Forty-three minutes’ worth of keying made by 12 different keyboards, the sonic distinctions between them too subtle for the casual listener.
In notes on his company website, label owner Jonny Trunk is the first to admit that their latest release “was not my idea.” Mechanical Keyboard Sounds is exactly that, and nothing more: 43 minutes’ worth of keying made by 12 different keyboards, the sonic distinctions between them too subtle for the casual listener. “I can get that for free at the office,” you would argue, and not without justification. To prove the point, you might even play around with slightly different models, after everyone else has gone home and you’re alone to create your own workplace percussion scene. Yet in the middle of this contrarian exercise, you might begin to notice that, even though the 2019 keyboard may handle better than the outdated 2013 model it replaced, the older, clunkier design has a different and altogether more pleasing tone. Such is the modest accomplishment of Nathan Kim from Taeha Types, who successfully pitched the idea of a record to Trunk and opened at least one pair of ears to his unlikely subgenre.
Kim is at the forefront of a mechanical keyboard scene, a demographic that’s not nearly as rarefied as one might think. The Instagram account for “Bespoke Luxury Mechanical Keyboard Maker” Taeha Types has nearly 25,000 followers, its images of custom-made items frequently earning more than 2000 likes. Visually, the difference between keyboards lends a mild aesthetic pleasure. With variations in colors and contours, contrast and texture, it’s like looking at a well-designed catalog. Likewise, the album’s cover collage, which features eight different keyboards, is more immediately compelling than its contents. You can see the difference; but can you hear it?
Improbably, repeated listening helps bring this prosaic project into focus. With the right headphones, the rapid ping of keys springing back generates overtones, as on an opening track keyed on an Apple M0110A model produced from 1986-1990. It’s not exactly a pulsing drone, but it’s not without rhythm, and if the context seems banal, if you could manage to separate the sound from what you know about soulless cubicle farms and unchallenging, soul-sucking day jobs, it starts to feel like musique concrete. There are timbres there, albeit dry and, well, mechanical, but after listening to this stuff long enough, it seems to quietly rewire the brain.
The human impulse to draw order out of chaos—the same impulse that makes that storm cloud look like Daisy Duck—leads you to hear something not unlike music out of these ubiquitous sounds. Careful listening helps you discern the quite perceptible shift in quality from the tinny sound of the 1987-1990 Apple M0116 to the more robust Chicony KB5160AT, manufactured around 1986. While this board has a deeper tone, the ringing is more pronounced, the beat-making creating its own drone-like accompaniment.
The album begins to seem like computer-age exotica, muzak to evoke a shared workspace or coffeeshop ambience. It makes one want to hear an album full of somebody dialing different numbers on a rotary telephone. Mechanical Keyboard Sounds will not be your most enduring musical experience of the year, but that doesn’t mean it’s without artistic merit.