indeed….much welcomed sucess 2 the newbie.

Aditya  on April 6, 2011 at 7:29 PM

damn, LWE turns Pitchfork

littlewhiteearbuds  on April 6, 2011 at 8:08 PM

How do you figure?

Matt  on July 15, 2011 at 1:21 PM

Not a comment on the music, but two things to point out.

Either the 2 Spectral images are a different scale, or the BNJMN track has a several thousand hertz of frequencies that arent there on the first example, as in the Anti Aliasing filter is several thousand hertz lower on the first example.

Either way you are therefore comparing apples with oranges in terms of the visual description you give.

Secondly how music looks has absolutely zero bearing on how it sounds. That doesnt mean that BNJMNs record doesnt sound amazing and ten times better than Kahns, just that the 2 pictures you show do not in any way shape or form tell us that one sounds better than the other.

The amount of energy any given frequency shows on any given meter doesnt give us any indication of whether it sounds good or bad. In fact the spectral images you post wouldnt even tell us how loud a given frequency is because of the non linearity of human hearing (if you are interested google the work of Fletcher and Munsun).

Like I say, this doesnt mean that the record doesnt sound brilliant, and is no comment on the content of the record at all, just pointing out the opening of this article is actually a load of cobblers.

Jordan Rothlein  on July 17, 2011 at 12:30 PM

Hey Matt,

“Either the 2 Spectral images are a different scale, or the BNJMN track has a several thousand hertz of frequencies that arent there on the first example, as in the Anti Aliasing filter is several thousand hertz lower on the first example. Either way you are therefore comparing apples with oranges in terms of the visual description you give.”

I will concede that the spectrogram of the BNJMN track does appear to lack the upper frequency range that the spectrogram of the Kahn track does… I don’t have the promo mp3s I used to generate these graphs, as I usually purge files once the tracks come out and I get them on vinyl. I’m pretty sure I was careful to use mp3s with the same bitrate so that I wouldn’t make an apples/oranges comparison, but it’s possible the files were mislabeled. (As I say in the opening of the third paragraph, this exercise is admittedly less than scientific.) But I don’t think the frequency range we’re talking about — frequencies approaching the threshold of human hearing — really factors into what I’m trying to say in that first paragraph. Yes, a lowpass filter like the anti-aliasing filters you’re referring to may create artifacts below the cutoff frequency (this is why we like to record with as high as sampling rate as allowed, so that Nyquist is as high above the threshold of human hearing as possible and anti-aliasing filters can have as smooth a roll-off as possible), but I doubt it would result in any distortion that would truly cobbler-ify my comparison.

“Secondly how music looks has absolutely zero bearing on how it sounds. That doesnt mean that BNJMNs record doesnt sound amazing and ten times better than Kahns, just that the 2 pictures you show do not in any way shape or form tell us that one sounds better than the other.”

I think you’re misreading me here. Sure, any visual representation of sound should be taken with a grain of salt, but I’m not trying to say that the BNJMN track sounds the way it looks; I’m saying that it *looks* the way it *sounds*, in that I aurally perceive a boost in 1kHz+ frequency ranges, and the spectrogram shows extra energy in 1kHz+ frequency ranges. I wouldn’t have taken a look at spectrograms if I wasn’t looking for some evidence of what I was hearing. Also, I’m not saying that the attention BNJMN pays to these frequency ranges makes the music better, but that it makes the music different and pretty interesting from a production standpoint; I’m in no way saying it’s 10 times better than the Kahn track.

“The amount of energy any given frequency shows on any given meter doesnt give us any indication of whether it sounds good or bad. In fact the spectral images you post wouldnt even tell us how loud a given frequency is because of the non linearity of human hearing (if you are interested google the work of Fletcher and Munsun).”

Take another look at those equal loudness curves you’re referring to. (For those unfamiliar/interested, here’s the famous chart: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lindos1.svg.) Psychoacoustics research shows that our ears are actually most sensitive to the frequency range that BNJMN boosts. So if we need less volume to perceive those frequencies as equivalent volume-wise to lower and higher frequencies, then a boost to those frequencies would be perceived as quite loud indeed. Follow me?

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