Disclaimer: This isn’t for the faint of heart. Those who are used to my Blues/Roots side, or the work I do with Fricknadorable are forewarned. These are not the droids you are looking for.
My exposure to or discovery of ZIM is an example of how one can sometimes be isolated in one’s own world, making little discoveries, only to find others have already been there in some form, though perhaps not with the exact same combination of gear. There truly is nothing new under the sun, even these days. But that does not mean that anyone has exhausted the possibilities of ZIM. So it is fun to be part of a rather small group of open-minded artists who are pushing this form of experimental music further.
Over the years, during late night electronic music experiments, I inevitably experienced some bizarre sonic accidents. More so when I was using cheap mixers and not-so-cheap guitar pedals. Prior to my heavy involvement with the electro-music crowd (which began in earnest in 2010), I can’t say exactly when I stumbled across the ZIM phenomena. It certainly wasn’t anything I paid much attention to, or spent much time with in any concentrated way.
So in 2010 I began giving my electro persona more attention, developed Shivasongster further and began making friends in the EM community, particularly via the great annual festival held by the folks at electro-music.com. As the next few years progressed, and my electro adventure went into different directions, I became more interested in the less narrative forms of electronic music that I had previously been interested in pursuing. I began to favor more impressionistic, random and generative musics and experiments. Still, I wasn’t brave enough to do much of that in a live context.
By the 2012 electro-music festival, fellow EM artist Dale Parson of Kutztown University organized a ZIM collab performance (you can read more about this below). I didn’t participate that year, but the wheels were turning and by 2013 I had a setup (from devices I already had on hand) that worked rather well. Then at EM2013 I joined several other artists in a ZIM performance and was hooked. And now I am preparing for the 2014 event.
But what the @$%@$% is ZIM?
The first – and most important – thing to note is that no instruments (in the traditional sense of things with strings, drum heads, or other things that vibrate) and no audio files (in terms of sample sets, synthesizers, etc) are used whatsoever. Yeah, crazy!
The second thing to note is that ZIM typically takes place using a hardware audio mixer. The more inputs/outputs, the better. Routing capabilities such as effects sends/returns are also a lot of fun. The brand/type of mixer isn’t too important, and cheap ones may actually work better than expensive models. The important thing is that you get to know the capabilities of your mixer, and experiment like crazy.
While you can use a digital/virtual mixer, it is more fun to use something with knobs/faders that you can manipulate without looking at a screen.
If you wanted to dive deeper there is a lot of math going on in ZIM. A simplistic analogy for what is happening in ZIM is a guitar string. Just as guitar strings vibrate at a specific frequency rate to produce a specific tone, mixers and the devices plugged into them can oscillate and generate tones. Just as the type/thickness of an instrument’s wood impacts it’s timbre, ZIM setups are likely to produce widely different sounds based on the electronics used, and the combination in which they are connected. Different mixers – like different guitars – may have completely different sounds.
So where does the sound come from? Essentially all of the sound comes from self-noise within the connected devices (there’s always noise, even at the lowest levels) and feedback loops that cause that noise to increase or change. Just as a string produces a fundamental tone, as well as harmonics, the mixer (and connected gadgets) produce fundamental tones and harmonics that mix together in unusual ways.
Depending on the devices that are connected, that feedback/noise signal may be further processed just like any other tone, just like a guitar. So distortion, reverb, delay, flange, chorus… these all become very useful in shaping the sound. The results, however, are much different, and much, much less controllable and predictable (at first) than if you were processing a guitar. Volume spikes are a regular occurrence, particularly when you first start out, and you must take extra measures to protect your ears and those of your audience.
Eventually you get some “control”. At times you stumble upon noises that sound “like” other instruments we’re used to. In other cases completely new (and fleeting) sounds are generated. If you forget how you had things wired, or your settings, you may never recover a particular sound. This is one of the challenges, and one of the things that keeps this form of expression fresh.
And it is a form of expression. To the uninitiated it may look like the gear is doing all the work. But it requires the ear of the performer to discern what is happening, and to prevent the experiment from going completely crazy into a wall of deafening noise that only the hardcore noise fans could appreciate. Listening is even more critical when performing ZIM with others.
To most people, even a well restrained ZIM performance may be described as nothing but noise. To others it is a mysterious sonic world that has exciting twists and turns, and sometimes moments of strangeness that make listening to the more difficult stuff worth it.
So ZIM is definitely not for everyone, which is why I put the links to more info and my performances at the bottom of this post. You have been warned!
The ZIM collaborations organized by Dale Parson et. al. at electro-music 2012 and 2013 are pretty thoroughly documented in this thread:
2014 ZIM workshop+orchestra info: