The Vocoder, Auto-Tune, Pitch Standardization and Vocal Virtuosity

Writing assignment for History of Science and Technology class with Myles Jackson. See a more informal introduction to the vocoder here.

Casual music listeners know the vocoder best as the robotic voice effect popular in disco and early hip-hop. Anyone who has heard pop music of the last two decades has heard Auto-Tune. The two effects are frequently mistaken for one another, and for good reason—they share the same mathematical and technological basis. Auto-Tune has become ubiquitous in recording studios, in two very different incarnations. There is its intended use, as an expedient way to correct out-of-tune notes, replacing various tedious and labor-intensive manual methods. Pop, hip-hop and electronic dance music producers have also found an unintended use for Auto-Tune, as a special effect that quantizes pitches to a conspicuously excessive degree, giving the voice a synthetic, otherworldly quality. In this paper, I discuss the history of the vocoder and Auto-Tune, in the context of broader efforts to use science and technology to mathematically analyze and standardize music. I also explore how such technologies problematize our ideas of virtuosity.

Ableton vocoder

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The aQWERTYon pitch wheels and the future of music theory visualization

The MusEDLab will soon be launching a revamped version of the aQWERTYon with some enhancements to its visual design, including a new scale picker. Beyond our desire to make our stuff look cooler, the scale picker represents a challenge that we’ve struggled with since the earliest days of aQW development. On the one hand, we want to offer users a wide variety of intriguing and exotic scales to play with. On the other hand, our audience of beginner and intermediate musicians is likely to be horrified by a list of terms like “Lydian dominant mode.” I recently had the idea to represent all the scales as colorful icons, like so:

Read more about the rationale and process behind this change here. In this post, I’ll explain what the icons mean, and how they can someday become the basis for a set of new interactive music theory visualizations.

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Toward a Methodological Stance

Final paper for Approaches To Qualitative Inquiry with Colleen Larson

Section 1: Reflections on Received View of Research

I was raised by two medical researchers and a former astrophysicist, surrounded by stacks of quantitative journals. I rarely questioned the assumption that quantitative empirical research is the gold standard of truth, and that while subjective accounts are interesting and illuminating, they are not ultimately reliable. From scientists I learned that stories belong to mythology, while facts do not necessarily organize themselves in ways that can be apprehended so easily. Creation myths tell the story of a human-scale world in which humans are the most important element. Astrophysicists tell us that the universe is unfathomably vast and incomprehensibly old, and that we are insignificant in the grand scheme of things, while evolution teaches that we are more like mushrooms or daisies than unlike them. It is axiomatic for scientists that reality is empirically knowable, and while social and emotional considerations are a fact of life, they are noise to be filtered out.

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Designing a more welcoming aQWERTYon experience

This post documents my final project for User Experience Design with June Ahn

The best aQWERTYon screencap

Overview of the problem

The aQWERTYon is a web-based music performance and theory learning interface designed by the NYU Music Experience Design Lab. The name is a play on “QWERTY accordion.” The aQWERTYon invites novices to improvise and compose using a variety of scales and chords normally available only to advanced musicians. Notes map onto the computer keyboard such that the rows play scales and the columns play chords. The user can not play any wrong notes, which encourages free and playful exploration. The aQWERTYon has a variety of instrument sounds to choose from, and it can also act as a standard MIDI controller for digital audio workstations (DAWs) like GarageBand, Logic, and Ableton Live. As of this writing, there have been aQWERTYon 32,000 sessions.

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New online music theory course with Soundfly!

I’m delighted to announce that my new online music theory collaboration with Soundfly is live. It’s called Unlocking the Emotional Power of Chords, and it gives you a practical guide to harmony for creators of contemporary pop, R&B, hip-hop, and EDM. We tie all the abstract music theory concepts to real-world musical usages, showing how you can use particular chord combinations to evoke particular feelings. I worked hard with the team at Soundfly on this over the past few months, and we are super jazzed about it.

Unlocking the Emotional Power of Chords

Like my previous Soundfly courses, the Theory for Producers series, the chords class is a blend of videos, online interactives and composition/production challenges. The musical examples are songs by people like Adele, Chance the Rapper, and Frank Ocean. You can download the MIDI files for each example, stick them in your DAW, and dive right into hands-on music making.

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