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NASA's New Comet Recordings: Worth Sampling Or Not?

The Temple 1 comet as seen by NASA's Deep Impact spacecraft
The Temple 1 comet as seen by NASA's Deep Impact spacecraft

On Valentine's Day, NASA's Stardust was able to get within spitting distance of the comet Temple 1. This was the second visit by our spacecraft after Deep Impact buzzed Temple back in 2005, so it gave scientist their first chance to witness how the comet had changed since we last saw it. Stardust not only got some stellar pictures of the interstellar object, but also managed another breakthrough - the first audio recording of a frakkin' comet!

Now, to be fair, space is of course a vacuum. That means that if comets do make a sound, it can't really be heard. What we've got on the recording is the ejecta hitting the microphone, not the mysterious noise of a celestial object birthed from the womb of the galaxy. On the other hand, and we cannot stress this point enough: It's the sound of a frakkin' comet!

Having spent the last several years associating with a lot of electronica acts, the absolute first thought Rocks Off had was, "how can this be sampled and made into a song?"

The first person we talked to was Paul Fredric of Houston's long-running darkwave act Asmodeus X. Space is a passion of Paul's, and Asmo albums have moved beyond a love of primitive neo-folk and refined Luciferian EBM into a vast world of space-faring deamons.

The band's last album, Sancutary, tied in with Fredric's novel The Erbeth Transmissions to lay out a complete alternate history of the universe guided by the teachings omnigalatic version of the Christian devil. Think The Silmarillion as written by Harlan Ellison

Fredric says:

For me, the whole thing with sampling goes back to William S. Burroughs' 'Cut-ups' theories. The idea here is that you take elements you find in the 'real' world, cut them up and recombine them. Since according to many ancient philosophies everything in the universe contains a piece of everything else in the universe - by chopping up and restructuring my little pieces of it here, I can also affect the big picture of it - out there. I know not everyone approaches sampling in this way, but pioneer samplers like Skinny Puppy and Throbbing Gristle sure as heck did.

So that to me would be the really cool think about this comet sample. It's actually a piece of 'reality' from out there. The irony is that yeah, I could find a keyboard patch or loop, maybe add some effects, and it would actually sound more like a comet from outer space than the actual comet does do the ordinary listener.

But I would know it was real, and that would give me a big thrill whenever I heard it. I'd probably try to stick it in a drop-in and the end of a chorus or bridge since it's so short and rhythmic. Then when I was talking to someone while the song is playing, when it got to that part I'd say, "Shhh...check this out...it's a sample of a real comet." If they're under the age of 30, they'd probably say, "Cool! What's a sample? oh...some keyboard thingy? cool!"

Sampling in general has really changed thanks to the music industry despots litigating everyone they could back in the '90s. That's why groups like Del La Soul or Utah Saints couldn't release anything for like 20 years - they got sued by big-time record labels for sampling. Public Enemy went to court and in a landmark case and verified you can't copyright grooves or samples, just melody.

That's why you hear rappers sampling grooves from old classics all the time, but no one dares sample Annie Lennox's voice unless they pay up front! There used to be a rumor than Marilyn Manson paid $5 million or something for the sampling rights for Smells Like Children. So one cool thing about the comet sample is you wouldn't have to worry about any litigation crap (probably).

Fredric also mentioned that the next original album from Asmo would continue the space theme he and Brad Marshal developed on Sanctuary.

 

Halley's Comet in 1986
Halley's Comet in 1986

On the lighter side of the equation, we decided to visit with our favorite San Antonio synthesizer couple Hyperbubble, recently back from a European tour. Jeff DeCuir thought that the sample would make a great hi-hat beat, but was otherwise fairly unimpressed with the possibilities.

"When I hear it, do I personally think, 'My God, what a unique sound! I mustuse it...I'm totally inspired!'? No," says DeCuir. "It sounds like basically what it is: Pebbles hitting a shield. Pretty much what happens when you drive behind a cement mixer on the highway. The recording isn't really of the comet, but its debris."

It's hard to argue with him. For all that the sound is a one-of-a-kind sample utilizing billions of dollars of technology and a century of human innovation it is somewhat... lacking. DeCuir postulates that you could manipulate the audio into usable melodies and rhythms, but that is technically possible with any noise.

"I used a Bee Gees lunchbox as a percussion instrument on our second album," said DeCuir. "I'd use the comet sample for pretty much the exact same reason."

In the end, it's unlikely that the first recording of, well, comet poop is going to be the noise that inspires a new wave of sampled electronic goodness. However, it is good to know that NASA is thinking along those lines and pointing a microphone at objects once seen as portents of doom or worshipped as gods.

Keep it up, space boys!


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