Tech-minded guitarist Rick Valentin offers a literal look at music by encasing each vinyl copy of new record Work the Circuits in a sleeve inscribed with audio wave graphics drawn from the songs themselves. “I view the packaging as a way to merge the visual and the audio so they work together thematically,” says Valentin, who operates under the name Thoughts Detecting Machine.
The cover art, produced by a computer-programmed pen plotting device, reflects the mix of analog guitar work and automated rhythm tracks found in the Illinois musician’s peppy “New Day” single. Valentin explains, “My music is technology oriented but references some of the past, so I wanted the visuals to do the same thing.”
Valentin first latched onto graphic design as a purveyor of musical sensibility through the packaging produced by British record labels from the 1980s. “Everyone talks about vinyl as a recording format but the cover art for me has always been just as influential because it gives you this 12 by 12-inch canvas to work with,” he says. “I loved the album covers that Peter Saville designed for New Order and all these Factory Records groups. Joy Division for example started out more punk rock but then as they got more glossy sounding, Saville reflected that in his graphic design aesthetic.”
Citing 23 Envelope‘s design work for English record label 4AD as another key influence, Valentin notes “Those U.K. bands had amazing cover art where the visual aspect and the sonic aspect really complemented each other.”
To make pictures from his music, Valentin converted audio files into Bezier curves using open-source audio editing tool Audacity. He explains, “I took the whole album and averaged out the peaks and valleys of the wave forms, so the top half of each row on the cover represents Side A, and the bottom half is Side B.”
Valentin then bought a Shapeoko 2 3-D printer and hacked the CNC router so it functioned like the pen plotter machines developed in the 1970s to render architectural drawings. From the basement of his home in Normal, Illinois, the pen plotter takes about 30 minutes to crank out each new piece of slightly different cover art. “I started out with the core abstracted translation of the wave form, and then I tweaked the parameters and spun it around in 3-D space to basically get a 400-frame animation of these rotations using all three colors.”
Valentin, who teaches arts technology at Illinois State University, throws one more variable into the mix by marking each sleeve with a different combination of colored squares, dashes, and triangles based on his own numbering system. In the cover art above, for example, the red X, green line and red box represent the numeral 400. “I love the pen plotter because each version of the cover art is based on randomness and mechanical inconsistencies. That brings more individuality to the product.”